The first night I almost died in Iraq, I had retreated to my bed on the rooftop of the school. I was looking into the clear night sky as my eyelids grew heavier. Just before I hit sleep, Sergeant Stanton’s head poked my field of vision like a jump-scare from some awful horror movie. He had a devilish and excited glint in his eye.
“Hey, hey, wake up, Smith,” he said.
I looked at him like he was crazy.
“Hey, Sergeant Stanton, I was just trying to get some sleep before my guard shift at 2 a.m.
“We’re going out, man. I’m gonna take the team out on patrol.”
My heart dropped. This motherfucker was about to kill yet another night of sleep for me.
“Why? Is something going on?”
“There’s nothing going on, and we’re gonna keep it that way. And since when the fuck do you ask questions, Specialist? Be down at the gate in five.”
“Roger that, Sergeant.”
As soon as Stanton was safely out of earshot, I privately grumbled to myself. If there was no trouble, this asshole was sure as hell gonna try to find some. I put on my gear and headed out to the gate.
The night was calm and eerily quiet. I couldn’t allow myself to get too comfortable seeing as how insurgents could always come from anywhere at anytime. When I thought about that, the insurgents striking, it made me curse the utter ineptitude of the entire operation. I mean, here is an entire company of American soldiers in a violent city in a hostile country, and every one of the locals knows exactly where we’re all staged. You can set a clock to the rotation that we do between the school and grain factory, and of course we all stage at the train station for meals at virtually the same time every day.
There were five of us out that night, with Stanton, of course, leading the way. The evening was deathly silent, punctuated only by the steady clop, clop, clop of Howard’s gear moving and shifting around his substantial frame as he walked down the street. I was rear man, and I made sure that I covered the back as we moved through the streets. After about an hour of walking, we turned around. I felt a deep sense of relief because it seemed like we were heading back. Instead, we copped a squat in the middle of the street, with Stanton and Thompson at the lead and myself and Howard bringing up the rear. I looked around at all the houses that surrounded us on this desolate street, and again felt exposed. Every shadow that passed by a window seemed like a potential threat. The rustling of the bush around us had the potential to be an insurgent who could send a grenade into the middle of our formation, killing us all. I looked over at Howard. I could see the pained look on his face by light of the moon’s reflection. He looked over at me, fuming.
“Man, I’m so fucking sick of this shit,” he whispered, barely audible.
“You know what I wanna do? What I really want? I just wanna get the fuck out of here and go back to Texas, man. I could get a good fucking job back in Texas, especially with four years in.”
I looked at him, and saw in his eyes that he was both furious and frightened.
“I know you wanna be college boy and shit, but I just wanna go back to Texas,” he said. Thompson looked back at us.
“Hey, guys, come in, Sarge wants to talk.”
We all moved in. Stanton leaned in, presumably doing his best impersonation of whatever action movie he wanted to re-enact this week.
“We’re gonna move out across that field right by the school. One of the informants says there may be an insurgent over there in that apartment building. They may be running weapons and shit. We’re just gonna go and check it out, then we’ll go back. Roger?”
I shot a worried glance over to the desolate building that overlooked the dark field just down the road from us. I looked back at Stanton, who to my surprise was looking directly at me. His expression was disdainful and resentful. He couldn’t imagine why the potential exposure to some action wouldn’t be as exciting to me as it obviously was to him. Stanton stood up and rearranged his gear, poking his chest out in an odd gesture of defiance. He headed down the road as Thompson, Lantos, Thornden, Howard and I hurried behind him.
The grass in the field was long and thick. The silence of the night was punctuated only by the small crunching of various branches under our feet. We moved closer to a medium-sized block of houses surrounded by a huge wall. I noticed people going about their business in their homes, with no idea that a squad of infantrymen was moving in on their location. It was late, so very few of the lights were on. I could faintly make out the ones who were still awake moving around the house, perhaps getting a midnight snack or watching a little TV before bed. There goes stupid me again, humanizing them. When I first got to Iraq, I overheard one of the COs saying something I never forgot. He was about twenty years past his glory days and took it upon himself to bestow some wisdom upon the sergeants and squad leaders whenever he got a chance.
“Now don’t you be one of those—we are the world—pussies that thinks Hajji is a fuckin’ person and shit. That motherfucker—all those motherfuckers—would slit your fuckin’ throat just as soon as they would look at you, and don’t you ever forget it.”
I instinctively knew that humanizing them made me weaker, but I couldn’t help it. They were human beings, and they couldn’t all be evil. I wondered if it were easier for the white soldiers to see them as something less than human because it reinforced how some of them already secretly felt about anybody who wasn’t white. The Army’s casual racism was something I’d experienced since my first day of basic training and continued in some way, shape, or form throughout my entire experience. In the units it manifested itself with the majority white platoon sergeants, company commanders, and squad leaders exerting power and authority over lower ranked soldiers of all colors, but over here it was different. It was literally us versus them, and it just so happened that I was on the side of the us that was mostly white. It was hard for me to call them Hajji to dehumanize them, because I knew that, in another era, some of the same people I served would probably have called me nigger to do the same to me.
I was jerked back into the present when I saw Stanton’s arm shoot up with his fist enclosed. It was the stop signal. We all took a knee, and Stanton leaned in.
“Cover me. I’m gonna hop up on this wall and take a closer look,” he whispered.
We all took our positions covering Sergeant Stanton as he shimmied his lean, muscular frame to the top of the seven-foot wall. As I looked above him, I could see the house maybe fifteen or twenty feet just past the wall. There was a figure moving on the roof. I could see the shadow pacing frantically, illuminated only by the brightness of the moon and the reflections of the other lights in the adjacent houses. Flashes of gunfire lit up the night and the idyllic silence was shattered by their deafening shots. It sounded like a shotgun, fired in rapid succession over the wall and over our heads.
Everything was happening at a rapid-fire pace. I felt beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. My first gut reaction was to aim my M249 machine gun over the wall and Sergeant Stanton’s head to return fire. I didn’t because it was too dangerous and I couldn’t see him. I noticed Sergeant Stanton running rapidly in our direction, as we moved up into line formation to fire. He dropped immediately to the left of Lantos, who was the last man on line. Stanton was sweaty, exhilarated, and insane.
“Return fire! Return fucking fire in that direction!” he screamed.
I cleared my chamber and began firing ten to fifteen round bursts in the direction of the target. The sounds of weapons firing filled the air, as the entire squad was firing. The smell of the weapon fire burned my nostrils like strong smelling salts. It caused my eyes to water. I could hear the sizzle of my own burning flesh as the white-hot bullet casings bounced off of the backs of my hands while I fired multiple bursts. I wondered if this is what every night was like for the soldiers stationed in more hostile sections of the country.
All the days we spent watching the sun set and all the great talks I had with my platoon mates shifted sharply into another focus. We were at war, and no amount of daydreaming could take me out of this reality now. I heard something ricochet from the ground to the right of me. I couldn’t tell whether it was an enemy bullet or one of my empty casings. Everything was happening simultaneously. I felt the adrenaline flowing through my body, tightening my bones, and setting my eyes in the direction of the gunfire. It was coming from the building we were watching.
“All right, cease fire, cease fire! We’re gonna move back and cover each other when we go. Smith, Lantos, and Howard go now!” he screamed.
Though I couldn’t see his face, I heard the smile in his voice. Howard, Lantos and I remained as low to the ground as possible and ran back about twenty feet while Stanton and Thompson fired. To my right, I saw tanks roaring out of the gate at the old school where the rest of the platoon was staged. Their headlights bounced up and down as the tanks moved recklessly across the uneven terrain. In the neighborhood just beyond them, lights were starting to flicker on in various houses. Howard, Lantos and I plopped down in position, weapons aimed squarely at the direction of fire.
“Go, go!” I yelled to Stanton and Thompson.
I fired more bursts in the enemy direction. As they ran toward us, I saw the insurgent staged at a higher point in the house. I took aim, and fired. I grappled with the fact that I might kill him as he certainly tried to kill me. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to take his life.
One of our platoon’s tanks roared into the field and parked less than ten feet behind us, lowering the backdoor so we could enter. Stanton and Thompson plopped down. Stanton motioned furiously toward the tank. We all rushed in, and the door closed behind us. We all sat crammed into the back of the vehicle. I was stunned. My helmet was cocked halfway on my head and my eyes were focused directly forward. They were stinging from the sweat that was pouring into them. Voices shouted around me, but they sounded muffled, distorted, and distant. I was trying to make some sense of what had just happened, but it wasn’t coming to me. All I knew is that it was over for now. The next thing I knew, Sergeant Stanton was on me, pushing into my chest with what felt like the weight of a Mack Truck. We were face to face, the distance in my eyes no match for the focused intensity of his.
“Smith! Christ, wake the fuck up! Are you hit?” he screamed. As I looked into his eyes, I felt disoriented, as I’d just awoken from a nap. Not waiting for an answer, he continued to pat me down roughly, checking my arms, chest, and legs for any signs of being shot. I could see Thompson doing the same to Howard, who looked as equally shaken up. Lantos and I locked eyes briefly, and his fear mirrored mine as he lifted his hands up, giving everyone the all clear.
I realized that this was real life, not Band of Brothers or another one of those war movies they seemed to show endlessly during basic training. In those movies there were always winners and losers, heroes and villains. Things were cut and dry. They were always simple and easy. You would never put your brothers in harm’s way. You would be willing to nobly sacrifice your life for theirs if the situation called for it. As it turns out, things weren’t quite so simple in real life. There was a murky definition over who exactly were the heroes and villains of this situation. I wasn’t sure what we were doing here.
“All good, Sarge,” I said blankly to Stanton.
I looked out of the windows of the dark, hot tank and saw the rest of the platoon tanks lining up in formation right outside of this small neighborhood of homes. The rest of the company had joined us. We were staged on the small complex of houses and apartments, ready to move in. Lights were coming on in the different buildings around the complex and people were tittering around. I wondered if we had stumbled upon some sort of rogue insurgent headquarters. Perhaps it was a meeting and training area for anti-American forces that belied the peaceful feeling of the neighborhood. I hoped that we would find illegal weapons or a plan for an attack on our local bases. I hoped that we would find something that would make the upcoming onslaught of one hundred company soldiers into all of their homes and bedrooms in the middle of the night worthwhile and valid.
I stood guard with the rest of the squad at the very place where bullets had just been flying at us. The tanks in the company roared ahead. It was nearly 4 a.m. The light of the approaching tanks’ headlights mixed with the early glow of dawn to create a strange color in the sky. There were times when I would catch the sun rising or setting, or just look off into the distance and wonder how a place so brutal and ugly could be so strangely beautiful.
Howard, Lantos, and I were still a little stunned. Thompson looked indifferent, but Stanton gazed longingly at the soldiers of the company descending upon the various houses and apartments of the complex that housed the suspected insurgents. Doors were kicked in, beds and couches were flipped and searched. A flurry of brightly colored hijabs started to flow out of the buildings as women and children were forced to the sidelines. The soldiers took a more hands-on approach with the men, any of which could’ve been our shooter. The sounds of the idle engines, some faraway soldiers giving orders, and the cries of the women and children combined to create a bizarre symphony of chaos.
We stood guard like this for about thirty minutes as the rest of the soldiers rounded up the people who were just a few hours ago sound asleep in their homes. Our first sergeant approached Sergeant Stanton to update him. First Sergeant Williams was a big, brawny good-old boy from the Deep South. His cheerful demeanor camouflaged any sense of threat that would come from his bulk, at least with us. He spit out some chewing tobacco on the ground near him and shuffled over. His sizable stomach was spilling over his utility belt. Stanton perked up to meet him. He leaned in to speak to him in a near-whisper. I stood up, hyper-alert to be guarding the surroundings as I covertly angled myself to try to hear every word.
“We’ve got nothing. A few AK-47s, but nothing indicating any more than household weapons they’re allowed to have. It’s martial law here, y’know. You said you were walking and they just started shooting?” he asked.
Stanton shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, that’s what happened.”
First Sergeant Williams looked him up and down cautiously.
“Uh huh. The interpreter says that Hajji thought you boys were robbers and not soldiers.
Seems one of you was trying to hop over the wall.”
Stanton stayed silent. Williams leaned in and lowered his voice even more.
“Look, I’m not sayin’ you boys can’t have a little fun every so often. Do your patrols, walk around, whatever, but I’ve got the higher-ups leanin’ on me about community relations and shit, wonderin’ why these motherfuckers hate us so much. Shit like this doesn’t help, especially when I’ve got shit for contraband to prove these fuckers were up to anything.”
Stanton glanced at Williams defiantly. “Oh, so now we’re in a popularity contest? I thought it was a fuckin’ war.”
Williams leaned in even closer and brought his voice down even lower, almost to a whisper. “Watch it, Soldier, or I’ll have those fuckin’ stripes taken off you so fast it’ll make your head spin.”
The yells came from an anonymous soldier inside the complex, effectively breaking up the battle of wits between Stanton and Williams. The first sergeant turned away and headed into the complex, breaking eye contact only when his back was completely to the group. I snapped back to hyper-soldier mode, guarding the area from the imaginary enemy. I was trying desperately not to give off any clues that I heard any of the conversation that just happened. Stanton moved to the front of us and eyed me suspiciously. He turned to me. He was close enough for me to smell the odor that came from a mixture of week-old clothes and flop sweat from the night’s activities. He looked at me with a mixture of disapproval and anger. He leaned in so that nobody else in the squad could hear him.
“You get all that, Smith?”
He leaned back out, and our eyes met, mine filled with fear and his with anger and defiance. He turned away, and motioned for the squad to follow him into the complex.
We walked into a sea of scared, fearful faces. The soldiers of the company stood guard around the men and women who lived in the complex. A table filled with the seized contraband separated them. It wasn’t much, perhaps five or six AK-47s and a few rounds of magazine ammo. We had been briefed upon arrival in Iraq that the country and its people had been living under a state of martial law since the ending of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The amount of weapons and ammo confiscated from such a large number of homes was perfectly normal, or as normal as can be expected from people trying to live in the middle of a war zone. I walked into the courtyard area behind the squad, and stood silent as Stanton talked to yet another higher-up about the situation. This time, I didn’t listen. I didn’t care. I was too focused on the faces of the people in the complex.
The women clung protectively to their children, most of whom were scared and crying. The wailing voices of the children created a disturbing, almost unbearable symphony of pain. They sat in the dirt, leaning up against the buildings. Some were scrambling to fix their hijabs, for fear of violating their religious beliefs and letting us see what lay beneath. In their eyes I could see fear and sadness, and when they spoke Arabic to one another, it was mostly through choked back tears. I felt like an intruder, questioning for the millionth time. The turn of events that led me to Iraq, where I had spent more time invading the homes of the innocent than I had spent actually fighting insurgents.
I glanced over to the Iraqi men. I locked eyes with one, he flashed me the most hateful look I had ever seen in my life. It was filled with rage, anger, and utter and complete contempt. He was lined up against a wall with the rest of the men. He wore a t-shirt with old jeans and bare feet. If there were ever a propaganda photo to be taken of what the enemy looks like, I’m pretty sure he would be it. His intense gaze made me uncomfortable. It was enough to make me look away. I could still feel his eyes on me.
I wondered what he thought of me. I wondered if he thought the color of my skin made me some sort of traitor. Perhaps he thought he could hate me with more passion than the white soldiers from whom this sort of behavior was to be expected. I thought about this intently as the soldiers started to leave.
Although the weapons cache found wasn’t anymore than can normally be expected during Martial Law, another platoon still detained eight of the male members of the households where the weapons were found for questioning. We took them to the school to be held before being transported to the nearest staging area with military police. For two hours, as that late morning led to early afternoon, I watched some of the soldiers in the company as they took photos with the hooded insurgents, who also had their mouths duct-taped and their wrists bound by makeshift plastic handcuffs. The soldiers laughed, smiled, and gave the thumbs-up sign while doing so. They also stacked the insurgents in two rows and posed in the back of them. Howard and Lantos flanked me, and we stared in slack-jawed awe at what was going on. I was encouraged to join in, and could only muster a quick and sudden shake of my head while I said “no” softly. Howard declined as well, but Lantos eventually joined in, as did Stanton. Seeing the Iraqis treated like that made me feel dirty and disgusted, as if everything that was happening around me was a lie. I knew I couldn’t join in not because of some moral high ground, but because I’d feel disgusted with myself. I knew that what was happening was fundamentally wrong in the most basic sense, but it would take a while for me to figure out just why it bothered me so much. It wasn’t until a year later when I saw the smiles of the soldiers posing with the humiliated detainees in Abu Ghraib that I pieced together what disturbed me so. Their smiles were the same ones I saw from some of the soldiers in my company that day.
Stanton had been eerily quiet since the double-whammy of the fiasco surrounding the attack and the phantom hunt for WMDs that had gone on a few weeks before. Word had gotten out about the circumstances surrounding the so-called attack on third platoon. Sergeant Stanton was being met with whispers and stares, both from lower-level soldiers and other sergeants who didn’t understand his behavior. I got the sense that at least some of the people in the town liked our presence. I sensed that they felt we were doing some good for the country. If we continued invading their space unwarranted it would obviously push the boundaries of their fledgling acceptance of us. It was very important for us not to wear out our welcome. Even I knew that the events of the past few days had not made us any new allies in a small city like Al Riyadh, where word could easily travel quickly.
IT WAS ONLY 9 a.m., but it was already a scorcher. I pulled rear security on the tank as it sped down the road toward the grain factory for our next rotation. My head and upper body were completely exposed to the dangers of being an American soldier on a main road in broad daylight in Iraq. Even though I knew this, I didn’t care. The air was hot but it felt good against my skin. I hungrily devoured it, breathing it in and letting it envelop me. We were notified that we were to stay at the grain factory for the foreseeable future. The rotations between the three staging areas would end. We would still have access to the train station for meals and showers.
After feeling skittish for a few days after the attack in town, I was feeling back to normal again. We approached the gates to the factory. The gates creaked loudly as the soldiers of second platoon opened them for our tanks to come in. Now that we were here to stay, we made ourselves more at home. We placed our sleeping bags on the floors in different rooms of the buildings to provide a buffer from the hard granite floors. Everyone set up their rucksacks, weapons, and gear at the foot of the sleeping areas for quick access. We also converted one into a pantry/rec room where we would pool snacks and leftover food. We watched the lower-quality copies of recent movie releases that we bought for three dollars from the Iraqi kids selling them on the side of the street. We watched them on a portable DVD player the platoon had ordered from the PX at the larger base in Kirkuk. They had internet access, a gym, and a general store in Kirkuk. We could load up on snacks and magazines when we visited once a month.
When the thirty members of the platoon were piled into that one room watching a movie, we were like zombies. All transfixed as the bright shadows from the screen flickered on and off of our faces. Everyone looked forward to those movies because they reminded us of the lives we had back home, and that there was even still a home to go back to. It was a place with blue skies, green grass, and people who spoke our same language. It was a place that was very far from where we were.
During the long days in Iraq, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that there was still civilization out there somewhere. We’d been overseas for only five months, but it felt like a lifetime. Even by watching a shitty DVD bootleg of the summer’s big event movies, we felt like we were experiencing what they were experiencing back home. We were still in the loop. We were still Americans.