Black smoke rises in a lopsided funnel from a point about two miles away, and every day the smell of burning plastic reaches us; sometimes a metallic yellow haze settles over the camp. Our unit is one of the last to arrive in the “surge” of early 2007, and all the nice, semi-private, containerized housing has long since been taken; we are relegated to very nearly the farthest point away from everything, except the trash dump. The open burn pit is disturbing, because it’s a reminder that there are different rules here. Or are there? Does this go on in the U.S., too, this unregulated burning of our waste, the release of noxious and almost certainly toxic fumes into the air? Have I always just lived too far away to smell it? Do the chaos and lawlessness of Iraq lurk somewhere in America, too, largely hidden from view?
The first few days in Iraq, our sleep is dramatically disturbed — we fly in at an odd hour, and then we are constantly changing our schedule, grabbing sleep here and there, adjusting to the night shift after we had just gotten over our jet lag in Kuwait. I run hot and cold in my bunk, and I alternate between a heavy, sweaty oblivion and random, paranoid dreaming. In one dream, I find myself at the foot of Mt. Carmel at night. The terraces are there, as is the Shrine of the Báb, light pouring from it and illuminating the night. But the mountain is now impossibly steep, an unclimbable wall, and the prison fortress of ‘Akka has inexplicably moved to the top of the mountain as well; its heavy, sand-colored parapets lean over the Shrine threateningly. Other Bahá’ís mill around me, admiring the view, but I am frozen with fear, paralyzed by both the queasy perspective and the doom encroaching on God’s holy mountain.
Then I shift in my sleep, and illogically I am in the office and the frustration of living and working too closely with the same 15 people boils over in an instant. I lash out at a woman I work with, threaten her, then, when she doesn’t cease giving offense, I start to strangle her. She watches me with passive eyes, a resigned look, highlighting my own irrationality, but doesn’t resist. Finally I let go, frightened by my own violence. I apologize weakly, and she seems to accept my apology, but as I wake up I feel shame and degradation nonetheless.
I awake to a profound spiritual anxiety. I try to pray, but, for the first time since pilgrimage, turning toward Bahji and Carmel no longer fills me with an immediate calm and sense of the nearness of Bahá’u’lláh; instead I feel a tingling, uncertain dread and a profound suspicion of my own soul. The Faith itself seems endangered, and I seem at any moment capable of awful, selfish aggression.
We are issued ammo several days after we arrive. Our troop winds up last in the rotation, and the three troops of scouts and infantry who go before us pick over the ammo pretty well. We are the gleaners, taking what’s left, and what’s left seems to be largely tracer round and paint grenades. The tracers, used for night fire, contain a bit of phosphorus that burns as the round flies, illuminating its path and making it easier for the firer to see where his rounds are hitting. Unfortunately, of course, it also makes it easier for the enemy to see where the rounds are coming from.
The purpose of the tracers is somewhat outdated; most of the line units, at least, use night vision devices. And anyway you’re only supposed to use one tracer round for every two ball rounds, but our proportions are inverted; our brothers in the other troops have left us with an almost two-to-one ratio of tracer to ball. As for the paint grenades for our M203 gunners — these are used at ranges, for target practice. I suppose one could kill you if someone fired it directly into your chest, but they’re a poor substitute for high-explosive rounds. Elsewhere in this journal I’ve discussed my own moral reticence about killing, but there’s a rude, selfish lurch to realizing that you might be forced to kill but not have the equipment to do it.
This is probably funny if you aren’t living it.
I sit down with our platoon sergeant to count up all the rounds. They come out to a ridiculously portentous 666 for the whole platoon — nowhere near enough even for one full combat load per person. We eye each other gloomily.*
We discover, here, that the only good omens are the ones you make for yourself. The first time you hear the Boom!… Boom!… Boom!… of the enormous field artillery cannons firing, like the regular chiming of some vastly destructive grandfather clock, it’s bewildering and unnerving. You wonder if an IED has gone off nearby. But when you realize what it is, it becomes oddly comforting. The powerful thumping, which shakes the walls of the barracks and the HQ building each night, becomes quite a soothing sound, the powerful strikes of some thunder god on our behalf, a fist of righteous justice smiting those who intend to harm us. I imagine an impassable field of scorched craters around our camp, and I actually sleep better when I hear the sound.
The bus ride to and from central Camp Taji passes the tank graveyard — Saddam’s ancient Soviet elephants lying in ruin among the rocks, gored long ago by our Abrams or simply abandoned as the tide of the war turned. Their flat-tipped cannons still point menacingly out onto the roadway, but their sides are punched in and they lean awkwardly toward missing tracks or wheels. There’s no clearer monument to our overwhelming military victory four years ago anywhere on post, but in the intervening time boredom and whimsy and the easy availability of spray paint have decorated these husks with something different. Some graffiti, of course, is obvious — “Hooah!” and the names of units and branches, mottos, “USA.” But what make me smile are the tanks that say “Lily Te Amo” and “Meg’s Tank” and “Angie I [heart] you” and “Jeff + Christy.” There’s hardly a blank panel on any of these tanks, and by far the greatest number of messages are messages of love, most of them doubtless photographed and sent home as a soldier’s idea of a valentine.
I feel a brief flash of melancholy as I wonder how many of these relationships lasted: how many of these women drifted away to Jody while their soldiers were deployed, and how many became estranged when their soldiers came home changed and bothered by memories? But maybe that’s overly dramatic, and certainly in that moment when he painted a woman’s name one of Saddam’s rolling guns, each soldier was living a moment of victory, giving the enemy the finger and exercising a young man’s sweet combination of harmless mischief and unsophisticated sentimentality.
I decide to make my own omen, too. On my pilgrimage to Bahji, I wore a pair of black and silver Nike Frees most days when I wasn’t wearing a suit. Back home they were just a pair of running shoes, but in the Holy Land they became my default walking shoes, and when I came back to America I noticed that their white soles were covered with the red dust of the crushed terracotta tiles that line the paths through many of the gardens on Mt. Carmel. Somehow I didn’t want that dust to mix with and get lost in the dust of the everyday, so I retired those shoes.
But when packing my ruck for Iraq, I realized that in Iraq I’d be only a few miles from where Bahá’u’lláh revealed the Hidden Words on the banks of the Tigris, and I decided that the dust so near to that place is probably holy enough for my shoes. I needed a symbolic way to carry that pure experience of pilgrimage with me, and so I stuffed those shoes into the side pocket of my ruck with some rolled-up PT uniforms. Now I bring them out again in Taji, turn them over — the soles are still tinted red. Uncertain what preamble might be appropriate to breaking the seal on spiritually charged running shoes, I turn them back over and put them on.
Geoff and I go on an exploratory run, our first here, through motor pools and onto the back roads that lead to the trash pits. We hit a Jersey barrier about two miles away and come back. When we get home I take off my shoes and check the soles again, there’s still a trace of the red, making the ordinary gray dirt of Iraq slightly orange, but I’m sure that in a few days that will fade and dirt will simply look like dirt.
During all this, I feel nothing in particular, no special spiritual surge. But it pleases me, or satisfies me anyway, to have carried this promise through. And when I write to my dear pilgrimage companions about it later, somehow the cloud of my evil dreams disperses, and the firm certainty of Bahji and Carmel comes back to me.
*Update regarding the ammo: A short time later, the situation is corrected, and we are all given more ammo than we will ever possibly use. The Army will short you many things, but it turns out to be rather generous with the bullets.