|Page 3 of 3 <|
"I came over here because I wanted to kill people."
Green had been in country only four months at that point, a volunteer in a war he now saw as pointless.
"I gotta be here for a year and there ain't [expletive] I can do about it," he said. "I just want to go home alive. I don't give a [expletive] about the whole Iraq thing. I don't care.
"See, this war is different from all the ones that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Those wars were for something. This war is for nothing."
A couple of days later, I ran into Green again, and he invited me to join him and another soldier in a visit to the makeshift tearoom run by the Iraqi soldiers who share the base with the American troops. It was after dusk, and the three of us walked across a pitch-black landing zone and into a small plywood-lined room where a couple of dozen barefoot Iraqi soldiers were sitting around watching a local news channel.
"Hey, shlonek ," Green said, offering a casual Arabic greeting with a smile and a sweeping wave as he stepped up to the bar. He handed over a U.S. dollar in exchange for three Styrofoam cups of syrupy brown tea.
Green knew a few words of Arabic, and along with bits of broken English, some hand gestures and smiles, he joked around with the Iraqis as he sipped their tea. Most U.S. soldiers didn't hang out on this side of the base with the Iraqis.
I asked Green whether he went there a lot. He did, he said, because he liked to get away from the Americans "who are always telling me what to do."
"These guys are cool," he said, referring to the Iraqis.
"But," he added with a shrug, "I wouldn't really care if all these guys got waxed."
As we talked, Green complained about his frustration with the Army brass that urged young soldiers to exercise caution even in the most terrifying and life-threatening circumstances.
"We're out here getting attacked all the time and we're in trouble when somebody accidentally gets shot?" he said, referring to infantrymen like himself throughout Iraq. "We're pawns for the [expletive] politicians, for people that don't give a [expletive] about us and don't know anything about what it's like to be out here on the line."
The soldiers who fought alongside Green lived in conditions of near-constant violence -- violence committed by them, and against them.
Even in my brief stay there, I repeatedly encountered terrifying attacks. One night, about a mile from Green's base, a roadside bomb exploded alongside the vehicle I was riding in, unleashing a deafening crack and a ball of fire. In most places in Iraq, soldiers would have stopped to investigate. In the Triangle of Death, however, we just plowed on through the cloud of smoke and shower of sparks, fearing an ambush if we stopped. Fortunately, the bomb was relatively small, its detonation poorly timed, and the soldiers all laughed about it moments later. "Dude, that was [expletive] awesome," the driver said after making sure no one was hurt.
A few days later, I was standing outside chatting with an officer about the long-term legacy of the Vietnam War when a rocket came whistling down and struck the base's south wall. A couple of days after that, a mortar round blew up a tent about 20 feet from the visitors' tent that I called home.
My experience, however, was nothing compared with that of Green and the other young men of his Bravo company who spent months in the Triangle of Death.
In the end, I never included Green's comments in any of the handful of stories I wrote from Mahmudiyah for Stars and Stripes. When he said he was inured to death and killing, it seemed to me -- in that place and at that time -- a reasonable thing to say. While in Iraq, I also saw people bleed and die. And there was something unspeakably underwhelming about it. It's not a Hollywood action movie -- there are no rapid edits, no adrenaline-pumping soundtracks, no logical narratives that help make sense of it. Bits of lead fly through the air, put holes in people and their bodily fluids leak out and they die. Those who knew them mourn and move on.
But no level of combat stress is an excuse for the kind of brutal acts Green allegedly committed. I suppose I will always look back on our conversations in Mahmudiyah and wonder: Just what did he mean?
Andrew Tilghman was a correspondent in Iraq for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He lives in Houston.