Iraqis stuff rags, blankets, and foam in their windows against God knows what. Heat, perhaps, or noise. Maybe light. We get in regardless.
In one Iraqi home, I keep backing into a queen-size roll of foam poking out of a window. The foam extends into the middle of the room, and is visible on night-vision goggles as that which is not space. Across from it four women sit against a wall, having sorted themselves by age. I’m guarding these women, who present an evolution in sorrow, which registers on the goggles as an evergreen glow.
The youngest, maybe 7, glows the least. But like a fish reeled up from the depths too quickly, her eyes are ruined. One points toward 2 o’clock, the other toward 9.
“Why are you here?” the girl wants to know.
She asks this question over and over. So often, in fact, I wonder if she knows this is my last mission, after which I leave Iraq for good, and she’s trying to put a hex on me.
“Shhh,” I try.
“Be quiet, dear,” says the eldest woman.
I can understand Arabic if I pay attention. It’s like listening to Zeppelin backward.
I can understand the dogs, too. Wild dogs are everywhere in Iraq, especially at night. For example, one followed me across an irrigated field to the house where I guard the women. “Woof, woof, woof,” it said, until we both stopped on an island of hardened mud to rest. There the dog looked at me and said, “Sometimes sedition, sometimes blight.”
When I got home I had to look up “sedition.” I also looked up a poem by Kipling called “Boots,” which the dogs like to recite when covering large distances. Come to find out the poem is about a man marching through the Sahara, and all he sees, day after day, are the boots of the men marching in front of him. The sight eventually drives him insane, so by the end of the poem the dogs are screaming, with spit flying from their mouths:
“BOOTS! BOOTS! MOVING UP AND DOWN AGAIN!”
“Why are you here?” asks the girl. She’s getting braver, louder.
Meanwhile, the same pressure that has crystallized the sorrow in these women has bent the walls. Bowed outward, the walls focus sound. We are searching the place.
What we find, typically, are guns, bayonets, skeleton keys, piles of worthless cash, wedding videos, and little notes.
The notes are like the ones I passed in sixth grade: a page folded to a cubic centimeter, then bound in Scotch tape.
The notes might help us track down those responsible for executing Iraqi police. This is on the Internet for all to see: 11 cops, blindfolded and kneeling as an insurgent goes down the line, shooting them in the back of the head. POW, topple. POW, topple. Et cetera. The last cop, however, gets shot, then bolts like a sprinter out of blocks. Two steps later he topples.
One cop they pull from the breakfast table and force into his own backyard, smiling or terrified, to read from a script denouncing everything.
“Here I am kneeling in my little garden with morning glories,” he says.
Sometimes the notes we find hold clues about the killers. We give the notes to our intelligence officer, who takes them to the interpreter.
The interpreter, a 7-foot-tall acromegalic woman, has delivered us pipe-hitters, ringleaders, and masterminds. She is worth her weight in gold. Therefore, anything she wants, she gets.
She works from a porch swing hung with chains below a reinforced veranda. She mists the flowers that surround her with a special wand. When she turns this wand on her face she closes her eyes, each of which is made up like a sunrise.
The interpreter cuts the tape with her pinkie nail and unfolds each twisted stage of the note. After all it’s been through, the note looks less like paper and more like broken glass or skin.
This happens at the center of an American base, in front of the building where I check my e-mail, and well out of the range of mortars. As the interpreter reads the note, two mortars slam into the buffer.
“This one has had his heart broken,” the interpreter explains to the intelligence officer.
“THERE HAS BEEN AN INDIRECT FIRE ATTACK!” says Giant Voice.
“By who?” asks the intelligence officer.
“I’m thinking about a pool. Right here,” says the interpreter. Then she flings her giant hand to approximate its dimensions.
Wherever the trail of broken hearts leads, I can assure you, the refrigerator will be padlocked. This is true of every Iraqi home I entered, whether insurgents lived there or not. A corollary to that rule is that the floors will be made of stone, or dirt so compact it might as well be stone. Either way, the sound of a dresser falling over will be identical to that of a shotgun blast.
We open the refrigerators with bolt cutters, and inside we find pails of cream stacked like a carnival game.
Step right up!
“Why are you here?”
It’s the girl again, the one I’m guarding, and it’s gotten to the point of answering her. Rather than make that mistake, I walk out of the room.
Meanwhile, the rest of the guys are coming down from the roof, walking past me and down the stairs. The last one puts his hand on my shoulder like he’s got bad news.
“Last man,” he tells me.
So I leave the women behind and follow the penultimate man downstairs, where a member of the bomb squad is holding a perfume bottle.
Inside the bottle is an amber liquid. The bomb squad guy squeezes the bulb on the atomizer and sniffs what comes out.
“It’s perfume,” the bomb-squad guy says to the ground-force commander.
“You,” says the ground-force commander to me. “Stand with this by the door, and create a cloud for us to walk through.”
So I do, and we leave smelling good.
Outside, it’s twilight and the dogs are waiting. And like the cartoon where Foghorn Leghorn and the Barnyard Dawg punch the clock and say good morning before they start the chase, each of us pairs off with a dog.
My dog barks alongside me through streets strewn with sewage. He chases me into the lavender dawn. At some point he breaks contact, only to shout Kipling’s lyrics over the distance:
Seven-six-eleven-five-nine-and-twenty miles today!
Four-eleven-seventeen-and-thirty-two the day before!
Boots-boots-boots-boots-moving up and down again!
There’s no discharge in the war!
The closest thing I find to discharge is when, after the mission is over, I shut the door to the trailer in which I sleep. While I’m sleeping, the power goes out, which kills the air conditioning. When the heat wakes me up I go outside.
Outside is monochromatic, an optical illusion produced by the midday sun. This usually lasts a few minutes, when everything from crows to puffy clouds appears in a single primary color. Which color, I believe, tells me what kind of day to expect. Red is bad, yellow is so-so, and blue is good. My last day in Iraq is red.
So I spend the day in motion, never staying in any one place for any length of time, so as to avoid becoming a headline:
SOLDIER HIT BY MORTAR
ON LAST DAY IN IRAQ
And it works. Although mortars fall, they slam like doors on arguments that are none of my business. Afterward, Giant Voice provides counsel, and I continue to put one foot in front of the other.
Around midnight I follow another soldier up the loading ramp of a C-130 bound for Kuwait. I follow him into a brightly lit cargo bay lined with jump seats. I stop when he stops. I sit when he sits. The soldier behind me, the one behind him, and so on to the end of the line, all follow suit. Once everyone is seated it’s lights out.
Taxiing feels like a haunted-house ride, and takeoff feels like hitting a pothole. We climb over the base perimeter, then zigzag around the ditches and sunflowers where attackers like to hide. Meanwhile, our flares illuminate the cargo bay through fiberglass patches in the hull.
Afterward, all energy goes into the climb. The higher we go, the cooler and darker it gets, until, at altitude, the cargo bay feels like the bottom of a dry well. The droning propellers help to lull my fellow travelers to sleep. But I can’t sleep, because the whole time I’ve been in Iraq I’ve been nocturnal, and this is my noon.
We land in Kuwait, where we join hundreds of other homebound soldiers at customs. Customs is a process, which begins with amnesty. Amnesty is a white booth at the center of a warehouse. We enter amnesty one at a time, through a blue curtain. Beyond the curtain is a clean, well-lit space, in which we are supposed to deposit our war trophies.
The assumption, of course, is that everyone has a war trophy. Mine is a teapot.
I found the teapot while on patrol in Hit, on a night when the full moon made my night-vision goggles all but useless. Flanked by dogs on either side, we were on our way to a house with a padlocked refrigerator, when our point man spotted three men out after curfew. As these men spoke to one another under a blinking streetlight, we debated whether or not to shoot them. Those of us not involved in the debate took cover, I behind a dump truck.
With each blink the streetlight changed color from pink to orange to lavender. A trickle of sewage eroded a miniature canyon down the middle of the street. Behind us, a giant mastiff barked from the top of a four-story dirt mound.
I saw the teapot in the moon shadow of the dump truck, and studied it through the goggles. It was dented and scorched like it had been through a meteor shower and re-entry. Not seeing any wires, I lifted its silver-dollar lid. Inside was empty. This all took place a few nights after Kurt Vonnegut died.
When I got news of Vonnegut’s passing, I started rereading Slaughterhouse-Five. Just hours before I went on patrol in Hit, I’d gotten to the part where Edgar Derby is sentenced to death for stealing a teapot from the Dresden corpse mines.
With this in mind, I stuffed the teapot in my backpack. Meanwhile, the men who were out after curfew—police, insurgents, citizens, or all three—said their good-nights and went home. After they were gone, the patrol was redressed, and we continued our tiptoe through the funhouse streets of Hit. Meanwhile, the teapot pressed against my back.
The whole idea of amnesty is that no matter what you’d found, captured, stolen, or killed for, you could leave it in the booth and walk away without consequence. This strikes me as a bad idea. So when I exit amnesty through a second blue curtain, it’s with the teapot in my backpack.
Somehow, despite numerous X-rays and searches, my teapot is not discovered. Or, more likely, every time it is discovered it’s deemed worthless by someone who has never read Slaughterhouse-Five. Nevertheless, I bring it home, where it serves as a reminder.
And home is where I’m reminded of the difference between fear of the unknown and love. Having survived the first, the latter is all I see.
I’m reunited with my wife and kids in the baggage claim area of Baltimore/Washington International Airport, where we are happy beyond mention of what’s just ended.
In this spirit my 6-year-old son hands me a note folded a million times over and wrapped in Scotch tape. This happens in the airport’s parking garage. Like the acromegalic interpreter, I cut the note open with a fingernail and unfold it. It’s a drawing of a black-and-blue heart.
Then my daughter, with her perfect brown eyes, asks me, in effect, the same question that the girl on my last mission asked over and over.
“Do you have to go back?”
To Iraq, she means. And I might.
Which makes me want to put my wife and kids in the car and drive as far away as possible, past the Northwest and Yukon territories, to parts unknown. There we’d be masters of our own destiny. There, too, it’d be dark half the year and light half the year, giving me time to come to terms with both.
My first night home feels like the end of the day. I sleep and dream of snow.
One thing I forgot to mention: Iraqi families sleep all together in whirlpool formations. Whether they start out this way or not, I don’t know. If they start out parallel to one another, my guess is they’re brought together in their sleep by the Coriolis effect. In any case, this is how we find them.
My first night home, my family and I, dog included, sleep in a whirlpool formation on top of our king-size bed. I wake up with the dog, who does not send me to the dictionary nor recite Kipling. She just wants to go outside. So I remove myself from the family sleep vortex and follow the dog downstairs.
My uniform, the one I wore home the night before, and the one I wore on my last mission in Iraq, is on the back of a kitchen chair. I put it on and catch a whiff of the perfume I applied to the assault force on our way out the door.
I take my dog out on a leash and she pulls me around the block. Along the way, I see new trees either propped up or held down with wire. There’s all this light without heat, and the overwhelming smell of dirt.
Back home, the kids are awake. When I tell them I have to go to the Pentagon, they attach themselves to me, one kid per leg, and won’t let go. It takes a while to convince them I’ll return.
The reason I have to go to the Pentagon, and to the office of the admiral for whom I wrote speeches, is to submit my leave of absence. Otherwise I’m AWOL.
So in I go. I park on the side of the building that was hit on 9/11, near the memorial under construction. There’s construction happening inside the building as well. A detour takes me counterclockwise around the outer ring, then into a narrow windy spoke. Foot traffic in this spoke is single-file and rapid.
Bob, the atmosphere expert I met in Ramadi, pops out a door ahead of me, merges, and enters another door 20 feet down the spoke. He doesn’t see me. Similarly, a dozen old ladies with white purses pass going the opposite way.
The windy spoke funnels into the wide-open A ring, where light through the bulletproof windows falls in green trapezoids on the floor. Traffic slows and wanders. As I pick my way through, I come face to face with another guy in a faded camouflage uniform and dusty boots. We welcome each other home.
While I was gone, the admiral for whom I wrote speeches left the Pentagon, and a new admiral took his place. The new admiral hired a new and mustachioed speechwriter, whom I meet when I enter the hushed outer office. Everybody’s new except Meg, the secretary, who was hired in 1963. Ever since then she’s been busy.
Meg hangs up the phone and stands to hug me.
“How are you?” she asks.
“Much better,” I say.
During the hug, Meg’s perfume overwhelms that which I sprayed under the assaulters’ arms as they walked past with guns held high. Meg’s fragrance is pure begonia extract. Mine is an ozone of leather, vanilla, and tar.
Meg’s phone rings. She rolls her eyes in apology and picks it up.
The new admiral comes out of his inner sanctum with hair and purpose like a Hardy boy’s. He snaps his fingers and points at me.
“You’re the guy!” he says. He was expecting me.
“Yes, sir,” I reply.
“Well, come on in!”
The new admiral takes me in to his office, which is that of the old admiral but is now redecorated.
The trampoline quality of the golden carpet remains, as does the majestic desk from Truman’s Oval Office. However, the blurry watercolor of the turning point of the Battle of Midway, created by a farsighted survivor, is gone. In its place is a monolithic oil.
They must have pulled the roof off the Pentagon and craned this painting in. Its gilded frame is as thick as a street curb. Its oil was likely applied with a trowel. The pigment gives off light in places, and in others it is so dense that light cannot escape. The massive image is that of an iron ship, powered by steam, leaving a harbor.
“Take a good look at that painting,” says the admiral, unnecessarily. He’s standing by the door with his finger on the light switch.
There’s a group of men crowding the stern of the iron ship. They’re reaching out to an identical group of men crowding the shore’s edge. The sea is the same color and texture as the sky. The unseen sun casts its exuberance on everything.
“Now I’m going to turn off the lights,” the admiral says. “But I want you to keep looking at the painting.”
The admiral shuts off the lights and the painting is transformed. The billowing trail from the life-size smokestack shifts. The ship’s stern is now the bow, its leaving is now an attack. The men crowding the bow are now aiming at the men on the shore. Sunlight becomes moonlight. As I stare in disbelief, the moonlight’s tint changes from pink to orange to lavender.
The admiral turns the lights back on. The sun returns and the men are reaching out to one another again.
“So, what do you think? Is it day or night?” he asks.
My first thought is that whatever answer I give will reveal something I don’t want revealed. Next I think the answer is meaningless, that the painting is just an icebreaker.
Still, I don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that the admiral’s next question will be about the war. He will want the ground truth, but already the evidence I brought home is evaporating. The dust on my boots, the perfume in my sleeves, my memory of the poetic dogs and the inquisitive girl, have become unstable isotopes.
My war is dismantling.
Meanwhile, the admiral awaits my decision.
It’s either day or night.
Author’s Note: I’m home from Iraq and happy to be with my family again. I hope to continue writing dispatches under a yet to be determined premise, but in the meantime please check out my article in The Believer, titled “Nutrition Is a Force Multiplier.” And to all who multiplied my force via e-mail, many thanks. RT