Prior to entering Iraq, we trained for two days in the Kuwaiti desert. Day one, we learned close-quarters marksmanship. Day two was convoy training. On the afternoon of that second day, a sandstorm hit, and we spent the night in tent city. The next morning we would fly to Baghdad.
Buses arrived to take us to the airfield, and we formed our platoon in the sand. We wore every piece of equipment we’d been issued: bulletproof vest, Kevlar helmet, first-aid kit, canteens, elbow pads, knee pads, groin protector, and ballistic goggles. Our gas masks were holstered at our hips. We carried our rifles in one hand and our pistols in the other.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining, but the sand hadn’t yet settled down. We stood in a cloud of it, imagining where we were going, what we’d be doing, and how it would all turn out.
We stood where the first Gulf war was fought. Back then, this place was on fire. It’s quiet and peaceful now. Where Saddam’s tanks crossed the border into Kuwait, just eight kilometers north, is today a fortified wall of chain link, razor wire, and klieg lights.
Outdoors at night I thought of how much my kids would like it there. The sand was warm, the air cool. They could run or somersault in any direction. Despite the glow from the klieg lights, their favorite constellations were visible: the bear, the lion, and the big and little spoons. Migrating herds of camels—babies, too—passed close enough to pet.
During close-quarters marksmanship, we learned how to clear corner-fed and center-fed rooms. We were taught standard operating procedures and rules of engagement. Then we broke into four-man teams to practice storming plywood huts. Later, we did it with live ammunition, firing over each other’s shoulders.
The M-4 rifle and the M-249 SAW are the Army’s primary weapons for room clearing. The M-4 is a stumpy version of the M-16 rifle. The SAW is a large belt-fed machine gun. Prior to Kuwait, I’d fired the SAW on a range in South Carolina.
A soldier named Wallace had manned the SAW on that range. Fresh from a yearlong tour in Sadr City, Sergeant Wallace’s eyes had been jaundiced and he’d smelled like a burnt-out match.
Wallace had talked me through procedures to load, fire, and clear the SAW. He warned me not to rest my cheek against the stock, because the recoil would knock my teeth out. Then he gave me a belt of 15 rounds and sat on a log to watch.
The ground in front of the SAW had been dug out and blackened by muzzle blast. The gun itself smelled like ammonia. I loaded the bullets, charged the bolt, and looked downrange. My target was a broken-down armored personnel carrier one mile away. I brushed aside the shell casings left over from the previous shooter and lay down on my stomach to fire. I shut my eyes to pull the trigger, then opened them to see the hits.
I didn’t expect to see the bullets. I watched them rise and glide the distance, like sparrows off a fence. Without taking my eyes off them, I asked Wallace, “How often did you fire this thing in Iraq?”
Sparks flew off the side of the APC where my bullets hit. A second later I heard the pings, and Wallace answered my question.
“Every day,” he said. “Every muh-fuckin’ day.”
I’d wondered what the SAW could do in a living room. On day one in Kuwait, the sergeant running the range spelled it out for us.
“You’ll kick down a door and find a haji balled up in the corner,” he said. "’Cause let me tell you, when four dudes bust into your house with a full combat load, you can’t get small enough.
“But this one time, true story, a haji came at us with an AK. Now, every household in Iraq is allowed one AK. So you gotta be careful. You can’t just shoot somebody ‘cause he’s got one. But if he points it at you, like this guy did, different story.
“So the first guy in hits the haji with a burst from his M-4, but he doesn’t go down. The second guy in hits him with another burst. Still doesn’t go down. Then the SAW gunner comes in and opens fire, and the haji just flies apart.”
Our platoon had always cheered dead-haji stories, but not this time. The change, I think, had to do with us having just had machine guns fired right over our shoulders. When I say “right over our shoulders,” I mean I could’ve turned my head and bit the muzzle. Each shot felt like a Vulcan death grip. This made it easy to imagine being shot, which made it easy to imagine being a haji. It also reminded me of a song by the Clash.
When they kick in your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?
I used to think those questions were rhetorical, but now I see there’s a choice.
Convoy training was so different from close-quarters marksmanship we could have been training for a different war.
Our mission was to drive eight Humvees down six kilometers of road without getting blown up by an IED. Obstacles along the way included an overpass, a culvert, a four-way intersection, a traffic circle, an angry mob, and a sniper. Remember, this training took place in the middle of the desert, so the road was just a path plowed through the sand. The stop signs, the guardrails, the houses, the phone poles, the overpass, and the sniper tower were plywood props. Third-country nationals, or TCNs, played the sniper and the angry mob. All of the above, except the IEDs, could be defeated with maneuvering and speed.
The only way to defeat the IEDs was to avoid them, and in order to avoid them we had to see them. In order to see them, we were taught to look for anything out of the ordinary. The problem, however, is that everything in a war zone is out of the ordinary.
This led one guy to make the following radio call: “I have a suspicious rock at 2 o’clock!” He was not alone. Guys were calling dirt, reflections, and shadows. Each call stopped the convoy, sometimes for an hour, while the simulated bomb squad came out to defuse the simulated IED. It took us four and a half hours to drive the six kilometers.
Once convoy training ended, the sandstorm began. Visibility deteriorated, and the sun shrank to an angry little dot.
We left the desert in a bus. The driver used a compass to navigate through the sandstorm. He drove slowly, stopping occasionally to allow the way ahead to present itself. It would briefly oblige. Eventually, we reached tent city.
What differentiates tent city from the open desert, at least during a sandstorm, is the crushed gravel paths. These paths connect the tents, and it was easy to look straight down and follow them. One such path led me to the shower tent, another to the food tent. A third took me to the USO, which was a big, dimly lit, and well-furnished tent. The lady who ran the place did so from a leather recliner.
“Take your boots off, hon,” she told me. So I did.
I typed my first dispatch on a USO computer, then fell asleep on the shag carpet. There I dreamt I was a truck driver. I drove my truck into a tunnel, but the trailer didn’t fit. My truck got stuck, and I got out to have a look. The trailer had failed to clear by an inch. Looking at the problem, I felt the solution was right in front of my face, but I couldn’t see it. Then a little boy appeared and said, “Let the air out of the tires.” And it worked.
I woke to the USO lady throwing a fit about her recliner.
“No one leaves until I find my chair!” she yelled, while unplugging all the computers, Xboxes, wide-screen TVs, etc., so that she had our full attention. Then she turned on the overhead lights. In the overwhelming brightness, it was still unclear how she’d lost her chair.
“I can’t believe there are 30 people in here and not one of you has seen my chair!” she said.
Fortunately, the USO lady’s chair was not my problem. It was time for me to go. I slung my rifle over my shoulder and walked out.
From the USO, I walked to my tent. The sandstorm had passed, but some rogue sand was still blowing around. Inside my tent, I loaded my bullets and dressed to leave. I formed up with my platoon in the sand, and the chaplain called us in for a prayer.
The faithful walked toward the chaplain, the dubious walked away, and I stood in the resulting void.
“We all here?” Chaps asked.
No one answered.
“OK, if you’re not here speak up!” he said. “That was a joke, people!”
Chaps prayed about duty, honor, and country. He prayed about sacrifice, using examples from the war we were about to enter. While he prayed, the TCN waiting to drive us to the airfield got off his bus and smoked a cigarette.
Standing outside a combat prayer circle is a good way to get a one-on-one with the chaplain. But I didn’t think about that. Instead, I thought about what the chaplain said.
The prayer ended with a mumbled “Amen,” and the chaplain came after me. He kicked up sand as he closed the distance between us.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“OK,” I said.
“Well, it might not turn out OK, all right? It might turn out absolutely not OK. And it might be hard to get through, OK? I want you to think about that.”
“OK,” I said. “Thanks.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Chaps, and he winked.
The bus driver started the engine and the platoon began to board. The dubious were still unaccounted for, so we shouted their names over our shoulders while the chaplain walked off to find them.