This morning, I spent a couple of hours working over this portion of Gooding's diary and am moderately pleased with the results:
Early morning. Another Groundhog Day in Iraq breaks across the horizon like an egg on a hot skillet.
I run. I take up a light jog, traveling down the dirt service road that passes in front of the chow hall (where I can smell them baking the crème pies for today’s lunch), onto the paved road that follows the shore of Z Lake. Bats swoop overhead, and a childhood memory passes through my head: my parents hosting a barbecue in the back yard, this must have been back in the 60s because my mother’s hair was shellacked and swirled into a little mini-tower on her head—so fashionable!—and my father was still in his sweater-vest phase. They’re all sitting on lawn chairs, scraps of rib bones on paper plates at their feet, cocktails in sweating glasses in their hands, and everyone is laughing about a joke someone just made about Bobby Kennedy, the light draining from the sky as the laughter fades, and then there are bats, bats everywhere!, flickering pieces of dark confetti, and my mother screams because one of the bats—faulty radar, evidently—has flown into her hair-tower and now the dirty little wings are flapping against her forehead, and she screams, “Chance! Chance! Chance!” My father staggers to his feet, but doesn’t make a move to help my mother. He laughs, cruelly, as the wings slap my mother’s face.
These are the precious moments which spangle a writer’s childhood. Until I joined the Army and went to war (wow, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write!), my life was pretty unremarkable. But I tried to capture scraps of memory—my father’s harsh, barking laughter, for instance—and set them down in a document which I’ve tentatively titled “My Life and How I Lived It.”
I run the perimeter of Z Lake, thinking about a short story I wrote years ago, shortly after my wife divorced me, a semi-autobiographical tale which, in my humble opinion, somebody like Raymond Carver or even John Updike would be proud to call their own, a story which began:
Nine months after Wanda Sue left him for a cowboy who’d just broken his back in a rodeo, Charlie enlisted in the Army. In the wake of the divorce, he’d gone through an alcoholic period, drinking a bottle of wine each night as far as it could take him. Then, sure as a cold slap of water, he’d pulled himself out of the tailspin, thought about his crossroads, and made an appointment with a recruiter in the strip mall.
I think about how my own ex-wife, Yolanda, had shown up at my door two nights before I shipped out, driving to Georgia all the way from Reno in what she later said was a sentimental weakness, and invited herself in. I think about how she stood there and said she couldn’t fucking believe I was actually going to war and how, even though we’d been broken up for nearly ten years now and she’d had two husbands in the meantime, she would worry about me every day. I think about how one thing led to another. I think about how I unbuttoned her shirt and how I then buried myself in the familiar valley between her breasts, hiccupping with sobs. The tears came because I was afraid of dying from al-Qaeda bullets, and because I was shocked with joy at Yo’s generosity, and because I hadn’t had sex with anyone but myself for more than three years.
Scenes like that—all good fodder for my novel-to-be.
As I run around the lake, I try not to breathe too deeply or stir the dusty sand too much with my feet. It’s unbearable over here, like walking into a hot attic that hasn’t been swept in years.
The dawn air hangs like a miasma over the FOB, carrying with it something that smells like deep-fried tires, dog shit, and month-old bananas. If I take too much of it into my throat and lungs, I’ll start gagging. It’s still early but already hot, the oxygen thick in my weak Fobbit lungs.
I run. There is a scarf of gray smoke, at least three miles in length, hanging low over the city. The lake laps softly against the reeds on my right. I think about Saddam and his cronies crouched here on the banks, rifles cocked, waiting for the servants to start beating the brush a half-mile away, scaring the wild boars in their direction. Were the bats also under his dictatorial sway? Did they nip the insects from the air around his face, clearing a sting-free zone for his imperial visage? My mouth open and panting, I pass through small clouds of those same bugs and I start choking and spitting.
The sun isn’t even over the horizon and it’s already scorching the earth. I suck hot air and bugs into my lungs. It’s like I put my lips over the muzzle of a hair dryer. Between the gnats and the hot-lung air, I feel like cutting the run short, sneaking back to my hooch after only a half-mile, cheating myself out of a better score on the semi-annual PT test. But then I hear the scuff of approaching feet from behind me. A tubby officer I recognize from another brigade—a chaplain, I think—passes me, all glistening sweat, swollen stomach, and Aqua-Velva. “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya,” he calls out. His gray Army T-shirt ripples with fat. Between breaths, I grunt a “Morning, sir.” With great effort, he digs deep and kicks into a sprint, leaving me behind in no time. He must have smelled the crème pies back at the chow hall.
I decide to press on, waste as much time as possible circling Saddam’s alphabetical lake. I’m due at the palace in an hour, but I try to push it off as long as possible. Just more of the same waiting for me at the cubicle: churning out more tree-killing reams of press releases for jolly ol’ Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad.
The division task force is now heavily engaged in an offensive against the terrorists, called Operation Squeeze Play. I should mention that a tactical operation is not a tactical operation until it has been christened with a code word. There are entire offices in the Pentagon and here in Iraq whose job it is to sit around and come up with clever names like Operation Righteous Fury or Operation Coffin Nail. Once, during cold and flu season, one of our brigade commanders came up with Operation Influenza and Operation Barking Cough.
Not long ago, I read a Washington Post article talking about this practice of name-branding modern war. Here’s part of what the article said (it’s too perfect not to eventually include it in my novel somehow):
In Iraq and Afghanistan, most operation names are for relatively small missions--hunting for insurgents or weapons caches--many of which are named by low-ranking field officers who have little time or inclination to worry about public scrutiny. The names they choose range from the ominous (Operation Black Typhoon) to the curious (Operation Tangerine Squeeze) to the mysterious (Operation Soprano Sunset--something to do with the fat lady singing, perhaps?).
When Army Capt. Jim Page of the 101st Airborne Division was tasked with nicknaming a training exercise before the invasion of Iraq--even practice runs get a moniker--he borrowed from the unit's hallowed history, adding a little modern spice for young soldiers.
The result, Operation Bastogne Smackdown, awkwardly combined a heroic World War II battle and the glossy shtick of cable TV wrestling, but it "sounded cool," he said. And it took with the rank and file, who soon were joking about how they were going to "layeth the smacketh down."
Now it’s summer and so the operation-namers in Task Force-Baghdad Headquarters are commemorating it with baseball-themed titles (Operation Babe Ruth, Operation Khadhimiya Shortstop, Operation Home Plate). At last count, we’d rounded up more than 400 bad guys in two days thanks to Operation Squeeze Play. Of course, not all of them are guilty of crimes—there is a certain amount of collateral damage when we make these raids and trap insurgents in our net, sometimes we pick up a few innocents along the way…to whom we later apologize and send on their merry way. Yesterday alone, I put out three press releases on Squeeze Play and the media started calling when they read that one raid on a house in Mansour turned up $6 million in cash—stacks and stacks and stacks of $100 U.S. bills. I had pictures—unreleasable and stored on my hard drive—of American soldiers grinning and pointing at the loot. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, having spent the entire time going back and forth from my computer answering media queries via e-mail and being interviewed on the phone. Most days, it’s like running on a treadmill. And every day is the same. Groundhog Day redux.
I round the lake and start my second lap. Sparrows the color of dust flit around my feet, mourning doves coo above my head in the trees. Behind me, somewhere in the city’s northeast sector, an IED explosion shivers the morning air. The dust-colored birds take flight and flee the area. I run faster, the air cooling by degrees as I go.
The thud of the explosion makes me think of my first introduction to what life would be like over here. Minutes after we landed in Kuwait, we were herded into a large briefing tent. The wind outside sucked at the walls, making them billow in and out like the tent itself was breathing. We all stuck close to each other, shuffling along in quiet, orderly lines which snaked all around the tent. Our ID cards were swiped on an electronic machine which emitted a green light and a beep, indicating that, yes, we were officially logged into the system as new arrivals. We were directed to sit on wooden benches, then we were lectured for two hours on financial benefits, the all-hours availability of the chaplain who was ready to discuss anything no matter how trivial or silly we thought it might be (coveting thy neighbor's night-vision goggles, for instance), the supreme importance of personal hygiene and a detailed PowerPoint presentation on how to spot IEDs. At the end of the two hours, the Welcome-to-War staff played a video greeting from the Corps Commander who said, in the most stone-sober voice, “Make no mistake about it, Soldier, when you stepped off the plane, you were in a combat zone—even here in Kuwait. We’re in a danger zone even right now. Look around you. Threats lurk everywhere. You must rehearse, recon, and pull security whenever crossing a danger area. The enemy is smart, he is wily, he is adaptive. He can—and will—change his tactics at a moment’s notice. We’ve learned a lot from him in these past two years. The enemy we faced at the start of 2004 is not the same enemy we faced six months ago and that enemy is not the same one we deal with today. We must be flexible in our defensive posture. IEDs can be behind rocks, in boxes, bags, soda cans, trash, dead animals and empty MRE cases. For your safety and the good order and discipline of the Corps, each of you must have a battle buddy wherever you go.”
Well guess what, General Ding-Dong? The battle-buddy rule has been blatantly ignored since we arrived in Baghdad. We’re all on different schedules, working clock-busting shifts, and no one wants to wait for a “buddy” to be available when they have to take a crap, or grab a quick dinner, or go on an early-morning run like this. The relative security of the FOB has made us relax the sphincter a little bit. We honestly don’t see the need to buddy-up around here.
All well and good, but then something happens and soon you start re-thinking the definition of words like caution and battle buddies.
Take this morning, for instance. I’m rounding the final corner of the lake when a pickup truck swerves into sight, the back loaded with Local Nationals in blue jumpsuits. These are the gardeners, the janitors, the cooks, the brick-layers, the road crews who’ve applied for special permits to work on FOB Triumph and who go through a two-hour security screening at the checkpoint every morning before they’re delivered to their work stations across the camp. The men sway back and forth in the bed of the truck. No one looks anyone else in the eye, no one speaks.
The pickup barrels down the dirt road toward me. Through the dusty windshield, I can see the driver’s white knuckles clenching the steering wheel. My imagination spins and I don’t like the way that truck is swerving. All at once, I’m convinced those Iraqis have smuggled weapons past the guards at the checkpoints. Yes, they have that look about them. Shifty, no-good bastards. I picture them raising their AK-47s and firing in my direction. I cannot dodge fast enough. I take a bullet in my thigh and crumple to the ground. I have the good sense to roll off the road, down the bank and into the lake. The water is hot and slimy against my bare legs. I hide among the reeds, bleeding into the water, until I think they’ve gone. If they come after me, beating the reeds to find my body, I will lie still as death, praying they don’t pump another round of bullets into my body. The water laps against me like a hot, salty tongue. When I finally rise from the lake and get back on the road, I take off my PT shirt and tie a tourniquet around my leg. I wonder how long it will be before another morning jogger makes his way to this side of the lake. Maybe it will be one of those female finance clerks—the blonde one in particular, who wasn’t half-bad looking and, I’m certain, gave me a wink when I went to the cashier’s cage to withdraw some advance pay last week—and she will come bouncing along with her friend, the brunette (camp regulations mandate that females always travel in pairs, for us males it’s only “highly encouraged”). They might not even see my bleeding leg at first and I will have to wave them down, catch their attention somehow; maybe I’ll even have to do a fake-faint there in the middle of the road. But eventually they’ll have to stop, right? And they’ll ooo-and-ahh when they see the blood-pulsing wound and they’ll bend down over me, the brunette applying steady pressure while the blonde gives me mouth to mouth. If I’m lucky, she’ll slip me a little tongue.
The truck passes in a swirl of dust and the Local Nationals stare back at me with dead expressions that are neither hostile nor happy, just dead.
I choke on the truck dust, embarrassed by my fantasies, but relieved that I’m still alive to write about them.
I run, rounding the final stretch of the road toward my hooch. My legs are not bleeding, but they do ache with the eight miles they have just lapped around the lake. Kingfishers call from their perch in the lakeside trees, as if taunting me, then take off across the water, swooping in swags of flight. They follow me all the way back to my hooch, mocking me with sing-song trills until I find a couple of loose pebbles to fire in their direction.
Endorphins pumping, I get all Biblical for a moment. Consider the sparrows: what have they got to worry about? It’s not like they have to spend the next 14 hours pecking out press releases that no one will read.
Yes, the Fobbit life is a hard one. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no enemy mortar…but I shall tremble at the thought of paper cuts.
Pity the Fobbit. His life here in the Shire is unbearable with the oppression of buzzing fluorescent lights and the torment of idiotic staff officers who believe in the Good Idea Fairy.
I just hope they don’t run out of crème pies at the chow hall today.