The only time CPT Whiteback can get all of his lieutenants together in one room is late at night, sometime before the cock crows, sometime after Arab MTV airs three hours worth of Laguna Beach re-runs. During one of these sleep-deprived, coffee-fueled, wild-eyed-do-not-question-me-at-this-hour sessions, our CO announced that one of the line platoons would have “the pleasure to escort some Green Zone moneybags around Anu al-Verona tomorrow.” Apparently, they wanted to see what the real Iraq was like, and as per the military industrial complex tradition, would be bringing all kinds of pogue-alicious brass with them. He scanned the room and smiled viciously at me.
“The Gravediggers will hate this mission the most,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got the golden ticket, G.”
I stuck my hands in the pockets of my fleece and glared at my laughing comrades. No respect for the senior platoon leader. “The real Iraq, huh?” I said. “To see real life Iraqis in real Iraqi homes with real Iraqi poverty?” CPT Whiteback nodded, familiar with my brand of rambling, overindulgent sarcasm. “Can’t they just read my blog instead to educate themselves?”
He arched an eyebrow at me, elevating his wild-eyed look to crazy-commander levels. “Don’t flatter yourself. There aren’t enough stories about me for your blog to be the sole authority on the ‘real Iraq.’ Be Redcon 1 by 0900. I have to go, too, so don’t think you’re the only one drinking from the Suck hose. Now, LT B, you and the War Pigs …”
Sure enough, five hours later, under orders to trudge through a shitty-but-not-too-shitty portion of Anu al-Verona, the Gravediggers found ourselves serving as shepherds to said Green Zone moneybags’ clueless sheep. My platoon was doing exactly what it was supposed to – executing a combined mounted and dismounted patrol, with SSG Bulldog’s Stryker in the lead – with textbook spacing in between the vehicles and interspersed dismounts. The same could not be said however, for our attachments, who clustered together in the center of our formation like a gaggle of moshers at their first punk concert. Some of them hadn’t even bothered to put a magazine into their weapon, let alone charge the damn thing. I had spent the first ten minutes of the patrol attempting to inject some tactical sense into the Green Zoners, as tactfully as a young lieutenant can while making recommendations to a group of superior officers. Only one of the Majors had even bothered to acknowledge my existence. Fine, I thought, telling my men to back away from the parade of clowns. If they wanted to die, they weren’t going to take any of us with them.
I reminded myself of what SSG Bulldog always tells me when I get frustrated with attached elements. “It ain’t their fault, LT – they just don’t know no bettah.” It didn’t help. My internal scowl must’ve spread to my face, because as we pulled into a short halt to talk to some local shopkeepers, the aforementioned Major walked over to my position. The Gravediggers had automatically posted 360-degree local security, and I joined them on the perimeter, kneeling against the end of a building, rifle peeking around an alleyway. He took a knee next to me.
“Lieutenant, I just wanted to thank you for taking us out today,” he said. “I know it must be like herding cats.”
I did my best to keep my voice steady. “No worries, Sir. That’s what we’re here for.”
We talked for a few minutes. He was doing what good field grade officers do – asking about the ground situation, asking about the soldiers’ welfare, actually giving a shit about the executors of his plans and not pretending to be above it all. He listened instead of lectured. Once the mission continued, one of his peers proved to be the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll.
“We’re ready to move,” he yelled to no one in particular. “Why isn’t this vehicle?” He was referring to the Stryker.
I had the hand mic in my grip, and was radioing up to the lead Stryker to begin movement. ‘Just give it a few seconds, Sir,” I said. “We’ll be moving shortly.”
He looked over at me, eyeing me up and down with all the pomposity of a French dignitary. “Just make it happen, Lieutenant,” he said.
I felt the red rage rise up through the base of my skeleton and blaze across the wheat fields of my mind. Gotta dig that instantaneous Irish temper. I wanted to tell him to put a fucking magazine in his weapon before we left him alone in the wilderness, as helpless and oblivious as Tom Wolfe at a frat party. Only the presence of my men within earshot forced me to utilize the brain-to-mouth filter. “Roger, Sir,” I said, biting my lip, arching my eyebrows, and quietly thanking the smidgeon of Scottish practicality imbued into my spirit by my mother’s side of the family.
I don’t really remember the next few minutes; my world was now a post-Armageddon wasteland, complete with lava rivers, crashing meteors, and cackling demons. I’m more of a scrapper than a brawler, and I’ll never be confused for a big guy, but I have beaten the living shit out of another man before when the situation called for it. (A story from the Old World for another time.) Just like that moment - when nothing else mattered except for the the fight itself, blood-drunk, the object to gain supremacy on my adversary in order to channel an eternity’s worth of primal wrath and contemporary justice through my knuckles onto his face and onto his face and onto his face - I knew nothing but the vehicle of my own righteousness, and was only faintly aware that such was simultaneously driven and fueled by my own insecurities. Unlike then though, there was nothing I could do about it, except to keep walking, and check on the Gravediggers’ intervals.
We stopped at a house on a dirt corner. The Green Zoners began to talk to the residents, and without provocation, my platoon posted security around them, keeping them alive for no other reason than they knew they were supposed to. I took a deep breath and leaned against a wall. I spied SSG Boondock across the way. He was smiling wildly, and then began to cackle, hands and arms outstretched like a starman.
He’s laughing at me, I thought. He thinks it’s funny the LT is so pissed off. That bastard. We’ll see who’s laughing next time the guard roster comes out.
I whipped out my Camelbak hose, sucking down some hydration, closing my eyes in the process. When I opened them, CPT Whiteback was leaning against the wall next to me.
“How’s the water?” he asked.
“Stellar,” I said, forcing a smile. “Always stellar.”
“What a clusterfuck,” he said, pointing to the Green Zoners. They had trotted out a video camera and were filming audaciously. It was more than evident that this simple conversation with locals about their daily struggles in Anu al-Verona would end up as a public affairs commercial in due time.
“They’re going to talk about this 30-minute excursion for the rest of their lives,” I said. “At every dinner table conversation it can be brought up, their ‘experience’ with the tragedies of Iraq will be trotted out in an all-out dog and pony show, for everyone to ooh and ahh at. And think of the children! The poor, poor children!”
CPT Whiteback chuckled. “Whoa there, sipping on the Hater-Ade a little early today, aren’t we?”
I took another sip of water. “I spiked it myself.”
My CO patted me on my back with his giant gorilla hands, and nodded. “Yeah, well, you’re probably right,” he said. “This is probably the first and last time they’ll leave the Green Zone. But hey, at least they did. And they have a lot of money to dole out. If them coming here means we get more funding to help these people, don’t you think one morning of bullshit is worth it?”
I stared blankly back at him. He’s really good at making me feel like a jackass, when he wants to.
He winked at me and started walking back towards the live commercial. “Ease up on the pogues, brutha’,” he said. “They’re just trying to help. And think of it this way – at least we know there aren’t any snipers in this area right now. I can guarantee you that they would knocked somebody off by now, if there was. How’s that for a combat operation?”
I stroked my chin in contemplation. “Sir … this isn’t the war I thought it was going to be.”
He turned back around and looked at me quizzically. “They never are.”
A fair point, I thought. Ten minutes later, we mounted everyone back up in the Strykers, and returned to base, two hours earlier than planned. Whatever it was that our visitors needed to see or hear, they had seen and heard en masse. The Gravediggers rolled back into Anu al-Verona that night, platoon pure, finding it just as we had left it. There is comfort to be found in knowns.