I wrote ‘Mayday’ one muggy autumn day while taking a break from a research project involving soldiers in the Iraq War. I was compelled to write the piece in order to develop a greater understanding of what the condition of the soldier psyche is like in a state of war. Obviously, I will never know what that is truly like, but it’s always nice to view life from a different perspective, even if that perspective is only a figment of one’s own perceptions. Some of the events I added were taken straight from accounts in articles that I had researched and my main goal here was to fabricate the story as little as possible. Hopefully I succeeded, if only marginally. Regardless, thank you for reading my piece.
I didn't know the real world anymore; it didn't exist. The dusty wasteland of war, which I inhabited, would stay with me long after I had left—the scent never leaving my nostrils. To this day, I can still taste the sand on my lips, the sun on my neck, the gravel underneath my boots; I don't have to imagine, it just comes to me, naturally, like one remembering their first kiss. After all, how can a person forget such things? How can one forget the first bullet they ever dodged? Or the first corpse they ever carried?
Let me tell you a joke… "A little boy plays soccer in an Iraqi field. The ball flies out of bounds. The little boy chases after it. As he looks up to wave 'Hello' to a passing convoy, the little boy explodes into a thousand pieces of flesh. The soldiers run to his attention, but they know it's too late." Pretty terrible joke? My buddy thought so too when he witnessed it. Some prankster decides to plant an IED on the side of a road next to a school playground. A few days later, said IED explodes because a poor soul decides to show off his terrible lob shot. What a shame, I know. What's that original saying? It's all fun and games until someone explodes on the pitch? I concur. I've seen enough explosions. I've seen enough madness.
The thermometer outside my room read 102 degrees. Makes sense, I thought. It did seem a bit cooler. It was Delta company's turn today. We suited up. Forty pounds of equipment over our backs, assault rifle in both our hands. Water? Why bother? I would be thirsty again by the time I finished. We threw our belongings in the back of the Humvee and headed towards the town. It felt nice, the car ride. I hadn't been in a moving vehicle for awhile. The past three weeks we had been doing tower work. Six hours a day, no break, looking out for anything suspicious. The Jolly Green Giant, perhaps. We never saw anything. I would almost go as far to say that it was a waste of time, but at least we weren't out here. I'll take the mundane over the chance of death any day. I was in the minority. My boys loved the fighting, the excitement. They loved variety, even if it did involve going straight into Hajji Territory. The machinery of war… it made them feel at peace.
The humvee was rickety; old, worn out... just like my fellow comrades. One thing you notice about being over here is how dirty everything is. The streets, the shops, the windows, the statues, the cars… everything is a dark brown, musty hue. We had only been in town for a few minutes now, and already the windows of the vehicle had built up a residue of dust and dirt. Moments later we stopped, abruptly. My heart pounded. It always did when we made sudden stops. You never know when shit's about to go down. And you can never prepare yourself when it does. Luckily for me though, it was just a stray goat, wandering away from its owner, and, within five minutes we had arrived. Sometimes I wish I was a goat.
We exited the car and stood in front of an open courtyard; a spectacular water fountain was situated in the center. It certainly didn't fit in with the rest of the surroundings. A man sat in front of it with his arms raised—a briefcase lay by his side. His head was down, buried partially between his legs, every time he would pick his head up, we could see that he was crying. On the other side of the street stood a mosque and some nondescript buildings. People gathered slowly, watching from windows, rooftops… new sets of eyes everywhere. Three o'clock, Five o'clock, nine; I felt chased, smothered. You can't exactly provide cover for your men when you don't know where the danger is lurking.
The situation was simple. Or, at least, at its surface it was. The man crying by the fountain was a presumed suicide bomber going to make his way to the church before he was reported. By now, we had about eight soldiers on the street, including an EOD crew to disarm any bomb that may be hidden in that suitcase. We set up a perimeter around the street, asking all citizens to stay at least 100 meters back and out of our fuckin' way unless they wanted to be turned into tenderloin. Some were still reluctant, despite this threat. It's nice knowing you're not the only crazy one.
Time passed. There was much arguing. I didn't really see it coming. I didn't think the man had it in him. I, at least, thought he was smart enough not to. Fifteen minutes after we had arrived… I think it was fifteen minutes, I could be wrong, it felt like a lot longer, but that's how it was in the desert… the man picked himself up, sat on the ledge, and fell backwards into the gushing water. We moved in closer. I don't where I would be if we didn't. Seconds, maybe moments, an eternity, later the mosque behind us exploded in flames and dust. A noise struck like a needle, stabbing at my eardrums. The eruption knocked several people, including six of my guys, off their feet. The man rose from beneath the fountain waters. I cocked my rifle back…
You don't really know who a man is until you see the whites of his eyes disappear, rolling into the back of his head, away from the world. A bullet hole, releasing the life from within him, like air within a vacuum. Everything about him—gone. I fired two rounds. One. Two. The first in his chest, the second in his throat. I could see the subsequent spray of red on the second shot. I sat there, dazed. I could feel a sea of confusion rushing over me now, ever so gradually, amongst all this chaos of my so called life. I smiled. I laughed. I almost vomited. I did this, for it was not me lying on the ground, choking on my own stream of blood. I basted in the sun, victorious. Or was I? I had never achieved such a bittersweet victory. I had killed a man. A bad man. But a man, nonetheless.
Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not kill. Ringing throughout my head louder than the ringing in my ears. But thou shall kill if the time shall call for it? No. That is not how it goes. Thou shall not kill. Who am I? I am not a special entity in this world. I am not an animal. But I am no human. I am a soldier… a soldier who was fighting. I am the invisible man, caught in a moment of delirium. I did the right thing. It's something you have to keep telling yourself. Rationalization is the only medicine, but it's just that—medicine, not a cure. The guilt never strays from me.
Who was I really fighting?
Back here at home I try to find the answer. Answers are never easy to find when you're actually looking for them. Time is the best solution that I have found. Everything can be answered given time. Unless you're trying to answer the question of death. Fate and Death. Sacred questions that one will never answer. Not even one who has seen Hell with their own eyes can tell you. Where will this soul go when released from the exhausting constrains of life? And how will I know I'll be there?
I'll arrive one day. Hopefully. Unwelcomed or not, I'll speak. "Save me!" I'll say. "Whisper", they'll say.