The firefight is over as I approach the limp body, but minutes earlier bullets popped and whistle-whizzed, pocking concrete and masonry, disputing rights to the airspace. Most of it was from over-eager friendly rifles. A squad adjacent to ours had stumbled across a mujahedeen strongpoint and set off an almost point-blank firefight. To make matters worse, the Marines of the platoon headquarters above them sightlessly fired their rifles from behind walls they couldn’t see over.The leader of our squad—a lean off-the-boat Swede named Kask—narrowly missed eating a random Sixteen shot thaaaaaaaaaat close while standing in the door to the roof of the house adjacent to the strongpoint. Our friends above had felt their dicks grow and it almost killed us. Now, after some bad noise and growling curses trashing the chain of command and “good order and discipline,” the platoon headquarters had finally stopped firing. The muj still held their strongpoint with Allahu Akbar tenacity.
I snapped photos on the roof—faces with furrowed brows and wide eyes; pale hands with clammy palms that clutch pistol grips and steady themselves on the handguards of their rifles. Nostrils breathed hard jets of cigarette smoke. Fingers tocked against plastic cans of Skoal and Copenhagen and pinched brown and black loafs, tucking them into the soft red and wet tissue behind the lip … the nicotine tingle-burning into the thousands of nervous capillaries to bring calm. Kask and I looked across the narrow space between our house and the strongpoint. We snapped a few rifle rounds into the first floor windows.
A two-man rocket team appeared on the roof of the house directly across the alleyway from the strongpoint. This roof had no retaining wall, only a large concrete dome the team huddled behind. Their weapon of choice was a SMAW—a Shoulder-launched Multi-purpose Assault Weapon, a green and black tubed contraption that shoots a long and deadly rocket that can melt walls and churn skulled brain-matter into gray lukewarm porridge with its capillary bursting overpressure. They were ready to fire in seconds.
One marine set his camera on the lip of the wall facing the strongpoint.
“You sure it’ll be alright there?” a friend asked.
“It fuckin better be. Shit cost me two-fifty.” He looked at it wistfully. “I think it’ll be alright.”
Kask ushered us back into the house. On the stairs leading down from the roof, I heard the dainty plink of the nine-millimeter spotting shot followed by silence. Mumbles echoed across the alleyway followed by a loud, throaty “Rock-ettttttt” and a crack-boom that quivered concrete and plaster loose from the walls and misaligned my synapses for a millisecond, leaving a hinting taste of nausea on the back of my tongue. As we filed back out the Marine found his camera in good order with fresh video.
A thin trail of smoke leaked from the roof of the strongpoint where the rocket pierced the concrete. All of the windows were shattered, their frames bent into ponderous angles. Split metal screens hung in tatters. Flames crackled from inside and black smoke trailed from the front door producing a bolstering sense of calm that we’d bested anything left living. We hoped.
On the main street below, a Humvee idled next to the unfinished concrete house where the platoon headquarters took stock of their friendly fire stupidity. We prayed. In the turret behind a machinegun, the gunner kept watch down the long road with shadowed eyes casting black death. He massaged the safety.
A figure burst into the intersection coming from the direction of the strongpoint. The gunner quickly tightened his left index finger around the thick black trigger. The firing pin popped primers. He didn’t bother to feel the machinegun buck against his shoulder. He did bother to watch a red tracer puncture the figure and drive it to the center of the gray street.
“What’s up, Taylor?” the lieutenant called down.
“Hajji tried sprinting across the road, sir.” Taylor said.
“From which way?”
“From behind that house.”
“Is he down?” the lieutenant asked.
“Good to go.”
We took up positions at intervals along the roof retaining wall to keep watch over the blasted strongpoint where flames licked up from the second story windows and black smoke cascaded skyward in acrid pillows to join with the gunmetal sky. The adjacent squad breeeeeeathed and then entered the compound. They moved slowly through the courtyard, their rifles in their shoulders, covering each other with a surgical meticulousness that is born in the terrified womb of point-blank death. I shot a quick dozen photos and then sighted in behind my rifle.
From behind his machinegun on the street below, Taylor saw something … a muscle twitch, an electric impulse signaling life waving to him from the figure laying in the distant intersection. Taylor pressed his shoulder into the machinegun. Well fuck…
“He’s still moving, sir,” Taylor said.
“Shoot him,” the lieutenant replied.
“I said, ‘SHOOT HIM!’”
The lieutenant’s voice went off like a mine. My chest popped like a knuckle and tightened and my face sagged behind the sights of my rifle, which pointed toward the smoking windows of the shattered strongpoint. The bottoms of my eyes floated with moisture and I looked down at the concrete at my feet and cursed silently—What’s the matter you fuggin chickenshit?—and hoped no one would see how small I suddenly felt, how diminutive and ineffectual, a puzzle piece that had fallen out of the box and become lost under a dirty rug. My uniform no longer fit me, my sleeves dangled in bunched fabric at the bottom of my fear.
A machinegun rattled. A man died.
War drilled down into a hollow place between my heart and a stomach that quivered and formed a blackened event horizon that pulled me toward it, making me smaller and smaller, collapsing me, eating the light and cool moving waters of everything I could possibly love. War edged me forward like a tour guide. Holding its hand I could feel the cold exciting sweat on its palm, the skin vibrating with syphilitic sexual tension on the foul-smelling cusp of some sepulchral orgiastic release. War guided me to the event horizon boiling amongst my organs, collapsing me. When it released my hand it pulled me through in a long red string, leaving only a quiet deadly little numbing hum.
I ejected a half-empty magazine. I pulled a full magazine from my pouch and tapped it against my helmet with one hard tock before jamming into the guts of my rifle.
A nudge came from Higher—Push. Push. PUSH!—and we mashed out cigarettes and cleared the dust and nervous click from our mouths with swigs of tepid water. Kask led us out of the building and we filed out into the courtyard of the house.
The first man was a counter-intelligence Marine. He came up after the fighting started, hunting for documents, maybe someone to shoot. He had no name or rank on his uniform and was curt with everyone and refused to shave, which makes him at least half likable. He seemed to revel in his spookiness. In the past I’d seen him palling around with a weathered and tattooed Iraqi interpreter who looked like a Latin King out on work release. The interpreter was nowhere around.
Kask was the second man, his upper lip jammed from corner-to-corner with rich Swedish tobacco powder. A thick belt worn low on his hips supports a pistol holster strapped to his thigh. He walks like a gunfighter in a spaghetti western.
The body rested 25 meters away. The counter-intel Marine walked with his M4 in his shoulder and aims at the body through his rifle optics. The body wears dusty blue jeans and a gray jacket that covered a red knit sweater, the kind that come out at Christmastime. Old black bulbous sneakers covered its feet.
The body touched the cracked road at every conceivable point, as if every muscle had the plug pulled. It looked like an empty wet sleeping bag. It looked like trash does on the side of the road—something unsightly and uncouth, something to be hidden from cultured sight, like a drunk sleeping off a bender. It looks like it should have been encased in black plastic. It is dirty and in our way. It made us walk a bit slower, guarded, as if tricking us, that as we walk by it might grab us by the ankle and make some bizarre request—“Will you kindly put the bullets that killed me in a rattle for my son?”
The corpse is uglier than the blinking image of roadkill on some hot backwoods Georgia highway, and yet guiltily fascinating. Look at it!—It once carried a person just like our own bodies, too, didn’t it? Dreams. Ideas. Love. Bad habits. Pet peeves. Hobbies. Tastes. Quirks. Friends. A mother and father. Arrogance. Faith. Hate?
…the hell did I care? The body looked like war. It carried nothing now.
I lifted the camera to my chest. I saw a photo in front of me. The slate gray sky. The battered street. The Marine approaching with his rifle at the ready. The body dead in the street.
Prohibited: Photographing or filming detainees or human casualties…
…the hell am I here for?
I snapped in bursts, waiting for someone to snatch me by my flak jacket and haze me. Fuck it. I braved a glance through the viewfinder and suddenly I am no longer on the street. My world is framed in black, the focus locking in. The CI Marine walks upright, his helmet cocked to the right as his cheek rests against the collapsible stock of his M4. A green and brown camouflage day pack hangs from his back, out of place amongst the grays and tans of the street and sky. His left boot is raised slightly, knee bending in a step. His boots are unbloused and the fabric at the bottom of his trousers gathers in soft folds at his heels. He commands the frame.
‘Human Casualties’ are defined as dead, wounded or injured human beings…
The body is a flat mass of clothed flesh—small and dainty, resting with its back to my lens just beyond a dark patch on the hard-packed dirt road. Human rubble. Dense and long palm fronds watch from further down the road, waving us forward with the breeze. The road is wide and the person made it only half way across before becoming a body. Safety was a lifetime away.
I check the green digital light meter. I narrow the shutter and slow down the speed. I want to see it all. I check the light meter again. I fire a burst and sling the camera behind my left arm. I back on the street again.
…to include separated body parts, organs and biological material…
A few men dragged the body into the courtyard as the squad searched the next home. The counter-intel Marine sifted through the body, producing a half-empty AK magazine and a wallet. Another CI Marine nicknamed “Mac” trotted up with the gangland interpreter and after they leaf through the wallet and hold a quick private conference, the original CI Marine and the interpreter disappear. Mac remained.
…organs and biological material resulting from either combat or noncombat activities.
A small crowd gathered around the dead body. It lied akimbo just inside the courtyard, clothes disheveled and torn. Its eyes were closed. It had a short scraggly beard. The man needed a bath before he became a body. Bones looked broken. A bullet has torn a hole in its cheekbone. There is very little blood. The men around me reminded me of the Lusthog Squad in Full Metal Jacket—Are we life-takers? Are we heartbreakers?
“This fuckin asshole’s Syrian,” Mac said.
“Yeah. He had papers on him that said he was with Syrian intelligence.”
We rattled off a litany of epithets and threats. There is flat, tired talk of sending the battalion across the Syrian border, just a few miles west. Hate aligned and flowed. Necks and knuckles popped. Violence breeeeeeeathed.
Is enemy a person, place, or thing?
Mac looked up me and smiled like a salesman. “You should get a picture of this guy, dude. Just say it’s for ‘official business,’” He winked. “I’ll just say I need it for intel.”
Bashful smiles abounded. Shuffling feet and nervous giggles. Mac looked down at the body. He looked back up and smiled. He tapped his rifle with his thumb. We know we will never be here again.
“We should totally get a picture of this.”
My hand rested on my camera. My thumb tapped its camouflage body. Mac jerked his eyebrows higher onto his forehead and shrugged. He watched me and shoved his face into a broad greasy smile, waiting easily. We snapped photos of just about everything—children, stray dogs, giant camel spiders, Humvee’s, tanks, our buddies, our rifles and machineguns…