Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chance Gooding Sorts Through the Bomb Reports (an excerpt)

In Fobbit, Fact makes love to Fiction so many times they eventually get married and have a large brood of children.  Whether those offspring turn out to be the beautiful children who grow up obedient and ambitious and later go on to Harvard to become doctors and lawyers, or end up the cross-eyed, bucktoothed, "I married my cousin" kids, remains to be seen.  The fact of the matter is, when writing the novel I've transplanted real events from my year in Iraq into the blown-out-of-proportion hyperreality of satire.  Sometimes, it's gotten to the point where I have trouble distinguishing what really happened to me from what I've created.

This scene from the novel, however, is pretty close to the bone and reflects not only actual Significant Activity reports which came across my desk in Public Affairs, but also my feelings of frustration and disorientation as I tried to keep everything straight.
In his job as media relations NCO, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding juggled Improvised Explosive Device reports like they were flaming tenpins.  The IED and Vehicle-Borne IED rate was on the rise, spiking within the past week.  In fact, they were now coming at Gooding at such an alarming rate, he was unable to properly keep track of them.  With each Significant Activity report, he opened another press release template and started typing, trying all the time not to get events confused.  Only the body count helped keep the Sig Acts straight in his mind—well, that and the many typos which peppered the Sig Acts.  A squad patrolling along Route Vulcan was said to be on “Route Vulva.”  A staff sergeant rounding up suspected bomb makers grabbed them by their “shits.”  And, Gooding’s favorite, a private first class injured by the concussion from an IED blast was said to have suffered “a loss of conscience.”

Another time, as his glazed eyes were skimming through all the IED, VBIED, rocket-propelled-grenade and small-arms-fire attacks, he stumbled across this in a description of a unit coming under an RPG attack:  “Unit also observed peanut-butter colored Mercedes which left scene right after attack.”  Peanut-butter colored.  Who says Sig Acts can’t make for interesting reading?

Quirky details of IED attacks usually helped make Gooding’s job easier.  On an otherwise quiet night two weeks ago, three VBIEDs were detonated within the space of a few minutes in a West Baghdad district filled with small, Mom-and-Pop businesses.  The terrorists set off one bomb, then sat back and waited for the Iraqi Police and firefighters to respond before they set off the other two.  Complex Multi-Staged Ambush, G-3 called it.  Several IPs were killed, dozens of civilians wounded.  One car was blown into the air and, like a flaming metal meteor, landed on top of the row of shops, destroying an electronics store, a barber shop and, ironically, an auto parts store.

Reporters routinely called Gooding on the phone, wanting more information about, for instance, “the explosion on Airport Road” and he would have to ask them for more information—time of explosion, number of killed and injured, any unusual body parts, etc.—to pinpoint the event.  His press release headlines all read the same with vanilla-oatmeal predictability:  “Iraqi Police, Army secure bomb blast site” or “Baghdad explosion kills 8, wounds 12” or “Iraqi Security Forces, U.S. Army mop up blast site.”

At one point, Gooding got so frustrated in his confusion, that he turned to Major Filipovich in the next cubicle and said, “Sir, can’t we start naming these attacks, just like we name hurricanes?  I mean, I could keep them all straight if we could call them IED Martha or VBIED Larry.”

Major Filipovich, never one to crack a smile, even at his weakest moments, leaned back in his chair, yawned, rubbed his black billiard-ball head, and said, “Fan-fucking-tastic idea, Sarge.  Why don’t you propose it to our Most Esteemed Leader at the next staff meeting?  I’m sure Harkleroad will treat it like every other brilliant idea I’ve brought his way:  he’ll drop it straight into the toilet and give it a good flush.”  Filipovich chair-scooted back into his cubicle.  “Now, if you don’t mind, you interrupted a most delicious nap with an equally delicious dream involving the Queen of Sweden and a can of whipped cream.”

Gooding gritted his teeth and turned back to his headline.  “Al-Dora blast kills 8, injures 3.”  No, wait, it was supposed to be “Al-Dora blast kills 3, injures 8.”  Now, he was confused and he pawed through the pile of Sig Acts on his desk to get everything straight in his head again.  He was near the end of his shift and it hadn’t been a good one.

The morning started with a terrorist sabotaging water lines at a water treatment plant outside Baghdad at 4:40 a.m.  The bomb burst the pipes at a crucial joint and sewer water had flooded the control room.  Iraqi Department of Water officials rushed to the scene and shut off water for everyone in Baghdad west of the Tigris River.  The government reported that it could take up to three or four days of them working around the clock to repair this latest sabotage.  Citizens were riled and started venting on Al-Jazeera, mouths chewing the microphones and spittle misting the camera lens.

Then, shortly after 1 p.m., a VBIED detonated behind an Iraqi Police patrol, killing two Iraqi Army Soldiers, two IPs and wounding 27 others, including two IPs.  Gooding silently named that one IED Vaporized Cop.

The worst was yet to come.  There was still plenty of daylight left on the clock.

Shortly before 3 p.m., a man wearing a suicide vest packed with explosives walked into a restaurant.  He killed five Iraqi soldiers and 13 civilians and wounded at least 34 civilians.  These were just the initial reports Gooding received over the Sig Acts.  The Associated Press later tallied it at 23 dead, 36 wounded.

Nobody on the scene saw the bomber carrying anything into the restaurant.  According to a group of Iraqi soldiers inside the restaurant at the time of the explosion, they had just ordered their lunch when the suicide bomber entered the restaurant and detonated the device.  Survivors at the scene said the majority of the restaurant patrons were soldiers who were partial to the special goat gyros served there for lunch every day, guaranteeing there would always be a large group of Iraqi military at the restaurant at any given mealtime.  Area residents knew the restaurant would be targeted for this reason and most of them tried to avoid it whenever possible, taking a wide detour around the block during the noon hour.

Gooding’s e-mail dinged and he saw he’d been sent a series of photos from the brigade public affairs team which had rushed to the scene in the smoky aftermath.

Gooding clicked on the attachments.

The first photos showed the small, hole-in-the-wall (now literally) restaurant gutted by swift, lethal fire.  Part of the ceiling was gone and hot sunshine flooded the charred interior.  Viscera was smeared across the floor.  Tables and chairs, inextricably married in a tangle of chrome legs and plastic cushions, rested against a back wall where they’d been propelled by the blast.  Bright packages of crackers, tins of tea and cellophane-wrapped candy were still neatly arranged on a shelf next to a register, waiting for someone to come along and make a purchase.  A man, presumably the owner, stood in a still-smoking door frame—the door was gone, thrown halfway down the block.  His eyes were glassed with shock as he stared at what remained of his shop.

Gooding clicked into the next e-mail, subject line:  “The remains of the suicide bomber.”

A head.  Two legs which appeared to be sprouting from his neck.  A hand, fingers twisted and broken, in the region where you’d normally find the right hip bone.

That was it.  Nothing more.  Everything else—skin, bone, muscle, organ—had been vaporized, a brick-red mist splashed through the dust and rubble of the restaurant.

In the blackened head, the eyes were squeezed shut, as if in the final reflex before the bomber pulled the det cord.  His feet on the end of those neatly-severed legs were turned in opposite directions—one up, one down.  If you didn’t know better, you might mistake his legs for arms, his feet for hands.  He looked like a meaty jigsaw puzzle of parts—with those feet-hands, he looked like a child’s drawing of a traffic cop, one hand saying “Stop!”, the other beckoning “Go!”

Gooding decided to zoom in on the ragged end of the shoulder.  His cursor changed to a magnifying glass.  The closer he got to the sheared-off torso, the less it looked like meat, less like the abrupt ripping-away of life, and more like strawberry jam.  That was okay, right?  Strawberry jam was delicious under the right circumstances.

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