Outside, Sergeant O'Brien was talking to nearby residents to find out where the militia had gone and why the checkpoint was empty. From my makeshift stool at the window I could hear one of our regular contacts give him the whole story, which our interpreter conveyed loud and clear. It was a tale of woe, from dawn to the death of a lone Iraqi officer who went down swinging to the very end. One of the shop owners from across the street had seen the whole thing. A few others confirmed the details. The rest was left up to our imaginations as we played "connect the dots" with the bloodstains in the sand.
Earlier that morning, when the sun was still low in the sky, an unmarked white van had approached the concrete barriers of Checkpoint Grizzlies. Oblivious to their surroundings, the occupying platoon of Iraqi Army soldiers went about their morning rituals of drinking, frying up some chicken for falafels, and dicking off. Morale was at an all-time low. The men knew the routine and tried to stay out of the way of the militia, but their young and eager lieutenant was fresh out of the officer raining program and hopped up on ideology. He was eager to fight for his country and determined to make a difference, so he personally oversaw every vehicle search on the line. He even had the balls to arrest some of the "bad guys," and nobody was that excited to pay the price for his zeal. They all remembered what had happened the last time a young-gun got too excited.
The white van came to a stop at the checkpoint and a couple of Iraqi men bearing assault rifles and wearing desert camo pants jumped out. They shouted instructions to the soldiers at the checkpoint, at which a number of them grabbed their rifles, got up and crammed into the back of the van. The rest stood there silently. Nobody spoke up. Sure as shit nobody went to fetch their lieutenant. When the van was full, the two gunmen slammed the door shut and drove off, disappearing into the city behind a cloud of dust. Nobody knew if it was the shouting or slamming of the van's door, but something woke up the lieutenant. When he came outside it didn't take long for him to realize what was going on. The militia had come back for their men.
"Fucking traitors," he murmured to himself in Arabic.
A number of his guys were gone, that was sure. He didn't know exactly how many, but long ago he pieced together that as much as half of his men were probably moles. The other half were a useless heap of bums.
"What the fuck was that?!" he shouted.
Everybody stood around silently as he scanned over the troops, taking note of the absentees he could remember.
"Where the hell did they go?"
Nobody answered him.
Without skipping a beat, the lieutenant hustled over to the senior ranking non-commissioned officer at the checkpoint and grilled him about the van, who had gotten inside, and where they were going. He got nothing in reply. The man simply threw up his arms and shrugged. Nobody dared to speak a word. They were too afraid to talk. Facing blank faces with nothing to respond to his question, the lieutenant barked out his order before turning away to head back inside.
"When that van comes back, shoot them before they get here!"
Within moments he disappeared into the command post--the very structure we had assaulted and now held. As I looked around me it was obvious that I was sitting in the pilfered remains of the man's office. I tried to imagine what must've happened in the time that he had retreated to gather his thoughts, and filled in the blanks from what I had seen of him in the weeks before. I pictured a dozen scenarios. Each one left me overcome with sympathy for the lone soldier who was staring down his final days.
I always believed that good beats evil. That light beats dark. That right will prevail. Hearing that story unfold, I was finally forced to face the reality that all he could do was die. The only question, I suppose, was what to do with the time he had left.
After all, he had to do something.
With the names of those who had deserted still burning in his brain, I'm sure he would have scribbled out a list for safe keeping. I suppose that the list in his hand was that something. As were his pistol and bulletproof vest. They were reminders that justice prevails, that he wasn't alone, that backing him up was an army of commanders who care, that one day Iraq would be free of this criminal menace. But only as long as somebody stood up and fought. These were concepts that were alien to everybody around him, but he had seen for himself that the Americans meant business. He knew they were here to make a difference. More than anything, he believed--and that belief was about to be challenged for the last time.
"You're saying there was an argument?" Sergeant O'Brien spoke loud and clear to one of our primary sources who had seen the whole thing go down from his shop just north of the northern barricade.
The interpreter translated the question, to which the man answered with a clear response.
"He is saying yes." Our interpreter clarified. "Yes, there was an argument."
"Ask him what it was about." Sergeant O'Brien turned his attention back to the man. "What was the argument about?"
There was a moment of pause as the man considered the rest of the story. He knew that he was already in danger, talking to us like he had. For all he knew the militia could be just around the corner. At a minimum, he knew they were still watching the checkpoint. On days like today, the Americans were always too busy to look out for the little guy. He spoke up with these concerns and our interpreter made it clear he was on the verge of going quiet.
"It's alright," Sergeant O'Brien reassured him. "My men have already cleared the checkpoint. There's no militia here."
The man looked around to see if there were any windows revealing him to the outside world. There weren't. He was alone and, for the time being, safe. Sooner or later, however, we'd be riding off into the distance, and it was hardly in his interest to be the only person the Americans talked to--especially if we got answers.
"Look," Sergeant O'Brien continued. "We're going to be talking to everybody that was here. Nobody will know you told us anything. I promise. I just want to know what happened here so I can put it in our report."
As our interpreter translated his words, the man glanced around one last time to take in his surroundings. It was obvious we had the place surrounded, and by then he had seen us canvass a neighborhood a dozen times. Besides, we weren't the "bad Americans;" we were the good guys. We stuck to our word. That's why the Jaish al-Mahdi had lost control of Ur to begin with.
He mulled it over in his mind for a little longer while our interpreter and Sergeant O'Brien did their best to keep him talking. Whatever it was that kept him going I have no idea, but he eventually got back to the rest of his story. The details, he explained, came second hand from his shop boy whose job was to hustle the soldiers into overpriced smokes and energy drinks. The rest was pretty hard to miss from where he worked. All of it would be confirmed in due time as we discussed what happened with the rest of the neighborhood.
After walking into the command post, the platoon sergeant confronted his lieutenant on behalf of his men. In a sign of solidarity, he blocked the doorway for a private conversation, but let his words carry across the checkpoint so his men could hear what was about to go down.
"Sir," he said. "Let it go."
He let the words sink in. It was great advice. The lieutenant could just let it go. He could just let it happen. He could put down his weapons and slip into the militia's pocket to become another corrupt official of the new Iraqi Army. Corrupt--but alive. For a moment he probably even considered it, but the idea of surrender repulsed him. Not just because it was surrender, but because it was the abandonment of everything he stood for. A violation of his every word and worth. And if he surrendered, what about tomorrow? How could he lead a platoon as the man who showed up proclaiming honor and valor only to surrender in the face of fear?
"Let it go?!" He shouted. "Those men are traitors!"
"Insha'Allah," came the platoon sergeant's reply--if God wills it.
"They are going to kill innocent people! Are you just going to let that happen?"
"So what? You can't beat them. Besides, they're fighting the Americans now. If you try to get in their way, they'll just kill you. It's best to just sit back and look out for us."
"Bullshit! We are going to fight! That's why we're here! That's an order!"
"And what about your family?"
For a second the young lieutenant froze in fear. Then remembered that nobody knew about his family--at least nobody there. He wasn't like one of those blabber mouths who chats away about the good life back home. No, he was disciplined. The militia was never going to get to his family. They could only kill him--if only that was as much of a relief as he had hoped.
"I'm not going to sit here and let this happen!" he shouted.
"Then you're going to die."
His platoon sergeant looked back at him with a blank expression. It was a matter of fact. In a burst of anger, the young platoon leader lashed out with both his arms.
But his platoon sergeant was unfazed. He spoke in a deliberate tone, still loud enough for his men to hear.
"Do what you like, but none of us are going to die here with you."
At that, he turned around and walked away, leaving the young officer to his thoughts. For a while, all the lieutenant could do was pace around nervously and grope for a plan. He still didn't know what to do, and the list of deserters was growing by the minute. Soon enough he'd be fresh out of troops. They could hear the fighting in the distance and they knew they were out-gunned. Perhaps most of all, word was spreading throughout the ranks about the insanity of their commander who was determined to die a hero. One by one his men put down their weapons and walked away. It was a simple as that. All their lieutenant could do was add a name to a list whenever another soldier walked away and try again, in vain, to get in touch with his commander.
Where is he?
All he could hear on the other end of the radio was static.
It wasn't much longer before the white van was spotted coming back to the checkpoint. The private who had spotted it first stood up and shouted to the men all around him.
"Here they come!"
The lieutenant ran outside and looked down the road. In the distance, a shoddy van with dented side panels raced towards his checkpoint, assault rifles sticking right out of the windows. The soldier who had seen the van first stepped back from his machine gun while another opened up the blockade.
"What are you doing?!" The lieutenant shouted. "Shoot the bastards!"
"You do it," the young soldier snapped back.
A few men chuckled at the exchange as the van pulled up and the door slid open. Another militia footman stepped out, greeted with a strong embrace by one of the soldiers on the line.
"Kaseem! It's time. The Americans are coming."
The foot-soldier turned to the lieutenant, then looked out at the soldiers all around him.
"Get in!" he shouted.
More soldiers piled into the van as the gunman turned to face the ones who were left behind. He spoke with a soft but very stern tone.
"If you're not with us," he said. "Go home."
Nothing happened at first. It was as though his words hadn't registered. After a tense moment however, the first soldier dropped his rifle to the dirt and walked off. The rest of them were quick to follow. Nobody bothered to stick around and see what happened next. The lieutenant stood there, blank-faced and stunned. He was completely abandoned and left there alone at the checkpoint.
"What are you doing?" One of the militia foot-soldiers barked at him. "Get out of here!"
The words were lost in transit. They didn't even register in the young lieutenant's mind. Inside he was a warp of twisted feelings: fury, terror, exhaustion, and patriotism. They tugged at his bones. They froze his muscles and daunted him with indecision.
I must fight them! He thought.
But he didn't know how.
"That's the officer we were talking about!" One of his soldiers shouted from inside the van.
"Oh! The fucking idiot!"
"Yeah!" The soldier laughed. "Shoot him!"
There was still no response from the lieutenant. He was lost in his own mind, groping helplessly for a plan. He tried to grasp how he had shriveled from an officer of a nation's army into nothing but a lone man with a gun. His mind turned to his gun. He didn't have a plan--just a gun.
A gun and a fight.
He raised his arm and pointed the crusty, rusting muzzle of his pistol straight at the foot-soldier. With steady form he squeezed the trigger utnil the hammer gave way and the recoil of a 9mm casing kicked back on his wrist. The round was well aimed, slugging its target right in the chest. The foot-soldier doubled over and fell to the ground with a sharp grunt. His gasps for air gurgled through the new hole in his lungs as he struggled to breathe. Everybody froze in shock. The lieutenant turned his muzzle to another target and fired. Again, his target was hit square in the chest and fell back against the van. When the officer steadied his aim on a third target, he felt a sudden flash of pain in his gut, but he had already pulled the trigger when the world went dark.
When he came to, the first thing he noticed was the filthy taste of desert sand between his teeth. When he opened his eyes, he was staring at the earth, face down. The pain was next. It started as a dull warmth--the feeling of a hot compress or maybe a fire. When he clenched his teeth down, the pain evolved into a sharp stab. His jaw was broken. Shattered maybe. His first reaction was to moan, but the flexing of his torso brought another wave of pain. He was shot, too.
When he finally managed to eke out a sound, it was nothing more than faint whimper, lost in a field of short, quick breaths, sucking down mouthfuls of dirt. He rolled to the side to cough up the dust in his lungs. His hands were already grabbing the site of the gunshot wound. when he filtered through the noise of the world outside of his pain. There was a frantic blur of yells and screaming. He rolled onto his back to see a man standing over him with a rifle in hand. The man swung his rifle into the lieutenant's skull and the world went dark again.
This time when lieutenant came to his left eye was swollen completely shut. His head was throbbing. His hands were covered with his own drying, sticky blood. When he moved his tongue, he could feel chunks of teeth floating around his mouth. Somehow he was still standing.
No, he realized.
He was being held up.
They dragged him to the top of the hill by the front door of the command post and dropped him down to his knees. He tried to kick, to fight back, but his muscles were sacks of water. With every fluttered breath, every twitch, every tortured moan, his gut wrenched with pain. They held his arms, with his hair clasped between the fingers of one of his captors. His body was quivering uncontrollably.
Why am I so cold?
Through the commotion, he caught a glimpse of the white van at the checkpoint. It was spattered in blood. Some of it a soft spray, some of it in long streaks, and some of it in smeared hand-prints of other men, trying in vain to save the lives of their friends.
Three to one, he thought. Not bad.
The thoughts calmed his mind as he turned to the blurry image of an executioner standing before him. The face looked familiar. He'd seen this man before, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Then, like getting hit in the gut, he realized who it was.
"I told you." His platoon sergeant looked down at him with contempt. "Masha'Allah."
He watched helplessly as his most trusted soldier raised a rifle to his face and flipped the selector switch to "fire." Looking back with defiance he calmed his mind to accept what was coming. A click and a flash was the last thing he saw. The bullet split his face in two.
Konrad R.K. Ludwig, Stryker: The Siege of Sadr City