Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Billboard of Fiction

While serving in Iraq five years ago, I knew I was onto something good, writer-wise.  This is the stuff of novels, I thought every day when I woke up.  You just can't make this shit up.  The deployment was handing me a book and, after 17 aimless years in the Army spent trying to figure out my purpose in the Military Machine, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.

If this sounds callous and self-serving, I apologize.  It's not my intent to trivialize war and death.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I'm trying to understand why I was in that country for a year and, in the bigger picture, why we as a country invaded, occupied, and stayed long after the welcome mat was yanked away.  Sure, I could write a memoir--and it would join the hundreds of others saturating the market right now--but for some reason, I need to filter my deployment experience through a novel.  It's only by painting on the billboard of fiction that I can make sense of what I saw over there.

Like one of Fobbit's characters, Chance Gooding Jr., I kept a daily journal during my year in Iraq.  The writing was intense and exhausting, leaving me little time for anything else in my down-time, but I knew I needed to capture as much of what surrounded me there in Camp Liberty (aka Fobbitville) as I could.

Later, bits and pieces of what I recorded found their way into the novel--sometimes verbatim, sometimes transmogrified by the imagination. Here is a typical journal entry, exactly five years ago to this day (I've changed some names to protect the innocent):

May 30, 2005:  I’m pulling sergeant of the guard duty again tonight—and plan to make some headway in Don Quixote while making sure everyone in our Trailer City can get a safe, restful night’s sleep.  My runner is a young, smiley-faced kid from the Judge Advocate General's office named Specialist Rizzuto—I knew him down in Kuwait but haven’t seen much of him since moving up here.  He’s telling me all about his work—“I work in post-trial” (whatever that means)—and how he and the JAG colonel have had to roam the streets of Baghdad looking for witnesses to testify at courts martial.  “I’ll tell ya, sergeant, we go places that most military convoys never dreamed of going.  We’re going down to neighborhoods which have never seen Americans before and they’re staring at us like we’re from another world.  And then one time last week we ran into an anti-American demonstration.”

“Hoo, boy,” I said.

“We turned tail and got out of there fast!”

Rizzuto tells me of other trials:  “We just got done sentencing a soldier to life in prison.  Pre-meditated murder of a local national.”

“Really?”  My eyebrows raise.  “I didn’t hear about that.”

“Nobody did.  It’s not like it was kept hush-hush or nothing.  But for some reason, nobody heard about it.  Just like they don’t hear about all those senior people who are getting busted, like E-7s and above who are getting court-martialed for all kinds of stuff.  Drunk and disorderlies—”

“Hold on,” I interrupt.  “Where are they getting this stuff?”

Rizzuto gives me a winkly little smile.  “Aw, come on, sergeant.  It’s out there for people to get.  Mostly KBR contractors—they’re the ones who’ll hook you up.”

“Man, that’s just stupid.”

“Speaking of stupid.  We had one sergeant first class in one of the brigades who got a little too…celebratory during the NCAA playoffs and he was going around to all the rooms.  Drunk and butt naked.”

* * *

Last night, at 10:00, I was lying on my bed reading Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three and listening to Mozart on my headphones when I was jolted out of bed by a trailer-rattling BOOM.  I looked at my watch.  Awfully late for the terrorists; they’re usually off shift by now.  With the latest crackdown—the U.S. offensive called Operation Squeeze Play and the Iraqi offensive called Operation Lightning (Al-Barq)—I guess the terrorists are getting desperate….or more wily.

Six hours earlier, the insurgents launched an assault on the Baghdad Major Crimes Unit facility, where a lot of detainees are being kept.  They’d hoped to be able to spring their brothers in evil.  They attacked the MCU barracks with small-arms fire and RPGs, taking the Iraqi Police by surprise (though they quickly regrouped and started firing back).  Around the same time, they set off Improvised Explosive Devices and Vehicle-Borne IEDs at four different locations around the neighborhood, hoping to frustrate US efforts to come in and back up the besieged IPs.  We could hear all the chatter over the loudspeaker as it was unfolding.  At one point, one of the commanders radioed in, saying, “The IPs report they’re running out of bullets.”

That’s when I sat up and really started to pay attention.  This was like some crazy movie unfolding all around us.

The loudspeaker squawked again a few minutes later:  “The observation tower at Checkpoint 5 reports a large group of armed individuals—all dressed in black—moving toward BIAP.”

I pictured the black-clad jihadists jogging toward the airport.  If they conquered Baghdad International Airport, they’d easily move on into Camp Liberty.

A few minutes later, the threat had passed.  Nothing that a few well-aimed American bullets couldn’t take care of.

Eventually, reinforcements made it to the MCU facility and law and order was restored.

The smoke still hadn’t cleared when a sergeant major back in the Provost Marshal’s Office told me, “I don’t know what the final BDA (Battle Damage Assessment) is going to be, but it doesn’t look good for the terrorists.”

But now, at 10 p.m., this IED is loud enough to make me put my shoes on and step outside on my porch.  Above the gurgling hum of my air conditioning unit, I hear small-arms fire coming from just on the other side of Signal Hill.  Two red tracer bullets arc into the air like a tiny, out-of-season fireworks display.  I stand there listening to the near-distant brrrrrap! brrrrrap! of the .50-caliber machine guns.  I look around and see others standing out there, too—the orange fireflies of cigarettes glowing in the dark.  After five minutes, I go take a piss then return to my novel and, eventually fall into fitful sleep.

At the G-3 Sergeant Major’s meeting today, he tells us, “Just so you know, Tigerland got hit with a rocket last night.”

Tigerland is the area of Camp Liberty adjacent to our division headquarters.

“Somebody did get injured, but he’s okay—only minor wounds.  Still, scary for him and everybody around him on Tigerland.”

There is a moment of silence, then everyone else starts telling stories of what they’ve heard.

“Capt. Zipperer had a 7.62 round come through his roof last week.  When he woke up, there was the round sitting on the floor of his hootch.”

“I heard there was a rocket fired at a C-130 as it was taking off from BIAP last night.”

“Did you all hear the firefight at Temple Gate last night?  It must have gone on for a hour, hour-and-a-half.”

And then there was the specialist who was found on the ground near his unit’s motor pool, a bullet in his head.  His roommate found the body.  We’re still not sure what happened, but it’s likely one of two things: suicide or murder.  It’s strange to think of such a thing as good ole American homicide while we’re over here in a war zone.

Overall, though, today was the same-old, same-old. IED here, VBIED there. Here’s a typical Significant Activity report:


Something about that severed hand, though, makes me choke with pity.  Don’t these terrorists know they’re literally wasting their lives?  At least twice today, VBIEDs blew up “before they reached their objective.”  I hope they enjoy their 70 virgins because their deaths didn’t accomplish anything here, apart from making a few new road craters which Iraqi workers have to come repair.  I picture one of those local Iraqi workers picking up that sole-surviving hand.  Does he treat it with gentle pity?  Or, angry and bitter, does he mash it beneath the heel of his boot?

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