It’s 2330 in Iraq and the radios come to life with a beep.
“Chaos X-ray this is Blue Six over.” The pitch of the platoon leader’s voice is elevated and there is a twinge of urgency that let me know this isn’t just a late night radio check. The sector is usually quiet at this hour as I sit in the Charlie company TOC, the tactical operations center, the little office on the base that houses radios and maps and is the company’s headquarters. I am Chaos X-ray, the call sign designating the company radio operator, a dispatcher. I am a fobbit on this night in late September, a less-than soldier that stays on the FOB, the Forward Operating Base, who doesn’t leave the wire, but stays in, manning the radios on the night shift while other men from my company are patrolling a ten-mile stretch of Iraq’s Highway 1 near Samarra, looking for insurgents planting bombs that will grow into clouds of shrapnel and death on the side of the highway when detonated on us or on logistical convoys in the morning.
“This is Chaos X-ray, over,” I reply.
“Roger X-ray, we just found the bodies of four locals dumped on the side of the road, they’ve been bound and shot execution style, over.”
My first response to calls like this is to panic a little bit. I am mostly impotent in the situation, all I can do is radio the battalion X-ray and relay the information given me, and while my instinct is to do more, there is nothing more I can do.
“Roger,” I reply, “tell me your location and I’ll alert higher, over.”
He gives me the coordinates to where they are, and as I’m preparing to call battalion, Blue six comes back on the radio.
“X-ray, Blue six, tell them to hurry, we’ve just discovered that two of the men are still breathing, over.”
“Oh, shit. Roger, over.”
“Power X-ray this is Chaos X-ray,” I say into the radio that is set up to talk to the battalion headquarters.
“Chaos X-ray this is Power X-ray.”
“My blue element on patrol has come across four local men dumped on the side of the road, bound and shot, but two are still alive and need emergency medical assistance, over.”
“Uhhh, roger, over,” they respond, and I start waiting to hear the details of what’s being done. A minute later Blue six calls me again.
“Chaos X-ray this is Blue six, we just discovered a letter with the bodies, our interpreter read it and it says that these men were working to help the American forces and were killed to make an example of them. Tell Power to fucking hurry, these guys aren’t doing well at all, they’re barely breathing at this point and I don’t know how much longer they’re going to make it without serious medical attention.”
“Roger, I’ll relay that information up, over” I say, and I do, and they say “Roger, over” back, and I waited. And kept waiting.
Five minutes later, growing impatient, Blue six calls back asking for the status on the medevac, the medical evacuation.
“I haven’t heard anything back from them, I’ll call again and ask, over.”
“Power X-ray, chaos X-ray, what’s the status on that medevac, over”
“Chaos X-ray this is Power X-ray, we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to handle the situation, over.”
I relay this to Blue six, and he blows up.
“What the fuck! Tell them to hurry the fuck up! These men were shot for helping us, this shit is serious! They’re going to fucking die if we don’t help them, what the fuck is their problem!? We need a fucking medevac now! There’s nothing to figure out, send a medevac!”
I’m just a small fry in the battalion power structure, a staff sergeant, a company dispatch, and the decision makers are all officers in the battalion headquarters. There’s not much I can do, sitting in my little shipping container modified into an office—it’s been run for electricity, a couple of windows and a door installed, an industrial florescent light fixture mounted to the ceiling, maps of sector and a large dry-erase board hung on the wall. I'm sitting in air conditioning at a plastic folding table set up with radios on it. All I can do is sit there in my little box and relay Blue six’s sense of urgency, minus the cursing, since I am the small fry. Power X-ray is going to take whatever action at whatever speed they deem fit, and from what I can tell, they are not very impressed by the situation.
Now, I’m writing this 11 years after it happened, and to be honest, I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember how it resolved. I remember Blue six coming in at the end of his patrol shift griping—no, not griping; expressing profound frustration, anger, and sadness—that it took so long. Twenty five minutes? Thirty? It was something like that.
Did the two men survive? I don’t know. We didn’t get details on things like that. We did our jobs in the moment and the next day we did what the next day demanded of us. We were the first responders—or rather, the men on patrol were the first responders and I was just a dispatcher, once removed. We responded, but then someone else took over.
I was never informed of where the Iraqi men were taken, what happened to them, how their families were informed, whether the two men that were still alive when Blue six found them survived, what the surgeons went through when they were brought in, if they were even brought in somewhere. Word came in, I passed it up, waited for someone else to determine what was to be done, relayed information, and then went on with my daily responsibilities as though it never happened. As though I wasn’t involved in the lives and deaths of these two or four men.
Did they have children? Why had they chosen to work with us? Did they know it could cost them their lives? Did they know that working with American soldiers could lead to them lying on the side of the road with their hands bound and a bullet in their heads? Did they know that helping us could lead to being abducted from wherever they were, maybe sitting around after dinner with their family? Did they consider that at some point, because they chose to help us, it was likely that armed men would burst into their home, yelling, taking them by force, tying their hands, maybe—probably—assaulting, punching, kicking, spitting on them as the abductors threw them into a car or truck or van and drove them to a lonely spot of empty highway? Did they know that helping us could lead to being forced to their knees in the sand in the dark as other men with guns, men that spoke their language, called them traitors and held guns to their heads? Did they believe so strongly that we were on the side of righteousness that they were willing to experience the panic of the moments between being put on their knees and the moment the bullet—the bullet with their name on it—was shot from the executioners gun into their skull? Did they think we could protect them? Did they think they could hide their identity? Our interpreters always wore masks and used an alias with us to protect themselves, did these men do something like that but were found out anyway? Did someone snitch on them? Did someone they knew and trusted betray them?
And what came of their families? I don’t know how old the men were; I know that in Iraq families are usually large, and that extended families often live together or at least in close proximity. These men had brothers, cousins, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, grandparents and quite possibly children of their own, children who would grow up without a father now because the men who hated Americans chose to make an example of these four who had chosen to help us rather than their own countrymen or fellow Muslims.
What was the thought process behind their choice to help us? They had to have known that this end was a possibility. When I was on patrol I often encountered people that would tell us nothing, always saying “They will kill me if they find out I told you anything.” Before we even deployed, still at Fort Stewart, near Savannah, Georgia, the battalion commander called a formation and told us that we were going to a place where the enemy was real. He told us that the insurgents had recently killed the family of the Samarra police chief in his front yard, leaving him alive, as an example, to send a message: You help the Americans, you’re going to pay an enormous price.
These four men helped us anyway. Were they that courageous? Or just stupid? Should we laud them as heroes and martyrs to our cause? Or write them off as ignorant fools that deserved what they got for being so dumb? How many American lives did the information or help they gave us save? Was our cause worth the horror they experienced in their last hour? Was it worth the agony and grief of their families? Was it worth the pain and hardship of their children now growing up without fathers? Do we even know what our cause was? Truly? We found no weapons of mass destruction, the evidence that Saddam had anything to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is shaky and questionable at best, fabricated at worst, and our efforts to make the Middle East more safe, democratic, and free seem not only to have failed completely, but also to have birthed ISIS, an even more brutal and despotic group of Islamic extremists than those of al-Qaeda. I don’t know truly what our cause was, save for my personal cause to do my best to protect my men and to avoid causing any unnecessary pain for the Iraqi people. Personally, and you can think and believe whatever you want, I’m not trying to convince you of anything, I’m just telling you that for me personally the reasons that President George W. Bush gave to convince America that war with the people of Iraq was necessary and justified were not actually worth the pain, lives lost, bodies destroyed, families torn apart, and terror inflicted upon the people of the Middle East that have come as a result. I know that President Bush believed that the war would make us safer and more secure, but it is becoming more and more clear—to me, at least, and please feel free to continue to see it or think however you want—that the wars have not had that effect, and that they have instead destabilized the region and created a generation of youth who have only known war and loss and terror and trauma, and can only see us as the source of it, for we are the ones there on the ground with our tanks and armored trucks and planes dropping bombs and drones shooting hellfire missiles and infantrymen getting into firefights with their older cousins and neighbors and brothers. Violence begets violence and we have deployed tremendous violence upon the people of the Middle East since 2001.
But those four men, and countless others, believed in our cause, enough to put their lives on the line to help us. Enough to risk their children growing up without a father. Enough to inflict their families with the grief that their deaths would ultimately bring. Maybe they thought they wouldn’t be caught. Maybe they thought they could keep what they were doing hidden. Can you put yourself in their shoes? September 2005. The American army had been occupying their land for two and a half years, promising peace, support, help, and democracy, but so far we’d been almost totally unsuccessful. We’d build a school and the insurgents would blow it up. We’d try to repair a road or a park or whatever and the insurgents would attack the construction workers and demolish what had been done after the workers fled. Did the men help us because they believed in us? Or because they were sick of what the insurgents were doing? Are these questions turning your stomach? Will you hold them in your heart a little bit longer even though they are so difficult? The families of those four men—and the families of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of other men, women, and children of Iraq, and thousands of Americans—will be holding the pain of the death of their loved ones for the rest of their lives. The least we can do is look honestly at the questions their deaths raise, and let our stomachs turn and our hearts ache. Whatever their motives, they helped us, and they were executed on the side of a dark desert highway for it. Did their families blame them for the pain that came in the wake of their deaths? Or did they blame us? Or did they too have faith in us and instead blame the insurgents that put guns to heads and pulled triggers?
Would the families ever learn that two of them were still alive when Blue six and his men found them on the side of the road bleeding from gunshots to the head? Did they learn that there might have been a chance of surviving had Power’s night-shift command staff moved faster, or considered their lives important enough for a quick response? How much rage would they feel if they learned our leaders considered the lives of their loved ones to be so inconsequential? How much rage would you feel if it was your father or brother? And what can we do to make it right?
Can we try to understand the actions of ISIS as a demand for amends? As a sign that our actions in the Middle East for the last fifteen or thirty or seventy-five years have inflicted tremendous pain on countless innocent people, so much pain that their young men are standing up and fighting back with horrifying and deranged brutality in order to say “You have to stop treating our people this way!”? Can we begin to look honestly at what we as American, French, British, and other colonial powers have done in the world, and accept responsibility and try to make things right? And if not, what does that say about us?
Four men. Four human beings. With different skin color and language and holy book but still human, still with hearts, brains, intestines, families, friends, homes, and ancestors, just like you or me, shot in the head, bullets shattering skulls, spilling blood and brains on the sand, bodies crumpled, hands bound behind their backs, two of them still breathing, still holding on to life even after taking a bullet to the head, for us. For me and my men. For Blue six and Power X-ray. For George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Humans. Human. Just like us. On our side. Left for dead, by the insurgents, and again by Power X-ray, as Blue six and his men stood there with them, with their crumpled and bleeding bodies and spilt brains, for half an hour waiting for someone to come who could help. They believed in us. Was their faith misplaced? I don’t have an answer.
An hour later, Blue six walks into my TOC.
“I lost a lot of respect for Power tonight,” he says, shoulders slumped and spirit weary. “Those men were helping us and Power took thirty minutes to get a fucking ground ambulance on the scene to help them, they didn’t even send a helicopter, and we were only three miles south of the FOB. If Power cares so little about the people that help us, how can I believe they really give a fuck about me or my men?”
All these years later, I still have no answers. I have a few more
questions though. Requests, really: Before we start any more wars, can
we make amends for the damage and pain and death and destruction that we
have wrought? Can we, as a nation, summon the strength and courage to
listen to the people of the Middle East that have received so much
violence and pain from our hands, choices, and actions, from our bombs,
bullets, tanks, and apathy? And, can we listen to Ed Tick
and soul healers like him who have learned what veterans and victims of
combat actually need in order to feel whole, safe, and at home in their
bodies and in the world again after something as horrific and
profoundly life altering as combat? We need much more than jobs, we need
periods of healing, integration, sense-making, spiritual cleansing,
telling the stories, and more before we are ready to even think about
"going back to normal." Requiring veterans to go back to a pre-combat
normal is in itself a grave disservice. There is no going back to normal
after being in a war. The beauty is, though, when post-combat needs are met and healing is provided, we
can return to our people and life as more.