The first mortar round ought to act as a wake-up call. An ancient 82 mm HE shell skips over the blast walls at six a.m., smacks the middle of the outpost, and shreds three MRAP tires. Almost immediately, it’s followed by a second round, a dud, which manages to lodge itself into the roof over your head—a message you can’t help but take personally. Before EOD can dispose of it, you stare at the unexploded ordinance, at the ignition cartridge and fins comprising the tail, and wonder how to pull the projectile body out of the concrete without triggering the fuse. When the disposal techs catch a ride out with the mail run, the supply sergeant leaves you a care package that you ignore for two whole hours before opening. Inside, another bomb waiting to go off: ten pairs of socks, each nestled in a plastic sandwich baggie and ranger rolled to conceal a fifty-milliliter airplane bottle of booze. Woodford bourbon and WhistlePig rye. Bombay gin. Jameson. The declaration form taped to the front lists only “necessities,” while the note tucked under the flap reads, “Surprise!”
Bottles may not be mortars, but you lick your lips and blink. You know an ethical dilemma when you see one.
Last month, you gave Sergeant Paskey an Article 15 for slamming Listerine. A week ago, after overhearing Timmons discussing how to make prison hooch with the other joes in Herrera’s squad, you ordered the first sergeant to cancel deliveries of white bread and fresh fruit. Complacency has been your constant enemy. Hypervigilance, your watchword. Yet despite customs restrictions, here they are:
Ten sweet little buzzes.
One great big bender.
From across the hall, you overhear an orderly call for the company commander. What now? you think. The folding chair is jammed under your doorknob, the bottles lined up along the edge of your campaign desk. You squat down and study how the sunlight shines through the glass and illuminates the liquor, enthralled by jewel-like colors left in the dust on your table. Amber, emerald, sapphire. Someone knocks.
Situation report: Second Platoon is out investigating the point of origin, trying to determine who might be targeting the outpost. Guidance has been requested, so you focus their intelligence gathering by posing a series of questions. Are there any signs of digging? Prepped position or hip shoot? How likely are they to return? Were they careless enough to leave any equipment behind or stash any rounds in the canals? What do the locals have to say about it—were there any warnings? Intimidations? Lieutenant Travers, the patrol leader, can’t talk to you directly because his radio can’t range; he has to relay reports through his driver, using an amplifier installed in the truck. You track their progress in the command post, sliding your finger across the acetated map that’s tacked to the wall.
The patrol could take hours. You stress caution, exercise patience.
Nevertheless, you are a bundle of nervous energy in search of an outlet. When you climb to the machine gun nest atop the outpost building, you inspect the cleanliness and alignment of the counterbattery radar, the moorings on the OE-254 antenna, the traverse and elevation on the .50 cal. machine gun. You scribble over range cards. You drill the sentries about their general orders. You suit up in your body armor and march zigzags between battle stations. First the pit, then the forward observation post, then the guard shack, Tower 1, and then on to Tower 2. In the midafternoon heat, you find Specialist Johanneson stripped down to his T-shirt under his OTV with his ass glued to a wooden ammo crate as though he’d been drugged into a stupor.
“Anything suspicious?” you ask.
He yawns and nods toward the palm groves. Oil evaporates off the fronds. A mirage: the horizon trembles and shimmers. You scan in every direction, unable to tell which way the war is coming from. With binoculars, you glass over Dawud’s farm two hundred meters to the north and spot the same flock of twelve sheep you always see—running in circles around their pen, grazing for grass where no grass grows, led by a ram with elephantiasis so bad that it can’t help dragging its testicles along the ground. You can’t stop watching. How, you wonder, does Dawud tolerate being so close to so much pain?
When the handheld squelches, you punch the transmitter and yell, “Go.” The RTO’s transmission comes back broken and unreadable.
Three months your company has occupied this outpost, situated deep in what battalion and brigade like to call “Injun Country.” Ninety-five days, or nearly twenty-three hundred hours, almost a hundred and fifty thousand minutes if you’re counting. Which you are. A long time—living in the enemy’s backyard, with the greater part of a year left to go. You took an old, abandoned meatpacking facility (a stockyard, a warehouse, an office building) and turned it into a fortress on forty acres, walled it in with rings of concrete T-barriers, twelve feet high. You burned brush and razed new fields of fire with a bulldozer. You installed surveillance cameras, then broadcast the news over a set of loudspeakers: A new citadel! But what you have, in actuality, is little more than a way station, accompanied by a variety of strung out hysteria that only malaria patients and shamans could intuit. Three months in, and you can count on one hand the number of enemy incursions into your area of operations. Including this morning.
Three months with no showers, no internet, no phone. Heat-and-serve chili mac that tastes the same as the chicken and dumplings. Plastic water bottles that keep disintegrating in the sun. You get two to four hours of sleep a night. No weekends. No holidays. No vacations. You are completely secluded but never alone. Always on. In charge, but under strict scrutiny from superiors hovering over you with their expectations and subordinates clamoring from below with their burdens. Your company suffers three heat casualties a week. A hundred and forty-seven soldiers sharing one shack for two shitters, both full of fire ants and scorpions. The mercury on the thermometer spikes over one hundred and twenty degrees on a daily basis. Never have you felt such thirst.
All the way back to the CP, you trudge under the strain of your kit and weigh the alternatives. You should dispose of the care package as soon as possible, throw it in the junk pile. Do it at night so that nobody else can see.
The sergeant manning the radio gulps when you enter the room. Lieutenant Travers, he informs you, received a tip-off about the suspected mortar team. He’s taken Second Platoon in pursuit. You double-check their positions. You triple-check. Call him back? Let him go? Out here, there are no obvious choices, only dry holes connected by tunnels boring through space-time. There are three synchronized analog wall clocks mounted above the radio stack: one set to Fort Riley, one set to Zulu, and one for local. They go tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
If you could sleep, you’d lie down, take a nap. If you could spare a moment, a thought, you’d write a letter or read a book.
What you need is a drink. There’s a ledge outside the window to your quarters where you fantasize about setting up camp with a pitcher of gin and tonic. You envision a slim, elegant collins glass with ice and a slice of lime. If only you could sit, uninterrupted, without having to think about anyone or anything, you’d savor the botanicals in numb happiness until the sun went down. There’s a courtyard below. By the eucalyptus tree, thrushes sing. You like to listen, to watch the little birds hop branches, aware, as they must be, of the pit viper coiled at the fork between two limbs.
When your soldiers ask you why cases of Budweiser aren’t airdropped into the outpost, or why they never get to enjoy cases of French Bordeaux, you tell them that this is a different kind of war. You do your best to appear leaderly. You reframe their question: “If we are not the superior moral force, do we truly win?”
It’s a tough sell.
Sure, rules and attitudes around alcohol consumption in war zones used to be more permissive. Used to be more drunks, too. Grant, you recall, took up drinking when he was a captain posted to a tiny fort along the coast of the Oregon Territory. He was homesick, a lightweight who spent too much time in the tavern. Probably, his job depressed him. He bought horses and outfitted expeditions. He inventoried barrels of salt pork. He kept a stockade for the natives. You’ve thought about the historic parallels, and you tell yourself that you can’t go equating the two. The Chinook people, after all, didn’t have mortars; and if they had, you doubt it would’ve changed the outcome. That’s in the past.
This is the present. You stride over to the Motorola, seize it from its charger and call down to the front gate: “This is X-ray. Tell me what’s going on down there?”
Sheik al-Jabouri has returned. He wishes to speak about the latest outrages. In the suffocating, concrete hut that serves as your guard shack, he waves a lit Pine cigarette in your face and launches into a tirade. The injustice! Three of his best goats tangled in our wire. His brother’s date trees lost to coalition bombing. “How, for the restitution?” he says. “Who must I ask?” Why, he demands to know, pulling his beard until his eyes pop out of their sockets, have we not arrested Sheik al-Tamimi? Klawchi, he says. Trickster.
He points to his rival’s farmhouse on an unmarked aerial photo. “Very loyal Ba’athists.”
You have your doubts. To begin with, al-Jabouri likes to accuse people of being Ba’athist because he himself is a Ba’athist. Second, and more importantly, al-Tamimi sits on much of what used to be al-Jabouri’s land. He took it because al-Jabouri forfeited his claim when he fled to Syria during the Invasion. You sense al-Jabouri will stop at nothing to get it back. To get even. What startles you is not how sloppy his scheming comes across, but your willingness to indulge it every time he imposes one of his little visits on you.
Al-Jabouri puts on that face, his You-Know-How-Many-Men-I’ve-Killed? look. You return his gaze as if to say, So what? It’s not a stretch to imagine him as the culprit behind the mortar attack. In fact, if you piss him off, you should expect more.
You do it anyway. “See you tomorrow,” you say. “Peace be with you.”
“Ma’a salama,” he says, waving the back of his hand at you.
In a corner of the guard shack you spy tar paper. You’ve spotted it all over the outpost. In the halls, between supply rooms and offices converted into barracks, you’ve discovered several mice glued to its surface, frozen in their death struggle. Arranged around the corpses, the men have made a kind of diorama, an action scene using those little, green plastic GIs that come in packs. Army men: grunts crouched with their rifles, their bayonets poised. Flamethrowers and bazookas at the ready. You’ve heard the men talk about it, their plans, how they laugh and laugh. Except sometimes they don’t, and it’s their quiet that concerns you. When they don’t say a thing, that’s what you find sinister.
Another hour passes without word of any kind from Second Platoon. You march back into the CP and snatch the mic out of the radio operator’s hand. The spring in the push-to-talk button is so worn out it keeps sticking. “Say again last,” you shout at Travers. His reply is so sliced by static you might as well be speaking with the wind.
“Say again last.”
Without meaning to, you suffer distractions. You daydream. The more you try not to think about it, the more you wonder if other drinkers cut off from drinking feel like amputees, if they too feel the pull of some phantom limb. A tingling in the liver or the sensation of kindling catching spark at the base of the skull.
What you should do is poor the booze out. You should smash the bottles and toss the labels in the same burn barrel as the classified paperwork.
You can’t afford to take any more chances. Before Second Platoon can reestablish comms, you place the entire outpost on alert. All hands on deck. You double the guards, extend their shifts. You order the QRF to kit up, man their trucks, and anticipate the distress call. You radio First Platoon—on their way back from the FOB—and redirect them toward Lieutenant Travers for linkup, if need be, to escort Second Platoon safely back. You field complaints. Yes, you know how thin everyone is stretched. Yes, you’ve thought of that already. Yes, you want it now.
Just to be sure the perimeter is clear, you organize an ad hoc foot patrol from the ash and trash in your company headquarters—the clerk, both the FiSTers, the commo dick—and venture outside the blast walls for R & S—recon and surveillance. And although everyone’s quickly spent, you cloverleaf through the palm groves, sweeping the ground to flush out the enemy, sometimes pushing, sometimes dragging your men, most of whom are on the verge of heat exhaustion. You stumble over rutted furrows. You weave through pomegranate orchards. You cut through breaks in the low, mud walls separating one hovel from the next, while the air bakes your throat and the dust worms its way into your lungs. Smashed dates and sticky sap Velcro your feet to the jungle floor. Periodically, you halt and listen for unnatural silences. The snap of dry palm fronds, a rustling in the reeds.
Shh! You can hear it.
The hush of war parties on the move. Waiting along the route leading back to the outpost, waiting for Second Platoon, hunkered down in their overwatch positions. Or setting similar traps for the others, should you send reinforcements. You see it in your mind’s eye. A dyke, a crumbling embankment, and a culvert packed with homemade nitroglycerin. Caltrops fashioned from nails and bird spikes scattered along the pockmarked blacktop. A mortar team, humping the tube and base plate up a river trail toward the outpost. The RPK with its seventy-five-round drum, locked and loaded. The grenade for the RPG-7 prepped for the launcher. Who do they strike first? Who do you choose to rescue? Could there be, hiding in the cattails and marsh grass, an ambush counting your foot patrol past, holding their breath? Out there, in all the places you let your imagination run wild.
The injustice, your first sergeant is fond of pointing out, is that “you got so many youngsters” in the company—eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old—who can’t celebrate Miller Time but who’re old enough for this shit? “Exactly,” you say. He thinks you’re agreeing with him. You’re not.
Something else about Grant you remember: he battled his demons. For most of the war, he stayed sober. There were rumors, of course, about a whiskey barrel in his tent, reports concerning a three-day binge on a riverboat during a lull in the Vicksburg campaign. But when push came to shove, when it really counted—at Shiloh, in the Wilderness, outside Richmond—the man knew what he was about. He had courage and so, overcame. He persevered. Chewing cigars. Gnawing cucumbers. Drinking cup after cup of tepid, black coffee.
Without incident, the moon rises over the valley. Pipistrelles flitter across its surface, appearing to skim a lake. A water buffalo sleepwalks in the arid fallows opposite the outpost. From the minarets to the west, a muezzin’s call, deep and somber. The platoons return unscathed, lumbering back like gypsy caravans. They perform sensitive items checks, debriefs, recovery. The lieutenants count everybody’s fingers and toes while you deliberate.
While you argue with yourself—the right thing to do would be to consolidate, reorganize, and set out after al-Jabouri. Raid his home, round up his family. Bring every man over the age of fifteen and under the age of seventy back to the outpost for questioning, processing. There’s a dilapidated toolshed by the abattoir filled with rusty saw blades and meat hooks. There are cattle chutes where you can organize and segregate the prisoners with their hands tied, blindfolded, shivering in the ninety-degree midnight air.
You wrestle with that temptation.
Because maybe the part of you that’s holding back is the part you need to listen to. Maybe that’s what courage is. You go back and forth. Restraint or resolve? Hesitation or conviction? Which is the courage that counts? Sometimes, what feels right only feels right for a moment. Sometimes, there is no right thing to do. You do what you can. Or you do what feels like the rightest thing possible. And when it pulls you in directions you never would have expected, you try to be fluid. Liquid.
You lock yourself in your room. You try not to think about what’s coming. Fate. Justice. The mortar round with your name on it with a muzzle velocity of 225 meters per second hurtling through the pitch black. Whether you’ll be in the blast radius at the moment of impact. Outside your room, mice scurry through the halls, past plastic war monuments and the bodies of the dead. Outside the blast walls, a small, fox-like creature caught on infrared camera taunts the sentries in the watchtowers, darting through the wires for the trip flares. The tribes of the plains pray through the night. In your hand you hold a talisman, its seal unbroken. You cradle it gently in your palm, caressing it gently with a single finger the way you might stroke the feathers of a baby chick. Its golden light reflects back. Look how it shimmers on your skin.