Writings from a war zone

On the last Sunday in June, Lt. Kylan Jones-Huffman, a Navy reservist stationed in Bahrain, e-mailed a poem to members of his online haiku group. He said he dedicated the poem to his friend Marianne, "whose good friend was killed this past week, somewhere south of Baghdad."

late night call -

the remains will arrive

on Thursday

the weather here

not much different from Iraq

Jones-Huffman might not have known the soldier who'd been killed, but "I'm sure I passed over the report in the daily summary," he wrote. "It would have read something like this: '16 significant actions, 6 initiated by coalition forces seeking contact; 1 US KIA, 8 US WIA, 2 Iraqi KIA, 4 Iraqi WIA, 27 detainees.' But they all blur together, and I am not reminded often enough that each of those numbers is its own tragedy."

It's hard to say which is more haunting now, the poem or the prose that followed it. What is certain is that Jones-Huffman's life ended in tragedy, too. On Aug. 21, the 31-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate and College Park resident was shot and killed by an unidentified gunman while riding in a vehicle in a town south of Baghdad.

Last week, in the midst of preparations for a private memorial service, Jones-Huffman's brother, Niko Huffman, said the grieving family did not wish to speak to the press about Kylan. And yet in his poems and other writings - composed in the final months of his life and made public after his death - Kylan Jones-Huffman speaks for himself. His eloquent, honest reflections on the war and its aftermath are both a rare glimpse at the conflict through the eyes of one who was there and a harrowing reminder of what the world has lost: a serviceman with a scholar's mind and a poet's soul, a student of history and languages who yearned to play a productive role in rebuilding Iraq even as he struggled to make sense of the operation that sent him there.

"Now that we've gotten into this mess, we have to make it work, and not just for the sake of the Iraqis," Jones-Huffman wrote in a July 4 e-mail to Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan with whom he'd corresponded frequently in recent months. "Whatever arises in Iraq had better be worth the deaths it will take to get there ..."

The professor had never met Jones-Huffman in person. Neither had many of the poets in the online haiku group. These people knew the man only from his writing; the depth of their grief is a testament to the power of his words.

gaunt children

selling old bayonets -

noonday sun

summer solstice -

women in black abayas

wade in the sea

twelve hour watch:

the morning threat report

in rhymed couplets

Officially, he was a Navy reserve officer based in Bahrain. But unofficially, he was a writer of haiku - observing the world, distilling experience, conveying so much meaning in so few words.

Jones-Huffman's interest in Japanese poetry, say people who knew him, stemmed from his longtime study of Japanese martial arts. He began writing haiku aboard ships after graduating from the Naval Academy in 1994 and soon became a student of the spare, yet vivid form.

"He worked hard to be original and honest," said Noor Khalsa, a friend and fellow poet who lives in New Mexico. "He paid attention to detail."

Jones-Huffman's poetry had given Khalsa and other members of the online haiku group Cricket a unique and intimate view of the war. He often wrote about people and things he'd actually witnessed: burned-out tanks, children playing with ammunition, unveiled women smiling on a street corner.

"I could never read one of those poems and simply shrug and move on," said Ferris Gilli, an associate editor of The Heron's Nest, whose newest issue features a tribute to Jones-Huffman and samples of his work (online at www.theheronsnest.com). "He painted word pictures that probably contain more truth than any photos."

It's hard to say how much haiku Jones-Huffman had written while overseas, but clearly poetry was never far from his mind. On Aug. 18, while preparing to travel into southern Iraq, he e-mailed Cricket members from Kuwait.

"Assuming I don't wander into any kill zones or run over a mine, I hope to come back with some haiku, adequate or otherwise."

Then he sent the group a poem.

uncomfortable -

body armor shifting

on the car seat

It was the last they heard from him.

Even as the Heron's Nest editors were scrambling last week to assemble the Jones-Huffman memorial page in time for this month's issue, Cole - editor of a weblog that tracks events in Iraq and the Middle East - was preparing a tribute of his own. He, too, wanted to showcase Jones-Huffman's writing. But instead of poems, Cole posted dozens of pages of e-mails that the Navy officer wrote in the months before his death.

"Kylan was special," says Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history. "He and I could connect. We talked the same discourse."

Though the two men never met and corresponded for only four months, the bright, curious serviceman left an indelible impression on Cole, who wrote on his weblog that Jones-Huffman's death "sent me to my knees like a kidney punch."

Last week, in hopes that a wider audience would read Jones-Huffman's words, Cole posted the lengthy dispatches on his weblog (www.juancole.com). He said in an interview that Jones-Huffman had given him permission to reprint the e-mails, and that the insights they provided gave them value as historical records.

"It's really important for our public understanding of this enterprise to understand those who are giving their lives for the country," Cole said at the time.

However, several days later, after hearing that press interest in the e-mail archive was upsetting Jones-Huffman's widow, Cole complied with her request to remove it, a decision that he described "as a matter of simple humanity."

The electronic friendship between the two men began in April, after Jones-Huffman wrote to Cole seeking background information on Shiite groups vying for power in Iraq.

The Navy intelligence analyst worried that occupation forces lacked crucial knowledge of the region's history and culture and felt a responsibility to learn as much about the various factions and their leaders as he could.

"Even in the intelligence community, we have few officers with any sort of regional expertise or language ability in the areas they cover ... " wrote Jones- Huffman, who knew Arabic and Farsi, among other languages. "It's too bad, and I hope it doesn't shoot us in the foot here."

The e-mails posted on the weblog gave a candid, detailed and, at times, unsettling account of a military officer trying to make a difference in post-war Iraq. The prose, far more revealing than his poetry, told the story of a man who'd had to defer starting a Ph.D. program in Ottoman history after being mobilized last winter; who held his own in conversations with Cole, an Iraq expert, and was trying to use his knowledge to help bring peace to the region.

"I apparently know quite a bit more than they do," he wrote after a trip in which he briefed occupation forces on Iraq's history and politics. "But I am keenly aware of how much I myself don't know."

Like his poetry, Jones-Huffman's e-mail dispatches included vivid portraits of life in Iraq. "Driving in a Humvee was like staring into a hairdryer set on high, for 1-2 hours at a time," he wrote after one journey into the country. "Everywhere we went, we found two things - unexploded Iraqi ordnance scattered about, and children begging for food and water ... I tossed most of the Clif bars I brought with me to these kids."

Jones-Huffman's correspondence was strikingly honest. At one point, he offered Cole his views on "the low-grade guerrilla war going on in Iraq."

"Maybe we'll succeed with these big sweeps - I certainly hope we can root out the insurgents without creating more by the way in which we do the rooting," Jones-Huffman wrote in early July. "But I'm uneasy, to say the least."

Despite his misgivings, Jones-Huffman remained dedicated to his mission. On July 30, less than a month before his death, he wrote Cole this e-mail:

"My boss reminded me that it is still dangerous in Iraq, especially in Hillah, and asked whether I really wanted to go on my planned trip next month. (Navy intel types aren't usually keen to be shot at.) I told him that, now that we are there, we can't afford to fail, for our own sake as well as that of the Iraqi people. If there is something I can do to make a direct contribution, I feel that I have an obligation to do so."

The writer is gone, but his words live on, as powerful as poetry, as permanent as prose.

The family of Kylan Jones- Huffman, a Navy reserve officer who died Aug. 21 in Iraq, has established a fund in his name to benefit students of Middle Eastern history at George Washington University.

The Kylan and Heidi Jones-Huffman Book Fund will support the purchase of supplemental research material and literature on the subject of Middle Eastern history in the hopes that future scholars will be encouraged to pursue studies in this field.

Donations, made payable to The Trustees of George Washington University, should be sent to: Kathleen Sedehi, Jones-Huffman Book Fund, 224 Leopard Road, Berwyn, Pa. 19312

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