A true war story is never moral… If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever.
— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
“Would you do it? I mean, kiss Brad Pitt’s dick on national television for a hundred grand?”
I stare at a small figure a ways off as he bends to dig in the sand. Where the sky meets the horizon is nothing more than an endless sea of bleached earth; an old pumping station is all that haunts the landscape. It’s the only building we’ve seen for miles. The interior appears to have been looted several years ago, and old drapes snag on broken window shards. Someone finds a dusty lawn chair and kicks a hole through it, turning the building into a community “shitter.”
The man on the horizon continues to dig in the sand until something startles him. He stumbles backward, yelling a string of frantic curse words. I assume he unearthed a scorpion or some other insect that can kill you — just like anything can — when you’re living in Iraq. It’s not the worst way to go given the alternatives, an IED or suicide bomber.
The soldier in the distance composes himself, but it’s clear that whatever he’s uncovered has him spooked. Reaching into the hole, he hoists up his prize and chants “TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES!”
“So would you do it, Sergeant? On national… what the hell is he yelling?”
A few weeks earlier, my team spent an evening powering through all the Mad Max movies, laughing at the absurdity of Tina Turner in a post-apocalyptic Fight Club. Thunderdome is where all the matches take place, and Iraq bears an eerie resemblance to the movies’ desert landscapes.
“It’s from Thunderdome. The Mad Max movie with Tina Turner in it,” I tell the young solider who’s seemingly obsessed with whether I’d kiss Brad Pitt’s dick on TV for six figures. He’s confused by my answer, so I expand. “Before your time. Old movie with Mel Gibson in it.”
He nods, then kicks open his door and rushes out to meet his friend. I hear him mutter, “No fuckin’ way…”
The soldier who’d been digging is holding a human skull.
”So did you kill anyone?”
The posters bleed patriotism and the cheers are almost obnoxious as I exit airport security. One sign decorated in red, white, and blue reads “Our Hero.” I wonder if this is how all those vets who fought at Normandy felt when they stepped off the boat to cheering crowds in Times Square. A grin breaks across my face as I walk toward friends and family I haven’t seen in almost a year. My dominant hand is still sensitive from the break, so I rotate it a few times, then jam it in my pocket. I’ll hug everyone with the left hand, I figure.
But the grin is replaced by the solemn air of a disciplined soldier when I spot a camera and boom mic. The media decided to crash the party. My mom — or one of her friends—must have invited them.
“Sir! Sir! Can you tell us a little bit about your time in Afghanistan?”
One of the soldiers I’m with pats me on the back. “All yours, hero.”
The camera light blinds me and a microphone hovers inches away from my face. They ask about 9/11, the war effort, combat, and then the kicker:
“Did you take out any terrorists over there?”
The question catches me off guard and I stutter a few moments before asking, “Excuse me?” The reporter changes the subject and asks what I plan to do now that I’m home.
“I have to bury my best friend.” The reporter shifts her eyes to the floor as I begin to walk off. “Then maybe I’ll go to college.”
The Iraqi Desert, 2007
My helmet lies in the sand as I wipe sweat from my forehead. Now that the digging is complete, I loosen the notch on my entrenching tool and twist the shovel head to the side to create an L-shape. I turn it upside down and sit on the makeshift chair, peering into the hole. There’s a few more human skulls and ribcages.
Brad Pitt’s Dick is on the radio. A lieutenant is talking to Skull Boy. They’ve placed the bleached head on the front of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The whole day is looking more and more like Mad Max: The Road Warrior.
I finger the sand from my chair. Months ago I had cut the index and middle fingers off my gloves for better weapons accuracy, so nothing is standing between me and the bone when my fingers brush against it. I draw back, making wide sweeping gestures until a femur appears.
Brad Pitt’s Dick finishes on the radio and walks over to the lieutenant, gesturing toward me. The lieutenant nods, motioning to the other soldiers to head back to their vehicles and defensive positions. I stand and collapse my black entrenching tool, staring at the bones.
“Insurgents or Saddam.” Brad Pitt’s Dick pauses. We both peer into the void. “One of the other platoons questioned the locals. A couple claimed this is where some of Saddam’s regime made people disappear.” He fumbles in his pocket, continues to stare into the abyss. “Others say the insurgents use it to dispose of local dissent. Probably a shitload of these poor bastards buried out here.” He lights a cigarette and breaths deep. “Fucking mass graveyard.”
We re-bury the bones and then get in a Humvee, leaving the doors open so that we might catch a breeze amid the wasteland of Thunderdome.
“How ‘bout for a million?”
“Christ!” the driver exclaims. “You’re still on kissing Brad Pitt’s dick?” There’s a beat before he continues. “You know damn well everyone would do it for under ten grand cause you can buy toothpaste and $500 in mouthwash and still have plenty left over. Plus it’s Brad Pitt!” The driver turns less graciously than intended, keeping him more or less locked in place. “Wait… are we talking Legends of the Fall Brad Pitt or Interview with the Vampire Brad Pitt?”
The two soldiers decide everyone would kiss Legends of the Fall Brad Pitt, and for just $500, because you’d become known as the guy who kissed Brad Pitt’s dick. Their logic was that this would increase their own stock, since “bitches love Brad Pitt.”
The issue now settled, we sit in silence for minutes, or hours. Then the radio squawks to life. The voice on the other end says, “This is boring. Let’s toilet paper the other Bradley.”
Two soldiers toilet paper the Bradley, running and laughing like school children playing “Ring Around the Rosie.” This mission is a wash. The High Value Targets are long gone and all we’re getting is tan. Amused, I snap a photo of the toilet papered Bradley and return to the Humvee.
Brad Pitt’s Dick joins me. He opens up an MRE — Meal, Ready-to-Eat. “Country Captain mother fuckin’ Chicken… you gotta be kidding me.” I’m familiar; it tastes like canned dog food.
I remove the magazine from my M4 and clean some bullets as he eats.
“Hey, Sarge?” Bits of Country Captain Chicken spill out his mouth. I can’t believe he’s actually eating the meal. “This is your second tour, yeah? What happened on your first one?”
I eye him as I hold up a bullet, blowing on the warm brass and rubbing it against my sleeve.
This is the second time in just a few weeks that I’ve heard someone gasping for breath. It’s odd. There’s this helpless gurgling sound that haunts you. A month earlier, O’Neil got shot through the sides of his body armor and bled out. When I think about that day, I always remember the stretcher racing past — that, and the drops of blood swallowed by the greedy earth.
And now, it’s some 15-year-old Afghan kid with shrapnel in his chest and a collapsed lung. A medic repeats: You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay, while preparing to jam a large bore needle in his chest to relieve the pressure.
I keep running, but the kid’s wide eyes have never stopped following me.
Compared to everyone else on base I look like I’m doing the walk of shame. I’m in black shorts, an undershirt, and body armor. I’d been reading Stephen King’s The Stand on my cot when my window exploded and knocked me to the floor. That’s when the screaming began: we were “under attack.” There’s no time to get dressed when everything around you is exploding.
Turns out a local Afghan worker sold information to the enemy about fortified positions on our base. My orders were to round up the rest of the Afghan civilians and get them somewhere safe. A fellow friend and Intel soldier, Steve, joined me as we moved them to our ramshackle dining room/kitchen, which had somewhat-fortified walls.
That’s the last thing I remember before everything went black.
When I awoke, a large Afghan man with wild eyes pointed at me furiously. His gestures frantic, I waved him off, placing my other hand on the wall to steady myself. Small bits of glass and shrapnel peppered my forearms. Not sure what was going on, I wiped at them absentmindedly, only stopping once my palms were red with blood.
The buzzing siren in my ears made everything feel like I was underwater. The Afghan man gestured to a door that stood broken off its hinges. Stumbling a few feet forward I walked through the opening and saw tables and chairs overturned while a streak of smeared blood drew my eyes to the corner. Steve rocked back and forth while he held his elbow. His skin clammy and white, I noticed beads of sweat forming on his brow. It couldn’t have been over 50 degrees.
“Let me see?” Steve shook his head, so I pressed again. “Let me see?”
He let go of his arm and I cut away his blood-soaked sleeve, searching for the wound. At the base of his tricep, loose muscle tissue hung while blood poured out of a large hole. It almost looked like a can of pop had exploded in his upper-arm muscles.
“I gotta move you or we’re gonna get blown up again.” Steve nodded, and I stuck my head under the armpit of his good arm as we struggled to stand. Both of us began to limp along until another solider rushed into the room to help.
“Stay with him and keep patching him up,” I told the solider.
I ran out the back of the building to grab medics from triage for Steve. All my training screamed that he was slipping into shock. But when I rounded the corner, I ran into a brick wall that’d been erected just days earlier.
I cursed long and loud, pounding on the wall and hoping someone would hear me. After a minute of wailing, I began to run back as fast as I could — but not before another 107mm rocket sent me sprawling to the ground. I scrambled to my feet and burst through the back door where I found Steve, now ghost white and asking for water.
“THEY BLOCKED ACCESS TO TRIAGE! WHERE THE HELL DO WE GO?” I screamed.
Still In the Desert, 2007
The Humvee driver, now a member of my audience, interrupts. “Well you’re in Iraq now, so how’d you two make it out?”
“I stayed to patch up Steve because I was too scared to run out again. Told the other guy it was his turn to get blown up.” This elicits snickers from the men in the truck. “Other guy came back with the medics. I guess he was the real hero, cause while the Air Force lit up the enemy, Steve got MEDEVAC’ed to a trauma hospital. End of story.”
Brad Pitt’s Dick nods then scrunches his face. “What happened to you though? Can’t be the end of the story.”
I look out the window and stare at the endless sand. It reminds me of the hospital in Kandahar where they cast my shattered wrist. It still aches when it’s cold. The sand and the memory haunt me, because I know what happens next. I get replaced by my best friend, Kyle, and my unit goes home.
He gets killed a week later.
The Humvee goes quiet. Only the sporadic beeps of the radio and small gusts of wind punctuate the air until one of them finds the courage to speak.
“You ever talk about Kyle? Back home?”
“Sometimes.” Outside, I can see the lieutenant making a circular motion with his finger, indicating it’s time to leave. “But most people don’t want to know about the friends you lost who stay locked inside your tortured heart. Instead, they want to know about the exploits. The war. Whether they hate the military or love it, they’ll all ask the same damn question: did you kill anyone?”
The driver nods, closes his door, and cranks the engine to life. “So what do you tell them?”
I close my door and move a grenade off the floor into a weapons canister. “I tell them stories of my exploits, stupidity, failures, and false bravery while the memories of the ones I’ve lost fade into the sand.” There’s a long pause before I add, “And you will, too.”
A few weeks later these men will lose Sergeant First Class Buchan. But for now, Brad Pitt’s Dick has to ask: “Why?”
Our vehicle pulls back onto the highway while we scan for enemy combatants and pray we make it one more day in Iraq. Then I answer him.
“Because that’s what they want to hear…”