“I said, ‘SHOOT HIM!’”
A machinegun rattles. A man dies.
He does not pass away like the elderly or terminally invalid—lying in a hospital bed in the soft receiving haze of curtained sunlight, each breath labored and forced until they’re not anymore. No spectacled doctor in a trim white lab coat waits with two fingers on a flat artery. No one announces the time.
The dead man is the fucked-up earthy brand of dead. He is OD’d dead, murder-victim dead, and taste-the-shotgun-barrel-on-your-tongue dead. He swam the machinegun waters and is now lemming dead. He is dead in every kind of way except peacefully dead. He chose the path of most resistance. He is firefight dead.
Now his body is a barrier we have to cross, the final shattered remains of an insurgent strongpoint boiling with smoke. We move slowly and with purpose. I am number three in the column. We are still alive but could be dead inside too, and the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand like cactus needles.
A breeze blows lonely through Husaybah. Giant palm fronds sway behind a tan stone wall at the intersection ahead. Rifle clatter echoes long distance. I see the body—Look at him. He’s so small!—and I see the Marine up front with his rifle ready, his eye fixed to the rifle sight, each step deliberate, as if the dead might suddenly rise and yawn and blink sleep-swollen eyes. The Marine moves quietly hoping—Make one move, motherfucker … DO IT!
Between them I see a photograph: the living and the war-dead together on a wind-blown street. My government-issued camera pesters my ribcage.
A red light blinks in my brain like a stoplight in dense fog. An umpires whistle blows foul, announcing loud and clear from CENTCOM General Orders—“Prohibited: Photographing or filming detainees or human casualties … ‘Human Casualties’ are defined as dead, wounded or injured human beings, to include separated body parts, organs and biological material resulting from either combat…”
We progress toward the body. Time clicks. My cammie trousers suff-suff with each step. Pebbles crackle beneath me. New thoughts happen in a light-speed millisecond—Can I take this photo? What’re the risks? Demotion? Loss of pay? Brig time? Drawn and quartered at the gates of good moral behavior? I am a U.S. Marine combat correspondent, here to capture Marines in action. Am I a tourist, too?
On rainy weekends as a bored teenager, I spent hours between the towering aisles in the library at the airbase in Japan where I lived with my family. Sitting cross-legged, a book splayed across my lap, I flipped through pages of black-and-white and color pictures of battle. The Vietnam War-era photographers were favorites of mine—Larry Burrows, Horst Faas, Tim Page, Phillip Jones Griffiths among many, many others. Burrows’ photo essay “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13” and his photo “Reaching Out” brought the war into the eye in the most direct sense, all that frustration and pain and fear locked behind the shutter forever. Catherine Leroy huddled in crater on Hill 881 North and snapped shots of Corpsman Vernon Wike putting his ear to the chest of a Marine nicknamed “Rock” with a bullet in him just in time to hear his heart stop beating. You could see it right in Wike’s eyes: the grim, thin-lipped sigh of exhaling realization that this man is dead and there is nothing to be done. Look up the hill. Find the next one.
Vietnam was the first war with a view and it sucked me in with its helicopter thump and radio static, a million tropical birds and the soft tap of rain on bamboo that I could hear just out of frame on a wet afternoon in the summer of 1995. The photos of Vietnam were a slideshow of my first Greek tragedy, long before I knew what a tragic story war really is. Each image was filled with Sisyphean hopelessness, the staining sense that no amount of effort was ever going to change the outcome of this contest, that it was truly rigged from the start, a giant middle-finger to Grantland Rice’s “One Great Scorer.”
And there, with American fighter jets carving the Japanese sky overhead, I discovered I wanted to be them, become a part of that battle-won nobility, even in the face of lost-war futility.
Three summers later I enlisted as an infantry rifleman in the United States Marine Corps. Five summers after I became a combat correspondent. In August 2005 I went to Al Anbar province, Iraq, with an infantry battalion.
My basic function as a Marine combat correspondent in Iraq was to take uplifting photos and write positive stories about the U.S. Marine Corps and its allies helping to “promote democracy for the people of Iraq” or similar sentiments. I used a lot of puffy and jingoistic adjectives to describe heroic and sometimes even brutally atavistic actions. Typically my public affairs handlers wanted stories about the average Marine doing his usual day-to-day job for little hometown civilian newspaper starved for ad revenue.
This was not a story I could tell—
A captain looked up from his map. “Everybody standby. I’m gonna drop a jay-dam,” he announced. (A “jay-dam” is a Joint Direct Attack Munition, a 1,000 pound laserguided bomb used for precision work.) “Where’s it gonna hit at, sir?” mumbled a lance corporal as he worked tobacco into a tight ball behind his lower lip. He spit an expert’s trail of brown juice from the roof to the dirt of the courtyard below. His name was written on the thick goggle strap wrapped around his helmet, surrounded by a pair of crude skull-and-crossbones. He had also bothered to write his blood type: “O+.”
This is the Grunt. He smells of blue-collar stoicism that covers a raging libido and desire for strong drink. His flat gray eyes give no inclination of concern or care and he can be called to task for neither. He is accustomed to an unending conveyor of bullshit hassling. His loaded Squad Automatic Weapon rested on the top of the wall. He’ll use it against humans before the sun sets.
The captain gestured with his radio handset. He spoke to everyone as if we were in his war now. “Out that way. Straight ahead. Just—you’ll see it. Trust me.” The captain was a fighter pilot sent from On High to help poor, hapless Grunts deal with airpower. The captain stood a squat five-eight or so, and he wore wrap-around Oakleys on a hairless and tan face hedged inside a small fortune in combat gear—radios, flares, flags, electronic devices, notebooks, pens, manuals, smoke grenades, and countless other flimflam gear he deemed essential to his endeavors. But despite the cumbersome equipment his shoulders reached for the sky with a Frat Row air that reeked of rugby matches and drilled wooden paddles. He returned to his private radio conversation with the Marine Hornet pilot cruising somewhere between ten- and fifteen-thousand feet above the Iraqi city of Husaybah in early November in the Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand Five.
I leaned against the wall behind the line of Grunts and fished a cigarette from my pocket—How many is it this morning now? Ten? Twelve? —and lit it with an orange Bic lighter, cupping my hands around the flame. The sun was on its way, but had yet to breach the geometric madness of rooftops that made up all that city still waiting in front of us. We’d been up since zero-two and by zero-four were moving in waves across the black trash-hewn desert between Camp Gannon on the Syrian border to the sick glow of orange streetlights marking the West End Road and the edge of town. This was the first day of Al Hejab Elfulath—Operation Steel Curtain.
The Grunts watched for insurgents over cigarettes and sips of Camelbak water on rooftops along the western edge of the city. On word of the airstrike frantic hands rummaged through pockets and pouches—Where is it? Where is it?!—pulling out shiny little cameras bought around Camp Lejeune and Jacksonville, North Carolina. Sexy, hi-powered Nikons and Canons. Dainty Sonys and Samsungs. Gloved fingers pressed the sleek on/off switches and brought to life the little prides of smiling Asia with the whir of tiny electronic motors and cute boop-beeps of friendliness that fit better with the sweet sixteen birthday parties and nightclub photo ops dreamed up by Madison Avenue. After some brief chatter, all those with cameras in their hands waited for the airstrike.
It never really occurred to me to wonder why our resident foot-mobile Maverick was having a bomb dropped on a house deep in the city. We weren’t under direct fire. There was a little bit of rifle clatter from the Four-Forty district—a rectangular outcropping to the southwest made up of literally 440 homes—where Two-One Marines worked house-to-house. Husaybah wasn’t quite awake yet and it would be another hour or two before it became truly alive. But what shits did I give? You want a house bombed, captain? … Bomb a house. It’s all just part of the show, right? Bomb’s Away.
The Hornet pilot released the bomb and the air seemed to tear itself as it fell—a sheering sound, like a long piece of paper split in an quickening rip. At its terrifying peak a distant building erupted in a towering gray cloud, hurling a broad piece of concrete a few hundred feet skyward. Grunts whistled and hooted. Someone muttered “Fuck yeah.”
Wait for it … (seconds ticked) … and BOOM, the sound wave rolled past. Bits of rock and concrete tapped the ground. Each man with a camera framed the geyser inside their digital screens. Some snapped only one picture, others a few. A machinegunner has a friend take a picture of him with the blossoming plume behind him—his jaw set, the machinegun draped across his shoulders. Before the shutter clicked, he fixed his mug with a steely gangster gaze and flashed a pair of fingers at his chest — Dueces! The Wartime Yellowstone Photo.
The platoon sergeant pocketed his camera and saw me casually taking in the airstrike, my government-issued professional camera dangling at my side. “Hey brother, you gonna get any photos?”
I shrugged. “Not much of a shot.”
He looked at me quizzically a moment, just long enough for it to be uncomfortable. I was breaking from some understood norm, that bomb runs were not to be passed up, that they were somehow special, like seeing whales breach off the California coast or the chance to rubberneck past a gory car accident. I dropped my cigarette and grabbed my camera from behind my left arm. I framed a few shots of the Grunts on the roof watching the plume begin to dissipate in a gray and brown fog over a portion of the city. Fuck it, I thought, maybe there’s something there. Click!
That evening, after a day’s work of searching Husaybah block-by-block and getting into one-sided firefights, the Marines dragged their feet into the rooms of commandeered Iraqi homes. Cigarette cherries danced as they picked through cold MRE’s. Little screens splashed a few faces in digital light as Marines scrolled through their pictures from the day.
A subtle howl whiffed in through a blacked-out window and mixed with a growing cloud of body odor and beef ravioli farts—a mournful soul jammed into the belly of some spectral Whippoorwill. Those of us awake cocked our ears.
“The fuck is that?”
“Sounds like a dying cat,” I said.
The squad leader shifted to get more comfortable on a dusty couch.
“I don’t think that’s a cat,” he said. “That jay-dam from this morning landed across the street from us.”
Everyone waited … (tick tick tick)
“That’s a human.”
The little screens darkened. Soon after the room is fast asleep. The howling is gone before morning.