A Story About Two Soldiers
From the time we are born we follow a path and that path is unique and our own. Through the course of life many people cross our path and some leave a mark or alter the future. We make choices and other people make choices for us.
To what extent are we authors of our own lives? As our paths meander through cities and bedrooms and through pleasure and pain, do we ask ourselves who is in control or do we just follow along the path of least resistance?
This is a story of two men whose paths intersect with devastating consequences.
One soldier joined the reserves in New Jersey because he needed the money. He enjoyed playing video games and watching war movies and he even fantasized sometimes about being a war hero. But he never believed that he would be in the real thing, a real war with real death and real gore.
But he was. Events far beyond his control had young American men and women packing up their troubles in their old kit bag; again. Few of them were smiling. He was being sent to Iraq and to hide the fated and persistent feelings of horror and fear, he told folks that he's up for it; that signing up was about America, not a few extra bucks to buy a car as his younger brother suggested. He told people that Saddam had to go. Then there was 9/11 and the threat of terrorism and by the time he was talking about freedom and democracy he was rambling. He didn't get the story line down pat and it seemed to him that nobody had a really good story line.
But he had begun to preen the image of a soldier for the benefit of all who knew him and for his own psychological benefit. This true blue identity had a sense of honour and dignity to it; he was a warrior, not a part time soldier. Iraq was full time and then some. There was a personal and psychological investment in this whole thing. But the whole thing turned to a jumbled mess in his mind whenever he had to think about the reality of what's happening. Privately, he thought to himself, "What's all this about - freedom for Iraqis? I wish I had enough freedom to get out of this mess". Privately and secretly, he prayed for a way out. Privately and secretly it was a mess and it had the potential to send his life on a trajectory he didn’t want any part of. But in public moments, and his life was all public moments, he was a soldier even more than he was husband, a father or a security guard.
His name is Harold and he said good-bye to his pregnant girlfriend a lifetime ago. He keeps in touch with her as much as he can but now he is feeling that even thinking about her and their three month old baby is disturbing. They live on another planet, a planet he was jealous about and a planet he longed for.
Harold felt confusion and guilt over these growing feelings of detachment but really, how could they understand him anymore? He watched the side of a friend's head blown open by a rocker propelled grenade, a weapon that featured big and center in many of his now familiar Iraq nightmares. There was no way for him to describe to her or his folks or to his little brother what it is really like to be here. And as a result he began to feel distance from them all. He told them about his friend's head being blown open but their reactions were somehow peculiar - off somehow. It almost seemed as if they didn't believe him or didn't hear him.
Something substantial changed. He used to be fluffy and concerned. Now he was the dirt and he was flat. His family could hear it on the phone and in his e-mails. Not once did any of them ever speak it out loud. But they knew inside themselves that their Harold had disappeared.
Harold understood their crass attitudes. He was now in a hell far worse than he could have ever imagined while he was still a normal Joe. How could they possibly conceive of war and this was not just a run of the mill war. This was as war as war gets. The Iraqis smile at him and try to kill him all in the same breath. Iraqi allies who are supposed to be on his side may snuff his life out at any moment. Safe areas are really not safe and no go zones really are no-go zones.
He and his crew are returning from a trip to Sadr City and were returning back to the Green Zone where they could freely exhale. A firefight erupts from nowhere and before he knows what's happening, he's running down an ally with a two of his comrades. Inside their blocked humvees the Americans are sitting ducks. They would take the fight to the terrorists. Both of his friends are suddenly shot dead before his eyes. He didn't even see the assailants. It was an ambush. As soon as they are shot, Harold manages to slide down another side ally and now his body is trembling involuntarily. An icon of his friend’s ghastly last moment is stubbornly salient in his mind. He must have his wits about him now more than ever. He feels like this whole soldier thing was the worst mistake of his life. The whole environment around him seemed sinister before the attack but now it was absolutely evil. He could see evil in the concrete and the walls around him. Without warning an Iraqi man is standing ten feet in front of him pointing a gun straight at his face. The fear and the sense of evil seem to vanish from Harold replaced with singular lucidity. He is looking directing into the eyes of a mortal enemy. Eyes that are melting and tears run down the Iraqi's cheek. The surreal now has become very real.
"I am sorry, I have to kill you", the Iraqi said in English. "I give you minute to pray, but I kill you".
The second soldier also enjoyed war movies and videos and also fantasized about being a war hero. But all his life he has felt dread about the possibility of war in his country and prayed that it would never come to pass. He knew he was standing on a sea of oil and that it meant trouble. And he knew that America had started a war a long time ago and that it was never really over. Its conclusion had been like waiting for the second shoe to drop for the people of Iraq. The shoe did drop and it dropped with a far more violent thud than most had expected. They not only invaded but they invaded with a savagery that would make Saddam or Attila the Hun blush He watched in trembling fear as they bombed his neighbourhood and set up checkpoints that were volatile killing zones. Iraqis knew to avoid those American checkpoints and that they were guarded by nervous and heavily armed gangsters.
His name was Ahmed and it was hard for him to believe the stories about American atrocities. He wanted to believe that in many cases the stories were either lies or gross exaggerations. Why would Americans hate the Iraqi people with such passion? But he knew the Americans could be ruthless. He personally witnessed bombings and a checkpoint shooting where civilians were killed. He watched the Americans shoot into a demonstration and he read the news as often as he could. Ahmed knew that many of those horrific stories were either true or perhaps exaggerations of some kind. One thing he knew for sure was that the Americans would have to go. Too much had happened and they simply had to go.
Ahmed was married a month before the invasion. His wife implored him to avoid fighting but she knew that under the circumstances it was an unavoidable predicament for her husband. Even if he wasn’t cursed with pride, and he was, he would have to join his relatives and friends to fight the vicious animals that were destroying their country, their society and the people. What man would allow the same foreigners that crippled the whole nation with a decade of deprivation to come in and annihilate them and take away their natural resources? Such men were crawling out of their cowering holes but Ahmed was not one of them.
Ahmed wanted his wife to stay with family in Jordan until the Americans were driven out. She didn't want to go and Ahmed backed away from his demand that she leave. But they fought over the war and they fought about her staying in Baghdad and Ahmed’s role in the resistance. They also fought over money problems and the toilet seat. Like all Iraqis, the sanctions and the war placed an enormous strain on their marriage. They suffered the stress of everyday life in a war zone.
As far as Ahmed believed that human life could descend into hell, it had descended further - much further.
They had to be driven out - he knew - and until they are, he and all other Iraqis will not have security or freedom or a future. Nobody was making plans for the future now except for the quislings that help the invaders in their bloody mission. He had friends and relatives killed by American bombs and guns.
Everybody around him is in a state of constant fear and they are making plans to kill Americans and their quisling collaborators. As far as Ahmed was concerned, the Iraqi collaborators are a far more treacherous animal than the Americans. He knew that most of these Americans are here because they have no choice in the matter. But that didn't stop his intense hatred for them. "They are occupying my country and telling us, the Iraqis, what to do in our country". He felt humiliated, weak, and embarrassed to be dominated by an army of plastic foreigners.
Ahmed finds himself in a firefight resulting from an ambush his unit carried off against a small American convoy. He and his comrades are being chased by the Americans through ally-ways. Their tactic was working. Ahmed and his band of fighters know the buildings and secret passages. He ducks into a hiding place and the Americans run by only several feet from the hiding, camouflaged, Ahmed. He knows they will meet certain death a half a block away and he watches from his vantage point. Suddenly, two of the three are gunned down by his comrades but the other one escapes. Ahmed watches him run through another ally and has to run through a warehouse to cut him off. Ahmed steps out into the ally-way, AK 47 first and is ready to pull the trigger and blow the American’s head off his shoulders. He looks at the quivering young man and the panic in the young man's face brings an overwhelming feeling of sadness to Ahmed. This is a boy who is shitting in his pants right in front of Ahmed and at this moment, the American is helpless. He is at the mercy of Ahmed, the enemy. Ahmed feels rage bleaching out his empathy for the young American but he wishes it wasn’t like this. He had never killed a human being and although he believed that Allah would bless such a deed under the circumstances, something inside him resisted pulling the trigger. He wants to ask the American what he is doing here, he wants to let him escape, but he knows that he must kill him.
A cold shiver inexplicably runs through a young mother in New Jersey.
Harold's prayer was answered. But it was not God and it was not Allah that answered it. It was Ahmed.