I saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn't really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn't her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred. Or, rather, it had more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head. She was always alone, and I never saw her talk to anyone. Members of my platoon had seen her before but had never really acknowledged her. Then, on one especially crowded day in the chow hall, she sat down next to us.
We were already halfway through our meals when she arrived. After a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes and left it there.
"Man, I can't eat like this," he said.
"Like what?" I said. "Chow hall food getting to you?"
"No--with that fucking freak behind us!" he exclaimed, loud enough for not only her to hear us, but everyone at the surrounding tables. I looked over at the woman, and she was intently staring into each forkful of food before it entered her half-melted mouth.
"Are you kidding? I think she's fucking hot!" I blurted out.
"What?" said my friend, half-smiling.
"Yeah man," I continued. "I love chicks that have been intimate--with IEDs. It really turns me on--melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses ... ."
"You're crazy, man!" my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
"In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.' We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles."
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.
Am I a monster? I have never thought of myself as a cruel person. Indeed, I have always had compassion for those with disabilities. I once worked at a summer camp for developmentally disabled children, and, in college, I devoted hours every week to helping a student with cerebral palsy perform basic tasks like typing, eating, and going to the bathroom. Even as I was reveling in the laughter my words had provoked, I was simultaneously horrified and ashamed at what I had just said. In a strange way, though, I found the shame comforting. I was relieved to still be shocked by my own cruelty--to still be able to recognize that the things we soldiers found funny were not, in fact, funny.
Not everyone was capable of such distinctions. About six months into our deployment, we were assigned a new area to patrol, southwest of Baghdad. We spent a few weeks constructing a combat outpost, and, in the process, we did a lot of digging. At first, we found only household objects like silverware and cups. Then we dug deeper and found children's clothes: sandals, sweatpants, sweaters. Like a strange archeological dig of the recent past, the deeper we went, the more personal the objects we discovered. And, eventually, we reached the bones. All children's bones: tiny cracked tibias and shoulder blades. We found pieces of hands and fingers. We found skull fragments. No one cared to speculate what, exactly, had happened here, but it was clearly a Saddam-era dumping ground of some sort.
One private, infamous as a joker and troublemaker, found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair, which were stiff and matted down with dirt. He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit. As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included.
The private wore the skull for the rest of the day and night. Even on a mission, he put his helmet over the skull. He observed that he was grateful his hair had just been cut--since it would make it easier to pick out the pieces of rotting flesh that were digging into his head.
Funny? Of course not. But many of my friends were laughing anyway. That is how war works: It degrades every part of you, and your sense of humor is no exception.
I know another private who really only enjoyed driving Bradley Fighting Vehicles because it gave him the opportunity to run things over. He took out curbs, concrete barriers, corners of buildings, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs. Occasionally, the brave ones would chase the Bradleys, barking at them like they bark at trash trucks in America--providing him with the perfect opportunity to suddenly swerve and catch a leg or a tail in the vehicle's tracks. He kept a tally of his kills in a little green notebook that sat on the dashboard of the driver's hatch. One particular day, he killed three dogs. He slowed the Bradley down to lure the first kill in, and, as the diesel engine grew quieter, the dog walked close enough for him to jerk the machine hard to the right and snag its leg under the tracks. The leg caught, and he dragged the dog for a little while, until it disengaged and lay twitching in the road. A roar of laughter broke out over the radio. Another notch for the book. The second kill was a straight shot: A dog that was lying in the street and bathing in the sun didn't have enough time to get up and run away from the speeding Bradley. Its front half was completely severed from its rear, which was twitching wildly, and its head was still raised and smiling at the sun as if nothing had happened at all.
I didn't see the third kill, but I heard about it over the radio. Everyone was laughing, nearly rolling with laughter. I approached the private after the mission and asked him about it.
"So, you killed a few dogs today,"I said skeptically.
"Hell yeah, I did. It's like hunting in Iraq!" he said, shaking with laughter.
"Did you run over dogs before the war, back in Indiana?" I asked him.
"No," he replied, and looked at me curiously. Almost as if the question itself was in poor taste.