Authors: Derek B. Miller
Tags: #FIC030000, #FIC032000
He stopped to hover ten metres off the deck â close enough for Benton to see the side of his helmet-covered head and his exposed chin.
The wind pressed down on them as from the wings of a dragon.
The pilot was taking aim at a tent village made of families driven from other homes by Saddam, or the rebellion, or Desert Storm itself.
History enveloped them like a sandstorm. It didn't matter which event was going to kill them, because now they were going to die. The reasons were immaterial.
The helicopter gunship opened up without remorse, or humanity, or mercy, or any heavenly virtue. Benton, from his angle, could see it all. He no longer had a camera. There was no documenting this. There was only submission. It was every war painting he had seen in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the suffering of the saints. It was the inferno. It was the hell that is war, only this was not war. This â it was declared from marble steps â was peace: a world restored, the state system reaffirmed, and the hard faith in law again proclaimed for the benefit of all, except the dying and the dead.
âCome on,' he said, still not knowing how much English the girl spoke.
She refused to give him her hand; she resisted any movement at all. Which was why he grabbed it, and pulled her up and started running with her.
It was not a sprint. Neither of them was up to it. He felt as though his legs were dragging through a low surf, with the water pulling at his insteps, as in a nightmare. He gripped her hand too tightly â he could feel that, even then â because her delicate fingers were crushed together in his closed palm.
There was an American flag ahead. To reach it, they ran over the train tracks and down the slight hill, scurrying like field mice from an owl. As they advanced toward the American lines, Benton saw a lone soldier in US fatigues sprinting toward him. He couldn't be sure from this distance, but it looked like Arwood.
Benton had never seen Arwood run. He had, in fact, never seen Arwood's legs, which had been hidden behind the sandbags. And yet his personality came through his body's movements. He ran in a straight line directly toward Benton and the girl. He had no rifle. What he had was purpose.
To Benton's left was the helicopter. The smaller French Gazelle was nowhere to be seen. Past the hovering and murdering helicopter were the first buildings of the city, and the soldiers. They were coming. They flowed from the edge of a wall the way darkness runs like smoke from the edge of ruins at nightfall. They were jogging.
To Benton, it looked like they were late for something.
The girl was slower than him, even though she was younger. Fear can sap strength. He kept pulling her along, despite the soldiers coming ever closer. He ran toward Arwood as though this young man were pulling America behind him.
Arwood closed in on them, and once Benton and the girl reached him, he turned and kept running with them. For a few fleeting moments, Benton hoped that the Iraqi soldiers would ignore them and turn to richer targets, and that the three of them could make the American base without confrontation.
But those men did turn on them; those men who dressed like soldiers but acted like a gang or tribe were running an intercept course to keep the trio from reaching the American line.
âWhat are you doing here?' Benton shouted to Arwood over the gunfire, the helicopter rotors, and the voices. So many voices â fewer and fewer, and yet somehow louder because of it.
âI'm here to bring you back.'
âIt's what you do, man.'
After only another minute, Arwood, Benton, and the girl slowed to a jog before stopping entirely. They had been surrounded. They were thirty metres from the ceasefire line. At least fifty US soldiers had their weapons trained on the Iraqis at that distance, but the Iraqis weren't facing the Americans. They were facing Arwood, Benton, and the girl. The man who moved into the centre of the row, with a smile on his face, was the colonel.
The colonel, like every other Baathist, sported a thick black moustache. He was tanned, not only because of his race but because he'd been spending some time outside doing the killing himself. Benton figured that to be this highly ranked and yet on a foot patrol meant he was ambitious and ruthless.
And yet, those eyes. Like so many Arab men, his eyes were soft and brown like a doe's. They were clear and gentle. One could be lulled into a sense of safety by such eyes. Unfortunately for the world as a whole, this man's serenity was a product of his own inner acceptance of his actions; it was not an implied promise to act decently in the world itself.
When the entire complement of soldiers came to rest, Arwood whipped out his Beretta 9mm, chambered a round, and pointed it directly at the forehead of the colonel. He held the weapon like a gangland killer. With a developed diplomatic style that would not change for the rest of his life, he said, âApparently we didn't kill enough of you fuckin' douchebags during round one.'
The colonel smiled at Arwood. He smiled because he was no mere foot soldier facing the Americans. He smiled because he was a colonel, and he knew that the ceasefire was in place and the Americans had no intention of shooting the Iraqis unless they were fired on themselves. He understood the deeper structures at play, and that all of them were on his side.
âLooks like you're lost,' he said. âAnd yet you have found something that belongs to me.' He turned to look at the girl, who was still holding Benton's hand. Strangely, though, she did not look back at him. Instead, she was looking at Arwood as though he were an older brother or a close cousin â someone she could identify with and had learned to trust. And Arwood looked at her. Her body had straightened. She was on the balls of her feet, and she bounced gently.
Benton looked between her and Arwood, and he knew that a kind of promise had passed between them. Arwood saw her not as a foreigner, or an Arab, or a Shiite, or a family member of a rebellious tribe, but as a young girl, a girl in junior high school he might have known in Portland, Maine, or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or St. Louis, Missouri. She was a cute girl â a girl too young for him, obviously, but cute all the same â who might have smiled at him in the hallway while holding her maths books to her barely developed chest and then looked down quickly because she found him cute, too, but he was an upper-class man and so, later that day, she'd tell her friends about the guy she'd seen and had her first crush on. Whether or not any of this was true for her, Benton couldn't say. It was Arwood's mind â such as it was â that was easier to read. There was no denying, however, that these two young people somehow
each other. For that moment, they may have been the only people in all of Iraq who looked into each other's eyes across a divide and found themselves in the same place.
Arwood looked away from the girl and back to the colonel. How he had such a presence of mind to talk like this, Benton would never know. Clearly, even then, Arwood had what people would later call âauthority issues'.
âOh, you mean her? Naw, man. She's my cousin. She's an American. Cindy-Lou Who from Whoville. Wandered off after the movie was finished. Mum and Dad asked me to come and get her. Got to bring her home now. So get the fuck out of my way before I splatter your brains and follow the red-brick road all the way home.'
The other soldiers looked confused. Based on his experience in Iraq, Benton was reasonably sure that at least some of them understood enough English to follow what Arwood was saying, but his language was so vernacular there may have been no understanding his meaning. They didn't look as though they wanted this kind of trouble. Whatever else their nefarious plans for the day, facing down the sharp edge of Desert Storm was not on their to-do list. If Lieutenant Harvey Morgan hadn't called out at just that moment, there was a chance Arwood's gambit might have worked. The Iraqis might have let Arwood â being crazy â walk off with the girl in green. But he did intervene, and the Iraqis didn't let them go.
âStand down, private!' Morgan yelled. He was walking briskly toward their position. Behind him, like a phalanx, was the second cavalry, and they were ready to pounce. If Morgan had simply raised a finger, every Iraqi would have been obliterated, and every American would have been delighted to have done it. Rob Husseini probably would have been the first to fire. But Morgan did not give that order, because the paperwork on the subject was clear.
The girl bounced on her toes. She no longer held Benton's hand. Rather than stand down, Arwood stood closer to the colonel in the form of pressing his automatic to his forehead and physically pushing him back toward the American position. But that smile never left the colonel's face.
âSee how easy it is to obey the man with the gun?' Arwood said. Then he turned to the girl. âCome on, cuz. Mum and Dad are waiting for us at Checkpoint Zulu. We're gonna have a big homecoming â cake, candy, Roman candles, the works.'
Looking at Arwood, and only at Arwood, she started to walk. The colonel stepped to the side, Arwood's automatic still against his forehead, Morgan still telling Arwood to stand down, and the US infantry still ready to pounce. They circled and changed positions. Arwood walked backward and the girl walked beside him, facing forward toward Checkpoint Zulu and the M60 machine gun Arwood had left behind. With his free hand, he took hers. And for a short eternity they were walking toward freedom. Then the colonel withdrew a Soviet-made 9mm Makarov from his belt, and shot the girl in the back. The girl fell to her knees. She did not look down to her body and her heart. She looked at Arwood. His eyes were the last of this world she would know.
When it was over, as she lay dead at his feet, still looking up at him, Arwood did regain a place in the moment. Unlike earlier, when he had stood posturing with the weapon in one hand like a gangster in an American movie, now he put two hands on his weapon and raised it in the proper assault position, as he'd been trained to do.
Half a second â more or less. That's all Arwood needed to murder the colonel. But Benton took that time away from him: he placed his hand over Arwood's outstretched arms and said, âWe have to go.'
It was a short walk back to the safety of Checkpoint Zulu. Lieutenant Harvey Morgan took Arwood by the upper arm as though he were a schoolboy who'd been busted with contraband, and walked him back to the ceasefire line. Though it had been for only a few minutes, Arwood Hobbes had technically abandoned his post, abandoned his weapon, been absent without leave from the base, crossed the ceasefire line in violation of an international agreement and American policy, and then topped it off by pulling a weapon on a military officer from a country with whom the United States â and the entire UN coalition â had a ceasefire agreement.
The ceasefire, Lieutenant Morgan reminded Arwood, was between Iraq and everyone else, not among the people in Iraq; that was their problem. Harvey, though he was only twenty-six, next launched a barrage of loosely affiliated words he'd collected over the past six months, sourced from the highest and lowest levels of political discussion:
They were held together with spit.
Arwood wasn't listening, and wouldn't have given a damn in any case. He was walking back to base without his mind, body, or soul.
Benton trailed behind them, escorted by other soldiers who didn't talk to him.
âNone of this matters anyway,' Morgan concluded. âShort of dropping chemical weapons, no one's gonna do anything. I mean, really, what are we supposed to do? Occupy Baghdad? Teach these people how to run a town meeting like we're in fuckin' Vermont?'
The moment they crossed the straight and imaginary line that separated one part of Iraq from another, Lieutenant Harvey Morgan stopped, waited for Thomas Benton to approach, and then poked him in the chest, saying, âYou're out of here. Tomorrow morning, you fuck directly off. I want you off this observation post.' Then, as he took Arwood's arm again, he shouted over his shoulder, âI hope it was worth it.'
Arwood was taken to the mess hall. Lieutenant Harvey Morgan had decided to make an example of him, knowing that tensions were running high among his men and that this needed to be stopped. Lashing Arwood, in his view, would ensure that even the dumbest of his company would understand the consequences of doing anything remotely similar to what Arwood had done. And this example needed to be made because the events beyond the perimeter were continuing. The helicopters were still shooting. People were still dying. Men were still being lined up and executed in front of their children to make sure the rebels (if there were any rebels) âgot the message,' which they did.