Every few days over the next several months I will be posting installments of a novel about life, death, war and politics in America since 9/11. Through the Darkest of Nights is a story of hope, reflection, determination, and redemption. It is a testament to the progressive values we all believe in, have always defended, and always will defend no matter how long this darkness lasts. But most of all, it is a search for identity and meaning in an empty world.
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb, we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? ~Thomas Wolfe
All installments are available for reading here on Docudharma’s Series page, and also here on Docudharma’s Fiction Page, where refuge from politicians, blogging overload, and one BushCo outrage after another can always be found.
“You’d better start listening to me, Sergeant Chiles. You’re a soldier, man your weapon.
“Shit. We’re not soldiers, sir. We’re pawns. I’m a pawn, you’re a pawn, everyone in this army is a pawn. Pawns in uniforms, that’s all we are.” But Chiles grabbed the handles of his M240 and swiveled it towards the southbound lanes of Highway 8. He had no choice. Fuming, Travis grabbed his field glasses and watched the soldiers spraying the burning Abrams with fire extinguishers. “What the hell . . . just leave it!”
For fifteen agonizing minutes, the entire armored column sat motionless on Highway 8, under heavy fire from both flanks until the decision was finally made to abandon the burning tank. Travis watched the crew climb into the lead Bradley and the column started moving again. Charging the roadblock, the lead tanks blasted the truck and buses blocking the highway with 120 mm rounds as a barrage of Bradley chain gun fire killed the fedayeen on the overpass and in the embankment trenches.
As it approached the burning wreckage in front of the overpass, the lead tank accelerated, shoved it aside with its mine plow, and the column sped through. But the chaos was far from over. Travis trained his M2 on a black truck barreling towards them in the southbound lane and shattered the windshield of the cab with a burst of 12.7 mm fire. The truck careened out of control and slammed into a bridge abutment, hurling the driver through the smashed windshield and out onto the shoulder of the highway.
Finding themselves in the middle of a war zone, some Iraqi commuters slowed down and pulled off onto the shoulder, but most sped up and fled down the nearest exit ramp. Across the median in the southbound lanes, some vehicles braked to a stop but most of them turned around and raced back towards Baghdad on the shoulder, passing pickups, vans and buses filled with fedayeen and militia heading towards the fighting.
Under such conditions, it was impossible to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. Civilian vehicles were everywhere. Some were filled with families and some were filled with fedayeen. There was no way to tell the difference between panicked drivers weaving through the traffic trying to get away from the killing and suicide drivers targeting a tank or a Bradley to smash into.
Travis fired a burst at a green Datsun racing down an access ramp towards the column. Raked with machinegun fire, the Datsun veered towards the shoulder, then exploded as tracer rounds ignited the gas in the fuel tank. On both sides of Highway 8, from trenches, alleyways and rooftops, Iraqis with AK-47’s kept the column under relentless fire, but the high tech firepower of the Abrams and Bradleys was inflicting a lethal toll. Hundreds of militia and fedayeen were ripped apart by chain gun fire from the Bradleys and main gun rounds from the Abrams’, others fell to the ground as if they’d been wounded, waited until the column passed by, and then opened fire on it from behind.
So orders went out over the task force radio net to shoot anyone lying beside the highway, and they were raked with machinegun fire by the Abrams and Bradley gunners as the column passed by. If a body wasn’t mangled, bloody, and dead beyond any doubt, it was stitched with bullets until it was mangled, bloody, and dead beyond any doubt.
Sickened by the slaughter, Chiles didn’t fire his M240 at anyone unless they were a direct threat, but Travis kept firing away at every armed Iraqi within range of his M2. Every RPG streaking towards the column enraged him, every bullet snapping past his head stoked his fury. He was in his element, he was in combat mode, he was in kill the enemy mode, he was in God Bless America and damn all the Muslims mode.
Chiles just wanted the killing to end, but the killing was only beginning. Ignorant Americans from beyond the sea, self-righteous avengers of 9/11 who knew nothing of this land or its people, who did not care to know, had unleashed the Angel of Death and he was reaping a bloody harvest. He had come to call, he had swept into this ancient land on the wings of lies, and had only begun to darken it with horror and stain its soil with blood.
Travis peered through the smoke, trying to spot the airport exit ramp. The head of the column was slowing down at a complex junction of exits where northbound traffic heading into Baghdad stayed in the right lanes and traffic heading for the airport exited into a cloverleaf connecting to the Airport Road, which led to Saddam International, several kilometers west of the capital.
“Can you see the airport exit yet?”
Travis heard the tension in Sergeant Hewitt’s voice. Down in the driver’s compartment he could see very little of what was happening, the viewing slots on his hatch limited his vision to the highway ahead and only the forward area of both flanks. Travis knew his shaken driver needed reassurance, from one man to another, not from a lieutenant to one of his crew, so he offered it. “The exit’s coming up, Jake, just keep following the Bradley ahead of us.”
They both knew it was up to the crew of the lead tank to make sure they didn’t take the wrong exit and lead the entire column into central Baghdad instead of to the safety of the airport. The briefing had been clear, the maps had been studied, the route had been carefully planned and the proper exit had been identified. But no one had expected an ordeal like this, nerves were rattled, desperation was mounting, in this cauldron of mind-numbing violence and chaos, finding the right exit meant survival, missing it meant annihilation. Pointing to it on a briefing map in the safety of a headquarters tent was easy, but out here on Highway 8, death was conducting the briefing and the map was drenched with blood.
“Is that it?” Chiles pointed at an exit ramp in the distance, just visible through the drifting smoke from dozens of burning vehicles. Travis grabbed his field glasses and scanned the interchange. “I think so . . . but the sign’s been shot up, I can’t read it.”
It was the airport exit, but the lead tank went right past it and the Abrams and Bradleys behind it followed. The radio net erupted with warnings from tank commanders further back in the column who could see what the disoriented lead crews could not–that they were heading into Baghdad. The warnings were heard, Travis saw the lead tank stop, pivot, rumble over a median divider onto the airport exit ramp, turn around, and finally emerge through the smoke rolling west towards the airport.
As Sergeant Hewitt drove them down the exit ramp towards the safety of the airport, Travis looked down from the turret at a burning Fiat. He saw a bloody corpse slumped behind the wheel, he saw a sobbing woman curled into a fetal position in the ditch beside the bullet-riddled car, he saw her little daughter lying beside her, bleeding from a bullet wound in her stomach. On this morning of carnage, on this highway of slaughter, she looked at her dead father, she looked at her dying mother, and then she looked at Travis. She looked into his eyes. She did not speak, she could not speak, but her eyes spoke for her, her eyes spoke for every innocent victim of war. They asked him . . .