There’s no barrier now. This isn’t something aired on the television or written in a magazine. This is happening right in front of me. There’s no screen to protect me from this soldier’s experience in war. There’s no distance between me and it. I see the child’s face–pieces scattered on the market place floor. I hear the sound of his boots stepping over thinking these children are his daughter–wondering if he’ll ever put the pieces back–fragments like shard stuck in his psyche. Stuck in mine now. I try to pull them out but I’ve stepped across the line and there’s no retreating.
I can’t sleep. The images I see won’t leave me alone. His words grow deeper. Louder. More real. I get up and write.
I wanted my students to read a brilliant piece of journalism so I took a Los Angeles Times front-page article about the current emails coming out of Iraq to my Veterans Administration creative writing workshop. It was the first time I had done this particular kind of exercise but I knew the content had the possibility of stimulating dialogue at the table, one of the elements the veterans like most about the workshop. I was concerned, however, about a Sergeant who had done two tours as an Infantryman in Iraq and had returned only a couple of years ago. I wasn’t sure how he would respond to the article. He wasn’t at the workshop the week I handed it out so I asked one of the guys to give the Sergeant a copy. I wondered if he would come back after he read it. I wondered if he would do the week’s assignment.
Little did I know that my world would be turned up side down, inside out forever.
The next week I was happy and relieved to see the Sergeant sitting in his usual spot at the table. He’d forgotten to bring his copy of the article but he had written his homework even though he thought he didn’t do it correctly. That didn’t matter to me. What mattered was he came back. Notebooks, papers and cookies lay in front of us as we went around the table and read our week’s assignment. The Sergeant read his, how he was in Iraq but it was hard for him to describe what happened over there or how to write how he felt about it.
After the last student read his assignment, the dialogue began. They loved talking about this stuff. The military is what they know, how they have lived. And since they knew there is no censorship at this table, the dialogue became very lively. Even though it was just what I hoped it would be, I kept glancing at the Sergeant and wondered what he was thinking. I watched as he listened, his body becoming more and more agitated while the others talked.
“It’s about power not religion,” he said as he scoffed at our opinions, points of view.
Ah, he’s beginning to engage, I thought even though his look said we didn’t know shit. That we weren’t the ones in combat. So how the fuck could we possibly know anything about what’s really happening over there? What happened over there?
Suddenly he interrupted and said with authority, “Evil people do evil things. The Shiites kill the Sunnis and the Sunnis kill the Shiites. The only difference now is that when Saddam was in power it was controlled chaos. Now it’s just chaos. There isn’t an Iraqi who doesn’t have a relative that was killed by Saddam.”
Then he took a breath, focusing on a point in front of him. Something was churning inside that needed to get out. And whatever it was needed to be released right then.
Everyone was silent.
He had the power now.
“They sent a retarded girl with a bomb strapped to her into a market and blew everything up. The clean-up went in and they went and got her retarded sister and sent her in with a bomb. My unit was called and we were waiting at the front. Then we went in. I stepped over half-gone faces of children that looked like my daughter. They kill children and infants. I saw so much death, so many dead bodies and body parts after a while I didn’t see it anymore. The problem is I’ve been living in the past. After you see so much death, so many dead bodies you stop looking. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Nothing means anything anymore. I lost my family. I lost everything. That’s why I drank all day. Because I’ve been living in the past. When I live in the past I have no future. Nothing matters anymore, so what’s the difference?”
Finally, I understood the ever-present anger seething just below the surface. His need to hold on to the righteousness of the war. The need to do the work so he could at least begin to heal his broken psyche. Make sense of all the loss.
A loss I couldn’t imagine but now saw.
The Sergeant continued, “You try to do good and you still get shit for it. No matter what you do, you’re fucked.”
He grabbed the article from the person sitting next to him. His voice was animated as he pointed to the black and white. “I was in all these places: Abu Ghraib, the International Airport, Basra. They aren’t in one place like it appears they are but they are hundreds of miles apart. It could be that these wires came in at the same time. It seems like they’re happening at different times but they could be happening all at once. At night we’d get briefed. 52 bombs went off. And that was just one province. 1276 bombs went off in the whole country. That’s just one day. There’s no additions, just the facts, the numbers. You’re not told if Jane, Dick and Jill over on the hill were murdered. They’re only the numbers. You wonder–Did they have children? What was their school like? Where they married? But after a while you stop thinking about that. You go out, you do your job.”
The avalanche inside a soldier’s psyche tumbled and crashed into delusions and non-truths and nothing could stop it. Not anymore, because this was war’s truth. Here at this table, in this room, his truth struck my reality, carrying me with it–forever changing my perception of soldiers and combat, market places and information, fathers and daughters.
He pushed the newspaper article away, then sat back in the chair, looking at a distant point in front of him.
The Sergeant spoke again, his voice a little lighter. He said that the psychiatrist across the street was telling him to write in a journal. “But I don’t write. I do these exercises though. I think I’ll take these exercises in and kill two birds with one stone.”
Then he laughed at the amusing irony of it all. We laughed with him, happy to be a part of that thought, grateful for the gift of what he just gave to us.
And even though I knew the assignment allowed him to begin speaking about what happened to him in combat, driving home I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said, what he saw. As midnight approached and I was safe inside my comfortable and cozy bed, I tried to push his words away but the images like ghosts of Abu Gharaib haunting the sleep of a civilization wouldn’t go away.
The war is no longer over there, far away from my reality. It’s here in all its reality. The shroud has dropped and I can no longer deny what this returning soldier experienced. Still experiences as he grapples to find the way back home.
For if I can’t stop seeing his daughter’s face in a marketplace in Baghdad, how can he?