On the Road to Combat Outpost Three (Taji)
The pressure is almost physical. My cheek twitches, the stomach knots - you can taste the bile, just below the surface. Time slows down so you can feel every heartbeat, every nerve ending, every tingle of electricity in your body. Some guys talk, some brood. One guy chain-smokes Marlboros. A good Patrol Leader knows it’s always the worst between show time and the start of the brief, and so they try to get things moving as quickly as possible, even if it means starting out a little early.
“Alright, guys - gather ‘round and listen up! You all know the routine so I’ll keep this short. The Two [S-2, Intel] says activity has been picking up, maybe to make up for what’s going down in the city. There have been a couple incidents along Tampa over the past couple of days, so keep your eyes on the sides of the road. The guns will ride red [locked and loaded]; everyone else goes amber [magazine in, chamber clear]. Gunners try to stay at nametape defilade [crouched low in the turret] as much as possible. There’s an extra can of ball behind the passenger seat, so keep everyone your ear cocked for when the 240 needs ammo. Sir, if we roll, you and me will reach up and pull my gunner down HARD – I don’t trust that flimsy belt and I don’t want him getting crushed. Tiger Three’s carrying extra water, so if you need some, go ahead and fill up now. Any questions?”
Five minutes later we pass the last guard tower. A dusty M1 tank marks the edge of friendly territory – I think of that old movie when John Wayne and the cavalry ride through the fort’s gate and out into Indian country, except this movie is in Technicolor. We drive on, pre-game nervousness transformed into something different now, something new and powerful. You surrender yourself over to it, every sensation is heightened, every color a ten on the vibrancy scale. We’re in the red zone and my entire being is concentrating on looking through the little square of inch-thick glass that serves as a side window, watching the side of the road ahead of us. It’s scary, but it’s good, to be alive like this. To be outside of the wall, free and overdosing on… what? On life.
The roads in Iraq are terrible. Bricks and broken pieces of curb and dirt piles and trash line both sides of every thoroughfare – it would be a God-dammed miracle if we could actually spot something with all this junk. “Tiger One, speed up a bit. We aren’t sightseeing here.” We pass a burnt out car near an overpass. None of us like overpasses, and I finger my pistol, looking for the reassurance it provides. The pistol is at once security and power. The power to take a life. Most might not admit it, but on some deep and forbidden level, it’s intoxicating, really, knowing that you have that power… that you’re in a time and a place where you might have to point your weapon at someone and actually pull the trigger. But there’s another part to it, even deeper, indescribable… the realization that there might also be someone on the other side thinking the same thing. It’s not something you talk about.
We pass through a small town. The road is so bad that we’re practically crashing about inside the truck. It would be fun, except that you can’t really keep an eye on what’s going on outside when you’re bouncing around like that. Huts made of cinderblock and mud, trash everywhere. Christ, how can people still live like this? Then I notice, on the roofs. Satellite TV. Escape. The radio squawks: “Tiger Base, we have contact.” It’s the patrol we’re going to debrief on their way back in. My whole being focuses on those few tinny words. Contact. Mortal danger heightens the senses, even if it is someone else’s mortal danger. “Roger, what’s your pos, Blue Leader?”
You don’t want to admit it, but war is exciting. In a routine kind of way, if that makes any sense. War is that anticipation where on any normal day you know something could happen to drastically and permanently change your plans. War is a different plane. It fulfils something, something primeval within the male psych. I’ve read that war is man’s first true love… That would sure explain a lot. Some men never grow past this love, this infatuation with destruction. I have met soldiers who have been over here three and four times. They go back to their wives and families and request transfers into units that will be deploying. When I asked why they do it, they say they don’t know. They love the darkness.
Can you explain it without sounding phony? Stereotypical? Like you were trying to portray yourself as some type of hero? Or playing the combat sympathy card? Hell, I haven’t even seen real combat, and I can’t explain it. War is like that onion of Keith’s, each layer a different part of you. Except the skin is peeled back so every nerve is exposed, screaming. Everything makes sense in its own way - there are no mistakes in combat, no wrong answers, except for one. Just go to work and come home alive, that’s all you gotta do. It’s almost like a video game where you are watching the action on some type of surround-sound IMAX screen. Remember those?
Somewhere on that IMAX not too far away another group of vehicles just like ours is engaging the enemy, and we strain to hear the details as they come across the radio. “Speed up! Jackson, watch the window!” “Got it - Whump whump whump!” Then, nothing. After a minute our driver asks the question we’re all thinking: “Are we going?” “Hold on, not yet.”
It seems like forever before Blue Leader comes back up: “Are they still firing? Can you see anyone?” “ Negative.” “You can’t see anyone?” “I think they stopped.” “Okay, stand down for a minute….” Silence… “Tiger, we’re just past the sugar factory, heading East. I think we’re past the shit now. See you back at the ranch.” Relief mixed with disappointment. “Roger Blue. We’ll be waiting.”
The blacktop ends and the road becomes dirt, filling the inside of the truck with thick, choking dust. We’re in the middle, and it seems all the crap thrown up by the humvee in front of us is scooped up and sucked down the open turret in some reverse chimney effect. The gunner laughs – he’s the only one wearing goggles, and has a scarf wrapped around his face. “Welcome to my world,” he says.
[Disclaimer: As usual, all names and call signs have been changed to protect the innocent]