The other morning I woke at 0500 to the sound of my roommate’s alarm clock, the same alarm clock he wakes to every day, only to hit the snooze button at least five times, torturing me with its incessant chirping. It sounds like a wounded bird needing to be put out of its misery, but with every push of the button it’s resurrected once again. He must like the feeling of being able to lay there a few more minutes, or maybe he likes birds, whatever it is, he unknowingly taunts me with every lazy push. Who invented the snooze button anyway? He’s no doubt laughing about it right now. He finally let the bird die, sat up, and muttered "shit" in a low voice. Maybe he was upset about the bird, but then I remembered that he greets each new day with the same word, doing little to make me want to get out of bed. Thanks for the extra motivation there buddy. Not that I expect him to get up and yell "Hallelujah!", but something other than shit would be nice. Even more motivating was the fact that I wasn’t planning to get up for another half hour. Despite losing the extra half hour of sleep, I’d had five hours of wakeless sleep, dreaming of wife and home, and feeling good and rested.
We were leaving on a mission at 0700 and had to be up at the CP at 0600, making me wonder why he had set his alarm so early. I put on my heavy gear, my smelly helmet, grabbed my rifle and headed for the door. I wanted to check my email before we had to get the humvee ready. I was expecting a message from my wife, a little motivation for the day, and she didn’t disappoint me. Somebody had thankfully coordinated with the chow hall to make us plates before it opened at 0630. The food in the chow hall has gotten so bad that my stomach turns flips after every meal, but breakfast is the best meal of the day and I hate missing it.
We were going on another dull mission, and I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I should want all our missions to be dull, recognizing the safety that dullness provides. I bet my wife would like all of our missions to be dull. I don’t want to get shot at every day or have someone try to blow us up, but I wouldn’t mind something to make the day a little more eventful. You prepare yourself mentally for that, but it was unlikely anything would happen on this day. I should be happy about that. It’s a sign of progress, a good thing.
Apparently some bad guys had been shooting mortars at a nearby base from some land adjacent to a man’s home. Our mission was to talk to the man, see if he had any information about the mad mortar men, and search the land around his home for mortar tubes or signs of their presence. I personally didn’t think we would get very far with the man. He lived in a Sunni town and probably knew the people responsible, but I doubted he would give up their identity. I could already see him shaking his head incredulously, wondering how we could possibly associate him with such people. Screw him and his house. That’s what I was thinking as we headed out the gate.
I charged my 240, all nice and lubed and ready to roll, sat down on my little strap hanging from both sides of the humvee’s turret, and let the Iraqi world and all its foul smells whirl past me. Zooming in and out of cars, slamming on the brakes and accelerating a second later, and we’re soon out on the open highway, with nothing slowing us down. This part of the trip is boring, with nothing on both sides of the highway except open flat land. I have to sit when driving like this, making me less likely to get my head blown off by an IED. The shield of the turret encircles me except for a small opening where the gun is, and the gun itself has a shield as well, leaving me two little cracks out of which I can view the outside world. Looking down into the humvee I can see Sgt. W. with a handset to his ear, busy listening to the useless chatter over the radio. Thomas is busy concentrating on driving, looking like a kid in drivers ed with his hands at the 10 and 2 position.
The two guys in the back seat are staring at nothing in particular as they lethargically sip on another highly caffeinated energy drink, wishing they could inject the liquid speed intravenously, and willing themselves not to succumb to the anguish of nodding off. My legs are falling asleep from the strap digging into the back of my leg, and my feet feel like they’re being stuck by hundreds of needles as I put my weight on them, trying to adjust my body to allow blood to flow down to my legs. Up in the turret with me are a couple of bottles of water, a can of Mountain Dew for when I begin to nod off, a pair of binoculars, package of dry Ramen for the lunch I know we’re going to miss, my camera, a GPS, and of course my gun. Every now and then I have to yell down to Sgt. W our grid coordinates since it won’t pick up the satellite signal from inside the humvee. I’m watching lubricant slowly drip from my gun onto the humvee as we continue to speed down the highway at 65mph. I wish I’d brought my book along to entertain me during this part of the trip. I’d been reading a novel about the civil war, but I’d left it back at the FOB. I guess I read about war, since I sometimes don’t feel like I’m part of one here. It’s got big bloody battles and god like Generals. I’m aware that we’re part of a war right here, but a very different one than that. I couldn’t help thinking how it was that our nation was ever at war with itself. How is it that men can be friends one day and enemies the next, standing on opposite sides of the battlefield with the intent to kill each other. What is it about man and war that has existed for all time and will continue as long as we exist. These absurd thoughts were running through my mind as we sped on our way.
There’s still a cause worth fighting for over here even if it rarely shows it’s ugly head anymore. Maybe they’ll rear their ugly head today, but it’s unlikely. So I’m thinking of civil wars, Generals, masked gunmen with RPG’s, IED’s buried along the road, suicide bombers, my family, and home when we begin to approach a small town on the way to our destination. I forget about the book and leave the epic battles for later, concentrating instead on everything in front of me, the houses, the cars, the people, the children, the dogs, the donkeys, the tractors, the trucks, and the sides of the road that lay smooth along the hard top, concealing the sudden destruction that may consume us all. But this is a friendly town, one we’ve been to before. It’s a Shia town with children waving at us as we pass. Crude houses stand on each side of the road, some made of clay, others of brick. Trash litters the ground that children run through trying to get a glimpse of us. Women with only their eyes uncovered are carrying huge bundles of vegetation on their back, likely the food that will nourish their animals for the future slaughter that will in turn nourish them. Men stroll through the streets without a care in the world, certainly not for the women with the weight of the world upon their backs. We don’t stop, nor do we slow down, we just speed through as if they don’t exist. They’re not on our agenda today. Today we have to go talk to a man about mortar tubes.
We pass through that town and continue on our voyage, the land on both sides of the road once again barren. I go back to thinking about Jackson, Lee, Chamberlain, and others, reliving the horror they witnessed and wondering if the smell of death on their battlefield was as bad as the smell here. The Horror. I can hear Marlon Brando repeating those words in Apocalypse Now. There is no horror here, not now anyway. We even make fun of the horror, imitating Brando’s voice when making light of a somewhat harrowing mission. You get back from a mission and someone asks you how it went. "Oh, the horror," we reply, which is a clear indication that there was anything but any horror involved. "The horror," would be a more accurate description of a four hour guard shift. How we dread the time we have to spend on force protection. It kills you from the inside out, eating away at you like a cancer. Hopefully our attempt at fun will not come back to haunt us with real horror, knowing the future could reveal it at anytime.
We begin to approach the next town, the one where the man is about to tell us nothing. The inhabitants of this town are hardcore Sunni’s. Wonderful, maybe we can all sit around and have a picnic and watch the kids play. Knowing we’re going into a town full of people that probably aren’t about to invite us over for dinner, my eyes and ears become alert to everything in front of me. This town is markedly different that the previous slum-like town we sped through earlier. Clearly these people were in favor when Saddam was in power. Sucks for them, now they have to share the bounty with everyone else.
The houses are big, nice, and well built. There are no mud houses here.
No houses made with brick haphazardly placed on one another. Some of these houses even have lawns full of green grass. It’s not often that you see green grass in this land, and these lawns actually looked as if they had been manicured recently. I wanted to get down from the humvee, take my boots off and feel the individual blades of grass between my toes. I wanted to smell it and let it remind me of home. And no trash, how about that. The streets aren’t littered with wet stinking trash, amazing. The kids even look different, better dressed and healthier looking than the kids from the Shia town.
The school is at the end of town, the same side from which we are approaching. We happen to pull up as all the kids are making their way to the school, a teacher or principal there to guide them in with a stick. What is it with men and sticks in this country? They beat everything with it. Unruly kids are as likely to feel the slap of a stick as the animals are. Men chase children away from us with sticks. Boys run away from these men with smiles on their faces, taunting them and their inability to catch them. It’s their culture, but I hope I never see one of those men hit a little girl with a stick. I saw one young girl in the distance with a big black eye that had swollen shut. I could only hope it was an accident and not from the hand of a man. Another guy saw her too, and we both wished we could find whoever caused it.
Boys are yelling and waving at us from inside the school grounds.
Good sign, maybe they don’t all hate us. But I still notice something different. The girls for one thing. They seem scared of us, not shy, but scared. They take tentative steps toward us on their way to school, speeding up their pace as they get closer to the humvee. Some of them actually look like they have fear in their eyes when they pass us. It made me sad to see them like that. I wondered if their parents taught them to fear us. Some were bold, not caring what others might think as they smiled up at us. It’s not all bad here. These people don’t all hate us. Even some of the grownups don’t seem to mind our presence. One man even grabbed his wife and posed for a picture.
She seemed reluctant at first but soon gave in and smiled for the camera. Other women would hold up their small children from inside the gates of their home in the hopes that I would take their picture.
The man who owned the house in front of our parked humvee was friendly enough. He looked like the Iraqi version of Tony Soprano. I could imagine him sitting on his couch watching a pirated copy of Goodfellas, thinking he could’ve done a better job than Deniro. He had at least twelve children playing in and around his house, making me wonder if Tony had more than one wife, something not all that uncommon in this place. He held the hand of what looked to be his youngest boy and I asked him with silent gestures if I could take their picture. He kind of solemnly nodded his head in agreement and looked toward the camera.
Cameras can work magic in places like these. He soon had every one of his children standing beside him. Unlike some of the fearful young girls earlier, his daughter’s weren’t shy about having their image pixelized
I’m watching all of this as our dismounts have begun searching the land behind us for mortar tubes and other horrors. A group of boys came over to crowd around the humvee as they always do. The camera doesn’t help, it only draws them closer.
I like the boys, but they will ask you for everything. It gets kind of old when they keep saying mister mister a thousand times. School has been let out already and it’s only been an hour and a half since they went. I found out later that the principal released them early. My kind of principal. Each of them has a package of energy biscuits, which look and taste like graham crackers. One of the boys handed me one, and they applauded when I bit into it. I have now been nourished by the World Food Program, which I believe may be a subsidiary of some sort to the UN. Thanks Kofi, I hope you profited from that little snack I just ate. The boys are driving me nuts. I finally just ignore their pleas for more pictures and continue to watch what’s in front of me.
Some of the older boys walk by every now and then, not looking at us, and looking pissed off about us being there. Screw them and their attitude. Get over it tough guy. We’re just staying for a little while. One of them looks over toward Ray and says something under his breath. Ray just stares back and responds with a hardy "Fuck You." Old Ray, always willing to spread a little international goodwill with the locals. You need people like Ray though. He’s a good guy, one of my closest friends, and a good soldier, but if I was those guys, I wouldn’t screw with him. He’s perpetually pissed off most of the time, not unlike a lot of us, especially on these boring missions we seem to be going on a lot lately
The girls start walking by us again in droves, most looking away, but some can’t help but look up and smile. I can’t blame them really. We probably look like aliens from another planet, with our weird looking traveling machines, with some idiot(me) standing outside a hole cut in the top of it, not to mention all of the other crap we wear to protect us from the horror. Two girls in particular really defined the whole scene of this town.
They were walking together, and as they passed, one stuck her nose up in the air displaying her obvious disdain for us, as if to say, how dare you soil our town with your bourgeois presence. The other girl however, turned her eyes toward me and began to smile, as if to say, it’s okay for you to be here, never mind the high-mindedness of my friend here. She reminded me of my niece, home, and all the good things that seem so far removed from this place.
For people that supposedly hate us and our lifestyle, they sure don’t mind wearing clothes emblazoned with American icons. One kid was wearing a Nike cap and sunglasses. Another man driving a tractor had a New York Yankees cap on. I wondered if he hated the Red Sox.
We stayed there another hour or so, setting up a TCP in the middle of town to search cars coming in and out. Our interpreter, always making a show of waving his arms and yelling at any motorists, acted once again like he possessed some kind of authority. Knowing he has a platoon of men to protect him, his confidence tends to border more on arrogance. I guess he doesn’t realize the mask he wears to hide his identity betrays his air of self-assurance. Our interpreters could tell us anything and we’d believe it.
We joke about that, wondering if any have ever purposefully deceived us. "Ask that man if he knows who is shooting mortars at us from around his house." The interpreter in Arabic, hands and arms gesticulating madly, asks in a stern voice, "Uncle Abdul, it is so nice to see you again, how is your family? The Americans wish to know if you have any knowledge as to whom the mad mortar man is." Uncle Abdul, wearing a look of frustration replies in Arabic, "My blessed nephew, why do you not come around more often? I often tell my brother how much I miss you. The family is doing well. You would know that if you ever came around. Why don’t you come eat with us tonight, everyone would love to see you. Omar should be there as well." The interpreter, "Ah Omar, what is my crazy cousin up to these days?" Uncle Abdul, "Why he is the mad mortar man of course, busy hiding the mortar tubes in the caves north of here. He should like to see you though, you have much to catch up on." Interpreter, "I should enjoy seeing him as well, tell him I will see him at dinner. Is seven o’clock too early?" "No, we shall see you then." The interpreter turns back to us with a dejected look on his face. "You seemed to have a long conversation with him. What all did he say, tell me everything he said word for word?" "Word for word?" "Yes" Expecting to glean a wealth of information from him the interpreter replies, "He says, I don’t know." The horror.