Alec sat passenger in the Toyota Hilux through the broken alleyways towards the great thoroughfare that runs from Syria, to Ramadi, to Baghdad. The Americans, as they had been in the habit of doing, had named the road after one of their own territories. Michigan. While it had served its military purpose, Alec still called it Michigan and knew it by no other name.
The thundering echoes of artillery seemed more frequent this morning, although he didn’t have a clear baseline, this being only his fifth day in the country, and his second in the Habbaniyah region. Each blast sent flashes of imagined devastation as he impulsively tightened and released the grip on his dust covered Kalashnikov. He took off his helmet and turned it over revealing a picture that sat centered between the cushioned padding. A woman in a black and white striped sundress stared back at him with sleepy eyes and long brown hair. She had a young complexion with tender downward slanting lips. He looked at the picture for a moment and then began fingering the straps on the helmet, pulling them tighter through the fasteners.
“Don’t be afraid; this is every day,” Mohammed said from the drivers seat as he turned to approach an Iraqi Police checkpoint. Alec nodded and let out a light humming of acknowledgement. The blaring shockwaves of bombs going out and bomb coming in still rattled him, even after his long exposures to war. The bursts seemed to send his heart out of rhythm. It was something he never quite got used to.
“Where are you going?” The Iraqi policeman asked in Arabic.
“And the American?”
“He comes with me.”
“Keep him close. Inshallah he comes back with you.”
“Everything good?” Alec asked
“Kolshi Tamam Habibi. Kolshi Tamam.” Mohammed answered. The truck pulled out of the checkpoint and onto the freeway. “Is that your wife in your helmet?”
“Ay… and your wife?”
“No wife? A man of your age needs a wife. I have two wives. A man needs a wife.”
“A wife is hard to keep up with when you are away for so long.”
“Then you must stay close so you can have a wife.”
“I guess. Is that the base off to the left?” Alec pointed to a watchtower high atop the ridgeline to the south.
“It is my friend. The Americans are there. Sometimes you see the Americans up there in their trucks, watching everything.” Mohammed put his hands to his eyes in the shape of binoculars.
“They watch everything?”
“Ay. They protect the base.”
“Slow down. Yeah… that’s good.”
Alec studied the great dirt mounds in curious interest. He reached for his satchel and pulled a camera from it. Focusing on the tower, he snapped a few photos.
“They are not there right now.” Mohammed said.
“I can see that… Thanks.”
“They do not leave the base on the hill. They are not allowed.” Alec knew this.
“What are they doing there?” But Mohammed was distracted.
On the other side of the road, a black hummer sped east. A man lay strapped to the hood with bloodied bandages mummifying his face. Alec tried to snap a picture, but the truck was in a hurry and moved too fast.
“He is going to see the Americans. They might be able to help him, inshallah. Or he might die.” Alec nodded. The truck pulled off the freeway and into the labyrinth of small war-torn buildings. The stench of human feces mixed with spices and tobacco burned his nostrils. They drove north a few blocks until the sounds of gunfire reverberated off the glass windows. Mohammed parked the truck in front of a small one-storey homestead. The windows were shattered. Two bullet holes decorated the doorway where stray anti-aircraft rounds ended their flight.
“We are here. Come with me. Come.” Alec stepped out of the vehicle and threw his satchel across his body so the strap crossed his protective vest. He clutched his rifle, carrying it in his left hand by the foregrip. The gunfire continued, back and forth it sounded, from the North. Mohammed had his own weapon slung across his back. He walked to the door and knocked with Alec abreast of him.
“Mohammed. Asalaamu alaykum.”
“Wa alaykum a salaam. This is Alec.” The man reached his hand out to gently shake, to which Mohammed and Alec received him. The man brought his hand to his chest as a sign of respect. Alec knew what it meant, but neglected to do the same.
“Alec, this is Captain Salaad. A good man.”
“Its good to meet you, sir.”
“You as well my friend. Major Halim is inside.”
“Great. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with him.”
“You are a friend of Mohammed. Mohammed is a good man.”
“He is.” Alec agreed. The three stepped inside. The living space was small and Alec discerned it hadn’t been used as a home for a very long time. The furniture was destroyed, and piles of dust and sand covered the floor. Sandbags had been emplaced at all the windows and completely covered the northern wall of the building. In the back room sat a man in uniform behind a small wooden table. The only light came from a baseball-sized hole in the wall, most likely from an anti-aircraft round. One man stood behind the Iraqi officer, his weapon in hand.
“Major Halim, this is Mohammed and the American I told you about.”
Major Halim stood up and offered his hand.
“Wa Alaykum a salaam.” Mohammed and Alec returned. Alec remembered to bring his hand to his chest. “You speak good English, sir.”
“Yes… yes… I lived in the US for three years. Take off your vest and helmet and sit down.” Alec looked down at his chest hesitantly. “If God wills you to die, then you will die. There is nothing a man can wear to change that. Make yourself comfortable.” Alec reluctantly obliged, placing his weapon and body armor on the sandy wooden floor behind him. “Salaad. Bring us Chai.” Captain Salaad nodded and took Mohammed with him out of the room.
“That is true. And what is your name?”
“Ay… so tell me Alec. What brings you to this place?”
“I was told that you command the forces on the frontline here in Khalidya. I… I would like to think of myself as a storyteller. I want to tell your story.”
“A reporter, you mean…”
“I guess you can say that.” Alec returned.
“Well what story do you expect to find?”
“I want to show the world what happens here. I want them to see what you see. If I could just talk to you and take some pictures…”
“You must come to the front with me then.“
“I don’t think I have the time for that,” Alec excused.
“It is not far.”
“Maybe some other time. I really just wanted to talk to you.” Major Halim stared at him sharply, his eyes questioning his courage.
“Then talk to me.”
“Alright… well…” The American recovered, “How would you characterize the fight against the Da’ish?”
“It is death. Brothers die every push. They keep fighting, but they die. They get shot or they blow up. The houses are made to fall once they are entered. The roads are full of explosives. It is a death trap.”
“Why do they fight then?”
“I wish I could say it was for their country… But there is no country left here. Look around.” He raised his hands as he spoke, motioning to the torn walls, to the dust covered floor, to the sand bag fighting positions. Alec sat silently as a ghost seemed to move through the room. “There is no country left here. Sunni or Shia, they have nothing to fight for except their families. They wish to hold on to the little they have left. They look for hope. Or a shadow of it.”
“How do they think it is going?”
“They know it is going badly. They desert. Very many deserters.”
“And the Americans?”
“What about them?”
“Have their airstrikes improved your fight?” The Major smiled.
“Their toy planes?” He paused, “It does not require much of a man to drop a bomb from a television screen. The Americans can lose nothing because they have put forth nothing. They… what’s the phrase… They have no skin in the game.” He pointed through a north facing window. “All of this up to the bridge is for us. The rest… for Da’ish. It would take too large a bomb to unseat these rats from their throne. It has been a whole month since Ramadi fell, and what have your toy planes done to slow down these martyrs?”
Captain Salaad reentered the room with two steaming teacups. Alec took the first, the Major took second. As the American tried to sip on the tea, he could feel the steam singe his upper lip and nostrils. He could smell the sweet sugary aroma mixed with cardamom. It was not to his liking so, adverse to discomfort, he feigned a light taste and set the cup on the table.
“Would you like to hear a story, Alec?” The Major said after swallowing a mouthful of chai.
“I was not always in the police forces, my friend. I used to work as a guard in a very nice hotel in Irbil. Now, the owner was away on business for many days. Many days. He always traveled. One of these days a Kurdish man came in and said that the owner was a friend of his. I had never seen him before but to make sure, I called the owner. The owner said he knew him and that he was okay to stay. I did not want to let him in but I could do nothing. It was out of my control. Every week he would come, staying for free. Eating for free. I tried to stop him, but the owner insisted that he was a friend and should be shown respect and allowed to stay.
“‘No, you can not continue to allow this.’ I tried to convince the owner, but he would not hear it. He did not want to have confrontation with this man. It was only a few months later that the owner discovered that the Kurdish man was lying with his woman, using his own hotel to commit the acts.”
“What did the owner do?”
“That was the most remarkable part, Alec: He did nothing. He continued on his long trips away. He was a coward.” Alec paused to gather the gumption for his next question.
“Why are you telling me this?”
The Major looked at him with an icy gaze that would freeze a man in motion.
“Because inaction is not a solution, my friend. Only a coward tells himself so.”
Alec returned. “The US has men on the airbase. They’re advising your commanders. They have doctors treating your wounded. Planes drop bombs daily… We do what we can…”
“You mean drones?”
“What honor is there in fighting with drones? Who is putting their life on the line?”
“The results are the same. Da’ish being killed.”
“But we are losing the fight of wills, my friend. We are losing. They’re perverse faith is strong. Our hope in this country falters. Why doesn’t your country bomb across the river? Just destroy it all?”
“The women and children… We couldn’t do that.”
“They are all corrupted. They are all for Da’ish.”
“That isn’t true.”
“It is the only way,” the Major said unabashed.
Captain Salaad reentered the room, the color of urgency emanating from his countenance. He spoke in Arabic to the Major, and he also at once bore the same expression.
“It seems they fight us at the bridge. Come with me, my friend, and you can see with your own eyes.”
“I…I can’t,” Alec stuttered as he stood up. He struggled for words, but his mind was cluttered with the conflicting thoughts of fear and angst and of what could happen if he went to the front.
“I will not make you. But I must go. I am sorry that our talk was so brief. You are welcome anytime to come back and join me on the front.” With his words, he presented his hand to Alec, and brought it to his chest naturally out of respect.
Salaad and Halim bent their steps out of the building and into the dusty black Hummer outside. They sped off, a sense of duty pulsing through Halim’s chest. His blood flowed with the purpose of a man at war. The call of action. Whatever it may be. After turning through the narrow alleys, they arrived at the front. The blown hulk of a truck flamed bright through the dense smoke.
“What happened here?”
“Major Halim, they sent another bomb. It breached our forward lines. They sent their ‘husbands’ to follow and attack us. This one’s vest didn’t work.” The soldier dragged a man forward, his face disheveled, his shirt off, and threw him to the ground.
“Where is the vest? Did you get rid of it?”
“We did.” Halim nodded in approval. “Let us send this rat to his wives.” The soldier held a knife in his right hand, “In the same manner as they have our brothers.”
Halim looked at the captive in disgust. There was no place in his heart where sympathy rested its head for this man.
“Don’t stop on my behalf.”
The executioner nodded his head. His grip tightened on the blade. Grabbing the captive’s hair, he punctured and penetrated his throat, dulling his cries. Blood spilled onto the pavement. The soldier violently pulled back on the blade, struggling to tear through flesh towards the captive’s right ear.
Halim looked away towards the front. Soldiers stood at the ready behind concertina wire and Jersey barriers. The sun burned golden in the sky leaving the air scorched and thick. There was no comfort in that moment. The fighter screamed in guttural agony.
A bullet cracked overhead as some of the lesser trained soldiers dropped behind wooden pallets. The executioner darted for cover, leaving the fighter on the ground. More rounds followed. Men shouted and returned fire across the bridge. Halim looked towards the Jersey barrier just as an Iraqi soldier’s face seemed to burst from its skull. He turned around to see the condemned fighter alone in the street, seeping crimson blood from his throat. The stone barriers seemed to break apart as the position became heavily suppressed by enemy fire.
“23 milimeter!” Halim heard someone yell. He looked to Captain Salaad and raised his hand to give a command before the impact into his chest brought him to the ground. He stared up at the sky was on his back in the street, his own blood consorting with that of his enemy. Salaad rushed to him and dragged him to the Hummer with his arms under his shoulders. With the help of a soldier, they put Halim in the backseat. His body bent sideways as he tried to capture the blood with his hand.
“We must get him to the Americans.” Halim could hear the captain say to the soldier who was now driving. He could feel his own trachea deviate to right side of his neck. He exhaled blood as he hunched over. The pain intensified as he tried to focus on maintaining his strength.
His wife. He could see her. And his son, Ahmed, still a boy as he always knew him. He was driving with them. He was only a Mülazim then. A lieutenant in Saddam’s army.
This is the checkpoint for the base. I have been here before with him. The American hospital is this way; we must hurry!
“We missed you Halim.” She said to him. We are thankful that you can come with us. Ahmed has missed you.
“It has been so long…”
“We waited for you.”
“I have missed you both so very much.”
His skin was cold. His eyes open. His hand clutched to his chest.
It had been days since Alec had met with Major Halim, and he spent most of his time taking snapshots of the locals in Habbiniyah and writing his observations and thoughts in his notebook with the hopes of selling a story to a magazine or journal. But as the days dragged by, he felt more and more like his work was becoming routine. All the men were on the front fighting. His pictures featured mostly women and children trying to make normal the devastating. Or maybe this was normal. He didn’t know. Who was he to answer these questions?
He thought of his only real connection to what was really going on. Major Halim and Captain Salaad. He went on a few more days until his anxiousness took his thoughts hostage and decided to call Mohammed to set up another meeting.
“You are back” Captain Salaad greeted.
“Yes sir, I wanted to speak to Major Halim… ”
“I’m afraid Major Halim is no longer, my friend.”
“No longer?” Mohammed nudged him. “You mean dead?”
“It grieves me to say so. Just after you left. The Americans could not save him.” Alec stood in the kind of dumbfounded disappointment that one lives after missing an opportunity. “He was killed on the front.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t apologize. It was his time. Allah willed it.” The American nodded his head in reverent silence. The air was stiff. Dirty. Old.
“I would like to go to the front with you. I want to see it,” he said reluctantly. He thought of the picture that he carried in his helmet. In more ways than one, it was the picture that held him back.
Captain Salaad looked down and nodded his head. Mohammed stood in the threshold smoking a cigarette.
“I’m afraid the front is not the place for you right now my friend.”
The return to Habbiniyah was one of quiet pondering. Hope had gone missing. Clarity had abandoned the desert in search of a promised land. Idealism committed suicide long ago. Alec looked to the watchtower on the ridgeline to the south. There were no Americans there.