In Baghdad, a busted infrastructure has left entire neighborhoods navigable by vehicle only. The sector we soldiers patrol is known unaffectionately as "Little Venice" because of the dark brown rivers of sewage that backwash from broken pipes. The biggest fear in these parts isn't sniper fire or IEDs, but a flat tire that forces you to wade through the reeking fluids. Occasionally, that fear is realized--like on the day when I met Ali.
When pulling security for a crew that's changing a tire, you need to make sure that your head is constantly moving, if only to provide snipers with the illusion that you're paying attention. It's especially important to keep up the movement when talking to local nationals (LNs). There are very few we trust to give us accurate information about insurgents; they usually just complain about big issues that are out of our hands.
It was during one of these head-swiveling sessions that a short but unusually healthy-looking Iraqi kid approached out of my periphery wearing an Adidas hat and snowboarding t-shirt, his lower torso swallowed by one of Little Venice's excrement canals. It was no surprise that he spoke some English. Every Iraqi can speak English well enough to ask for things they want from American soldiers.
"Mistah Mistah, give me $50," he demanded, somewhat politely compared with other children. But I was still taken aback by the sum.
"Oh, hell no. ... Are you kidding?" I began laughing, and he joined in, aware that the amount he had requested was outrageous.
"Yes, I know," he said, placing his right hand over his heart the way Iraqis do when they greet you formally or apologize for something. "What is your name?"
"My name's Scott. What's yours?" My head was still on a swivel, and I was pacing in slow arcs back and forth between the pit crew changing the tire and a small alley jutting off to the left. Alleys are a prime spot for people to lean out of, shoot a rocket-propelled grenade from, and then disappear back into.
"Here, in Iraq, my name is Ali. But, in California, my name is James Bond."
"No way ... that's awesome!"
"Yes, are you from California?"
"No, I'm from St. Louis." He wrinkled his nose in confusion, the way most Iraqis do when I tell them that I'm from St. Louis.
"It's near Chicago."
"Ah, yes, Chicago. ... Go Cubs."
"How do you know so much about America? How do you speak English so well?"
"My family lives in Los Angeles. In California."
"No shit. ... Do you want to move there someday?"
"Yes, I will. Then I will do this..." and he pointed at me.
"What? Join the Army?"
"Don't. Go to college instead." Maybe his English wasn't as accomplished as I had assumed, because he seemed confused.
"Look, look ..." he said, taking a piece of chalk out of his pocket and wading over to a crumbling brick wall. He wrote "USA" backward, in an Arabic fashion, then turned to me with a huge smile and pointed at what he had done. "See, see."
"Yeah, wow, cool," I said, leaning into the alley on the left and glancing up at the satellite dishes on its rooftops.
"Thomas!" yelled the gunner on top of my vehicle, giving me the finger circling in the air signal, which means that it's time to mount up.
I started to get back in my vehicle. "Well, Mr. Bond--Mr. James Bond-- I hope you enjoy California."
The next day's mission set list didn't include me. I had tower guard from 0400 until 0800 instead. I went to guard shift, then got some sleep. When I woke up, the next day's patrol had already returned, and, as usual, the gaggle of guys who walked in and out of my room gave me updates on what had happened, who had been shot at, who had fucked up, who had chickened out, who had pulled off some great stunt of ingenuity. One of the privates sauntered in with a somewhat bemused expression.
"Hey, we were in Little Venice today, talking to LNs and shit."
"Sort of. That James Bond kid you were telling me about--did he run around in an Adidas hat?"
"Those fuckers cut off his tongue."
"Shia militia, the police, I don't know. Apparently he had been talking to too many Americans."
"No fucking way."
"Yeah. Fuck them, man. I hate when this shit happens to kids."
We didn't go back to Little Venice for a raid or patrol or mission of any type for quite some time--maybe a month or two. But when we did eventually go back, I didn't have to look very hard to find Ali. He was mixed in with the throng of children who waded up to our convoy screaming for us to throw them chocolate or soccer balls. Of course, he wasn't screaming, but he was smiling and his hands were outstretched to catch whatever a soldier with a generous streak might be kind enough to throw at him. I wanted to yell, "Hey, James Bond! I hope you get to California!"--but I didn't. I just watched him scramble for the soccer ball that went bobbing away toward an alley and out of my field of vision.
It was with a strange mix of regret and sadness that I went to the phone center post-mission and called my parents. I spared them the gory story of Ali and his violent silencing. I spared them my own ambivalence about feeling obligated to protect "those people" by putting my own life on the line. I also spared them the primitive guilt I felt at not being able to help a child. I realized that the more guilt I felt about being unable to help a specific person, the more ambivalent I became toward the population in general. It felt very un-American to have such a subtle balance of apathy and rage and remorse and fear operating simultaneously, but I was comforted to know that I wasn't alone. All of the Joes feel this way. We rarely mention it back on base--maybe because it's so obvious and maybe because there isn't any point. We are usually too busy getting ready for our next mission, anyway.
By Scott Thomas