This week’s Longreads Member Pick is from Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer.
In any other vehicle we’d have died. The MRAP jumped, thirty-two thousand pounds of steel lifting and buckling in the air, moving under me as though gravity was shifting. The world pivoted and crashed while the explosion popped my ears and shuddered through my bones.
Gravity settled. There’d been buildings before. Now headlights in the dust. Somewhere beyond, Iraqi civilians startling awake. The triggerman, if there even was one, slipping away. My ears were ringing and my vision was a pinpoint. I crawled my eyes up the length of the barrel of the .50-cal. The end was warped and blasted.
The vehicle commander, Corporal Garza, was yelling at me.
“The fifty’s fucked,” I screamed. I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
I got down and climbed through the body of the MRAP. I went on my hands and knees across the seats and opened the back hatch. Then I stepped out.
Timhead and Garza were out already, Timhead posted on the right side of the vehicle while Garza checked the damage. Vehicle Three came up with Harvey in the turret to provide security. It was a tight street, just getting into Fallujah, and they parked off to the left of the MRAP, which was slumped down in the front like a wounded animal.
The mine rollers weren’t even attached anymore. Their wheels were spread out everywhere, surrounded by bits of metal and other debris. One of the vehicle’s tires was sitting a few feet out, cloaked in dust, looking like the big granddaddy of all the little baby mine roller wheels around it.
I wasn’t quite steady on my feet, but training kicked in. I put my rifle in front, scanning the dark, trying to do my fives and twenty-fives, but the dust would have to settle before I could see more than five feet in front of me.
A light in one house glowed through the haze. It flickered, quickly dimming and brightening. My head rang and my back hurt. I must have slammed into the side of the turret.
Timhead and I stood on the right side of the MRAP, oriented outboard. When the dust settled I saw Iraqi faces in a few shitty one-stories, looking out at us. One of them was the bomber, probably, waiting to see if there was gonna be a CASEVAC. They get paid extra for that.
The civilians were probably watching for it, too. You can’t plant a bomb that big without the neighborhood knowing.
Since my heart was pumping fast, the pain throbbed in my back in superquick spurts.
Corporal Garza circled to the other side of the MRAP, assessing the damage. We stayed where we were.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Fuck,” said Timhead.
“You all right?” I said.
“I feel fucking . . .”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
There was a crack of rounds, like someone repeatedly snapping a bullwhip through the air. AK fire, close, and we were exposed. I had no turret to crouch down in, and only my rifle, not the .50. I couldn’t see where the rounds were coming from, but I dropped back behind the side of the MRAP to get cover. I snapped back to training, but there was nothing to see as I scanned over my sights.
Timhead fired from the front of the MRAP. I fired where he was firing, at the side of the building with the flickering light, and I saw my rounds impact in the wall. Timhead stopped. So did I. He was still standing, so I figured he was okay.
A woman screamed. Maybe she’d been screaming the whole time. I stepped out from behind the MRAP and felt my balls tighten up close to my body.
As I approached Timhead, I could see more and more around the wall of the building. Timhead had his rifle at the ready, and that’s where I kept mine. On the other side there was a woman in black, no veil, and maybe a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old kid lying on the ground and bleeding out.
“Holy shit,” I said. I saw an AK lying in the dust.
Timhead didn’t say anything.
“You got him,” I said.
Timhead said, “No. No, man, no.”
But he did.
We figured that the kid had grabbed his dad’s AK when he saw us standing there and thought he’d be a hero and take a potshot at the Americans. If he’d succeeded, I guess he’d have been the coolest kid on the block. But apparently he didn’t know how to aim, otherwise me and Timhead would have been fucked. He was firing from under fifty meters, a spray and pray with the bullets mostly going into the air.
Timhead, like the rest of us, had actually been trained to fire a rifle, and he’d been trained on man-shaped targets. Only difference between those and the kid’s silhouette would have been the kid was smaller. Instinct took over. He shot the kid three times before he hit the ground. Can’t miss at that range. The kid’s mother ran out to try to pull her son back into the house. She came just in time to see bits of him blow out of his shoulders.
That was enough for Timhead to take a big step back from reality. He told Garza it wasn’t him, so Garza figured I shot the kid, who everybody was calling “the insurgent” or “the hajji” or “the dumbshit hajji,” as in, “You are one lucky motherfucker, getting fired on by the dumbest dumbshit hajji in the whole fucking country.”
When we finished the convoy, Timhead helped me out of the gunner’s suit. As we peeled it off my body, the smell of the sweat trapped underneath hit us, thick and sour. Normally, he’d make jokes or complain about that, but I guess he wasn’t in the mood. He hardly said anything until we got it off, and then he said, “I shot that kid.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You did.”
“Ozzie,” he said, “you think people are gonna ask me about it?”
“Probably,” I said. “You’re the first guy in MP platoon to . . .” I stumbled. I was gonna say “kill somebody,” but the way Timhead was talking let me know that was wrong. So I said, “To do that. They’ll want to know what it’s like.”
He nodded. I wanted to know what it was like, too. I thought about Staff Sergeant Black. He was a DI I’d had in boot camp, and the rumor was he’d beat an Iraqi soldier to death with a radio. He’d turned a corner and run smack into a hajji so close he couldn’t bring his rifle around and he’d freaked, grabbed his Motorola, and bashed the guy’s head in until it was pulp. We all thought that was badass. Staff Sergeant Black used to chew us out and say crazy shit like, “What you gonna do when you’re taking fire and you call in arty and it blows that fucking building to fuck and you walk through and find pieces of little kids, tiny arms and legs and heads everywhere?” Or he’d ask, “What you gonna tell a nine-year-old girl who don’t know her daddy’s dead ’cause his legs is still twitching, but you know ’cause his brains is leaking out his head?” We’d say, “This recruit does not know, sir.” Or, “This recruit does not speak Iraqi, sir.”
Crazy shit. And crazy cool, if you’re getting ready to face what you think will be real-deal no-shit war. I’d always wanted to get hold of Staff Sergeant Black after boot camp and ask him what had been bullshit and what was really in his head, but I never got a chance.
Timhead said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“So don’t,” I said.
“Garza thinks you did it.”
“Can we keep it that way?”
Timhead looked serious. I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Sure. I’ll tell everyone I did it.” Who could say I didn’t?
That made me the only sure killer in MP platoon. Before the debrief, a couple guys came by. Jobrani, the only Muslim in the platoon, said, “Good job, man.”
Harvey said, “I’d have got that motherfucker if fucking Garza and Timhead hadn’t been in the way.”
Mac said, “You okay, man?”
Sergeant Major came over to the MP area while we were debriefing. I guess she’d heard we had contact. She’s the sort of sergeant major that always calls everybody “killer.” Like, “How’s it going, killer?” “Oo-rah, killer.” “Another day in paradise, right, killer?” That day, when she walked up, she said, “How’s it going, Lance Corporal Suba?”
I told her I was great.
“Good work today, Lance Corporal. All of you, good work. Oo-rah?”
When we were done, Staff Sergeant pulled me, Timhead, and Corporal Garza aside. He said, “Outstanding. You did your job. Exactly what you had to do. You good?”
Corporal Garza said, “Yeah, Staff Sergeant, we good,” and I thought, Fuck you, Garza, on the other side of the fucking MRAP.
The lieutenant said, “You need to talk, let me know.”
Staff Sergeant said, “Oo-rah. Be ready to do it tomorrow. We got another convoy. Check?”
Me and Timhead went right back to the can we shared. We didn’t want to talk to anybody else. I got on my PSP, played Grand Theft Auto, and Timhead pulled out his Nintendo DS and played Pokémon Diamond.
The next day, I had to tell the story.
“Then it was like, crack crack crack”—which it was—“and rounds off the fucking blown-up fucking mine rollers and me and Timhead see hajji with an AK and that was it. Box drill. Like training.”
I kept telling the story. Everybody asked. There were follow-up questions, too. Yeah, I was like here, and Timhead was here . . . let me draw it in the sand. See that, that’s the MRAP. And hajji’s here. Yeah, I could just see him, poking around the side of the building. Dumbass.
Timhead nodded along. It was bullshit, but every time I told the story, it felt better. Like I owned it a little more. When I told the story, everything was clear. I made diagrams. Explained the angles of bullet trajectories. Even saying it was dark and dusty and fucking scary made it less dark and dusty and fucking scary. So when I thought back on it, there were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind, the stories becoming stronger every time I retold them, feeling more and more true.
Eventually, Staff Sergeant would roll up and say, “Shut the fuck up, Suba. Hajji shot at us. Lance Corporal Suba shot back. Dead hajji. That’s the happiest ending you can get outside a Thai massage parlor. Now it’s over. Gunners, be alert, get positive ID, you’ll get your chance.”
A week later, Mac died. MacClelland.
Triggerman waited for the MRAP to go past. Blew in the middle of the convoy.
Big Man and Jobrani were injured. Big Man enough to go to TQ and then out of Iraq. They say he stabilized, though he’s got facial fractures and is “temporarily” blind. Jobrani just got a little shrapnel. But Mac didn’t make it. Doc Rosen wouldn’t say anything to anybody about it. The whole thing was fucked. We had a memorial service the next day.
Right before the convoy, I’d been joking with Mac. He’d got a care package with the shittiest candy known to man, stale Peeps and chocolate PEZ, which Mac said tasted like Satan’s asshole. Harvey asked how he knew what Satan’s asshole tasted like and Mac said, “Yo, son. You signed your enlistment papers. Don’t act like you ain’t have a taste.” Then he stuck his tongue out of his mouth and waggled it around.
The ceremony was at the Camp Fallujah chapel. The H&S Company first sergeant did the roll call in front of Mac’s boot camp graduation photo, which they’d had Combat Camera print out and stick on poster board. They also had his boots, rifle, dog tags, and helmet in a soldier’s cross. Or maybe it wasn’t his stuff. Maybe it was some boots, rifle, and helmet they keep in the back of the chapel for all the memorials they do.
First Sergeant stood up front and called out, “Corporal Landers.”
“Here, First Sergeant.”
“Lance Corporal Suba.”
“Here, First Sergeant,” I said, loud.
“Lance Corporal Jobrani.”
“Here, First Sergeant.”
“Lance Corporal MacClelland.”
Everybody was quiet.
“Lance Corporal MacClelland.”
I thought I heard First Sergeant’s voice crack a bit.
Then, as if he were angry that there was no response, he shouted, “Lance Corporal James MacClelland.”
They let the silence weigh on us a second, then they played Taps. I hadn’t been close with Mac, but I had to hold both my forearms in my hands to stop from shaking.
Afterward, Jobrani came up to me. He had a bandage on the side of his head where he got peppered with shrapnel. Jobrani’s got a baby face, but his teeth were gritted and his eyes were tight and he said, “At least you got one. One of those fucks.”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “That was for Mac.”
Except I killed hajji first. So it was more like Mac for hajji. And I didn’t even kill hajji.
In our can, Timhead and I never talked much. We’d get back and I’d play GTA and he’d play Pokémon until we were too tired to stay up. Not much to talk about. Neither of us had a girlfriend and we both wanted one, but neither of us was dumb enough to marry some forty-year-old with two kids in Jacksonville, like Sergeant Kurtz did two weeks before deployment. So we didn’t have anybody waiting for us at home other than our moms.
Timhead’s dad was dead. That’s all I knew about that. When we did talk, we talked mostly about video games. Except there was a lot more to talk about now. That’s what I figured. Timhead figured different.
Sometimes I’d look at him, focused on the Nintendo, and I’d want to scream, “What’s going on with you?” He didn’t seem different, but he had to be. He’d killed somebody. He had to be feeling something. It weirded me out, and I hadn’t even shot the kid.
The best I could get were little signs. One time in the chow hall we were sitting with Corporal Garza and Jobrani and Harvey when Sergeant Major walked up. She called me “killer,” and after she passed, Timhead said, “Yeah, killer. The big fucking hero.”
Jobrani said, “Yo? Jealous?”
Harvey said, “It’s okay, Timhead. You just ain’t quick enough on the draw. Ka-pow.” He made a pistol with his thumb and finger and mimed shooting us. “Man, I’d have been up there so fast, bam bam, shot his fuckin’ hajji mom, too.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah, son. Ain’t no more terrorist babies be poppin’ out of that cunt.”
Timhead was gripping the table. “Fuck you, Harvey.”
“Yo,” said Harvey, the smile dropping from his face. “I was just playing, man. I’m just playing.”
I wasn’t getting good sleep. Neither was Timhead.
Didn’t matter if we had a mission in four hours, we’d be in our beds, on the video games. I’d tell myself, I need it to come down. Some brainless time on the PSP.
Except it was every day, time I could be sleeping spent coming down. Being so tired all the time makes everything a haze.
One convoy we stopped for two hours for an IED that turned out to just be random junk, wires not going anywhere but looking suspicious as hell. I was chugging Rip Its, jacked up so much on caffeine that my hands were shaking, but my eyelids kept sliding down like they were hung with weights. It’s a crazy feeling when your heart rate is 150 miles per hour and your brain is sliding into sleep and you know when the convoy gets going that if you miss something, it will kill you. And your friends.
When I got back I smashed my PSP with a rock.
I told Timhead, “I never even liked people calling me ‘killer’ before this bullshit.”
“Okay,” he said, “so suck it up, vagina.”
I tried a different tack. “You know what? You owe me.”
I didn’t answer. I stared him down, and he looked away.
“You owe me,” I said again.
He laughed a weak little laugh. “Well, I ain’t gonna let you suck my dick.”
“What’s going on with you?” I said. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. What?”
He looked down at his feet. “I signed up to kill hajjis.”
“No, you fucking didn’t,” I said. Timhead signed up because his older brother had been in the MPs and got blown up in 2005, burns over his whole body, and Timhead joined to take his place.
Timhead looked away from me. I waited for him to respond.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”
“You fucked in the head, man?”
“No,” he said. “It’s just weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“My little brother’s in juvie.”
“I didn’t know that.”
There was a loud boom somewhere outside our can. Probably artillery going off.
“He’s sixteen,” said Timhead. “He set a couple fires.”
“That’s some dumb shit. But he’s a kid, right?”
“Sixteen’s only three years younger than me.”
“Three years is a big difference.”
“I was crazy when I was sixteen. Besides, my brother did it when he was fifteen.”
We didn’t say anything for a bit.
“How old you think that kid I shot was?”
“Old enough,” I said.
“Old enough to know it’s a bad fucking idea to shoot at U.S. Marines.”
“He was trying to kill you. Us. He was trying to kill everybody.”
“Here’s what I see. Everything dust. And the flashes from the AK, going wild in circles.”
I nod my head.
“And then I see the kid’s face. Then the mom.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the shit, right there. I see that too.”
Timhead shrugged. I didn’t know what to say. After a minute, he went back to his game.
Two days later Jobrani and me opened up on a house after a SAF attack in Fallujah. I don’t think I hit anything. I don’t think Jobrani did either. When the convoy was done, Harvey gave Jobrani a high five and said, “Yeah, Jobrani. Jihad for America.”
Timhead laughed and said, “I’m pretty sure you’re still sleeper cell, Jobrani.”
Afterward, I went and talked to Staff Sergeant. I told him everything Timhead said about the kid, but like it was me.
He said, “Look, it fucking sucks. Firefights are the scariest fucking thing you’ll ever fucking face, but you handled it, right?”
“Right, Staff Sergeant.”
“So, you’re a man. Don’t worry about that. Now all this other shit”—he shrugged—“it don’t get easier. Fact you can even talk about it is a good thing.”
“Thanks, Staff Sergeant.”
“You want to go see the wizard about it?”
“No.” There was no way I was going to let myself be seen going to Combat Stress over Timhead’s bullshit. “No, I’m fine. Really, Staff Sergeant.”
“Okay,” he said. “You don’t have to. Not a bad thing, but you don’t have to.” Then he gave me a grin. “But maybe you get religious, start hanging with the chaplain.”
“I’m not religious, Staff Sergeant.”
“I’m not saying really get religious. Just, Chaps is a smart guy. He’s good to go. And hey, you start hanging with him, everybody’s just, maybe you found Jesus or some bullshit.”
A week later another IED hit. I heard the explosion and turned back. Garza was listening to the lieutenant screaming something on the radio. I couldn’t see to where they were. Could have been a truck in the convoy, could have been a friend. Garza said Gun Truck Three, Harvey’s. I swiveled the .50-cal. around, looking for targets, but nothing.
Garza said, “They’re fine.”
That didn’t make me feel better. It just meant I didn’t have to feel worse.
Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent pure terror. They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time. Maybe not pure terror. That’s for when the IED actually goes off. But a kind of low-grade terror that mixes with the boredom. So it’s 50 percent boredom and 49 percent normal terror, which is a general feeling that you might die at any second and that everybody in this country wants to kill you. Then, of course, there’s the 1 percent pure terror, when your heart rate skyrockets and your vision closes in and your hands are white and your body is humming. You can’t think. You’re just an animal, doing what you’ve been trained to do. And then you go back to normal terror, and you go back to being a human, and you go back to thinking.
I didn’t go to the chaplain. But a few days after Harvey got hit the chaplain came to me. That day, we’d waited three hours outside of Fallujah while EOD defused a bomb I’d spotted. The whole time I sat there thinking, Daisy chains, daisy chains, ambush, even though we were in the middle of fuck-all nowhere desert with nowhere to ambush us from and if the IED had been daisy-chained to another one, it would have gone off already. Still, I was stressed by the end. More than usual. When Corporal Garza reached up to grab my balls, which he sometimes does to fuck with me, I threatened to shoot him.
Then we got back and the Chaps just happened to drop by the can, and I thought, I’m gonna shoot Staff Sergeant, too. We went and talked by the smoke pit, which is a little area sectioned off with cammie netting. Somebody’d put a wooden bench there, but neither of us sat down.
Chaplain Vega’s a tall Mexican guy with a mustache that looks like it’s about to jump off his face and fuck the first rodent it finds. Kind of mustache only a chaps could get away with in the military. Since he’s a Catholic chaplain and a Navy lieutenant, I wasn’t sure whether to call him “sir,” “Chaps,” or “Father.”
After he tried to get me to open up for a bit, he said, “You’re being unresponsive.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Just trying to have a conversation.”
“About what? That kid I shot? Did Staff Sergeant ask you to talk to me about it?”
He looked at the ground. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I didn’t want to. I thought about telling him that. But I owed it to Timhead. “That kid was sixteen, Father. Maybe.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I know you did your job.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s what’s fucked with this country.” I realized, a second too late, I’d used profanity with a priest.
“What’s fucked?” he said.
I kicked at a rock in the dirt. “I don’t even think that kid was crazy,” I said. “Not by hajji standards. They’re probably calling him a martyr.”
“Lance Corporal, what’s your first name?” he said.
“What’s your first name?”
“You don’t know?” I said. I wasn’t sure why, but I was angry about that. “You didn’t, I don’t know, look me up before you came over here?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Sure I did,” he said. “I even know your nickname, Ozzie. And I know how you got it.”
That stopped me. “Ozzie” came from a bet Harvey made after Mac’s lizard died in a fight with Jobrani’s scorpion. Fifty bucks that I wouldn’t bite its head off. Stupid. Harvey still hadn’t paid me.
“Paul,” I said.
“Like the apostle.”
“Okay, Paul. How are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. How was Timhead doing? That was what he was really about, even though he didn’t know it. “I usually don’t feel like talking to anyone about it.”
“Yeah,” said the Chaps, “that’s pretty normal.”
“Sure,” he said. “You’re a Catholic, right?”
That’s what’s listed on my dog tags. I wondered what Timhead was. Apathetic Protestant? I couldn’t tell him that. “Yeah, Father,” I said. “I’m Catholic.”
“You don’t have to talk to me about it, but you can talk to God.”
“Sure,” I said, polite. “Okay, Father.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “Prayer does a lot.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It sounded like a joke.
“Look, Father,” I said. “I’m not that much for praying.”
“Maybe you should be.”
“Father, I don’t even know if it’s that kid that’s messing with me.”
“What else is there?”
I looked out at the row of cans, the little trailers they give us to sleep in. What else was there? I knew how I was feeling. I wasn’t sure about Timhead. I decided to speak for myself. “Every time I hear an explosion, I’m like, That could be one of my friends. And when I’m on a convoy, every time I see a pile of trash or rocks or dirt, I’m like, That could be me. I don’t want to go out anymore. But it’s all there is. And I’m supposed to pray?”
“Yes.” He sounded so confident.
“MacClelland wore a rosary wrapped into his flak, Father. He prayed more than you.”
“Okay. What does that have to do with it?”
He stared at me. I started laughing.
“Why not?” I said. “Sure, Father, I’ll pray. You’re right. What else is there? Keep my fingers crossed? Get a rabbit’s foot, like Garza? I don’t even believe in that stuff, but I’m going crazy.”
I stopped smiling. “Like, I was on a convoy, stretched my arms out wide, and a minute later a bomb went off. Not in the convoy. Somewhere in the city. But I don’t stretch out like that anymore. And I patted the fifty, once, like a dog. And nothing happened that day. So now I do it every day. So, yeah, why not?”
“That’s not what prayer is for.”
“It will not protect you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Oh,” I said.
“It’s about your relationship with God.”
I looked at the dirt. “Oh,” I said again.
“It will not protect you. It will help your soul. It’s for while you’re alive.” He paused. “It’s for while you’re dead, too, I guess.”
We took different routes all the time. Don’t be predictable. It’s up to the convoy commander, and they’re all lieutenants, but most of them are pretty good. There’s one who can’t give an Op Order for shit but tends not to fuck up too bad on the road. And there’s one female lieutenant who’s tiny and real cute but tough as balls and knows her shit cold, so it evens out. Still, there’s only so many routes, and you got to use one.
It was at night and I was in the lead vehicle when I spotted two hajjis, looked like they were digging in the road. I said, “Hajjis digging,” to Garza. They saw us and started running.
This was just getting into Fallujah. There were buildings on the left side of the road, but they must have been spooked stupid because they ran the other way, across a field.
Garza was on the radio, getting confirmation. I should have just shot them. But I waited for an order.
“They’re running,” Garza was saying, “yes . . .” He twisted and looked up at me. “Light ’em up.”
I fired. They were on the edge of the field by then, and it was dark. The flash of the .50 going off killed my night vision. I couldn’t see anything, and we kept driving. Maybe they were dead. Maybe they were body parts at the edge of the field. The .50 punches holes in humans you could put your fist through. Maybe they got away.
There’s a joke Marines tell each other.
A liberal pussy journalist is trying to get the touchy-feely side of war and he asks a Marine sniper, “What is it like to kill a man? What do you feel when you pull the trigger?”
The Marine looks at him and says one word: “Recoil.”
That’s not quite what I felt, shooting. I felt a kind of wild thrill. Do I shoot? They’re getting away.
The trigger was there, aching to be pushed. There aren’t a lot of times in your life that come down to, Do I press this button?
It’s like when you’re with a girl and you realize neither of you has a condom. So no sex. Except you start fooling around and she gets on top of you and starts stressing you out. And you take each other’s clothes off and you say, We’re just gonna fool around. But you’re hard and she’s moving and she starts rubbing against you and your hips start bucking and you can feel your mind slipping, like, This is dangerous, you can’t do this.
So that happened. It wasn’t bad, though. Not like the kid. Maybe because it was so dark, and so far away, and because they were only shadows.
That night, I got Timhead to open up a bit. I started talking to him about how maybe I killed somebody.
“I’m bugging a little,” I said. “Is this what it’s like?”
He was quiet for a bit, and I let him think.
“For me,” he said, “it’s not that I killed a guy.”
“It’s like, his family was there. Right there.”
“I know, man.”
“Brothers and sisters in the window.”
I didn’t remember them. I’d seen all sorts of people around, eyes out of windows. But I hadn’t focused in.
“They saw me,” he said. “There was a little girl, like nine years old. I got a kid sister.”
I definitely didn’t remember that. I thought maybe Timhead had imagined it. I said, “It’s a fucked-up country, man.”
“Yeah,” he said.
I almost went to the Chaps, but I went to Staff Sergeant instead.
“It’s not that I killed a guy,” I told him. “It’s that his family was there.”
Staff Sergeant nodded.
“There was this nine-year-old girl,” I said. “Just like my sister.”
Staff Sergeant said, “Yeah, it’s a son of a bitch.” Then he stopped. “Wait, which sister?”
Both my sisters had been at my deployment. One’s seventeen and the other’s twenty-two.
“I mean . . .” I paused and looked around. “She reminded me of when my sister was little.”
He had this look, like, “I don’t know what to say to that,” so I pressed.
“I’m really bugging.”
“You know,” he said, “I went and saw the wizard after my first deployment. Helped.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’ll go after my first deployment.”
“Look,” he said, “it ain’t like your sister. It’s not the same.”
“What do you mean?”
“This kid’s Iraqi, right?”
“Then this might not even be the most fucked-up thing she’s seen.”
“How long we been here?”
“Two and a half months.”
“Right. And how much fucked-up shit have we seen? And she’s been here for years.”
I supposed that was true. But you don’t just shrug off your brother getting shot in front of you.
“Look, this isn’t even the wildest Fallujah’s been. Al-Qaeda used to leave bodies in the street, cut off people’s fingers for smoking. They ran torture houses in every district, all kinds of crazy shit, and you don’t think the kids see? When I was a kid I knew about all the shit that was going on in my neighborhood. When I was ten this one guy raped a girl and the girl’s brother was in a gang and they spread him out over the hood of a car and cut his balls off. That’s what my brother said, anyway. It was all we talked about that summer. And Fallujah’s way crazier than Newark.”
“I guess so, Staff Sergeant.”
“Shit. There’s explosions in this city every fucking day. There’s firefights in this city every fucking day. That’s her home. That’s in the streets where she plays. This girl is probably fucked up in ways we can’t even imagine. She’s not your sister. She’s just not. She’s seen it before.”
“Still,” I said. “It’s her brother. And every little bit hurts.”
He shrugged. “Until you’re numb.”
In the can the next night, after about thirty minutes of me staring at the ceiling while Timhead played Pokémon, I tried to bring it up again. I wanted to talk about what Staff Sergeant had said, but Timhead stopped me.
“Look,” he said, “I’m over it.”
He put both his hands in the air, like he was surrendering.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m over it.”
A week later a sniper shot Harvey in the neck. It was crazy, because he wasn’t even hurt bad. The bullet barely grazed him. A quarter inch to the right, he’d be dead.
Nobody got positive ID. We kept driving, primed and ready to kill, but no targets.
As we moved down the road, my hands jittery with adrenaline, I wanted to scream, “Fuck!” as loud as I could, and keep screaming it through the whole convoy until I got to let off a round in someone. I started gripping the sides of the .50. When my hands were white, I would let go. I did that for a half hour, and then the rage left me and I felt exhausted.
The road kept turning under our wheels, and my eyes kept scanning automatically for anything out of place, signs of digging or suspicious piles of trash. It doesn’t stop. Tomorrow we would do this again. Maybe get blown up, or get injured, or die, or kill somebody. We couldn’t know.
At the chow hall later that day, Harvey pulled the bandage back and showed everyone his wound.
He said, “Purple fucking Heart, bitches! You know how much pussy I’m gonna get back home?”
My mind was whirling, and I made it stop.
“This is gonna be a badass scar,” he said. “Girls’ll ask and I’ll be like, ‘Whatever, I just got shot one time in Iraq, it’s cool.’”
When we got back to the can that night, Timhead didn’t even pull out his Nintendo DS.
“Harvey’s so full of shit,” he said. “Mr. Tough Guy.”
I ignored him and started pulling off my cammies.
“I thought he was dead,” said Timhead. “Shit. He probably thought he was dead.”
“Timhead,” I said, “we got a convoy in five hours.”
He scowled down at his bed. “Yeah. So?”
“So let it go,” I said.
“He’s full of shit,” he said.
I got under the covers and closed my eyes. Timhead was right, but it wouldn’t do either of us any good to think about it. “Fine,” I said. I heard him moving around the room, and then he turned off the light.
“Hey,” he said, quiet, “do you think—”
That did it. I sat up straight. “What do you want him to say?” I said. “He got shot in the neck and he’s going out tomorrow, same as us. Let him say what he wants.”
I could hear Timhead breathing in the dark. “Yeah,” he said. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t.”
From Redeployment, copyright © 2013 Phil Klay, Penguin Press.