In the last hour of any patrol in Baghdad, things start to slow down. Conversations are filled with comfortable silences that stretch themselves out. Everyone gets a little bit restless to head back to beds, food, and relative safety. No one wants anything to happen that would keep us out longer than necessary.
That's why I could feel the exasperation in the Humvee when the call went out over the radio one night last December for everyone to stop. The senior non- commissioned officer in my vehicle called up over the radio network and asked what the holdup was. A pause followed. The lead vehicle said there were dogs, a lot of them, fighting over something.
This didn't seem like a reason to stop. If you patrol Baghdad at night, you end up sharing the streets with dogs. Thousands of them roam the darkened city, some mangy, others well-groomed, promenading through piles of garbage and bricks. Sometimes, when they're alone, they pass by nearly undetectable except for the quiet scraping of their unclipped claws along the alleyways and the strange iridescent glow of their eyes. More often, they congregate in giant packs. They fight and howl and bark, and they are louder than the people who inhabit the city during the daytime. But we had never had a reason to stop for them before. "Jesus Christ," said Specialist Hernandez, a passenger in our Humvee. "I thought we were supposed to be keeping Iraqis from fighting each other, not dogs."
Before anyone could respond, the lead vehicle came back up over the net. The dogs were eating a human body. More precisely, they were eating out of a human body. Apparently, they were only eating the brain.
This wasn't the first dead body I had seen in Baghdad. Religious factions, and factions within factions, kill one another on a daily basis. It's less often, maybe only a few times a month, that we find the dumped bodies. The point of dumping a body is to send a message. The killers want as many people as possible in the neighborhood to be exposed to it.
A mob of dusty kids who were shouting excitedly, running around corners, and pointing led us to our first body at the beginning of my deployment. Eventually they stopped and circled around a man hog-tied and stiff on the side of the road. There weren't any large pools of blood, so we knew that he had been killed somewhere else and dropped in this particular neighborhood for some particular reason. His eyes had been gouged out, and there were minor lacerations on his arms and face. He had been kidnapped, tortured, and executed.
For most of us, it was the first dead human we had seen outside of a funeral parlor, so we momentarily froze with some strange mixture of revulsion and reverence. The kids had already scattered or were asking for chocolate, their parents smoking butts in doorways, sending us tired and helpless glances.
The patrol leader didn't want too many boots on the ground just to recover a body, so only four of us got out of the Humvee. We stopped our vehicle about 15 meters from the pack of dogs. "Should we shoot them?" Hernandez asked the patrol leader.
"Nah, I think they're just starving," he answered.
Almost within arm's reach of the body, two of the more deranged, wild- looking dogs were still pursing back their lips to scoop up brain tissue with their fangs. Hernandez kicked the nearest one in its protruding ribs. The dog didn't make a sound--it just rolled off into the darkness.
Having scattered the dogs, we all looked at the dead body in front of us, pretending to think of a way to move it. The man was lying on his back. His hands and feet were free, but the top of his head had been blown away. Maybe it was a failed kidnapping. He was a big guy, maybe six feet tall and a little on the obese side. He could've struggled, and, instead of a routine execution, they had to shoot him in the head in a really quick and sloppy way. But why had the body stayed here this long without being reported? The locals usually either wave down an American patrol, call the tip hotline, or at least tell the police.
Someone reached down and picked a shell casing up off the ground. It was 9mm with a square back. Everything suddenly became clear. The only shell casings that look like that belong to Glocks. And theonly people who use Glocks are the Iraqi police.
"How close is the nearest IP station?" I asked.
"It's actually on this street, about five hundred meters south. We would be able to see it without optics if it were daylight," the patrol leader said.
"Are we gonna drop the body off?" Hernandez asked.
"Nah, they can clean up after themselves. We'll swing by and tell them to pick up the body."
As we slowly started moving back toward the Humvee, we could hear the dogs filling in the space behind us. I turned around and saw their green eyes flashing in the deep shadow where we'd left the body. Part of me thought we should have shot the dogs or done something to keep them from eating the body, but what good would it have done? We only would have been exposing ourselves to danger longer than we needed to.
Back in the Humvee, Hernandez started talking to me without looking in my direction. "Man, I've never seen anything like that before," he said.
"What? A guy killed by a cop?" I asked.
"No, man, zombie dogs. That shit was wild," he said, laughing.
Something inside of me fought for expression and then died. He was right. What else was there to do now but laugh?
"I took his driver's license," I said.
"You did?" questioned Hernandez.
"Yeah. It said he was an organ donor."
We chuckled in the dark for a moment, and then looked out the window into the night. We didn't talk again until we were back at our base.
By Scott Thomas; Scott Thomas is a pseudonym for a freelance writer andsoldier currently serving in Baghdad.