Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Words

When the sun sets, the sand flies always come out, inflicting some of the most irritating bites imaginable. No building, however tightly sealed the doors and windows may be, is free of them. Soldiers’ arms and legs are covered in scabs from scratching bites. Few, if any, have insect repellant.

When you climb out of the shower to dry off, they bite. When you sit on a broken toilet seat in the bathroom, they bite. While you sleep, they bite. As uncomfortable as it may be in direct sunlight, at least they aren’t biting you then. If this combat outpost had a PX, you could purchase some relief. But, none is scheduled to come. There are many things this base doesn’t have. It’s a far cry from the wireless internet hubs of the larger FOBs or the shopping malls on others. It’s small, it sucks, but it’s home for the next eleven months. It’s Iraq.

And how do you describe it to people who have never ventured to a third world country? How do you convey how aghast you were when you first saw cows, donkeys, sheep and goats grazing in a field of garbage? How do you describe wearing a uniform continuously for a year surrounded by people you’d rather not see and shaking hands with local nationals who usually demand you to give them something? How do you describe getting used to losing a few friends here and there to explosions or indirect fire? How do you explain the resignation that when it’s your time, it’s your time and there’s nothing you can do about it? How do you describe a car bomb scene where the street is covered in blood and loose, unmatched sandals? How do you describe Iraq?

You don’t. At best, you describe a mission, or an evening, or a conversation, or something you saw outside the wire, and wait impatiently to go home. And when you get there, you hope nobody asks you about it, because you still don’t know what to say. Months in the desert, even years, still seem unreal. There aren’t words for it all anyway. There are emotions which defy articulation. There are putrid odors and the sickeningly sweet aroma of Iraqi cologne. There are trash fires and clouds of dust. There are elaborate tangles of power lines that impede movement down every street. There are beautiful ruins of Bedouin mud homes in the desert near the oases. All around them there are tank traps to slow an Iranian advance across the border. There are palaces – some of them with bombed-out sections.

There are emaciated children eagerly waving at every convoy and portly older men demanding first place in every line. There are Iraqi soldiers and policemen asking you to give them every piece of gear you wear. There are flies everywhere, and open sewage, and dead animal carcasses with other half-living animals gnawing on them. There are immaculate courtyards with mountains of trash on the other sides of the walls. There are rickety mud huts and sprawling concrete estates. There are crowds of people who stare at you as you pass and a few who spit or give you the finger. In the past, children would throw grenades. Now you keep your eyes open for somebody throwing RKG-3s, which can easily destroy an MRAP.

There are endless miles of roads with guardrails removed because at one time they were used to conceal IEDs. There are other roads with a patchwork of concrete-filled IED craters – remnants of past deployments when driving anywhere was a dangerous roll of the dice. There are dirt roads which still hide mines and IEDs. There are hundreds who watch everything but never seem to know who emplaced the devices. There is a culture of apathy. There is the constant roar of generators. There are good people who care and don’t want you to leave, and others who you fear will shoot you when you turn your back.

There are filthy streets were the sewage runs and vendors selling food directly beyond the curb. In the past, sectarian violence used to see at least one marketplace a week rocked with car bombs. Now, there are people shopping, walking, and watching you. As you watch them, they throw their trash at their feet.

There are frustrating hours on long missions, and the days when you feel something isn’t quite right but then nothing happens. When you’ve finally convinced yourself that it’s all in your head, something does occur and you go back to your superstitions. You knock on wood when you say you haven’t lost anybody yet and pray it stays that way the entire deployment. You miss home.

You breathe dust all summer in unbearable heat and slog in mud throughout the winter. You fall down constantly when the rough ground freezes on the coldest mornings, and find yourself missing the heat. You spend months assembling scraps of wood to make furniture for your room, only to have them collapse when somebody leans against them. You fear electrical fires from all the haphazard wiring. You grow accustomed to sleeping at any time of the day or night, regardless of the din around you. A mission may call you out again at any time. You endure wearing 80 pounds of gear every time you’re outside the wire. You watch your commanders play dominoes and drink chai while you stand guard at the building’s perimeter.

You find yourself less and less caring about anything except simply going home to a normal bed, a normal life and normal food, but guiltily miss it all when it finally arrives. You spend years bitter at a command decision that you’re convinced led to the death of a friend – or perhaps many friends. You wear bracelets with their names engraved on them. You think about your family and hope they aren’t watching the news. It’s always bad news anyway, and just makes them worry more. You miss beer. You miss driving your own car. You plan to get drunk when you get home. You miss pretty girls or your wife.

You grow accustomed to the attempts on your life and start making jokes about it, but every so often there’s a really close call and you remember it’s not funny. Someone is still trying to kill you. You’re more alert for a few days and then you go back to joking. You look forward to not having to pay attention to the roadsides as you drive. You look forward to smooth streets free of craters and suspicious debris. You want to never see the guys in your platoon again, but you keep up with them anyway. As much as you may have disagreed about everything and hated each other’s guts, as least they were there with you. Unlike most, they know how it was out here. You hate MREs, sandbags, port-a-jons and mosque loudspeakers.

You compile elaborate lists of things you’ll do when you go home, amend it repeatedly, and end up following none of it. It won’t really matter so long as you get to see your family and wear civilian clothing. You create a mental picture of what home will be like, but find it disappointing and mundane when you finally see it. You get tired of answering questions about Iraq. Most have no good responses, some are grotesquely inappropriate, and some are laughably na├»ve. You’ll miss carrying a gun.

You swear that you’ll never take the little things for granted, like showers, soft beds and home cooked food, but find yourself surprisingly apathetic in short order. You get tired of hearing your civilian friends tell you their opinion of your war. For somebody who never served, they seem to have a lot of ideas. Most feel sorry for you, which is irritating.

You listen to horror stories from men who went through Sadr City, Baghdad and Baqubah and admit with a trace of jealousy that you didn’t see all that much and that your AO was relatively quiet. Your battalion only lost eighteen on the first tour. You observe as most of your friends’ long-term relationships crumble while their overseas and perhaps yours fails as well. Many are divorced. Many more are on their second marriages. A few refuse to marry ever again. You’re bothered by the number of troops your unit has lost to suicide.

You get nosebleeds in the dry heat of summer and sick in the winter, and still run missions. You lose relatives in the states, but if they’re not immediate family you’re not allowed to go home for the funerals. You watch every cheap, pirated DVD you can find and wonder why they seem to only pirate the B movies. You sleep a lot and get bored a lot, but then you get busy and you miss being bored. You read outdated magazines on subjects that don’t interest you, but it’s the only reading material you can find.

You want people to understand, but you don’t want them to see how stupid some days were, how borings others were, and how terrifying or tragic a few turned out to be. They’ll want to comfort you and say they’re sorry, but you just want them to understand what it was like. You get frustrated that people really don’t get it and aren’t making any attempts to learn. For the most part they’ve already formed their opinions – few are based on reality.

You want to go home. You don’t give a damn about the ugly backwards country that won’t stand up on its own, but at the same time you want them to succeed so you know you’ve done something and that your friends haven’t died for nothing. You miss normal. You miss your dog. You miss freedom. You miss your family. You’re angry. You’re tired. You’re living an adventure. You’re living a nightmare.

You’ll remember it fondly some days and other days with disgust. You’re proud of what you did, but wish you hadn’t done it. You figure out how to explain it to people, so you don’t even bother to try. War is a mystery to all those who have not fought in one, and waged so that they may remain ignorant of what happens in their prosecution. You wish they knew. You’re glad they don’t. You’ll spend your whole life trying to put it to words, but those words will never come. Laughter will. Pleasant reminiscing will. Tears will. Nightmares will. Anger will. But still, no words; just emotions.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. While you say there are no words for it, you found them and expressed how it is remarkably well. Good Job!

  2. In general describing a third world country is difficult. There is really not a way to make people understand what the squalor is like, and the pictures on tv do not even come close. However, you have very accurately portrayed third world and war torn third world in a way that as a person who knows from experience can say "Bravo". thank you for sharing your emotions in words!