In the office where I get my coffee, there’s a couch with a broken leg. This office is in an outpost on the eastern edge of the grounds of Al Faw Palace, where Saddam used to hunt lions. Some say these lions were retired from the circus, and that Saddam shot them from his helicopter. Others say the lions were wild and that Saddam was a genuine hunter. I draw my coffee from the same urn used by the Iraqi guards who once manned this outpost. I sit on the stable end of their old couch.
Al Faw is a beautiful place, especially at sunset. The sky is pink, and the breeze that rolls off the silver lakes smells like mint. Because the palace offers four-star accommodations, Al Faw is a favorite stop for VIPs. Chuck Norris, Katie Couric, and John McCain have all stayed there. I, too, stayed there, on the admiral’s coattails, back when I was his speechwriter.
We’d flown to Iraq in the admiral’s private jet, over the Atlantic, then over Gibraltar and the pyramids. I’d had a war speech in mind ever since we’d left the Pentagon, but it wasn’t until we were escorted through the gates of Al Faw and I was shown my room, with its chandelier, king-size bed, and ivory desk, that I was able to sit down and write it. What that night seemed timeless turned out, by morning, to be nothing but platitudes.
Today VIPs convoy around the palace grounds from outpost to outpost, trying to articulate the meaning behind the sacrifices of those they meet. Due to security concerns, an outpost will receive little official warning of their visits. Unofficially, however, a network exists between outposts. Someone will catch a glimpse of a VIP’s itinerary and call those on the list. This is how the office I’m in knows to expect a VIP.
The people who work in this office provide administrative support to me and my now disbanded platoon, the ex-members of which are scattered all over Iraq. As I await transport to my final destination, I come to this office because the coffee is good. Plus, I get to visit my rifle, which is locked up in the armory.
My first day in this office, I updated my emergency data. If I die, these are the instructions the casualty-assistance team will follow to help get my family back on their feet. To that end I provided codes, passwords, account numbers, and timelines. I also drew maps. For example, I mapped from the front door of my house to each of my kids’ desks at school. I mapped the route my wife likes to walk around the lake.
Although the VIP’s visit is still hours away, the focus of effort in the office shifts from filling out emergency-data forms to making the place look good. I’m still on the couch when Chief Petty Officer Ng and his boss come to have a look at the broken leg.
“Can you put something under it?” asks the boss.
Ng holds up an index finger and runs off. He returns with volume 8 of The Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Ng’s boss hangs his head. “The undersecretary of the office of legislative affairs is coming to visit. And you want to prop up the couch with the UCMJ?”
“It just the appendix,” says Ng.
“Tell you what,” says the boss. “Let’s get a new couch instead.”
“There is no try,” says the boss in a Yoda voice.
Ng blinks, Yoda’s wisdom lost on him. Meanwhile, the boss is called off to mitigate another crisis.
“If I were you, I leave,” Ng whispers to me.
Although Ng and I are separated by differences in rank, culture, and vowels, we have something in common. Years ago, the two of us witnessed a miracle in the hangar bay of the USS Nimitz.
The Nimitz was steaming off the coast of Taiwan when a sailor lost his footing on a high catwalk and fell 40 feet into the supply overflow. This was where parts too big and heavy to store anywhere else were kept. Working our way from opposite ends, through stacks of radars, generators, and tow tractors, Ng and I arrived on scene simultaneously. There we found the sailor, a 19-year-old kid, reclining on a crushed box of toilet paper.
Whenever the guy on Armed Forces Network radio warns me to wear my seat belt, quit smoking, or submit to a prostate exam, I think of that kid. I think he’s grown up now and making these public-service announcements. And, if I listen closely, I can hear his wife and kids playing in the background, and a bluebird in a tree.
The moment Ng and I realized the sailor was alive we looked each other in the eye. What passed between us was complete. Therefore, despite the fact that I remember Ng, and I’m sure he remembers me, we don’t say a word about the miracle.
Just then the front door to the outpost opens and a pre-party to the VIP’s official party enters to inspect for booby traps. One of the inspectors feels up and down the front-door jamb. “Don’t mind us!” he announces. “Just go about your business!”
“Go!” says Ng, pointing to the back door.
I drain my coffee and exit.
Out back, there’s a welding shop where rolls of sheet metal are turned into signs. These signs, which are mounted to the backs of Humvees, Strykers, and tanks, say, “STAY BACK 100 METERS OR YOU WILL BE SHOT.” An assembly line has been set up to outfit the surge of vehicles. Station One cuts the sign. Station Two spray paints the message. Station Three welds the mount. Here red-hot sparks roll around like marbles.
Beyond the welding shop is a high indigenous wall made of dirt. At points along the wall, guard shacks stand on stilts. Inside the guard shacks, Biafrans in shiny black helmets carry 50-caliber machine guns.
I follow the wall to a stream, which is full of giant, whiskered carp. Trained by soldiers who feed them cheeseburgers and pizza, these carp rush toward me. They fight on top of the water, then on the bank of the stream, to be closest to me.
I lead the carp upstream to a lake, where they scatter to any number of soldiers sitting on the lake’s edge, waiting for sunset. At the center of the lake is the palace. I find the balcony of the room I stayed in during the admiral’s visit, but no one’s there.
I walk around the lake past what were the summer homes of Baath Party officials, whose panoramic windows are now sandbagged. Their pools and waterfalls are dry. Bridges that once connected their backyards are cracked in two.
The lake gives way to a lagoon surrounded by tall reeds. In the reeds, there’s a half-sunken party boat. Dragonflies buzz by, golden-winged sparrows hop along the muddy ground, and bats test the edges of the shadows.
Beyond the lagoon, I stand at the end of a long straight road. On one side of the road is a dust bowl spotted with clover, then a chain-link fence, then Iraq. On the other side of the road is a field of debris. This debris, composed of dirt, shoes, and bedsprings, is organized into little hills. On the debris side of the road is a sidewalk, which ends after just three squares.
A few years ago I deployed to Afghanistan, to a mile-high base surrounded by mountains. A long straight road ran down the center of this base, and a Korean construction battalion was brought in to build a sidewalk alongside it. For whatever reason—lack of materials, oxygen, or interest—the Koreans built maybe one sidewalk square per week. Whenever they completed a square, they circled it with a string of blinking lights.
A pickup truck pulls up next to me. It’s Ng. “What? You loss?”
“No, I’m just walking.”
“Nobody walk ow here.”
Ng opens the passenger-side door. I get in.
“I take you home,” Ng says. “But first I pick up new cow.”
Ng drives down the road at 120 miles an hour. Goats, a hundred meters behind the chain-link fence inside Iraq, jump out of our way. Hills of debris whiz by. We rocket past a palace with a roof like soft-serve ice cream. We beat a fighter jet across the approach end of a runway. Finally, we reach an outpost on the western border of the palace grounds.
Leaving the pickup running, Ng and I enter the outpost. There we find the guards who’d once occupied our outpost, lounging on the same type of couch, brewing coffee in the same type of urn. A guard with worry beads shouts, “Sanji!” and a young Iraqi woman with stoplight lips appears.
“Hello!” she says with a British accent. “You are here for the couch?”
Sanji gets between Ng and I in the pickup and immediately starts fiddling with the radio. Over the static, she gives Ng directions: “Please, straight” and “Please, turn.” Unsure of where he’s going, Ng drives slowly. As we roll in and out of potholes, I feel carsick.
Sanji has yet to find music when we arrive at a corrugated-tin warehouse, where, it appears, the hills of debris I saw earlier are broken down into individual piles of bedsprings, shoes, and dirt. At the center of this production is the couch, half-covered by a plastic sheet.
We are looking at the back of this couch, which is identical to the old couch in our office, except it has four legs instead of three. Ng says nothing. He keeps his distance.
Sanji senses Ng’s hesitation. “You are welcome to inspect it,” she says. Then she calls to a man wearing a cowboy hat.
“Remove the plastic,” Sanji tells the cowboy. The cowboy obeys, then tries to fluff the unfluffable cushions.
Ng remains stone-faced. Sanji looks to me and I shrug.
“Turn it around so they can sit,” she says to the cowboy.
The cowboy lifts one end of the couch and an enormous rat shoots out. The rat hits a patch of sunlight and squeals. Sanji screams and performs a flashdance. The rat runs to the perimeter of the warehouse, where it knocks over some bedsprings. I hear it chewing through the tin wall to effect its escape.
“Aaah! Aaah! Aaah!” Sanji’s panic continues unabated until the cowboy takes her in his arms and hugs it out of her. Afterward, they laugh and he wipes away her tears.
“I am so sorry. I have a phobia,” Sanji says to Ng and me. She pats her heart.
“I ask for different cow,” Ng tells her. “This cow same as old cow.”
Ng’s disappointment snaps Sanji out of her phobia. “OK,” she says. “If you don’t like this couch, then I will get you a new one. I will get you a new one right away. Our suppliers must learn that second best will not do. When we ask for the best we want the best. They must learn.”
Sanji signals to the cowboy to cover the couch. He unfurls the plastic sheet and it floats over the couch. Meanwhile, Ng, Sanji, and I get back in the pickup.
“I am very sorry,” she says to Ng. “I assure you I will no longer deal with these people if they are cheaters! If they want to play games!”
Ng puts the pickup in drive and rolls toward Sanji’s outpost. Falling in the potholes we are weightless.
Sanji giggles. “I am also sorry about my phobia,” she says. “But there is only one mouse I like, and his name is Mookey”.
“Mickey,” says Ng.
“Yes, of course, Mickey.”
The potholes knock us together, then apart. The sunset blazes in all three mirrors.
Sanji asks, “Is it true that for every election one-third of your people vote for Mickey?”
“Probably,” says Ng. “It is democracy.”
“That is wonderful,” she says.