In the spring of 2003, out front of an abandoned bank a few miles south of Baghdad, Sergeant Stanton sat down to have breakfast in the passenger’s seat of his Humvee. Stanton was a short, thick-muscled black man, who always wore a smile, treated everyone with dignity, and was quick to give his friendship. While he was eating, an Iraqi man walked up to the Humvee, said “Good morning mister,” drew a pistol, and shot Stanton in the face.
Stanton should have died that day in front of the bank. The shot was point blank and he wasn’t wearing his Kevlar helmet. The bullet should have smashed straight through the spongy bone between his eyes. Instead, it ricocheted off his store-bought Oakley sunglasses and careened up his forehead, leaving only a graze wound and a muzzle burn the size of a quarter above the bridge of his nose from the discharge of the round. After the shot, Stanton leapt out of his seat and shoved the Iraqi man to the ground, shouting, “Shoot him, shoot him, shoot him!”
In the short span of time it took for the Marines in Stanton’s team to respond to the situation, the Iraqi man was back on his feet unloading his clip. His second shot hit Stanton square in the chest, but his flak vest absorbed most of the blow. The third shot punched through the open door of the Humvee and passed inches behind the throat of the driver who was leaning forward on the steering wheel before it smashed through the window on the other side. The fourth shot bounced harmlessly off the rifle hand guards of a Marine who had left his post on the street to come running once he heard the firing start. The shots were good, and the Iraqi man was willing to die for what he believed: he took on two fire teams of combat loaded Marines with a single pistol. A few days later, we learned who he was and where he lived. We found a note to his brother amongst a house full of weapons and pictures of the man standing next to Saddam Hussein. The note said, “Today the carnage begins”, but he didn’t accomplish his purpose. A handful of seconds after he began firing, he was riddled with bullet holes.
I didn’t arrive at the bank until ten minutes after the shooting. My team was off rotation, resting up in a palm grove down the road. But when I got there, Stanton told me about the Iraqi man’s final moments. After being shot seven or eight times, the bullets fracturing and mutilating as they passed through, he fell to his knees and swayed, until a corporal from Stanton’s team stalked up behind him, leveled his muzzle at the back of the man’s head, and squeezed the trigger, blowing brains and bits of skull fragment through his eye socket, painting the street with gore.
Stanton re-gathered himself, still wearing a smile after being shot in the face, and went back to work.
I’m back in Minnesota now, but sometimes I close my eyes and see bodies of men strewn along the street, bodies fractured by lead and black powder and ground to pieces under the treads of armored personnel carriers rumbling to their next target. What remains are piles of rust-orange muscle, muted grey membranes, and splayed limbs.
Sometimes I hear a wail in my mind, and it transcends everything I thought I knew. I’ve been in Iraq a month, and a bear of man approaches me. I’m working crowd control, turning away any Iraqi civilians who want to get home past our roadblock. Heavy attacks are raging a few miles ahead and we don’t want civilians there. We don’t want more dead civilians. As the man gets closer, he towers over me. I’m 6’3″, 210 lbs., and he makes me feel small, frail. He is thick-chested and heavy through the gut with a full jet-black beard and anger in his eyes. I’m just a kid, nineteen years old, not knowing exactly why I’m here or what I believe, but wanting to do the best I can. He’s a full-grown man. When he begins urgently pointing at the exploded light blue hatchback just past our checkpoint, I run and grab our translator while two Marines stand with him. The man says that the car looks like his brother’s car, and our commanding officer allows him through our checkpoint to go look. When the man gets to the car, his fears are confirmed. His brother is in two pieces, blown in half just above the hip. His torso lies face down, and would be choking on sand if his lungs were still capable of drawing breath. Chunks of spine, fractured hip, and blood-crusted legs are plastered to the driver’s seat.
There are also two skeletons in the car, one in the passenger’s seat, and one in the back. They are picked so clean by fire that they look almost as if they have never been anything but bone. A layer of glossy fat fused to the seat backs confirms that they once were something more substantial. The two skeletons are the man’s parents.
When the bear-man realizes his entire family is gone, his howls come deep and guttural. His sounds are otherworldly, a kind of grieving I’ve never heard or known before. He lifts his heavy-muscled arms to the sky, and seems to rave at God. I can’t understand his words, but his agony pierces the limitations of language. I watch the massive man crumble, feel myself crumble. I want to lend him comfort, to extend my hand and let him feel that he is not alone. We stand meters apart, but there is a wide gulf between us. I am just a teenager in a strange land wearing the uniform of a foreign invader. It was probably at the hands of my people that his family was destroyed. Duty pulls me one direction, compassion another. Half of my heart goes with my body as I deal with the swelling crowd—we can’t lose control, can’t add violence to violence—half stays with the man as he scoops his family into a wooden box.
A few nights later I’m on watch, leaning against the cool steel rim of my turret, a hand resting on the butt stock of my M240G. The air blows softly at my face, refreshing me after many hours in the desert sun. This is early in the war, meaning that we go through every day in charcoal lined chemical suits, expecting chemical attacks. These suits are heavy, oppressive. They don’t breath like our normal desert uniforms. They are meant to keep things out, not let air in, and in the sun I am smothered. I sweat and sweat, all day every day. It’s when the sun goes down and the desert chill comes that I can breathe again and start to feel almost human, like I have a life outside of this place and my sweaty dirt-caked body.
I peer around into calm silence. We are at a crossroads in a small town, with a row of tightly shut tire and automotive shops behind us, part of an extended one-story business complex, long closed since the beginning of the war. Rows of stacked unattended tires bracket us on each side and the rusty worn sliding garage doors of the building guard our rear. We haven’t seen a soul, Iraqi or American for hours, and the rustle of sleeping marines kicking at their Bivy sacks in the dirt below me is the only sound that interrupts the night.
I’ve been on watch about an hour when a ground operation begins a few miles away from our position. As the infantry move, a battery of artillery up the road begins thumping in deep base rhythmic support. The concussion blast from rounds being fired cuts through the stillness, through me, and my chest pounds in unison with every round launched into the deep black sky. They are firing rocket-assisted rounds. This gives them extra miles of range, and me the chance to watch the trailing fire as the rounds go up into the black until they get too high to see. Then instead of watching I listen to the expectant pause in the air. The silence is louder in the waiting. This is my first time around artillery. I’m used to machine guns and rifles. I’m used to seeing my rounds impact no more than a few seconds after I fire. Waiting for artillery rounds to impact is intolerable. At twenty seconds I wonder if something went wrong. At thirty seconds I think maybe the rounds shoot so far that I can’t hear them hit. When they do finally find their mark I know it, as rolling thunder comes cascading across the desert.
Shortly after the artillery starts, a squad of Cobras swoops in—attack helicopters, invisible in the night, but distinct in sound. Their blades make them sound angry as they whip through the air. In the daylight they are intimidating, the way they slightly angle forward, like they are scanning the ground for something to hunt. But at night they are devastating, unseen until out of the darkness a streaking barrage erupts, hellfire missiles, one after another, punishing into submission whatever stands in their way, whatever is living and breathing on the other end.
The ground attack continues on into the night. I’m too far away to see it beyond the missiles and artillery in support, but I continue to feel the explosions. I swing my legs over the side of the turret and onto the roof of the Humvee. I feel the cold metal press against the backs my legs through the chem suit as I slide off the roof onto the ground and gently shake awake my replacement. After he throws on his boots and takes my place behind the gun, I lay myself down on my bag in the dirt. I close my eyes and let the explosions wash over me. I feel so calm, so at peace as the assault rages into the night. There is so much firepower around me I feel like nothing can touch me, while on the other end, a terror is being unleashed in the lives of other human beings that at the time I can’t much understand.
My team drove up to the bank in time to see the remains of Stanton’s attacker on the ground. From the turret I peered down on this ruined man, his arms jutting out at irregular angles where bullets shattered bones, the pool of blood already starting to coagulate, and the fragments of skull and grey matter in the concrete gutter. I pulled my eyes away from the body to watch the faces of the crowds of Iraqis as they walked by. Part of me was looking for threats. There was blood on the ground, and we were on a busy street in the middle of town, buildings on both sides, with dozens of Iraqi men and women skirting by, trying to stay out of our way. I was always uneasy in crowds because enemy gunmen would use them as shields, knowing that either we wouldn’t fire back or that if we did, we’d be killing so many innocents that we’d only turn more people against us. I wasn’t sure if I would fire back through lines of innocent men and woman or not. But even with that in the back of my mind, most of me watched the men and women walking by because I wanted to see how they’d react to the man mutilated and in a heap on the road. A few of them let their eyes flicker briefly to the body as they passed by. They were curious, but also highly aware that I was watching them over the barrel of my machine gun. No one chanced an open stare. I watched one woman pass with two small children, each no more than five or six years old. Her eyes were the only visible part of her face as she was cloaked from head to toe in black, and I remember how frantic they looked, how they bulged, wide and white, as she looked anywhere but at the corpse and gore. She hurried her children past me and the body on the ground next to my Humvee, pushing their little faces forward every time their eyes began to wander. Aside from those few people, visible curiosity and fear weren’t common. Most men and women walked by with blank faces, eyes straight ahead, pretending that they didn’t see the slaughtered man being dragged away ten feet from where they were walking.
The bank had a high sand-colored wall around it, maybe eight feet tall. Just inside the wall, before the bank itself began, was a little yard with green grass where we would sometimes go to eat or take a break from standing post. This is where we threw the body. After the body was taken off the street, one of our guys grabbed a bucketful of water and sloshed it across the leftover brains and gore, trying to rinse it away, though there was nowhere for it to go. It was all so matter of fact, like it wasn’t a body being thrown around, or a man’s lifeblood being washed away; it was just so much clay and dirt and nothing more. I remember as I watched feeling the callousness clawing at my insides. I wanted to double over and wrap my arms around my chest and shield myself from feeling what I was feeling. But there was nowhere to go, no way to get away, just a wide gaping ugliness to choke down and move past. I put my eyes back on the passing crowd and pushed the feeling away.
The dead body in the bank became a part of daily life. When no one came to claim it, we left it festering in the sun. My team rotated to work at that position every day or two, and whenever one of us had to go to the bathroom or needed to eat, we’d walk past the body to get to a safer, more enclosed location. I never saw it happen, but I heard guys talking about urinating on the corpse. I suppose it was a way to vent their frustrations. This Iraqi man was a symbol of all our stress and tension. More than that, he had assaulted a man that it was hard not to respect. I had known Stanton for only a couple of months, but in that time he always carried optimism no matter what happened, and treated me as a friend, though I was just a nineteen-year-old transfer with no idea what the hell I was doing. Still, urinating on a dead man was more irreverence than I could bear. I wasn’t a religious guy, but moments like those made me think that God might be watching, and I didn’t want to be on a side I wasn’t proud of.
Eventually the dead man’s brother mustered the courage to approach us and claim the body. Just before he came, I took one last considered look while coming back alone from my lunch inside the complex. I wondered when again I would ever have the chance to look so openly at violent death and ponder it without distraction. I stood over the corpse and let my eyes pass over the unnatural angles, blackened blood, and fractures. I scanned across the gaping hole where the right eye once was and observed the bloating and putrefying skin, while hundreds of charcoal flies buzzed in a gorging frenzy. Standing above the wreckage of this single human life, I watched a fly crawl out of the eye socket. It leapt off the corpse, flew at my face, and landed on my lower lip.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.