Big Think Interview With Jason Christopher Hartley
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jason Christopher Hartley is a member of the New York Army National Guard. After serving at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, Hartley was stationed in Iraq, where he maintained the controversial blog Just Another Soldier until he was forced to stop by his commander. He is the creator of "Surrender," a play based on his wartime experiences, as well as the author of the book "Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq."
Jason Christopher Hartley: My name is Jason Christopher Hartley. I’m the author of “Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq” and I am an infantryman in the New York Army National Guard.
Question: What made you join the National Guard?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I grew up in suburbia: Salt Lake City, Utah for the most part, just right outside of Salt Lake. I’m the oldest of six. Kind of a very typical Mormon upbringing; very wholesome, going to a loud church, and I joined the Army when I was 17. They have a program that allows you to join like the reserves, either the National Guard or the reserves, while you’re still in high school, go to boot camp, come back, finish your senior year, and then go back in training and finish all your advanced training. So that’s what I did right after I turned 17 in January, and I had enlisted by February. I enlisted the day after the ground war for the first Gulf War started. And what I’ve always told people why I joined, which is the most honest answer I can give you to why I joined, is that I was 17 and that’s it. It was the first adult decision that I got to make. I grew up playing GI Joe and stuff like that, so it’s like a fun thing. I’m like, "Hey. I can kind of be a Boy Scout." Or a kid perpetually and it appealed to me, so I joined.
Question: What was it like guarding the Twin Towers on 9/11?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Wow, kind of haven’t talked about this one in a while. OK, I’m from Utah. Nothing happens in Utah. I moved to New York City in 2000. The towers come down in September 2001. Of course my initial reaction is one of complete disbelief. I mean you know they say how sometimes you can look right at something and not believe it. Well that was the first time I ever really experienced that, where I get a phone call. My buddy says, “Hey, the towers have been hit.” I’m like, “Shut up, asshole. Don’t call me before noon ever again, and don’t tell me ridiculous crap like that, come on.”
Then I realized he was not kidding. You know, watching the news. Walk out to West Broadway. By the time I walked out to West Broadway the first tower had already fell and I’m looking right at where it was and I’m not seeing it and I’m just like where is the tower, I don’t get it, what happened? I’m looking right at the sky and I couldn’t and I didn’t… I could not process that the tower wasn’t there. I walk away to try and watch some news and I’m like maybe I should just watch. I go back a second time. Now the second tower has fallen, so and it’s probably been said a billion, zillion times, the feeling of complete disbelief. We were… I figured pretty much any National Guardsman in New York City at that time knew they were going to get called up, so we just all, without being told, started like congregating out our respective armories and we were at Ground Zero or near Ground Zero that night.
The first two days we guarded an area a few blocks away, you know, from the site and then by the third day… the third to the eleventh day, so I guess it was like the twenty-second, we just did what we do as soldiers, which is guard stuff. We worked 12-hour shifts. My platoon in particular was stationed between buildings four and five and all we did was guard. We set up a perimeter around a big hole and our job was to simply screen who came into the hole. The fire chief was in charge of the site and he would tell, OK, here we’re going to only let iron workers in, only let in EMS workers with dogs, and that‘s what we did. We just kind of stood there, guarded stuff, and told people who didn’t have the correct authorization from the fire chief to fuck off, which was actually kind of interesting because anyone who has a suit or a badge or anything was down there to include FBI, CIA, NSA guys, like you know, everyone showed up. There was firefighters came from Minnesota wanting to help that we had to turn away, which was kind of heartbreaking and that was our job was just to kind of guard a big hole.
Question: Did you witness any looting?
Jason Christopher Hartley: There was some kind of unscrupulous stuff that I think a lot people don’t love talking about, and looting was a bit of that and it’s hard to think about because that’s not… When we think about Ground Zero and 9/11 and all the incredibly heroic things that took place that day, and the amount of the outpouring of basically just love that came from the people who in the -- I mean we have just kids from the Lower East Side running around with like doughnut carts, giving us doughnuts just because they want to, and there’s all these wonderful stories, but then there’s also the stories too of like there was a soldier in my… You know, one of the soldiers had found like a box of money and he didn’t think that… didn’t even cross his mind that it was wrong to loot it. He ended up getting kicked out of the Army for just being an idiot. There were some… I know there were some problems, too, with people who are in positions of trust who were taking advantage of the fact that a lot of like the stores, especially the basement of the World Trade Center, were now broken and unguarded, and I think that’s really kind of a sore spot for a lot of people. I don’t know a whole lot of details, so I’m being kind of careful about what I say about it, but there were some problems with that and I… It was handled and hopefully that is kind of the end of it.
Question: When did you start blogging during the war?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I started writing my blog [“Just Another Soldier”] about my experiences pretty much immediately. I mean, I was a Computer Science major at the time; I’ve always been kind of a big geek. So it was blogs were just kind of starting to really pick up steam, but it was still kind of more of the realm of the geek people that actually kept blogs, so just I -- my thinking was, rather than write a thousand e-mails, kind of being repetitious to all my friends and family, I would just, you know, use this blog thing, write stuff once, post it, and then just tell everyone, "Here is where I’m going to keep my writing, if you want to know what is going on, just kind of go here." So initially it was really just a practical thing to keep the blog, and I started immediately. I mean, the moment that we got the orders that we were going to begin the training to go to Iraq, I did my first blog entry, which was September of 2003.
Question: How did you access the Internet in Iraq?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Since we were there for OIF 2, it wasn’t quite the wildness of an initial invasion of a country, but still early on enough that Iraq was the Wild West at that point. We could kind of do virtually whatever we want and not have to explain anything or at least we didn’t -- now it’s like you fire your weapon, you’re going to do ten pages of paperwork. Back then we had a lot more freedom. So we actually were able to hire a local company based out of Baghdad, an Iraqi company. They came and installed for us satellite Internet and we had Internet for our entire bunker. My platoon lived in an empty animal bunker near the Balad Airbase and we just kind of all set up -- myself and another geek had set up the routers and we gave ourselves -- pretty much every soldier in that bunker had an Internet connection.
Question: Why did you blog?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I didn’t want to consider myself a news source. I wasn’t interested in providing some kind of here is what is really happening. That’s never been my mentality at all. I’ve always been in the Army primarily as kind of an experiential thing, which might sound kind of sacrilegious. Yes, there is all the things about the military that are very rewarding and it’s very true. The duty, the self sacrifice, the being part of something bigger than yourself, the brethren, all of that is absolutely true and these are reasons why I re-enlist, but the thing that on a personal level that has always been most interesting to me is what the experience feels like, and so when I started writing I wrote what I would want to read. Before I deployed I’m going online trying to find blogs and I want to know how guys are feeling. I just want to know what is it like. I don’t really want to know like the details or the facts, the stuff you’d read like say in the Times. I just want to know what it feels like. You know what does it smell like? What was the first thing that went through your mind the first time you fired your weapon, stuff like that and that’s I kind of feel like what really got neglected a lot and that’s really what I tried to focus on, is here is the mundane, kind of silly, a lot of times absurd stuff that we do and here is why it’s, I’d like to believe, perhaps, universally interesting to you and me, a person who in combat and a person who isn’t, because at its core our experience is all, I’d like to believe, pretty universal regardless of situation or, you know, setting.
Question: Why were you forced to stop blogging?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Well I got in trouble two times. The first time was not so serious. My Commander had found that I had this blog through I think his wife, which I was sure kind of upset him kind of on an eagle level to have his wife telling him something about his own company. He had asked me to take it down, so I did and then but I kept writing, but then towards the end of the tour I thought well, I kind of want to put this back up and the way that I remember the conversation that I had with my Commander is he said, “Look, I want you to voluntarily take it down.” And I told him, “Well, if you’re asking me to no; my answer is no. I’m not taking it down.” Then he had… He asked my First Sergeant to ask me as a favor to him to take it down and actually that was my Platoon Sergeant. I remember respecting my platoon sergeant greatly, so I said, “OK, I’ll take it down, but not because I want to, but as a favor to that guy.” And I did and this was fine. But then toward the end of the tour there was one night I’m drinking Jim Beam with my buddy. It was like one of the only nights I actually had booze in Iraq and I decide you know what, I think, fuck it. I’m going to put it back up, which was really just a matter of sort of like turning it back on because all the material was already there at the host with the blog and it went back up and it only took about a week before my leadership to find that the blog was back up online and then that was really kind of a shit storm happened after that, where my Commander threatened to court marshal me and I was taken off mission. It was this huge investigation, but in the end, I ended up getting hammered with disobeying a direct order and pretty much that's about it. You know I got reduced in rank from Sergeant Specialist, lost $1,000 in pay and it took me about two years to actually get that rank back.
Jason Christopher Hartley: They initially had told me that I had violated the Geneva Convention because of photographs of detainees that I had… The big one, too, was conduct unbecoming a non-commissioned officer primarily for a photograph of me on the crapper with my buddy at Fort Drum when it was like ass cold. It was a funny picture, but my Commander like really took exception to that, “Why would you put that? Your naked ass in on the whole Internet? What would your mom…? How are you going to explain this to your kids?” I’m like, “I’m going to tell them that it was cold and I was on a crapper and it was kind of funny.” I don’t know. They also… What were some other charges? They were all like… It was the one violating the Geneva Convention that I’m like, come on. If I tortured somebody yeah, that‘s violating Geneva Convention, but whatever, you know.
Question: How did it feel the first time you fired your weapon?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Well my experience combat-wise while I was in Iraq was mild. I mean we kind of joked about it being like Combat Lite. We had no illusions about where we were. We weren’t in Fallujah. You know, we weren’t part of the invasion of Samara. We weren’t like shooting people every day. You know, I fired my weapon three times at people with, you know, the intent to kill them twice and even for where I was that was like… There was only one other guy in my company I think who fired his weapon four times, but nonetheless -- I mean to be honest, I mean the few times when I had fired my weapon those were the greatest moments of my life. I mean I think I have like reverse PTSD where I think about firing my weapon every single day, but not in the way that like that oh, that was horrible, I can’t stop thinking about it. It was like that was so fucking cool. I wish there was a way that I could relive it every single day.
So I mean it’s -- and yeah, it is very visceral and you feel incredibly focused. It’s… I almost feel guilty like explaining this sometimes. Like it was, for lack of a better word, it was fun. I mean it felt good, but maybe that’s because I was lucky enough to not actually like -- not actually kill anyone, to not have to see the result of the violence. I just got to have kind of all the upside and none of the downside. I got to have a small degree of a fear for my life and I got to respond to it the way in which I was trained and it was exhilarating.
The first time that I fired my weapon was incredibly dissatisfying because it didn’t fire, which was also profoundly disconcerting. It was kind of a stupid situation where we were out doing a patrol near one of the oil pipelines. It was dark. We were kind of in Timbuktu. It was the kind of no-man’s land and there was a farmhouse and the guy who lived here, his family, they had a ton of dogs, so of course the dogs are all kind of freaking out and barking, like the guy knows what that means. He knows that there is somebody poking around that probably shouldn’t be there, so I can… We have night vision, but I can barely… I see a guy come out of his house and I see that he has an AK47 and he… From what I… He fires a warning shot into the air to kind of like let whoever is out there know that hey, I’m here, I have a weapon, you know, don’t fuck with my house.
So I stop and I’m like, OK, well, this is kind of what I’m perceiving, I can’t think of a really reason to return fire, and as I’m going through this thought process one of my saw gunners just opens up. You know, he’s like BRAAP! and started lighting the house up, and then everyone starts shooting and I’m like, well crap, if everyone is shooting I’m not going to not shoot, so I guess I’ll shoot too, so I think well I’ll just like shoot. I’ll suppress this guy. I know he is probably not a threat, but so long as we can keep his head down I’ll just fire over his house, so I was aiming into the roof of the house and so the first time I squeezed the trigger it just kind of went click, which was like not what you want to have happen as an infantryman. It was… It really freaked me out and in retrospect what I think had happened was just I had reloaded the same first round in that magazine so many times that maybe the primer had been dimpled and -- I don’t know. I couldn’t figure it out. It sucked, so I just you know I racked the weapon, charged a new round and I was good to go after that, but yeah, that was the first time I ever fired my weapon.
The second time I fired my weapon, yeah, that was a lot more satisfying because it went the way it was supposed to, and also that was a lot more sort of ridiculously Hollywood where there is like a car driving down the road that we thought was a bad guy and all of us in line are just kind of shooting at it like this. Yeah, I basically spent an entire magazine shooting at a car that I really couldn’t hit, but it did feel a lot better that this time the weapon actually worked. Having your weapon not work in combat -- that kind of shit will give you nightmares for the rest of your life. You know, that is what you do not want to have happen as an infantryman. So yeah, that was a lot more satisfying the second time, even though we didn’t really hit our target.
Question: Did you have running water?
Jason Christopher Hartley: The way that we had it set up, we had this animal bunker that we lived in. We actually probably through our tour got like a shower shack that had a big, like a water jug on top. That would get refilled like every three days. We just we had a ton of bottled water. We would just get pallets and pallets of like, you know, like one-liter size bottles of water on a pretty regular basis and we did everything with bottled water. Yeah, we did… Where I was we did not have any running water.
Question: Did you have bathrooms?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Yeah, we had port-a-potties. Initially, when we had first gotten there, the guys who had already been there for roughly a year they had created… They had built a bunch of, you know, their own port-a-johns and then the way that it’s… What we would do is they used like a 55-gallon drum. You cut like the bottom off of it, weld handles onto it and then just you crap into that. You have these wooden plywood crappers and you poop into this piece of you know 55-gallon drum and then basically about every day you know you had to grab some private, give him a 5-gallon jug of diesel and say you know go burn shit, and then with a big aluminum tent pole you just like you pour the diesel in, light it, and then just stir it with a big stick for like about an hour. You had to keep stirring it too. It’s one of the most disgusting things you ever had to do and that’s how we took care of going to the bathroom. We only had to burn stuff for like about a month or so then we got… We contracted somebody out to actually come in and you know do the whole port-a-john service.
Question: What about privacy?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Privacy is interesting in the infantry. Yes and no. Since we’re all in one giant bay, which is a kind of a situation that soldiers are generally very familiar with because it’s that’s the kind of way barracks are set up. We have all these bunk beds basically in this big bay. There’s probably 30, no more than 36 of us in this space and there isn’t any privacy, so the only time you have any privacy is maybe you might have partial privacy when you go to the shower. You have privacy when you go to the port-a-john and if you were lucky enough to have a bottom bunk with the bunk beds you could construct a Jack shack, which means you take two ponchos and you kind of like drape it over your area from the top bunk and make like a little tent for yourself and everyone kind of generally knows that if the sides are down in the Jack shack to… you’re to not be disturbed.
Question: How much contact did you have with people back home?
Jason Christopher Hartley: There was actually… There was a good bit of that. Since we had Internet in our bunkers a lot of guys… IM was huge, definitely. Sometimes a little bit of video chat. I don’t think anyone used Skype specifically. There was an Internet café of sorts the Army had set up that we would have to drive like, you know, a mile in a different spot in the base and we could use their computers. They didn’t have… I don’t think they had webcams, but they did have a couple of phones. So a lot of guys would make kind of the daily trek to the phones and to those computers, but most of us just sat in our bunker and we stayed connected back home primarily through instant message.
Question: Did you follow news and debate about the war?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I think in a lot of ways we don’t know so much what is going on. I mean we did read a fair amount of news. Well I should say, myself and a lot of my friends we would read a lot of news, but not really that much, and then what we experienced while we’re there is so… It’s like really the whole forest and the trees thing, where we could tell you a lot about our specific missions or anything like on a tactical level, but as far as like kind of more overarching, big-picture type stuff, I would… You back in America watch the news and probably have a better grasp of what is going on big picture-ish than we would have definitely.
Question: How many good guys do soldiers kill for every bad guy?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Well yeah, that’s kind of the drag and I guess really kind of the standard thing with combat is in my area roughly speaking every time… anytime there was any kind of engagement there would… and this is by my own non-scientific count. There would usually be about one combatant killed for three non-combatants killed, and by combatant I mean like good guy, bad guy, you know, insurgents, coalition forces. So the shooting starts, maybe a couple of combatants go down, tons of women and children get blasted in the process, which I think is… I don’t know. In my humble opinion, I think it’s kind of a statistic that isn’t looked at often enough. Combat is great and everything, but if you’re there ostensibly to help a people, but in the process of helping them you’re kind of like killing all of them. You know, it’s maybe someone should look at that more closely. Paul Rykoff, the executive director of IED, had a kind of a really good way of putting it, is that we’re creating enemies more quickly than we can kill them because you… You know you go into someone’s home. You kind of accidentally kill a lot of people. That’s never a good thing. You know you’re making enemies a lot faster than you’d like.
Question: Should women serve in the infantry?
Jason Christopher Hartley: This is a topic that is tricky for me because, I don’t know. As far as soldiers go, I am probably one of the more liberal soldiers you’re ever going to meet. I really like the idea of everything being completely egalitarian, but this is the one topic that I have the most difficult time trying to reconcile is the short answer is no. I absolutely do not think women should be in the infantry and if I had to boil it down to a single reason there is… Guys will list all kinds of reasons about why it’s not a good idea for women to be in the infantry. Some of them I guess have more weight than others, but I think for me the single… If I had to boil it down to one thing, it would be just that it’s easier to maintain discipline with a bunch of dudes if there’s no chicks anywhere, is the bottom line, because… and that I know infuriates my friends when I say that, but you know, if I’m honest when I’m doing my job in the Army there’s not going to usually be a whole lot of girls around and then whenever there is, that’s where all my focus is, especially if I’m working with her. I’m thinking what can I do? How can I sleep with this girl? That’s all that I’m thinking about, and then after that, then I’m sort of thinking about my mission, OK, I need to make sure that I’m, you know, covering my sector and killing bad guys and what have you. How can I sleep with this girl?
I mean I think it’s like the reason why you have like boys’ schools or you know all-girls’ schools. It’s just to like remove the distraction, and of course there’s other reasons that come into play. The hygiene is kind of the deal. Psychologically it can be very difficult for guys working with women, especially if the women are lost in combat. There can be a ton of infighting, you know, love triangles. I mean the list kind of goes on and on, but I don’t have a good solid intellectual answer that I can tell you that I feel good about. All I can say, I just don’t like working with women in that capacity. I like being able to be kind of like a barbaric pig while I’m carrying a rifle, be completely primal, and just leave it at that and not have to apologize for any of it.
Question: What about gays?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I think “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a stupid fucking policy and can’t wait for them to repeal that shit. It’s just lame. I mean there’s countless times in which extremely qualified soldiers have been outed for whatever reason and they weren’t allowed to… Or even like… There’s been a lot of articles about this in the Times. Officers who are completely competent who we’re like… We’re in desperate need of certain jobs, but then it’s like we’re kicking people out because we’re not fans of their personal sexual practices. It’s just dumb. Homophobia is still kind of alive and well in the military, especially in the combat arms and it’s -- you kind of have to appreciate how that affects the perceived morale. Soldiers really do still kind of freak out about the idea of homosexuals being able to serve openly in these jobs. We’re very roped together very, very closely and it’s… I can appreciate that. It can’t be completely… It can’t be initially… It can’t be dismissed out of hand even if I think that their way of thinking is maybe un-evolved. It doesn’t matter. It’s still very prevalent and it’s important. My humble opinion -- I think that if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed, I don’t think it’s going to change the culture of the military very noticeably at all. It’s not like there’s going to be some huge influx of queens, you know, are going to like enlist in the military to prove a point. There may be people that do that, but I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. There’s not going to be guys just coming out of the closet left and right. It’s not going to destroy morale. It’s going to be business as usual, and you might occasionally have a guy who, you know, is open about it and it changes nothing because you’ve already been working with the guy for 20 years, whatever, and you like him. It’s like oh, well gosh, I guess it’s not as big a deal as I thought it was, and life goes on.
Question: What are civilians’ biggest misconceptions about military life?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I think the biggest misconception for sure that everyone has about military service in general is they always say, “Oh, I could never join the military because I don’t like being told what to do.” I hear that like so often and it’s… That’s the biggest misconception. Yes, you get told what to do because that is how you get work done, not because… It’s not like there’s people who join the military like, “I just love being yelled at.” “I have no self-esteem and I want someone to just like demean me all the time and tell me to do stupid stuff.” No, that’s… None of us join for that reason. It’s worrying about being told what to do is kind of like so completely secondary for soldiers when they serve. That’s just a way of accomplishing work. There is so much else that comes with service that is satisfying and rewarding that you don’t really… You stop thinking about the whole “my goodness, I’m being yelled at by somebody” kind of thing.
Question: Do you enjoy the camaraderie?
Jason Christopher Hartley: The camaraderie is definitely maybe even the most rewarding part of it. I mean as an individual, our ability to experience is completely limited to what happens, you know, inside the little prison of our own skulls and… I mean this is probably… I don’t really play a whole lot of team sports, so I imagine this is something that athletes could tell you all about and probably articulate it better than I could, but to be able to accomplish anything that requires a lot of people acting in concert is just -- it feels phenomenal. Even in a job that is like inherently so completely destructive, it still is satisfying to be able to say OK, we had that building. We had to raid it. We accomplished the missions. We found the bad guys. We detained whoever and the only way that we were able to do it was by all of us acting together, inherently selflessly, and accomplishing the task. And that’s that kind of thing that you don’t… I don’t think… You never really get tired of that feeling. You just, it feels… You always want to be repeating that feeling, because you know you can’t build something by yourself. It takes a whole group of people, and when you have a group of people who know how to do something well and you execute it, yeah, it’s satisfying and that’s what it all boils down to, is the camaraderie. That’s how you get it done is because you feel close to the people you’re working alongside.
Question: What surprised you personally about the Army?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Well, first I thought that oh, I’m 17. I’ll join the Army and somehow they’ll magically transform me into a man and I’ll be a badass afterward. That never happened. That was a misconception. I don’t know. I don’t feel as though I really had that many misconceptions. You kind of join and you’re fairly clueless. I mean I’ve always sort of said I think that people tend to join the military for really dumb reasons, really bad ones, generally because you’re usually young when you do it and you kind of like in the back of your head think I’m going to maybe a chance to kill someone, I just want to blow stuff up, it’s going to get me girls, something not terribly evolved, but I think people tend to re-enlist for a lot better reasons. You realize the ways in which it’s rewarding and it actually feels good. I mean I’m kind of a lazy dude and the fact that I have a thing that I’ve been able to do regularly and feel, you know, I maybe I’m broke most of my life, at least I’m providing some kind of service, maybe that might be of some benefit to somebody and at least I have that and that does feel good and it feels good to re-enlist for that reason.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Well, that’s a… Now that ‘s a very loaded question in a lot of ways. First off, soldiers hate the word hero, but in this context I’d be using it kind of completely differently. Who are my heroes? Gosh, I’d really have to think about that. Henry Miller kind of comes to mind first just because of the way that he writes. He was one of the first writers that I ever read who as, you know, kind of a young teenager I went -- I had no idea you could like write stuff like this and get away with it. I felt like I discovered this world of like, oh wow, you can kind of do whatever you want as long as it’s on the page because no one is really paying attention to it so much as other things.
This is going to sound kind of random as hell, but Jeff Buckley. If I could think of one person who I wish there were a way that I could model myself after them, if I could be like him, it would be the musician Jeff Buckley. He just seems like a nice guy, you know. I want to be a nice guy. How can I do that? So yeah, Jeff Buckley. He’s dead, which bums me the hell out, but he would definitely be a hero.
Question: Which is harder, writing or soldiering?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Writing is definitely harder. I mean soldiering is great. I mean soldiering is wonderful because it’s sort of -- for me, it’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do because the hardest thing is enlisting. Once you’re in, then it’s like you’re on a rollercoaster. There is nothing more you have to do. You just have to do what you’re told. And sometimes it’s really nice to like know, OK, here is what I’m doing. I’m going to wake up here. I’m going to go do this and then I’m going to come back. There is no homework. I don’t have to worry about it after work. I’m done, then I can go like watch DVDs and play video games and do it again the next day. It’s an incredibly addictive way to live, for me no better way of putting it. It’s nice. It’s nice to not have to kind of like think about certain things and just be the person who suffers, and it’s cold and you’re freezing your balls off and then this and that, and then something fun happens and you do it again and you just kind of… You know, the cycle continues.
Writing requires for me so much more because I have to think. I have to worry about what am I writing. I have to spend time doing research perhaps and then of course there’s like an amazing suffocating amount of self-doubt. Should I be writing this [“Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq”]? Then there’s all kinds of anxiety about the writing and… It’s, you know, yeah, so writing, as enjoyable as it can be at times and incredibly rewarding, definitely a lot harder than soldiering, frankly.
Question: How did you develop a play based on your experience?
Jason Christopher Hartley: The play in a nutshell for me personally was a complete headfuck. It was a great experience. OK, let me back up. There is a guy that I worked with as a military advisor on a film. For his film he needed a bunch of actors to be trained to look like soldiers, so I did some basic training with these actors. I taught them some really plain vanilla, close-quarters, like urban warfare-type stuff. He loved the training and wanted to figure out a way to take the training and actually make it part of an audience participation play. This play got called “Surrender” and the way that it worked is we would have the audience members come in. We would issue them boots, uniform, and a replica rifle, and then for an hour and a half I would train them in the basics of weapons handling and close-quarters battles and then after the training was complete we had like a little complex we had built in the theater of like nine or ten rooms. They would go through and they would utilize all the training that I had just given them, which involved encountering civilians and sometimes bad guys, sometimes shooting, sometimes not shooting, people would die, sometimes their comrades would die, and then after that act was finished there would be kind of a more… There was like a surreal third act where we explored various issues that soldiers might deal with on the return from combat.
Question: How did acting out your real-life war feel?
Jason Christopher Hartley: For me it was strange because I wasn’t playing a character named, you know, Sergeant Joe Snuffy. I was Jason Christopher Hartley who was just simply training audience members when they came in. I’m not an actor and I didn’t see it as acting. I was just kind of doing what I do in the Army. The soldiers who I… The soldiers, the actors who I trained to be soldiers they were all actors. They were pretty good at what I had taught them to do, but they didn’t … They used pseudo-names, so they were Sergeant Smith. They were Sergeant Best, so it was kind of that line between what went on… Am I playing a character or am I playing myself was weird.
For me that was the headfuck because then I’m like, well, I’m basically acting in a way that I normally do in the Army except to its maximum. I mean I definitely can, at times, if I need to… I’m generally not really an authoritarian leader when it comes to my soldiers. I’m kind of laissez-faire and I’m only very strict and authoritarian when it’s absolutely necessary. That’s just not how I want to be, which sometimes makes my life miserable in the Army, but whatever. That’s a whole other issue. For this I was definitely turning up to ten my ability to be, you know, a very loud, very strict authoritarian leader, which is what was necessary for the experience to be good in my opinion for the audience members.
You know, I got very close to the cast and sometimes audience members who would come on a regular basis and they… It feels kind of weird talking about this, but I felt as though I was adored by so many people because I was such a tremendous asshole and that went completely against—and it’s kind of like all that, I feel as though I have issues with my father and I dislike him because he’s an authoritarian. Now what am I doing now? I’m like authority personified for an hour and a half in this play, but now everyone likes me, but it’s not really me because you know I’m kind of this laid-back nice guy who wants to model himself after Jeff Buckley, but now suddenly I’m getting love and respect I’ve never gotten the rest of my life and like the whole… It became tricky, the identity thing. Who am I? Am I acting? Is this me? Am I playing a character? I don’t know. I really still haven’t even come even remotely close to sort of reconciling this. I don’t know and then we’re supposed to do the play again in Germany in like in the summer and it’s, I don’t know.
Question: What was it like for the audience?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I put a lot of effort into trying to construct how the first… especially the first act and the second act of the play worked to try to get a person or maybe the average person to sort of experience that sense of disorientation, and it’s really not that difficult to construct that situation.
First off, constant pressure has to be applied to the person as they come in, so when an audience member comes in they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. I automatically am kind of, you know, terse or loud, yelling at people, telling them this and that. The idea was to always keep the people at least a little bit off balance, so you always kind of have an elevated heart rate. Your motor skills kind of go to crap. When you’re the least bit stressed out making simple decisions can be incredibly difficult and -- but that is the whole experience, is having that pressure applied, putting a person in a very unfamiliar situation and then forcing them to make at least on a theoretical level extremely big decisions, the biggest one, of course, being like whether or not to kill. And granted we have like plastic rifles that don’t even, you know, go bang. It was still incredibly interesting to watch people who are under this small amount of pressure in what’s basically a very safe environment… We’re in a downtown theater. They know it’s not for real. There’s all these actors and to still see the way in which… the way… how they would make decisions. Who would shoot? Who would not shoot? People would come out of the second act crying for various reasons, like oh, I had no idea it was so easy to kill, and then I saw even like my girlfriend at the time, she came through. She like blasted everybody without hesitation. She’s a pastor, you know, so it was, from our side of things, you know, being part of the cast it was a lot of fun to watch, to see people, how they would respond under pressure and -- but that’s exactly the way that it kind of was for us, you know, granted it’s on a bigger scale, but also the thing that I really wanted to try to have happen with the play was the sense of disorientation that takes place once you’re finished doing that combat stuff. What I wanted to have happen was the audience members leave a room. They had just finished shooting somebody, whatever. They go into a room. It’s a cocktail party. Someone takes your rifle, hands you a martini and you’re like, “Hey, so what was the war like? Where you’re like, “Dude, I was just in combat like five seconds ago and you’re already asking me what was it like.” Like, “What kind of a fucking question is that?”
And so we’d try, and I think we succeeded relatively well, and we’d have… Everything is thrown at these people for like two, two and a half hours of training, the simulated combat in the rooms, and then suddenly they’re back. We take the rifle. We give them the beer. There’s music playing. There’s dancing. There’s like, you know, cabaret and burlesque and all this and that’s… we just so much wanted to create that sense of like, what the fuck just happened.
A conversation with the author of "Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq."
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