“The Weight of Enduring Freedom”

Thomas Mose Abbott

The car is approximately 300 yards away. In training, we learned to judge distance using units based on whatever frame of reference we know best. Football fields, mine is football fields.

Three football fields away.

The car isn’t slowing down; they must not see our roadblock. Maybe they didn’t get the memo and learn about our roadblocks. First, we stretch rows of concertina wire across the width of the mouth of the road we’re blocking. Tonight we’re blocking the main road out of Al Hay at the foot of a bridge over a canal. Second, we line up all our vehicles laterally in what would resemble a stretched semi-circle when viewed from overhead, kind of like the shape of the back side of a giant crab creeping up to eat the bridge. See also: a group of kindergarteners gathered around teacher for story time. It’s that simple: concertina wire up, vehicles arranged laterally, and all weapons trained at the concertina wire. Third, we wait.

Any good Iraqi citizen should know what a liberation roadblock looks like, especially in the dark. Before we go on, I promise you, if we had been supplied with glow-in-the-dark concertina wire, we would have used it. For better or for worse, most cars that approach these kinds of things end up swerving or screeching to a halt after a long sustained note of car horn. This is because eventually the driver’s head is removed by American lead moving at a velocity invisible to the human eye, then the body falls forward into the steering wheel and onto the horn. But like I said, three football fields away.

Maybe the car can’t stop; the carburetor might be stuck, the brakes might be screwed.

The disc-brake pads could be worn down to the steel plate. It could’ve gone down something like this: Days of driving, ignoring the squeal made by the wear indicator when brake pressure is applied; followed by weeks driving, having to listen to a constant screech with every turn of the wheel, without even applying brake pressure. The wear indicator is digging into the rotor surface making scars round and round. Next is grinding. Don’t get mad at the squeal. It’s just your car doing its job.

Metal on metal. Friction. Heat.

The whole brake assembly might have gotten so hot the higher stress metals started warping. Caliper piston. Caliper housing. Now the piston is frozen in its channel. Now the pad plate can’t contact the rotor, now the car can’t stop. No brake pressure.
But why isn’t the car slowing down, why hasn’t he let off the throttle?
Acceleration, aggression, hostility.

Two football fields away.

Maybe he’s a hostile threat. I say “he” because women don’t drive here. I don’t think they’re allowed to. Maybe there is a woman in the car though; maybe she has the bomb in her lap. I haven’t seen a woman driving yet, but I have seen women with bombs strapped to them. All I know is the car is 200 yards away and moving fast. I don’t know, 40, maybe 50, miles per hour. It’s hard to say; I haven’t slept in days. I feel like I’m on a caffeine high, but I haven’t had any caffeine. I don’t know, Fog of War . . . whatever that is.

Maybe he’s just trying to leave town, move his family to a safe place. He must know we’re coming. He must know his family will probably die in crossfire, or what the media likes to call “friendly fire,” as if friendship alleviates any hard feelings when a bullet sails past your head. If his family doesn’t die in cross fire, they’ll probably be killed fighting us or by the Iraqi army if they choose not to fight us. So like I said, maybe he’s leaving town with his family, to a safe place.

One and a half football fields away.

I tell Lcpl. Isaac Schaff, 19 years old from Everett, Washington, to track his target, to train his M249 SAW light machine gun on the driver’s head. I tell Lcpl John Herndon, 20 years old from Orlando, Florida, to train his M2E 50-caliber machine gun on the tires. I fire three warning shots into the sky with my M-16 A2 rifle. M-16, 5.56 mm (.233 caliber) rounds are long and lightweight; they cut through the air and ride the wind like waves; they work with whatever might be in their way rather than against. They make a very distinct ear-ringing noise, a sharp cackle, less dense a sound than heavier rounds. The magazine I have loaded for warning shots is full of bright-tracer rounds. Immediately after leaving the barrel, these rounds leave a sort of exhaust trail behind them as they sail. These exhaust gasses make a bright colored tracer, sort of like a limp laser following the round. Perfect for warning shots. They are so lightweight they bounce off of and are redirected by hard surfaces like rock; see also: bone. Perfect for tearing through flesh and bouncing around the insides of someone’s body. Perfect for teaching drivers of approaching vehicles to turn around when they hear that sound ahead of them. Universal language. I fire three more warning shots; still the car doesn’t slow down.

Ironically, not long from now we’ll learn that many Iraqis speed up following warning shots. Who knew? So much for universal language.

One football field away.

Schaff is fixated on the left side of the windshield as he sees it through his scope. I watch his breathing; it’s steady, good cadence, relaxed. Schaff’s finger is relaxed on the trigger. Inhale, exhale completely, pull your finger back, just your shooting finger not your hand, and don’t squeeze your entire grip, just your relaxed shooting finger. You have to learn to isolate and coordinate usage of individual muscles. Discipline, focus, mind over matter. This is how you kill a man driving 40 mph straight towards you from your opponent’s 25-yard line.

Killer instinct. These are the fruits of our labor. The product of your tax dollars.

Herndon has his 50-caliber machine gun trained on the closest wheel of the car. In this case, the front left wheel as the driver sees it. Within in our semi circle, my team is at the 5 o’clock position; this means our jurisdiction is primarily what falls between the 10 and 11 o’clock positions on the opposite side of our imaginary semi-circle. Just to our left is Sgt. Graves’ team. Chuck Graves is a 26-year-old sniper. We checked into Charlie Company of First Recon together. We rode together in the same bus to our new home with First Recon. We were both young, dumb, and full of cum. Motivated young men, chomping at the bit to shoot at people like they do in the movies. Now we’re trained, focused professionals leading recon teams side by side about to experience a phenomenon that will stay with us forever, for better or for worse.

For the first time since the war started, I feel the weight of what we’re doing. For the first time, I REALLY ask myself how the hell I got here. For the first time, some cliché answer equally as irresponsible as the answer that some clever writer for the Bush administration came up with to convince our country to go to war won’t leave me at ease. We’ve been shooting people for days now, not always knowing for sure whether or not they were about to shoot at us, but it was ok. Kill or be killed. When you shoot someone in the face, then as an afterthought realize that maybe that same someone wasn’t shouting, but smiling at you and holding what wasn’t a rifle, but a sheathed umbrella used to block the desert sun; it’s ok, that’s just your will-to-live doing its job.

Right now there’s not much time for reflection. Like I said. one football field away.

Now the car is right at the 12 o’clock position. The ball is in Graves’ team’s court. Under the ROE (Rules of Engagement), if a vehicle fails to stop at a roadblock, it just became a hostile threat. Graves calls in the target and acknowledges it. I verify his call. Graves yells, “LIGHT EM UP,” and a chorus of shrill cackles abruptly replaces all sound within a mile radius. An abrasive overload of senses numbing each of your sensory functions until all you hear is what it feels like against your cheek when your rifle recoils; the vibration of the jaw and involuntary chattering of teeth. Anymore, you only know what’s going on inside your head and at the end of your rifle. This all happens within five seconds time.

Approximately 75 yards away the car is stopped, smoking and decorated with bullet holes. Graves and Cpl. Ryan Jeschke, 22 years old from Detroit, Michigan, approach the car cautiously with weapons trained at the doors. The rest of us have our weapons trained to provide cover fire. The driver’s door swings open, and two men run out hunched over with their hands on the back of their heads like they’re very disoriented and trying to do sit-ups while running. The men see Graves and Jeschke approaching and they drop to the ground submissively, face first. The men have no weapons on their bodies. The men appear to be innocent civilians that were on their way to a safe place. We are all shocked to see them alive. An entire platoon of special ops Marines just unloaded on the car and these two men survived. My first impression was that God must be in the details. Many times before, I considered this as we came out of hostile situations unscathed with the odds stacked against us, but now I knew for sure. For these two innocent men to survive an attack of this magnitude, God must have been protecting them.

My team follows to secure the two men as Graves and Jeschke make their way to inspect the car. I’m prepared to provide cover fire with my weapon tracking any possible movement through what used to be windows. Graves looks into the front seats through the car’s front left door. He immediately steps out, opens the back door and sees a young girl, a toddler, curled up fetus style in the back seat. Her eyes are open and she looks scared and in shock. Graves reaches in to lift her out so we can give her medical attention. Just as soon as he pulls her to his chest, her head falls back against his right arm and the top of her head slides off like the lid of a cut coconut. Her brains fall out right in front of him. So much for God.

I feel like time has frozen, like all of a sudden we’re not at war, or that the war all of a sudden doesn’t matter anymore and we can go home. Kind of like when it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt . . . then its time to go home. I realize I still have my weapon trained on the car as Graves walks right through me with the girl. She looks like the real life version of a jack-o-lantern without its lid and with its slimy residue after the flame burns out. Graves and I reflect on it the next morning as we eat our MREs. He says something, not to me, but to us all, or to no one at all. “I could see her throat from the top of her skull,” he says. I don’t think anyone has forgotten that. Evan Wright, journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, now the journalist assigned to our battalion, will later write a book of his experience with us in the war titled, Generation Kill. I will later read the book and read up to where Evan quotes Graves the same, and lose control of all restraint and bawl uncontrollably for what feels like hours. This will be the first time I acknowledge or express any emotional reaction to my experience in the war. This will be the exact moment that I realize war is absolutely evil and wrong and that no person should ever have to experience it in any capacity.

When questioned as to why they didn’t stop after the warning shots, the girl’s father says what translates to “I’m very sorry.” Then the father asks permission to take his daughter. He leaves carrying his daughter’s limp jack-o-lantern body, headed back the way they came.

In war, there is never a safe place.