The Atheist and the Coconuts
V8 juice continues to save lives in Iraq despite fatalities
This year in Baghdad is a test.
One year beneath the date palms.
One year at Section 5
on the west bank of the Tigris
where blackbirds balance
heavy and thick in the trees
wondering where the meat has gone.
(The flesh of regime critics
was plentiful at Section 5,
and the birds feasted,
swooping down out of the palms
at the sight of raincoats and pails
and black rubber boots,
not scared of the dogs.)
If I make it through these dark days
I will be qualified for something
like manning a Frigidaire to Mars
(my cheek against the butter dish,
feet tucked in the crisper,
toes curled against
the lettuce heads).
I think the vast emptiness of space,
the slow spinning of my capsule
(the haunting radiance of the controls)
will not unhinge me
The explosion at that early hour, jolting us from sleep, makes my stomach convulse reflexively, like a salamander prodded in the belly with a stick. My eyes open to take in the dark room, the grimy walls, the concrete floor. Across from me the colonel is awake, a mirror image of myself with just his face peeking outside his sleeping bag. Together we lie there stupidly, not saying a word, as though it were customary, this breaking loose of all hell. More explosions follow, one after the other. It dawns on me that we are being mortared, that this is what it is to be mortared, and I am touched by a panic that this could be my last moment, lying here naked in a broken cot in a broken building in a broken country with only the colonel for company.
Am I to die here in this strange land? And for what? God and Country? A black coffin draped in an oversized flag and a stranger’s eulogy? “Sacrificed his life … that others may live in freedom … died doing what he loved.” I’d sooner perish. I’m going to perish. Wriggling like a minnow in my sleeping bag, growing damp with the fluids coming out through the holes and slits in me. If I can just get back to my automatic rice cooker and the little whistling sound it makes when it’s underway. I’ll be happy to rake the leaves come fall. Straighten up the garage. Try my hand at making biscuits from scratch.
Neither of us moves. Except for my racing thoughts, we might as well be sleeping through the barrage. It occurs to me to seek refuge in the bathroom, away from the windows, but I don’t want to make matters worse. Getting out of the cot could make me a bigger target. Plus, there is the matter of the open drain in the shower, which is gross. So I rub my feet together to reassure myself against the possibility of dying. Strangely effective, the rubbing. After all, one can’t be extinguished while doing something so reminiscent of childhood, can one? That would be like stepping on a mine while reciting nursery rhymes. Impossible. The mind won’t stand for it. So it can’t happen.
My toes press firmly against the bottom of the sleeping bag. Despite the unpleasantness of the change in air pressure, which is spooky, and the noise, which is impossibly loud, I am still warm and comfortable, and have not wet myself. But why should I wet myself? Because I’m scared to death? Because I don’t want to be rubbed out like this, reduced to a green sack of liquids and solids that will shortly go rank and stenchy? Then get stiff and crusty so they won’t even need to waste a body bag on me, just pull the drawstrings tight over the head opening and hoist me around as I am. Then charge me $59 for the sleeping bag. They would, too, wouldn’t they, damn them. Damn them!
Then, just as quickly, the attack is over. I stop rubbing my feet and lie still. I can hear muted voices from other parts of the building, the scuffling of feet, the clank of equipment. Then the colonel’s voice.
“Damage report, captain.”
“I seem to be in one piece, sir. No damage.” This is a lie. I am in fact mortally wounded in a metaphysical sense. Savaged on all fronts that my life should be toyed with in this manner at such an early hour. I’m not wearing underwear in the sleeping bag and it feels vaguely disrespectful to be addressing the colonel in the buff. Normally I dress myself in the sleeping bag before he awakes and emerge fully uniformed except for my boots.
“Not you, captain. The equipment. Out back.” Since his bag is still zipped to his neck, he gestures with his head, which is large and bald.
“Oh, right. Would you like that report now, sir?” I’d much rather he didn’t. A measured silence while he thinks it over, contemplates the urgency of the need for this information with the possibility that more Alahoos and 82s could be destined for our makeshift base north of the Green Zone in a Baghdad neighborhood that sounds like a variation of diarrhea. I offer an initial damage assessment from the comfort of my cot, still naked but feeling around the floor languidly for underpants: “I’m going with two, three trucks, tops.” Although I’m getting my clothes on, I’m not eager to get out of my sleeping bag and look around. Why should I? So what if some equipment got hit so long as I get my daily ration of Froot Loops and Red Bull, and five minutes alone with a borrowed Maxim?
“That’s about what I’m thinking,” the colonel says. “Give it a minute or two and then let’s confirm, get eyes on, and get a report to higher.”
“Roger that, sir.”
I’m not sure when he says “higher” whether he’s referring to himself or to our command center back in the Green Zone, with which we communicate by e-mail and satellite phone, and where all the important and bad decisions are made. We’re still both facing each other from our respective cots like unlikely lovers, or inmates, just our heads protruding from our mummy bags. The early light of morning is beginning to filter in through three large, grimy windows, one of which appears to be cracked. Was it cracked before? I can’t tell. The place we’re staying makes Section 8 housing seem like The Donald’s. There’s also a strange smell in the air, different from the latrine smell that is always with us, as though we’re living inside a trucker’s ass that has been expanded to accommodate date palms, shrubbery and a large blown-up city. It’s the smell of old, corrupted gunpowder. The mortars. Likely survivors of the Spanish Civil War smuggled in by the Bolsheviks. They’re lucky to have cracked a window with that rusty ordinance. Hell of a racket, though. Hell of a thing to wake to.
“I’ll be needing to check on the coconuts too, sir.”
“Yes, make sure they haven’t lost anybody.”
The coconuts are our Iraqi charges, police recruits ranging in age from 17 to 65. I approximate the age of the older recruits by the absence of teeth and their winsome leathery aspect, but they could easily be younger given all the sweet tea they drink, the scorching Arabian sun and general lack of hygiene. The older ones are also distinguished by their inability to exit the back of pickups without a helping hand. Our job is to dispatch these men, young and old, to Fallujah to help patrol the streets. Higher has advised us, via the Batphone, that the order can come down anytime. Anytime! It’s easy to picture them being cut down piecemeal and in droves, starting with the old ones incapable of hasty movement—which can factor powerfully in avoiding bullets—followed by the young ones, whose only form of self-preservation is the death blossom.
Despite the name, the death blossom is actually something scary. The explosive powder and gasses propelling the bullet down the barrel erupt in a blossoming of sparks and flame, something best appreciated at night with the selector switch in the fully automatic position. Since the Iraqis are trigger-happy, squeezing off full magazines at the drop of a rupee, they are death blossom aficionados, posing a threat to all things settled upon the earth—from the shepherds to the shepherded, the animate to the inanimate, the nonthreatening to the merely innocuous. Should a stray round from an AK strike a blow of chance against an enemy combatant, flat-footed incredulity ensues. Open-mouthed incredulity. Followed by fierce celebration. Followed by more shooting, the rifles positively coming alive, squirming and protesting in their arms like recalcitrant lovers. KARAKARAKARAKAH! KARAKARAKARAKAH! Until the barrels start to give out and bend like elephant trunks, which, not to worry, can be compensated for by an adroit forward thrust of the hips, which to witness is to marvel at.
The trucks the colonel wants me to check on are parked in the back, but I’m not going out there without my V8 juice. The savory concoction has served as my talisman for several months, warding off war zone dangers, as well as providing me with the important vitamins and nutrients that come with two servings of vegetables. On my camera I have images of V8 empties posed whimsically in front of scenes of carnage. The fact that I am an onlooker taking the picture and not part of the carnage demonstrates the V8 is doing its job. And so I keep drinking it regularly, two cans every morning, like clockwork. Unless the galley is out due to a hijinxed KBR convoy, in which case I have no choice but to malinger. Which means I’m actually helping, because if I went outside and got shot, the army would have to e-mail back to the States for a replacement, who would likely be unaware of the efficacious nature of V8 juice, and then the vicious cycle would just go on and on without any end in sight.
Once outside, still holding my drink, I’m disappointed by the lack of damage. It’s simply not commensurate with the noise. Instead of holes in the ground and massive rubble, there’s just a smattering of blown windshields, a few flat tires and what smells like a punctured gas tank. I clamber into the back of a truck and eyeball the goods. The recruits are getting body armor from China better suited to a paintball skirmish. They’re like the vests you put on when you get your teeth x-rayed.
Among the inventory are also riot batons and plastic shields. I test one of the batons against the boxes. It’s the kind that extends with a flick of the wrist. But this one stays extended, despite repeated bashing against the floor of the truck. I look at the box: Made in China. I toss it aside in disgust. Next to cartons packed with tan-colored uniforms I find Winnie the Pooh blankets and PowerPuff Girls blankets and flashlights with a Spiderman web design on the lens. It’s something like a flea market in the back of the truck but better, because everything is free. I put a Spidey flashlight in my pocket to test later.
The Iraqis have survived the onslaught but are looking sullen behind the concertina wire that keeps them from straying. They’ve spent the evening and night diligently pooping and peeing on the concrete floors of their building, which has seen better days, but not by much. Some of the turds have been stepped in and tracked about, others have water bottles pushed down into their center like candles. This despite the dozen portajohns lined up in front of their bombed-out barracks.
“You people know how to use portajohns? POR-TA-JOHNS?”
They’ve taken their trash and gathered it in piles and set fire to it: styrofoam food containers, water bottles, pieces of clothing, what looks like a mattress, flip-flops, empty packs of cigarettes, chicken bones. One guy is tiptoeing in the embers holding a stick with his pants rolled up to below his knees.
I get the commander to round up his men, or the majority of them. It’s never possible to get an accurate count. Like herding cats. Someone’s always off washing their feet. Or poking around in the remains of a fire. But no one’s hurt. That’s good.
Everybody ready go Fallujah? Check. We spend the morning unloading the trucks and sorting the gear out and getting it issued. I’m hoarse from cursing at their groping hands and disorganization. All they care about are the handguns, the Glocks, which fetch $800 on the street. I get the commander in a tan uniform, and he becomes helpful. He grabs a stick and starts thwacking away at the arms and legs of the recruits, helping to control them as they pass through the line. “Yallah! Yallah! Yallah!” He’s chasing recruits with his stick and I’m slinging helmets and boots and ammo pouches and flashlights and tube socks and thigh holsters and PowerPuff bedrolls in a mad frenzy. The recruits are jabbering away and stripping down to their skivvies in the dirt and getting suited up and tossing their rubbish from the packaging over their shoulders and trying to avoid getting hit with the stick and the commander is sweating and putting on a fine show but there’s no time to celebrate because we only have a few hours to get them lined up in formation, counted and staged for the transport helicopters. Where’s the colonel? Here he comes, pumping his fist up and down in the air to say the choppers are inbound. Time has passed in a blur, darkness is falling.
“You’re doing good out here,” says the colonel. “Getting things done. I like that.”
“Watch this,” I say.
“Yallah! Yallah! Yallah!” This gets everyone clambering to their feet and dusting off their bottoms. They’ve been loading their rifle magazines and discarding the cardboard boxes that the 7.62 rounds come in. There’s cardboard and MRE detritus all over the place from where they were competing for most rat-fucked MRE honors, choosing hunger over the tasteless crap the Ameyriki pawn on them.
The commander has his stick out and there’s more shouting. I’m impressed to see him get the recruits formed and moving toward the LZ. But there’s some commotion in the formation. Some recruits seem to be falling back toward the rear. Then we can hear the choppers and it’s time. Recruits are having second thoughts. A handful are turning their backs on the LZ and facing us, shifting their weight around, looking uncertain. To mutiny or not to mutiny? They gaze from each other back to us back to each other. The one closest is clutching his Winnie the Pooh bedroll and he’s sweating and his eyes are feverish and he’s moaning, “No Fallujah, mister, no Fallujah!”
“You’re getting on that chopper!” I yell at him, stepping in close. He has a thin mustache and a hook nose. “No Fallujah! No Fallujah, mister!” A hot anger comes over me. The choppers have touched down and there’s no time to be dicking around. The recruits could all start running off in the shadows. And then what? We’d have to track them down, live weapons and all. It could be a death blossom melee.
I grab the moaning one and drive my knee between his legs. He sags a little and I yank him to his feet, shove the Winnie the Pooh bedroll in his gut and push him to where the CH-47s are stirring up debris with their rotorwash. “You want to get all your buddies killed, you sorry fuck? Move your ass!" I’ve got him hobbling in the right direction and I see the colonel has his gun out and I pull mine too. The stragglers relent with some head bobbing and muttering and turn toward the open maw of the choppers where their fellow coconuts are getting situated.
No need to push anymore. We’re standing there breathing hard as the holdouts take their seats on red cargo net benches flanking the insides, and then the loading ramp is coming up and the birds are pulling away even while the ramp is still shutting and then they’re wheeling in the dark sky over our heads firing white flares to protect against missile attack. The flares briefly illuminate the nearby rooftops strung with wire, then the noise of the helicopters fades to a dull throbbing, and it’s dark and quiet and wonderful feeling.
“We did it.”
“I didn’t even have any bullets in my gun,” says the colonel.
“We didn’t need no stinking bullets, sir! Come on, now!”
“You’re glad they’re gone, huh?” He slaps my shoulder and leaves it there.
“Fucking A right, sir!”
It doesn’t matter that by the time word gets to Washington, someone will have doubled or tripled the numbers. Our part is done. I feel like a drink but there’s no drinking to be had, nowhere in the whole wide desert. General’s orders, out of respect for Islam.
The cot creaks under my weight. Nightfall. It’s time to escape. I am awake and dreaming of a future away from this place, away from the war. A future that may never come. I think it may never come. Not with the sound of the choppers in my brain, chopping the air into a fine, misty blurriness. There is. I can see. Hear. The choppers are beating the air like great, flying wasps. Diabolical winged creatures. The coconuts are inside them, clutching their blankets tight in the dying light, like children lost in time.