For those of you new to the EWN – David Abrams has been a participating member since 2001. He is one of the better book reviewers around (January Magazine, Long Island Press, and San Francisco Chronicle) and last year received his MFA.
Early in January 2005, David was sent to Kuwait and late Feb/early March he went on to Iraq. Since the beginning of the year he’s been sending me his journal entries to share with EWN members.
These journals have attracted the attention of an incredible agent, and due to the efforts of he and David, in terms of potentially publishing David’s work, I have not been posting them on the web at all. To date, they have only been forwarded to all members of the EWN, and will continue to be in the future.
With the permission of David and his agent however, from time to time, I will post an excerpt of his emails to this blog. If they interest you and you’d like to read everything David is writing – join the network and they will be sent to you on about a monthly basis.
If you have any interest in publishing David’s work, please contact me and I will pass along the information to David and his agent as quickly as I can.
For those wanting to send well wishes to David (or care packages):
SFC David Abrams
PAO, HHSC, STB, 3rd ID
APO, AE 09352
* * *
Shortly after 10 a.m., a company of soldiers from 1st Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team enters a neighborhood in east Baghdad—the section they’re now calling New Baghdad. They are there to establish a secure perimeter—a cordon, in military terms—while another unit searches for a suspected IED somewhere inside the perimeter.
The day is hot, the air thick with dust carried on the daily morning winds which drop a pale brown curtain over the city. Gunners behind their .50-calibers scan their sectors of fire, watching for anything suspiciously out of place.
Other soldiers get out of the humvees, not only to stretch but to greet the children who have rushed the military patrol, as they always do when the Americans roll through. “Mister! Hey, Mister!” they shout, their palms out, their fingers splayed. They know what these soldiers are good for—automatic candy dispensers. If they’re really lucky, they’ll get a Beanie Baby or a soccer ball.
Today, the soldiers hand out some candy to the first wave of children, but then they must turn back to the business of keeping the perimeter secure. “No more, no more today,” they tell the children.
But still the children persist and crowd around the GIs. After half an hour, maybe they’ve forgotten about the candy, maybe they’re just curiously touching the camelback water backpacks, the heavy flak vests, the flashlights and earplug cases dangling like jewelry. Maybe they practice some high fives with their American heroes.
The American soldiers play along as best they can, keeping one eye on the road and surrounding houses.
But still the children persist. Now they’re giggling and pretending to play grab-ass with the soldiers. It’s all happy fun.
From their perches on the humvee roofs, the gunners grin and glance away, turn their backs on their buddies talking and laughing with the kids, and scan another sector of fire.
That’s when the car, which had been slowly sidling through an alley adjacent to the road, decides to make its move. It is like a lion, softly padding through the shadows of the grass, stalking with professional finesse, before it roars forward, the hot engine growling as the driver accelerates for the kill.
Maybe one of the soldiers looks up and knows exactly what is about to happen, maybe he tries to scream but the “No!” catches like a bone in his throat. Maybe he raises his hands to fruitlessly push away the car, or maybe those hands grab the two nearest children and pull them close in a protective embrace.
Maybe, on the other hand, no one even notices until the grille of the car is upon them.
The explosion sucks all sound into an awful vacuum, turning this one small patch of Baghdad into a silent film full of smoke and gore. In the silence, the car incinerates with such force that later, much later, when the fire hoses have doused and cooled the scene, the only thing that will remain for investigators to look at is the engine block. Children fly into the air, cartwheeling, their bodies aflame. One boy will die with barely a mark on him, but all of his clothes will be blown from his body and later, much later, his sobbing father will place him in a coffin like that, naked and fetally-curled. Seven or eight children—who can bear to look long enough to make an accurate count?—are flung violently against a stone wall in front a house. Their bodies strike the wall and collapse in a heap on the ground. If you didn’t look too closely, you might think it was that pile of dirty clothes which you keep reminding yourself you need to wash before the pile grows and gets too far out of hand. If you did look closely, however, you’d see a little boy suddenly sheared of both legs, his blackened face still cooking. Another boy, not four feet away, has his hand raised toward his face, as if he is about to suck his thumb. There is a fist-sized hole in his forehead, a neatly-scooped hole that is so horribly, horribly out of place but yet so undeniably real in its seething red presence. It insists you look at it and later, much later, when you are staring at the photograph on your computer which has been sent to you by a Brigade Public Affairs Officer recommending that you release the photos because “the world needs to know what these bastards are doing,” when that photo is lividly dominating your computer screen, it insists that your eye be drawn to that angry, fist-sized hole. And the only words your own brain, still safely enclosed behind bone and skin, can form are “So young, so goddamned young.”
Back at the humvees, surely someone is screaming. But no one can hear him because all sound has been momentarily sucked away and the only thing left is a sharp, high ringing. And, in that silent, ringing soundtrack this is the movie one has to look at: the smoke, the small flames licking around the solitary engine block, the now-scattered children, the 27 dead (including one of your own soldiers), the 18 wounded, the charred and mangled bicycle, the empty sandals, the pools of blood, the four half-shattered buildings, the three Iraqi men who are now rushing up with blankets to cover the dead.
* * *
At least this is how I picture it happening, based on report and TV news clips. The basic facts are correct, but my imagination fills in the gaps where details are needed. Because I am a Fobber, I can never know what it was like to be there on the hot, deadly street that afternoon. When the burning children are being tossed into the air, I am sitting in this air-conditioned, windowless, fluorescent-lit cubicle hell ten miles away. I swear, there are times when I feel like I’m living in a Dilbert cartoon … but in a combat zone.
* * *
Sometime around 11:15, I vaguely hear the CPOF chatter to life over the loudspeaker with the news there’s been a possible VBIED in Zone 23. I hear the guy mention there is a possible US KIA. Of course my ears perk at the mention of the KIA, but even then, I don’t immediately leap out of my chair. I finish whatever I’m working on, close it out on my computer screen, then saunter over to the CPOF workstation. I immediately know it’s bad because four of the Information Operations officers are crowded around the three computer screens. When officers cluster and huddle like this, you know it’s bad.
Overhead, I hear the CPOF loudspeaker say something about “multiple LN KIAs.” LN is our shorthand for local nationals, common Iraqi citizens.
One of the IO officers, LTC P_______n, has just gotten off the phone and he’s holding a yellow Post-it note on which he’s scribbled a few facts. His face is drawn and sober, his voice a little shaky when he announces, “Suicide bomber pulled up next to a humvee before detonating. One US KIA. At least seven children dead. Unknown number of wounded.”
I ask, “Any idea when they’ll have a solid count of the dead, so I can tell the media?”
P_______n levels his gaze at me. “It will be quite a while. The scene is just total carnage at this point. Total carnage.”
We fall silent. We’re all fathers. We feel this attack more deeply than any of the other IED and VBIED attacks, I think.
I return to my computer—the words “this is not good, this is not good” running through my head—and begin to type what I can. I only have a half hour, at the most, before the media start calling and e-mailing. It’s just barely enough time for me to start gathering facts from 2nd Brigade and checking and double-checking body counts, whether or not the unit was handing out candy at the time (a fact the press will become fixated on), what kind of car the bomber was driving, and other details I know the reporters will be asking. Without anyone telling me directly to my face, I know I will be the official spokesperson on this one.
The next three hours are nothing but endless gymnastics as I go between phone and e-mail, talking to the Associated Press, Bloomberg, NBC News, CNN, Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, Agence France Presse and NPR radio. I’m worn down by having to talk about the massacred children in the most banal, just-the-facts terms.
But even the hard-hearted news media starts to go soft during our e-mail exchanges—at one point, the AP reporter e-mails me to say: “What a horrible attack.” That’s about as human as I’ve ever seen a member of the press get.
I see the images on the television set at my elbow: the father placing his naked son into a coffin, a six-month-old baby whose head is swathed in a white bandage and whose eyes are dull with infant confusion, the mothers draped in black and wailing until strings of saliva run from their mouths, the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters all wandering like stunned zombies through the rubble-strewn street, beating their chests and heads with fists and screaming in Arabic one word over and over which, if I were to guess, would be “Why? Why? Why?”
I read the newspaper accounts: of the father who finds only his son’s bicycle on the road, of the 13-year-old boy who considers himself lucky because he only lost both legs, of the mother who could not find her son at the hospital but when she returned to the scene of the attack she found his head among the rubble.
Later, much later, the 2nd Brigade PAO will send me an e-mail with attachments: “I’m sending you some pictures. They’re pretty rough. But I think folks need to see them to know what these bastards did.”
The last thing I want to do is look at these pictures—especially just before dinner—but I know my anger cannot be fulfilled, cannot come full circle, unless I do. I double-click on the first attachment. And there, on my screen, is a small, blackened figure sprawled in the dust looking like he’s about to suck his thumb. An ordinary child, peaceful and beautiful, if it weren’t for that fist-shaped hole in his forehead.