The Grunts snap photos of just about everything—children, stray dogs, giant camel spiders, Humvees, tanks, our buddies, our rifles and machineguns, the dusty and ramshackle places they slept, dreaming of the fanciful place home had become. They grabbed quick mid-stream-of-life snaps of anti-American graffiti, bullet holes in concrete, rubble piles of destroyed homes. They catalogued their brushes with death—the scarred earth where an insurgent mortar round landed, the wreckage of a Humvee after tripping a roadside bomb, the partially-dazed looks of its survivors pointing out every little shrapnel hole. They are the little scars they think chicks are supposed to dig. Look at the jagged tear in the floorboard where a piece of hot metal once passed—“Fuck, dude. I can see right to the ground!” They’re gathered from buddies and made into little deployment video slide-shows backed by death metal music. Search Youtube; you’ll find them. War is such an unbelievable event so foreign to the gated-community culture of America that to be in it, to be amongst it, has to be captured in some tangible way. There is atavistic electricity in war that we attempt to bottled and save for reflection later when back in the flat malaise of the suburbs or on the college campus.
Think of it this way: The same gunpowder pop that rolls oohhh’s and aahhh’s from the throats of children at a Fourth of July show in Fort Wayne, Indiana, flashes in the eyes of the 19-year-old rifleman watching red tracers arc across the desert from a 25 mm chain gun. Hear the not-to-subtle “Fuck yeah” as he watches them punch fist-sized holes in the mud masonry of Al Anbar province. Listen to the nervous giggles as debris from an airstrike rains down on a rifle platoon with tocks and bips and the soft spray of tossed pebbles. Feel the electrical wonder/terror zapping the hairs on the back of the neck on hearing the distant cough of an insurgent mortar tube; feel the knowledge that somewhere in the air above there is a finned can of armed explosives arching its way—
Wilkinson has had enough. His mobile assault platoon has just been the recipient of a short but concentrated mortar barrage just south of New Ubaydi. Now someone with a Kalashnikov pops rounds over the column from the base of a nearby water tower on a hill that commands the ground. He crushes the push-to-talk button on his radio. His voice is calm, but there is raaaaaage—
“All elements, open fire on that tower. Pepper the shit out of it!”
Firing starts with a few heavy bangs and then roars into a rattling cacophony of machinegun fire from every vehicle in the platoon. The SAW’s sound like dainty thimbles raking over washboards and the 240s like rim shots on rapid fire, all punctuated by the thumping tom-toms of the Mark 19’s and the deep reverberations of the .50-caliber bass drums, each clicking in free form jazz, jiving with painful lead projectiles with only one tune on the set list: Utter Fucking Destruction.
Karwoski, our turret gunner, gets his 240 humping in long, even bursts and once he gets going, we get going with Rebel Yells and hollers and “get some, motherfucker!” like every ‘Nam movie we’ve ever seen. We plead temporary insanity, bursting with orgasmic invectives from the stress hormones dumping into our bloodstreams. Spent shells fall through an orange haze of smoke and dust, mixing with the sweet smell of cordite and burnt weapon oil. Everything feels grimy and mean, alive and vibrating as if tapped into a dose of deadly speed. No drug can compare.
Wolf, the radio operator, pulls a small video camera from his cargo pocket. He rubs his sleeve on the smudged ballistic glass of his door and jams the lens against it. He presses ‘record.’”
Red tracer rounds whip against and through the rusting trailers surrounding the base of the tower. A chain of 40 mm grenades bursts up one of its columns. We pray our tracers catch the whole mess on fire—Do it. Do it. DO IT!—and melt the walls of the trailers and boil skin and cartilage. Wolf watches the action on the foldout digital screen. He mumbles a soft “fuckin’ bad ass.”
Sometimes Iraq felt like a sepulchral theme park for kids raised on first-person-shooters and Jerry Bruckheimer movies. We idolized the biggest explosions, the best guns, the sickest gear … capturing them with a tourists’ sense of timing. We placed ourselves in juuuust the right place to get the shot for our MySpace pages—the perfect explosion behind us, our weapons in our hands, a mean give-a-fuck glaze plastered across our faces saying, “This is what I was doing while your hipster ass was in English Literature one-oh-whatever-the-fuck.”
For good or ill, we just knew we were sitting in the cornerstone of our own individual histories, that place of personal definition that comes about at rare moments in life, like playing a winning football season, or your wedding day watching the approach of your life’s love, or the birth of a first child. There was the hint of legacy in every snap, like time-sepia’d black-n-whites of dapper Marines in their dress blues after World War II—campaign ribbons, cock-eyed garrison covers, and toothy smiles giving off the post-war pose of “me and my buddies earned you the right to shut the fuck up.”
AK rounds pass close with thick, hi-def snapping. Rounds whistle and pop and gouge holes in the dusty concrete wall surrounding the roof. Anyone standing above the wall risks being hit. We take it in passively, marveling in the beauty of the three-foot wall that protects us, the smooth and industrial pour of the concrete. There are grim faces. Some smile. I light a cigarette and look up at the blue sky over Husaybah and can just see the little lead bastards buzzing right above me. I want to take a picture of the sky, maybe catch one of the pointy little bee’s mid-flight. But that’s nonsense and so I don’t.
A mortarman hunches down nearby. He’s a massive Irish-Italian with a clean, tan face and easy air about him that has probably awarded him entry into a lot of soft and sexual places. He pulls a pen and a notepad from a pouch on his armored vest—one of those cheap Mead notepads that go on sale every summer right before the new school year. As we hide on this roof, millions of children sleep with similar notebooks in their book bags. He flips it open and with a smile writes a few words.
“You got your camera?” he asked his friend huddling nearby.
“Take my picture,” he said. He holds the notebook to his chest, his note facing out. It reads: ‘Hi mom. I’m getting shot at!’
There is an irresistible desire to bottle your own little slice of the war, lock it away to look at later when you have more time to weigh just how unreal it is. This is especially true to your very first time overseas, when you’re not burnt out and exhausted after breaking your back on three or more deployments. Everything is new and exciting, in spite of being unbelievably dangerous. You’re 19, 21, or 24 and you’re carrying a weapon and a pack, given a paycheck and an all-expenses-paid trip to a place that’s eaten more sustained column inches than a low-grade Kardashian. College kids backpack Europe. Marines go to warzones. There are cameras in the luggage of each.
The kid has been humping the rocket around since H-Hour. It’s been dragging on him along with the wood-handled pick-ax slung across his back. When his squad leader first gave it to him he thought, Goddamnit, I ain’t but five-four … why do I gotta be the one to haul this shit? But he didn’t bitch out loud, just ran his fingers over his mustache and sucked it up. Now finally, fine-a-lee, after nearly a week, he is going to get to shoot it. He didn’t think he ever would. There is a suspected vehicle-borne IED in a carport just under a hundred meters away. The lieutenant wants it gone.
The kid extends the back of the tube with a hard yank that rocks the helmet on his head. The tube is OD green, designed for another war forty years ago. Sights snap erect behind the rubber trigger and at the front of the tube. He looks at the pictogram on the side of the tube and pulls the safety lever forward. The rocket is now armed and though nothing has really changed, the tube feels warmer somehow, volatile, as if it could detonate at any moment. He leans his body against the wall surrounding the roof. He rests the tube on his right shoulder, his right hand supporting it, his cool fingers reaching up to rest—Gennnntly, GENTLY!—on the flimsy black rubber covering the trigger.
His squadmates filter back into the house to wait for the boom. The platoon headquarters hunkers down on a roof one story higher. “Everyone stay low,” the lieutenant orders.
A corpsman kneels down until just his head and hands are above the wall. He tries wrinkling his nose to keep his glasses from sliding down. He hasn’t told anyone but tucked in a side pocket of his bulging medical bag is a Robert Jordan fantasy novel that came in the mail just before the push into Husaybah. Every night he hopes for a chance to read a few pages. He hasn’t read a word yet … too many jock eyes about. Maybe tonight…
He sees the kid prepare the rocket below and sees the potential of fire, of Leeloo’s “big-bada-boom” and it flashes “cool” in his comic-book mind. He rests his black never-been-fired shotgun against the wall of the roof and slips his hand into his cargo pocket, pulling from it a small silver camera, the winner of hours spent researching megapixels, zoom factor, and display resolution. He turns it on and sets—
“What the fuck, doc?” the lieutenant calls out. “Didn’t I just say to get down behind the wall? You better wake up!”
“Aye sir,” the corpsman mumbles. He he’s been flagged a shamed stepchild and we look away lest his shame infect one of us. No one wants to be seen associating with a shitbird.
“The only person who can be up taking pictures is friggin’ Sergeant Alexander. You want pictures, you get them from him, check?” the lieutenant says. I can feel the corpsman looking at me with mild jealous disdain.
“Aye sir,” the corpsman mumbles. He wrinkles his nose. The rocket goes whooooooosh!
Death is rarely represented in photos, only the suggestion of death … something assumed to be just out of frame. The rubble of a blown building. A tank firing a 120 mm round down a street. A buddy spitting out machinegun fire. We leave death in the corner and try to ignore it, at least socially. We damn the concept with blistering clinical disregard. A bad guy doesn’t die. He is “eliminated”, the threat “neutralized”, or just “down”, like machinery forced to malfunction. It makes everything feel all the more … acceptable, businesslike.
The Uniformed Code of Military Justice is certainly a reason for the lack of such photos. Service members in theater are not allowed to capture any imagery of dead enemy combatants. One general rational is that dead photos do not promote “good order and discipline” amongst troops, which is certainly true in a basic sense. More importantly, however, commanders and public affairs folks do not want gory photos of dead insurgents clogging the internet for folks back home, or for our enemies for that matter.
But this is war, isn’t it? That place where definitions distort the further down the line one goes. Was Achilles in control of himself dragging Hector outside the gates of Troy? Could a mother in Disco, Tennessee, accept a photo of her middle child kneeling down next to the shattered face of a dead insurgent with an atta-boy thumbs-up and giant corn-fed smile? Should she?
What is war, ultimately, if it isn’t about one man killing another as a microcosm of some brutal Clausewitzian purpose, that of bending one nation or entity over the knee of another? Can it really be anything else?
And as my trouser legs suff-suff against each other as I approach the lifeless lump of stiffening flesh in front of me on a shitty, trash-strewn street in the backwater of western Iraq, with a bizarre history of war voyeurism both through my legacy and surrounding me, I needed an answer to the question: “Should I care?”