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Through the small, thick Humvee window, the city was dirty and gray, a charcoal drawing sketched across the horizon. Sand moved over the blacktop. Along the roadside, the sagging arms of dead power lines hung from one blackened light pole to the next. The sun beat down on everything: the palm trees, the cinderblock houses, the dirty boulevards that led from nowhere to nowhere. There was something almost cunning in the layout of the city, in the way it could swallow entire armies, reduce them to chaos, as if to repudiate the idea that fortresses needed walls.
"When were you in the Corps?" a captain named Vollmer asked from the front passenger seat.
"'94 to '98," I said.
"Ever go to Okinawa?"
"Yeah, I did a pump there with Three-Five."
"I was stationed at Schwab, up-island."
"Third Recon. I was a jarhead before I went into the army."
I had resigned my commission so long before that it felt almost shameful to bring it up. My time in the Marine Corps had been brief and uneventful, boring even — nothing of consequence had happened, a fact that even now brings a sense of regret. I served in no war, took part in no raid launched under the cover of darkness. Most of my time in uniform was spent in garrison, staging mock patrols into the hills of Camp Pendleton and the jungles of Okinawa; occasionally we rappelled out of helicopters, as if to remind ourselves what real danger felt like. We called this training, but really we were just waiting, waiting for the call that never came. After four years, I left the service feeling vaguely disappointed, incomplete, as if some secret in me had been left unrevealed.
I was an unpromising lieutenant, not the worst, but a slacker. Most of my peers wanted to command, to lead Marines in combat. They believed, as others had before them, that their lives would be freed forever from the trivial and the mundane once the bullets started flying. The idea of "leadership," the endless posing and pretending, the trading of steely-eyed glances, bored me. Military leadership is a solemn responsibility, but in peacetime it can seem ridiculous, an exercise in fascism. Twenty-three and fresh out of college, I didn't want responsibility, I wanted adventure — adventure and the stories that came out of it. I think of one story an old sniper in my rifle company told about being in Beirut in the eighties. From a position inside the city, he had held Yasir Arafat in his crosshairs for several minutes as the PLO leader made his way through a refugee camp. Following Arafat through his scope, he began to cycle through his breathing drill, beginning to imagine the shot, the shot that would change history. He never pulled the trigger, of course, but having the man in his sights for a few moments had given him an almost erotic sense of power. It was a feeling I never forgot.
Looking back, I can see that what I really wanted, as much as the adventure or experience or medals, was something far less noble: I wanted to be like that sniper. Not a killer, really, but a man with a history. I wanted to make other people envious. Envious of my experience. Envious of what I had seen. Envious of the stories I could tell. There were other desires, to be sure, some more honorable than that, but what I coveted more than anything was the power of a certain kind of silence, the silence that fell over a room when a veteran launched into a story that began, "Back in the Mekong ..."
This desire clings to me still and was even stronger during my first years out of the Marine Corps. I was finishing graduate school, still dreaming of faraway places, when the towers fell. Like everyone else, I woke on September 12 and saw a different world. I had begun working tentatively as a writer, and it was the writer in me, not the Marine, that sensed an opportunity. The world was at war, and I saw that the logical thing to do was to become a war correspondent. It would be a way of revising my past, correcting an oversight in my record; without having to don a uniform or suffer any orders, I could collect the experiences I'd hungered for as a young man. I would be in a war, but on my own terms. It felt like I'd discovered a trapdoor in time.
Now it was October 2007, the height of the surge. I was out with some soldiers from the First Infantry Division, patrolling a Baghdad neighborhood west of the river that I'd never been to before, even though I'd been coming to Iraq for three years. Saydia had been Sunni for as long as anyone could remember, but it was being taken over by the Shia, block by block, in a process that the New York Times had referred to as "slow-motion ethnic cleansing." This larger narrative of the war, the distinction between Sunni and Shia, the politics of the surge, was of little interest to the soldiers. The real reason behind their presence here seemed beyond them; they were here simply to make sure that their part of the city didn't explode completely and that was all.
It was one of those seasons in Baghdad when you could set your watch by the first firefights of the evening. Usually it was just a bunch of kids in a pickup hosing down the neighborhood with AKs. I didn't mind the shooting so much. Shooting had a logic that I understood. Either you were in its way or you weren't. My problem was with the bombs buried in the street. If you ran over a rigged 155 round, it didn't matter how much you knew about the war, how patriotic or well-trained you were, or if you'd been the honor man at boot camp. The year before, I'd seen a three-ton Humvee blown right off a bridge and into a canal by a pair of 155 rounds that had been flawlessly cemented into the roadway. The Humvee bucked like a startled horse and landed facedown in the filthy water, and two men inside drowned. The rest of us fanned out in a circle, waiting for an ambush that never came. The war happened in collections of seconds, but the memories of it echoed forever.
I shifted in my seat, the Humvee creaking like an old ship. The houses scrolled by. The occasional eucalyptus, the high gray walls, the mysterious chalk markings written in Arabic. The secret life of Iraq that no outsider could penetrate: the life of street soccer games, mullahs, the names of dead uncles. Moving my head left to right, I could make the image of the street bend and warp in the thick armored glass until it dissolved into blue nothingness at the edge of the window frame. It was like everything in Iraq: your perception of events depended on your angle of vision. Nothing was indisputable in Iraq except death and the heat. I tried to imagine the people who lived in the houses but could not, even though I'd spent months going out on patrols in streets just like this and drinking tea in the same sort of houses we drove past. Even the dogs seemed to view us with suspicion, watching us from under the bellies of burned-out cars as we passed.
"Time," the soldier next to me was saying. "What the fuck is time in a place like this?"
His name was Jonah, but everyone called him Reaper, after his radio callsign. He wore a blue bandana that stuck out the back of his helmet, giving him a small ponytail. An American infantry platoon is a haven for characters. Even more than the military in general, it serves as a sort of laboratory for the creation of personalities: court jesters, field preachers, paranoids, grunt magicians, and blessed ne'er-do-wells. Reaper was the platoon philosopher.
"Time," he said, pausing melodramatically, "time is in the eye of the beholder. I go to sleep in May, I wake up in September. Okay, now it's September. I go to sleep at nineteen-hundred. I wake up a month later, and it's nineteen oh-one."
"How long has it been this way?" I asked gamely.
"All day, sir."
Time was an issue with Reaper because he, along with the rest of the platoon, had been in Iraq for thirteen months, a virtual eternity in war. How long was thirteen months when even a second in Iraq could lose you in its vast expanse, its limits stretching outward beyond the grasp of imagination? And, as Reaper had explained to me the night before, the entire war was really just a battle betweentwo different kinds of time. In huge swaths of Iraq, people patterned their lives around the ritual predawn prayers, sunup, sundown, spring, and summer. In America, we lived by the tick of the clock, by the drumbeat of capitalism, the forty-hour work week, the binary code of the internet. As if to reinforce his point, when we'd left the patrol base that morning, I'd spotted a plywood board bolted to a concrete barrier that announced the day's theme, like the subject of a Sunday sermon back home. Painted on the plywood was a simple Godot-like assertion: EVERYDAY IS DAY ONE.
"I think I might be a pacifist, sir."
"Oh, really, how's that working out for you?" I said.
"Okay, not a pacifist, but what's it called? An expatriate."
"You've got a running start being over here."
"I'm serious, sir. I can't stand Americans."
You could feel it, Reaper needed to be talked to. It was like we were long-separated siblings, and now that we were finally together again, there was some catching up to do. Deep down I understood in a way that didn't need expressing: the work of soldiering was numbing and having a reporter along for the ride presented a huge opportunity. I was both entertainment and an audience.
Reaper was twenty-six, a geezer for the infantry. His unit was stationed in Germany, and he had married a local girl, a tall Nordic wonder whose head was practically aflame with fine blonde hair, or so he said. He was from East Texas, so, of course, the first thing out of his mouth when he met her was a joke about her being a member of the Master Race and how he was fated to procreate with her. The way he described her, I imagined her in a convertible Mustang trailing clouds of glory, her hair whipping in the breeze. You got the sense that Germany had shown him something of the world and had dimmed his enthusiasm for the army, the annoyance showing in his face.
Talking back at the patrol base, he told me the one thing he imagined over and over again was taking his wife to Iraq ten years from now, maybe up in the northern part of the country, up where grass grew over rolling hills. "Just to be back here and actually talk to the people. You know, as people."
"Sir, have you read any Sartre?" he asked, fiddling with his bandana.
"Hey, Reaper." It was Vollmer.
"Give it a rest, we got work to do."
Vollmer had an odd face, fixed and expressionless. The feeling must have left it long ago — perhaps during his first tour — and now his features were formed, and he would look like that until the day he died. The lack of emotion gave everything he said a certain authority. Like the broken streets we drove down, you wondered what had happened to make him look this way. It was a mystery that tickled at first, and then it burned: Was it one horrible day in particular, or was it the procession of one bleak day added to the next, until the differences between them no longer mattered? In between answering radio calls, he dipped tobacco, spitting into a Coke can in his hand, a habit left over from his days as an enlisted man.
"You must be desperate for a story if you're here," Vollmer said, dully, his eyes never leaving the road.
I didn't like being called desperate, but he wasn't far off. I'd just spent a month in Dora, a place that Al Qaeda, in their charming way, had been advertising on the internet as their "last castle in Baghdad," and my nerves needed a break. My first patrol in Dora, which was supposed to be an intelligence-gathering operation, had been interrupted by a nearby platoon getting ambushed. When we arrived at the ambush site, I saw that a Korean-American soldier had been shot in the genitals. I took cover in the shade of a nearby retaining wall, trying desperately not to think about what had happened. I overheard him talking quietly to his first sergeant, saying that while he'd had his doubts before, he was definitely an atheist now, because what sort of God would let a guy get shot in the dick? Every day in Dora had been a variation on this unreal theme: one day it was a guy getting shot in the dick, the next day it was our Humvee driving right over a metal "pizza box" IED that failed to explode for some reason, and the next day it was a patrol I was accompanying being sent to inspect the ruins of a mansion that had been laced with explosives so that it would collapse on anyone who walked inside.
The close calls. They were like boils in the ocean that held, churning the water for a moment, hinting at something below. You sailed on, but the image of what could have been your last sight stayed with you. War has always been uncanny. For me, however, it was a siren song — the odd occurrences and esoteric knowledge that came from living so close to death for so long, the hope for deeper wisdom, my near-deaths in towns with names like Karma, Fallujah, and Qaim. Places so out there, so far off the map of normal morality, that anything seemed possible. Anything at all.
Have you ever been blown up before, sir? Finding patterns where there shouldn't be patterns.
The soldiers in Dora were different, too. From a famous airborne unit, they were like an old aristocratic family trying to live up to former glories. They were driven to take chances, as if to prove their worth. It was a self-serving cycle. Each close call they survived confirmed their status as blessed men. Each man who was killed reminded them of the special work they were undertaking. Could there be any more exalting work in this life? To challenge death day after day? I found myself excited and exhausted by my time there, by my brushes with death, a deep tiredness in my bones. Walking away from the battalion command post in Dora the last time, the blood felt different in my veins. It was a lesson the war taught me: the body knows things long before the mind catches up. And the month I spent waiting for "my" IED to go off had taken its toll, the dread accumulating in my body like a toxin.
I had some time to kill before I was due out west in Anbar, where I had arranged an embed with the Marines, my old tribe. Back in the Green Zone, someone had told me that Saydia was a quiet sector, and so I decided to hang out there until my time came to head into the desert. I was tired and needed some time to myself. A quiet couple days in a quiet sector to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Shia Baghdad, which was weak at best. As we rolled drowsily along in the heat, I decided this would be my final patrol in Baghdad. After that, I'd take a week out west, catch a flight home, stir in some quotes, and collect a paycheck.
The radio crackled on the dashboard of the Humvee. Vollmer picked up the handset and quietly took in the situation. After a minute, he said something that sounded like "Roger that. Out."
"All right, listen up, gents. There are some houses on fire north of us. We're gonna go take a look and see what's what."
Most likely some Shia had set the fires, their way of encouraging their Sunni neighbors to seek accommodations elsewhere. It was one of the maddening things about Iraq. There was almost never any direct combat. Almost never was a day decided by enemies duking it out toe to toe. The fighting, when it happened, was always indirect — a sniper shooting at you all day from an invisible spider hole that you could spend weeks searching for and never find — or by proxy — an Al Qaeda fixer paying an unemployed local to emplace a bomb, its detonation something he would never see.
We drove for a long time, the heat leaking in through the cracks in the Humvee chassis. I had been down so many roads in the city that after a while it became hard to tell if you were awake or asleep. The roads just went on and on, leaving your mind somewhere in the dust trailing behind the Humvee. At some point, I noticed that the streets seemed emptier, paper cups and trash blowing in the flamethrower heat. After a while, I heard the Bradley armored personnel carrier ahead of us turning. I could feel the tracks grinding the blacktop under the Humvee.
"All right, slow up a bit," Vollmer told the driver as we turned onto a side street.
Ahead of us, the street was on fire. Black smoke poured diagonally out of a row of houses to our left, darkening the entire block. The Bradley punched a hole in the wall of smoke and disappeared. It was like we were entering a cave. The driver pointed us into the lowering dark without a word, seemingly dumb to his course.
"Once we're in, ease off," Vollmer said.
"Roger," the driver said, repeating the word as if to reassure himself.
I concentrated on taking photos, putting the lens of my SLR up against the armored glass to reduce the distortion. We passed under the roof of smoke, and suddenly it was as if a heavy net had been thrown over the sun, everything around us taking on a sepia quality. I could still hear the thunder of the Bradley ahead of us, wavering and distant like a receding train. The smoke parted for a second, and I was able to get a better look at the street. Slate gray and ringed by high cinderblock walls, the houses were basically middle-class dwellings, nearly identical to the homes I had seen in Mexico years before. I half-expected to see kids in Chivas jerseys chasing a soccer ball down the block. The street itself was ominously empty, only the usual trash and palm leaves decorating the blacktop. There was a strange lost feeling to it all, as in an empty house, the rooms without furniture. The world seemed deserted, the last humans having abandoned the earth. The smoke thickened again, mysteriously. Beside me, Reaper was quiet. I looked up at the gunner in the turret. I had been told that it would be up to me to pass him ammunition if he needed it. Without knowing why, I began to tighten up a little and then a little more. I didn't have a thought in my head, but something was happening in there.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Evil Hours"
Copyright © 2015 David J. Morris.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Warning xi
1 Saydia 21
2 In Terror's Shadow 41
3 Toward a Genealogy of Trauma 60
4 The Haunted Mind 103
5 Modern Trauma 132
6 Therapy 166
7 Drugs 213
8 Alternatives 231
9 Growth 252
Epilogue: Counterfactuals 268
Selected Bibliography 317