A short story from an army veteran about the last time U.S. soldiers were in Iraq and the impossible choices they faced there.
This will be the worst day of your life. In years to come you will recount the most intricate details to yourself with obsessive precision, as if tracing the wood grain of a childhood bunk bed from memory. It is not a healthy kind of remembrance. Everyone you love will have heard the story and they will be tired of being scared and sorry for you. You will think it bothers you more than it should, but then you will ask yourself whether or not you even have the right to not be bothered.
You stand on an unsteady pontoon bridge spanning the Tigris River in a township called Adh Dhouloueya. It is August 2006 and it is very hot. The Iraqi summer has created swaths of negative space in your memory, but this day will be distinct. Most of the collective minutes of your days spent outside the wire are indistinguishable from one another. You are always on patrol, either on foot or in a humvee. There are always palm trees and shabby buildings. There are always date farms and greasy mechanic shops. There are always Iraqis in track pants, Iraqis in white thawbs, Iraqis in moth-eaten dress shirts with blazers, and from the expressions on their faces they always want you dead. It never changes. In the Iraqi summer, a uniform misery controls all living things between ten in the morning and six in the evening. It is simply unfair.
It is now about five p.m. and the temperature is one hundred and twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Forty-nine and a half degrees Celsius. The heat creates mirages with waves that ripple through the air. A few hundred meters upriver, you see groves of date palms swaying as if underwater. Life should not exist. But – because there's a river here – life does exist, and it sees fit to make its creatures fight a war in this climate. You have somehow found yourself among them.
The civil war has reached a fever pitch and your battalion has recovered eight bodies floating downstream this week alone. By the time that you see them, they're bloated into surrealist Arcimboldo paintings, into soft constructions of rotten fruit. They have putrid California grapes for eyes, puffed-out cheeks of spoiled plums, sweltered eggplant lips. Scavengers have chewed their flesh. Their blistered tomato skin sloughs off when pulled. They emit an odor that no human being should inhale, and yet you have.
They are all torture victims. Their knees and elbows have punctures from a 10mm drill bit. It was not the Tigris fish that removed their fingers. They are the victims of Shia death squads in Samarra and Tikrit. The Sunnis execute prisoners en masse, their messages expressed in high body counts. The Shi'ites economize their projection of terror into concise, single-body statements. It has been six months since unknown insurgents destroyed the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra. Since then, a black miasma of recursive vengeance has descended upon Iraq. You hate it all and you hate its inhabitants. You have seen your company’s soldiers die and it has filled you with impotent rage. Your battalion commander has emphasized that you're here to help the Iraqis, but you secretly don't care if the Iraqis burn their own country to the ground. It doesn't belong to you.
Your battalion received intelligence that a car bomber plans to drive from Tikrit to Balad and detonate at the entrance to the mammoth US base nearby. Your company in turn received orders to secure the bridge, and since your platoon took mission cycle that day, you had to deploy your six humvees and twenty-nine soldiers out of the outpost. You wondered why they couldn't have found spare soldiers at Balad Air Base for this. You spent your first month in-country there, just long enough to get comfortable with the prospect of running water, gyms, fast food and laundry service. Then, of course, your whole battalion displaced to haphazard Iraqi Army bases.
There is no running water there, nor gyms, nor fast food, nor laundry service. It is simply a gravel yard walled off by sand bastions and concrete barriers. There is human waste, flies, food waste, animal bones, burning garbage, burning shit, sunburn, sand, and heat. You and your soldiers fashioned shipping containers into bunk houses because the empty buildings on the base had piles of months-old litter used as toilets by stray dogs and Iraqis. There is no air conditioning. There is barely any shade. Your company conducts three joint patrols with the Iraqi Army each day. You wind through trash-pile backstreets and alleys in Adh Dhouloueya, along farm roads and groves outside of nearby Balad City. Once every ten days, a platoon rotates back to Balad Air Base to take showers and wash clothes. Other people's chores have become your privileges, your hoped-for milestones that prove an inchworm's progress toward a homeward flight.
You guard the pontoon bridge with a squad of Iraqi Army soldiers and a single interpreter. Your battalion commander has made it explicitly clear that no one may cross the bridge today. You posted your soldiers at three road intersections nearing the bridge, and though you know you shouldn't be the only American here, you'd rather your soldiers have more manpower between them. They have blocked vehicle access, but pedestrians have managed to evade them.
You stand on the bridge's north side and block the road that leads from Adh Dhouloueya towards the south. All around you are farms fields dotted with canted mud structures. Some are homes and some are pump houses, and you can only tell the difference when you see human silhouettes scurry on rooftops. It's a flat plain and you can only see a few hundred meters, after which the horizon ends in broad-leaf date palms and brown-rimmed sky.
In the desert, an unbelievable humidity emerges when standing near water sources. It is a hot day and you are standing above a river. There is a breeze, and that is the only thing that differentiates it from a sauna. However, you are overdressed for a sauna. Your fire-retardant uniform covers you from wrist to neck and waist to boots. Your Interceptor Ballistic Armor weighs thirty pounds. You have seven full magazines of 5.56mm bullets on your kit, two hundred and ten individual rounds, which weigh a total of twenty-eight pounds. Your Advanced Combat Helmet weighs seven pounds and the back pads press furiously into the corners of your skull. Acrid sweat and grit have stained your gloves black. They smell sweetly putrescent, like a forgotten gym towel in a hot car. Your foulness no longer surprises you, but you have realized its power when you encounter clean soldiers and you both recoil. To you, they smell like a newly-opened box of diapers. You know that smell because you have an eighteen-month-old daughter at home that you haven't seen since your mid-tour leave in May. The clean soldiers are too polite to tell you how you smell to them, but their faces reveal the immodesty of it.
The heat makes beads of sweat run down your armpits and traverse your hips before dampening your drawers. It tickles but you have learned to ignore it. You learned to tolerate all of this discomfort in layers: first, the uniform as a ROTC cadet in college, then the armor during your initial training at Fort Benning, and now the live ammo, the plastic Peletor headset that resembles seventies hi-fi headphones, the kevlar throat guard, the kevlar groin guard, the elbow pads, knee pads, ballistic eyeglasses, a squawking AN/PRC-148 MBITR radio. You have only a few square inches of exposed skin. Heat exhaustion could easily kill you today, but you have seen young men burned by explosions, you've heard the muffled screaming through layers of gauze, the way that each heartbeat pumps mortal agony and disbelief through them, and you'd rather die of heat exhaustion. As a kid, you'd admired pictures of knights in burnished suits of armor. You'd imagined that they could slip into their metal shell as easily as you slipped in and out of your pajamas. But like them, you now wear armor that you assemble piece by piece, plate by plate, each morning in the Joint Combat Outpost where you reside with your platoon. Your armor does not shine. It has faded from pixelated gray to rusted ochre, fringed on the edges with black sweat grease. Flies congregate on the beads of it. You have to sway from one foot to another to keep them from staking their claim.
You have stood on this bridge since eleven this morning. There is not going to be a suicide bomber on this bridge today, you think. The sun will set in less than an hour and a hubbub will emerge from the ghost-town houses and farms. The Iraqis are smart enough to do their farm work at night in this weather. They know to avoid the sun. However, since two p.m. you have had three separate instances of civilians trying to walk across the bridge. Your interpreter Hassan, who wears a black ski mask for fear of being labeled a collaborator, gesticulates and crackles in Arabic to them. He points away from the bridge. Their noises are equally impassioned as his. His mask is completely soaked. It continuously dribbles beads of sweat. He must be even less comfortable than you.
"They can cross once the alert is lifted," you reply. "No one crosses until then." Hassan translates, and they continue to plead.
"It's always very important," you say. "Tell them to come back tomorrow." This is the right answer. You cannot let them cross because one of them will have the bomb. You could strip every last one of them naked and find no bombs, but the moment you let them through your checkpoint, a bomb would somehow materialize and either you would die or some hapless gate guards at Balad Air Base would. That would be the end of one of you, or many of you, and it would be all your fault. Maybe it's superstition. Maybe it's black magic from an Iraqi insurgent sorcerer. You don't know what to call it. You only know that it exists.
Disappointed and frustrated, the men make angry, high-pitched appeals towards you, but they leave nonetheless. The process repeats itself, each time a similar story: they're sick, their kids are sick, they have important business on the other side. In the second instance, it is a man and his wife pleading from atop a donkey. The man is emaciated under a white dishdasha and a red headscarf, a burning cigarette glued to his lips. The heavyset wife wears a black abaya, has facial tattoos and croaks harshly when she speaks. On the third instance, a teenage boy in a soccer uniform and sandals says, "Mister, why no? Mister, why no?" When this fails to sway you, he points at you and says, "Fuck you, mister! No good!" He crosses his arms in defiance. Your interpreter scolds him and stands between you two. The little shit hates you. Iraqi kids can’t hide their true feelings. It takes a lifetime of learning to become as good of liars as their parents.
As sunset approaches, the visible fringes of the horizon glow orange. The wind and the dust in this climate can undo even the hardiest things. In their thrall the sky is no longer blue. But the sunsets are beautiful here, and you know that battalion will not leave your whole company strung out at night checkpoints. There are too many opportunities for friendly fire, for civilian casualties, for insurgent ambushes. This will end with you going home, and the war will not be won, but you'll be one day closer to no longer owning it. The sun need only disappear, and then you will, too.
At a few minutes past five p.m., an Iraqi woman and her three children approach your checkpoint. There are two boys about nine or ten and a girl of about five or six. The woman is very thin and wears a black abaya. The boys wear what look like cast-off gym clothes with sandals. They are slim, but they at least look healthy. The little girl is wearing a red dress and scuffed tennis shoes without socks. She has eyes like black olives and shoulder-length brown hair. She is an absolutely beautiful child. The mother carries what looks like a twin-size cotton futon mattress. The two boys help her. They've tied the mattress to the skeletons of palm fronds. They carry it like a stretcher, though they're missing one stretcher-bearer. The little girl, too young to be of any assistance, trails behind them.
The mother asks if she can cross the bridge. Hassan tells you what you already know and you say no, they can't cross. You expect another shower of tepid excuses, but the mother simply shrugs.
"Are all the bridges closed today?" she asks Hassan, and through him you reply that they are. She makes a clucking sound and tilts her head up when she receives the answer.
"What's with the mattress?" you ask Hassan. The woman shows it to you. It has yellowish stains and looks abandoned, but seems intact.
"She says she found it. It was outside," Hassan says. "She says she was at her sister's house in Adh Dhouloueya. She says she saw it in the bazaar." It always surprises you to hear the Arabic pronunciation of words that have entered American parlance. Your company commander calls it "Adoo-Louie-Yeah." Hassan deploys the actual Arabic consonant, a low sound somewhere between a 'd' and a 'th,' and the word sound more like "Adth-oo-loo-ee-ya." Never mind the word "bazaar," which you pronounce as "bizarre" and Hassan pronounces as "buzzer." You could devote the remainder of your life to the study of Arabic and you'd never truly be able to communicate with these people. At this moment it seems another article of proof that you do not belong here.
You tell Hassan to have the Iraqi army soldiers check the mattress. They give it a cursory pat-down and find nothing.
"It's not stolen?" you ask. This is not your business and not important whatsoever, but you still want to know.
"She says she not steal it. She says, Shi'a people leave Adh Dhouloueya and go to Samarra. They leave everything: house, furniture, everything. She just take it."
You nod at her, not because you believe her but rather because you simply don't care to ask any more questions. She looks at you and then points to a rickety wooden boat about twenty-five meters from where you stand. It has been overturned and does not appear seaworthy. She asks if she can use it to cross the river.
"Sure," you say, "She can cross, but I don't think that's a good idea. Not in that thing." Hassan communicates this to her, and she immediately gestures again to the boat and issues a command to the boys in Arabic. The four of them move to the boat, right it, balance the mattress across its bow and shove it towards the water. The mother unties the palm staves from the mattress, then takes the nylon ropes and ties the mattress to the boat. It takes her a moment to find a suitable tie-down point on the hull. It is clear to you that she intends to use the staves as oars. You know that they're far too thin and frail. They won't displace enough water.
"That's not going to work," you say to Hassan, who also watches the scene. By this point, three of the Iraqi army soldiers present with you at the bridge have turned to face the woman. They call to her, but she ignores them. You want her to be gone – she's distracting everyone and you worry that the kind of people who want you distracted are somehow watching you – but you don't want her stranded on your watch, either.
The mother gestures towards the boat and commands the children to get in. The boys are scared and say no, shaking their heads. One of them cries. The mother keeps gesturing at them, waving her hands in the air. They climb inside, followed by the little girl. The girl has not made a noise since arriving. She has simply stood and watched, and once instructed to enter the boat, she complies.
The mother pushes the boat into the water and climbs inside. Near the banks, the water is shallow and her palm frond oars propel her. However, as they enter the current, the boat becomes unstable. The mattress causes the boat to tip forward, and in the ensuing rocking the boat begins to take on water. The children desperately scoop the water out with their hands. They make emphatic cries to the mother. The mother continues to row frantically, but the boat begins to drift slowly downstream. They are about thirty meters from your position at the northern bank when the mother starts screaming, too.
"She says she cannot swim, and the girl cannot swim," Hassan says. You hadn't thought of that. You've seen little boys playing in the river, but you haven't seen any girls. They'd never be allowed to take their clothes off and dive in the way boys do.
For a moment, it seems the mattress will float. As the boat disappears, it remains above the water line. All four of them cling to it as a floatation device. The mother keeps screaming.
"No, Hassan, you stay fucking put," you say. "I need you." You can swim. Your mother forced you to take lessons at the Boys' and Girls' Club. You even went boating once in college with friends from ROTC. You'd been drunk for hours, but you dove off a double-decker lake boat and came up gracefully for air. You remember that summer day in 2003 because you were getting ready to go to cadet camp, and the Iraq war had just started. A mutual friend had asked you how you could tolerate the prospect of fighting in it, and you said that you wanted to put yourself in harm's way because you might be able to affect something important. You wanted it to be you making the hard decisions. You said this. It wasn't even rehearsed.
An Iraqi soldier hands off his AK-47 to another soldier and leaps from the bridge. It's only a few feet above the water, but he goes completely under. When he emerges, he makes slow, overworked progress towards the boat, which is now about a hundred meters away. He cannot swim and it shows. He doesn't make it to the boat. He begins to flail and exhaust himself before submerging for good. Now all of the Iraqis are yelling at you. The family's boat has gone under. The girl shrieks and the boys try to help her. The mother goes under, comes up for air, screams at you and goes under again.
A dozen wrinkled, mustached faces in chocolate-chip desert camouflage and cock-eyed steel-pot helmets are screaming at you in Arabic. They wave their hands and clutch their heads. Hassan keeps saying, "Sir, I can swim! I can swim!" His eyes look wild in his ski mask. You now get to make a hard decision:
You can abandon your post and your equipment, which will hopefully be there if you return. You cannot trust the Iraqis with your sensitive items, not even for a minute. You can trust Hassan, but he is unarmed and cannot stop them, either. If it disappears, you have lost thousands of dollars of equipment and a radio with secure encryption, ensuring that the insurgency will – for at least a brief time – be able to hear everything your entire battalion says over the net. You will most certainly be fired if you do this, and it is likely that Americans will die as a result. Simply losing the radio means that every single radio and tactical satellite in the regional theater – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Qatar, in Kuwait – will require an emergency encryption reset. The senior-most generals will know your name and want your head. The crazed, struggling children might drown you, too. The insurgents might choose to attack your soldiers at this moment and, in the absence of your decisions, they will die and it will be your fault. There is a strong likelihood that you will be the broken link that allows a massacre to transpire if you dive in after these children.
You can call some of your soldiers from their checkpoints, thereby allowing you to remain in control of the situation. However, they are at least three hundred meters away by road, and by the time they could orient to the situation and react, the children will have drowned. Furthermore, by removing them from their post, you create an opportunity for insurgent black magic to materialize a car bomb. Such a device would likely kill you and destroy the bridge. The bomb might detonate at one of their checkpoints, which terrifies you more: you could accept your own death but you will never forgive yourself for letting your own soldiers die, and moreover, they will most certainly never forgive you. The errant flashes of light in your brain depicting this possibility are strong enough to make you wince and want to cry.
Finally, you can stay at your post and watch the remaining children turn to motionless bodies floating downriver for another unfortunate unit to recover. Militarily, it is the best choice, but you will have let innocent civilians die that might have otherwise lived, civilians that you in fact allowed to make this foolhardy crossing. It will not be your legal responsibility, but you're simply winning on a technicality. In the court of your own conscience, you know that this is your fault and that every one of the events unfolding in the vaporous heat of this day is, too.
The boys try to drag the girl to safety, but they're not strong enough. The youngest one is already exhausted, and when both he and the girl start pulling on the older boy, he begins to panic. He's screaming a word over and over again, punctuated with each breath: sa'aduna, sa'aduna, sa'aduna. He's hysterical and using all his oxygen to call to you. Hassan tells you that it means 'help us,' which you had already guessed. Another Iraqi soldier ditches his equipment and dives in to the water, but he gives up and clings to the lip of the pontoon bridge when he realizes that he's going to drown like the first one.
The mother's body has vanished, and the oldest boy keeps screaming and crying to you. His voice is now shriller, the sobbing more pathetic, and the words begin to garble as he swallows water. The younger boy has gone under the river, and the girl continues to flail in the older boy's arms. Her shrieking voice is distinct from all other sounds that you have heard or will ever hear. You remain standing on the bridge.
The boy stops making noise, and there's a hollow absence of sound for few moments before the Iraqi soldiers start shouting again. You can still see the little girl's red dress for a second, but it too disappears. You feel a swelling in your throat like you want to cry or scream or vomit, but you swallow it. Five minutes pass without movement or noise from downriver. The Iraqi soldiers grumble to each other. The soaked one squats on the bridge, eyes furious and downcast. The dead one's rifle lies purposelessly near the soaked one's feet.
Hassan's eyes are red and wet, but you can't tell if it's tears or just sweat. He needs to wear sunglasses, you think. He lights up a cigarette and you take one from him. You don't usually smoke.
When the baby arrived, your wife wanted to have a water birth. She'd read that it was the most natural way – the original way – but neither of you could find a midwife willing to perform it in Clarksville, Tennessee. You were secretly relieved. Your wife had shown you the literature that said it was safe, that the baby still received oxygen through the umbilical cord, but there was a twinge of protective fatherly instinct in you that couldn't bear the thought of your infant daughter spending her first moments helplessly underwater. The Army has taught you to analyze risks with frankness, with an eye towards what will likely happen versus what could possibly happen. You couldn't write an honest assessment for what percentage of your daughter's life you were willing to jeopardize.
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There is now a black dot in a cluster of reeds about two hundred meters downstream. It is likely the mother's body, which means that the currents will probably deposit the children somewhere nearby. They haven't been dead long enough to float, but that will come in time. You're certain of that. You didn't call up any of this information to your company commander. It all happened in less than fifteen minutes. There will be no repercussions upon tonight's return to base. You'll conduct a debrief with an intelligence guy. You'll eat another bagged ration. You'll have to report the drowned Iraqi soldier, but no US leaders will care. The sun will have set and the temperatures will seem indulgently cool simply for dipping below one hundred degrees. It will be the end of another day.
When the Iraqis resume shouting and wailing at you, Hassan translates every exclamation until you tell him to stop.
"Tell them to shut up and do their fucking jobs," you say. It's in a conversational tone. He relays your orders, but they continue to shout and point when they think they see something bobbing in the water, on the odd chance that it might show signs of life.
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