by Corey Schultz
If the freezing desert at al Taqqadum had been the end of the world, Habbiniyah was the peace beyond the world’s end.
Ragin’ Ron, the afternoon drive DJ on Phoenix, Arizona’s most popular FM station, was having his second Marlboro on the road to the Euphrates. “They’ve got American birds here,” he said, pointing at the sparrows in the tall rushes. “Did you hear the wild dogs last night? Think they were wolves?”
“I don’t know,” said Captain Guthman. She was icy with sleep; the air conditioner above her head had blared all night until her teeth hurt. She had slept with ear protection against its rattle, like she had as a kid. She must have rolled over onto her bad shoulder, as that hurt as well.
“That would be something to tell listeners back in Phoenix. ‘This is Ragin’ Ron on your afternoon drive, here with the wolves.’ No, this is not a Kevin Costner movie.’”
“Well, you ready? Let’s go see if Ops can get you out on the small boat training today. Lined up two other events, too.”
“That would be rad!” said Ragin’ Ron. He had his sand-colored Patagonia backpack with a minidisc recorder, microphone, padded headphones, and Coolpix camera. He stubbed out the cigarette and shoved himself upright.
The trees were already beginning to gasp in the oncoming summer as they ascended the front steps of the British hotel, wide and officious, like a public school built in an era of prosperity and cheap labor. An unseen air conditioner roared. The current occupants had chopped the first floor into plywood stalls, so that the cold interior looked like blond stitches and stents splicing open wounds.
Ron stopped before the door labeled OPERATIONS and looked over the table stacked with care package detritus. Carbohydrates bloomed: Ramen noodles cups, electric blue packs of Oreos, Pop Tarts. A chaplain had left a stack of small camouflaged New Testaments. Guthman pocketed one for Beckie, her sister still at home, thinking, here’s your souvenir kid, an Army Bible from Iraq. Now stop writing me asking for stuff.
She pushed the plywood door open for him. Ron ducked his head to enter, bangs already slick against his forehead.
Navy Lieutenant McDiffett was sitting in Ops, holding an orange cat. A grimy printer wheezed reports. Whiteboards tallied personnel assigned, weapons and trucks, MREs on hand. Cloudy, failing Scotch tape affixed a gold and red USC pennant above his desk.
“Yes on the boats.” he said. The cat continued to sleep. “Then later the colonel will be back from Habbiniyah Town. Then British Cemetery. Three enchanting outings.”
“Habbiniyah Town?” asked Ron. “Where’s that?”
“On the other side of the river.” He dislodged the cat, which, outraged, licked its shoulder. “We stay on this side these days. Boats aren’t far, and the IA should already be forming up.”
“Those the guys we saw marching down there a few minutes ago?” Ron asked him as they clacked out the plywood door. Guthman grabbed a packet of Oreos from the donations table.
“Yup. Like I was saying yesterday, it’s a training base for the local guys. We have about a company. Some don’t show every day but that’s their business.”
Habbaniyah had been a British base until 1956, a residue of square, proper brown buildings, tree-lined lanes, and even a dust-colored cemetery. Time had gnarled the dusty trees, and Guthman could spot the Euphrates by the shockingly green reeds.
She and Ron followed McDiffett from the Hotel to the river with its tactical boats and Iraqi Army. The Iraqis squatted against the ground in clumps to smoke and compare flipphone photos. The force of the river was so cold and smooth that Guthman could almost smell it.
One of the American sergeants circled everyone up for the brief, organizing the IA into three boats. She and Ron went with McDiffett with two Iraqi soldiers. An older man took the stern and struggled with the motor, the other two jostling to help. It caught, and the boat flopped against the black river.
“Hey, easy,” said McDiffett.
Ron had the minidisc capturing the slapping water. “I’m here with Lieutenant John McDiffett. Navy you say? Lieutenant McDiffett is on loan to the Army –an Individual Augmentee or IA as they call it, not to be confused with Iraqi Army or IA. The IA Lieutenant uses his boat experience to train IA on boat ops.”
“This is a critical skill,” said McDiffett, cued, yelling into the mic as the boat stuttered into the current. “Knowing how to move tactically in a small boat enables infantry to quickly cross the Euphrates and either engage – or disengage from—the enemy.”
McDiffett pointed to the reeds across the river, a wall broken by a single muddy triangle. “Sometimes they mortar us from Habbaniyah Town,” he said. “They hit the water, sometimes.”
The boat made a transit of an island, green and empty, and then practiced turning in its own radius. One of the younger soldiers took the tiller from the older man, who relaxed against the gray metal gunnel.
“Saddam, he look like,” said the young soldier, pointing at the older man. “Saddam, Saddam!”
The middle-aged soldier smiled and waved a hand as if granting largess from a parade float. He did have the same luxurious black rectangle mustache and round, pleasant face. But he was seamed and leathered by outside labor. He leaned toward Guthman and said, “I have four lady, eight bebe.”
“You must be very tired,” she replied.
“Eight bebe,” he said.
“I’m on my second deployment –that’s Navy for ‘divorced,” offered McDiffett. The Iraqi soldier smiled blankly, pleasantly.
“Divorced,” said McDiffett. “No bebe.”
“No bebe bad,” said the younger IA. “You get lady.”
“Okay, bang bang,” yelled McDiffett. He pointed at the wedge of mud across the river. “Insurgents! Five enemy coming out of the bamboo, right there. What do you do?”
Saddam slowly lifted his rifle and thrust it at the shore, as if the air were a straw dummy from a World War II training video.
“Don’t bayonet the air, put it to your shoulder and shoot!”
Saddam tenderly raised the stock to his shoulder, head turned to smile at McDiffett.
The soldier who had opined “no bebe bad” dropped the tiller to grab his rifle from the seat, finger in the trigger guard. The engine heaved, chattered, and NoBeBeBad grabbed for the yawing tiller and threw the rifle at the bench. The barrel had barely clacked against the gunwale when Guthman caught the stock and laid it carefully on the seat. College softball had paid off in more than a scholarship, she thought, and was surprised to realize her resentment at the Lady Yellowjackets lessened slightly.
“Easy there, easy,” said Ron, round face blotched where his cheeks flowed into his neck, choked by the helmet strap.
Saddam was still pointing his rifle in the general direction of the imaginary enemy, the barrel tracing drunken infinity signs. NoBebeBad steered stoically upriver. Ron, having collected sufficient noise and words substituted the minidisc for the Coolpix.
McDiffett twirled his index finger – “wrap it up.” Saddam lowered his wavering rifle. Guthman leaned forward to balance the chest plate’s weight on her thighs, resting her right arm as careful as glass. She told herself, deep breaths, deep breaths, he didn’t mean to hurt you. Asshole.
“Okay, not bad,” said McDiffett. “When you see enemy, keep driving the boat, but yes, bring up your weapons and prepare to engage. This is what you’re going to be seeing for real not too long from now.”
The three IA nodded. “Okay?” asked McDiffett again. “This isn’t going to be BANG BANG in a couple of weeks, there will be guys actually shooting at you with actual bullets. So THINK about that. Good job today, good job.”
“These guys get this, then they go,” he said to Ron and Guthman. “They don’t get all the training we do. Hey, okay, I said okay –let’s head back –to the shore.”
The prow sliced the sand on the bank and a handler pulled up the bowline to fix it against the current. On the other side, whatever was beyond the reeds and beneath the blue sky crackled and snapped, louder than cereal, fainter than fireworks. McDiffett looked back quickly, shrugged, and stepped out of the wobbly boat. Guthman watched for movement as Ron put away his Minidisc.
“I need to break contact as you Army people say,” said McDiffett. “Can you go back up to the Hotel and meet Colonel Karhonen? He told me be in the courtyard around 1000 and it’s, well, it’s 0957 as of right now. After that, the Cemetery. I’ll come find you at the Hotel.”
She hitched the vest, trying after two deployments to convince herself there was a position that didn’t hurt. She had the 800mg Ibuprofins of course, but it would just hurt again later. Ron was preparing to exhort the Phoenix afternoon drivers with interviews of Arizona soldiers and updates from Iraq. Locals called in with encouragements: “Tell it like it is, Ron.” “Bring em home Ragin Ron.” “I turned on the radio and heard Brendan Macks from Mesa High. Kick some ass Brendan!”
There was a little shade under the trees where everyone congregated, and Ron took pictures of the IA with their arms flung over each other’s shoulders. The flash snapped with an attenuated bluish light, not quite real against the encircling sun. She shrugged against the vest and said, “Hey, Ron, whenever you’re ready we can go meet with the brigade commander.”
Ron nodded yes, caught up with the friendly crowd, like a Labrador new to the dog park. He showed the photos to the IA, cupping the screen against the sun. Guthman wondered how they planned on getting the pictures. Did they have email? Maybe they were just making a grab at whatever minor resonance of immortality could be recorded by a Coolpix from Phoenix.
“Hey, Ron, seriously, can you wrap it up? I don’t want to be late for the colonel.”
Ron put the Coolpix into a cargo pocket and exchanged shoulder hugs and high-fives. “Asalamalakum,” he told Saddam and NoBeBeBad.
“That was good,” he said, panting and whuffling in a way that had been concerning her, but of which he seemed unaware. “Got some good stuff –listeners are going to like the river stuff. Let’s get that colonel. He’s from Mesa.”
The colonel was already waiting for them in the courtyard of the British Hotel, where a rack of weights rusted. The bars holding their outsized Chinese coins cast shadows on the weeds, and the pleather bench was cracked and desiccated like a snakeskin. McDiffett’s orange cat skittered beneath the windows, its tickticktick legs mechanical and too fast, like a special effect.
It ticked to the colonel, who was as big as a storybook knight in his dirty beige helmet and plate armor. The armor seemed part of his body, as if his flesh had extruded an exoskeleton of magazine pouches and bulky side plates. He leaned down to stroke the cat along its flexing spine.
“So they took you out on the boats?”
“Yes they did sir. We watched their guys learn how to deal with an ambush. One guy, he was imitating Saddam. He was dead on. He told the captain here, he had four wives and eight children. She said, ‘you must be very tired.’ I don’t think he got it.”
Wonder what was going on in Habbaniyah Town that needed a colonel, Guthman wondered.
“Ron, very nice to meet you,” the colonel was saying. “Thanks for coming all this way to check out what we do.”
“Honored, sir,” said Ron politely.
“The honor is all mine. Thanks for coming all this way to tell Phoenix what we do out here. My sister listens to you every day on her way home from work. So …What did you think about the training?”
“Well,” said Ron. “Well, McDiffett, he knew what he was doing. Now. Their guys … they … they’re a little casual. Yeah, casual, not a lot of motivation, but kind of going just with it. Probably don’t have the time and the money we have back home, huh?”
“We do what we can, but in the end it’s their fight,” agreed Colonel Karhonen. “It’s their city, their country. They have to have the will and the spirit. A lot of them do. Lots of eager young soldiers, some talented officers. We’re up against no NCO corps, no middle managers. It’s a different culture here. Officers give orders, soldiers just execute.”
She was listening only at a low hum. Colonel Karhonen knew what he was talking about, so she wouldn’t have to tell Ron afterwards, “what the colonel meant to say was.” And Ron’s listeners, idling on the 10 or the 17 between Phoenix and Mesa, just wanted encouraging words from a voice to which they could pin a neighborhood, a high school, a sports team. Karhonen was a Mesa boy and planned to retire there one day. No University of Arizona, West Point had wanted him to come throw a football around, or in his case shove people throwing the football.
Guthman took the Oreos out of her cargo pocket, opened the blue foil. The black cake had eroded in her pocket, and the filling liquefied, and the sweetness was shocking. She hoped Beckie would like the camouflaged Bible. She was still in that church phase.
“Great stuff, great stuff,” said Ron. “They’re gonna love this in Mesa.”
“My pleasure,” said Karhonen. “Captain, are you from Phoenix, too?”
“No, sir. From Nowheresville West Virginia. In the Army via softball scholarship and ROTC. Shortstop,” she added, surprised at the small talk.
“God’s country,” said Ron. “Lot greener than Phoenix.” Guthman nodded politely.
By then it was time to eat. They went inside the Hotel for MREs. Guthman found a Yellow and Wild Rice Pilaf, which apparently no one else in the entire Army liked. She privately thought it was actually kind of elegant compared to the boxed lunches the Lady Yellowjackets had eaten on the bus to away games.
It was quiet compared to the bases Guthman remembered from 2003. But the whole brigade wasn’t here; the battalions and companies were scattered around Fallujah mostly. No one was here but the Colonel and his staff, engineers and a Navy lieutenant attached so that the IA could learn how to operate boats. She and Ron weren’t even supposed to be here; they had been talking to some National Guard at Al Taqqadum who mentioned that Habbaniyah had a colonel from Phoenix. No reason they couldn’t take a quick Humvee ride down the canal, past the dug-in Paladins.
McDiffett, returned from the Euphrates, clunked his helmet on a scarred black Pelican case, regarded his desk and went whuuufff. He scowled his forehead into wrinkles, and Guthman realized he was closer to forty than thirty. His blonde temples sparkled with gray.
“Okay so, British Cemetery next? British Cemetery it is. I think the listeners need to hear about it.”
“Are there any ghost stories?” Ron asked.
“No stories I have ever heard. Ghosts don’t have too much to say.”
The cemetery’s entrance was a brick arch that crumbled around the edges, as if it were trying to return to the seared tan dust. Recent reconstructive surgery had been conducted on the cemetery, in various phases. Some stones were standing, and the grounded pieces of other stones were aligned like puzzles that no longer fit.
“What happened?” Guthman asked.
“So the British left in the 50s, and the Iraqis knocked everything down. This side is the British. They only didn’t like them just a little –they knocked over the stones, pulled down a cross that used to be on top of that monument. Now, the Assyrian tomb, there –they didn’t like those guys a whole lot. They disinterred them. That’s the nice word for ‘pulled the bodies out of the graves and scattered shit everywhere.”
“Desecrated,” said Guthman.
“It’s called desecrated. It’s disinterred when it’s official, like the police disinterred a dead person to investigate if they were murdered.”
McDiffett stared, smiled, announced, “That’s the last time I try to impress the ladies with my educated vocabulary. But hey, different subject, I was thinking about this on the boats. You media guys read how tourism is big in Vietnam? I wonder if people are going on vacation back where they fought. Here’s where I stepped on the mine and lost my foot, right at the Tiki Bar. Mai tai, honey?”
“They have pleasure barges, where you can go out on a cruise and watch the sunset,” he continued. “Right by Hanoi, right in the Gulf of Tonkin. Now what I was thinking –why not here? Maybe I should get a jump on Iraq, and in forty years we’ll all be here in our RVs instead of in Branson?”
“You could go into business with the guy with the four wives,” Ron suggested.
Guthman tried to imagine one of the barges at Wrightsville Beach or Key West humming up and down the Euphrates, the square unlovely boxes that ferried divers to disappear into blue gardens. She couldn’t see anyone diving in the dark, forceful Euphrates, but you could take a booze cruise. Sunburned arms holding Budlights beaded with condensation. Maybe NoBeBeBad could captain it.
Her skin swam in sweat. It didn’t seem like a river could be in the same world as the baking cemetery, existing in motionless air between dust and the sky’s solid blue flame. Salt had oozed across her shoulders, fanning out from beneath the edges of the armor. The concept of river and boat was alien to the dust and the dust-colored stones. “The King’s Own Royal Regiment: we have loved him in life, let us not forget him in death. Flying Officer D.H. Walsh, Pilot, RAF, 2nd May 1941, Age 27,” Ron read. He unleashed Coolpix.
The walls and markers were all the same color as dust, and it smelled like dust: dry iron, reminiscent of a room that had been shut for so long even the flies had forgotten it. The trees crouching on the other side of the Assyrian tomb looked unreal, seen through the window of the dusty room where nothing happened and nothing ever would happen.
“You’re quiet for a public affairs person” said McDiffett. “The last one we had, he certainly liked to talk. The media he was escorting couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
She said, “It’s not what people think. It’s mostly letting people tell their own story.”
“Well, the cemetery is NOT my story,” McDiffett said. He took his helmet off, yellow crew cut glittering with sweat. He looked a little bit like the blonde Baldwin brother.
Ron was by the wall, methodically sidling from one broken stone to the next, framing the delicate Coolpix. “Hey, these guys here are all Polish,” he called.
“An entire squadron of pilots,” McDiffett yelled. “Habbiniyah is what happens to you when you piss off Stalin.”
“I wouldn’t like to be buried here,” Guthman said. “I think it would be lonely.”
“I wouldn’t like to be buried here, for the reason that it would be an eternity of assholes telling boring war stories,” McDiffett said. “In Polish.”
Guthman laughed, but Ron said, “I’m with the captain. No one would know where you were. No one would ever see you again.”
“So this is all,” he decided. “This is what I am going to tell the folks back in Phoenix. This is all good. Got a lot of updates, probably a week’s worth. Good place, good people. Though we never did get to Habbinayah Town. And Fallujah Town. Now that I’m thinking, we saw Al Faw and the Green Zone, but we didn’t see Baghdad Town either. Do they call it that? Baghdad Town?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what they call it,” said Guthman.
“I called it home last deployment and probably will on the next,” McDiffett offered.
“Huh. Don’t know if I’ll be back unless they get those barges,” Ron said, packing up his Coolpix.