Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the Banks of the Euphrates

Our patrol was supposed to be a normal one: circle around north of the city and return back, looking out for any suspicious individuals. In June, the heat of Iraq is oppressive. Everyone tried to wear the least amount of clothes possible and tried to open up avenues for a breeze to squeeze between our clothes and cool our overheated bodies. Our bulky flak jackets and helmets did not help much.

I was stationed in the rear of the patrol after screwing up too many times at the front on other patrols. My job was to periodically turn around and make sure nothing weird was happening behind us. I had already perfected the art of walking backwards without stumbling, no easy task when laden with sixty plus extra pounds.

Nothing particularly interesting happened until we reached the apex of our circular loop. A few stray dogs were wandering around and were causing trouble, threatening to bite me and others if we didn’t keep our eyes on them for too long. One dog was especially daring and slowly inched his way towards me every time I turned to face the rest of the patrol. I grew tired of the dog and tried to shoo it away by throwing rocks at him, but he never left.

Iraq had a serious dog problem. The local culture despised dogs, thinking them unclean, and thus they did not have them as pets. Perhaps they had an animal control system in place before the start of the war, but now there was none to speak of. Wild packs of dogs would roam the streets at night, barking and howling, ripping apart piles of trash haphazardly thrown in the street. There would always be a pack lounging around our base’s burn pit, hoping to catch a scrap before the whole mess went up in flames. These dogs were especially wretched; many were crippled and old, too feeble to move or attack. Some would growl at us as we threw out our refuse, but their bark was equal to their bite: nonexistent.

The sergeant leading the patrol came back and asked why I was holding up the patrol. It didn’t take him long to see the feral dog snarling only a few paces away. I asked if I could shoot the dog and put him out of his misery. The sergeant said no. Any weapon discharge could be seen as an act of aggression and start a real firefight between us and anyone ennobled by the shot. I didn’t really want to shoot the dog. My western sensibilities still had a hold on me and all I really wanted to do was scratch the poor thing’s belly.

The sergeant and I assaulted the dog with any rock we could find. He eventually took the hint and hobbled off, finally leaving me in peace. We continued on until someone near the front halted us again. I took my regular position: crouched on one knee angled slightly to the rear, so that I could observe what was happening up front and behind. I stayed in that position for a long time. The Marines in the front of the patrol were doing something, but I didn’t know what. Then it trickled back: the point-man had found an IED.

Improvised Explosive Device, a pedantic name for the most lethal thing a lone patrol could encounter on the streets of Iraq. This wasn’t my first time I had been on a patrol when we discovered something like this. Up to this point, they had all turned out to be a box of wires or some other misplaced tool. This one seemed legit, though. The suspected IED looked like someone took a mortar round and cut off the top half of the dome, leaving the guiding fins in place, then welded a piece of metal where the half-dome had been. If anyone wanted to design a decent IED, this was it.

There were no wires leading to it or antennas sticking out. We felt fairly confident that it would not go off unexpectedly. The question was: what to do with it? We certainly couldn’t put it back where we found it, and we didn’t want to take it back to base. We called the explosive experts and they told us they were too busy to deal with such a small thing. If we really wanted them to come it would take a couple of hours. We had already stayed in the same spot too long and didn’t want to wait any more. Our navigator suggested we hike out to the Euphrates River and throw it in. The sergeant agreed.

I didn’t have a map and didn’t know how far it was to the river. I assumed it was only a few minutes away. We turned down a dirt road leading between a fenced grove of trees and a lush green open field, a very rare sight in Iraq. I checked my water and saw I was running a little low. The sweat on my forehead continued to rain down unabated.

The natural pace of a patrol is very slow. Our job was to show the residents of the city that we were here and had guns, but not present ourselves as easy targets for snipers or anyone else. I was fired as pointman because I didn’t know how to walk slow. No one wants to stay out late on a patrol, especially when there is a nice flea-ridden cot to get back to. When I saw the open road ahead of me, my legs took control and I sped ahead too quickly for my sergeant to handle. I was sent to the back where all I had to do was keep a good distance between myself and the Marine in front of me. This natural slow pace is aggravating to someone with low water and no idea why a lengthy detour is taken.

No one tells the guy in the back what is happening. His is an easy job compared to those who have to make decisions. I didn’t know someone held in his hand a possible explosive device, or that the river was our goal. Most of this information I learned second-hand. All I knew was that when I turned around, no one was there holding a gun to my face, and that is how I liked it. We came up on the river, surprising some local fishermen in their boats. The sergeant took the IED and threw it directly in to the current, sinking it forever. Some of the Iraq army soldiers we were training in our patrol wanted to take a break and buy some fish. I wanted to take off all of my clothes and jump into the river. No one got what they wanted.

As we laboriously hiked back to our regular route I wondered about what we had thrown into the river. Suppose it was an explosive device. The water would slowly erode the casing, exposing the chemicals inside. With time they would dissolve into the water and float downstream. I had patrolled by the Euphrates many times and was constantly struck by the magnificent beauty of the natural oasis on its shores. Farmers grew crops using sophisticated irrigation techniques and modern equipment. Ranchers relied on the water to raise their cows and goats. For thousands of years, perhaps longer, this ancient river sustained generations of people. Now here we were throwing explosives into it.

This was in 2006, three years into the war and an infinity before it ended. How many explosives were thrown into the river, either by troops on the ground, the bombers in the air, or the newly established insurgency? It is hard to tell. The effect of all this pollution wouldn’t be noticed right away, maybe no one would connect the dots. That explosive material will find its way to the shore and into the crops. A thirsty donkey will gulp it down regardless of the strange metallic taste. Decades down the road, a young man like myself will jump in the cool river to escape the heat and a little bit of it will be absorbed into his skin. The casualties of this war are destined to increase through the ages.

We finally made it back to our regular route. By this time I was completely out of water and felt a little dizzy. The symptoms of heat exhaustion had been drilled into my brain and were now emerging from my dark conscious to flood my thoughts. Heavy sweating—this was less of a symptom than a daily fact of life—tiredness, cramps, a tingling feeling in the extremities. Was I feeling these or just imagining them? I looked at my fellow Marines to see if they felt the same way. Everyone had the same sweat-soaked grim face.

We patrolled a little more until other Marines spoke up; they were out of water, too. On average we carried one hundred ounces of water, slightly less than a gallon per person. I drank every last drop within an hour and still felt thirsty. One of the Iraqi soldiers suggested we knock on doors of the houses near us and demand they give us water. We didn’t have many options. We were still an hour out of base and no one was coming to pick us up. The first house we visited had a family inside. The Iraqi soldier spoke in a very quick and demanding Arabic and soon someone came with a cool two-liter bottle of water. Some houses were lucky enough to have a refrigerator, and sometimes the neighborhood was lucky enough to have electricity. We gathered the family together near the entrance of the house so none of them could try anything funny. The sergeant singled me out as the most exhausted of us all and told me to go inside and drink. Once in the house I reflexively sat down and took off my helmet to let my head cool. The family stared at me with wide eyes.

The sergeant yelled at me to get up and put my helmet back on. We weren’t supposed to show weakness in front of the townsfolk. Trying to stay cool is a weakness. Outside, the bottle of water was passed around and was soon gone. We gave the empty bottle back and patrolled on. With one less bottle of water, would the family be forced to drink from the Euphrates, or was what we just drank from there in the first place? The water helped a bit, enough that everyone was able to make it back to base without collapsing on the roadside.

After the debriefing I took off all of my gear and sat down with just shorts on. My buddy handed me a sealed bottle of water from a crate. We had a whole crate filled to the brim with bottles of water shipped from who-knows-where, and near it a pyramid of boxes holding weeks’ worth of food. Despite being in the shade the water was still around 90 degrees, but the temperature did little to dissuade me; I drank it quickly and mechanically. I didn’t think of how clean it was. I didn’t think of the pile of good food we had. I didn’t think back to my home and how it wasn’t in the middle of a war zone. I didn’t think about how safe I was going to be once I made it back, about the long life I am going to live. Instead I drank ignorantly as the sweat flowed down my chest like a mighty ancient river, collecting all of the dust and salt and whisking it away forever.

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