A Sleeping Tank in the Date Fields
The desert is brown. The buildings are brown. The formerly gray streets are brown with dust. The sky is blue.
My uniform is three shades of brown. The eight million Iraqis who live here are a multitude of browns. The backs of my formerly pink hands are burnt brown. The sky is massively and oppressively blue.
What I miss, is green. Trees. Weeds. My uniform before this fucking war. All green. Home is green. With a sky that’s sometimes blue and sometimes gray and sometimes pink. This Baghdad sky is always acting like it’s the middle of Ramadan, short tempered and hungry. Devoutly blue. Until dark, then it goes crazy with food and gunfire.
We are driving through neighborhoods, throwing candy to kids. Sometimes soccer balls with propaganda written on them. I’m looking out the window of my truck, watching all the brown.
It’s fucking hot.
The sky opens up. From its blue, cloudless center, it drops a mortar. The explosion is beyond us, several blocks away, muffled by shop fronts and apartment buildings and traffic and people. We don’t go to where mortars land though; we are looking for the poo.
The Point of Origin. Where the mortar is launched from. Where the bad guys are. Where if we find it, the fighting begins, and because the Army loves acronyms more than it is good at them, we call this close and terrible place: the poo. It’s only as ridiculous as everything else here.
At the moment of impact, all four gunners on all four trucks duck their heads into their respective hatches and yell, “Contact!” Four give the clock direction of the impact as two o’clock. Two mistakenly identify it as an IED. Explosions are tricky business. Two correctly identify the mortar but disagree as to where the poo is. Before they heard the thunk of the launching tube, the sound swept around buildings and the massive cemetery and through the underpass and followed the goddamn riverbank, and I don’t believe either of them really knows where it came from. But then, I’m just sitting, looking out the window, waiting for us to turn onto the side roads and go chasing echoes. After some arguing over the radio, it is decided that the gunner who is on the platoon sergeant’s truck is more correct than the gunner on the buck sergeant’s truck, and off we go.
We move from wide, crowded streets, to narrow, empty streets. Upper-level windows are taped over with large brown Xs. Courtyards begin to overflow with potted plants. I don’t give a shit about mortars, I just want to pull over, occupy one corner of one courtyard, and feel plant leaves between my fingers. But we keep driving. There are no people out. It’s midday and it’s fucking hot.
We stop. I lean forward and look between the legs of my gunner and the helmet of my driver. I’m in the back seat. Through the windshield I look past the two middle trucks to see our lead truck turn right onto an unpaved road, beyond it, all I see is green. And the blue above it. We all make the turn. I’m on the left side of the truck. As we come around, outside my window is a date field that goes on forever. Trees and grass. Dirt a color so different than sand, I don’t even hate that it’s brown.
Thunk. “Contact!” our gunner yells down. And softly, a long way off, boom. I can’t tell where either sound occurred, I was looking at the green. I want out. I want my boots off. I want to stand in the tall grass and squish my toes in soil. Our trucks speed up and begin turning onto narrow paths, built up across the fields, irrigation ditches running alongside. Top-heavy and husky-trunked date trees block most of the view. It’s goddamn beautiful. They run in lines, breaking the field into a grid, but the lines aren’t straight. They meander as my eyes run along them.
The radio is loud with people calling out where they think the poo is. I realize that we are possibly approaching bad guys. My nervous tick is to hit the forward assist of my M-4 with my right palm. Sometimes all you can do is repeatedly ensure your first round is fully seated. It makes a small-sounding: tick tick tick.
I watch the green go by.
The radio opens up, “Contact! Tank! Three o’clock!”
I scan. It’s right in front of me. It’s several hundred meters away, but it’s directly in my line of sight. I should have seen it before I heard about it. I don’t think I’m much good at this.
Our trucks stop. The radio says, “Dismounts out.” I get out.
I tap the forward assist twice more, then I take my rifle to the low-ready, pointed at the tank, but 45 degrees towards the ground. I move off the road and into the green field. Inside my boots I squish my toes into my socks. It almost feels right. I pull a piece of grass loose with my left hand. I squeeze. All along the row of trucks, one dismount from each moves onto the field. We halt, make sure we are on-line. I look to the tank. It used to be brown, but I can already see that it’s turning red with rust. The green has grown half way up it, and its barrel is gone—removed and repurposed. I relax some, before I remember that there is poo nearby. I let go of my piece of grass. Tick tick tick. I scan the field. Behind me, gunners scan the field. Nobody sees shit. “Move to the tank,” my Motorola says quietly, where it’s clipped to my flack vest. “Confirm that it’s derelict.” I push the radio against the plate inside my vest, the reason it’s so goddamn heavy, the part that stops things from passing through me, and press the soft rubber button. “Roger,” I say into it.
We begin walking through the knee-high vegetation toward the tank. Above us the sky is blue. I smell burning, but from a long way off. I hear car engines in the distance. I look at the tank. It looks asleep. There are small irrigation ditches every few meters, maybe a half-meter deep. Some have dark water in the bottom of them; most are just a little wet. I jump over them. I’m wearing a Kevlar helmet with a too-loose chin strap, knee pads that stretch from mid-shin to mid-thigh, a vest that weighs 70 pounds, loose around the middle because the heat is melting me away at a rate of seven pounds a month, and an enormous cod flap that hangs from my vest-front to my knees. I feel like a child who tried on their mother’s too-big dress, and heels, and wig, and then wore them off to war.
This is my last thought before seeing, in mid-trench-jump, that where I intend to land on the other side, my inevitable point of impact, growing out from the dark earth between the green blades of grass, the tail fin of something unexploded is sticking up and out, straight towards me.
My throat makes a noise that sounds like, “Fuck!” but my mouth isn’t open. I spread my feet hoping to straddle the object, and it works, except that my 70-pound dress and flap and pads have an inertia that continues pulling me forward until I fall directly over it, onto one hand and two knees, the other hand fighting to keep my rifle out of the dirt. I look down between my knees. The back half of the ordinance is inches away from the crotch of my pants, cod flap in the dirt, balls in abdomen. My mouth opens. “Fuck! Bomb! Maybe! Something!” I say.
I push myself forward and onto my feet. The other dismounts come over. “Call the bomb guys,” I say.
“EOD,” somebody else says.
“Right, call EOD,” I say.
Somebody else heads to the trucks to call.
The rest of us look at it. None of us know what it is. When I was about to land on it, it was the biggest explosive device I’d ever seen. Now it looks to be about ten inches long, only half of which is visible, dark brown and gray, and well rusted. I walk back to my truck. I brush dirt off of my hand and onto my pant leg. I feel the urge to shit, and fight it. I drink water. We wait for EOD.
Other dismounts make it to the tank. It is long-abandoned wreckage. There is no hope of finding the poo that brought us out here. And there are no more mortars fired. Our security posture incrementally relaxes during the hour we wait.
EOD pulls up behind my truck and two men get out. The small one leans against his door, looking us over. The tall one walks past me to where a few soldiers are standing around the ordinance. He’s wearing a pistol rig on his thigh and bug-eye sunglasses. From four feet away, he looks at the tail fin and stops. “Who found it?” he says.
“I did,” I say. I walk down onto the field.
“You called me away for this?” he says. “I was jerking off.” He leans forward and pulls it out by its tail with his bare hand. He turns to me. I start to say something, when he throws the ordinance at me. I don’t even move. Its nose slams into the center of my chest plate. I swear I hear a cracking sound, but it my might not be the plate, maybe it’s just my guts. It falls down between my feet. I look at it. I really think I might shit.
As EOD walks past me to his truck, he says, “It’s inert, pussy. No boom boom.” His mouth smiles. Behind his glasses I think he might have winked when he said it, but it doesn’t matter. He’s gone. I pick up the inert round and go to my truck.
“Mount up,” the radio says. We all load up and the trucks roll toward home. We leave the green of the fields, everything turns brown again. I’m holding the ordinance in my hands. As it dries it lightens in color, but it’s still a goddamn awful brown. The first two inches of it are bent at an odd angle, I think from its original impact in that field. I like that it’s fucked up. I slide it into my cargo pocket. I scan. My left hand already misses the feel of the blade of grass. Out my window everything slides by. My guts settle some and I tap my forward assist. Above us, the sky is massive, heavy, and a very sad shade of blue.
About The Writer
Matthew Robinson lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. He is in the MFA program at Portland State University. You can find some more of his words HERE.