The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

THIS SPACE IS IRAQ, THIS SPACE IS MY MEMORIES |

April 11, 2011

Name: Zachary Scott-Singley 
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: A Soldier's Thoughts (about Iraq) and Nevadog (about life as a single father)

This space is Iraq, this space is the US Army, this space is my life, this space is the Government of America, this space is a country, this space is freedom, this space is occupation, this space is my life.

Welcome, everyone, to Iraq. Today’s temperature is a cool 119 degrees so make sure you drink lots of water on our walking tour. I will be your guide and let me tell you that you are very lucky indeed, for this tour is based on much that I have seen and done. My name is Zachary Scott-Singley and I will show you the day that changed my life.

First let's get some small necessaries out of our way. Your Happy Tour ballistic protection vest is only rated for impacts of 9mm rounds, and while I know they are heavy, folks, I wouldn’t say it if it isn’t important: you must wear your small arms protection inserts. Or as those of us who have been around here a while call them, your “SAPI” plates. The ones you have are the latest greatest, and are rated for armored piercing AK-47 rounds. That’s right, 7.62mm of full automatic fun. Last thing, you must wear your Kevlar helmet at all times as well.

Saddam was fond of his AK-47s, of all his rifles actually. This is a country which was once a totalitarian state, dominated by a man who used brutality to keep the peace between the Sunni and Shi’ite people, two factions of Islam which currently are awash in sectarian violence. I had a Shi’ite friend of mine tell me once, while deployed in combat, that Islam quit being about Allah the minute the Prophet Mohammed died. Once he died it was all politics.

We aren’t so different as a culture; just look at our good old Southern boys, the strong Christian ones who always vote Republican and who wave their Confederate flags with pride. Like Joyce Carol Oates writes in her novel I lock My Door Upon Myself, there are things that are proper and things that are not. A white woman with a black man in the early 1900′s was a scandal worthy of being murdered over, and the same can be said over here in Iraq about Sunnis and Shi’ites, in some tribes about men being seen with women, as well. I digress however, and we must be moving along. The day is hot and the hour is not.

The city we will be walking through is Abu Ghraib. It's a little-known fact that the prison where the infamous scandal of abuse occurred was actually named after this city. Unfortunately that is not where we will be going today. Our tour will be a simple one; we are already getting close. Let us stop here a moment. I want to point something out to you that one doesn’t get to bear witness to while watching events unfold on the news from the safety of your home. 

Does anyone smell anything? You do? That mixture of burning trash and human excrement -- that is the smell of war. That distinct scent can bring the memories back in a snap. To me it is amazing how many Third World countries share that exact smell. Iraq was not always like this; not until Saddam got his hands on this country did things turn so far south. He squandered the riches of this oil-soaked land. Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization. This is Iraq. I have personally been inside the second oldest Christian church in the entire world, near Tikrit. I have lived in the palaces of Saddam, have swam in his artificial lakes and have shot his soldiers as they fought me.

Such clashing of ideas, of power between the various classes, the rich and the poor. Under Saddam the Bath party were the elite, with the privileges of power but also the trappings of politics, and the poor were the stepping stones for them to ingratiate themselves unto Saddam. He was like Stalin in his own way, Saddam was. Peter Kenez states that “Stalin came to be isolated from Soviet reality. He formed an imaginary picture of the world around him, largely on the basis of movies and newsreels made for him.” Saddam did this as well. He did it so well, in fact,  that on August 2, 1990 he convinced himself that his sovereign neighbor Kuwait belonged to him and invaded, thus sparking off Operation Desert Storm, also called the First Gulf War.

All the ghettos I have seen remind me of this place where we are. You see, we are in Iraq, but we could just as well be in the ghetto in DC in the summer, or perhaps in Baltimore, MD. You might even have a better chance here than you would there.  Last time I was here in uniform I was under President Bush’s Stop Loss plan. I was one of the many soldiers who had served my time in this space -- in the Army, in the Military of the United States and in Iraq. Even though it was the end of my enlistment I was involuntary extended (stop-lossed). I had killed enough people, not in a video game, but life and death where nobody comes back with another life, except maybe Dick Cheney.

I didn’t know at that time that my future life was going to include the divorce of my wife or that I would be a single father. I didn’t know that in the space and time of Iraq I would change from a boy to a man, celebrating my 22nd and 25th birthdays here. I also didn’t know that Iraq would change, from when I invaded in 2003 to the civil unrest and deaths of 2005-2006, and then 2009 when we handed their country back to the Iraqis. I was still in this war zone and yet it would change so drastically during these deployments. I was young and naïve. We all are.

I want to ensure that while I give you my point of view you draw your own conclusions, for we are all our own people. That being said we will continue our tour. Looking over to that point on our right hand side, we have one of the main roads, Highway 11, which will take you right to Al Anbar province and all the way to Jordan if you keep going. It is a tough ride, because every little hole, every bit of roadkill, pile of garbage, or bit of debris is possibly being used to conceal an improvised explosive device, or IED. Some of the deadliest ones involve parked or broken-down cars because they can hold so much more explosives. Ah, the IED. My old friend, my old enemy. The improvised explosive device has taken friends from me, has stolen them right out of the space of the living. 

It is nothing like the movie The Hurt Locker, where lone EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams run all over Iraq doing whatever they want to, leaving the base at night and drinking all the time. Space is governed. Space is maintained by both sides, by the insurgents of which there are many, Al Qaeda, the Sunnis, the Shiites, foreign fighters of all sorts and sizes, the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, and of course by the US forces.

We speak of spaces here, we speak of time and of awareness of this time, and yet we do no real justice for those who occupy the moment. There are eons of time to be had if the bureaucrats in D.C. would only slow down and come visit us in Iraq or Afghanistan for a few days. Those moments when we see death, when we meet him and know that we are going to die. Those moments are lifetimes long. And yet the bell on the NYSE must still ring on time. My kids grow up while my friends die, and this whole time the Tea Party members are screaming for Muslims to reform or for worse.

Nobody really gets it. Just like in New York City. Only those who lived there can really judge or understand what it means to experience the changes of a city like that. Those of us in combat are the same, but it feels like every time I turn on the news or read the news on the internet, I am told how to feel as a soldier, as a vet and as a Federal employee. The civilians here are different too; Iraqis are aware that life is cheap, not because they don’t value their lives or the lives of those they love, but because of the constant danger they live in. The kind of danger that a Washington bureaucrat will never know. 

James Howard Kunstler speaks of American civilians, of American children. Listen to the difference in the spaces they occupy: “Suburbia. Sprawl. Overdevelopment. Conurbation (Mumford’s term). Megalopolis. A professor at Penn State dubbed it the 'galactic metropolis.' It is where most American children grow up.” In Iraq we simply have the impoverished living in hovels and small apartments, and those well off,  who can afford better, who can afford some level of protection, albeit not much when things as a whole are so violent. What you own is within your steel and concrete gate, anything outside and anything else is anyone's to take or destroy.

Ah, here we are. Please excuse my wandering mind. Now folks, you are probably asking yourselves why this spot, this busy roadside spot in the dirt next to what is the outskirts of the city of Abu Ghraib, in one of the deadliest places for Americans let alone Iraqis to be. Let me show you. You see that house? Doesn’t look like much, does it. But you remember how I was talking of the difference between American and Iraqi civilians?  The difference between soldiers and bureaucrats?  Soon you will see this difference very clearly. 

Let's focus on the metal front gate connecting to the sand-colored concrete gate surrounding the property. You see that home?  It was at that spot in the summer of 2003 that I was also standing, like you, wearing all this heavy equipment, carrying in my hands my weapons, and paying attention to every little detail as best I could. I was inside of that gate, questioning the residents about a rocket attack we had been hit by near this area the day before, when I heard automatic gunfire. We are fighting a war here, so while that is not uncommon at all, the proximity of it was alarming. As you can see, from inside the gate you can not view the road or the pathways leading to this house, so I took cover right there at the corner of the gate.

It was just a gate, and looking back at ourselves we can see that we all have our hypothetical gates up. The Iraqis would pool their trash just outside their property gates; anything outside of their living area was not theirs. All their trash, rotting, burning -- this is the smell. On one side of the gate the house, and the family would make believe like life was safe and okay, while on the other side the harsh reality bit into their very olfactory glands and gave visual cues as they opened their gates. Life was real. This protected space is not a thing. The rest of the world still exists and you are a part of it. Hell, I am here, a soldier knocking down your door because you shot rockets at me and mine last night. How real is that?  I won’t shoot you, but I will question you and find the truth. As I digress I want to mention bullets. Bullets which are fired. They shoot and are gone, nobody thinks of the consequences.

It turns out that one of the soldiers who was on that raid with me had opened fire. He shot up a black truck over there, by those corn and grass fields just east of us about 300 meters away. I didn’t know this soldier, he was from a different unit, but since I was the only Arabic linguist it was now me and him and a couple other guys who were sent to investigate this truck he had shot. The soldier who had opened fire said he saw the truck drive by a couple times and saw someone with an AK-47 in the back of it. Yeah, the same kind of weapon that your vests are rated for stopping.

That day we ran over almost to the fields, but today, since this is a walking tour, I think we shall walk. As we got closer, right to about this spot, we stopped. There were two .50 caliber gun-trucks (you know them, the Humvees with the machine-gun turret on the top) that had driven up to this spot behind us. Walking towards us were four Iraqis. One of them was carrying something in his arms, some kind of burden. It is a dead boy. They are screaming at us in Arabic, asking us why we did this. The soldier who had shot the boy is screaming too. Screaming for a medic. I see the child’s broken skull, see his shattered head. No medic can fix this. The man holding the body of the child, I later find out, is the boy’s uncle. He was a carpenter who was watching the boy for his brother who had gone to the market. His shirt is both pristine white and a mess of crimson red, both wet and sticky with his nephew’s life blood.

The child is dead.

The huge hole in his head is there. I see this from above the whole scene, watching myself and everyone else play out their parts. For a few seconds this happens and then I am back in my body. It will be my first and my last out-of-body experience. The space and time I occupy was what the military would call a Joint Environment in that instance. I was there, present for the child, for the uncle and also watching it from an ethereal sense. Come on up, see what I saw. You are a father, you believe in Christ, and you see this child murdered but also see that his killer has made a horrible mistake. You break yourself apart, leave one piece always there on that roadside. Move on and leave the other shattered pieces of your soul along the way to help you remember the burden you must bear.

“I am sorry,” I say in Arabic. It is at this time that I feel I am outside of my body. I’m watching all of this unfold, watching even myself who is still speaking in Arabic to the boy’s uncle. Watching the soldier who had shot and killed this child call for a medic to fix it, but there is no fixing. When I close my eyes to this day I still see those beautiful pieces of the child’s skull glistening on the man’s shirt and face. The bone was so startling white like the boy I imagine that they were pure. Pure and so very wrong because they are broken. Broken like I am now, broken like the soldier who had shot the boy was. So very broken. The uncle, his once immaculate white shirt is now crimson red. This is the blood of life that pumps for this boy's head, for thoughts he will never have.

Again, in Arabic, “I am sorry, it was an accident.”

“How do you accidentally shoot a boy. I am a carpenter. I have wood in my truck. You can search my truck, I have nothing.”

Feeling guilty because the Officer in Charge wants me exactly to do this and here he is holding his dead nephew, I say, “Thank you, we were wrong. I am sorry. I’m so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened. How old was he?”’

He answered me not with his age, but with, “His father needed to go to the market, I was to keep him safe. I am his father’s brother.”

It feels like it is just the two of us now even though the commotion is all around us. “Please know that I am sorry.”

The boy’s mother now walks up and her sorrow is fresh. “Sorry?  Sorry won’t bring his life back. Your sorry won’t bring him alive. You being sorry? That is what you are?  You shoot my boy and you are sorry? You come in with your guns, your tanks and you kill. And now you are sorry? Where is my son? Why can’t he live?"

You all are with me as the black lieutenant arrives. He has an Army Ranger combat patch on his right arm which makes me feel reassured and nervous at the same time. At this point I was pulled away from the forming scene to go and look in the truck and field for the weapon that the soldier may have seen. On one side is corn and the other is tall grass. This very corn and grass we are now standing near.

Here is where the truck was. There were so many bullet holes but only one of them mattered, the one that took the boy's life. Walk with me now. You see, this corn is part of my memories as well, can you feel the blades of the husks on your sweaty skin?  The way it sounds as it swishes against you in this too-hot time and place? Like we are standing now, that soldier and I stood. Right here in this spot. He keeps looking at the truck with the holes in it and at his hands and over to the body of the boy he had just killed. There was no weapon. He had just thought he had seen one.

Take a moment and sit here. You can hear the cars, feel this unbearable heat and the weight of all this armor, drink from your canteen, I ask of you, and imagine back to that day. It was at this spot in the cornfield that I offered him a drink of my water. He looked at me. I had not ever spoken to him before that day, before that raid, and I did not see him after, but in that moment his eyes looked lost and distant. He was so grateful for that water and I could see that he was to be haunted. I did not know that I was going to be haunted as well, or for so long. He looked me in the eye and whispered thank you. I think he was surprised that anyone could love him or even offer him something. What he had done was an accident.

I will walk with you all back to the tour bus now, but as we walk let me say this. People ask me about war, ask me if I have killed and what it is like. War has broken many many things, it has cost me much and others even more.

Let's speak of spaces, where once a life was. I had occupied it, and now I may still occupy this space but life and soul no longer occupy what you have left. I am here, as I have always been, tough, and strong, and tenacious but always alone. It is funny how things happen, but I have seen the blind and the dead, seen life end right in front of me. I have seen love and anger; I have seen the hurt and the whole. The only difference I can discern about all of it is that some want life more than others. It has nothing to do with intelligence or with time, but rather with a hard-headed will. I have committed violence, and while that is not my first response to situations I feel that it may be a suitable response to some.

You still smell that smell? The smell of war, the places on this planet where broken things are. War zones are junkyards for broken souls, but those broken souls have more heart than many civilians I have seen back home. Iraqi civilians I have known have shown more compassion than the people I call my kin at times. Monsters are real, they exist in all the dark places and they will destroy you and leave you still standing with the things you see and do. Where once one soul existed I now have a broken spirit, and myself like those who enlisted with me are resolved to take this to the end. I love those I have lost and I love those I have served with. Iraq has been the venue for the quilt of my service and for that I am grateful. I want all of you to enjoy the rest of your day. I hope you take my words as you hear them, listen with your hearts, and whatever rings true, keep.

 

WORKS CITED

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP, 1999. Print.

The Hurt Locker. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Perf. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. Voltage Pictures, 2008. DVD.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print. Page 173.

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print. Page 15.

Oates, Joyce Carol. I Lock My Door upon Myself. New York: Ecco, 1990. Print.

Uncle Saddam. Dir. Joel Soler. Perf. Qusay Hussein, Saddam Hussein, and Uday Hussein. Rive Gauche International Television, 2000. DVD.

 

Comments

Crikey...I am gobsmacked. Gobsmacked, with tears running down my face. More, please. Crikey.

I pray that there is peace for your soul soon. Too much reality for those who have never been there and not enough for those who have. Violence at home or abroad will shape who you are and what you do.
I am especially sorry for your loss of innocence and those who are supposed to love and support you. Unfortunately too many cannot deal with the life you have and are living. Even more unfortunate, our leaders seem to consider the front line troops expendable and do not expend enough for their well-being in combat or more importantly after they have been used and deemed broken.
Your "Brothers-in-arms" will always be there for you. You have to seek them out, though.

Your eloquent and heartbreaking narrative, [and the mental pictures it creates] should be required reading for all high school freshmen, [for starters]. You will carry these memories with you forever; perhaps giving voice to them will cause others to actually think. And act.

Prayers and gratitude,
Mary Coleman

Very powerful. Thanks for writing and sharing.

*hugs* I'm from Singapore, and have never experienced any war, nor heard one. But... thanks so much for sharing. And for describing the indescribable.

God bless...

Very powerful, as I am not the first to say. Thank you so much for letting me see a piece of your life over there. I am so sorry for all the chaos and mistakes that make a war. I did not realize how utterly without hatred it can be. Now that I have read your account, you will be in my thoughts for some time to come. Tears, here. Thank you again for sharing.

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