Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Fobbit Gets Mortared

Yesterday, while scrolling back through the journal I kept while I was in Baghdad, I came across an interesting entry of an event that has all but faded with time.  On that day seven years ago I found myself in the middle of a mortar rainstorm....

August 7, 2005:  Because the work continued to pile up on my desk in task force headquarters all day long, I wasn’t able to excuse myself to go back to my room until around 6:30 p.m.  I hadn’t eaten anything all day long, so I stopped at the chow hall, grabbed some dinner (lobster and a grilled cheese) and took the food back to my hootch, my tin-can trailer in the Life Support Area.

Two minutes after I walked in the door and had taken my shirt off and was just starting to cool down, the air was split with a short screech-squeal-BOOM.

Ho-ly shit!

This one felt and sounded like it landed on my doorstep.

With trembling fingers and racing mind, I buttoned my shirt back on, grabbed my hat and rifle and poked my head out the door.  All along the row of trailers, men and women in PT uniforms were scurrying around like ants in a stirred-up mound.  No one, it seemed, knew what to do.

Everyone gathered along the row of trailers immediately to the north.  Though I knew there was not safety in numbers, I joined them and looked where they pointed across the road.  Someone said he thought he saw the impact in the parking lot next to the gym.  None of us could see anything at this point.

I was nervous about what might fall from the sky next, so I crept back to my room and tried to enjoy my lobster and grilled cheese.

Later, when I was about to take a shower, a guy came in to take a leak and another guy who was shaving at one of the sinks asked, “Was that a controlled det* I heard a little bit ago?”

“No, that was a mortar.”

“Oh, I wondered.  I knew something woke me out of my sleep.”

“Yeah, it hit the side of the Signal Hill,” the pisser said. “I was in the gym, with my headphones on, and believe me, it was LOUD.  I think a couple of guys crapped their pants because they sure got out of there in a hurry.”

“You’ve gotta hand it to them—they’re getting better,” the shaver said.  “At least now they’re exploding on impact.  Before, either the terrorists would load the rocket into the launcher upside down or else they’d use the wrong kind of fuse, or both.  We used to laugh at them and their stupidity.”

Nobody’s laughing anymore, however.

Later, we heard there were three impacts—one on Signal Hill, one at the motor pool, one near the PX.  All 107-millimeter Chinese rockets.

*          *          *

You'll note the lobster and grilled cheese, of course.  This was the Fobbit's life and, yes, even with seven years' hindsight I'm pricked by Fobbit guilt over the fact that somewhere out there, three miles away on a street in north Baghdad, a soldier pulling security was probably spooning a cold MRE into his mouth at the same time I was savoring the lobster on my tongue.  But that's how life in a war zone can be--the haves have and the have nots get stuck with MREs or smooshed Hostess cupcakes pulled from a cargo pocket.  Don't let anyone tell you there isn't a class warfare being fought just as viciously inside the concertina wire as the enemy warfare outside the wire.  I wish the playing field was more level--the grunts should have it a little easier and the Fobbits should definitely have it rougher.

But I digress.  What I really wanted to talk about was Fate and Destiny, dem ole debbils Mr. F and Mr. D.  They seem to get along just fine in the combat zone.

On that particular day, one of those rockets, calculating for altitude and windage, could have easily come down on my trailer instead of plowing into the soft earth of Signal Hill.  Or, what if I'd decided to skip the lobster at the chow hall that night and walked over to the PX for a bag of Cheet-os and been underneath the mortar that did land there?  These are the kind of weighty thoughts you stew over long after you've left Iraq or Afghanistan.  At the time, a mortar strike that lands at a harmless distance is little more than a shrug and a "Glad it wasn't me."  It's only when you look back that the ice fills the veins.  It's best not to think about it.  Ever.

It is what it is and it will be what it will be.

It just so happens that my current choice of literature has something to say about this.  I'm in the middle of The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers' excellent novel about the Iraq War which comes out one week after Fobbit.  The book is narrated by 21-year-old Private John Bartle who is just trying to get through the war in one piece while protecting his battle buddy Private Murphy.  It's a sensitive, finely-wrought novel that holds up well to comparisons of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.  In the book, the war is an entity in and of itself, starting with the destined-to-be-a-classic opening line: "The war tried to kill us in the spring."

I've been highlighting a lot of my favorite passages, including one near the beginning of the novel where Bartle has this to say about Mr. F. and Mr. D.:
We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn't care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.

The war does take what it pleases and on that day seven years ago I'm glad it was pleased to leave me alone.

*A controlled det is a preplanned detonation by U.S. Army engineers.


  1. Sorry David, disagree about YB. Your book is new, fresh and relevant. YB is a regurgitation of Vietnam novels. It'll sell, but it's intellectually dishonest. Understand that you have to play the publishing world game, though.

  2. Great post, David. Thanks for the intro to Yellow Birds--it definitely sounds enticing. Glad you made it through that day 7 years ago, too.

  3. Not sure what you mean by "intellectually dishonest." Sure, The Yellow Birds has its faults--few novels (including--*especially*--mine) are fault-free. But I'm finding those problems--mostly having to do with a style that occasionally shades purple--are far outweighed by the powerful storytelling.

    And, I should add, I'm not playing a "publishing world game" here. If I didn't like The Yellow Birds, I'd say so, the Protocol of Polite be damned. I'm truly honored to share shelf space with Kevin Powers this September.

  4. David, I'm glad to see my photo (above) is getting some more mileage! DINFOS instructors would mark it "ERROR IN FACT" because it is actually a photo of an EOD unit destroying and IED. Mortar blasts are smaller, less dramatic. We saw plenty of them at Camp Taji. Anywho, I can't wait to read your novel.

    - Matt Wester
    (former 46Q for 100th MPAD)