The concrete landing zone is a conduit for the day’s heat, which transfers laterally from the mud, then vertically into the damp and moonless night. This conduction lends the LZ a dull orange glow, and as I stand at its edge it seems to detach from the earth and float away. I have to stare it back into place.
I’m waiting for a helicopter. Others are waiting, too, while sorting the sky for shapes darker than night. These shapes are helicopters flying with their lights off, so they won’t be shot down. The beat of their rotors, from a distance, sounds like whippoorwills and bullfrogs.
A man stands in the mud next to me. “Hi, I’m Bob,” he says. “Where are you going?”
I regard Bob by the glow of the LZ. He is a civilian in khaki pants and a collared shirt. Whatever organization he’s with has given him a salad bowl for a helmet.
“Ramadi,” I tell him.
“Great. Me too.”
I smile at Bob, he smiles at me, and we’re hit by a blast of wind.
Our helicopter drops out of the night. Blue static crackles off its two giant rotors. Each rotor makes its own rain, drops of which track up my face. I’m back on my heels, and so is Bob. Someone behind us yells “Go!”
I step onto the LZ and under the spinning rotors. The drop in pressure lifts from my pocket a page on which I’d scribbled my day’s notes. The page hovers over my head like an idea, until a passing blade snaps it away.
The helicopter’s door is blocked by a machine gun. The gun is mounted on a bar that bisects the door. I poke my head under the bar to look for answers. I see soldiers strapped into jump seats, soldiers who have presumably solved the riddle of how to board. They seem only mildly interested in how I’ll solve it myself.
Meanwhile, there’s a line behind me to the door, and a line from there to another LZ, and a line from there to a firefight, at the edge of which there’s a soldier on full automatic. His bullets chime into the chamber, one after the other, like a slot-machine jackpot.
There is space under the machine gun, so I dive through it. I have no idea how stupid this looks to the soldiers aboard the helicopter, until Bob follows suit.
Bob skids in like a fish. His helmet pops off his head and rolls toward a rectangular opening in the floorboards called the hellhole. A soldier seated in front of the hellhole stops Bob’s helmet with his boot.
Bob retrieves his helmet thankfully, and sits down next to me. We spend a long time untangling our seat belts and strapping in. I get situated just in time to see an old lady with a white purse board via the rear.
This old lady carries her purse in the crook of her arm. She walks up the loading ramp and alongside boxes of ammunition stacked aft of the hellhole. She stops to tap one of these boxes with her finger, perhaps to see if it’s real. I don’t blame her. Each wooden box is individually branded and cobwebbed, as if it were assembled in a ghost town.
The old lady toddles past the hellhole, and finds a seat across from Bob and me. She wipes her seat off with a hanky, then turns to sit. She smiles at me and I want to smile back. However, I’m afraid to acknowledge her in any way, after what happened with the dwarf.
I saw the dwarf on a base outside Baghdad. Moments before I saw him, three mortar rounds fell from the sky. These mortars, which ripped straight down one after the other, lent a planetary scale to the outdoor food court in which I stood. Afterward, the air was dusty and steamed, and I had mixed feelings about the atmosphere.
On one hand, it kept my blood from boiling, and otherwise kept me alive in ways that I never had to think about. On the other hand, it afforded me zero protection. I thought about the dinosaurs, and the variations of life that survived the meteor, and wondered what form those variations would take today.
Meanwhile, over at the coffee shop stood a living, breathing dwarf. I saw him at the takeout window, through clouds of dust. He wore a beard and glasses. Standing on his tiptoes, he lifted his mocha from the shelf and with both hands pulled it to his chest. He sipped it through a straw and seemed refreshed. He caught me staring at him, and winked.
Just then Giant Voice echoed off the T-walls.
“In-in-in-in-COMING! K-k-k-k-COMING! Uh-uh-uh-uh-UHMING!”
But there were no more mortars. People got off the ground and dusted themselves off. Crows returned to earth and folded their wings.
Members of my platoon, for whom I was on my way across the food court to buy coffee, were alive and well at a picnic table behind me. I returned to them empty-handed.
By the time I joined them, the narrative of what we’d just lived through was in progress. Lieutenant Mock, who had been pulled from sailing-instructor duty at Annapolis to replace a sleepwalker in Iraq, held out his hand to show it was shaking. Sergeant Octavio pulled out a curlicue pipe and smoked it. Everybody was telling their mortar stories and the crazy things they saw, when I said, “Like that dwarf.”
“What dwarf?” Octavio asked through a whirl of smoke.
“At the coffee shop,” I said.
“Fuck me,” said Mock. “If there’s a dwarf here then bring back that sleepwalker.”
Octavio pointed the unlit end of his pipe at me and said, “There’s no dwarves here. Because how’s a dwarf drive a Humvee? How’s he shoot a gun?”
Gortney came to my defense. “Dude, there’s tons of stuff for a dwarf to do. He could fly a drone, or sell minivans.”
“Yeah, but guess what?” Octavio said. “There is no dwarf.”
All of them looked at me.
“He was at the coffee shop,” I said, pointing.
But the only sign of life at the coffee shop was a barista, who poked his head through the take-out window to observe the aftermath.
I watched the old lady figure out her seat belt via slow, exaggerated movements while holding the buckle right in front of her face. When she got the buckle to work, she cinched the lap belt down and rested her hands on her thighs. If this had been my pre-dawn bus ride to the Pentagon, she’d have unzipped her purse and pulled out her knitting project. Then I’d have dozed to the click-clack of her needles.
But we were in a helicopter, which ascended so quickly it came as a surprise that being aloft was not an end in itself. Then it either tilted toward our destination or stayed in a hover and let the earth’s rotation bring Ramadi closer. Either way, darkness rolled under the hellhole.
My last trip to Ramadi was as the admiral’s speechwriter. Ramadi was one of the last stops on our fact-finding mission to Iraq, for which we had our own Black Hawk, plus another in case that one broke, plus two Apaches armed with rockets. Those four helicopters took us counterclockwise around Iraq, while somehow managing to keep us in perpetual noon. Likewise, we saw the same stuff over and over, with each bright and shining place lasting no longer than absolutely necessary.
Typically, upon arrival we’d be escorted to an indigenous display of gratitude—for example, 13 cops dancing to squealing oboes outside a jail. But Ramadi was different. Ramadi was held by the Marines.
The general who met us at the LZ led us single file into an auditorium, where 300 Marines stood at silent attention. Not one of them so much as cleared his throat while the admiral walked down the aisle to the stage.
By the time we’d reached Ramadi, the admiral had his speech memorized. My job, then, was to write down what other people said to him.
And the people, like the places they inhabited, repeated themselves. What’s more, we—the admiral and his staff—had accurately predicted 99 percent of what they were going to say, this during prep sessions at the Pentagon.
With the admiral’s speech memorized and audience participation all but canned, there was almost no need for me to be there, except, of course, to deal with the remaining 1 percent.
Without exception, this 1 percent was male. His grooming standards and body-fat percentage were atrocious and his age-to-rank ratio was out of whack. When he stood, his shirt lifted out of his pants to expose a pie-shaped section of gut. He kept a running tab of grievances on a crumpled sheet of paper. In Ramadi, his name was Gordon.
“My ex-mother-in-law is still living with me, at my house, and I can’t get the Navy to pay for her root canal,” said Gordon.
Faced with a conundrum like this, the admiral would point at his eyes. What began as the sign for victory was flipped and brought in, until the tip of each finger was a centimeter away from each eye. It was a bad habit that bought him time. It also served as my signal to move in.
Gordon stood at the center of the audience. As I made my way to him, his platoon sergeant, a man with cauliflower ear, came at him from the opposite side. Meanwhile, the admiral responded to Gordon.
“Make no mistake,” the admiral began.
During one of our prep sessions back at the Pentagon, the Navy’s top dentist had given us a brief in which he’d used the phrase “make no mistake” 27 times. I always kept count, and his was the third-highest on record. The mistake we weren’t supposed to make was to lose faith in the Navy/Marine Corps team’s commitment to dental readiness.
Judging by his posture alone, Gordon had lost faith in everything. It was important I reach him before his platoon sergeant.
By airing his dirty laundry before the admiral, Gordon had embarrassed his entire chain of command, from the general on down. Because Gordon’s platoon sergeant was at the bottom of that chain of command, it would fall on him to solve Gordon’s ex-mother-in-law’s root-canal bill. Meanwhile, there were the insurgents to deal with.
To mitigate the jeopardy Gordon had put himself in, I needed to establish a line of communication between us.
Luckily I reached Gordon first, just as the admiral wrapped up his response. “So you and your dependents will have viable dental alternatives long into the future,” he said.
“Come with me,” I whispered to Gordon. I led him out of the auditorium and into the hall, where we stood face to face. I pulled out my pen and paper and waited for the platoon sergeant, who stopped just short of Gordon’s temple. There was a black pinhole in his cauliflower ear to let in sound.
“What’s your e-mail address?” I asked Gordon.
“Yeah. That won’t do you any good, because the Internet sucks here. Which reminds me. How am I ever supposed to take my online promotion exam if I can’t ever get online?”
“Maybe you could give me your number?”
“What? Like a phone number?” Gordon snorted. “First, try finding a phone here that isn’t pulled off the wall, then try getting a divorce over it without getting screwed. By the way, that’s how the phones get pulled off the wall in the first place.”
Through the auditorium doors came the admiral’s farewell, in which he conjured our fathers and their fathers’ fathers, and promised everyone their place in history.
From the opposite end of the hall came the sound of our helicopters starting, one by one.
Then security banged open the auditorium doors, and out came the admiral. He was a fair-skinned Swede, still blond in his 50s, and still glowing from a combination of residual stage light and the audience’s projected hope.
As he passed, the admiral said to Gordon, “Good luck.”
“I’m gonna need it,” Gordon answered.
Security closed ranks behind the admiral, and I needed to fall in behind them. Our helicopters were ready to go.
“The real problem is I still love my wife,” Gordon said.
“I have to go,” I told him.
“See? My busted watch is still on her time zone,” Gordon continued.
I looked to the platoon sergeant for help, and he smiled like he’d been stabbed. “Sorry to waste your time,” he said to me. Then he put his arm around Gordon and led him away.
With the helicopter’s warm engines overhead, and a cool breeze blowing through the gunner’s door, my night flight to Ramadi is as relaxing as a fall afternoon. Slung between the two rotors, my jump seat sways like a hammock. By the evergreen light of the cockpit, I see the old lady napping, her head resting on a first-aid kit.
Somewhere along the way, light comes crashing through the hellhole, bright enough to make waves on the ceiling. I look down to see a floodlit span of tractor-trailers packed in so tightly no man could fit between them. It’s an accomplishment on par with Hoover Dam. After a full minute of this, darkness returns. An hour later we log the softest landing ever.
Bob jolts up and asks me, “Is this Ramadi?” His anxiety transfers wholesale.
I try to stand, but my seat belt throws me back down. I unbuckle and stand. I walk like a toddler toward the gunner, who remains tethered to the hull. I get as close to him as possible, to a spot under the engine that turns the front rotors.
“Ramadi?” I yell.
The gunner flips up his night-vision goggles and says something more complicated than yes or no.
I pull out one earplug. The engine sounds like the apocalypse. The oil it leaks on my shoulder smells like bong water.
“Ramadi?” I ask again.
The gunner turns my head for me and yells right in my ear.
“Affirmative!” he says.
I return to my seat and nod to Bob. I collect my backpack and rifle as Bob and everyone else unbuckles. I exit via the loading ramp, which, I discover, isn’t all the way down. After a short free-fall, I land in Ramadi.
Ramadi is a red chem light attached to a fire extinguisher. I walk toward it and into the rotor wash, which twists my rifle on its sling and tosses the contents of my backpack to one side. Meanwhile, my collar lifts out from under my bulletproof vest and whacks me in the eye. Streaming tears, I make unsteady progress toward the chem light, until a soldier stops me with two palms to my chest.
“Don’t move!” he says.
He turns on a lamp that hangs by a strap around his neck. By this light, he reads my nametag and checks me off on a clipboard.
“Stay here!” he says. Then he goes to stop the next passenger, and the next, and so on.
As the soldier performs this duty, a forklift carries the first load of ammunition away from the helicopter, and its headlights illuminate a guy taking a whiz. Apparently, the guy is standing right where the forklift wants to go. He’s making bubbles in the crushed gravel there. Meanwhile, the helicopter is waiting, which means the war is waiting. The pisser must know this.
The forklift turns to find a new spot to unload the ammunition, and its headlights sweep the other passengers and me. I see that the soldier with the clipboard has inadvertently stopped us in a patrol formation. This fact, plus the distortion of our faces when lit from below, reminds me of the Korean War Memorial. We might as well be bronzed. Then the soldier with the clipboard says something to the last person in formation, which gets curled up in an eddy of rotor wash and delivered to my ear: Welcome to the war.