by Michael Doliner
(Swans - July 3, 2006) What must life be like for an Iraqi resistance fighter? Let us try to imagine it. He is part of a small band, perhaps six or seven other men who move in and out of the city of their birth. They have had little training and know only one thing, how to set off Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). By now they are very good at it. They can nail a truck barreling down the road at 60 miles an hour, then disappear in the familiar landscape. They deliver death, but also live with it. Even when there is no one around they know that an eye in the sky is looking for them. Death could arrive without an announcement. They could be blown to bits at any second. This has happened to some of their close friends, some of their friends who had nothing to do with the resistance, but were just playing football. Danger is also on the ground, in the eyes of their neighbors, some of whom might collaborate against them. Only their closest comrades can know where they are, for even friends, when tortured, will betray them. They carry no identification for fear of reprisal against their families if they are caught or killed. If they die they will die anonymously. Nevertheless, they do make many contacts with supporters.
They carry their food with them. What is it? What do they eat? Couscous? I once heard cucumbers! Whatever it is it's something very light. Just a little grain each one carries in a pouch, a few vegetables they buy in a market. Other than that they carry almost nothing but light Kalashnikov rifles. Just now they sit in the ground level of a house around a small makeshift stove and boil their grain in one pot. The house, earlier hit by air strikes, is a pile of rubble in a completely out-of-the-way part of town. Out of a little pouch one takes some baby eggplants they fry and share. The house is desolate and crumbling. In one corner it is open to the sky. Outside, debris is strewn all around the devastated neighborhood, but people still move cautiously about through the rubble. The world is lawless and anyone can be attacked at any time. The house is in the outskirts of the city, in a district outsiders would hardly know is there. The men are not afraid of American patrols, for the Americans do not often patrol here. They have only enough manpower to patrol the main drag.
Their host is a local resident. He knows them all. All their large extended families have connections through marriage with each other and with the host. He too has always lived in that city. He has many memories of all of them -- childhood games, wedding parties, holidays shared, funerals. All their lives are deeply intertwined. But he is not one of them. Just a little older, he has a family, what is left of it, to take care of. He does what he can do -- play host for a night. He has so little to give them. Not even a glass of clean water. He did supply a little cooking oil. When he looks at them he can still see laughing children, but also men, and children who are not there. He sits with them on the dirt floor. The destroyed house serves only to hide them. They share the food. Pray. Sleep a little. Then they prepare to move out before dawn. It would be very impolite for them to endanger their host by staying too long. The host sees an air of fatality about their moves. Death is palpable, and of course it envelops him too, though perhaps not quite so intimately. There is nothing to pack up. They simply stand up, embrace, perhaps truly for the last time, say a few words, and then leave. Dogs who know them don't bark. That the men have been there is a secret precious to the host.
The men set out for a meeting. They can both joke and be serious as they move along the familiar path to the hills. They have gone this way many times. The trees and rocks are familiar, and they all know just how the war has altered the landscape. One of the men is the leader, although nothing in his dress says so. He was not so much chosen by the higher-ups in the resistance as recognized. For he has always been their leader, even in their childhood games. They move along, chatting, until they arrive at the meeting. They embrace the men they meet, the men who have set the device and now give them the cell phone detonator. One is one of their brothers. The device is hidden in the road just where they told them to hide it. The one who is best at timing the truck's speed gets the cell phone. He has ordered the device placed just so. Who would have thought it would be him? Before all this he was good for nothing, such a clown. How he has changed. The other men leave and they settle down to wait, detonator in hand, hidden in the scrub bushes, within sight of the device buried just there. They can also see a stretch of road. The camcorder is ready. They sit and wait for the convoy.
Improvised explosive devices have to be watched. You have to see the truck and time it to set it off. Perhaps they will have to wait for hours while the eye in the sky looks for them. Any second, distant enemies could send screaming missiles to annihilate them, turn them into unrecognizable chunks of red flesh. Choppers could rise over the hills and pour thousands of murderous rounds down upon them, and they would be vaporized. One man alone some distance from the road would be safer, but they all wait with the man who will detonate the device. Yes, alone would be safer, but too lonely. They are not afraid to die together. They sit and wait and keep each other company. They sit easily. They are relaxed with each other like only those who have known each other forever can be. They have always been part of the landscape for each other. They grew up together, lived almost every day together, played football, shared secrets. And now this. They expect to die together. If the eye in the sky finds them, so be it. The eye in the sky makes it impossible to be frivolous, and yet, and yet, they must by now have become used to it. Death is their companion. Death is almost like one of them, always there, sharing everything. He is sometimes grim, but also sometimes quite comic. Like any other companion he shares their mood. They live and joke and play like young men, and death joins in.
Now that they know death so well, he is no longer so frightening. Mostly, he just blusters. Maybe the vaunted eye in the sky is overrated. Somebody's got to be looking at that boring, boring bank of screens (the endless uninteresting pictures of desolate empty landscape the satellite or drone sends back.) Can that kid back in America actually look at that wall of video day in and day out and still see them? Maybe he can. Maybe that kid back in Las Vegas can keep his eyes open. Maybe his superiors have impressed very strongly upon him that what he sees on that bank of screens is important, and remains important even when he takes a break and goes to the cafeteria to get himself a double Whopper with fries and a Dr. Pepper. They must have impressed upon him the seriousness of what he is doing. No doubt he is well trained; no doubt he believes in the mission; no doubt he is dedicated. But can he feel it like someone in the middle of it? Someone who can't get away, who has no Green Zone? Can he feel it like the resistance fighters, living with death, feel it?
The men some distance from the road do not know much about the kid back in Las Vegas, their enemy. They do not think about him. But they do think about what brought them there. How did they become part of the resistance? The higher-ups may be from Saddam's old army, but they are not. Perhaps no personal horror wounded one of them. Perhaps he could not bear to be ruled by American rhinoceri. Even if he had wanted to, how could he acquiesce to the rule of someone who can't even articulate what he wants you to do? The Americans have been here for more than three years and none of them knows the language. They send their uneducated children over here and expect them to teach one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. They were too thoughtless to protect the ancient artifacts. They have no respect for anything. How could anyone obey them with their hideous weapons that have to be hoisted with two arms, giant tanks that roll over everything, and screaming missiles? Their clumsiness and ugliness is everywhere. They themselves are so weighed down they rumble along instead of moving like human beings. To obey them would be to obey the creatures of the night. All they do is smash things up and kill people. They are utterly uncouth. While they are around no one even dies a human death. Everyone is blown apart, shredded, torn up with a thousand big bullets so you can't even recognize them. And all they really want to do is wipe us out and take our oil.
But for most of them hatred for witnessed atrocities fuels them. For each one something very bad has happened. A brother or friend or sister in Abu Ghraib. Perhaps a baby brother was one of the 500,000 who died of malnutrition under the Bush Sr./Clinton sanctions. A father forced to lie down in the dirt with a boot on his neck and a bag over his head. A whole family roused when doors are smashed in at 3:00 in the morning, bright lights in eyes, furniture wrecked, women defiled by gigantic, stumbling, barking men who reduced him and his brothers and his father to helplessness and killed his uncle. Or a car pierced by a thousand bullets, awash in blood, filled with screams and groans until only he, miraculously, is left unscathed, buried in the gore that was, only moments before, his family.
The American top brass must have thought it would break them to torture, humiliate, and indiscriminately kill them. But the children, the ones who see their parents humiliated or tortured or killed, will hate and seek revenge, not cower. Torture witnessed does not have the same affect as torture suffered. As conquerors the Americans are stupid. They do not even know that the conqueror must offer the conquered some inducement to acquiesce in their own conquest. Do these American rhinoceri think they will accept the life of slaves or simply let themselves be wiped out? The Romans offered Roman citizenship. What do the Americans offer other than misery?
The men some distance from the road think like this: "We carry nothing but light weapons, and a little couscous. And we move gracefully and quietly. Yes we are vulnerable, but we live like men, not rhinoceri. And yes, we live with death and welcome him. At last, after the years of sanctions, we don't merely have to watch the babies starve. We can do something too. We can reach you now. I hate the sight of you and your machines of death, but thank you, thank you for coming over here in the flesh where I, a poor man, can reach you with this device my brother made for me from your junk, and kill you. You have been killing us for a long time. Now we can kill you. If for that we must live with death, then welcome. After all, we've been doing that for years now. And I know you can be very funny, mister death. After all you gave us the killer clown, Mr. President George W. Bush. Our country died neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with a wisecrack. Your grin Mr. Death, once macabre, is now just goofy. So be it. God is great. But for now, Mr. Death, pick up your end of the bomb."
"Yes, you Americans have many expensive machines of death and we, just us six men. But surely, now that you have forced yourselves upon us, ours is the more worthy life. Our cause is noble and yours is base. Did you read Babar as a child? Look at yourselves, just look! You are the rhinoceri. Wouldn't you rather fight and die than be ruled by the rhinoceri? You have destroyed our country. We know we cannot rebuild it. You have humiliated us, defiled our women, exposed our weakness, and broken our hearts. You have given us only one thing: a noble fight against a clumsy, barbaric invader. All that is left for us is to inhabit the ruins of our city with a small group of men, friends since childhood, doing what we can to drive you out. We have nothing left but this. Our hearts, though broken, are full. Do you think you will discourage us with more force?"
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