Slouched deep in the Blackhawk’s crew seat as we flew low through the pre-dawn darkness, I struggled to keep my eyes open. I’d been shaken awake around 0100 and told my squad was assigned to the Aerial Reaction Force. Though the name made it sound like some kick-ass Saturday morning cartoon, the ARF was generally quite dull. Often it involved nothing more than a handful of sleep deprived paratroopers circling above the area of operation, waiting to be useful while the rest of the unit carried out the important business of kicking down doors, searching alleyways, and terrifying farmers and their unfortunate goats.
During the pre-mission briefing, we were instructed to be on the lookout for “squirters,” who by fleeing the village being searched, had proven themselves to be highly suspicious and worthy of our undivided attention. The general consensus was that innocent men didn’t run. I’d seen COPS. It made sense. In the thirty minutes we’d spent drifting along in a slow holding pattern I’d identified nothing more interesting than a few clusters of infrared helmet beacons blinking along the otherwise empty streets of the small village below.
Should you ever find yourself in a war, trying to sleep in a Blackhawk, do your best to avoid the rear right seat unless you want to learn the hard way how it feels to be slapped repeatedly in the face by a mob of angry ghosts. Attempting to make the best of the situation, I found that if I positioned my face just right in the rotor wash, I could make my mouth flap open like an astronaut in a centrifuge. No one else seemed amused by this.
While we continued making wide passes over the squat buildings and palm groves, I periodically lowered the eye piece of my night vision. The sky was clear and cloudless. Through the lens the starlight was magnified, a distant glow displayed as grainy, green eyes staring blankly down on the toil of lesser things. The Diyala River Valley could have at least been scenic under different circumstances. A relatively lush oasis in the desert north-east of Baghdad, the region continued to produce palm dates, grapes, and grain crops alongside the river despite the mounting violence that had spread from the urban centers to the farmer’s backyards. For us, the fertile banks of Diyala offered little more than the addition of choking humidity to the variety of other hostilities we faced.
I was startled out of my half-sleep as the helicopter lurched to the right and started descending in a tight spiral. Around me, my squad-mates pulled their NODs into position. The Blackhawk’s right side gunner trained his infrared spotlight on a shallow, dry canal beneath us and I guessed that he had spotted someone running into the thick, tall reeds bristling out of the ravine. My gloved hand fumbled over the magazine in my M4, checking one last time to make sure it was seated properly in the receiver.
As the helicopter touched down, we tossed our packs out and jumped into the torrent of dust and debris. A few moments later the Blackhawk lifted off and we got to our feet as the air began to clear. I pressed the pressure pad of the IR laser attached to the rail on the side of my rifle and a beam of neon green shot out toward the canal. I tried to wipe away the sweat that had already begun to creep into my eyes, but succeeded only in applying an additional layer of grime to my damp skin. Above us another Blackhawk joined the one already circling our position.
Our interpreter began shouting through his bullhorn in Arabic, ordering whoever was in the canal to come out with their hands up. Nothing else could be heard amid the whining drone of the helicopters. Staff Sergeant Hill barked an order and our squad formed a line parallel to the ravine and inched forward with weapons drawn toward the raised bank. The ground was flat and hard, covered with the brutal, long-thorn bushes I’d quickly come to despise. There was no cover between where I stood and the lip of the canal. Each step meant having to decide between looking down to avoid having needle-tip briars gouge my shins or keeping my eyes focused forward. The spotlight from the Blackhawk wobbled along the length of the canal, unable to reveal any of what lay beneath the thick vegetation.
Just as we were nearing the canal’s edge, a pair of hands rose up slowly from the reeds. I pointed my laser at the upraised palms and yelled “eyes on.” The fingers glowed against the pale black sky. It didn’t occur to me immediately that this was the first time I’d aimed my rifle at another human being. You tell yourself you’ll be ready, that you’ll be focused, but it all falls apart. Your thoughts become clogged with fearful questions. Is he alone? Are there more men hidden in the dark clutching Kalashnikovs and hand grenades? What does it feel like to get shot? A friend had told me that when he took two rounds to the chest plate of his body armor, it was like getting hit in the ribs with a baseball bat.
Two of my squad-mates fanned out from the end of our line to cover our flanks as our interpreter continued to yell at the man in the ravine. Instead of following our orders, the man crouched lower into the shadows. Now all I could see above the tall reeds were the tips of his fingers, a dozen beams of light dancing over them. We inched closer.
Then in one swift movement, Staff Sergeant Hill leapt onto the berm and unloaded his magazine into the reeds. An awful sound like the shrill, wretched shriek of a dying rabbit, cut through the gunfire. Each flash from his rifle illuminated Staff Sergeant Hill’s face in a succession of brief snapshots revealing a determined and solemn expression. Thinking back on it now, that moment filled me with mixture of excitement and shame, like discovering a box of private photographs I had no business viewing. When the echo of the final shot dissolved, a relative quiet set in to fill the void. Even the constant thumping of the helicopters seemed to recede as I stood there, rifle aimed where the hands has just been, searching for any sign of movement, the specters of the muzzle flashes fading from my vision. So that’s how it is. I looked to my squad-mates, their faces revealed no surprise, no emotion at all, really. Staff Sergeant Hill turned and walked past me. “Come on, Doc. Let’s go.” No one was sent to check the body.
Back in the air, in the same unfortunate seat in the Blackhawk, as hot wind slammed against my face, nobody spoke. I kept my NODs over my eyes and stared out the open door without purpose. We passed over the field again and again where the ravine gouged a dark, irregular groove along the earth. Maybe it was because I never saw his face, or that I’d convinced myself he’d had his chance and chosen poorly. Maybe it was shock, but despite everything I’d been taught, everything I’d intuited about the sanctity of human life, I felt nothing. No regret or compassion or empathy. Innocent men had no reason to run.
I would be told later that day that rifles and a firing mechanism for an IED had been found in the empty house near the dry canal. That was all the evidence I needed to quiet any remaining doubt. I’d thought then that the divide in our respective ideologies allowed me to view these kinds of men as inherently lesser. I assured myself that, though we weren’t perfect, at least no one wearing my uniform was dragging people out of their homes and beheading them for having a slightly different belief in God. I found it difficult to regret having one less violent extremist in the world to deal with. It wouldn’t have done me any good to dwell on it. Still green, unsure of my ability to competently perform my duties, and lacking the motivation of any strong moral conviction, I was eager to cling to any footing I could to make each day more bearable.
Our helicopter touched down again in a field just outside the village and we joined another platoon clearing houses. My squad ended up in the walled courtyard of one home where a small group of men had been gathered to be taken away for questioning. As the officers and upper enlisted decided the next course of action, I took the opportunity to sit on one of the empty metal bed frames strewn around the yard. From a pouch on my chest that was designed to hold a hand grenade, I pulled a small digital camera and snapped a picture of one of the detainees sitting on the ground to my right. Hands zip-cuffed in his lap, a rag tied around his eyes, his body sagged to one side, shoulders curled in tense and defeated. His head hung forward, shifting occasionally toward the sound of a soldier moving past him. I didn’t ask why he’d been detained. I’d heard stories of what had been happening in this village: the death squads and bombings. Looking at him hunched over his crossed legs, illuminated by a dull, naked bulb hanging from the wall of the house, I was reminded of the way caged tigers could appear harmless behind steel bars.
When we got the order to move out, Private Johansen and I were put on detainee watch with an order to move a group of nine men through the village toward a predetermined landing zone where we were to be extracted. The light of dawn had just barely broken, but it was bright enough to see without the aid of my gadgets. I looked over the group I was now in charge of. They had all been caught sleeping or recently awake, all in the thin, loose shirts and pants they’d worn to bed. Some had managed to put on sandals before being taken into custody, but a handful were barefoot. As we walked, I stared down at the thick calluses on their heels, cracked and brown like the skin of a tortoise. While I concentrated on keeping them from stepping in the sewage rivulets that ran from each house we passed, our team became disoriented in search of the rendezvous point with the rest of the unit. As we circled around we ended up passing the same woman three times squatting in the doorway of her home. With each pass, her quiet sobbing erupted into a pitiful wail. I couldn’t look her in the face. Instead I stared down at the men’s feet and waited to look up again until we’d gotten far enough away to be out of her misery’s reach.
Before we’d set off, a line of 550 cord had been tied around the waist of each man to ensure they remained in a relatively straight line. I held onto the arm of the front-most man to guide them. This meant I only had one hand for my rifle and that made me nervous. As we struggled to retain control of the procession, I became aware that the main group of soldiers ahead of us was becoming increasingly distant.
The detainees walked with slow, deliberate steps, complaining in gesture and broken English that their wrists and feet hurt. They craned their necks to see under their blindfolds, stumbling and bumping into one another as we crept along. I imagined myself in their position, my hands bound, being paraded through the streets of my hometown. Being imprisoned had always been one of my greatest fears, and now here I was, leading a group of men to an uncertain future ofdegradation and windowless rooms. More so than anything, in that moment, I feared being left behind. Aside from Johansen the only other American in sight was almost one hundred meters ahead of us and we were losing ground. A slow, anxious creep had begun to wrap itself around my throat and my muscles grew tense. I flexed the carbon fiber knuckles of my Oakley gloves and considered striking the ox of a man whose arm I held. He was easily a foot taller than me and uncommonly muscular. In a fair fight I wouldn’t have stood a chance, but it was easy to feel bold given such a generous handicap.
As we turned the next corner I spotted a dog we’d passed earlier that morning laying in the dirt by the side of the road. Think of Nana from Disney’s Peter Pan, then starve her and give her a puddle of shitty mud to roll in. Thick, encrusted tendrils of her once grey fur sagged from her emaciated frame into the dirt as if she’d been laying there so long she’d taken root. As we drew closer, she reared up and snarled, snapping her yellow fangs. Johansen tried to move the men to the opposite side of the path, but the road wasn’t wide enough to get much distance between us as we began to move past her. The blindfolded men recoiled at the sound of her choked, raspy yowling and they began to mumble hasty prayers for protection. I tugged hard on the man’s arm to hurry him, but just as the last of us was about to pass, the dog lunged at Johansen. In a fluid, thoughtless movement I raised my rifle and shot the dog three times. I took a moment to check to make sure she wasn’t suffering, but it was immediately clear she had died before her body fell to the ground.
“Damn, Doc. You fucked that dog up.” Johansen laughed as he tapped the corpse with the toe of his boot. “Doc Death,” he smiled and walked back to the rear of the line. This nickname would take its place among the those I’d already earned in my short time in country and would rival my least favorite–tree-hugger–that I’d received simply by being raised in the ‘Socialist Republic of California.’ It was assumed I was soft. I kept a guitar on my bunk next to my M4. I wrote poems for Christ’s sake. I turned back to the detainees and shouted at them to keep walking. They no longer offered any resistance and we marched forward in silence.
When I was a kid, my friend and I used to shoot birds in his back yard with a pellet gun. One afternoon I bet against him when he said he could hit a humming bird we’d spotted perched on a branch some fifty feet away. He wasn’t a particularly talented marksman, and the bird was barely more than a flitting green and ruby speck in the distance; I figured there was no way he’d be able to shoot it with that cheap plastic rifle. Crouching next to him in the open second story window of his bedroom, I watched as he took careful aim. There was a split second after he pulled the trigger and the rifle had made its comically weak report that I was sure he’d missed, but as I was about to punch his arm and demand that he pay up, the bird’s tiny body fell from the branch and disappeared into the bushes below.
We stared at each other dumbstruck, unsure of what to do next. As I searched the bewildered expression on his face, it was clear that he hadn’t believed he’d hit it either. He dropped the rifle and we ran downstairs into the back yard. We hunted through the bushes and dead leaves where we’d seen the hummingbird fall but we never found its body. Eventually we gave up and walked back toward the house. The humming bird had not been much unlike the dozens of other song birds and jays we’d killed, but something about it, its diminutive size, its brilliant plumage maybe, set the arbitrary nature of our cruelty into sharp relief. The morbid fascination that had encouraged the game we’d spent hours playing was replaced with an unspoken emptiness and shared regret.
That feeling that had kept the pellet gun hidden away for years in my friend’s closet was now absent. I looked back at the dog’s body, dirty and motionless in that unnerving way dead things pantomime sleep. Fuck that dog. Fuck this place. These stinking, whimpering men. It happened so easily, I didn’t recognize it until years later. That moment when I slipped the skin of the boy with a soldier’s uniform wrapped around his shoulders and became something colder and meaner.
I’d forgotten that I had taken one of my earplugs out and was left with a sharp ringing in my left ear. As we walked on, soldiers and prisoners, the rising sun beginning to bring with it the heat of the coming day, I thought about how the dog looked as each of the three bullets struck her. Her defiant grimace snapping at the tiny red holes that bloomed in her chest. It could have easily been me on the berm of that canal, I thought, firing into shadows and flesh. A warm pulse of adrenaline soaked and shook my body, the ringing faded into a low hum, and I felt immense.
 Slang for night vision. Also sometimes called NVGs. For you mil-gear nerds, we used PVS 7’s and 14’s.
 Improvised Explosive Device. These ranged from homemade fertilizer bombs and simply rigged Russian artillery rounds to actual anti-tank mines. The latter were being employed more and more frequently during this time to devastating effect.