In the summer of 2005, I was trapped in a cyclic 11-hour workday in Baghdad, serving as a non-commissioned officer in Army Public Affairs. Day after day, I cranked out press releases from my task force’s headquarters building which lay within spitting distance of Saddam Hussein’s former palace.
Outside and miles from where I sat, my fellow soldiers baked inside their helmets and ballistic vests, patrolling the streets, knocking on doors and politely, diplomatically asking shriveled old ladies if they knew the last known whereabouts of their grandson, then later kicking down doors and tossing flash-bang grenades when they confirmed the address of the “suspected insurgent.”
These soldiers were as remote and unknowable to me as movie actors projected on the screens of a shopping mall Cineplex.Me, I was cocooned inside the humdrum of war, just another mouse in the maze of a military headquarters.
I had it good, as far as wars go: three hot meals a day, a dry place to sleep, and a comfortable desk chair. Apart from the occasional mortar landing outside in the parking lot, my environment was not all that different from the movie Office Space.
With the luxury of air-conditioning cooling me in my cubicle, I spent hours writing officially-sanctioned dispatches about roadside-bomb attacks, discoveries of terrorist weapon caches, and laudable efforts by the U.S. Army to rebuild Iraq’s crumbled infrastructure of utilities. I agonized over sentence structure and struggled to come up with new ways to say “liberated by democracy” before getting the releases approved by the military chain of command and distributed to the nearly two hundred news organizations in my e-mail address book.
The majority of editors and reporters back home in America deleted my work without even reading it. I was certain of this without having proof. I knew my “news” was stale and lagged far behind the media’s need for instant information. I was hobbled by delays in waiting for confirmation of facts to trickle in from division units and then trying to convince reluctant commanders that releasing the information would not mean a breach in security. My reports of soldiers’ death and dismemberment often reached newspapers and television stations hours, even days, after the fact.
I was okay with this.
I was working my ass off in a combat zone to a useless end—yelling into a void—but I didn’t take it personally. It was just a job and I was a mere cog in a large machine whose wheels were turned by a tiny crank on someone’s desk back in the Pentagon.
I toiled in the here and now and saw only as far ahead as the next coordinated attack on terrorist hideouts. This is what happens when you’re isolated in the bubble of war. You get tunnel vision, the demanding taskmaster of the military collapsing the boundaries of your world until you’re on a hamster wheel of work, sleep, work, sleep, work.
I often thought about taping a sign in my cubicle: “Another Day, Another Death, Another Press Release.” This is what happens in the bubble. You get laser-focused in your cynicism, unable to see beyond the regularity of death, the daily schedule of terrorist attacks, and the molehill duties which the Army has convinced you are mountainous.
In Baghdad, we were disconnected from our comfortable universe of friends, family, and fast food. News from America reached us, but it was through the wrong end of a telescope. Iowa felt as distant as Antarctica and most days it seemed we were only connected to a place called Home by the tenuous threads of our internet connection. We were tethered with a cord no thicker than a copper filament.
There were days when I thought the internet was more of a curse than a blessing. Sure, we had the ability to instantly touch our families through the long reach of e-mail, but it could also distract us from the military operations at hand. Past wars never had to contend with this magnitude of attention deficit. I’ve often wondered if the Greatest Generation was more focused at Normandy because they weren’t tweeting on Twitter.
That spring and summer, distractions abounded. Natalee Holloway disappeared; Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube became the symbol for a movement; smoke curled up from the Vatican as another Pope died; Katrina roared into New Orleans; and Michael Jackson shuffled to court in pajamas, walking like his legs were made of glass.
None of these events had anything to do with our reality. It was a circus out there, but we were engaged in the most serious of struggles inside our bubble: trying to raise Iraq like a phoenix from the ashes.
On the same evening the Pope died, 60 terrorists assaulted Abu Ghraib prison (also within pissing distance of my base), simultaneously ramming suicide car bombs at the front and rear gates, and firing grenades and AK-47s at the U.S. soldiers and Marines guarding the place. I was sitting in the forward operating base’s internet café at the time, having just gotten off shift (and gearing up for the moment, seven hours later, when I’d have to return for more of the same). I clicked and surfed, clicked and surfed. I was filled with longing for that foreign land, America. Tenuous threads.
I was reading a story about the sloppy breakup of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston when the ground started rumbling from the attack. I barely flinched. This was just another explosion Out There, the alien landscape beyond the base’s concertina wire. The next morning, the Pope was still dead and the terrorists had limped home, repelled by our soldiers guarding the prison.
Because of my duties in division headquarters, I rarely left the forward operating base and was, therefore, scorned as a “Fobbit,” a soldier with a marshmallow center who fiercely clung to his desk. Like the small, trembling characters in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, I rarely ventured outside the safety of my shire. If the FOB was a mother’s skirts, then I was pressed hard against the pleats. As a Fobbit, the attack on Abu Ghraib seemed as remote to me as the pajama-clad King of Pop. Not only was I cut off from America, I was isolated from the very war I was supposed to be fighting.
Most days, the only things keeping me in touch with other “real” soldiers were the photographs which arrived at my desk from our journalists and Combat Camera teams. I sat in my air-cooled cubicle in the palace and scrolled through what looked liked stills from a horror movie. The bloodbath was happening less than five miles from where I sat, but it might as well have been Mars. My only link to reality was the photos. Tenuous threads.
Click. Here’s a picture of an infantry scout platoon out on patrol. The lead soldier is heading up a hill toward the cameraman, his buddies behind him scanning left and right with their M240s. The point man is covered with blood from the neck down. It looks like he’s been shot in the shoulder, but still he’s humping up the hill. I stare at the wet, dark magenta of the sergeant’s shoulder wound and I marvel at the apparently casual look on his face. If it were me, I know I’d be writhing on the ground screaming for my Mommy in five different languages. But this guy just has a fierce, determined look on his face as he continues to climb the hill.
Click. These photos show the aftermath of a car bomb at a bus station, in which dozens of Iraqis were killed in the flash-bang of an instant. There are the usual pictures of men in long white robes and red-and-white-checked shumagh standing around the metal chunks of what used to be cars. Then there is a photo that stops me short: a pile of about thirty sandals, which no longer have owners, next to a puddle of purple-black blood.
Click. Another day, another bomb. This one detonated at a restaurant in Salhiya. The Public Affairs officer at the scene who sent the photos said the blast killed twenty Iraqis, one of them a child. Witnesses said the suicide bomber wore a belt rigged with explosives and timed the attack for the height of the lunch hour. The first photos show the restaurant gutted by a swift, lethal fire. Part of the ceiling is gone and hot sunshine floods the charred interior. Viscera is smeared across the floor. Tables and chairs, inextricably married in a tangle of chrome legs and plastic cushions, rest against a back wall where they have been flung by the explosion. Bright packages of crackers, tins of tea and cellophane-wrapped candy are still neatly arranged on a shelf next to a cash register, waiting for someone to come along and make a purchase. A shell-shocked man, presumably the owner, stands in a still-smoking doorway—the door is gone, thrown halfway down the block.
Fingers shaking on my computer mouse, I open the next batch of photos, labeled “The Remains of the Suicide Bomber,” knowing these are not images I can ever release to the media, but needing to see them for myself. My stomach clenches as the first one pops onto my screen.
A head. Two legs which appear to sprout from his neck. A hand, fingers twisted and broken, located in the place where you’d normally find the right hip bone.
That was it. Nothing more. Everything else—skin, bone, muscle, organ—had been vaporized, a brick-red mist splashed through the dust and rubble of the restaurant. The bomb rigged to his belt had subtracted more than half of the body.
In the blackened head, the eyes were squeezed shut, as if in final reflex before he pulled the det cord. His feet on the end of those neatly-severed legs were turned in opposite directions—one up, one down. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake his legs for arms, his feet for hands. He was a crude, meaty reassembling of parts—with those feet-hands, he looked like a child’s drawing of a traffic cop, one hand saying “Stop!”, the other beckoning “Go!”
My head seemed to fill with air, swell like a balloon. I drifted a few feet above my desk, rose to bob against the ceiling. I felt even more amputated from the world around me, as neatly sliced away as one of the terrorist’s limbs. To paraphrase a New Testament verse, I was in the war, but I was not of the war. In another six months, I knew I could board a plane and be home filling my mouth with fast food while I watched “Survivor” on my big-screen TV. But at that moment sitting in my office cubicle, I was untethered from both the reality of war and the surrealism of life in America. I was a real nowhere man sitting in a nowhere land.