I. The Night Before Deployment – Topeka, Kansas
What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!
– The Cowardly Lion
I leave for a war that budded off into a separate timeline after we raised the victory banners. There is talk of a storm in Kansas. Everyone warns me to watch the news for tornado warnings. Looking for cigarettes, I say goodbye to the girl-next-door, on shift behind the register at the Quik Stop. Later, I meet the neighborhood boys for pints at the G-Man. Guns N’ Roses play on the stereo. We spend our remaining hours comparing beers, singing songs we all know, using falsettos to mimic rhythm guitar.
When I get home that night I receive a one-armed hug, safety belts restricting our movement. Slowly, I turn the knob and inch the door into the hallway. My mother works in the kitchen, wearing her nightdress and sipping Zinfandel from a child-sized plastic cup. On the counter, colossal towers of white chocolate chip cookies stand cooling. She admits to nothing, but I believe that her plan is to anchor me down.
II. Patrolling for Insurgents – Diyala Province, Iraq
Wicked Witch: Who killed my sisterâ€¦Was it you?
Dorothy: â€¦ it was an accident. I didn’t mean to kill anybody.
Wicked Witch: Well, my little pretty, I can cause accidents, too!
When my turn comes to talk to my mother back home, I tell her first that I’m fine. I tell her I have enough to eat, but she should send more cookies just the same. I don’t tell her about the bombs insurgents have hidden, or the smoldered trucks I see, bricked on the yellow roads. I don’t tell her about our neighborhood patrols – how standard procedure goes. How we break in the doors, find the men we’re looking for and stomp our boots down on their backs. It turns out this is taboo in Iraq – why the news ran so many shots of people slamming their shoes against pictures of Saddam, of George, of Tony, of George again.
If we take a man out of the house, his wife screams her throat raw. His daughters watch from the stairwell. His brother or his eldest son might grab an AK and take a few shots at a convoy next week. Maybe he means it, maybe he doesn’t. We shoot back just the same.
I tell my mother, “Houses here are a lot like in Kansas. Lots of mothers and daughters, lots of boys.” I don’t tell her that sometimes my boots are stained, wet and ruby when I leave. I don’t tell her that there are fewer men left in their homes every week. I don’t tell her how many times I plan to wipe my feet when I find my way home.
III. The Green Zone – Central Baghdad, Iraq
Orders are nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!
– Guardian of the Emerald City Gates
In the Emerald City at last, I sipped a Corona with Arnold Layne, who signed up with Blackwater Security and never planned to leave. He spends his downtime by the compound pool, smoking cigarettes and drinking his own moonshine. With every drag, he flaunts to me that Arnold Layne is the only man this side of the Tigris River who knows where to find Kamel Reds. Some of the men like to tell tales about him – how when four Blackwater men were killed, stripped and strung up in Fallujah, Arnold escaped and walked home with everything but his shoes.
Arnold told me about a rotund woman from Boston he guarded during his first year. She spent her days waving her hand about, trying to get a satellite connection with her Thuraya phone. When she made the call, the woman screamed half in Arabic, half in English about the school she was trying to build in Diyala Province. “I don’t care what the problem is,” she said, “get me some fucking men and some brushes.” Turns out you can take the country and build a school, but you can’t make the Iraqis paint.
Arnold went on: in the mess hall of the Republican palace, the Alabaman who tried designing a new flag for the Iraqis got teased for weeks. “Don’t you know Iraqis don’t want their flag to look like Israel’s?” Arnold said. By the end of it, the Alabaman broke down over his tater tots and cried, “I like blue, damn it. It’s a calming color. I just like blue!”
One night, we heard spurts of machine gun fire in the neighborhood beyond the walls of the Emerald City, and rousing shouts of joy. I stood up to report for duty, but Arnold told me to sit down and finish my beer. Iraq had won another soccer game against the Saudis, that’s all. The first time it happened, the men behind our curtain thought it was all over. Arnold laughs and says if his company’s contract ever ends, he’ll stay here just the same. A flare goes up in the sky, and I see Arnold’s eyes in the light-crow’s feet grown deep like the rivers.