Authors: Derek B. Miller
Tags: #FIC030000, #FIC032000
It was only when they were almost upon him that he understood the sound as a wave of human voices, foreign and excited.
His shoe tied, he stood and looked back, unconvinced by either choice of staying or going. The choice was made for him as he deliberated. They poured in as a flood to a
. They were silhouetted by the bright light of the Iraqi sun, and in that moment they overtook him and drowned him. Hands gripped him, and he shielded his face as people started pulling him, surrounding him, and pushing him out into the city. They called and yelled in Arabic. His bag was pulled from his shoulder, and he was no longer sure of anything at all.
He shouted for them to wait, but his voice failed him for the second time in Samawah. There were too many people, and too much emotion. When his head struck something hard, he fell to the ground.
Benton did not pass out. He was, however, bloodied and incapacitated. Two men were holding him up. They smelled bad. Their shirts were made of cotton and were sweaty. He couldn't see their faces. There was blood in his eyes. It came from his head. He raised a hand to find the source. He was pulled into a building and then pushed into a chair. There was a voice.
Benton couldn't see who'd asked the question. The man was standing too close. The smell of all the people was overpowering. The sunlight was poking through the spaces around the man's face and through the shoulders of those around him.
âAmerican?' the man said.
âI'm British,' Benton said.
âBritish, for Christ's sake.'
âYes, yes. I can't breathe.'
The dark face in front of him yelled something in Arabic and then stood up, pushing the other people back. He shushed the people around him, bringing silence, order, and calm.
He handed Benton a cloth and a bottle of water.
âThank you,' Benton said.
âWho are you?'
âI'm Thomas Benton. I'm a journalist with the
I'm here to understand what's happened and to learn what you're all going to do next. I'm â¦ I'm hurt. I don't want to upset anyone or get anyone else hurt. Can we talk?'
There was mumbling and then Benton said, âDo you speak English?'
âYes, yes. Everyone speaks English. Everyone-everyone. You are not American? You are not here to help us?'
âNo. I'm a journalist.'
In the quiet and uninterrupted moment that followed, Benton was able to look around and see where he was.
He wasn't in a cave dwelling or an Iraqi torture chamber. He wasn't even in a boxy apartment with barred windows and a dubbed Western television set playing in the background. He was in a pharmacy â a pharmacy that stocked L'OrÃ©al hair products and Halls lozenges, and was having a twenty per centâoff sale on reading glasses if you used 1.50 magnification and didn't mind wearing orange.
The man who had been too close stood back and pulled a white plastic chair across the concrete floor. Sitting, he rubbed his face with a tissue and placed it in his jacket pocket.
âWhat is going to happen to Saddam?' the man said.
âI beg your pardon?' Benton said, wiping his own face with his red bandana.
âSaddam. We need to know what you are going to do with Saddam. What is our future?'
âI came here to ask you the same question.'
The man shook his head. No. This made no sense to him.
âYou have an army. Big army. You drive Saddam out of Kuwait. OK. Now what? You take Saddam away?'
âWell â¦ no.'
âThe international coalition was formed to restore Kuwait and secure the borders.'
âOK, OK, but the problem is Saddam. We fought a war with Iran, then Kuwait, then America. Always war because of Saddam. So â¦ now it's time to get rid of Saddam, yes?'
âIsn't that what you're doing?' Benton asked. He felt a cut on his head. âWhy did someone hit me?'
âNo, no. Sorry, your head hit the wall. People were very excited to get news. You are a journalist. So â¦ you have news.'
âNo. I'm here to get the news from you, and report it in Britain.'
âThey don't need the news. We need the news. Are you going to get rid of Saddam?'
âIt's our understanding,' Benton tried to explain, âthat you're having a revolution. That you're getting rid of Saddam. I'm here to understand your plans. You've already taken the city. There's a Shiite flag on the water tank. Are you being supported by Iran? Are you hopingâ'
Another man, wearing the white coat of a pharmacist, interjected. Benton didn't understand what he said, but the crowd started to disperse, and the man he'd been speaking with nodded, stood up from his chair, tapped the arms of a few people, and then walked out.
The pharmacist looked at Benton's wound. âI told them we were not being good hosts, that you need some help first, and that we can discuss this all over some food and tea. Clearly, you want to talk to us, and we want to talk to you. We should do it properly. Times are very delicate. Very delicate. I can tell you this, though: the answers to the questions you are asking don't exist yet. I was educated as a chemist. In chemistry, the answers are out there, waiting to be found. But in life, in politics, in war, the answers aren't there yet. Your whole profession has a very strange theory in the middle.'
âMy head hurts,' said Benton, not only feeling a throbbing in his head but starting to hear it, too.
âI'll get you some aspirin, unless you're allergic. The Republican Guard took most of it. We have a few left. I'd like to put a bandage on you, too.'
âYes. Fine. Thank you.'
The pharmacist shooed people out of the shop on his way to a small cabinet. He used a tiny key to unlock it, and removed a white plastic bottle.
âHow are you?' Benton asked.
âHow am I?' he said.
âYes. How are you?'
âWorried. Very, very worried. But thank you for asking.'
The pharmacist was pressing down on the childproof cap when he stopped and looked at Benton. They could both hear it. It was as if the air were being sucked from the room and pushed back in, quickly and repeatedly.
âWhat is that?' Benton asked.
Arwood had always liked helicopters. When he was a little boy, he'd make them out of Lego with his uncle, who would come over sometimes when his father was âout' and his mother was indisposed. It has always been one of his fondest and quietest memories from childhood.
When Arwood was ten, they moved on to models with glue and paint. Models worked for them as a shared activity, because it set them on a common task and didn't require much talk about why they were together instead of Arwood being with his parents. The less they talked, the more helicopters and other machines they would build. They liked to look up the specifications of the aircraft from a dated copy of
s World Air Forces
that Uncle Maxwell had bought at a library sale.
Now he was twenty-two years old, and from this distance it actually looked like a model. It was about the same size. He felt a thrill at first as the massive gunship floated over the ridge and approached the city. The Mi-24 was a primary component of Iraq's order of battle, and had been used to devastating effect only three years earlier in the war against Iran. It was a Soviet-built brute of a vehicle, with all the charmless industrial hostility that the Cold War could create. It had twin cockpits, one above and behind the other, both encased in glass. To the sides were two massive wings with a twenty-one-foot wingspan. At the front was a 12.7mm Gatling gun with a payload of some 1,500 rounds of ammunition. Under the wings were rocket launchers and mine-dispenser pods. And backing it up, at its six o'clock, was an AÃ©rospatiale Gazelle helicopter, built in France. Together they formed a hunter-killer team.
Just like his models.
However, the angle of attack proved to Arwood that, unlike in Iran or in his basement, this team was not going to be used for war. It was going to kill people â regular, everyday, soft people.
Even at the pinnacle of his earlier boredom, Arwood hadn't been more than a quarter mile away from the base, and had had a radio. Looking back across the worthless space he'd been defending, he could see Lieutenant Harvey Morgan running down the line, fastening his helmet the way most of the enlisted men didn't, because â in the complex language of gestural soldier-speak â it meant
m a rule-following pussy
rather than someone who chewed cigars and shot gooks and Nazis.
âLook alive, dimwits,' he shouted.
It did not take long, however, for everyone to realise that the Iraqis weren't heading toward them. The helicopters took their positions over the city. And then, with an experienced and pitiless hand, they opened fire on the hospital.
The Mi-24 launched two rockets from under its left wing with perfect military precision, blowing in the sides of the hospital, and killing the injured and infirm and those who had taken the Hippocratic oath to help them. Their work done, the air team moved out toward the train tracks, with the intention of killing each and every man, woman, and child where a makeshift refugee camp had been set up and maintained by those fleeing other towns.
Arwood radioed his commanding officer and asked, âWhat the fuck, lieutenant?'
Off to his right, an Apache helicopter was in the air and taking a defensive position over Checkpoint Zulu.
Arwood cocked and trained his weapon. There was nothing to point at except north.
Behind him, Arwood's platoon ran the short distance to his position â the deepest legal position into Iraq â and, once there, started shouting ideas.
âLet's take it out!' was the first big idea.
It was Corporal Ben Ford. He was from Tampa, Florida, looked like a bulldog, and was almost as refined. However, he was not always wrong. âCome on, man, let's waste the motherfuckers!'
Arwood took one last look down his sights to confirm that there was absolutely nothing whatsoever approaching the checkpoint, and then turned to see Ford appeal to the lieutenant, as though each of them were in the helicopter with a finger on the rocket launcher and the choice was theirs.
Whoever did have his finger on that trigger could have taken down the Mi-24 with a gentle squeeze. God only knows what that guy was thinking. The angels and devils must have been going nuts on his shoulders trying to separate their messages.
Arwood had heard that Iraqis and Iranians used to have helicopter dogfights. They were the only nations in history that did. It could be done. And how hard could it be? They hovered there like bottles on a cloud, waiting to be knocked down.
Lieutenant Harvey Morgan's West Point education was in full puff that evening, though. He did not order them to take out the Mi-24. He not only knew what his orders were, but somehow â against the philosophy, purpose, tradition, expectation, and standard operating procedures of the army â he even knew
. So the second big idea was to not take it out. Proof of the worthiness of this idea came from paperwork. He had loads of it. Arwood hated paperwork.
Morgan had a quote from the president. Arwood hated quotes from the president.
Morgan considered the words of the president definitive. Arwood considered the bullets blowing out the brains of children definitive.
Morgan considered the law to be the foundations of justice Arwood considered justice to be the foundations of the law.
Morgan considered Arwood's opinions to be irrelevant. So did Arwood; they did have that in common.
Morgan snapped the paper into shape, in a gesture smooth enough to demonstrate how much time he'd spent around the stuff.
A group of other guys gathered around. They wanted to hear this, too. One of them was an Arab-American soldier named Rob Husseini who'd been born in Maryland to Moroccan parents. He was twenty-three, and was the only one there who understood Arabic. The Arabic he understood best concerned food and events that take place in kitchens. The Arabic he understood least concerned law, justice, and war. The topics he understood least in any language were law, justice, and war.
While Rob didn't understand a great deal of what he heard from the refugees and POWs, he understood enough to make him the most miserable one there.
Morgan started reading aloud some of the official puff written by the State Department, which was boring until he reached this part: ââ¦ no prospect of US involvement in Iraq's internal conflict unless senior US political officials decide it threatens the coalition's military forces arrayed in defensive positions along a ceasefire line in Iraq south of the Euphrates River'.
âThat,' said Morgan, as though he had proved something, âwas the State Department. And those forces are us.'
Arwood lit a cigarette. âThose forces be we,' he said.