I don’t have it as bad as some people.
I don’t have it as bad as other people.
But I’m not other people.
It’s different for everybody. Certain things are the same; the basic framework, the training, the long hours. I’ve seen big strong macho men crumble as the first bullet went zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzswhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh over their head. I’ve seen tiny little women run into incoming fire.
I’ve been that woman.
Here’s one average day.
You wake up in air-conditioned room, then sit up on the lower bed of your bunk bed and push aside the blankets and mosquito netting that give you all the privacy you get. Some people live in aircraft hangers with hundreds of other soldiers, or sailors, or Marines, and the sheer size of the place seems to make people shout, as if they’re trying to fill it up. As you wake up, the sound of he generator registers, then fades into the background. It’s just filler noise.
Everything you own is either on top of the second bunk bed, or piled into a Rubbermaid footlocker at its foot. The room is about twelve by sixteen, and there’s three other bunks in the room, one other woman per bunk. That makes you lucky. Ropes and 550 cord hang from every available place, stringing up tarps and rain ponchos, trying to preserve some privacy. Privacy is the rarest thing here.
You have some toiletries in a basket, because the shower is a quarter of a mile away. The chow hall, where you wait in 100+ plus heat at least once a day—because on the road you eat MREs, or don’t eat—-is in the other direction, by the PX, which used to be a fancy dining hall, with fancy medallions on the ceiling. The Pakistani men who work the serving line get to know your face, your eating habits, and watch your shrinking frame with gravity and concern. More than once I’ve had a ladle shaken in my face by a kind, paternal face, humbling submitted to a lecture on how I should eat more, and accepted an extra hot dog or scoop of something. Halliburton hires them for huge sums of money, then pays them pennies. They send it all back to their families, because the long proud tradition of Army cooks—the stuff of legend—has fallen by the wayside. We send the cooks out on the roads these days. We need the warm bodies. Rumfeld’s lean, mean, fighting machine can win wars, but he didn’t devote much thought to winning the peace. We’re losing that.
The chow hall workers live in cramped dorms, trailers where a dozen men can live in a space the size of a container on a eighteen wheeler. Some of them are Hindu, some are Muslim, some are Indian. Common wisdom says we can’t have Iraqis working with food for fear of poisoning. If the base gets over run, these men would be massacred. There’s one older gentleman who looks for me especially, and heaps my plate no matter what. I’ve lost forty pounds since I got here. It’s been three months.
One night, my team and I got ambushed and surrounded. For hours, we traded shots and shuddered as the bombs got closer and closer. Usually at the chow hall, the workers put on some awful disco thing, but that night one of the Polish detachment told them what was happening, how sick with worry they were, and the chow line guys shut it off. The Poles, you see, were listening in on the radio as we tried to get air cover or evac, heard the rate of fire and the explosions. Everybody with a radio listened in to our freak as we kept getting driven away from the vehicle the radio was located in. One of those silences happened at chow time. One of the—I think he was from Kazakhstan—-came to me alter and told me about it. He said everybody thought we’d finally gotten over run. For those guys, that night, we were their soldiers, just the same as if we’d marched alongside them since Basic.
Today is a convoy day. Before you even shower, before you even think about showering, you take apart your weapon, whatever that is—M-16, .249, 9mm plus any of the above—and you clean it with gun oil, pipe cleaners, Q-tips, and gun cleaner. Then you re-assemble it, working the mechanism till it’s fluid. Then comes your mags. The regs say thirty rounds to an M-16 clip, but that wears out the spring, so you load yours with twenty nine, twenty eight, whatever—every third round a tracer. If you’re like me, you found out the hard way that if you’re in a firefight at night, those tracer rounds paint a trail back to your location, where the enemy can aim something really big and try and turn you into what looks like cuts of beef with odd human bits mixed in. They missed me, but not by much–my ears rang for days.
We’re only issued a certain amount of ammo, but it never feels like enough, especially if you’ve been anywhere during anything bad, where ammo started to get scarce. Lots of people have a little extra. But women aren’t in combat, you know.
Next step is assembling your gear for the road; Kevlar helmet, which never fits right, flak vest, which weighs twenty pounds, weapon, ammo pouches, scarf for the hair under the helmet, gaiter for the face for the dust and the sun, fingerless gloves because of the sweat, and wool socks and uniform.
Then there’s the superstitious touch. Every day I pack my little back pack with stuff that I can’t live without—my little laptop, my dd player, my music, my hard drive with all my pictures—and I leave it on my bed, with a note on it: “In case of death or injury, send on chopper with casualty.” I’ve heard people say that being a cop is the most dangerous job. It’s not. Cabbies are killed on the job more frequently. And every day in this place, in this year, you know that before sunset that day, at least one US soldier will die, probably more. God only knows how many will be wounded, too—nasty things, the sort of wounds that civilians don’t ever see. You can’t outrun a bomb, no matter how many times Bruce Willis does it in a movie. The force of an explosion travels at about six thousand feet per second. That means force: it’s a hard, invisible, burning wave of force that sometimes turns people into sacks of jello (if there’s little shrapnel) or turns them into chunks and goo. You’re lucky if you can blink and save your eyes. With the force, comes the heat, which can burn you, and a cloud of dirt and fuck knows what else, right into wounds, where later on an infection might kill you if you survive the initial blast.
A surprising number do. We drove canvas humvees, my unit, even though the media back home was touting armored humvees and what not. Sure. We had canvas flapping between us and IEDS (improvised explosive devices) for most of the year, and had so many close calls we got cynical about it.
Sunset is the time of the final call to prayer, the sound of the mosque’s meuzzin calling the faithful to worship. It sounds somehow mournful, somehow evocative, and when it happens, you expect the sun to set and the mourners to come out. By sunset every day, a US soldier will be dead, others will be wounded, and some will be damaged in other, secret ways, silenced or screwed for years to come.
And that’s to say nothing of the civilians. The insurgents like killing us, the soldiers, but they excel at killing unarmed and helpless civilians—-women, children, it doesn’t matter.
We watch CNN some days, when the satellite aligns, when KBR (a division of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s company) is generous. The way they portray things makes me want to throw things. Fox News is even worse. Neither of them gets it right. They said the Iraqis would greet us with roses. Sure. Would you? “Hi, I’m invading your country and killing your neighbors by accident, but I’m a really nice person, honest!” With Saddam gone, all the tribes that once united to hate him or each other had to find a new enemy, and it’s not too hard to figure out which one they picked: us.
Yet they’re a nice, polite, educated bunch of people. The Sunni—Saddam’s sect—aren’t too happy with us, but the Shia were happy, at least initially, to be free of Hussein. But we dissolved the Army and took away men’s jobs, and with them the ability to feed their families. The former Army members either walked away from their posts or took as much loot with them as they could–and then they offered jobs in the insurgency to the men who had families to feed and no jobs. If we had hired local Iraqis to build our bases and do most of the work, they’d be too busy building to do nearly as much fighting. These people wanted freedom. “I can go the marketplace,” a newly-made satellite dish salesman told me, in a marveling tone of voice, “and say whatever I want to, and no one can stop me.” Unless it’s a local militia leader. Still, it was a nice thought. The salesman bought a lamb, had it butchered, and served us a feast with kebabs, pita bread, fresh vegetables, and all kinds of things. We eat on the street from the vendors whenever we can.
You see a lot of mercenaries around here. They’re big huge guys with huge biceps and arms, always dressed in black, black sunglasses, and I hate them. A lot of them brag about being ex Delta, Special Forces, Special Ops. But my company works with the latter two, and their job means going out in the population with the civilians and blending in. You can’t do that with muscles that you get in a weight room somewhere. Also, my gay friends pointed out once that they can spot a straight guy at the gym every time because straight guys always look top heavy—–they build up their chest and arm muscles, but don’t work too much on proportionality, so they look like they’re going to topple over. Gay guys tend to go for a proportional look. When I see big huge arms topping little teeny legs I wonder what the dude sporting them is worried about.
The mercenaries also don’t mention this thing: how come their terms of enlistment are so weird? The Hoo Ah HooAh units tend to be lifers, and their enlistments tend to start off with six or eight years and just pile on until they retire of old age. The mercenaries do seven years here, eleven years there. It’s kind of hard to get out of a military contract, too, unless you’re injured. But these guys never talk about injury. They mutter about stuff like their CO hated them or whatever. But I think the real reason is they got tired of the USMJ and bolted when they had a chance. When I heard about the shooting in that square in Baghdad I wasn’t surprised.
A bunch of Blackwater guys killed seventeen civilians there, and first claimed they were hit by mortars. Then it turned out there were no mortar shells out there. Then they claimed it was rocket-propelled grenades. Nope, none of those either. Then they claimed it was small arms fire—Kalishnikovs, what have you. Every single round that they picked up turned out to be US-issue. They just opened up and blew away all those people. Or they panicked. Either way, seventeen people are dead. One of them was a little boy.
The people back home don’t care. And I don’t think they care about us. I’ve already gotten bits of arrogance from people online, people who can’t imagine having a life without any good choices, where you get pregnant deliberately at the age of eighteen because that’s about as healthy as you’ll ever be in your life, because that’s all girls of your class have to look forward to. You join the Army because otherwise it’s the mill or the factory or McDonald’s, and then there’s nothing but the bar and either a series of shitty cardboard apartments or trailers with JC Penney furniture that breaks very easily. Nobody in your family has a college degree or a computer or any hope at all, and by the time you graduate from high school, you’ve had enough of having guidance counselors talk to you about beauty school or daycare. Maybe you read too much Nancy Drew or, hell, maybe you read, period: but if you stay here, you’re going to be thirty and hopeless, working some job in a polyester uniform and a name tag, waiting on people who might write books about people like you but wouldn’t invite you over to dinner. One of my sisters has been married three times; the other one married the first guy she fucked or dated, at the age of thirty two. My brother watches Fox News and Glenn Beck and used to hit me when I was a kid. He was the only boy, you see. I was told I shouldn’t have made him angry.
But the people here—-I’ve talked to them. You pick up words without realizing it, because the women love to talk to female American soldiers, and soon you find universal ground. Lots of people speak at least some English, but some things are universal—-the heat, the weather, kids these days, aren’t men funny?, do you have kids?, are you married?, do you like Iraq?–and can be expressed in sign language. I never tell people that when they ask to see pictures of “Baby?” what I’m actually whipping out are pictures of my cats, captured at uniquely dimwitted moments. One guy jumped about a foot. They always laugh. Once somebody laughs, it’s impossible to conceive of them as different from you. Having somebody laugh at one of your jokes sweeps all the differences away. Humor unites people, and it sometimes seems I’ve laughed more with the Iraqi people I meet on the street than I do with some of my fellow soldiers, who can be a conservative bunch, in that peculiar way that young (in their twenties) men have.
If you want to die, going on convoys is a very good way of getting your wish. The insurgents creep out at night and bury old mortar rounds, buckets, anything that hold some C4, in the roads or alongside them. The country is covered with garbage, up to and including the carcasses of cows. They pack a cell phone or a time inside and if they want to detonate the former they just dial the number. Sometimes there’s daisy chains of bombs. They set one bomb knowing that the other soldiers will rush to aid their buddies, and when they do that, they hit the other bombs.
One that’s shown up recently is the platter charge, which isn’t so much a platter as it is distinguished by one. They pack a metal tube with C4 and then weld a copper convex plate to the end, then aim it. The plate gets blown and melted by the explosion, and it goes through everything, every kind of armor we had. I saw one vehicle that had contained three men. The doors on the explosion side were destroyed, the driver and the shotgunner were decapitated and the turret guy lost both legs and one arm. He lived. For a while. The explosion tore through bullet proof glass, destroyed Kevlar and made hamburger out of those men. One guy I talked to was shell shocked one month into his tour. He’d lost seven guys to the thing.
But convoys are alluring because they get you out and you get to meet people. The Iraqis wave to us from the sidelines, from the roads, herding sheep in the sunset, in the sunrise, praying in the field, washing in the ditches. Iraq is not what you see on the news. The south is green and vivid, emerald in the spring, golden at harvest time, pricked with shocking historical sites. We were heading toward Baghdad one day at sunset when we rounded a curve on the overpass, and the black silhouette of an ancient grand mosque rose before us against the orange and red sky, its towers painted in the blackest of ink, it’s great dome stark against that vivid sky.
The call to prayer marks the hours five times a day, and I’ve grown accustomed to it. The heat of the day can sicken you because missions and convoys have to be run at all times, so we can’t be smart like the Iraqis and have a siesta during the hottest part of the day. I once watched a thermometer reached 56 one day while I “interviewed” a guy by the side of the road. That’s in Celsius.
As beautiful as it is, you forget, sometimes.
We drove an officer up north one day for some errand, and we were late leaving the gate. You’ve seen M*A*S*H? That’s my unit. Someone had to get one last punchline in. A Polish patrol got out ahead of us, on time, and so they rolled over a bomb that killed three men and left one inexplicably alive. He came running up to us as we pulled over next to the wreckage, a baby, twenty at the oldest. He had big splashes of blood on his uniform, and his hands were red to the knuckle with the thick red stuff, which gives off an aroma no description can do justice. There was blood on top of his helmet, and I thought to myself What do you have to do to a human body that makes it splash blood like somebody stepped in a puddle? I kept him talking—I speak Polish—while the choppers came and took away the bodies. I noticed that the inside windscreen of his vehicle was intact, but painted with a red screen. And the thing of it was, we had to turn him over to his squad, and he and we had to go on with our job as if nothing had happened. Too few bodies to do the job, so there’s no time to think about it.
One event like that, one day like that, is what some people make movies out of. Here, you get up and every day is like that.
Everybody’s different. I have a friend who’s a nurse; she says she couldn’t do what I do. I couldn’t do what she does. I don’t do what she does, why should she have to consider doing what I do?
I know that courage knows no gender, nor humanity no nationality. Everything I was told was a lie. Everything that I believed was wrong. These people aren’t terrorists. Every day I get up and I see women without veils, with veils, with burkas, men in suits, in dishdashas, holding a little girl’s hand and smiling at her as she chatters. I see boys with donkey cats who stop and stare when I wave at them; I see buses explode with waving hands with we wave at them.
I can’t stop doing convoys. I can’t live without that. That’s my little fix, the reminder of what we’re fighting for.
And yet, by sunset, someone will die. For every coalition soldier, the ratio is probably ten Iraqis killed, not strictly tit for tat on any given date, but by the numbers. That is the worst part of the job; being begged by Iraqis for help in locating this or that relative’s body. We’ll never find all the mass graves.
And that’s something else nobody back home knows or cares. In the beginning, the news touted the mass graves, as if that justified the war. Then they got a closer look at the bodies in them, and everybody stopped talking.
After the first Gulf War, President Bush urged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. Fourteen of the eighteen provinces did just that, expecting US backing. We abandoned them, and Saddam slaughtered them, filling trenches with their bodies. We might not have fired the shots, but we certainly hand a hand in filling them up. In the desert, bodies desiccate, dry out, stay recognizable. After all of this, the Iraqis have just one simple wish: a body to bury. I dare anyone to look into some of the faces of those grieving relatives and tell me they’re all terrorists.
I don’t have it as bad as them.
Would it make it better if I did? Would it make the nightmares go away?
I wish that sunset would come.