Bits About War
Sand and stone. Palms and brush. Black gold. Contractors. Someone else’s cheating wife. Black coffee. Slimy showers. Crowded chow halls. Concrete berms. Faux Taco Bell & Burger King. The whistle of incoming. Distant explosions. A makeshift bazaar. The whole goddamn Matt Damon collection on pirated DVDs. Concertina wire. Checkpoints. Armored trucks. Call to prayer. School walls painted pastel blue and riddled with bullet holes. Children afraid/infatuated. Gimme a dollar, mister. The admixture-scent of fuel and shit and blood. An old Hajji with vampire fangs in a Keffiyeh. Sweaty body armor. A trip to Vegas. Bourbon. Craps. An Argentinian girl on a bus. A $25 minimum game of War. A long flight back to war. A Camry shattered by AK-47 rounds. The rear-view mirror with brain matter and a lucky rabbit’s foot dangling from it. Eyelids fluttering like butterflies. Life escaping through the lashes. Cough syrup. Internet cafe. A pen pal in Arizona. A rendezvous with a girl from AIT. Another patrol. Hot rifle barrel. Hotter casings. Burn scars. Lists of things to buy with hazard pay; a Honda CB, an Orange amp, a Singer for mom, a slightly used sense of wonder. A kid waving from the side of the road. His turbaned father slapping the back of his head. Sniper fire. Punctured neck. Blood. A cache of bombs and firearms. Bound and blindfolded men in thawbs. More explosions. Black plumes. Scorched humvees. Body bags. Five eighteen-year-olds going home. For a closed casket funeral. I can still see.
I haven’t been the same since I stepped off that C-130 into the sweltering heat. The blast of air felt like sticking my head into an oven. I often consider my life partitioned at that point. “Before me” and “After me” where the dividing line is that moment. Time sort of stops for you when you’re deployed, but not really. Time as you know it, for sure. But also time as a timeline for how your life might have been if you’d never decided carrying a rifle was a good decision. For everyone back home, time goes on -- just without you.
Let’s say you get lucky and you are one of the ones who get to come home, like me. I’m not returning to that moment in time when I left. That moment I said goodbye. No. I’ve returned to everyone’s new life. I’ve time-traveled forward a year, eighteen months, and I’m “After me” now. More jaded. Less optimistic. Drunker. Angrier. In some cases, unrecognizable. Even to myself.
At first, you just want to go back. Back to war. You started this new timeline, divergent, and maybe it makes sense, more sense, to just go back. Many do. Deployment after deployment until they’ve carved out timelines out of timelines. I decided not to go back. My new life was just going to be life after the stifling, oppressive heat of Iraq.
“Before me” is gone, but I wonder what that life might have been like had I not gone to war. Would I have been a better person? Less argumentative with my dad? Not estranged from my brother? Kinder to my wife? More patient with my daughter? I can’t say I haven’t thought about suicide before. If it’s good enough for Hemingway, right? Instead, I keep making a different decision. Instead, I’m living out the life of this shade of my former self.
It only took about three seconds to decide. There it is again. The warning klaxon and whistling of incoming. Only, this time I’m lathered up and I haven’t had a shower in nine days. Well, I guess I have showered. But, the water in a shower out on the forward operating bases merely washes away the heavy grime and sweat. The lukewarm (if you’re lucky) water leaves this filmy, thin layer of . . . something . . . that never really gets you feeling clean. If you told me it was recycled water from every other soldier who showed before me, I might believe it.
One time I found a set of good showers with clean, hot water and . . . pressure. Oh, the pressure. It wasn’t the Army showers, of course. It was tucked away in this nest of contractor choos [tiny dorm things]. I crept my happy ass in there and had an amazing shower. Slept like a baby that night. So, as you can imagine, I don’t take a real shower for granted.
So, here I am a few months later. I am all lathered up back from the field at Camp Speicher, the big base, with decent showers and the non-greasy, hot water is spilling over my head and back. I heard that tell-tale whistling and shouts. There’s a goddamn mortar coming. I know there’s a bunker—really, just big concrete block you can hide in—not maybe but a dozen yards from the showers. I could grab my towel, throw on my helmet & IBA, and make a dash for the bunker. Something settled over me, though.
“Fuck it,” I said to myself and the other empty shower stalls. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die clean.”
In the next second or two, I fantasized about my impending doom: Me, all lathered up with foamy, bloody soap. My naked ass straight up in the air, a mortar cratering it. The poor guys in my unit would have to clean up my toiletries, scattered all over the damn place. They’d have to tell my mom I died in my birthday suit taking a shower. Or, maybe they’d lie and say I jumped on a grenade to save all their lives. A real hero’s death.
“Yeah, fuck it. I’m taking this shower.”
I resigned myself over to fate. The perpetual stress of being in a war zone, wound up in my nerves and muscles, washed away with the dirt. I felt a marvelous peace. The round exploded in the distance. My lucky day. As I left, another soldier entered the showers. He seemed surprised someone was in here so quickly after the mortar attack, and then a realization must have dawned on him, because he smiled.
A receding migraine,
that slowly evaporates
but not before
I suck up vomit.
sloppily putting on jeans
before clambering down
the stairs. I’m outside,
my fumbling hands
the key to
An empty flask
a full night.
A stumbling waltz back
to the bar.
We found out my mother had cancer when I was in Iraq. It came as a surprise even though we all knew she had smoked most of her life. She was a Kentucky girl who grew up during a time when smoking was just what people did. I guess you never expect your mother to get cancer. She had frequent illnesses but never could afford the doctor visits. It’d probably been cancer all along. Most everyone else found out about it a few days earlier. I was out on patrol when the news came, and it wasn’t until I returned to the camp that I had a chance to read my email, make a phone call.
We’d just spent the last two weeks embedded with these PSYOP guys. They’d design pamphlets filled with pro-coalition propaganda, rolling around in their humvees with giant speakers mounted on them. Their mission was to persuade the local populace that what we were doing was to help Iraq. I was a 46Q, an Army print journalist, telling hometown stories and filling up military journals with puff pieces and our own form of propaganda. More for the families of the soldiers, I guess. We all eventually came to know what was going on.
I was always a skeptic, one of the few “liberals” in my unit. But I still had the notion we were doing good. I remember asking an Iraqi woman who ran a small shop at a bazaar what she thought.
“So, things are better now that Saddam is gone, eh?”
“No, no. Better before.”
It was a response I didn’t expect. So, I asked her what she thought might be a good gift for my mom back home and she sold me a silver and turquoise bracelet.
Boy how stupid I was. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and realize just how terrible the war was, especially on the regular Iraqi folks who simply wanted to have a business, feed their family, and avoid conflict. Conflict was life now for them. For us, we’d rotate back home in a few months. Go to college, or, whatever. There was no escaping the war for them.
I saw a lot of death during those two weeks. Elections were coming up and assassinations had increased dramatically. A troop of Iraqi Police were tagging along with us, showing us the places best for the PSYOP guys to target with their pamphlets and voiceovers. Halfway to the village, a call came in about an ambush on a local magistrate so we went to check it out. A Toyota Camry riddled with bullets and blood was all that was left when we arrived. They had taken the body.
As we left, we noticed we were being followed. We’d later suspect the Iraqi Police of notifying nearby insurgents we were in the area. It didn’t matter how much the U.S. paid you to join the Army or Police. If the insurgents were threatening your family, you’d talk. I understood. We raced to get out of there but started taking fire. When we stopped to engage, the shooters ducked back into their hiding spots. The thing about the insurgents was, they could be anyone in the area.
A sergeant turned to me, “We’re going in there to find them. You wanna come?”
I looked down at my Nikon and my M4, wondering which I’d use first if we found them.
We kicked in a few doors but found nothing but a terrified woman in a bright blue gown and her small child tucked between her knees. The woman had dark eyes that reflected a life of struggle, like my mom’s. I snapped a photograph.
“Ana asif.” I’m sorry.
We never found the shooters, but later we did find another Iraqi Police patrol. Unlike us, they drove around in these old 80s Toyota pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the beds. A far cry from our up-armored humvees. One of their guys had been shot in the chest. He was still alive when they pulled in beside us. I stood there helplessly as our medic tried to save him. I had nothing to do but take a photograph of the medic applying pressure. I felt like a grim voyeur. The life faded from the man as he bled out all over the truck bed. And, that was that. I pondered whether to include the death of the Iraqi Policeman in my hometown news story about the butterbar out on his first patrol. Nah. That might bum his mom out.
That night, I found myself on the flight line back to our home base. An overweight captain got knocked over by the buffeting of the helicopter blades right next to me and got stuck on his back like a turtle being tortured by a child. I couldn’t help but laugh as his platoon got him back upright and into the Blackhawk. I thought about that shopkeeper and wondered if she were a mom and who her children would become because of our presence here.
The next morning was when I found out about my mom. I called my older brother, who’d actually just returned home from Iraq. He asked me if I could add her to my Army health insurance as a dependent. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m in fucking Iraq. I didn’t bring up the fact that mom had moved down to live near him in North Carolina a few years ago and that he might have paid for her to go to the doctor on his contractor salary when she kept getting sick. We were each trying to place the blame somewhere. I asked him to put mom on the phone.
“Hey, mom. How you doing?”
“I’ve been better. They say I have to start chemo soon. Probably going to lose all my hair.”
“I’m sorry, mom. I’ll buy you the best wig with my war money. It won’t be as beautiful as your hair, but it’ll be close.”
“How are you doing? You okay over there?”
“Yes, mom. I’m fine. Everything here is just fine. I’ll be home in a few months, okay? Just hang in there.”
I was home in time for Christmas and by then she had gotten the news that the cancer had spread to her brain. Who knows how long she’d actually had the cancer in her body? Treatment at this point was like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. We spent the holidays together knowing it was probably our last.
The day before I had to leave to get back to my unit, I found my mom sitting alone on the edge of her bed. It was New Year’s Day and to the rest of the world that meant resolutions and fresh starts. For our small family, it was just a reminder of all the regrets and shortcomings. I sat down beside her and didn’t have anything to say. I felt as helpless as that day the Iraqi Policeman died before my eyes. She was here, dying before my eyes. I hugged her and we cried together. She was wearing that silver and turquoise bracelet I bought her. I told her about how that day changed what I thought about the war. She told me she was proud of me and I felt how that Iraqi child between its mother’s legs must have felt. I didn’t want her to die.
That was the last time I saw her in any condition for her to recognize me. A few months later I got another call. This time it was to let me know she would be dying soon. I took a flight to North Carolina and when I arrived at the hospital she was lying in her bed, bald from the chemo and a husk of her former self.
She’d never again run a dress through a sewing machine after finally starting her own seamstress shop or produce that bold laugh of hers watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” or drive those country roads she loved with the windows down and her hair blowing wildly.
I suddenly realized I had never bought her that wig and a shame washed over me. I held her hand until she passed and when she did, I cried uncontrollably, a grotesque, shuddering cry that I didn’t realize I was capable of.
I was the last of my family to leave that hospital room and when I came down to the parking lot my aunt and uncle were sitting in their car. They had recently gone through some sort of Christian therapy after my uncle cheated on her and were now born-again Christ fanatics. The doors were half-open and smoke was billowing out.
I approached them to let them know I was heading out and I’d see them back at the house. My aunt took a drag off her cigarette and got out of her car to hug me. She had just watched her sister die of cancer but needed a smoke. She hugged me, holding her cigarette away from us.
“She’s in a better place now.”
An immense rage welled inside me and all I could think about was that Iraqi shopkeeper in Baghdad. And, how stupid I was to not understand the true impact our war had on the Iraqi people.
“No, no. Better before.”
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