A convoy of Mercedes trucks and camels made its way across my fire sector. I knew they were laden with tents, VCRs and generators because I’d seen their raggedy camps before as they crossed between Iraq and Saudi: something out of a post apocalyptic movie where future and past are roommates. The Bedouins cared as much about international law as I did; no passports to identify them, only the desert.
My team and I had taken up residence on a hill that might have been theirs two thousand years ago, or the week before for that matter. But we were here now. Our haggard little set-up made the Bedouin camps look like clean, sterile suburbs. Clotheslines stretched across the middle of the camp with beach towels and socks drying on it, a table made out of a cardboard box behind our fighting positions. We even made a BBQ stove out of a tomato sauce can. At the time I wished that we had enough water to rig some kind of shower, even a bitch bath would do. After a few days without bathing my feet produced this waxy residue that built up until I was left with something resembling cheese.
We were waiting for a war that could come prematurely, which is why we dug in. But with over a thousand miles of Saudi border to watch, we were strung out miles apart from the nearest observation post. I don’t think the Lieutenant altogether trusted me to be in charge of those three guys, and he was probably right; buck sergeant or not, I wasn’t to be trusted.
“Why are they heading into Iraq if there might be a war?” Edwards asked, as he dry shaved in a hand mirror.
“I don’t know, maybe they follow the seasons,” I said.
I was twenty-six and the oldest one. I joined when I was nineteen, having been fired from my fourth job in as many months. At the time, I was living in Bakersfield, California, days away from being evicted. But some of those guys I served with had lived harder. If there was a poster child for hard living, Edwards would have surely been in the running. He was gutted with an ice pick in New Orleans and robbed of everything of value, even his socks. He was the only man I ever wanted to take a look at in the shower, and not in that kind of way, just to get a closer look at the crevice cut into his body. Whenever the company had full physicals, that scar would horrify the medics, even the ones who’d been to Somalia and Afghanistan.
Edwards worked on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico for a year prior to enlisting. He told me he fell off the rig one day and was hanging on with one hand, looking down two hundred feet at the foreman and engineers directly under him.
“The only thing I prayed to God for was that if I let go, I’d take a motherfucker with me,” was how he put it. Some guys talk shit, but not Edwards. He meant it. Sometimes he complained that he needed more discipline out of the army. But then when he got it, he was miserable.
Once a day the First Sergeant drove out to give us our one hot meal, mail, and a security briefing. We made sure sleeping bags were rolled up and that we had one man in each of the fighting positions, scanning out into the desert with his rifle like he was ready to pop a jackrabbit. We could see the First Sergeant coming in his Humvee miles away, leaving a trail of dust like a smoke signature from a jet. Other than that, we only maintained radio contact with our platoon and company command post.
By the time he pulled up, I was always in full flak vest and gear, weapon at the ready. I worked up a good strong sweat and left field manuals lying around, like we’d been training all day. He always greeted me with a complaint or a suspicion.
“Are you guys fucking around on the radio up here?” was the last hunch he played.
“Negative First Sergeant, what’s going on?”
“Someone keeps flipping on to the battalion commander’s frequency and talking crazy shit,” he said.
I denied it, but it was us and it was crazy shit. Every night I would read the battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Zahn, a dirty story from Penthouse Letters. The letter read on the night in question was entitled “Life and Times of an Amputee Fucker.”
The First Sergeant frowned at my denial, maybe disbelieving, maybe sorry he had to even waste time on such a thing when we could be at war any minute. He threatened to court-martial whoever was responsible, but the good thing about radio waves was that they couldn’t trace the signal.
“Be sure you have these guys training out here,” he said, and handed out mail.
I always checked to see if I had received a letter from my girlfriend before I passed out the mail to the others. We had been dating for a year, and purely by chance had the same last name. We never made any jokes about it because that would have touched upon a discussion of marriage, which frightened both of us. It wasn’t until after I returned from Iraq that I learned she was fucking a barber the entire time I was deployed. I didn’t hold it against her though; I was gone fourteen months.
As soon as the First Sergeant left we got back to entertaining ourselves: chess, cards, playing baseball with our rifles and balls of tape, and huffing aerosol cans of computer dust-off. The black outs from the computer dust-off and wa-wa-wa-wa-wa humming inside my head were always murder the next day. For that reason, we tried to reserve it only for nights when the really festive moods hit. I had to keep a close eye on the can or T-Nice would blow his brains out with it in the hot sun all damn day.
He was called T-Nice because his name was Taylor and he was a mean bitch. Once, he beat a soldier unconscious with a metal gas can and then took a leak on him. I could never understand why the hell he was so damn mean or for that matter, why he was even in the army in the first place. He was totally middle class, and could get booted out and have his parents pay the bill for college any day of the week. He was six foot, six inches tall, but he was slim, almost skinny and could barely fit in most military vehicles and had to constantly slouch or lean to the side. Every time we ate at the chow hall on base, the old women there would tease him because he had no ass. They would pinch him and ask if his girlfriends were skinny too, and if so, didn’t he know that bone on bone was a bad combination.
We had another Taylor with us, we called Little T, who was the opposite of T-Nice in every way. Little T was a black kid who used every free second of every day to read. He had friends send him strange things like college textbooks and anatomy diagrams. He was also the platoon’s reigning chess champion, and had more gambits in his arsenal than there were rifles in our arms room.
As soon as the sun went down in the desert, it got cold and dark in a way you don’t find anywhere in the States. The Saudi desert got black dark like in a horror movie when an actor can’t tell if they’re standing in front of an empty closet or a guy with a chainsaw. On one particular night we actually practiced noise and light discipline, scanning out into the darkness through our night vision goggles rather than using our flashlights and lighters to bump around. It’s not like an Iraqi could see us up there. They’d just drive right by and then run into the tanks a few miles behind us and get fucked up. At about nine o’clock we usually got to the point where no one talked and we were bored as hell and tempted to break into the computer dust-off.
Instead, I got out the Penthouse Letters and found the battalion commander’s story for that night. I kept a poncho stretched over my fighting position so the light from my lamp didn’t escape into the night. The others huddled around the edge of the hole giggling as I read, like it was some kind of demented daycare. I would do voices of the characters during the read, so a slutty baby sitter sounded like a slutty baby sitter, and a dirty doctor sounded like a real dirty doctor.
Whenever I released the handset key so that I wasn’t sending out a signal, we would hear an endless trail of charges the staff officers and Sergeant Major were planning when they caught me: sedition, treason, lying to an officer, dereliction of duty, cowardice and on and on. I took secret pleasure in knowing that at the very same moment I was searching for just the right story, they were looking for the perfect charges to instill the paralysis of fear in me. There were no less than forty outposts like ours, all under the same task force, all with an identical radio. I knew I was untouchable.
After I finished that night’s story, as my team applauded my reading, Lt. Colonel Zahn himself got onto the radio.
“Fuck around-fuck around, and it’ll be your ass,” he said.
We all stopped and pondered exactly what he had just said. We debated the meaning of his statement one word at a time, trying to lock down exactly what he was going for.
Fuck around-fuck around and it’ll be your ass?
“I bet he’s saying go on and fuck around all you want, ‘til I get my chance to fuck around,” Little T said.
“I think it’s a riddle,” T-Nice said. ‘Fuck around-fuck around and it’ll be your ass’ became our team’s mantra, our battle cry, an explanation of why we were in the middle of nowhere, keeping a watch over a wasteland. It made as much sense as any reason we had heard up to that point.
In the morning the sun woke us.
“Put on some coffee Taylor,” I said, in an attempt to double my chances that someone would follow my order. It was usually Little T. He was the only one who still bothered to call me Sergeant. T-Nice was awake, but ignored me as he put on his running shorts and shoes. He was a sick runner and ran every morning as if his life depended on it. Some days he crossed the border into Iraq, a mile or two deep.
“Why do you do that? If you get captured I’ll be a fucking private,” I told him.
“I only go over there when I need to do a hill workout. Iraq has better hills.”
I couldn’t argue with his runner’s logic; I just told him to be careful, maybe run with a rifle, but he wouldn’t. I told him to think of it as resistance training, and to imagine how fast he would run when he didn’t have to carry the rifle anymore.
“Nah,” was always his reply. He told me that his runner’s logic dictated that he needed to pump his arms and he couldn’t do that with a rifle. I was worried, but I likened it to letting a teenager stay out late on the weekends. You know you can’t stop them, so you might as well get used to it.
It was the beginning of January and I was left wondering if that day would be the first day of the war. We had already been briefed that when the offensive was imminent we would relocate to Kuwait and jump off from there. Saudi Arabia told us we couldn’t attack from their soil, but that they expected to be defended if Iraq launched an early attack. I felt like a whore. The kind you never take on dates, you just call up in the middle of the night, fuck and leave.
I took out my binoculars and looked out into the desert. T-Nice was running through the dunes, sticking to the same route the Bedouins traveled. Edwards was writing in a spiral notebook, still in his sleeping bag.
“Writing a letter?” I asked.
“No, football statistics.”
“Did you get a sports page and you’re holding out on me?”
“I got tired of reading about games that happened two weeks ago so I wrote my own football season,” he said.
“Who do you have winning the Super Bowl?”
“I thought you were a New Orleans fan?”
“I am, but the drugs in that town are too good, no team from New Orleans is ever going to win anything.”
He probably had a point.
The camp was quiet. Edwards finished up his football season and moved on to baseball, while Little T thumbed through an organic chemistry textbook. I wanted to ask him why the hell he was in the Army and not in college doing something that mattered. After all, there were plenty of people out there that would make good infantrymen. But at that time, he respected me and I didn’t want to fuck that up. I finished breakfast and was cleaning my rifle before I realized T-Nice had been gone for over an hour. I picked up the binoculars and scanned the horizon, but there was no sign of him. I tried to do things to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t worry, but it didn’t do any good. Visions of an unarmed, shirtless T-Nice biting and punching his captors until he’d been beaten unconscious and dragged off flooded my thoughts. I feared that the battalion commander would figure that if I was irresponsible enough to let a man run off into Iraq, I must be the same man bombarding him with porn over the radio. I knew there was a serious jump between the two charges, but in the army if someone who outranks you says you did something, you did it, no matter how illogical it is.
Just when I thought I should voice my worries to the others, I saw T-Nice running over a dune. He had a sprinter’s kick going: balls to the wall. I knew that day wouldn’t be the day I lost my stripes.
I asked him how deep into Iraq he went and he told me at least three miles. He said he turned around and came back when he saw an outpost not unlike ours, only more permanent, made out of concrete.
“Jesus, did it look like it was manned?” Little T asked.
“Yeah, I saw five or six guys, and a jeep with some radio antennas.”
I thought about passing this little bit of intelligence onto the First Sergeant but then I realized I’d have to explain how and where I got it.
Two years later, while on my second tour in Iraq with a completely different unit, I visited that Iraqi outpost across the border. It was exactly like T-Nice had described it. The terrain features were a bit confusing, and I was foggy on the coordinates but after a month of patrolling the area I finally found it. I was a staff sergeant leading two armored Humvees, looking for stashed weapons caches. My company commander always asked me why I was so obsessed with security in that particular quadrant but I just kept telling him “I’m playing a hunch.” I ordered the men to fan out and look for anything out of the ordinary leaving no stone unturned. But I eventually ended up leaving unsatisfied and unsure of what I was even expecting to find in the first place.
“You’re full of shit,” Edwards said.
T-Nice poured water from his canteen over his head, giving him the finger without looking up. But Edwards kept on him, telling him if the border is four miles out and he claims to have gone three miles into Iraq before returning, he ran a half marathon in under an hour a half.
“That sounds about right,” T-Nice said.
“Bullshit man, not in these conditions,” he said referring to the rough trail and T-Nice’s worn out running shoes. Three years after getting out of the army T-Nice ran a 2:44 Chicago Marathon, and graduated from The University of Wisconsin with a degree in business. Even though I never directly kept in touch with him I found myself in the same company as his first cousin who kept me up to date from time to time.
T-Nice and Edwards continued shit talking back and forth.
“At ease, at ease,” I told them both.
I hoped that since I rarely used my authority it would be respected because they’d know I meant business, but they blew me off as usual. T-Nice, as tired as he was, had had enough and went for Edwards who took a boxer’s stance. Little T grabbed Edwards, holding him back.
“All right,” I said and jumped between them.
Some pushing and shit talking, with me in the middle followed, but finally they backed off. These were the last two men in the company I wanted to see fight. My father once told me to only be afraid of a man who has nothing to lose. Size, fighting experience, none of that matters if a man just doesn’t give a fuck. That described both T-Nice and Edwards.
That evening we cleaned the camp up and greeted the First Sergeant in full chemical protective gear, from gas mask and gloves, right down to rubber over-boots. The First Sergeant was impressed but he still had an accusation for me.
“Do you have porn out here?” he asked.
“Negative, First Sergeant,” I said as I drank water through a tiny, airtight rubber hose in my gas mask. He seemed to be looking through the scratched goggles for my eyes as he handed me a tin of Corned Beef and Hash, a bag of pears and a loaf of white bread. I was glad he couldn’t make out the details of my face inside the protective mask that way he couldn’t see I was smiling.
We made like we were going to pull seventy-five percent security, one man eating, the other three pulling guard, until after he drove off. I could tell T-Nice and Edwards were still pissy over the argument so I suggested we play UNO after dinner to inch them back towards friendship. Ten minutes into the game Edwards buried T-Nice under Draw-4 cards until he erupted and threw his hand down.
“I’ve had enough,” T-Nice said, as he grabbed his gear and stormed off to a cluster of rocks two hundred feet away.
“Fuck around-fuck around it’ll be your ass,” Edwards yelled after him. I decided it wasn’t such a good idea that the two of them had live rounds while tempers were raging so I made Edwards give me his magazines and clear his weapon. When I walked out to the cluster of rocks where T-Nice was sitting it was apparent he was going to make camp there for the night. His sleeping bag was rolled out and his boots were off. He argued with me when I asked him to give up his ammo, telling me he’s a better man than he used to be and I have nothing to worry about. He even called me Sergeant, appealing to my authority, but I knew better than that.
“What if the Iraqis come and I’m unarmed?” he asked.
“Hide and I’ll call the tanks.”
Before it got dark I chose the battalion commander’s story for the night. It was down to slim pickings. He would have to settle for what would begin as the tired old hitchhiker fantasy, but with an interesting twist: half way through the encounter, the driver discovers his leggy, large breasted passenger has a penis.
“Jesus, do you have no fucking limits?” Lt. Colonel Zahn pleaded over the radio.
I ignored his question and pushed on until I got to the story’s very last line, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”
Lt. Colonel Zahn was so angry he launched into a diatribe of threats. To our extreme pleasure he used “fuck around-fuck around,” five times which made Little T, Edwards and myself howl with delight like a plane bound for the States had just descended from the sky and was waiting to take us home.
Edwards went to sleep shortly after, still giggling. I used my night vision goggles to check on T-Nice, who was throwing rocks out into the desert, muttering to himself. I wasn’t the least bit tired so I went over and sat near Little T who was putting his books away.
“Hey T,” I said, “I hope this isn’t too personal, but why are you always reading those textbooks?”
“I can’t wait to go to college. It took being in the army to really motivate me to go to school,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Maybe I was a bit jealous, wishing that I had got out after my first four years and used my college money. The reenlistment NCO told me that I was too old to go to school and that there were no jobs on the outside. “You’d just be back in a year or two,” he said as he wrote up a contract that sent me to the leadership course I needed to get my stripes, and then threw in a two thousand-dollar bonus.
I thought about it for nearly a week. Every night I dreamed that I got out and enrolled in a community college. Every night the professors kept sending me back to repeat my senior year of high school because I was too stupid. The dream ended in a scene of me squeezed in a tiny desk, with a full beard, surrounded by sixteen-year-olds who looked at me with contempt. One morning I’d had enough of the dreams and caved in, believing I would never hack it in community college. It’s tradition that on a day a soldier reenlists, he gets the day off. I spent my free afternoon washing my car, thinking of all the new things I could have learned but was too afraid.
Little T told me his folks only signed off on him coming in if he swore he’d go to college afterward. He hadn’t been into school at all before he enlisted but something clicked and now he couldn’t get his hands on enough books. I told him my mom used to teach elementary school and how she’d tell him his “learning light” had been turned on. Little T agreed, and offered to stay up and pull a guard shift or two.
“Don’t bother, the tanks are out there someplace,” I said.
I woke with the sun the next morning, picked up the binoculars and surveyed the border. Another Bedouin convoy was crossing over, this time coming from Iraq into Saudi. Suitcases were tied to the sides of the slow moving trucks as men clung to anything that would support them: rear view mirrors, door handles, windshield wipers. Small children were perched on bumpers like birds, inches away from spinning tires.
Edwards was still asleep, only his face poking out of his sleeping bag. I walked up and inspected T-Nice’s gear, assuming he was on his morning run already. His sleeping bag was rolled up, rifle stacked neatly against his helmet, toothbrush and razors laid out on a rock ready for use. Little T made oatmeal on his portable stove, and set up the chessboard, a challenge to anyone who wanted to take him on.
I pointed to the chessboard.
“Fuck around-fuck around, it’ll be your ass,” I said in my Lt. Colonel Zahn voice.
“Yeah, right, Sergeant, it’ll be a crazy day when you beat me.”
He was right. He defeated me in eleven moves.
I looked up and saw the tall outline of T-Nice’s silhouette coming over the nearest hill. He probably cut his run short since he covered so much distance the day before. As he got closer I noticed he was running with something under his arm, cradled like a football. Probably his night vision goggles, more than likely because he started out before first light.
Fucking sick runner.
Little T sat up and took notice too.
“What’s that he’s carrying?” he asked.
I waited a moment to answer, sure I’d be able to tell as he got closer, but he temporarily disappeared behind some bushes. As soon as he got to the edge of the camp I could see T-Nice was covered in blood, all down his chest and one of his arms.
“Oh shit,” I said as I grabbed for my first aid bag. Edwards heard the commotion and stuck his head out of his sleeping bag. I ran out to meet T-Nice just as he started walking, letting his hands drop down to his side, catching his breath. I had a bandage unwrapped in no time, looking for a gash or hole to slap it over.
“Where are you hurt?” I asked.
“Nowhere, I’m good.”
I kept looking, thinking he had to be delirious or in shock, running on pure bravado. Blood was all over his front, thickening in his chest hair like it had been there a while.
Then he held up his mysterious cargo and yanked a cloth from around it. For a second I wasn’t sure what I was looking at as I tried to identify the object’s strange contours. He was pointing it directly at Edwards in his sleeping bag, who was looking at it too. Then, when it clicked, he jumped up in one lighting fast motion, standing in his boxers and socks. Little T stepped closer, just behind me. T-Nice spun it around so we could get a better look. At that moment I realized I was staring at a human head, its black mop hair looking more like fur; human details I felt I should have recognized I just didn’t.
I began to do a spastic dance, like that time I went camping as a kid and a rat ran across my face while I slept, disgust overflowing, taking charge of my limbs.
“No-no-no-no-no,” is all I could say.
“Now do you believe I’ve been to Iraq?” T-Nice asked.
His voice was calm and sounded rational, devoid of antagonism. I motioned Edwards not to answer for fear he might provoke him. T-Nice had a very nondescript expression on his face. He didn’t seem crazed or worried. He simply looked the same as he always did when he finished a good run, his skin flush with sweat.
“You found that, right? And you weren’t sure what to do with it?” I said.
“No,” T-Nice said.
We all kept our distance like it was a fully loaded gun he was pointing at us and not something, in theory harmless, that couldn’t be used as a weapon. Thick drops of blood like motor oil rolled down strings of tissue, landing in the sand. The thought of the head touching me made my stomach turn. I could hear Little T gagging behind me, giving everything he had recently eaten to the desert. I wanted to yell, I wanted to know, I wanted him to get rid of it.
I could feel Edwards looking at me, waiting for me to make a command decision.
“You’re a sick fuck T,” he said.
“What’s the big deal, we’re going to be at war soon enough,” T-Nice said.
I told him—we all told him—that the war hadn’t started yet, and even if it had you don’t cut people’s heads off. He placed the head on a rock, the waxy face towards us, dark eyes becoming glossier by the second, unmoved by our arguments. I begged him to turn it around or cover it up or bury it.
He ignored my pleas and explained to us he didn’t start out looking to take a head, he just wanted proof that he’d infiltrated the Iraqi camp. He only took his knife in case he needed to defend himself. When he got into the camp he grabbed an Iraqi uniform top and was slinking out when he practically ran into a sentry. In order to keep him quiet, he slapped his hand over his mouth and then stabbed him in the neck.
“The cut took his head half way off, so I figured what the fuck?”
I ordered him to go out in the desert and bury the head, wash the blood off of himself and get into uniform. He took his head and his folding shovel into the desert. By the time he returned I had his rifle in my fighting position, and his knife hidden in some bushes. I grabbed his shovel away from him and I even considered taking his helmet and shoe laces for the time being, but he protested.
“Come on sergeant, I didn’t set out to kill the guy.”
I actually wanted to believe it was true, that a man that had been in my team for a year wasn’t a psycho killer from the suburbs. If I was his boss back at some nine to five and he showed up with a head in one hand and his briefcase in the other we wouldn’t have debated the issue. I would have called the cops and agreed with him like you do all crazy people, until he was safely in handcuffs.
We cleaned up the camp all day and when I saw the First Sergeant’s dust trail on the horizon I gave T-Nice his rifle, but told him I’d take it back as soon as he left. I was almost happy when the First Sergeant inquired if I was fucking around on the radio again, and had nothing to say about a soldier running through the desert with a head cradled under his arm like he was taking it in for the game winning touchdown.
T-Nice took his food up to his cluster of rocks. I felt like I should discuss some kind of plan with Little T and Edwards, but didn’t have any good suggestions. All options would have ensnared me in this fucked up mess and a best case scenario would have led to me being busted down to a private and tossed out of the army. More than that, the incident would probably make the papers and I would have been this war’s first Lieutenant Calley.
It was at that moment that I couldn’t wait for the war to start. I had a feeling that I would forget about the premature killing when everything was formally declared and things got rolling. What difference would one more dead man in the middle of nowhere make? Maybe my Iraqi counterpart tried to cover up his failure by disposing of the body, claiming the soldier deserted.
The only thing I could do was gather everyone together and make them swear to secrecy.
“No one says a word about this ever, agreed?” I asked.
All three of them nodded, but I knew they’d talk about it sooner or later. My only hope was that it would be twenty years after the fact in some shithole bar, and the bartender wouldn’t really be listening.
Over the next week no one talked much. Even when we played UNO and watched the jets fly overhead, skirting the Iraqi border, no one had anything to offer. Edwards created two full seasons of basketball, baseball, football and even hockey. Little T finished three textbooks and I ripped up the Penthouse Letters one page at a time, letting the stories and nudie pictures drift into the desert towards Iraq like beautiful messengers bearing bad news. I never considered fucking around on the radio after that and I even made the guys do two or three hours of training a day. I started making out a guard roster for fear the Iraqis might come looking for reprisal, but they never did.
From then on we all kept a closer eye on T-Nice, but didn’t notice any erratic behavior. Maybe there was some truth to his story and he really wasn’t going off the deep end. After a few days I returned his rifle and live rounds and allowed him to start running again, provided he never left binocular range of the camp.
Two weeks after the incident we were trucked into Kuwait and trained up for the invasion. February ended and we knew it’d be hot soon. Most of the guys couldn’t wait for the war to start because the sooner it got rolling the sooner we’d be back home. Everyone echoed the saying “The only way home is through Baghdad.” We knew it was true. They would keep us there indefinitely otherwise.
I wanted war to be declared, with all the official documents and ceremonies, because it would mean something more lofty than a return trip to the states; it would mean I would be absolved of my shortcomings.