As a child, I was a typical, overfed, pasty and underexercised american with a lower-case a, with little interest in anything beyond the tip of my nose. The Army, with a capital A, remade me using its not-so-subtle methods.
Standing in my new attic home, a week after leaving Uncle Sugar’s employ, peering into an oval, full-length mirror, I saw a scarred beanpole with eyes that could bore a hole through a plate of depleted uranium. Get right, soldier, I told the reflection. He glared back at me with scorn – Civilian.
Some of those little scars in my face came from my old battalion XO, a major who’d snapped at us troopers out of the side of his mouth like an old-timey movie gangster. He’d told us not to pick up anything that looked out of the ordinary maybe an hour or two before he died. We’d swept into Iraq earlier that day and were ready for adventure. Anything could be booby-trapped, the major had told us. Anything at all. With a capital ‘A.’
Less than an hour later, amongst a pile of Iraqis we’d just killed from afar – poppity, poppity-pop with our M-16’s and M-4’s and .50 cals – the major stooped over to pick up an AK-M, which is an AK-47 with a wooden stock. And, ka-pop!, off went his hand and face in a pink slurry of smoke, man-meat and gristle. Magic! He was dead, just like that. He fell, gently, onto his side. I was about ten meters away and little pieces of metal and officer face chunks and hand bones lodged in my arms, legs, face and hands. Nothing debilitating, mind you. Body armor saved my torso and ESS goggles my eyes. The major took the brunt.
I saw a man killed, a field-grade officer, and my reaction was surprising, even to me with bone-bits of him prickling me. I thought, That was pretty cool. It took me several months to feel the horror reaction and when it came, I cringed at myself, at what I’d allowed myself to be. Become.
As you were.
The major who replaced him, two months later, was a reservist from Sheridan, Wyoming. He was a dog trainer back in the world and offered winning advice for dealing with newly freed Iraqi personnel. He told us what he’d told all of his clients back home in bumfuck moo-cowland: Don’t make eye contact. Walk into any situation as if you’re the alpha male, and that will make you the alpha male. It was sound advice for dealing with dogs.
He wasn’t the only one who had a theory. All of our superior officers, from the generals on down to dippy second lieutenants, were encumbered with theories and books. I’d never seen so many books. The books were going to tell them how to pacify our new Iraqi friends. In the meantime, we were living inside our vehicles and swallowing great dry gulps of sand. The heat and sand came slamming down from above and up from below and whipped around our heads and got inside our ass cracks. The people from back home sent us baby wipes and silly string in a can and congratulatory letters. Dear Soldier, I don’t know you but thank you for saving my freedom.
I killed a man one day on a street crowded with angry, hungry people and us with not so much food. I picked the man out at random, him and his shrieking ungrateful face, and I shot him. Ka-pop. It was not cool.
You sure know how to end a riot, Dugan, said a second lieutenant right after I’d zapped the dude.
Check your theory book, page 19, second paragraph, sir, I said, not looking at him, all alpha-male-like, my hands shaking, as people screamed and ran away from me, down the heat-and-dust-clogged street.
Har-dee-har-har, he went.
Smoke came out of the dead man’s wound. He was maybe twice my age and his family, or people I assume were his family, came and dragged him away. A boy, a girl, a woman. The horror reaction came toot-sweet with that kill. I’d become cold. I was coldness incarnate. I was not yet old enough to drink beer. Plus, there was no beer available. Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot, over.
We dug in, eventually. Sandbags and concertina wire. Guard towers. Eventually, the cans came. They were little sleeper compartments. And then showers. And then air conditioning. And, much later, soft-serve ice cream in several ambrosial flavors. And contractors to serve the soft serve. And delightful dining facilities in which to consume the soft serve. And plasma TVs and the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, where we learned every day that we were winning, always winning. More importantly, we also learned who was leading the points standing in NASCAR and which college football teams were doing well. We discovered that our encampment was named Camp Eagle.
After winning the war on a daily basis, I rotated to CONUS. Then I rotated to Korea. Then my Korean unit rotated to Iraq. Then I got myself blown up and went to Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany and, later, Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. And then I left the Army with a capital A.
(An excerpt from Alpha Mike Foxtrot a novel now available from Paragraph Line Books.)