by Christopher Baumer
We weren’t ready for the children. We weren’t ready to see them standing against mud walls or sitting on hard-packed dirt while men and women scattered at the sight of our trucks. They stood and watched us as we rolled through. They held sticks or rusted metal cans, plastic bottles filled with brown liquids. Their clothes, thin and torn. Earth-caked pants and dresses that once might have twirled in the air, but not here.
We weren’t ready for the children and how they played in ditches, as much play as they were allowed while still filling jugs with muddy water and carrying them home, water for drinking and bathing. We weren’t ready for them to beg us for food when our trucks stopped. Their small hands moved from their mouths to their stomachs as they stood near enough for us to see the callouses on their bare feet, and the trails through the dirt on their faces made by sweat or tears.
We weren’t ready for the children, when we got lost at night and our trucks had to turn around near their homes. We weren’t ready for them to come running with dust rising behind and the moon up above. When they came too close we brought out green beam dazzlers, flashlights with lasers. The dazzlers were to be used in escalation-of-force procedures, to stop men in explosives-laden vehicles by shining the beams through their windshields and into their eyes to induce vomiting and temporary blindness.
We weren’t ready for our willingness to use them on the children.
We weren’t ready for the children to run alongside the trucks and reach for steel handles or canvas straps, shielding their eyes from the beams but still looking, always looking, for a place to hang on. They knew where on our trucks to step, where to climb.
We weren’t ready for the children but there had been convoys before us. The children knew to feel for the wing nut that held our air filters in place, to twist it until the round metal covers fell to the dirt, to pull the round filters, the size of a small wastebasket, from the sides of the trucks, jump to the ground with them hugged to their chests. And run. Run through the fields, in and out between our trucks, the children weaving their way home because at the end of each day, we took the filters out and knocked the piles of dirt from their pleated ribs. Without them the engines of our trucks would gum up with grime, cylinders and valves would fill with dirt.
We weren’t ready for the children, or to realize that they knew what they were doing, they knew how badly our trucks needed the filters. If they didn’t fully know, they knew enough to listen to their fathers who cursed us for leaving deep tire tracks running through their fields when we about-faced a convoy in that wide span of dirt because it was the only place we knew they didn’t plant bombs.
We weren’t ready for the children, and we couldn’t stop the children from swarming us. We were armed with M-16s and 240s, and .50-cals that could cut a man in half with three rounds. But those weapons weren’t meant for children.
We weren’t ready for the children that ran toward us with bare chests and tangled hair, their families watching through windows or from rooftop ledges.
We weren’t ready for the children.