The alarm sounded through the still of the outpost. If I’d been dreaming, I’d already forgotten what about. I turned off the alarm and hopped down from the top bunk. It was another day. We’d been in-country five months, and hadn’t even been shot at yet.
“Yo,” I said. “The Suck awaits.” The only response came from an industrial fan whirring in a dark corner. None of the bodies in the other beds bothered to move. As deceitful as time could be in a room without windows, my sergeants always seemed to know when they had another twenty minutes.
I shook out my boots to make sure a scorpion hadn’t crept into them during the night. It hadn’t happened to anyone yet, but still, there were stories. After knotting the laces and pulling on my fleece top, I walked through the dim and opened the door to the hallway. The platoon’s interpreter was waiting there under a yellow ceiling panel, holding two cups of coffee. He was just a blurry shadow for a few seconds, until my vision adjusted.
“Hey, Snoop,” I said.
“Lieutenant Jack,” he said, handing me one of the cups. “We giving out moneys today? Sources been asking.”
Wiry and excitable, even with sleep still on his face, Snoop had learned English from British missionaries and refined it with gangsta rap. His real name was Qasim, but no one called him that, not even the other terps.
“Maybe,” I said. “Depends what the commander has planned.”
Three long hallways shaped like a U formed the outpost’s second floor. We walked down one of the U’s legs and turned right, passing rooms that stank of ball sweat and feet. The mansion had been built as
a retirement gift for one of Saddam’s generals, but nearly a decade after the Invasion, that felt like prehistory to us. Just something to bullshit about with locals. It was home to Bravo Company now.
Outside their room, a group of soldiers were cleaning rifles piecemeal. Oils and solvents cut through the sour air, and tiny metal parts glinted in their rags like diamonds. As Snoop and I neared, they stood, almost in unison.
“Shit, sir,” a soldier said. “Didn’t see you coming.”
I unleashed a MacArthur impression, complete with a foppish salute. “You’re making your country proud today, men,” I said. It was important to carry on the junior officer tradition of disdain for ceremony. “Kill that grime. Kill it good.”
They laughed, then returned to their seats and weapons.
We turned up the U’s other leg and walked into the command post. The night shift hadn’t been relieved yet, and sat around the room in lawn chairs. Tracked-in sand covered everything, from the radios to the tabletops to the portable television in the corner roaring with musket fire from a Revolutionary War film.
“You all sacrifice a yak?” I asked. “Smells terrible in here.”
“Least we’re going to bed soon,” a private said. “Enjoy the day, sir.” He pointed to the whiteboard, where, under second platoon, ELECTRICITY RECON had been scrawled in loose, dreary letters. There was no mistaking the commander’s handwriting.
“Christ,” I said, already feeling the sweat-starched uniform and hefty body armor that awaited. “Not again.”
“Electricity recon” was army language for walking around a neighborhood asking people how many hours a day they had power. Iraqis responded to the door-to-door interruptions the same way people back home dealt with Mormons with pamphlets. More than one local, usually an old woman, had told us to come back when we could provide power rather than ask about it.
I walked back to our room to get my grooming kit. My teeth needed brushing, my armpits needed deodorant, and after three days, my face
finally needed a shave. Sergeant First Class Sipe sat upright in his bed picking eye goop from his lashes.
“Aloha,” I said.
“Lieutenant Porter.” He sounded cross. “I’m going to stay back today, draw up a plan for a sentry shack at the front gate. We’re getting complacent.”
“Would be good to come,” I said. “For the new guys. Especially Chambers.” The week before, a small group of augmentees had joined us. Chambers was a staff sergeant with combat experience, the rest cherries straight from basic. They’d all been quiet so far, watching and learning. “He seems squared away, but you could teach him how we roll.”
“The rest of the platoon can handle that, sir,” Sipe said.
More and more, our platoon sergeant had been finding reasons to stay inside the wire. Though it was hard for me to blame him—he was on his fourth tour to the desert, and only a year from retirement—it hadn’t gone unnoticed by the others. And soldiers could be resentful souls.
Whatever, I thought. I’ve been picking up the slack.
• • •
A couple of hours later, thirty young men in body armor and helmets stood in the foyer of the first floor, an open, sunny octagon covered in red-and-white ceramic tiles. We all wore the lightning bolt patch of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry on our shoulders and had CamelBaks filled with clean, cold water strapped to us.
A fresco covered the wall leading down the stairway into the foyer, depicting ten smiling Iraqi children holding up their national flag. Behind the children stood an old man with a bushy black beard wearing a turban and a white dishdasha and a stoic-looking woman dressed in a dark gray burqa. The artist had given her a considerable chest. Both adults’ hands rested on the shoulders of the children. The soldiers called the man Pedo bin Laden. She was the Mother Hajj.
After my patrol brief, I asked for questions. A stubby arm shot into the air from the rear of the group.
“Yes, Hog,” I said, raising an eyebrow, my voice carrying a blunted inflection. The others laughed. We’d played this game before.
“Which hajji bodega we hittin’ up?” he asked.
“We’ll be in the market blocks,” I said. I waved him up and handed over the town map. “You tell me.”
“Hmm,” he said. A native of Arkansas who’d enlisted at seventeen, Hog had a face that always looked like it was pressed against a windowpane, especially when he smiled. “Shi’a, mainly. Poor ones, too. Best bet is the old barber, his wives make crazy good dumplings. And might run into the Barbie Kid there—Boom Boom drinks.”
“Drink one of those, you’re begging for a piss test.” I waited for the snickering to fade before continuing. “We’ll be dismounted the whole mission—no reason to waste fuel on this. Should be back in five hours for Call of Duty.” More snickering. “Anything else?”
“What if we find the enemy?” one of the new joes asked. Most of the platoon originals laughed contemptuously, causing him to blush. I felt bad for him. It’d taken some stones to ask the question.
“Cry havoc,” I said. “And let slip the Hogs of war.”
None of the men laughed. Too much, I thought, rubbing my bare chin under my helmet strap. Too much.
We stepped into the spring morning. The young day was already overcooked and smelled of sand and canal water. “Lock and load, Hotspur,” I said, using our platoon nickname, swinging around the rifle slung over my shoulder. Technically, the M4 wasn’t a rifle but a carbine, though only the country boys insisted on that detail. We each pulled out a magazine from the vests strapped to the front of our body armor. Every magazine was filled with thirty rounds of ammunition, weighing about a pound total. We slid the magazine into the rifle’s well and smacked the bottom to make sure it stayed put. We pulled our rifle’s charging handle, drawing the bolt back and then releasing it to grab the top round and push it into the barrel, the black magic of the gun slamming forward.
“Gets me hard every time,” Sergeant Dominguez said, earning echoes of agreement. Five and a half feet of applied force, Dominguez had held sway in the platoon much longer than he’d held his rank. I’d learned early on to go to him when I needed something done that couldn’t or shouldn’t involve officers.
We moved toward the front gate, our staggered file stretching out like a slinky. Dominguez took the lead, as usual, while Snoop and I settled into the middle of the patrol, the terp carrying a black plastic rifle made to resemble the real thing. He claimed it made him less of a target, but we knew he carried it to try to impress any available Iraqi ladies. A pair of attack birds on their way to Baghdad flew over us, their rotors churning in mechanized refrain. We walked north on the sides of the road in silence.
A bronze fog hung over the town of Ashuriyah. It obscured our vision, though the occasional minaret crown emerged above the haze. I took off my clear lenses and wiped away the dust before deciding to hell with it and slipped them into a cargo pocket. While the fog shielded us from the sun’s worst and kept the air relatively cool, I’d already sweated through my clothes by the time we reached the market blocks. My body ached in all the normal places from the medieval bulk of the armor: the blister spots on my heels, the knotted center of my back, the right collarbone that’d been turned sideways years before during intramurals. I pushed these bitchy suburban grievances away, tugged at my junk, and thanked Hog again for teaching me the importance of freeballing.
“No problem,” he said. “But what do they teach at officer school if they don’t teach that?”
We stopped short of the market and turned onto a dusty back street, walking by a lonely cypress tree. Small sandstone houses resembling honeycomb cells lined the sides of the road. A donkey cart filled with concrete blocks ambled by, the animal and boy driving it sunk in discomfort. On their heels came a rush of children clamoring for our attention and clawing at our pockets.
“Mistah, gimme chocolata!” they said. “Gimme football! Gimme, gimme!”
“You gimme chocolata!” Hog said, picking up one of the kids, twirling him around.
“Punks should be in school,” Doc Cork said, reaching for a cigarette. For some reason, the other soldiers took great pride in the fact that our medic smoked. The only son of Filipino immigrants, he was a peddler of light, and pills, in a bleak world.
I turned to a child with doubting eyes, ruffled his hair, and pointed to him. “Ali baba,” I said. The group of kids around him laughed and chanted, “Ali baba! Ali baba!” while the victim of my slander protested. No one liked being called a villain. I put my hands out and let the kids play with the hard plastic that cased the knuckles of my gloves.
Some of the guys were debating whether to provide the kids dipping tobacco and telling them it was chocolate, so I gave Dominguez the hand signal to keep the patrol moving.
“This is good, yo,” Snoop said, waving around his dummy rifle like a flag. “Kids keep snipers away. They won’t shoot with kids here, unless they are fuckups. People get angry about dead kids.”
Near the hajji bodega, a group of teens were playing foosball in a plot of muddy weeds and poppies. The Barbie Kid was there, too, wheeling around a cooler and selling Boom Booms and cigarettes to occupiers and occupied alike. A gust of wind carried the faint scent of shit so pervasive in Ashuriyah. Sewer ditches and cesspools were still far more prevalent than indoor plumbing in this part of the Cradle of Civilization.
Snoop pointed to the table and asked if I wanted to play.
“Sure,” I said. “Anyone got someplace to be?”
Most of the soldiers laughed, though I spotted the new staff sergeant, Chambers, glaring my way. He leaned against a telephone pole with wires hanging from it like spaghetti, his helmet tilted forward to cover his face in a deep shadow.
“Too nice to these little fuckers,” he said, exposing a tobacco-stained overbite. There was a hard edge to his voice. This wasn’t a joke—it was criticism.
Half the patrol started studying packed dirt, while the others turned to me. I needed to say something. I was the platoon leader. He was an interloper, a fucking new guy who wasn’t supposed to be doing anything but watching and learning. So I shrugged and said, “It’s not 2007 anymore. Things have changed. We’re withdrawing soon.”
“Right.” He didn’t sound convinced. “While you and the English-speaking hajj handle business, I’m going to show the guys how to pull security.”
I nodded slightly and considered my options. Some noncoms couldn’t help but test their leadership, and it seemed I now had one of those. My brother would say I needed to regulate. All in good time, I reasoned. There was no reason to crush a guy for having baggage from his last tour. I watched a pair of stray dogs along a ridgeline to the east. They were teasing a spotted goat with big pink balls that wanted nothing to do with them. I felt bad for the thing, but we hadn’t been sent to Iraq to save goats.
Snoop tugged my sleeve to bring my attention back to foosball. Two teenagers built like cord had lined up across the table. The bar of our goalie proved sticky, but one of their strikers had been sawed in half somehow, so it evened out.
“They ask how old you are,” Snoop translated. “They say you look too young to be a molazim.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that. “Twenty-four,” I said, trying to keep my voice flat. “Old enough.”
Sweat rolled down my face and onto the table, dripping like dirty rain. It was too hot to be wearing anything other than a tee shirt. The teens suggested Snoop and I take off our gear. They thought American soldiers were crazy for wearing body armor outside. I grunted and took off my gloves to better grip the handles.
During the game, I listened to soldiers pelt Chambers with questions about firefights on his previous deployments, his Ranger tab, and what he meant by “exposed silhouettes.” Hog’s voice especially carried from across the dirt road, which bothered me.
“Sergeant?” he asked. “I heard, uh, you got tattoos for every enemy you’ve killed?”
Chambers pulled up the sleeve on his right arm, though I couldn’t see what he was showing. The soldiers, now spread out in pairs and kneeling behind cars or peeking around building corners, all turned his way.
“Don’t look at me, oxygen thieves,” Chambers said, his voice stinging with authority. “Eyes out.”
“Fuck this,” I said, after giving up another goal that I blamed on the stuck goalie. I’d been to Ranger School, too. I had my tab. Why didn’t they ever ask me about it? Because infantry officers have guaranteed slots, I thought. We don’t have to fight to get in like the enlisted. “Snoop, call over the Barbie Kid. Let’s get some work done.”
I could tell the terp was annoyed by the way the game had ended, but he did as instructed. The Barbie Kid, all ninety pounds of him, moved to us with bare feet covered in dust, rolling a cooler of goods behind him. A dark unibrow raced across his forehead, and he stank like a polecat, wearing his usual pink sweats. The Barbie doll’s face on the sweatshirt was smudged with mud and crust, forever spoiling her smile.
“Any ali babas around?” I asked.
The Barbie Kid looked up at me with his good eye, the lazy one staying fixed to the ground. “None the Americans would care about,” he said through Snoop, his voice cracking but tart.
Fucking teenagers, I thought. They’re all terrible. Even here.
I reached down and lifted the Barbie Kid’s sweatshirt to reveal the handle of a long, dull sai dagger tucked into his waistband.
“Still carrying that around,” I said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
The young Iraqi frowned, then argued. “He is a businessman and must protect his business,” Snoop translated. “He asks why you care? There are boys younger than him who work for the Sahwa militias. They carry AK-47s.”
“Good point,” I said.
“Want any Boom Booms, LT? He offers a special deal, because Hotspur is his favorite platoon.”
“I’m sure he tells that to all the girls. How much?”
“Two for five dollars.”
As I rummaged through my pockets for money, a sound like wood planks slapping together broke the peace. Then again. My heart jumped up and my feet jumped back, unprepared for fired rounds. Chambers stood in the center of the road, back straight, rifle wedged tight into his shoulder. The bronzed dirt in the air had parted around him, giving off a strange, glassy sheen. A wisp of smoke curled out the end of his barrel and the goat with big pink balls lay collapsed on the far side of the street, near a pair of soldiers in a wadi. I exchanged a confused look with Snoop. Then the Barbie Kid unleashed the most primal sound I’d ever heard, a scream both high and low, as abrupt as it was lasting. He ran to the goat’s body, and we followed, slowly.
“Goddamn it. What did I just say about keeping the enemy out of our perimeter?” Chambers yelled, lowering his rifle. “If that thing had been a suicide bomber, you’d be explaining to Saint Peter why the fuck you’re so stupid.”
The Barbie Kid fell to the ground next to the dead animal, cradling its body and petting it. He wept uncontrollably. The goat was lean to the point of emaciation, and its coat was splotched and stringy, like shredded paper. Its balls were even bigger and pinker up close. It’d been shot through the brain at the bridge of its nose, giving the look of a third eye. Fat, gray insects were hopping off its coat into the Barbie Kid’s hair, so I kept my distance.
“Sergeant Chambers,” I said. “We’re not supposed to shoot animals. Higher’s pretty strict about that.”
“They’re a menace,” he said. “But okay.”
I looked around the platoon. Most peered in at the scene, a strained quiet gripping them. There were no jokes, no sounds of spat tobacco, no jingling of gear. Dominguez shook his head and turned back out, instructing the joes nearby to do the same.
I pointed to the goat. “Pretty close to some of the men.”
Chambers pounded his chest twice and hooted. “A perfect kill. Never a danger.”
Snoop was on the ground with the Barbie Kid, placing a hand on his back. “LT Jack? This was his pet, his only habibi. He say his parents didn’t let it in their house, but he fed it and played with it for many months. He’s very sad.”
“I can see that.” I chewed on my lip. “For fuck’s sake.” I reached into my pockets and pulled out all the bills and change I could find: seventeen dollars and fifty cents, and eight hundred dinars.
“Tell him to take this,” I told Snoop. “Condolence funds. And Sergeant? Throw some money in there.”
Chambers sneered, but did as ordered, tossing a twenty-dollar bill to the ground.
The Barbie Kid wouldn’t take the money, nor would he abandon the dead goat. Putting the bills and change into his cooler, we left him hugging and petting and snotting over the carcass.
The electricity recon took ten hours. I met with a half dozen Iraqi families over chai and flatbread, discussing the neighborhoods and the Sahwa militias and the problems with electricity and clean water. They had many questions, and I had few answers. Chambers ran security for the rest of the mission, staying out in the bronze fog the entire time. Throughout the day, both the Barbie Kid’s scream and Chambers’ hoot twisted in my mind like screws. Not even Doc Cork’s headache pills could make them go away.