A year after coming home from a tour in Iraq, a soldier returns home to find out he left something behind.
By Brian Mockenhaupt
A few months ago, I found a Web site loaded with pictures and videos from Iraq, the sort that usually aren't seen on the news. I watched insurgent snipers shoot American soldiers and car bombs disintegrate markets, accompanied by tinny music and loud, rhythmic chanting, the soundtrack of the propaganda campaigns. Video cameras focused on empty stretches of road, building anticipation. Humvees rolled into view and the explosions brought mushroom clouds of dirt and smoke and chunks of metal spinning through the air. Other videos and pictures showed insurgents shot dead while planting roadside bombs or killed in firefights and the remains of suicide bombers, people how they're not meant to be seen, no longer whole. The images sickened me, but their familiarity pulled me in, giving comfort, and I couldn't stop. I clicked through more frames, hungry for it. This must be what a shot of dope feels like after a long stretch of sobriety. Soothing and nauseating and colored by everything that has come before. My body tingled and my stomach ached, hollow. I stood on weak legs and walked into the kitchen to make dinner. I sliced half an onion before putting the knife down and watching slight tremors run through my hand. The shakiness lingered. I drank a beer. And as I leaned against this kitchen counter, in this house, in America, my life felt very foreign.
I've been home from Iraq for more than a year, long enough for my time there to become a memory best forgotten for those who worried every day that I was gone. I could see their relief when I returned. Life could continue, with futures not so uncertain. But in quiet moments, their relief brought me guilt. Maybe they assume I was as overjoyed to be home as they were to have me home. Maybe they assume if I could do it over, I never would have gone. And maybe I wouldn't have. But I miss Iraq. I miss the war. I miss war. And I have a very hard time understanding why.
I'm glad to be home, to have put away my uniforms, to wake up next to my wife each morning. I worry about my friends who are in Iraq now, and I wish they weren't. Often I hated being there, when the frustrations and lack of control over my life were complete and mind-bending. I questioned my role in the occupation and whether good could come of it. I wondered if it was worth dying or killing for. The suffering and ugliness I saw disgusted me. But war twists and shifts the landmarks by which we navigate our lives, casting light on darkened areas that for many people remain forever unexplored. And once those darkened spaces are lit, they become part of us. At a party several years ago, long before the Army, I listened to a friend who had served several years in the Marines tell a woman that if she carried a pistol for a day, just tucked in her waistband and out of sight, she would feel different. She would see the world differently, for better or worse. Guns empower. She disagreed and he shrugged. No use arguing the point; he was just offering a little piece of truth. He was right, of course. And that's just the beginning.
I've spent hours taking in the world through a rifle scope, watching life unfold. Women hanging laundry on a rooftop. Men haggling over a hindquarter of lamb in the market. Children walking to school. I've watched this and hoped that someday I would see that my presence had made their lives better, a redemption of sorts. But I also peered through the scope waiting for someone to do something wrong, so I could shoot him. When you pick up a weapon with the intent of killing, you step onto a very strange and serious playing field. Every morning someone wakes wanting to kill you. When you walk down the street, they are waiting, and you want to kill them, too. That's not bloodthirsty; that's just the trade you've learned. And as an American soldier, you have a very impressive toolbox. You can fire your rifle or lob a grenade, and if that's not enough, call in the tanks, or helicopters, or jets. The insurgents have their skill sets, too, turning mornings at the market into chaos, crowds into scattered flesh, Humvees into charred scrap. You're all part of the terrible magic show, both powerful and helpless.
That men are drawn to war is no surprise. How old are boys before they turn a finger and thumb into a pistol? Long before they love girls, they love war, at least everything they imagine war to be: guns and explosions and manliness and courage. When my neighbors and I played war as kids, there was no fear or sorrow or cowardice. Death was temporary, usually as fast as you could count to sixty and jump back into the game. We didn't know yet about the darkness. And young men are just slightly older versions of those boys, still loving the unknown, perhaps pumped up on dreams of duty and heroism and the intoxicating power of weapons. In time, war dispels many such notions, and more than a few men find that being freed from society's professed revulsion to killing is really no freedom at all, but a lonely burden. Yet even at its lowest points, war is like nothing else. Our culture craves experience, and that is war's strong suit. War peels back the skin, and you live with a layer of nerves exposed, overdosing on your surroundings, when everything seems all wrong and just right, in a way that makes perfect sense. And then you almost die but don't, and are born again, stoned on life and mocking death. The explosions and gunfire fry your nerves, but you want to hear them all the same. Something's going down.
For those who know, this is the open secret: War is exciting. Sometimes I was in awe of this, and sometimes I felt low and mean for loving it, but I loved it still. Even in its quiet moments, war is brighter, louder, brasher, more fun, more tragic, more wasteful. More. More of everything. And even then I knew I would someday miss it, this life so strange. Today the war has distilled to moments and feelings, and somewhere in these memories is the reason for the wistfulness.
On one mission we slip away from our trucks and into the night. I lead the patrol through the darkness, along canals and fields and into the town, down narrow, hard-packed dirt streets. Everyone has gone to bed, or is at least inside. We peer through gates and over walls into courtyards and into homes. In a few rooms TVs flicker. A woman washes dishes in a tub. Dogs bark several streets away. No one knows we are in the street, creeping. We stop at intersections, peek around corners, training guns on parked cars, balconies, and storefronts. All empty. We move on. From a small shop up ahead, we hear men's voices and laughter. Maybe they used to sit outside at night, but now they are indoors, where it's safe. Safer. The sheet-metal door opens and a man steps out, cigarette and lighter in hand. He still wears a smile, takes in the cool night air, and then nearly falls backward through the doorway in a panic. I'm a few feet from him now and his eyes are wide. I mutter a greeting and we walk on, back into the darkness.