My boss, Lieutenant Colonel W________tells me about an idea the command group has been floating around lately: to have the Third Country Nationals (the low-paid foreign workers outsourced by military contractors) eat at different times than the soldiers in the chow hall. “It’s a Force Protection issue,” he said. “Evidently, they’re worried something might happen.”
For about the millionth time since I’ve been over here, I think back to the Mosul dining facility and the shattered tangle of chairs, tables, bones, flesh and blood. In that suicide bombing on Dec. 21, 2004, a terrorist wearing a vest packed with explosives slipped unnoticed into a chow-hall line on the U.S. military base and killed 22 people, wounded 66.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” someone else says. Several of us from Public Affairs and Information Operations are standing around in a circle when W________ is telling us this.
“Wait’ll you hear their first idea,” he says. “They wanted to build a blast wall running down the middle of the chow hall—”
“You mean inside?” I ask.
“Yes, a wall inside the chow hall, separating it into two sides and segregating the diners—one area for civilians, one area for soldiers.”
“Gee,” someone else says, “why don’t we just bring back the Jim Crow laws?”
W________ says they’re just ideas at this point and probably nothing will come of them.**
* * * * *
Yesterday, LTC W________ came down from the command group offices—not unlike Moses descending with two stone tablets in his hands—and told me the Commanding General wanted two specific press releases written: one on operational successes of the past 48 hours, the other on Operation National Unity—the name for the Iraqi-U.S. combat ops we’ve been conducting in the city since Sept. 29. “He wants us to show our success in finding IEDs before they go off, weapons caches we’ve found, and terrorists we’ve detained. He also wants us to show how terrorists have failed in their efforts to derail the democratic process.”
I practically had the press releases written before he finished talking. All I needed was the data to back up whatever propaganda I wrote.
I spent most of yesterday writing the 48-hour story, citing numerous instances of terrorist failures (of which there were almost too many to choose from) in just one 24-hour period alone (Nov. 11). That release was eventually blessed by LTC W________, Colonel G_____ and Colonel “Laser Eyes” B______ (the trifecta of approval my press releases must now clear before being sent out to the media). I released it early this morning.
Today, I spent at least five hours working on the big-picture operational successes, writing things like, Though there have been isolated incidents of suicide bombers carrying out attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces, military officials said the number of vehicle-borne IEDs detonated by terrorists has decreased during Operation National Unity and By maintaining a steady, visible presence on Baghdad streets with their combat patrols, Maj. Gen. William Webster said Iraqi and U.S. forces send a message both to terrorists (‘we’re vigilant and will not tolerate insurgent activity’) and to local residents (‘we’re here to protect you and clean up the neighborhood’).
I wrote and rewrote. I tweaked, and then tweaked some more. I patted, I molded, I baked it to perfection, until I was happy with it, LTC W________ was pleased and COL G_____ thought it was just what the CG ordered. W________ took it upstairs (Moses ascending the mountain again) around dinnertime. Two hours later, he came back down and handed it to me. The Chief of Staff—the hard-to-please COL B_____ whose laser-beam eyes penetrated any bullshit and called it for what it was without bothering to consider anyone’s feelings in the process—had scrawled two words in red ink across the front of the release. “Good Work.”
“You’ve grabbed the brass ring,” W________ said. “The Chief loved it.”
“Wow,” was all I could say.
I thought to myself, I oughta frame this—it’s as rare as the Virgin Mary appearing on a grilled-cheese sandwich.
LTC W________ had to disappear upstairs again for something else and when he came down a few minutes later, he told me, “The Chief told me once again what a good job you did on that press release.”
“Gee, sir. Now I can go to sleep tonight with a smile on my face.”
W________ chuckled. “Yeah, that’s the closest you’re gonna get to an orgasm over here—the chief giving you a compliment like that.”
* * * * *
Walking home tonight, still glowing from the Chief of Staff’s compliments, I trudge through the gravel, which is now nearly ankle-deep. The KBR dump trucks have been dropping loads of rock in the Life Support Area in anticipation of the flood months. It's a pain in the ass because not only will the gravel not keep us dry during the coming monsoons, they make walking a real chore now. We're like cartoons struggling to cross a slippery floor. The rocks are oiled marbles under my boots and it’s tough going as I work my way back to the trailer. I put my head down and lean forward, as if I’m wading through deep snow in a Montana blizzard.
I’m almost to my trailer when I hear what at first sounds like a crowd of girls whooping over a joke or perhaps a game of pickup basketball. I stop and listen. No, the sound is overhead, dopplering from right to left. Now it sounds like a pack of coyotes howling and running across the sky. Eventually, by the time the high-pitched howling-yowling-honking disappears and dissipates somewhere near the western horizon, I realize it was a flock of birds crying as they winged overhead. Just as their mournful voices vanish, I hear a muted thud-boom behind me. Somewhere in western Baghdad, an IED has just gone off.
The timing seems too perfect to be coincidental. Did the birds feel the coming explosion and take to the sky? Did they anticipate it, just as dogs sense earthquakes before the ground splits apart?
I’m still staring up at the star-spangled sky and now I start to think about how lovely it looks. The deep blue-black velvet. The glittering pricks of white light. The fingernail of moon. I stand there, ankle-deep in gravel, the thunder of a bomb still echoing through the city, and I think of Jean back in Georgia stepping out onto the porch and looking up at the same sky, the same stars, the same moon. Perhaps she, too, hears the sad sob of a bird flying across the blue of dark.
*I wasn't keeping a mil-blog in 2005 (hell, I didn't even know how to spell "blog" back then), so in a sense I guess you could consider these backward-glancing journal excerpts a "live" blog, with a five-year delay.
**To the best of my knowledge, nothing ever did.