guard duty

Dear Dad,

Since I told you the other day that I was going to be doing guard duty, I thought you might like to know what it was like. It turns out it wasn’t terribly dangerous, and one of the nicer times I’ve had here.

I thought we’d be guarding the side of base that abuts one of the main routes through Iraq, but it turned out we were on a tower on one of the other sides, overlooking a well-irrigated but patchy set of fields. It was 1 in the afternoon and we had to wear body armor and Kevlar helmets, but up in the tower there was a nice breeze, and although the SOP says that soldiers are supposed to stand during their shift, someone had welded together a couple of barstools out of scrap metal, so it wasn’t as exhausting as I’d feared it might be.

The SOP also says soldiers will not bring anything that would distract them from their mission, including MP3 players, computers, books, and magazines. I didn’t bring anything with me, but of course someone had brought four or five Maxims, an FHM, and a World Wrestling Entertainment magazine and stashed them in the tower. At first I was aloof, but when the guy pulling guard with me mentioned a spread on the old B-movies that inspired Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse, I asked him to give me the Maxim when he was done with it. I quickly went through all five of them, and eventually the wrestling mag, too. Then, as though I’d eaten a bag of marshmallows because I had nothing else in the house, I was disgusted with myself. I’ve noticed it before; I have a hard time going without something to read or listen to for very long. It occurred to me that I had four hours to sit and observe the things around me. After reading A Soldier of the Great War, whose main character’s personal relationship with God is defined by his deep attention to every detail of the physical world, I felt I ought to make an effort to try to sit quietly and watch for a while.

The first forty-five minutes or so I was a little on edge, because cars would creep by on the tiny dirt road at about 2 miles an hour as though they were either watching us or about to pop off a few shots. There’s nothing more disturbing than to look up and see a car nearly stopped just outside the fence. Then I realized the problem was the road, which is terrible. They weren’t stopping — they just couldn’t drive any faster. A few people actually did turn their heads to stare at us, but mostly farmers bumped carefully along with bushels of unidentifiable vegetables in the backs of stakebed trucks; families crawled along in low sedans, the men sitting in the front, the women and children in the back, sometimes with a partial curtain ineffectively protecting them from view or sunlight; more rarely, groups of young men would roll by packed into ancient Opels or sometimes trucks. It was hard not to view them with suspicion, but they seemed no more curious about us than anyone else, and none of them blew up.

At about the second hour, something lumpy and not at all carlike started to raise dust down the road, a herd of cattle and sheep. The cattle were skinny, not fat like our American cattle. Maybe because they have to walk everywhere. The sheep were small but fluffy. A young boy, somewhere between ten and fourteen, walked in front of the herd swinging a stick. The cows followed obediently behind, and the sheep just followed, accompanied but not particularly herded by a middle-aged man and a smaller boy.

They turned the animals off into a field of dry-looking pasture directly in front of our tower. There were greener fields to either side of the one they chose, but I suppose those were crop fields. I was impressed most of all, standing in the tower and looking over the only portion of Iraq I’d ever seen that wasn’t barren military base, at how green and pretty these irrigated portions of the country were. Past the yellow grass the animals were picking at dutifully there was a small rectangular lagoon, and behind that was a long, low house of desert-colored concrete. Its edges were soft, like a child’s mock-up in clay. There was a large TV antenna on the roof and, strangely, two tour buses in a lowered driveway. It’s impossible not to see them as potential bombs, of course, but I try to think of the whimsy, or even the legitimate purpose, that led this person, this family, to go to the considerable expense of obtaining two buses. I hope it was whimsy. A country where people can afford, in their hearts, to be whimsical, to pursue improbable interests, is probably a place with some hope of recovery.

It was about three in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, and the animals chewed without interest while the man squatted and then sat, adjusted his robes, drank some water from a plastic bottle indistinguishable from the ones you find everywhere here on post. But he couldn’t rest for long — a thin bull with short, youthful horns decided to wander out across the dirt path to the next pasture, and a little while later a lamb ventured timidly out into the road.

I watched all this, sometimes using the binoculars that like Maxim and the sandbags and the odd chairs seemed to come with the post. It took the herder and his kids a while to notice us — the tower is dark and covered with camo netting, so it’s hard to see inside. But the man did see us, eventually. I imagine it must be strange to be walking your animals and suddenly realize that a couple of fully armored people are peering at you through binos. I waved. He raised a hand half-heartedly, but his younger boy was enthusiastic and waved and waved.

He crossed the road hesitantly, calling out to me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He came a little further, still shouting. I put my hand to my ear, though I’m not sure how distinctly he could see my individual gestures. He gave up shouting and just waved again and came a little closer. I waved back, but a steel rod shot through my body from my feet to my head. I was aware of my weapon on the sandbags, my partner next to me, the boy climbing up the sandy rise. I realized, suddenly, that I didn’t know what the rules were. I realized no one had ever briefed me on where, exactly, our borders were. I mean, there’s the fence, but it seems like I shouldn’t let someone get as close as the fence. But how close is too close?

I decided that the small canal along the side of the road was my border, at least for a little boy. I started rehearsing the Arabic in my head — is “get back” “ib’ad” or “ibt’ad”? I settled on “ibt’ad,” but he stopped at the canal on his own, looked up at me, waved again, and squatted down on the bank. He reached out his hands and put them into the water, washing his face. Even as far away as I was, I could see little jewels of water roll down his dark brown face. He squatted there for a moment longer, enjoying the rapid cooling of evaporation, even in a hot wind. Then he turned around and went back across the road to get his brother. The brother really was old enough to be dangerous, but there was a complete innocence to the way the littler boy brought him back across the road, leading him like one of the animals, pointing to us and waving again. We waved, too, and the older boy also waved, somewhat more tentatively, before climbing over the small berm and down the other side to the edge of the water. He washed his face, and they sat on the top of the berm for a moment, picking at the weeds.

The little boy wandered away after a while, and the older brother was left there by himself. He fussed with the sand, and I couldn’t quite see what he was doing. For a moment my hackles were up again. I wondered about a small IED, somehow concealed under his shirt — but no, that’s simply not possible. He’s a skinny boy in a tight T-shirt. He poked at the ground determinedly, but I’d forgotten that boys have little projects all their own, most of them harmless. The herdsman hollered at him, and he looked up, slowly pulled himself away from whatever he was doing in the sand, and, brushing his hands on his pants, ran down the hill and back across the soft, sandy road.

They moved the animals deeper into the field, where it’s greener. I don’t know what kind of plants they were back there, but they were quite high — sometimes I lost sight of the smaller boy as he ran among them. He disappeared behind leaves and cows and then re-appeared again.

I heard later from another soldier that she and her partner had seen the same family. Her partner had gone down with a bottle of water and a couple of Cokes and tossed them over the fence. The smaller boy stripped down to his boxer shorts, waded across the canal, and retrieved the drinks. She said he and his brother sucked at the Cokes greedily, but mostly ignored the water. Then the boy came running up to the fence carrying something about the size and shape of a football. They were nervous, but he held it up over his head as if offering it. My friend’s partner came down from the tower again. The boy threw the thing over the fence. It turned out to be a melon. My friend said it was pretty good.

I also heard about a herder (maybe the same guy, maybe not) who, on another day, was in the same field with his wife or his sister and started slapping her around. The guys on duty, not knowing what it was about, didn’t do anything. I think I would have, though that’s a grey area — our rules of engagement allow us to defend civilians from serious crimes, but I don’t know if light battery within the family is even a crime here.

We brought plates of food with us to the guard tower — “burgers,” although the chow hall has been out of hamburger patties for some time, so they were really Salisbury steak ovals with cheese melted over them. They tasted vaguely of pimentos, but they were all right. I’ve given up on not eating beef here — ninety percent of my meals are takeout plates from the chow hall, and if I limit myself to chicken I’ll go nuts. Especially since it’s somehow harder to screw up beef than chicken. Although there was the day they sent us corned beef, or possibly saddle leather, in barbeque sauce. Our plates also had onion rings on them, which always make me sad, because I accidentally discovered they’re beer-battered, so I don’t eat them. But I do love onion rings.

There’s not much more to tell, I suppose. Iraq probably has its own beauty, at least in the irrigated areas, even if Camp Taji is the ugliest place I’ve ever seen. That was reassuring. And I’m glad that that family has a happy relationship with our guards, even though I fear it could somehow be used against them, or against us, or both.

I hope you are well; I’m looking forward to seeing you in October, although it will mean we probably won’t see each other for another year after that. Write to me when you have a few moments and tell me your news; I love hearing from you.

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One Response to guard duty

  1. Pingback: why i am going around being rude to Juan Cole | The Handsome Camel

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