Let's acknowledge, at the outset, that it's basically impossible to talk about one's wartime experience without sounding like a prick.1 If your stories are too exciting, then you're bragging/embellishing/outright lying, which is prickish on its face. If your stories aren't exciting enough, then you're being modest — probably falsely so — which is even worse, because not only are you bragging in some implicit, backhanded way, but you're also denying the listener his conventional opportunity for the minor act of hero worship that is fast becoming the only way for a population almost entirely divorced from two decade-long wars to connect with the alien minority that has shouldered their weight. And should this lose-lose proposition be too exhausting to navigate, or should you have a headache, or should you have recently scraped the roof of your mouth on some weapons grade Cap'n Crunch, or for any reason at all, really, should you have the balls to actually utter the phrase, "I don't want to talk about it," well then you had better have at least a Silver Star and some visible scarring to back that up, otherwise you are the biggest prick on record. Who do you think you are?
But, in spite of all that, I'm going to talk about my wartime experience anyway — such as it is — because the news about Fallujah falling back into chaos has affected me in a way I didn't expect. And, because this is the only outlet I have at my disposal, I will dispose of it. But this isn't really about me. Just indulge me for a moment.
My War in Six Paragraphs
First, allow me to lower your expectations. My personal participation in the war was approximately as ordinary as war-type participation can be. I was an artillery officer in the Marine Corps, a young second lieutenant with Battery G, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, whose main job was running the Fire Direction Center, a gig that mostly involved figuring out ways to get hundred-pound bullets2 fired from great big cannons to land in tactically advantageous places. For seven months in 2006 I sat inside a bunkered-in trailer just outside of Fallujah and waited for people to shoot rockets and mortars at us. When they did, a whole slew of very expensive radar devices would calculate the point of origin, and after a little bit of math we would tell the guns which way to point and how much powder to use, &c., and soon they would be booming like mad trying to thunk the guys who wanted us dead. It was all very loud and exciting for a few minutes out of every day. One of the ways you could recognize new people around Camp Fallujah was to see who ducked when the artillery started up; if you couldn't tell the good booming from the bad, boy did you look foolish. It was a source of constant entertainment.
I said thunk back there instead of murder, which is what I meant. We're all adults here.
How often were we successful? Honestly, I don't know. Radar devices, no matter how expensive, are lousy at picking up corpses. But my Marines were so fast — they could pump four rounds through a gun before the first one hit the ground — and there are only so many ways to avoid supersonic steel in the middle of the open desert. Plus, I've always been pretty good at math. It's a small, mean way to feel, hoping you have murdered someone, to have been an aspiring thunker of men. But the mathematician in me will say, definitively, we killed more than one person. I can't give you any more significant figures than that.
Besides sitting around and waiting for opportunities to do very intense math problems, I took precisely three convoys between Fallujah and the air base in Al Taqaddum. The first one was simply to get to our new home in Fallujah after flying in from Kuwait. I sat in the back of an up-armored 7-ton in the middle of the night and scrunched myself up mentally into a tiny corner of the universe as a precaution against being exploded, which must have worked. When we pulled into the city an hour before dawn, thousands of rays of light spilled from the thousands of bullet holes in every structure we passed. I unscrunched myself long enough to wonder at the spillage of so much light. All I could think was, Man, we fucked this place up. Of course that's the majestic plural. I wasn't there for that part — for all of the placing of bullet holes in structures. At the time, this upset me greatly.
The other two convoys were part of a round-trip to pick up some new electronics, a job for which I volunteered. The new equipment we were to acquire was for jamming radio signals so that the insurgents couldn't to use them to blow up any of the shit piled alongside seemingly every inch of road in Anbar Province. I thought it would be ridiculous for someone else to die on the way to or from picking up gizmos intended to keep us from getting killed, and I didn't want that on my conscience. Also, I was starting to get tired of doing arithmetic while there were all these perfectly good roadside bombs left unexploded by my absence. That's another strange feeling, wanting to get thunked — but not too severely.
I didn't even have to make the final drive out to Taqaddum on the way back home. The Army loaned us some helicopters for the trip, which was awfully swell of them. It would have been embarrassing for the insurgents to blow us up while we were on our way out the door — which is what they wanted anyway. The Blackhawks helped us all to avoid that little misunderstanding.
Here's the most traumatic bit. When my part of the war was over, I had to fill out a Post-Deployment Health Assessment Questionnaire.3 One of the questions that ostensibly aided in the assessment of my post-deployment health was, How often did you feel that your life was in danger? Because the bad guys weren't so good at math, I had to fill in the NEVER circle. I thought about filling in the OCCASIONALLY circle, but it would have been a stretch. I got to put DAILY next the the question about exposure to loud noises, but it's not the same thing.
NEVER. What a shameful thing for a war veteran to have to mark on an official government form.
The Lede, Sufficiently Buried
While the Marines (re)captured Fallujah in 2004 — house by house, and sometimes room by room — from an entrenched enemy with no designs on survival, I was still at The Basic School in Quantico, VA. I sat in the chow hall every day, staring at the table reserved for pictures of the young officers and enlisted instructors killed in combat since the start of the war. When I arrived in June, there were a handful of solemn framed faces; by the time I checked out, just before Christmas and the end of Phantom Fury, we were rearranging the furniture to make room for a fifth KIA table. I listened to the hard-earned lessons of the survivors, sometimes only days removed from the fighting, that I might not have to pay so dearly for my education. And then, a few months later, I was handed the keys to their rubbled kingdom, mortgaged — in the literal sense of the word — in blood.
I know you don't give a shit about Fallujah. It's okay, it doesn't make you a bad person. It's just one of the many miserable places in the world that has nothing to do with anything anymore. But for a little while it was mine. I didn't take Fallujah, which would have made it important to me. I inherited Fallujah, which makes it sacred.
There's no earthly reason I should be upset that the city is again in disarray. I didn't go because I thought we were going to solve the problems of the Iraqi people. I sure as hell didn't go to defend my country. (Rusty mortars only fly so far.) I went because that's what you do for the dead. You keep the things they give you.
And for that, I'm so sorry. To the faces on those tables. God knows how many tables now. To their mothers and fathers, to their children and widows, I'm sorry. That's the only decent thing to be said. And it is, like all gestures and redresses born of human loss, completely insignificant.