How many flights did it take to get to Iraq from America’s heartland? I couldn’t remember.
Relaxation didn’t come so easily for many Marines, although veterans seemed to be able to turn on and off like a switch. I felt an eagerness to get things underway, a tension that manifested in exploring parts of the camp. McShane from Mortars wanted to find some action, and although we couldn’t leave the wire yet, we quickly noticed that our superiors had far too much going on to keep track of two Lance Corporals. We discussed it under our breath over lunch and decided it would be best not to invite anyone else until after we scouted the camp ourselves; two Marines walking about would go unnoticed, whereas three or more might be questioned.
McShane and I decided that if we were to ask anyone to join us it would be Marines like Rose or Hawkins, who didn’t mind breaking rules in the spirit of exploring. Even though we hadn’t been told not to roam the camp, if higher-ranking Marines from another unit caught us, punishment could range from hazing to losing a stripe. Both McShane and I talked fast and well on our feet, usually able to confuse higher-ranking members from other units or amuse the higher-ups in our own unit. Smiling at each other, we guzzled sweet tea as we finished our meals and headed toward the door.
“Don’t get caught,” Schleur said dryly as we passed his table on the way out.
McShane just laughed his deep guffaw and I stuck a cigarette behind my ear, our strides never faltering. I led the way out toward the middle of the base, overgrown with weeds, where the buildings stood dilapidated and falling in on themselves. We wanted to see the parts of the old British base that had stood, rotting for decades. A boyish delight filled us when we discovered a row of small buildings across the street from a factory, all of which held special promise in their absolute desertion. We quieted our talk as we approached, in case there was anyone around who would tell us to leave, but it wasn’t just worry that made us soften our boot falls. McShane looked at the ground as he followed me; we moved like green shadows through the tall brush in the ditches and yards of the buildings. The overgrown tangles of desert brambles and twisted weeds stopped short of the first small building by about twenty feet. I surveyed the road and listened for approaching vehicles, then quickly bounded across the space with McShane following right behind me.
Moving with forceful confidence, hands on our weapons, I took a few steps into the building and turned right just as McShane turned left and moved forward behind me—our room clearing so hammered into us it became part of our nature without the need of thought or speech. Our dynamic entry didn’t allow us the time necessary to process the scattered tiles, the chalkboards, the desks piled up and flipped over. We stood very still and toed at what surrounded us with our boots.
“Books,” McShane said. He bent over and picked one up. “This must have been a school before the war,” he said. The deep bass of his voice held a slight tremor at its core.
Beams of light streaked through the building; some of them through dusty air like spokes on a wheel, but others were larger and more erratic. Bullet holes speckled the walls. We tore the place apart, as if looking for answers. McShane went through all the drawers and cabinets, while I dumped the trash, checked in desks, and inspected dozens of books on the floor. They were all textbooks: twenty or so on algebra, forty history textbooks, other books on subjects I couldn’t recognize because the text was in Arabic. McShane went through the contents of what would have been the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. The blackboard had Arabic scrawled on it from years ago, the last bits of thought to materialize there before the school was abandoned.
“I can’t find anything,” McShane said.
Neither of us were certain what we were looking for, but we both wanted to know as much as we could possibly gather.
“Why are the books on the floor?” I asked him, holding one up. “I don’t understand. Wouldn’t they want to give these to the Iraqi kids?”
McShane shut all the desk drawers, one by one. “I guess saving the schools wasn’t high on the priority list,” he said.
The next building had a broken Xerox machine, a broken printer, more desks, and thousands of papers scattered all over the floor. I picked one of the papers up. I stared at it for several minutes before I realized I held a report card. I dropped it and picked up other papers. I wished I could read Arabic. I wanted to know the names of the children on the cards, figure out what grades they got. I cursed my ignorance of the language, unable to decipher anything out of what appeared as ornate scribbles and strange glyphs.
What had happened when the bombs rained down on Iraq, when JDAMs plunged from the sky to blow the enormous bunkers outside of Hob to pieces, sundering the idea that huge amounts of concrete and steel were protection from the might of the United States Air Force? These children must have thought it the end of everything.
Or had the bombs started falling while class was in session, like watching 9/11 had been for me? Did the teacher stand in front of the class without words or had they explained? But how could they have explained to children why another country, far away and across a wide ocean, had sent aircraft carriers to fly jets over their desert town by the Euphrates and drop munitions with laser-like accuracy on bunkers outside of town by the airstrip. In those moments, whether they passed during the dark of night or in a day-lit classroom, the futures of those children derailed. Their lives would not have been lavish and many of them would have toiled in the fields of their fathers for decades, living a simple, rural life growing alfalfa and herding goats. But before the bombs fell, they had the vestiges of progress like schools, hospitals, and universities.
“Some of the report cards have dates,” he said.
Speech seemed like an irreverence, as if the empty schools were tombs. McShane wouldn’t meet my eyes when he spoke. McShane seemed determined not to be emotionally moved. He looked like a Boy Scout in over his head, long rifle strapped to him, pained expression on his face like he couldn’t remember the way. I left the building without speaking and looked back. McShane walked out, his rifle hung forgotten across him, pointed back and down to the ground. He struck a forlorn figure in front of the decrepit school, hands on his hips. McShane spit a long tendril of chew on the dead grass. When he looked up at me, there was a moment his eyes crossed a great gulf to meet mine, his thoughts receded inward in reflection.
No one ever told us we’d see shot-up schools with the books dumped on the floor and report cards scattered everywhere. Nobody ever talked about firefights where places like schools or hospitals got sprayed with bursts of machine gun fire. Our conception of violence had excluded its impact on civilians. McShane and I didn’t talk anymore after leaving the school. Neither of us knew what to say.
The factory was worse. Oil pooled on the sagging floors. In an office, records lay scattered around the room, the cabinet long ago ransacked. Looters had left heavy marks of sledgehammers and pry bars where equipment had been stolen and copper pulled out of the walls. Large pipes had been cracked and now seeped a black stain onto the wall and floor. Neither of us felt an attempt to penetrate the inner workings of the large building would be safe—jagged edges covered with rust, strange chemicals seeping from unmarked pipes, a sagging floor and ceiling—we stayed on the periphery. Soon, the noxious fumes made us dizzy and drove us away, toward the last place we’d talked about exploring.
A very large building of fine stonework with huge, elegant columns and large glass windows faced the road. Official and important-looking, I wanted to explore it as soon as I’d seen it in the distance while walking to chow. I’d discussed it with a few people, wondered what it could be and what was left inside of it. What we discovered was an abandoned theater with a stage faced by hundreds of broken seats. A mosaic, showing what appeared to be a Persian conquest of the region along with other scenes of planting and reaping, stretched across the two great walls on each side of the stage. Several curtains hung over the stage in tatters. Pigeons and bats flew around the large open space as we climbed ladders to the second story balcony seating, then up into a room with two large projectors. Antiques now, the British had used them to keep men entertained back in the fifties. After marveling at how large the rolls of film used to be, we descended a set of stairs and exited a side door which led outside to a smaller, stadium-style theater that had a great white wall instead of a curtain as a backdrop for its stage.
I was having a hard time believing my eyes. I felt like I was floundering in deep water as I tried to process the abandoned school and my mind strained with the juxtaposition of the theater. The theater had long been abandoned, for about fifty years, but the school and factories had only seen about half a decade of disrepair. Because of the hot, arid climate, the ephemera left on the schoolhouse floors had been well preserved. I had no idea what kind of environmental impact the leaking oil, chemicals, and other industrial waste would have. I took off my “eight point cover” the Marine Corps uniform utilized as hats, dooming us to carry the silhouettes of Police Officers as crowns, and rubbed my head.
“McShane,” I called. “I just had one of those moments when you realize how fucked you are.”
McShane walked over to me, kicking sand and crushing a desert flower on his way. We stood in front of the outside auditorium’s white wall.
“I was thinking we should tell someone about the chemicals from the factory leaking into the water table,” I said. “But then I realized that this is Iraq—a combat zone.”
McShane laughed. “Earlier I was going to say that we should tell someone about the books, so they could come and get them,” he said.
We headed back to the barracks, our shadows long before us. The white-hot sun started its descent into a colorless opaline sky seared with light. Neither of us spoke of what we’d found to anyone, not just because if our squad leaders heard we’d be chided for wandering off on our own, but because reservations and shock would be mocked as naïve, maybe even called sympathizing. As a Marine, I had to be stoic and brave with an iron heart. Fearing that I had somehow turned into a non-hacker, I tempered my heart in preparation for the move to the next base at Riviera, where my courage could not fail. That night, I lay awake in my rack long after the platoon had gone to sleep around me. When my breathing fell into the rhythm of the pack, images of that day troubled my dreams.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.
Excerpted from Musalaheen by Jason Arment. Copyright © 2018 by Jason Arment. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of University of Hell Press.