We don’t talk about the roadside bombs. That would only make things worse. So instead we tell morbid jokes and force grins, trying to hide the sensations in our guts that are pulling and twisting and eating away at us.
You get ready for a mission, check the oil in your truck, load your weapon and do radio checks, while somewhere in the back of your head you try to remember what you last ate, wondering what it will look like splattered across the road if you get blown inside out.
Most common are the rigged artillery rounds, usually just two or three, but sometimes entire caches of 155mm shells strapped together and wired to a cell phone, set to blow when it rings. Simple, but devastating. These devices are typically buried alongside the road, or directly underneath it, but sometimes they’re stuffed inside animal carcasses or piles of trash. Large blasts can throw a 10,000lb Humvee into the air, killing everyone inside—like the truck from 3rd that got hit during a convoy. Nothing was left except a giant crater and a Kevlar helmet that flew out of the gunner’s hatch and landed over a hundred meters away, still smoking.
There are the daisy chains, multiple bombs strung together in order to take out several vehicles at once, their rhythmic boom-boom-boom-boom immediately recognizable from any distance. Sometimes they’re buried, but they can also be concealed behind the metal guardrails along the side of the road. These are the least common but most feared of all roadside bombs because they exponentially increase the odds of your truck getting hit.
There are the explosively formed penetrator bombs, which are the equivalent of gigantic shotguns, mounted to the sides of trees or even behind road signs. To make one of these, a metal cylinder is filled with explosives and topped with a concaved piece of metal that expands outward and becomes the projectile during the blast, punching like a slug. These shaped charges are able to pierce through our armored trucks like rocks through glass, and are often placed on overpasses, or just before them, aimed at the driver’s side door. This way, if the device kills the driver, the truck will lose control and swerve off the bridge, killing the other passengers.
There are the anti-tank mines hiding in puddles and potholes, intended for track vehicles. The bottoms of Humvees aren’t armored, so if a truck drives over one of these devices, the blast shoots directly up into the interior where the shrapnel gets trapped, ricocheting around inside the doors and roof which are armored—like the patrol from FOB Python, where an entire truck crew had to be scraped off the inside of their vehicle, divided up evenly, and sent home in plastic bags.
There are the remote-detonated incendiary bombs, loaded with combustible materials that, when they explode, become so hot they can instantly weld a truck’s metal doors shut. These blasts tend to set off any grenades inside the vehicle and ignite the spare cans of fuel, causing the trucks to go up in flames while soldiers roast inside, screaming.
We’ve seen all of these, and on the especially long convoys you start to ruminate on them, imagining which kind might kill you. The monotonous roar of the engine puts you into a trance as the road rolls past, mile after mile, a never-ending strip of pavement surrounded by sandy nothingness, and you catch yourself wondering: What will it feel like? Will I even feel it at all? I could be vaporized in a heartbeat. Nothing left but a cloud of dust. What if I get hit like Owen did and lose my legs? Maybe I’ll only lose one if I sit with my feet offset, one in front of the other. I’d rather lose a leg than an arm, if I had to choose. I should have sat on the other side of the truck; they say that side’s less likely to get hit. Will it hurt? It could happen any second. Maybe now . . . Maybe now . . . Maybe . . .
And then you have to force yourself to think of something else. You understand that it’s out of your control, nothing but chance and blind luck, but you still can’t resign yourself completely. The anxiety grips you, and you grow increasingly superstitious as normal things become hostile: your body tenses up as you drive past mounds of sand and loose dirt; every pile of trash starts to loom; you notice each tire lying on the side of the road, wondering if it’s marking a bomb; people on cell phones suddenly seem suspicious.
The catch is that these convoys aren’t even worth dying for. There is no honor in them. Freedoms are not protected. Democracy is not spread. Soldiers die on completely mundane trips to FOBs just to get trucks fixed, or to take someone to the dentist, or to re-fuel vehicles, or to visit the PX to buy deodorant and foot powder. We’ve even convoyed to bases for the memorials of dead soldiers, ironically risking our own lives in the process. “Imagine,” someone said, “getting blown up on your way to a memorial for guy who got blown up.”
A truck crew consists of a driver, a commander, and a gunner, but sometimes extra passengers or dismounts sit in the back seats. On the roof, a gun is mounted to a turret that can spin 360°, and the gunner sits behind the weapon on a thin seatbelt-type strap with their body sticking halfway out of the roof. Exposed. Before each mission you climb onto the hood of your truck and drop in through the roof onto the strap, your body armor making you hunch uncomfortably behind the gun. A few guys have ordered plastic seats made for children’s swing sets because the normal straps can cut into your thighs. The direction you face as a gunner depends on your position in the convoy: the lead weapon always aims forward, the intermediary gunners face alternately left and right, and the last truck points its gun to the rear. Some guys claim the gunner’s hatch is the best place to be during a blast because the other passengers will absorb most of the shrapnel. Others say it’s the worst spot because of snipers, and because trucks can flip or roll over when they’re hit, ejecting the gunner like a doll or pinning him underneath the vehicle.
As soon as you leave the main gate, your truck becomes a claustrophobic metal box, trapping you inside as you drive down the long, desert highway with nothing to do but sweat and hope that it’s not your day. There is no army we are fighting, no front lines, no actual enemies other than civilians who occasionally plant bombs or shoot a few rounds at us before blending back in with everyone else, so after a while the roads themselves start to look homicidal. A long stretch of empty highway is a stick of dynamite. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good soldier; we’ve seen enough burning, mangled truck frames to know that death is completely impersonal here, that these roadside bombs are nothing more than an ominous lottery.
Convoys can last for hours, and often do, but a helpless feeling starts to ooze into your mind as you drive along, a morbid curiosity that slowly poisons your thoughts. You can try to control it. Sometimes you can even distract yourself long enough to almost forget about the possibility of imminent, violent death, but this kind of denial only makes reality more depressing when it returns. It’s like when you're taunted during your already-troubled sleep by soft, peaceful dreams of being back home, dreams that seem so real to you that you wake up feeling completely disoriented, dreams that absolutely crush you as you slowly start to realize where you still are. That sort of thing can put a guy in a slump for days.
Since most of the bombs are remote detonated, the attackers bury them and then sit near windows or on rooftops, drinking chai and smoking hookahs, calmly waiting for convoys to drive past. Every now and then you get lucky and an explosion is delayed, barely missing your truck, or else the device is buried too deep and causes nothing but a muted pfft that lifts the back end of your vehicle off the ground a few inches. Sometimes a bomb will even skip over your convoy for no apparent reason, only to hit the next one minutes later on the same road you had just used. You want to ask why, but it’s better not to.
These attacks are often filmed with a stationary camera that’s focused on the section of the road where the bomb is waiting. As the convoy comes into the frame a man’s voice says, “Allah Whakbar, AlllAAAH WhAAKbar!” and he sets off the bomb. It’s the same phrase that rings out through the mosque speakers five times each day, during the calls to prayer. After the blasts, they’ll ambush us with spurts of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades as we try to help the wounded. They’ll continue filming long after the attacks, waiting until Mortuary Affairs shows up, and then zoom in as the dead bodies are collected, or what’s left of them. Then they add eerie music and post the videos on the internet. We’ve seen a few, even found some of the cameras during raids and watched the confiscated tapes where we chillingly saw ourselves pulling security after an attack, futilely looking for the culprits while they safely recorded us from a window somewhere.
Suicide bombers are another problem altogether, and they come in just as many flavors as the roadside bombs. There are the traditional car bombs, usually driven by panic-stricken men who’ve agreed to blow themselves up so that their families can get a few dinars, but sometimes it’s people who’ve been forced into doing it, literally handcuffed to the steering wheel. The traffic is heavy here, and vehicles pull to the side of the road as we speed past. Car-bombers will wait for a convoy and then gas it into the side of a truck, detonating their charges. These enormous, disastrous blasts cause huge numbers of casualties, both civilian and military. Usually more civilians. The vehicles are packed with artillery shells, gasoline cans, nails, rocks, ball bearings, and anything else that can be used as projectiles. These bombs are delivered by regular cars, taxis, pickup trucks, vans, fuel tanker trucks, even the occasional ambulance. The higher-ups told us from their secure, air-conditioned offices that we should keep watch for low-riding vehicles with nervous-looking drivers, and we laughed hysterically. If you can see their face, it’s too late.
Then there are the vest bombers. They strap explosives to their bodies underneath flowing robes, both men and women, sometimes even children, and let loose in crowded areas. There was a daring woman who made a run at one of the Patrol Bases on a bicycle while wearing one of these devices. When she was still a few hundred meters away, the guys on the rooftop position fired some warning shots at her out of confusion, but she kept pedaling up the sandy path toward the main gate, determined. Suddenly she detonated the bomb, killing only herself but giving the soldiers a story to tell for the rest of their lives. One of them later said, “It was the craziest thing. She was just pedaling toward us on this beat up old bicycle. We didn’t know what the hell she was doing, and suddenly there was nothing left but a cloud of smoke and some scorched bike parts. Poof.”
So you drive on and on and on through miles of desert that all look the same, gnawed by anxiety, dwelling on questions like, What if that car blows up? Or that one? Does that guy look nervous? Why is that lady staring at us like that? Are there wires sticking out of that trash can? Did that guy just make a phone call as we drove past? It’s usually the first truck that gets taken out. Will it hurt? During a mission, you don’t consider how many days you have left in-country, how many hundreds of patrols and convoys await; those thoughts remain utterly abstract and hypothetical, as pointless as thinking about which restaurant you’ll go to first when you get home. You only watch the palm trees and sand flying past and hope that it’s not your truck that gets hit, always thinking, Maybe now . . . Maybe now. It’s as if the entire convoy heaves a collective sigh of relief when you pull into a base, vehicles and all: the trucks slow down and drive easier, your body armor suddenly becomes less constricting, you unload your weapon, exhaling so deeply that it feels as though you’d been holding your breath for the entire convoy, and everything seems much lighter.
The relief eases you temporarily, but even these moments of solace are soon replaced with anxiety over the next mission. It’s the lack of direct combat that drives some guys crazy, the completely random nature of the bombs that keep killing soldiers every day, the enemies we never see but know are out there. One soldier jumped out of his truck after a long, tense convoy, throwing his helmet and rifle down, shouting, “I’m done!” He started pacing back and forth, pulling on his hair with tears in his eyes as we stood watching, and finally he sat on the ground and said, “We’re just driving around hoping we don’t get blown up! I won’t do it! I’m done!” He calmed down eventually; he didn’t have a choice—this was only halfway into our deployment. Later, after another particularly bad convoy, a soldier asked, “What are we even doing? I don’t wanna end up a stain on the road. For what? Nothing!” Sometimes when you leave the main gates for a patrol you have to drive past a long flatbed truck loaded with the barely recognizable charred skeletons of destroyed Humvees. A memento mori for the road.
Our body armor is useless against the big blasts. We’ve been issued extra pads for our arms, sides, and necks, which might be useful if we were being attacked with knives. But we aren’t, so we don’t wear them. They only get in the way. If shrapnel makes it through the Humvee's thick armor, a few thin pads won’t help. Sometimes, on long convoys, we even take off our vests and helmets. “What’s the point of wearing all this?” one guy asked. “These ceramic plates don’t stop anything. If I’m gonna die, I’m goin’ out comfortable.” There is reason in this. Our vehicles are hand-me-downs from the bases. When you turn on the air conditioning, searing heat blasts through the vents, and the windows have to stay up at all times during patrols. We melt in these trucks. As a gunner, you get some air, but at sixty miles per hour, the desert wind burns your face, stinging you with grains of sand.
It’s safest to drive in the convoys with the most vehicles, as it lowers your chances of getting hit, but we rarely have the opportunity. Some patrols have twenty vehicles or more, but, living on a small Patrol Base, we usually drive around in three trucks, five or six if it’s a big mission. With three trucks you figure that even if yours doesn’t get hit, you’ll probably still be close enough to the blast for shrapnel to take you out. Trucks get blown up in this city every day, and certain roads are notoriously worse than others. On certain missions we have no choice but to use the most dangerous streets, IED alleys, and there is nothing you can do besides hold your breath and speed through. Our only defense is to drive as fast as possible, hoping that it will throw off the timing of the detonators—Thunder Runs, we call them.
This driving isn’t for us. As light infantry, all of our training was done in the swamps of Mississippi and the forests of Georgia, assaulting bunkers, low crawling to pillboxes, digging foxholes, breaching wires, training for jungle warfare that we’ll never see, but now we’re always driving out into the city, patrolling up and down roads, convoying to bases, always being watched. The trucks feel like crowded death traps, and, although it seems counterintuitive, we feel safer on foot. After missions, our down time turns into hours spent worrying about the next mission, the next roadside bomb. We’ve become obsessed with how much time we have left in-country; the tally marks covering our whiteboard overwhelm us as we realize with absolute certainty that some of us won’t make it home alive.
Every time you head out of the gate, you start to wonder, Is this it? Will this be the time it happens? I have a bad feeling about today. I don’t want to die here. Why did I join the infantry? You stare at the road as it rolls toward you, always driving to the next base, the next mission, on and on, always wondering if there’s a bomb under that mound, or strapped to that person with the dark eyes, or loaded in the back of that car. The paranoia gets hard to shake, slowly turning into a dull certainty. You look at the empty, impartial desert, where everything seems to come to return to dust, and you think, I’m going to die here, in the sand. For nothing. Will I feel it? Maybe now . . . Maybe now . . . Maybe . . .