(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)
I’m staring out the windshield at a sea of dirt and trash and overgrown scrub. There are a few sickly palm trees scattered about, fronds mangled and sagging. I can see the banks of the Tigris off to our ten o’clock.
“Fuck my life,” Specialist Pressley grumbles his refrain over the intercom.
We’re waiting for our dismount troops to complete their engagement. The government building they are occupying looks like a half-assed Taj Mahal made out of brown brick. Most of the buildings around here look the same. This area used to be one of Saddam’s palatial compounds, and now it serves as an operating base for Tikrit’s law enforcement and military agencies.
“They need to pay some of these assholes to police up all this garbage,” I say. It looks as if a dump truck drove by with its back gate open. It looks like that everywhere in this country—years’ worth of discarded waste that’s been ignored and then redistributed by the desert wind. “There are enough people looking for work. Give them a couple bucks a day to walk around with a trash bag.”
“Yeah, that’ll never happen.”
“They don’t give a fuck. As soon as we leave, this country’s going down.”
“This place used to be the pinnacle of civilization a few thousand years ago. Now it’s a shithole,” I draw out the Oh sound for emphasis. “I call that regression.”
“Yup. I’m still saying we should’ve just took their oil and left them to fend for themselves.”
“I agree. What ever happened to good old-fashioned plunder? That’s how they financed warfare back in the old days.”
From there, our conversation evolves into a dialogue of potential world-conflict scenarios. What would happen if Iran attacked us, if someone tried to nuke us, how would we respond, who would be on our side, what would be our strategy? By the end of it, we’ve hypothetically destroyed about ninety percent of the planet.
We do this every day.
Countless hours waiting in the truck, trying not to fall asleep. Sometimes we talk about future plans, sometimes we gripe. Sometimes we repeat conversations we’ve already had. Once we had a lengthy metaphysical discussion about the nature of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets. Sometimes we don’t say anything at all. Failing all that, we debate which female celebrities are the most desirable and why. Anything to kill the time and staunch the tide of crushing boredom.
It’s hot here. Not California-summer-heat-wave hot, but genuine cartoon-slide-whistle-thermometer-popping hot. Every molecule of dirt and air radiates heat. I have burns on my hands just from grabbing the door handle on the MRAP. One hundred and fifteen is a good day. One hundred and ten is a really good day. Within a month, it will be one thirty and above. The only grace is that there is no humidity. And the body adjusts. But the true master of this country is the dust. We are saturated by it—our clothes, skin and hair. Every structure and surface is shrouded by a layer of dust that never seems to recede. The wind carries it in immense coughing waves. When civilization finally succumbs, it will not take long for the desert to swallow this place and reclaim it to the sand.
Doc Blandino tells me I smoke too much. I give him my standard response: you’ve got to die of something. I do smoke too much. I’m almost at a pack a day. I’ve quit and relapsed so many times over the past ten years it’s hard to keep track. This whole cockamamie idea to join the army may all have been a ploy by my subconscious to resume the habit without feeling guilty. I need to quit, but it’s part of my routine.
Routine sustains us.
We get up early to prep the trucks, then stand around smoking while we complete radio checks and rehearse our procedures for reaction to contact and escalation of force. Our platoon’s job is to provide security for less-expendable officers from our battalion headquarters who liaise with local Iraqi police and military leaders. Essentially, we are glorified chauffeurs and bodyguards. We roll out the wire, sit in the trucks for a few hours, and then roll back. We grab chow and perform maintenance on the vehicles. Most days we get a few hours off in the afternoon, during which I normally fall asleep. I wake up around seventeen or eighteen hundred and then read or mess around on the internet until about nineteen hundred, when our team gathers to brief on the next day’s mission. I’m usually not hungry enough to walk to dinner chow. Maybe I’ll eat a Clif Bar or something. Around twenty hundred, Egg and I go to the gym and I do about forty-five minutes on the treadmill or elliptical machine. Then I head back to the CHU, shower, and lay down on my bunk. I think about walking over to the MWR center to call my family, but I realize I have nothing interesting to say. Maybe I’ll read some more or watch a movie on my laptop. After a while, I switch off the light and think about home as I try to get to sleep. I think about my dog, and about the strangers living in my house. I think about lost loves and bad decisions.
Around zero five thirty in the morning, I wake up to a series of carefully staggered alarms. I get dressed in the dark, shave and brush my teeth. Then I grab my rifle and my gear, and we do it all over again.
There is no fear, in a tangible sense. Not one of us seems truly afraid of being killed on patrol, though it may happen. In all likelihood, you might have a greater statistical probability of getting killed on your way to work in L.A. than a soldier does on any given day outside the wire in Iraq. Nowadays, anyway. After all, we have armor and a lot of very big guns. Though in the States, presumably, there are not throngs of angry young men proactively planning the violent demise of your average commuter.
Currently, the insurgents’ favorite thing to do is toss RKG-3 rounds at our convoys from the side of the road and then run like hell. The RKG-3 is a Russian anti-tank grenade that resembles an old-school German potato masher, only it has much more explosive yield and is designed to penetrate armored vehicles. About a month after we arrived in theater, two soldiers from our brigade were killed when an RKG-3 struck the passenger-side window of their MRAP.
This could happen to us at any time. Any corner in the city could be the one at which they decide to attack us. Any person out there might be the one with an RKG behind their back. Any car on the street could be packing a VBIED. But every day we roll out and nothing happens.
It’s another day, and I’m riding in the back of Three-Two as we bump south on Tampa, fourth in the order of march. There’s nothing remarkable about the desert scrolling by outside the narrow window slats, but I scan all the same. We’ve driven this route a hundred times and nothing much changes. A convoy of cargo trucks about two miles long is clogging the southbound lane, so we cut across the median and travel counter-flow. I’ve tuned out the conversation over the intercom, but words like “tits” and “snatch” pop out at me. They’re either talking about porn or previous lays, both frequent yet somehow inexhaustible topics of discussion. I’m starting to zone out when our driver, gunner and TC all shout “Whoa!” in unison.
The radio crackles to life.
“All units, Punisher One. Everyone push past.”
“Anyone see any casualties?”
“This is Punisher Five, there’s at least one casualty.”
“That dude is fucked up.”
Up ahead, the other trucks in our convoy are starting to turn around.
“What the fuck happened?”
“A vehicle just hit Three-Six,” Sergeant Cote says,” let the Major know we’re turning the convoy around to assess the crash site.”
I lean towards the Major so he can hear me over the noise of the vehicle.
“Sir, our lead truck had a collision with an Iraqi vehicle.”
“He didn’t have a collision, that dude straight ran into Three-Six,” Sergeant Tamayo says over the intercom.
“We’re turning around now to check out the crash,” I finish. The Major nods his understanding.
“Groh, I’m gonna need you to swap out with me so I can get on the ground,” says Sergeant Tamayo. He starts to climb out of the turret as we’re pulling to a stop on the perimeter of the crash. The ramp drops as I wiggle my way up into the gunner’s position.
I catch a brief glimpse of the scene as I traverse the turret to our six o’clock: dismounts pouring out of MRAPs, onlookers beginning to converge. There’s a man sprawled on the pavement with what looks like a nasty head wound. His arms and legs are twitching violently. And then I’m facing south towards all the northbound traffic beginning to stack up behind us. We are vulnerable here. If any of those cars gets too close or attempts to drive through our security perimeter, I will have to shoot them. I pull the charging handle back on the M2 and level the barrel towards our audience. And I wait.
About twenty minutes later, we’re wrapping up and headed back to the FOB. The platoon is excited because we’re done early today.
Later on, I will piece together the scenario from various accounts. The man on the ground was driving his dilapidated bongo truck west on a small crossroad to the highway. Instead of waiting for our convoy to pass, he decided to pull out in front of a fourteen-ton armored vehicle that was moving in excess of fifty miles per hour. Force equals mass times acceleration. And we do not slow down. This man’s cousin was driving a second bongo truck and following directly behind, so when Three-Six struck the passenger side of the first truck, it sent him spinning around to collide with the second. There were two small children in the cousin’s vehicle.
Fortunately, everyone survived. The kids were a little worse for wear, bloody mouths and noses, but they walked away from it. The twitching man suffered what appeared to be serious brain trauma. He was treated by our medic and evacuated by an Iraqi ambulance.
Six years in the auto insurance claims business, and I can tell you definitively that the Iraqi driver was one hundred percent at fault for failure to yield. But that will not stop them, and every other Iraqi who was there, from hating us a little bit more. Nor will they be grateful that we failed to do our job properly. If we had done the right thing, if we’d been paying better attention, if our convoluted rules of engagement didn’t have us so hesitant to pull the trigger, then those vehicles would not have gotten anywhere near us. Both trucks would have been riddled with several hundred rounds of 7.62mm ammunition the instant they tried to cut across us. And all four of those people, children included, would be very dead.
Make no mistake. Our job is to kill. All of our extensive training and indoctrination is designed to make us more precise and efficient killers. You may read about humanitarian efforts and winning hearts and minds, but an infantryman’s sole purpose is destruction. This task is not regarded solemnly. There is an ever-present bloodlust that is at the same time thrilling and deeply unsettling. “I can’t wait to shoot a motherfucker in the face,” is a remark I have heard on several occasions from more than one of my comrades. I may have even said it myself.
I’m thirty-two years old and I spent my life in the conservative, upper-middle-class suburbs of Southern California. I’ve never been hunting. I’ve never intentionally killed an animal, with the exception of a few squashed spiders and ants and a few fishing trips with my grandfathers when I was a kid. I once accidentally ran over a cottontail with my mustang and felt terrible about it for a couple of days. I am not sure what will happen if I have to kill a man. I do not have any doubts about my ability to do it. The training alone makes the action all but mechanical, and I’ve learned that I do not balk under stress. If anything, I become calmer. What sometimes worries me, though, is what will happen afterward. I may be tormented, or I may feel nothing at all. And both possibilities are disturbing.
My hope is that I’m never presented with the opportunity to find out. Some part of me may have wanted it, that fifteen-year-old boy in me that’s still chasing Hemingway’s ghost. But I know better now.