From fall 2008 to summer 2009, I was a defense contractor for Multinational Corps-Iraq in Baghdad. The experience spurred me to start work on that most self-indulgent of labours, a memoir. Fine literature this is not. Even so, the wonderful editors at CI have given me license to occasionally share some work here. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it. If not, then hopefully you'll enjoy skewering it in the comments.
I had this recurring adolescent dream that’s come back to me lately, where I pictured myself on the rim of an erupting volcano, erect, a man in full, forcing his shoulders square into the fiery blast.
In this elaborate play-fantasy, I hold a gun. A huge fucking shell cannon of a weapon, it is, with which to keep hell's barking, flaming dogs from climbing the rim. I stand, cocked and locked, far from the fine gentle people who birthed me, educated me, trained me to camp here in their stead. I am a double-coiled spring. I am a spitting piston. I am liquid oxygen. Ignite me. Set me off. Toss me into that Sterno crater. Follow me in. I will plug the damn thing with my hamhock knuckles. I'll freeze it with every blow from the cold weathered shale of my muscles.
I'm there now. But I'm not that guy. I stand wobbly in the wind, weighed down by gear and skin folds, armed only with a steno pad. A wide-ruled spirally job that's completely fouled, because I'm obese and even at six in the morning, the fire of hell's rim - the sunburned Kuwaiti sand plain - sucks sweat from my lipidy dermis, out the crevasses of my body armor, over the notebook, even down the crack of my oversize buttocks. My dreams never even dealt with the possibility that a warrior has a fully functional ass, but there it is, in all its moistened ignominy.
I am not the warrior I dreamed. I am the warrior's fatter understudy.
“Let’s go,” someone says. Moments later I’m stuffed into the naked bowels of a C-17 cargo jet, strapped to a wire-and-servo-filled bulkhead, wriggling for space between a green blob of a female soldier and Ray, one of my teammates, in his oversize khakis. My hands lace around the empty notebook. We’re wedged between another hundred or so soldiers, most of them sleeping, Kevlar helmets and tactical goggles pulled down over their eyes. As the Kuwaiti morning sun pounds in through the open tail section and the plane wakes up with a series of mechanical pops and groans, it suddenly seems a nice quality to be able to sleep through impending doom.
The slumbering grunts look weightless, limp arms and torsos suspended in the air by seat belts and “battle rattle” – forty pounds of Velcroed and buttoned armor that shield them from the pointy white-hot hazards that can befall a flight into a war zone. Beretta handguns and M-16s and Squad Automatic Weapons clatter between boots and the ball-bearing rollers that line the aircraft’s deck. I try to make sense of the soldiers’ pasts by reading the olive drab heralds on their slumped shoulders: Tenth Mountain. Eighteenth Airborne. Texas National Guard. They came all from all over. Where they are headed many will acquire new patches, ribbons and medals, some unwanted. Some unearned.
I direct a bloody eyeball at the cavernous jet’s young pilot as he tiptoes through the fuselage to inspect his load. He advertises a solemn look of professionalism that clashes with his lean, comically hairless face and billowing flight suit, a king sheet hung on a twin mattress. The tangle of fabric threatens to fall off him, but for a brown leather harness that crisscrosses his shoulders and suspends an M9 service pistol beneath an armpit. He reaches the tail end of the plane to check the massive pallets of duffel bags, green expanse piled eight feet high, and checks the tie points that an even younger crewman had used to tether the several tons of dead weight in place. Satisfied, he turns back up the aisle, stepping high to miss my splayed ankle, which still swells blue from the sprain I’d taken in training stateside.
The pilot passes by, his lips pursed, his brown eyes off in a distant land where Alabama Slammers and Xbox rule the day. I notice the absence of a name tape or a squadron patch or even a rank on his flight suit. He’s gone “sterile,” as the services say. It is part of an elaborate play-acting exercise in which, if we crash and this fresh-faced lieutenant is taken alive or dead, the enemy will learn very little about him.
I imagine, though, that the burned out football field of a jet will speak volumes.
It’s past 0800. The tail ramp lowers and locks out the Kuwaiti sun’s wake-up call. Two six-inch bubbles about eight feet up on either bulkhead provide the only natural light, a pair of diffuse white beams that arc and stretch as the plane twists on the taxiway.
“You a contractor?”
The blob beside me has stirred. She’s a private first class, about nineteen, blonde. Boredom dulls her retinas and pulls at her eyelids. The cadence of her voice is forced, as if her mother has put her up to talking to the new boy in school.
“Yeah, I’m a contractor,” I say.
I deploy the military vernacular for huh?: “Say again?”
“How long you going for?”
I feel my ankle throb as I smile. The private security companies – mercenary outfits like Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Custer Battles that give the world’s civilians their image of war contractors – are unlikely to hire military washouts, liberal intellectuals or anemics who carry 50 extra pounds of fat on their frames. I am all three.
“No,” I say. “I’m gonna edit the base newspaper.”
“Oh,” she says.
Then she turns and scoots away ever so slightly.
The plane stops its taxi with a creak. The engines power up. As I feel a flush of adrenaline pump into my chest and slip my thumbs under the harness restraints, the soldier turns back and asks the only question she really had.
“So. How much you getting paid?”
“Enough,” I say. I’m lying. I think.
The plane accelerates. Then it accelerates some more. The pulling force that I’d braced for grows fierce, shoving me into Ray’s shoulder. He snores a little as I impact him. The plane’s nose banks up. We’re off, and Baghdad bound.
The volcano's heart awaits.