Monday, May 31, 2010

"2,000 and counting" (an excerpt)

U.S. Army photo
Normally, I'd resist the urge to write a maudlin post in observance of Memorial Day.  There are plenty of well-meaning websites (complete with the Muzak version of "Some Gave All") and forwarded e-mails from your equally-well-meaning uncle to fill that void.  I purposely tried to avoid writing about Death in a Time of War for this day.

But recent circumstances have practically begged me to do otherwise.  Four days ago, the war in Afghanistan saw its 1,000th casualty.  Born on the 4th of July, Marine Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht was killed when he stepped on a land mine that ripped off his right arm.  His brother told a reporter: "He said he always wanted to die for his country and be remembered.  He didn't want to die having a heart attack or just being an old man. He wanted to die for something."  Unfortunately, history will remember Cpl. Leicht more for the number 1,000 on his corpse than for his qualities as a warrior, brother, and friend.

I was in Baghdad for the 2,000th casualty of the Iraq War.  It was a public affairs nightmare.

And, of course, that provided fodder for the novel I'm currently writing.  Starting with a post from one of the blogs I fabricated for Fobbit, here are a couple of excerpts featuring public affairs officer Lt. Col. Harkleroad.  And, yes, many parts of this do bear more than a passing resemblance to reality.

From the blog A Line in the Sand:

For those of you marking your scorecards at home, that’s the tally as of right now, this instant, this nano-second before the next bomb is detonated, before the next grubby thumb presses down on the remote-controlled cell phone trigger or the next zealous Muslim chanting “Allah Akbar!” steers his car bomb toward a U.S. convoy and some unlucky soldier literally bites the bullet, dubiously privileged with his fifteen minutes of fame as Number 2,000.
But that’s four bodies down the road.
For now, the score hovers at 1,996.
Better mark it in pencil, though.  And have an eraser handy.
The media is drawn like jackals to a watering hole by the number 2,000.  It is a milestone, they say, one to be marked with a top-of-the-fold story.  They love the sensuous curve of the 2 and the plump satisfaction of those triple zeroes, lined up like perfect bullet holes—BAM! BAM! BAM!
2,000 is a number most Americans can hold in their minds and remember the awful waste of this war, this overlong field trip to the desert where we got ourselves tangled in a briar patch and stuck to the tar baby of terrorism.

* * * * *

The number 2,000 had been plaguing Stacie Harkleroad for weeks.  Each day brought a fresh round of tick marks, inching closer and closer to that grand total score of 2,000 American bodies—bullet-riddled, beheaded, and bomb-blown-to-smithereens.

Months ago—what now seemed like years—he had opened the latest issue of USA Today to read:  Fifty-eight American troops died in Iraq in February, the fewest fatalities since 54 died in July 2004, preliminary Pentagon statistics show.  Translating the death count into a daily rate, February’s losses were down sharply from January and less than half those in November, the war’s bloodiest month for U.S. forces.  The February figures raise the total U.S. death toll in the war to 1,490.

Even as Stacie folded the newspaper, bent his head and tucked into his sausage and eggs on that long-ago February morning, the body-o-meter was clicking over to 1,500, thanks to a suicide bomber who rammed his truck into a U.S. checkpoint twenty miles south of Salman Pak.

When Stacie got to his office, booted up his computer and read the e-mail from G-3 Ops, he stared at that figure—the 1 standing at attention, the 5 slouching, the zeros with their empty, shot-out innards.  It was such a nice, perfectly-shaped number—deceptively pretty, falsely clean.  Then he thought about trying to count 1,500 people (heck, let’s not even make it people—say, popsicle sticks, instead) and he realized how hard it would be to count, how exhausting to tally that volume of popsicle sticks.  He was sure he’d lose track halfway through—distracted by the image of sitting on the back porch with his mother, slurping at a Fudgsicle evaporating in the Tennessee heat—and he’d have to start over from the beginning.  One thousand, five hundred.  That was nearly half the number of soldiers in the division.

Now the figure seemed quaint, already antiquated.

An additional 496 bodies--plus another four unlucky souls this morning--had been added to the pile since February and this was rapidly becoming a problem, a whopper of a problem which lay across his shoulders like an iron mantle.

For the last two weeks, the Public Affairs Office had been besieged by phone calls from reporters, begging to be embedded with task force units which had suffered an unusually high body count.  This, the reporters said, would give them a greater chance of being on the scene when number 2,000 meets his (or her) fate.

The reporters are deplorable, yes, but who can blame them? Harkleroad thought.  They are merely fueled by ratings, which in turn are stoked by the American public, who in turn self-righteously deplore the media’s obsession with this grim milestone.  Round and round she goes…

[Later in the novel....]

When Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad learned the identity of Soldier Number 2,000, it caused him increased consternation and prolonged bouts of nose-bleeding.  From Number 1,990 onward, he’d been keeping track with tick-marks on the dry-erase board mounted on the wall next to his desk.

Private Ralph J. Egbert, KIA, Salman Pak.  Tick.
Sergeant First Class Israel Munoz, KIA, Sadr City.  Tick.
Specialist James D. Apgar, KIA, Sadr City.  Tick.
Private Ellis Wheeler Jr., KIA, Mosul.  Tick.
Private First Class Andrew C. Mount, KIA, Mosul.  Tick.
Second Lieutenant Erika Sheridan, KIA, Mosul.  Tick.
Specialist Isaiah D. Washington, KIA, Ramadi.  Tick.
Specialist Aaron L. Karst, KIA, Ramadi.  Tick.
Private Jamie Rosen, KIA, Ramadi.  Tick.

For days, he’d stared at that next blank spot, playing guessing games with gender, rank, location.  If he had his druthers, what would he, Eustace L. Harkleroad, prefer the 2,000th American casualty to be?  A Hispanic sergeant who leaves behind a wife and eight children in El Paso when his humvee hits a bad bump in the road and flips into a canal?  A milk-fed Midwestern boy, so quickly promoted to captain when he was barely five years out of West Point, who burns to a crisp in the back of an armored personnel carrier?  A black female medic stabbed to death by one of her patients, a crazed Local National whose bandages she’d been so lovingly, tenderly, heroically changing as he lay on a cot in the Combat Support Hospital when with a crescendoing growl he reared up, whipped out a boxcutter and sliced her jugular (investigation still pending)?  He prayed to God that Number 2,000 wouldn’t be just another bland, run-of-the-mill death—blah-blah patrol struck an IED in the neighborhood of blah-blah killing Private Joe Blah-Blah.  When it finally came, Harkleroad hoped the last tick mark would have the punch of drama, a heart-tugging story which would bring a misty tear to the eye of even the most callous, hard-drinking reporter in the Associated Press.  America deserved a grand, glorious death to mark this most ignoble of occasions (he could never use that phrase, of course, but he sure liked the sound of it).  “Where are you?” he asked the blank spot on his dry-erase board.  “Who are you?”