White Whale

Jason Arment

The tributary stretched out in front of us from the Euphrates, pointing toward the northernmost fringes of Saqlawiyah, Iraq. Weapons platoon maneuvered a column of vehicles down from the main supply route (MSR) to a small dirt road that ran parallel to the river. A latticework of paths and irrigation ditches, swollen with water, striped the green plain of farm fields. Halfway down the slope from the MSR to the dirt road, everyone but the drivers dismounted to form up for the sweep: two columns, one on each side of the road. The carcass of a long-dead cow, mummified by the desert, crunched as a Humvee’s front tire crushed its skull, then ribs. My sergeant stopped to dry heave.

“Oh my God,” Prockop said between gags. “That smell. Fuck. It’s rancid.”

A few other dead cattle lay along the slope. I didn’t know for sure, but I could guess that some bored marines killed them from behind the guns of a passing convoy. I gathered this from how the carrion scattered out from the MSR, like a herdsman had pushed his small herd up from grassy fields, only to have them spooked by diesel engines and gunned down by men half his age. The Humvee’s rear tire crunched over the dried bag of bones, pushing more detritus from inside. I started to open my mouth to retch, only to have the blow-dryer heat of the desert push it back down my throat.

“Hell of a start to the big sweep,” I said to Prockop.

The Humvee we’d been guiding moved down the slope, into position behind a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicle. The rest of the vehicles sat on the MSR, a few of them idling. There was a pause, while radios crackled and people tried to figure out what was going on. There hadn’t been a mission briefing, so I had no idea of the bigger picture. I’d thought about asking for a mission brief before we’d stepped off, but knew better. I’d learned a long time ago that our forward operating base (FOB) allowed for some of the habits of garrison to remain a part of our daily lives, despite the threats from the environment and surrounding ville. Captain Vorgang liked the pomp mustered for him in garrison, and so did Staff Sergeant Gnade. The captain liked to tell stories about his last deployment to Afghanistan; Gnade talked about his SWAT training and fallen comrades.

I didn’t buy into it. Everyone in the military has their stories about how the guy they’d just been working next to moments, hours, days, or weeks before suddenly died, and “shit man, it could have been me.” Like most senior lance corporals, I wasn’t impressed with stories meant to showcase the sea salt dried on peoples’ collars from long journeys. 

The captain’s voice came over the radio, broken with static. Prockop held his radio out in front of him, peering above the speaker at the LED that displayed the frequency, channel, battery life, and encryption status. I paced back and forth in the dust, sometimes looking through my Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG) at the far bank of the river or up the small dirt road to the plume of green trees on the horizon.

“Where do you think the herdsman is?” I shouted up to Ulrich, who was on top of the lead vehicle, a seven-ton truck with a turret jutting out its top. I walked over to a long-dead cow and gave it a few stomps to the head, being careful to hold my breath. Rust-colored dust burst out of the eye sockets with the smell of death’s long decay. Prockop raised his voice to address the group.

“Both columns are going to punch up to the right side of the road,” Prockop said and then looked at me. “Take point, and lead out security on that side.”

Back in Iowa, cows got killed by hunters who mistook them for deer, and their corpses stayed tucked away in the timber. Here in the wastes, the stunted animals that passed for cows were shot out of boredom. A lot of things died like that in the sands: dogs, cows, goats, birds, people. In the States, things seemed to accept death, slide into it like a warm bath. Here, things were wrenched from life to lie twisted and broken on the desert.

I walked parallel to the road, trying to keep thirty meters of standoff. I wanted to think of home—philandering girlfriend, dying grandmother—but couldn’t. If I fucked up or missed something, people would go home in body bags. I always told myself this. Somehow, I left out how people could, and would, go back in body bags no matter what I did. Prockop called it “the nature of the beast,” but I didn’t call it anything. I couldn’t dignify or mystify it.

All I knew was heat and the need to take in my surroundings. The little road saw regular use, that much was evident from the ruts, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to support any bigger vehicles. I looked back at the seven-ton and wondered how a vehicle that heavy would fare. On the other side of the dirt road lay the tributary, and on my side, fields. Ahead, goats were being herded into a chicken-wire enclosure. The sun was just rising over the tree line.

Behind me, Smith was the first marine to follow my steps in trace. I would have preferred Larkin, but Smith would do in a pinch. Larkin and I usually shared point and second man, alternating depending on the day and how we felt. We’d found that the second man ended up supporting the point man so much that it was best to think of the two positions as a team: checking bridges for booby traps, moving concertina wire, and opening gates all took a coordinated effort from the first two men in the element. Larkin and I had made a pact early in our deployment that if one of us got hit by a sniper, the other would immediately sprint over and drag the body to cover. 

“Smith, tighten it up,” I yelled.

The ground by the small road didn’t pose too much of a challenge, but Smith had gotten caught up in a ditch and fallen behind. The vehicles crawled along a little bit ahead of him, with the seven-ton leading the way.

“Does it matter?” Smith called back.

“Fucking right it matters. If I get hit—”

The seven-ton lurched toward the stream; the side of the road closest to the water had sloughed off under its weight. I could see a marine inside the cab shout into a radio. Ulrich bounced around in the turret like a pinball, caught between the armor plating and a fifty-caliber machine gun. I couldn’t hear the thump of his body armor or when his shoulders took the impact; I couldn’t hear him screaming.

Everything slowed down. The ground moved past me, and I realized I’d started sprinting toward them. To my left twenty meters, Smith was doing the same—but more bodies around the tipping truck would only complicate things.

“Stay the fuck back,” I shouted.

Smith stopped. I looked back at the vehicle to see Ulrich disappear over the side. The driver’s door swung freely on its hinges, the vehicle’s cab empty.

“Get ready for mortars,” Prockop screamed while running up to the rear of the truck.

The feeling of falling through a trap made my balls crawl up my insides.

“What?” Smith said, followed by something unintelligible.

I wondered when the world would start exploding. Were mortar rounds already in the air? I scoped the opposite bank, the alfalfa fields, then the road ahead. It was empty. Just a dusty road, peppered with donkey shit and fields.

“We might get hit! Take cover!” Prockop said.

I dove headfirst into the nearby irrigation ditch. It was deep with grassy sides. I bounced off one of the walls, twisting through the air like a discarded marionette, and hit the bottom of the trench. The grass disguised many small pools, filled with brackish water, and small brambles hugging the soggy earth. I lay facedown for a few moments with nothing but the smell of damp ground and moldy grass.

“Fucking wonderful,” I said, stumbling to my feet.

My boots, cammie bottoms, and gear had all turned black.

“They must be using shit as fertilizer,” I said to no one.

The top of the trench was three feet above my head and the sides had bulbous knobs of earth. I followed a curve twenty meters around a grassy knoll until it dead-ended. I climbed up the side. After struggling with my sling, failing to level my rifle in front of me, I stopped trying to be tactical and stuck my head up like a groundhog. Behind me, the seven-ton listed perilously toward the tributary. The trucks by the MSR had all buttoned up—the marines were inside, and the turrets swiveled slowly to take in the landscape.

I stumbled from my perch. If I turned and worked my way back down the ditch, I might find Smith. More likely the trench would end, forcing me to break cover and search for Smith above ground. After a few tentative steps, I froze. I thought I heard someone calling my name.

“Big Head...where are you?”

Ulrich appeared at the earthen lip above me. If he would have stopped and carefully slid into the trench, I could have helped him. Ulrich didn’t stop though. Driven by Prockop’s scream, he tried to half-slide, half-climb into the trench and tumbled down in a heap. Ulrich got up slowly and surveyed his gear, now tinted black from the bracken water. We both looked like we’d been dipped, face down, in something putrid.

“No, don’t help me get up,” he said. “I’m fine. Thank you for asking if falling into this shit hole hurt.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. We both found a place to sit and smoked.

“How the fuck did you survive the fall out of the seven-ton?” I asked.

Ulrich blew out a large cloud of blue smoke.

“The side of the road gave out, and the truck started going, I mean really started going. For a second I was sure we were going to roll.” He paused to look at the glowing tip of his cigarette. “Man, it hurt to bounce around in the turret. I thought I was dead for sure. I looked over, and there was the captain. He kept telling me to jump before the truck rolled on us. I bounced off of him before I hit the ground. Then Huelette comes piling out of the cab with no fucking gear on, and the captain loses his mind. Then we got the fuck out of there.”

“He was in there with no gear on?” I asked.

“No shit,” Ulrich said. “I don’t get why the assault men don’t wear their gear, especially with those guys from Golf Company getting smoked and FOB Viking getting hit.”

“The Golf marines burned to death,” I said. “There isn’t anything to make us fireproof.”

Ulrich took a long drag.

“I heard them on the radio with Camp Hob about getting a wrecker out here,” Ulrich said.

Wreckers looked like semis with big tow cables and winches attached to the top and sides; they came with their own entourage of marines, equipped with radio headsets and armed to the teeth. Things were about to get crowded. I glanced down at my watch to see its face read “0830.” The day and the operation were off to a bad start.

“Why was Prockop screaming about mortars?” Ulrich asked.

“People are on edge. The drone saw a squad’s worth of armed men mobilize when we were out here a few days ago,” I said. “If they have any of the smaller mortar systems, it would be really easy to walk rounds on target, especially if they have spotters and cell phones.”

“Do you think he was serious about the incoming, or was he putting on a show for the captain?”

“You’re a lot smarter than you play with other people. Aren’t you, little Chamorro?”Ulrich laughed, his smile creasing his face.

“Anyway,” he said. “Before I got sent to look for you, I was told we’re supposed to sit tight until the wrecker comes.”

I climbed back up the side of the trench to peek out over the grassy fields. Nothing had changed, except for a slight morning breeze making the grass ripple and wave like an ocean; I wondered where the sharks were.

“Weird how no one over the rank of E-3 is out on the line right now,” I said. “That’s how it goes, isn’t it? The NCOs and officers sit in the vics while we squat our asses in the bush.”

Ulrich leaned his head back against the earth and closed his eyes, not commenting on the rift between noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and the rest of the enlisted. After shifting his rifle to lie comfortably across his body, he crossed his legs in front of him. He looked like he was back home in a recliner. I hoped he didn’t have a concussion. If he did, there wasn’t much I could do for him. The corpsmen were buttoned up in armored vehicles, being too valuable to expose. If steel rained from the sky and exploded in our midst, then the corpsmen would come out to try to put the pieces back together, but not before. Ulrich tried to say something else, but his words slurred together. The sun cooked the landscape. 

I sat down facing Ulrich. Exhaustion crept in. My head nodded heavily, but I caught myself. “You’ve got this,” I said to myself. “You’ve got this.”

I lit a smoke.

A bleary television showed soldiers on patrol. I sat at the bar by myself, back home, using a fake ID to get into a local dive.

“Barkeep!” I hollered. “Can I get another one?”

A gritty blackness swirled around the edges of everything, as if reality barely kept from unraveling. The bartender appeared in front of me.

“What’ll it be, Devil Dog?” he asked.

“Give me a Guinness, and turn the TV off,” I said. “I’m sick of the war.”

On the blank TV screen, my reflection faced me in full gear: body armor, Kevlar helmet, CamelBak, tourniquet zip-tied to my shoulder, and about three hundred rounds loaded into magazines and strapped to my stomach, making it hard to belly up to the bar.

“Where is everyone?” I asked.

“At the mall,” said a voice to my right.

I turned to find my old friend Adam sitting there in a tie-dyed shirt with a skeleton Rastafarian riding a mushroom through space, big dreadlocks trailing behind its skull. Adam and I had been pot-smoking buddies in high school but parted ways when he moved off to a college town to party and I joined the military. Adam’s rusty hair was thin, already balding in his early twenties. That, combined with his perpetually red face, made him look like a six-foot-tall Sesame Street character.

I realized I was back at The Den in Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown. The place hadn’t changed: same stains on the floor, same dusty signs on the walls, same hillbilly video games in the back where you shot deer with a plastic rifle, and same sleazy dive-bar feel, with its hot dogs and popcorn and condoms in the bathroom trash can. The place smelled foul and was sweltering.

“What the fuck is that smell?” I asked.

“Shit, it smells like—” Adam said.

From the back of the bar, I heard a door slam shut. The bartender walked out of the women’s bathroom with a mop in one hand.

“Goddamn women keep throwing their tampons in the toilet. Backed the whole thing up,” he said.

I squinted at him as he spoke. His face kept disappearing and reappearing, his voice coming from a long way off. I looked at Adam and started to ask him about the barkeep’s face, but the popcorn machine went crazy, popping like a roll of firecrackers. Adam didn’t seem concerned about the noise and kept peering into his beer. I felt something on my left, and turned to find the three guys from Golf sitting at the bar, one of them still burning. Their faces were charred and cracked, like chicken left on the grill too long.

“Did it hurt?” I asked.

The one closest to me worked his jaw, but the only thing that came out sounded like a car tire hissing as it lost pressure. I stared at him for a few seconds while a thick black liquid oozed out of his cheek and down his neck. His right eye couldn’t open, but the left was mostly intact, milky like an old dog’s. The other two were worse. I could tell one had been the turret gunner by the sharp bend in his spine that made sitting at the bar awkward, and the other marine looked like a wax figurine set too close to a radiator.

“These boys are fucked up like soup sandwiches,” I said, turning to find Adam in the middle of throwing down U.S. money, scrawled with Arabic, on the table.

“No one cares about that,” Adam said. “I’m heading to the mall. You’re welcome to come.” He wouldn’t look at me as he said it.

I turned to the dead men beside me, wreathed in their own smoldering.

“It was good seeing you guys. Sorry you didn’t make it. Fuckin’ . . . tough break.” 

My thoughts were hard to finish, though I didn’t remember drinking too much. My legs didn’t want to work as I stood and grabbed my rifle, the floor sticky as fresh pitch. I staggered outside. When I walked out the door, desolation met me—Iraq had come home.

Everything had been shot up: the strip of chain stores to our left looked like downtown Fallujah after a long day of marines thumping away on their fifties; the Denny’s in front of us was on fire, and the road to our right looked nearly impassable, with torn-open, smoking vehicles. We made our way to Adam’s car, which turned out to be a Humvee. He wanted me to drive.

“Some things never change.”

I tried to keep my voice cheerful, but it cracked. Bodies hung from the streetlight in the parking lot, swinging like macabre ornaments.

“Did we lose the war?” I asked. “And where are the keys?”

“The war came home,” Adam said. “And there aren’t any keys, it’s a Humvee.”

A goat herder and his flock blocked our Humvee’s path for a moment as we rolled out of the parking lot. I turned toward the mall. The road didn’t have any shoulders, instead dropping off into a blackness that had long, stiff reeds growing up toward the sky.

“Watch out!” Adam screamed.

Ten meters ahead was the carcass of a black-and-white splotched dairy cow, lumpy and deformed, belly stitched up. I slammed on the brakes, then realized we were in weapons platoon’s second vehicle; the alignment listed badly to the right, making the vehicle start to spin whenever the brakes locked up on mud. The Humvee was sideways when we reached the animal-borne IED. The last thing I saw before the vehicle slid over it was three 155-millimeter artillery rounds packed inside, ready to burst out through the sutures. The blast tore the back half of the Humvee off and sent us spinning through the air. Everything was on fire by the time we hit the ground, hanging upside down by our safety belts. Adam’s face started to melt, his lips pulling back from his skull.

“It’s just a dream,” I screamed, as mortars started to rain down around us, making their telltale “crump, crump” sound as they sent shrapnel out in supersonic clouds.

The flames engulfed me, licking my face and hands. I flailed wildly but couldn’t break free from the comm gear pinning me against the door.

I woke from my sleep with the feeling of steel wool in my mouth, lips tight and cracked. Ulrich was still in the Land of Nod. Every few seconds he would make a high-pitched sound in his throat, and his face muscles would twitch.

“Where are you guys?” The voice belonged to Decker.

“Down here,” I said.

Decker did a startled bunny hop and swung his rifle around on me.

“You two are really hidden down there,” Decker said. “I’m out checking on everyone. The wrecker is fifteen minutes out. Let me know if you need anything.”

“It would be easier to let you know if we had a radio,” I replied.

“You don’t have a radio?” Decker said. “I’ll tell Prockop.”

The trench’s humidity rose, and a putrid smell festered. Ulrich and I were both anxious to crawl out and get the sweep moving. Just as the deep rumble of the wrecker’s diesel engine reached us, Huelette stumbled through the grass to our position.

“You guys don’t have a radio?” Huelette asked as he took off his Kevlar helmet.

“Do you think it’s a good idea to keep taking your PPE off?” I asked, referring to our personal protection equipment: the body armor, gloves, helmet, and ballistic glasses marines wore outside of the wire.

“Yes, I do,” Huelette said. “Because I don’t want to wear it.”

“God you and Smith are stupid,” Ulrich said. “Just wear the fucking gear! Didn’t Smith get his wages garnished for not wearing his helmet on post at the Iraqi police station?”

The rumble of diesel engines got closer, with a large escort from the sounds of it. I peeked over the trench to see the wrecker—a vehicle the same length and size as a fire truck, with a crane and several winches—along with Explosive Ordinance Disposals (EODs), three extended-size MRAPs, and a half-dozen Humvees on the MSR. Ulrich and Huelette bitched about everything from the heat to girls back home as we watched the wrecker maneuver into position behind the leaning seven-ton. The wrecking crew dismounted and attached winches to the back of the listing vehicle. The seven-ton shuddered, and it seemed like the vehicle might flip into the river. The wrecker’s driver gunned it, managing to yank the seven-ton to safety.

As an MRAP moved up to resume the sweep, radio traffic told the line to punch out and patrol along the road while the combat engineers swept the ground with their metal detectors—the idea was that the MRAP’s V-shaped, armored hull would absorb the blast from any pressure-plate IEDs buried in the road. After fifteen minutes of slowly sweeping, the engineers found a small cache of a few mortars, flares, and grenades near an intersection with one of the smaller roads that made up the fretwork of brown stripes on the fields.

“It doesn’t feel right. We need to keep pushing,” the captain said. 

I led the column of marines along the dirt road, until one of the squat buildings in the distance was right in front of me. The sun had reached its zenith and slanted toward the west, making the trees cast long shadows against the building. I wiped sweat from my face as I leaned against it, waiting for the rest of the column of marines to gather around me. Word had been passed that we’d rally by the stucco barn, and then a small contingent of marines would push up with the engineers to sweep the coordinates that intelligence had said would have a big payoff. Crawford, the section leader for Assault, pushed up with the engineers and a few other marines. They were gone quite a while before anyone thought that maybe they’d actually found something. When the staff NCOs in EOD started the long walk from their vehicles on the MSR, we knew it was no-shit big.

“What’d they find?” Prockop called to the EOD guys as they walked up the trail to us.

“A white whale,” a gunnery sergeant answered.

“Then who’s Ahab?” one of the assault men asked.

The EOD staff walked by, some not wearing body armor, some just in helmets, some with pistols, and others unarmed. They were a motley crew of upper-echelon staff NCOs. I shook my head at the sight of them, tromping down the back roads. The captain was the only officer involved in the operation, I realized, as I watched him sitting with his back to the building. He seemed content to let the staff NCOs take the lead, as he slowly rose and followed after them. That left the grunts hanging around, with their rifles leaned up against the building. Some of us took a few candid pictures of a scene repeated on many battlegrounds across the world: marines rallied near an objective, waiting for something to happen. I chain-smoked, as did everyone else who smoked. The air was hot and tense. We wanted to be out of there and back in the air-conditioning of the FOB. We’d spent the entire day on a mile-long stretch of road, and that wasn’t strategically sound. Insurgent activity in Saqlawiyah may have not been “hot,” but it existed; a big cache made that undeniable.

“What did they find, Hawkins?” I asked. He leaned against the barn, listening to the old Vietnam War–era radio with a big whip antenna he’d been assigned to lug around.

“You won’t believe me if I tell you,” Hawkins said.

“Why don’t you try me?” I said.

“About two-dozen eighty-millimeter mortars, some mortar tubes, a bunch of fifty-five-millimeter recoilless rifle rounds, Soviet shoulder-fired armor-piercing rockets, a bunch of rifle rounds, smaller mortar rounds, and artillery rounds,” Hawkins said.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Ulrich said. “Armor-piercing shoulder-fired rockets? I bet they’d go right through the armor on our Humvees.”

“The captain is on his way back with pictures,” Hawkins said.

Sure enough, the captain brought back a camera full of pictures of things that would turn our day to shit in a hurry. He said the shoulder-fired rockets were low-tech, like a crazed Boy Scout project. I couldn’t imagine getting hit with a rocket; that was unheard of. IEDs and snipers were one thing, but armor-piercing rockets were another. A fifty-five-millimeter recoilless rifle could be set up in a few minutes across from the FOB to shoot exploding shells into marines’ rooms, causing massive casualties. Time passed, and slowly the EOD staff trickled back, then the grunts, followed by the engineers. I stood out on the dirt road, waiting for the unexploded ordinance to be detonated. I’d never been around a big explosion full of munitions before, but the captain had.

“Get your ass off the road,” the captain said. “You’re going to get yourself killed standing out there like that.”

I sheepishly moved behind the barn as Hawkins counted down to zero, holding the radio’s receiver to his ear.

“Do you think it’ll be lou—” Ulrich was cut off by the blast.

A sound like a great oak snapping filled our bodies, and the ground trembled while a black geyser of dirt shot thirty stories into the sky. Shrapnel whizzed over the barn and through brush, a few pieces managing to arc just right, so that they gently landed on the helmets and shoulders of marines smoking and looking uneasy. I heard the shrill bleating of goats coming from somewhere across the river; they might have just been spooked, or they may have taken shrapnel. I couldn’t tell.

“That would have perforated your face if you’d been standing out there like an idiot,” Prockop said.

I took point back to the MSR with a small herd of EOD staff following behind; I’d offered up the polite wisdom that maybe they should fall back to the middle of the column, because many of them barely wore body armor and didn’t have weapons. They all nodded in agreement.

I passed out as soon as I got in the Humvee. When I woke, we were back at the FOB. Marines kept asking me what we’d found and where; what we’d done. A squad leader from another platoon got excited as he spoke.

“You guys are helping win the war on terror,” he said. “You really are!”

I didn’t know what to say. I still smelled like shit from the ditch I’d dove into. I was tired. I didn’t feel like I’d helped win anything. When I got up to my room, rats scurried from under the racks to disappear through a hole in the wall. I thought about setting some traps, but I didn’t want to start a war in my room. I had the rest of Iraq for that.

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a machine gunner in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veteran Writing Workshop with Colorado Humanities.