Sunday, January 16, 2011
On July 17th, 2006, sometime before noon, someone decided to take their life in defense of an unknown ideal. Five people's lives were changed forever with the pull of a pin. The suicide bomber, accomplishing his mission of martyrdom, would not survive to see the result of his actions. Two Iraqi Soldiers, serving their country as valiantly as any other Soldier across the globe, were killed instantly without so much as a warning. Two American Marines, one of whom was days away from returning to the States to see his newborn daughter for the first time, were severely injured and moments away from death before their counterparts saved their lives. The other Marine was me, a fresh faced boy of twenty-one, four-and-a-half months of that short life spent in Iraq and one year and one month in the United States Marine Corps. All five of our lives changed in ways the suicide bomber might never have considered.
My job, along with another Marine named Donny, a bald, tattooed, muscular, sarcastic man whose job in life was to annoy you to the point of laughter, was to train two Iraq Soldiers (jundies) how to safeguard the entrance to a hospital next to our base by patting down people walking in. Our main purpose was to stop weapons and explosives from somehow finding their way into the hospital, and also to check IDs for suspected insurgents. We also had to report any gunshot or explosive injuries, anything that could have been caused by the war. Plenty of people came to the hospital with common injuries--children with skinned knees, accidental knife cuts, etc. We didn't care about them. There were two entrances, one for the males and another for the females. The locals did not take kindly to foreigners patting down women for any reason, so they passed through the entrance unchecked. A logical person might ask, what's to stop someone from dressing as a woman, considering most women are clothed head to toe in concealing burqas, and walking in through that point? There were many other problems with the whole setup, but in cases like those the people in charge conveniently look away until something bad happens (usually at the cost of a life), then they decide to change it. A long walkway connected a road covered liberally with concertina wire to the checkpoint where we all sat.
It was a Sunday, and in the local culture, the first work day of the week. People were hustling around about their daily chores, and plenty of people were entering the hospital so we were busy. The heat of the day was stifling, an average 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot that even the breeze was no relief. Imagine a blow-dryer as tall as a human turned on full blast directed right at your face, then throw some fine dust into the current and that is the breeze of Iraq. As a result one of the jundies, Hamis, decided to sit under the shade instead of near the road where he should have been, giving people a preliminary pat-down before they came near us. We knew this was not okay (he was the first line of defense and an early-warning in the case someone decided to rush us) but it was hot and we could relate to him wanting to sit in the shade. The sight of two Americans dressed to the hilt with body armor and covered with every conceivable piece of ammunition sitting lazily by as if waiting for a car wash must have been rather humorous to the independent observer. There were no signs of trouble, no rumors of anything crazy, just a typical lazy day in a war zone. Then, an explosion.
The damage has been done. Moments after the blast I regained consciousness and tried to assess the situation. Along with the heat I felt as if my hands and face were burnt, and hot liquid was trickling down various parts of my body. I stood up slowly and walked around and gazed utterly bewildered at the scene. The archway welcoming patients into the hospital seemed to have been smashed by a sledgehammer from below and had cracked, exposing raw concrete and the rebar supporting it. The hard metal bench the jundies were sitting on was moved a few feet away. A dark black burn mark scarred the ground and there seemed to be some black mass shoved up against a tree. Don't look at it. It's not good. Don't look. An ambulance parked nearby was peppered with what looked like bullet holes near the red crescent moon. Four bodies lay strewn about in various levels of completeness. One of these bodies was moving slightly--Donny was bleeding from somewhere and his hands were moving, but he wasn't responding to my calls. Maybe I wasn't even calling at all. I couldn't even hear my own voice. There was a loud buzzing noise overpowering everything, mostly from my right ear. I stumbled about, trying to find help but my mental faculties were not in full swing. My body armor, the main reason why I was still alive, weighed me down and caused me to drag my feet. The human body does not respond well to an extra sixty pounds. The injuries I would soon find on me also did not help. I knew only a few feet away I could walk into view of another guardhouse on the base. It seemed so far though, so out of reach, despite being only a few seconds walk. My body just would not let me expend the little bit of extra energy that would bring me into view of the base to let them know there were still people alive. I finally sat down on the bench and looked down. My chest was covered in a dark red-black film with the consistency of molasses. Did this come from me? Something was coming out of my ears. I stuck my fingers in them and inspected the fluid and saw it was clear. At least it isn't blood. Later I would find out that this fluid surrounds the brain. My camouflage uniform was rapidly taking on a foreign tinge of red. Both of my legs and my left arm were bleeding, my left leg nearly gushing blood.
All around were pieces that used to be Maluk and Hamis, the two jundies. It was impossible to distinguish the body parts, which part belongs to whom. In death, all creatures look alike. Although I did not know them very well, plenty of people did, and they had built up reputations of being the nicest Iraqis in our group. Hamis' nickname was “Uncle,” because he had the face and demeanor of everyone's jolly older uncle. For a reason we could never figure out he always wore a black beanie cap on his head, despite the heat. A thick paternal mustache rounded out the cold weather accessories. Maluk was famous among us. He was about my age, with an unruly childish cowlick in his hair. Take off his uniform and give him swim shorts and a surf board and he would blend in to the too-tanned beach bums back home. He was always smiling, making jokes and transcending the language barrier, building up the rapport between our two forces better than any other jundie. If anyone had ever stood watch at the hospital they came back with fond memories of him. Now the final memory of them would be cleaning up their detritus--no famous last words, no insights, just a mess.
Someone ran by and picked up a pistol lying on the ground. I recognized the gun; Maluk had it on him at all times. He kept it strapped to his leg and let me play with it just hours before. Fearing that he was going to point the pistol at me and finish the job, I screamed at him to give it to me. Jib le! Jib le! Give me! Give me! My rudimentary Arabic came back. He stared at me with a strange look of surprise mixed with a nervous smile, then handed me the gun and ran away. At least my voice still worked. Something was wrong with the clip, and I knew it wouldn't work. Donny's machine gun and my rifle were gone; the radio I kept in my top left pouch on my chest was missing, presumably blown to bits; everyone except me guarding the hospital was incapacitated. I had no way to defend myself, no way of sending for backup, and no friendly face to guide me. Everything I had relied on so much up to then was swept away like straw.
Memories of training flashed back quickly in a jumbled mess. I was bleeding pretty badly and I needed to stop it. There was a pouch strapped to the back right side of my flak jacket containing items that could help me but I couldn't remember their names, only how to use them. My left arm wasn't working very well--something was stopping me from bending my elbow. The weight of gravity combined with a rapid heartbeat, fueled by gallons of adrenaline gushing into my system rapidly pulled my blood downward and through several jagged slits in my skin. My body movements slowed by the second. I was content to only look forward, periodically yelling “Donny!” in an attempt to get my friend to respond. He could only lie there, moving only slightly, his face frozen in a horrid grimace.
After seeing my injuries I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't feel anything. People always talk about being in shock, but then I guess I was feeling it. I felt like I should feel pain but I just couldn't. Something in my brain disconnected and I started crying out in pain even though I had no reason to. I remember thinking at the time: why am I doing this? Looking left I saw people arguing and pushing each other. Were these the doctors and nurses coming out of the hospital to see the devastation? I can only imagine the mind-bending horror of being a doctor in a war-torn country and then coming out of your own clinic only to see more bloodshed literally at the front door.
The tourniquet (that's what it's called) found its way out from under a bottle of iodine and various comically undersized bandages, much too small to cover the wounds that war creates,. I knew how to use a tourniquet, but unfortunately the engineers who designed this particular model had in mind a person with two functioning arms, and I was only able to wrap it around my leg right above the heaviest bleeding before coming to a reluctant halt.
Seeing Donny on the ground brought back memories of when I first met him only a few weeks before. He had a condition where almost no hair grows on his body, except for a few jet-back threads on his chin. His body was liberally covered with tattoos and he was in excellent shape. Shirtless, his smooth, pale skin stretched over taught muscles offered an imposing figure, but that was not Donny. He never shouted and only raised his voice to make a joke. Donny was serving his third tour in Iraq and wasn't very surprised by daily life. People who go on so many tours usually hate talking to people who haven't. They've seen and experienced things that will forever separate them from those who have spent their life in naïveté. What made Donny special was that someone who was surprised by the crazy daily life (me) could talk to him and he would answer all questions honestly and quickly, without being pretentious or aggressive, as is the norm amongst more seasoned vets. He had formed an unofficial group that would get together periodically and cook food we happened to scrounge up. Only the night before we cooked up a massive bowl of chili (much different and tastier than the usual slop) in a pot we stole from the cooks. He was a friend to all and an enemy to none. Now, seeing him sprawled on the pavement, hands in the air permanently clawed, fighting the inner demons raging in his head, I felt guilty. It's the new guy that's supposed to die, not the seasoned vet! He has a wife and a newborn girl, so much more to lose and he is the unconscious one--while I, with only my family and distant friends to care about me, sit here enjoying copious amount of consciousness, only able to stare at him in wonder and disgust.
My brain allowed me to reflect and digest some information as it slowly grew dim. Some bomb had exploded, that much was obvious. Was it a mortar shot from afar, a grenade, missile, accidental? For the last couple weeks our base had been fired on by mortars but there hadn't been any injuries. There was a very low chance, not impossible, that a gunner fired a perfect shot hitting right between the buildings flanking us. I looked on the ground to my right and saw a leg, detached below the knee without a stitch of clothing, not even a sock. Empirical evidence told me this was not my leg. A noxious smell permeated the area impossible to describe fully and impossible to forget, a mixture of exhaust or cordite and a generous portion of an unidentifiable smell, all strengthened by the latent heat and the sweat soaking my clothes accumulated over the day. Empirical evidence told me this unidentifiable smell came from the ruptured entrails of a once-living human. I thought quickly of the medals I would receive if I lived, the covetous Purple Heart, one of the most secretly sought after but most ill-earned award that military service has ever produced. I was relieved to know that even near death vanity is still a strong human characteristic, perhaps the most overpowering. I wondered if any moment tunnel vision would kick in and I would take the short trek towards inevitability...
Around the corner came relief. My fellow Marines heard the explosion and ran to my rescue. The rest of the story is quite boring, filled with strange medical terms such as perineal nerve, chest tube, wound vacuum, orthopedic--blah blah. Sufficed to say I survived. Donny also survived. The silly nurses at the hospital made the mistake of placing us in the same room. For the next month I had to endure constant pranks and streams of salt water shot out of syringes pointed at my face. Now many years later I walk around relatively fine. The final tally of my injuries: permanent total hearing loss in my right ear; the inability to lift my left foot or move it side-to-side; eight bits of shrapnel hanging out near the surface of the skin (the ever-present vanity will not allow me to remove these, considering how much fun they are at parties); a bone missing in my left foot; parts of my left bicep missing; partial loss of taste; and other strange side effects. The old joke “you should see the other guy!” is wildly grim but a sure-fire hit. Donny has many of the same injuries, making for a very comical scene: the two of us walking down a street side-by-side, exaggerating our limps and screaming at each other to be heard.
After the dust proverbially settled, the official story was that the suicide bomber walked up, was patted down by Hamis, and once he felt the explosives (which must have been very obvious considering the large amount he was packing around his mid-section) he hugged the suicide bomber, who then pulled the pin. We all thought fondly of Hamis and his sacrifice. His body absorbed much of the blast and no doubt saved his two Marine friends--but was that all he earned, just some fond passing memories? If he had been a Marine or an American in any branch, some high-up General would have written a glowing account of his story peppered with that brassy shine and he would be awarded a very large and prestigious medal, maybe even the Medal of Honor. As far as I know, Hamis wasn't awarded anything, neither was Maluk. I don't even know if they award medals in the Iraqi Army.
Sometimes I think I got the better end of the deal. My friends who stayed behind saw a helicopter fly away with two of their friends in it who they didn't know were going to survive. The mess I left behind wasn't going to be easy to clean up. Three minced bodies were sitting under a hot sun, along with the pints of blood Donny and I bled out. There is no janitorial service in Iraq: if there is a mess, the Marines clean it up. Imagine waking up in the morning and going about your daily routine, then only hours later having to scoop parts of people who you knew personally and had developed a relationship into a body bag. The stereotypical tough Marine breaks down and vomits on the pavement and adds more stink.
I can see my wounds. They are now landmarks on my skin along with the moles, hair, birthmarks, etc. Some wounds form in the mind after a seriously traumatic event. These wounds are often unnoticed and untreated, and will only grow in the brain until they become so large it's impossible to remove them despite centuries of psychological knowledge and years of personal therapy. Somehow, despite my brief exposure to this mess, I avoided most of these wounds, but I was lucky. My friends who stayed behind will forever remember that time, and as much as they pity me, I pity them even more. Periodically I will look down and see my longest scar stretching from above the knee down to the ankle and think back to cause of the event: my suicide bomber.
Who was he? I know nearly nothing about him. Sifting through the various pieces he left behind my fellow Marines determined that he was male. His age, name, home of record, occupation, were all erased. Only those who knew him before knew who he was, but I will never meet his friends or relatives, so to me he is but an event.
Why did he do this? He didn't stop just before detonation and enter into a speech so that those who were about to die would understand his motives. No note was left behind, and no organization bothered to phone the local news network to claim his victory as their own. Perhaps he was a member of a terrorist organization, and after months of indoctrination he was chosen to be the glorious martyr who would strike at the imperialist pigs and drive them from their home country. Perhaps he was a foreigner and had nothing to live for, and out of boredom enlisted in the first radical group he could find. Perhaps he was a law-abiding citizen working in the nearby cement plant, but after witnessing the death of a friend or family, struck out blindly at the nearest enemy he could see. His motives are forever sealed.
What then can we say about this person? These things we know: he had at least one mother and one father; he had lived long enough to see adulthood; and someone must have cared for him to some small extent as a child. What can be drawn from this information? He was a human being just like me, just like the person reading this, just like the billions alive today and the billions who have died and the billions who will be born.
My suicide bomber probably loved his country. He had grown up under propaganda, in a country still reeling from colonists, embargoes and wars. When the invaders came, the same people he was taught to revile, a strong wave of patriotism must have arisen in him. Pressured from all sides by religious figures, pseudo-friends, many people trying to find someone who would fight their battles for them, he must have been overwhelmed until finally he decided to do something about it. He must have been willing to lay down his life for a cause he fervently, but perhaps naïvely, believed in. Thinking honestly, we followed a very similar life-line. Decades of conflicts and near-misses left us on a hair trigger, ready to fight at any provocation. Terrorists had attacked my country and killed thousands of innocent civilians, my fellow citizens. Since high school I witnessed the initial invasion of Iraq, the Mission Accomplished banner, the first appearance of something called an Improvised Explosive Device, and a massive resurgence of violence with an enemy who didn't wear a uniform and could blend into the populace. Politicians, church leaders, relatives, all spoke of a sacred duty to defend our country because freedom wasn't free, and other catchphrases. Finally I decided to do something about it, and just like my suicide bomber, I was willing to lay down my life for a cause I fervently, but as I learned later, naïvely believed in. When I enlisted I asked for the hardest job, the infantry, knowing full well that I would be shipped out to Iraq or Afghanistan and I might not come back home. This made me proud, strong, separate from my peers. A rifle in my hand changed me from a regular joe to a Blood-Thirsty Killer. My suicide bomber must have felt the same feelings the first time he tried on his suicide vest.
I often think about him. His event is permanently imprinted in my psyche. I think about what could have happened. Suppose he had gotten cold feet the day of, deciding rather to hide from the heat indoors. Perhaps this leisure time would be spent in meditation and he would rethink his plans. What if the military decided to not occupy that particular city? Would he have traveled the extra distance to accomplish his task, or maybe run out of gas half way there and hitchhiked back home? If the proper materials, explosives, wires, detonation cap, all of the destructive and illegal devices had not been procured, would he have fretted and complained or would he have taken it as a sign that he was destined to live? What if America had never invaded his country? Would he be sitting at home right now with his family? What if thousands of years ago we as a species realized the folly of war and abolished it completely? These are the questions I ask almost daily.
I forgive you. I never knew you and you never knew me, but I forgive you. I am sorry for whatever drove you to your end. I am sorry for the history between our countries. I am sorry for the hateful indoctrination that must have influenced you. I am sorry I was there and the terror I must have represented. I am sorry that you saw me as a target, and not the peace-keeping force we were supposed to represent. If we ever met again, if I was transported back to that time and place of our first and only meeting, I would not lash out in anger. I would calmly ask you to sit down and I would talk to you, human to human. I would ask why you were doing this and if there was anything I could do to make it better. We would both undoubtedly have misconceptions about each other, but I am confident that in our discourse we would understand each other better. Perhaps we might even become friends. At the end of our talk, I would sit quietly back where I was before and allow you to do your business. But I know, after talking with each other, we could come to some common ground and you would not be forced to sacrifice your life for your cause.
But it's all over now, and I sit here and ponder how to make situations like mine a thing of the past. Some say it's not possible. Perhaps so, perhaps we are a species doomed to fight ourselves until the end of time. Until I have incontrovertible proof that all human beings cannot live without murder, I will struggle to end it all. The first step is to look into myself and see the pain and the latent hate, the same reptilian genetic material that brought my suicide bomber and me together, and to cut it out, forcefully, against all illogical notions of survival or fight-or-flight responses. To emulate the famous Chief Joseph, I will fight no more forever.