"Where’s everyone at?" I asked, hastening to get the party started.
"Over there in the beer tent, of course. C’mon, we got you guys some seats saved," said my old friend Rick. We’d grown up together playing war in the woods. The beer tent was the center point of the Blue Crab Festival, Palatka Florida’s equivalent of Labor Day, Veteran’s Day and Disney World all rolled into one. In reality the whole charade was set up for this alone, a circus tent full of beer dispensing vixens and worn out bands playing worn out hits.
At the table in the middle of the mess were Clint and Jason and their wives. There were hugs all around and a scantily clad brunette with some kind of keg attached to her back like a rucksack came around and filled up our cups. The suds kept coming like a horror movie villain, always right behind you. In other parts of the world they say, "the beer flowed like water," in Palatka we say, "the beer flowed like a fucking beer should flow." I was downing one drink after another. The place was full of joyful noise, girls giggling at their favorite boys, men telling fish stories, lovers whispering and then laughing with glee. And always, more drink.
"So, we weren’t the only ones who went on a little trip," said Jason referring to his recent trek across Europe. "Tell us what you were up to." He was looking at me.
"Yeah, tell us a war story, and it better be true," Clint quipped. Everyone agreed, even my wife Melanie looked at me expectantly. I had only been off the freedom bird for four days and hadn’t told her anything but the bare minimum.
"You guys don’t want to hear a war story. They don’t make any sense. I’ll tell you guys some other time."
They wouldn’t give up, didn’t get the hint. They badgered, pestered, and hounded me until they could see me breaking. I leaned over and took a cigarette from Clint’s pack. I don’t smoke, I mean not anymore. I had quit during the occupation.
"Gimme a fucking cigarette."
"I suppose you need a light too. And next you’ll be wanting the fillings out of my teeth." Everyone laughed at Clint’s joke, except me. I was smelling diesel and gun smoke— and hearing yells, not all of them my own.
We arrived in An Nasiriyah on March 22nd. Third Infantry Division had already been through. In their rush to the North, they simply blew their way through whatever opposition met them, but bypassed much of the city. My unit came in with first Marine Expeditionary Force and we were bogged down with heavy fighting for days there, taking a lot of casualties. My platoon was just south of the city limits and our job was to secure an "ammunition supply point" that had belonged to the recently vanquished Eleventh Iraqi Infantry Division. They had popped smoke at the first sign of American armor. There were still eggs and flour on the kitchen counter and human feces crawled out of the corners to get underneath your feet.
No one noticed the mess, though; we were all staring open mouthed at the huge cache of weapons. I mean just warehouse after warehouse full of rifles, grenades, missiles, mortars, RPGs, mines. It overwhelmed the mind. The place was miles wide.
There was no way one platoon of light infantry could secure all of it. So we became a quick reaction force setting up observation points from which to intercept anyone entering or leaving. The next week was full of high-speed chases through the desert after rag-clad hajjis who were trying to steal weapons with which to fight us or just defend their families. We certainly earned our pay during those days. Everyone in the platoon had at least two white phosphorous grenades and by the end of the first day we had used all of them to destroy the really heavy artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
Around the depot was a slum. All around the huge warehouses full of supplies, food and weapons were mud brick houses, donkey carts and starving people. The locals lived like they had five thousand years ago. And the smell: the pungent reek of gunpowder, diesel and burning human flesh. Bodies lay all over, and we ran into a few live ones, but for the most part, the fighters had long ago left. A lot of the guys took pictures, but that wasn’t for me. Who wants to see pictures of burnt meat on the ground?
The arms depot was right in the middle of the Fertile Crescent, just a few kilometers from the biblical city of Ur. In the background we could see Abraham’s Temple, but these days the Fertile Crescent isn’t entirely fertile. On one side of the road there were fields of the greenest crops you’ve ever seen, and then they would just stop like a dog at the end of its leash and turn into the desert we had lived in for the last month and a half. Bedouin nomads meandered through with their herds of sheep, goats and the occasional mule. They would pass us by showing no interest, prodding their herds with sticks.
Rather than the reception seen on American television, with happy Iraqis waving American flags, all we got was animosity. Turned out that the 11th Iraqi Infantry, rather than deserting, had taken their weapons and headed into the city for some hardcore guerilla conflict. We raided nearby houses and places of interest, and even blew the shit out of a mud shack nearby where a spotter was placing mortar rounds on our position, but for the most part there was no enemy in our sector. We were itching, though.
They say the best soldier is an angry one, and we had been away from home since January, weren’t able to call home, hadn’t received any mail, and were on two meals a day plus a limited water ration. On top of that, we were eating sand, drinking sand, and sand was in every orifice of our bodies until we thought we were sand. It gets into you, the desert, not just physically, but I mean really into your soul till you’re just plain mad.
There was a complex of bunkers to our north and my squad moved out one morning to clear them. They were empty as usual, but in one room I found a large map twice as tall as me and equally wide. On it was marked every Iraqi unit position south of the Tigris river. When we called this in, command told us to stash it and "Charlie Mike," or continue mission.
When we returned from our work drenched in sweat, the company commander took one look at that map and decided that it needed to be taken to Division Headquarters at the Tallil Air Force Base. At that point of the war, the scene at Division HQ was less important than it sounds, it was just a mechanized battalion, some Special Forces guys, and a few rear echelon motherfuckers.
Regardless, our commander thought he would get all sorts of kudos for the loot we’d just found, so he loaded up the executive officer, a goofy first lieutenant who would have made a bad Boy Scout leader but was instead an truly pathetic officer in the light infantry. Darkness and death were looming and for security the lt. took three of us to with him.
We left in two Humvees. In ours Staff Sergeant Mercer was driving, Specialist Mendez was in the back with a 240 Golf Machine gun and I rode in the passenger seat with my M249 squad automatic weapon as flank security. The Humvees were unarmored. You could throw a rock through them if you had a good enough arm, and we didn’t even have the doors on ours.
There we were, driving 35 mph through an area that later in the war would be nicknamed Ambush Alley because a young female solider from a maintenance squad would get lost and taken prisoner there. Best way to earn medals in the Army? Screw up or be an officer.
To the right of the road was the desert; to the left were the crops. Every now and then were the huts, or really hovels— mud brick houses with sheets for doors and kerosene lamps for light. Chickens and goats ran free in the yards as the young girls and old ladies went about the daily chores of collecting food, stepping over the bodies, washing clothes and maintaining the facade of a normal life. The men meanwhile sat on their stoops smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, despite Islamic prohibitions against such recreation.
The little boys were also were taking it easy, frolicking and playing. It was a group of them that caught my eye. To my left, in the crops were three boys, all about nine years old. The center one pointed his finger at the commander’s Humvee directly in front of us. The sun was setting behind them by this time, and as we rolled up, that finger became the front sight post of an AK-47. They’re very distinctive with that thick metal triangle the AK looks like no other rifle in the world.
"Fuck!" I yelled to no one. "Kid’s got an AK!"
Sergeant Mercer slammed on the brakes, perhaps a bit too hard. The tires squealed and fought against the pavement, but the screeching halt came regardless. Mendez on the machine gun in the back never even got to acquire a target, he flew halfway over the cab, his gun banging noisily on the hood. Mercer’s M-16 sling had snagged on something in the vehicle and he couldn’t get it out. Without doors or seatbelts, I found it easy to slip out of the humvee and had my feet on the dirt before the stop was even complete. I slammed my squad automatic weapon onto the engine block. The bipod legs on my weapon were still in the up-and-locked position, hindering accuracy. The sudden stop we made had caused quite a commotion and all three boys were now looking at us. The one holding the rifle slowly turned it towards me. I suppose he moved with normal speed, but considering the situation it was hard to tell.
My safety was already off, and I had acquired a target picture. The boys were standing almost on top of each other, but if I put my first round low on the left of the center kid with the rifle, then maybe I would miss the kid on the left altogether. The M249 tends to come up and to the right when fired so there was little hope for his unlucky playmate on the other side.
Why don’t they run? I thought. Most likely they didn’t realize that in a tenth of a second their bodies would be torn apart and that the scavenging dogs would be tearing out their entrails by the time morning’s light returned. I held my breath and steadied on the hood of that vehicle as best I could. Looking through my rear sight aperture I put the little circle about mid-right thigh on the center kid. First round would hit there, second in his stomach, third his chest, and if I were lucky, the fourth would miss the kid next to him entirely. Machine-gunning isn’t a science so much as a lethal art with lots of room for error. In all likelihood the kids, all three of them, would soon be dead or suffering from a festering wound in a country where people slept and ate like animals.
The sun was right behind them now and I could clearly see the entire barrel assembly and an AK-47 magazine locked and loaded. I had already hesitated too long and with them standing in front of that swelling bloody sun I applied pressure to the trigger.
Fucked up thing is that afterwards, when I walked over, I saw what the kid was carrying. It was indeed an AK-47, with sight post and magazine well still intact, but the rest of the weapon was missing, probably blown apart the day before by some tanker rolling through in a hurry. Kid couldn’t have shot spitballs through that thing even if he wanted to.
No one said a word. Our circle had become a pool of awkward silence. Melanie squeezed my leg under the table, but I didn’t move.
"It’s ok, John. It’s ok. Tell us a story some other time."
The table began to resurrect, glasses were refilled, cigarettes lit. The band had just about quit playing and was now introducing all the members. The chattering in the background was coming back, growing into a great screeching howl. I wanted to stay and talk but couldn’t. After a while we begged off and left. My wife and I were silent as we passed the church on the way back to the car.
Ed.’s note: This story is fiction based on real events. — C. Parenti
Spc. John Crawford returned to active duty with the 124th Infantry after two weeks of home leave.