Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Road North

By the time we headed north from Kuwait into Iraq, I had already accepted that this was probably going to kill me. It was fate. The night we sat outside our tents in Kuwait watching Iraqi SCUD missiles course through the sky – that’s when it hit most of us so clearly. This was huge, it was violent, and most of us probably weren’t going to make it home. What’s just as strange, though, is that we were okay with it. I know I became a better Marine then. I stopped caring about myself and started caring about my surroundings, my brothers, and the war.

When we crossed the LOD [line of departure], my lucidity reached its peak. We’d stopped being stupid and sobered up immediately. We stopped telling horrible jokes and started paying close attention. We were about to drive squarely into chaos and potentially to our own deaths, but we knew what we had to do. We were more alert than ever, perhaps hypervigilant is the best word for it. We were more attuned to our surroundings that I’ve ever been before, or since, actually. We were ready. We had to be, too.

Not fifteen minutes after we got across the border into Iraq on highway one [now MSR Tampa], we started seeing the cost of war in its fullest. The roads were lined with cars, most of them either destroyed by aerial bombing or abandoned. A number had burned completely, leaving the sickeningly black husk of a human being literally melted to the steering column. Some of the bodies on the ground were burned, too. Every now and then we’d see one still on fire; the smell was god awful. Their clothes were incinerated completely, and they were just lying in the road, beside it, or in the small hamlets that are all over southern Iraq.

But what I remember the most is their teeth. Even though they were blackened beyond recognition, their teeth stayed a stark white or off-white. I think that’s when I first understood why they use dental records for forensic identification. Apparently teeth can survive anything. After a time, I didn’t really see bodies, I saw another set of teeth. Seeing the corpses everywhere was a real wakeup call, though. I realized how fragile life was – and how tough teeth are. It was weird.

When we got into the small towns and little villages, there were bodies everywhere in those areas, too. Not as many burned bodies, but still…bodies everywhere. It was like driving through a cemetery where they completely neglected to bury anybody. But it was amazing. There, with people lying dead all around, were Iraqis lining the roads and cheering as we drove by. I have no idea where they got them, but a bunch waved little American flags. I had a hard time understanding it; how they could be surrounded by absolute death and carnage, people laying dead where they fell, and still parents and children alike cheered us and welcomed us. On the edge of one small town, there was a huge stone mural of Saddam, and there was crowd out there throwing rocks at it and trying to knock it down. That’s why they were happy, I guess. They weren’t living under an oppressive dictator anymore.

As we drove by them standing there in a sea of bodies, as they cheered for us, it felt amazing. It felt like we were doing great things and God was watching us, like He was with us, and that He honored what we were doing, too. I sort of felt ordained. We wanted to help them. Even though we were running out of food and water of our own and everything was rationed, we’d still give the kids whatever we had. We could do without for a little while. They’d lived without their whole lives.

Pushing north was truly a wave of emotions, and I’d say this was the highest point. I was elated. As they were cheering us and trying to properly say “USA,” I think it was the closest I’ve been to altruism. We had a purpose, and it was good. We weren’t doing something for reward or even for good pay – God knows we don’t get much. We were doing it because it was right

A lot of the dead were Republican Guard. You could tell it by their uniforms – the olive drab with the black helmet. I think just as many were innocent though, like they were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was hard to say, since we started seeing uniforms lying all over the place. Some of them were stripping off their uniforms and still fighting. Either way, the extent of the carnage was daunting.

I remember passing an oil well that had been set on fire. It was a good distance off the highway, but you could see the soot and oil smoke sending up a dark plume that filled the whole horizon. We’d been joking and acting stupid before we saw that, but then we just went silent and stared. I remember wondering why the hell we all found a single, burning oil well so incredibly mesmerizing, but whatever. We forgot to pay attention to anything else but that oil fire. If they’d attacked us right then, we’d have all died. We forgot to maintain our perimeter for a while, which was stupid. Thankfully, though, we didn’t get hit.

But that was right along the southern border. The second we started moving further north, it all changed again. People started hating us.

It was a complete reversal from the cheering and the crowds directly along the southern border. Either there were refugees walking south and trying to surrender to us, or it was combatants fake-surrendering. They’d walk up to us with their hands up or just looking relaxed, and then they’d pull out AKs from under their clothes and start spraying us. Thank God they can’t shoot straight, or a lot more of us would be dead. They never aimed. We did, though. And we didn’t miss.

We also started to see our own dead and wounded, which normally would have been awful, but we didn’t have the luxury to think about it. We had to push, we had to keep our heads in the game, and we had to be alert. Don’t stare, don’t think about it. Put it aside for later. We all did that. It’s the only way you can endure seeing your own dead and dying brothers and not completely lose it. We’d be driving along and see a humvee or some other vehicle shot up, and Marines lying on the side of the road with a few corpsmen [medical personnel] policing up the bodies. Sometimes we’d have to stop and help them “spread-load” the gear on the disabled vehicles.

We’d move quickly. A team of us would jog up to the disabled vehicles, form a chain, and then just stack everything in our trucks, slash the tires, cut the fuel lines, and leave. Considering how completely messed up the situations were, it still amazes me how flawlessly we moved. It was automatic. Nobody bitched or dragged their feet. We all knew what we needed to do, so we did it. Period.

Not only were there more of our own dead and plenty of fake surrenders, but they also started shooting at us. We’d be just driving along not bothering anybody, and suddenly a head would pop up from behind a small berm and a Bedouin would fire a shot or two at us. Mostly inaccurate potshots. Sometimes we fired back, and sometimes we were sort of like, “they’re too far away to bother with. Forget it.” And we’d keep going. We always kept going. We moved almost continually for 37 days or so. Just driving, sleeping in little 15 minute powernaps, then somebody would wake us up and we’d take a turn on watch. We’d sleep at night, but that was only 2-3 hours and I don’t think it really constituted sleep. It was like a nap that just left you more tired. If it wasn’t for the adrenalin, we would have all just passed out from exhaustion.

As we got nearer to Nasariyah, the hostility towards us intensified. We were driving through a small town once down this narrow road between high buildings. There was a long straight stretch, and then the road took a sharp turn to the right and kept on going. Sure enough, we got ambushed in there, and we started taking concentrated fire.

I remember seeing this dead Iraqi lying in the street with an AK-47 next to him, and then all of the sudden a woman runs out of a nearby building. She was wearing a white hijab and bright blue skirts. I remember wondering if that dead Iraqi was her husband, her brother, her son… I didn’t know. Then she dashes over to the body, picks up the guy’s gun, and starts running and firing at another part of our convoy. I wasn’t myself then, and neither was she. She became a target and I became the shooter.

I remember everything being quiet in my head, and looking through my sights at her. She was running perpendicular to me, so I gave her a 2-3 inch lead and pulled the trigger. The head exploded with a splash like the kind you get when you stomp in a puddle. The body dropped immediately. I didn’t think about it for a long time after that. I’d think about it plenty later, though.

I never regretted shooting her, or anything else I did, because I knew it was the right thing to do at the time. But, I do regret that it had to be that way. I felt badly, though. We weren’t just shooting targets, we were taking lives. I personally had ensured that some child was now motherless, and another mother was now missing her daughter. I don’t glorify what I did, because it wasn’t glorious. It’s unfortunate that circumstances had to come together as they did.

It’s strange. There in Iraq, the close brush with my own death and seeing the death of others – this was when I started feeling the most alive, and where I developed empathy. Those dead men on the ground had mothers, and even though they may have been trying to kill us, I somewhat respect that they stood up for something. I respect that they believed in their cause and willingly put it above their own wellbeing. I obviously don’t agree with them, but they were still human, and they had souls. Now they’re dead for their beliefs.

The part that bothers me the most is that if things were different, if circumstances weren’t as they were, I’d be sharing tea with these men and women. I’d be passing a hookah pipe around the room and we’d be laughing and talking. We would be friends, not sworn enemies trying to kill each others. I’m not sorry about anything I did, but I’m sorry that it had to be that way. They were people, too.

As we kept moving north around Baghdad, there were other firefights, and more random shots fired at us, and some our guys were injured and a few were killed. Our health started to fail from weeks with insufficient sleep, but life was simple. I remember when they announced that Baghdad had fallen. My sergeant said, “Well, Baghdad fell! Let’s get the hell out of here boys.” Obviously, we didn’t. The mission continued.

But even as I got more and more sick and I started turning yellow from jaundice, it was good there. People loved us in one place and hated us in another. They shot at us sometimes, or stood in a field of their own dead (killed by us), and cheered us as we drove by. My emotions followed our reception, actually. When they cheered, I felt justified and right. Like we were welcome and wanted. When we were being shot at and I shot back, I felt like a demon for a moment and I hated myself. Then I buried it and kept gunning. I chose to think about it later. It’s amazing what the mind can do to your body. You can tell yourself almost anything and believe it.

I’ll remember the experience for the rest of my life, but not the parts that people might think I would. Yes, I’ll think about shooting that woman sometimes, or I’ll think about the other firefights. I’ll damn sure miss my friends I made in the Corps – especially those that didn’t make it home. God knows there’s enough of them.

What I’ll remember the most, though, is my family, my brothers. I’ll remember the surreal experience of having very little, but being content with what I had. We didn’t need iPods and computers; we needed each other, and we had that. Those men were my family more than any other.

We’d be perched on MRE boxes or ammo crates, talking, laughing, sharing stories and telling jokes. We’d play spades or euchre and share the crap we called food. We were surrounded by bodies and death and tragedy – including our own – but we were safe somehow. We had each other. I had my brothers, my rifle, my platoon sergeant. I belonged, they belonged, and we all accepted each other. We didn’t need anything else. I felt alive for the first time, because now I knew what death was.

It was beautiful that all the petty squabbles that Americans dwell on were forgotten. We didn’t fuss about politics anymore. We were at war. We didn’t argue about celebrity news, because we were trying to stay alive and keep each other alive, too. It didn’t matter our backgrounds, or that one of us grew up rich or that another grew up in completely fucked up homes.

We had a Mexican in my team, and a Jew, a black dude, and I was the white guy. Nobody cared. We all wore the same uniform and bled the same color. They were brothers, and they would die for me just as quickly as I would die for them. There weren’t frills, and we liked it. We made fun of each other constantly, slept in holes and smelled like barn animals, but we loved each other, and we were wholly united towards a single cause. I wish America was like that – people getting along and caring about each other.

But as for me, I became simultaneously human and humane over there. In the midst of death, I found life and I grew to cherish it. I don’t take it for granted and I wish others didn’t, either. We are all mere moments and small circumstances away from death, horror, and permanently altered lives. I received my baptism in hell out there, and now I can appreciate heaven. For now, that’s amongst my brothers; my dysfunctional family. We’re one body with many parts. Only one thing torments me about that road north. One thing. It’s that I’m still alive – a single guy without a wife or family – yet my friends – loving fathers and loyal husbands – are not. I wish heaven had taken me instead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Absolutely beautiful. Your finest piece.

  2. If you can do this from an interview, what could you do from a live action? One can only imagine and look forward to it.

  3. You took me there and made me cry.

  4. Love the opening sentence, and the rest lives up to it. I try to teach students to treat the first sentence of a piece as the single most important, and I'll use yours as an example.
    The piece reminds me of a fine short story called "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. His war was Viet Nam. This one is yours. Good work.