By Joshua Holmes
Iraq was an ugly place, but it was also a dismal time in my life. My memories of the country are colored by my emotions- both the fear, anger, and contempt I felt toward the Iraqis and the grief that recalling my time there brings to the surface now.
In all the images I remember from Iraq, the common theme is how dirty and run down the whole place was. Garbage was strewn across every field and piled by the side of every road. Even the intact houses were homely and in need of repair, and wind-blown dirt gave everything a dingy hue. Battered cars with flecked paint plodded down dusty roads. Earth-filled Hesco barriers topped with barbed concertina wire marked the territory of U.S. troops, which Iraqis were forbidden to enter.
They say that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory, a piece of evolutionary biology designed to protect us from ingesting the same poison twice. It’s true in my case. I remember Mosul, the most populous city in northern Iraq, for its open sewers, called “wadis.” They were slow moving streams of water, excrement and petroleum byproducts that ran between open fields and alongside roads. Their color ranged from a bright, rusty orange through all the shades of brown to a slick, oily black sludge that I’ll never forget.
One night at 2am, my platoon was called for quick response duty after a small kill team had engaged a handful of insurgents. The platoon that my buddy “Doc” Sanchez was a member of had been camped out in an Iraqi house and had observed some Iraqis digging a hole on the side of the road, apparently placing an improvised explosive device. They lit the insurgents up, unloading a full 200-round belt of ammo from the M240 Bravo machine gun before they lost sight of the enemy in a dark field. My platoon dismounted on the side of the road and swept the field, searching with night vision goggles and infrared flashlights for the dull black shine of blood in the tall grass. Finding it, we followed the blood trail to the edge of a sewer ditch and a sergeant ordered three of us to cross so we could search on the other side. We waded across eight or ten feet of the foul slime and when we came out on the other side, a thick black film clung to our boots and trousers up to mid-thigh. We didn’t find any bodies, but when the three of us got back to our base we were turned away from the chow hall and instead had to spend the pre-dawn hours scrubbing greasy filth from our boots and clothes.
The other smells I associate with my time in Iraq have to do with bombs and death. Bombs leave behind a burnt chemical odor similar to but distinct from gunpowder, stronger and more caustic. I would be happier if that were all they left behind.
We rode in Strykers, twenty-five ton armored vehicles originally conceived to deliver troops to the front lines under the cover of an artillery barrage. Their bomb-resistant armor made them ideal transports for Iraq after the insurgents adopted IEDs as their chief weapon for resisting U.S. occupation. Rolling on eight waist-high tires, that armor saved a lot of lives from blasts that would have destroyed armored Humvees, including mine.
The tremendous sound and the shudder of the car bomb striking the front left corner of our Stryker were the only warning we had that anything was wrong. Acrid, rust colored smoke that poured into the belly of the truck filled my nose, mouth, and lungs, while a high pitched ringing droned in my ears. My platoon leader, Lieutenant McNaughton came down out of the hatch with his face covered in blood, shouting to my squad leader to take over because his hearing was gone. Because of his own deafness, he couldn’t hear Sergeant Varney’s reply that he was deaf as well. The blood (thankfully from minor injuries) mingled with the shouting and the urgency, and we quickly evacuated our casualties to a field hospital. The blast from hundreds of pounds of homemade explosives combined with 155mm artillery shells had ground our vehicle’s engine to a halt and had sent the car that carried the bomb flying through the air before it came to rest down the street.
The following day I was tasked with cleaning the gore of the suicide bomber’s remains off our truck so the maintenance technicians could begin repairs. With gloved hands I held the pressure washer and peeled the scorched flesh off the battered armor plating. Some parts were recognizable, and that day I became thoroughly familiar with the reek of the burnt skin and hair that was fused to the truck’s green paint.
Who was this man who had tried to kill me? This was 2006, it didn’t have anything to do with Saddam Hussein or WMDs or any of the reasons we had started the war over. He wanted us, American soldiers, gone, dead if that was what it took. He wanted it so much that he gave his own life for it. I had no way of knowing if he’d had a family, whether he had said goodbye to them knowing what he was about to do, or whether he’d kept it from them, the same way I lied by omission to my own mother so she wouldn’t worry about me. I couldn’t hate him, he had done what I would do if our roles were reversed. Here I was, wearing a uniform, carrying a gun, how could I condemn him for using violence to protect his home from foreign invaders?
I would revisit those sights and smells again and again throughout my time in Iraq. Every dingy street was the same as the next, and the monotony and disquietude were only ever punctuated by death. The blackened husks of car bombs, the scorched limbs of a suicide bomber scattered like so much rubbish across the street in front of Baqubah’s police station, the soldier whose litter I carried as he died from shock and blood loss before the medics could save him.
When I think of Iraq I am sorry for all the carnage and fear that we visited on those downtrodden, impoverished people. I feel indignation toward the rulers who lied to gin up support for this war of choice, who never once put themselves in harm’s way or took responsibility for the suffering they caused. Like Vietnam before it, Iraq will always be a reminder of the dangers that come from an uncritical trust in authority.