“Shifting Sands”

When I turned in this assignment I messed it up because it was supposed to have three perspectives, and that threw my creative writing class for a loop. Many of them were confused about who was speaking. Because of this, I had the text color-coded for a while, but that took away from the point of the exercise. After all, we can’t expect people to print stories in color.

Anyway, I decided to keep the two speakers in two different fonts (instead of colors) because I wanted it to be immediately obvious that there were two different narrators without having to spell it out for them every time I made a transition.

I was never in the military, so I am sure that anyone who was in the military (or combat) will find flaws in the way I portray them. I’m sure I got a few technical or procedural things wrong, but I feel like I know humans well enough to portray them appropriately.

I celebrated my nineteenth birthday a week ago in the back of an armored vehicle in the deserts of Iraq. I didn’t even get the chance to vote before they shipped me over here. I joined the military in order to serve my country, but I didn’t expect to actually go to war. Now I’m busy surfing a wave I couldn’t see coming, and all because of my swelled sense of pride. Don’t get me wrong. I am more than willing to fight and die for my country. I just want to know who I’m supposed to be fighting against first.

We rolled through this damn desert of a country like a stampede of cattle, a continuous cloud of dirt rising behind us. We came in here like we owned the place, but now we’re just snooping around city streets. I actually wondered if I’d be willing to fire my gun, but as soon as we started taking fire it was no problem. Once they’re in range, I’m in range, and I’m not going to die while I debate my sense of ethics.

We’ve had mostly insignificant resistance, but it has affected us significantly. These people are terribly overpowered, but we still run into folks attempting to make their stand. Some of the guys keep taking fire because they don’t feel right about shooting them. Not everyone is in uniform like we expected would happen in a war. In fact, the people who are attacking us are dressed identically to those who aren’t attacking. Every time I see a local looking at me I feel like a racist.

It really boggles my mind that the Iraqis keep fighting. Everyone who resists gets killed, no questions asked. I don’t know what they’re thinking. Yesterday, we actually had a small group attack our line of armored vehicles with rocks and sticks. What is happening here? I feel like we’re playing volleyball with a hornet’s nest.

I remember the first American war clearly, though I was just a young boy. I was impressed with how the Americans were able to hold us back without an army. Our great and powerful leader made some bad decisions and was labeled a dictator. Until then, the world hardly seemed to take notice of him. I feared that his overzealousness would come back to haunt us. My fears, it seems, were justified.

Many years later, extremists who claimed to be followers of my religion sent thousands of Americans to their death. They changed the face of the world and brought the wrath of that Christian nation upon us. I have often feared what little truth there is in prophecy, and I heard the term jihad thrown around too readily. People were exploiting the idea of defending their religion to give cause for war.

I had been living in France for several years (attending university) when an intense pressure began to build in my home country. The Americans were putting pressure on Iraq, and they were certainly feeling it. I saw it as grossly antagonistic. Though at first I sympathized with how the Americans had suffered, I felt a surge in nationalism once I saw what they were doing to Afghanistan. They invaded a whole nation to find one man.

Feeling the pressure on “rogue” nations like my own, I made the decision to leave the university and join the Iraqi military. I felt a sense of companionship for coming home to my brothers and joining them in uniform. We believed that we had the blessings of Allah. We believed that our cause was just. We believed that our Muslim brothers would come to our aid from across the globe. Truly, we believed too much. I was simply being a foolish young boy.

I just heard a report over the radio that we lost a lieutenant. He had three kids. Right now I’m in a squad with three other guys, but I can’t remember their names. We happened to be standing near one another when the captain called for a security detail to patrol a section of the city. The buildings on either side appear old but regularly used. Almost all have unbroken windows, but there are few goods in them. The Humvee we’re riding in is bouncing around really bad, but I really don’t care. It helps to distract me from the dead bodies I keep seeing along the road in unnatural positions.

Suddenly, the driver spots something and slams on the brakes a little too hard. We all get tossed around, and a cloud of dirt surrounds the truck. I see what caught his eyes: a group of about ten men, dressed in dingy, decade-old western-style clothes. They are coming towards us, and they don’t seem happy. They are yelling angrily, and some of them are waving their hands as if to tell us to leave. I start radioing for assistance as the other three guys in the truck step out to talk to them. The big guy who had been sitting behind me in the truck yells at me to forget the radio. Fortunately, one of our guys can speak Arabic, and he is trying to talk to the group of men. He gives them the usual spiel about surrendering and putting their hands in the air, but it doesn’t seem to concern them much. They’re still yelling and waving their hands.

They continue to walk toward us down the abandoned city streets. The guy who told me to forget the radio starts yelling that they are going to attack, and I feel the tension level soar. The rest of us stop moving forward, and everyone grabs at their weapons. I try to tell the guys it looks like they are just trying to get us out of here, but I don’t think anyone is listening. Our driver starts yelling at them, and they start yelling back. My gun feels really heavy. They start throwing rocks at us, and then a puff of dust leaps off of our interpreter’s chest. Fortunately, he’s wearing body armor.

But then I hear the go-ahead for attack. I start to protest, but it’s too late. Automatic rifle fire erupts from around me, and five or so of the Iraqis drop immediately. Panic takes over, and the men turn to run. They round a nearby building into an adjacent street, but a couple of them don’t make it. One of my guys yells something about them having guns, but I don’t remember seeing any. The driver turns to us and tells us to go after them. Before I can react the rest of my squad rushes around the corner.

I’m slow to follow them, and just as I turn the corner I hear gunfire obviously aimed our direction. As I’m rounding the building a section of the wall bursts into pieces, and I take some kind of debris to the face. Damn, it stings! I wipe dust and concrete particles off my face and crouch down at the edge of the building. My squad is still alive and firing back. I can tell this from the echo of gunfire in the tightly-packed buildings. I’d recognize the pop of our guns anywhere. Crouching low and making sure my helmet is secure, I peek around the corner for a better view. Loud pops followed by the zip of bullets scare me back behind the safety of the building. It’s hard to tell, but I think there are now a handful of men in olive uniforms and at the end of the block. I assume they are Iraqi military, though I didn’t get a good look at them. I’m crouching with my back against this old building, and bullets are tearing up the pavement to my left. The buildings at the end of the street seem to be taking the most damage. Two of the three guys in my squad are pinned down behind an abandoned car. Our interpreter is dead.

The Americans entered our capital city as though we had invited them in, but they still had to take it away from us first. I heard many stories (mostly from the officers) about how the men on our front lines fought valiantly to the end. The Americans were shooting anyone who resisted, and they were traveling in large armored vehicles. Most of our soldiers fled once word started to spread that the Americans had reached the city. At times I caught myself wondering why I hadn’t joined them.

I was with a small group of my brothers, making our way to a secret command center. There was supposed to be food, water, and ammunition there, and we were running dangerously low. As we walked (because with so many American armored vehicles lurking around, driving was madness), we passed a group of citizens who were very upset. They were dressed in western-style clothing and all of them needed a bath. They spoke momentarily with our commander, demanding that we expel the American invaders. We assured them we would destroy the enemy, and sent them on their way. They walked down the street a little ways and disappeared around a building.

A few minutes later we heard automatic gunfire coming from nearby. Though it was not in the immediate vicinity, we took up defensive positions and waited for further information. A moment later, one of the citizens we had just spoken with came running down the street, yelling that a group of American soldiers was coming. They had killed several of the civilians, who apparently were unarmed. We asked how many Americans there were, and he said that he only saw three and that they were on foot. Our commander turned and flashed us an austere look. I could see in his dark features his order without him having to speak it. We dutifully followed him down the street.

I’m in the middle of a damn firefight! I can’t tell how many Iraqis there are, but my guys are pinned down behind that bullet-ridden car. I’m stuck behind this building in relative safety, but I can’t get them. I keep hearing bullets ricocheting down the street, and the dust keeps getting kicked up. I keep looking to my left and right because I’m exposed. The only reason I’m safe now is because the Iraqis are coming down the blind corner of this intersection. As I look again to my right, I suddenly see the familiar shape of a Humvee coming my way. I signal to them that there’s fire coming from down that street and that some of our guys are pinned down. The driver picks up speed and turns the corner just feet from me, and I crouch down again and look around the corner with my gun. The Humvee slides to a stop in between the Iraqis and our guys, kicking up a torrent of dust in the direction of the incoming fire. The Iraqis immediately direct their attack on the Humvee, and I hear the loud cracking of bullet-proof glass and the banging of bullets against the armor. As our guys start exiting the truck to grab our interpreter’s body, they both take shots to the legs and fall down a couple feet away from it. I flinch as their bodies disappear in a cloud of pavement and concrete dust. The other two guys stay inside the Humvee and continue to take a hellacious pounding. We’re down to four, maybe five guys now. I keep firing around the corner, but mostly out of anger. I can’t tell where anyone is, and I’m shooting blindly. I hear a couple guys screaming in pain, and the Humvee is just sitting there getting peppered by gunfire. Even the buildings around us are beginning to suffer. I don’t know if I should try to go get the other guys or if I should just wait here for reinforcements. I don’t know what the Iraqis are doing down that street, or if they’ll be coming down either of these empty streets. I don’t really know what’s going on. The only thing I do know is that I’m sweating like crazy and men are dying all around me.

As we ran down the street a handful of the citizens we had met earlier came rushing around the corner. They were splattered with blood and terrified. We stopped running, and as we stood there three American soldiers came running around the corner, right toward us. One of them yelled something in Arabic, but he was the first to get hit. He dropped his gun, grabbed his neck and fell to the ground. The other two immediately fell out of view behind someone’s forgotten car. I thought I also saw a fourth soldier look around the corner.

We all fell into position behind abandoned cars and in the doorways of closed shops. The sun was bearing down on us, and we were bearing down on the Americans. For several minutes we held them where they were when suddenly another one of their green armored trucks came rushing around the corner. The sudden ferocity of the vehicle threw us off guard. Most of the men dropped into their hiding positions as it kicked up a pathetic sand screen. I thought it was going to have a gun on top, but the only threat came from inside. Our commander yelled for us to attack the vehicle, and at that moment two of the Americans made the mistake of getting out of their mobile protection. They seemed to be trying to rescue the first soldier we killed. Their legs were plainly visible, and that is where they were shot as soon as they got out. When they fell to the ground they were completely visible and were killed in a wasteful use of bullets. I started to think the men were getting out of control, but in a matter of seconds we had the rest of them trapped among the wreckage of the streets.

At that time, we were evenly matched but considerably outgunned. There were only a few of us, but the Americans had the armored truck and (if the rumors were true) superior weapons. I assumed they would attack. They should have, anyway. I supposed they simply did not know what they were up against, and so they were apprehensive; something the Americans were known for.

Their fire was sporadic, and they hardly showed themselves. But we were in an equally dangerous position. We fought fiercely, but unfortunately, their ferocity did not save them from getting killed. As one of them was trying to get closer to the Americans, he apparently stepped into danger. I saw his body leap backward like a marionette, and he landed on his back. His body arched a moment before finally collapsing. I was not the only one to witness it, unfortunately. I looked up and saw that another one of my brother’s witness it happening right in front of him. He had fright in his face as he looked at me, and then he took a step toward the soldier who had just been killed. My eyes widened as I realized what he was going to do. I yelled at him to get back, but it was too late. He stepped out and grabbed hold of the dead soldier’s collar in a vain attempt to drag the body out of the street. The Americans started shooting. His helmet jerked and then he fell face-first into the dirt, right next to the body he had been dragging. For the first time that day I felt the creeping tendrils of fear in my mind. It occurred to me then that this might be my final stand.

I continued firing uselessly for a while when, much to my relief, a troop transport pulled up behind me. At least a dozen of my brothers poured out of the large truck, and they took up positions all around me. Sadly, there was little strength in numbers. There were at least ten of my brothers hiding among the shops that lined the street. The Americans had a slight advantage because we were trying to move down a mostly open area while they were safely hidden behind cars. Each time one of our men tried to advance he would get gunned down or injured. Everywhere I looked, I could see men dressed just like me, covered in sweat just like me. The sun was blazing, but it was disappearing fast. Everyone was at the ready, their helmeted heads twitching around nervously. The shops were beginning to look ravaged, especially the ones at the end of the intersection. The plaster on the buildings was chipped in countless places, and there were fewer intact windows as time went on.

I had a moment to enjoy a cool breeze when suddenly that pleasure was interrupted by the sound of another vehicle from the end of the intersection. When I did not hear gunfire around the corner, I assumed the Americans had received reinforcements as well. After a moment I heard the shuffle of feet, and one of the men across the street from me started firing. I looked and saw several light brown uniforms, obviously American, taking up positions all over their end of the street. I fired a couple times, but I think I only hit dust and windows. They returned our fire for a moment, and then settled quietly into position. No one advanced through the streets. Only bullets.

It quickly became a stalemate. As long as you stayed out of view you stayed alive. If anyone tried to move, they immediately found themselves in sight of the enemy and under fire. Both sides kept relatively still. Only the occasional foolish soul, some motivated by desperation and fear, others by foolish courage, would run out into the open. Once they did, a storm of bullets would rip through the air around them, no matter whose side they were on. One soldier had been pressed flat against a doorway since we got there, and he was still standing in stiff pseudo-attention. It grew quiet as the sun began to fall.

Fortunately, there’s not a lot of action right now. It’s starting to get dark, which I don’t think is a particularly bad thing. The darker it gets, the harder I am to see. No one has fired a shot in several minutes, but both sides know what’s right around the corner. We’re mostly just sitting here waiting to see what happens. We still have a few guys pinned down, but so do the Iraqis. I haven’t looked around the corner in a while now. There are a few of my guys on the other side of the intersection, so I feel somewhat safer. I catch the eye of one of the guys who showed up last and nod appreciatively. I’d probably be dead if it hadn’t been for these reinforcements. I can only thank God for bringing them to our rescue. I think there are about eight of us holding off these Iraqis.

I’m crawling back a few yards from the corner of the intersection. It has been quiet for a while, so I think I’d take a water break. I sit down behind what might’ve once been a newspaper dispenser. I’m several yards away from where I spent the past couple hours. As the cool water is making its way down my throat I suddenly hear a burst of shots from the intersection. I swallow hard and look to the left, but I can only see a few of my guys. From here I can’t see far down the street, but I can clearly see several of my guys. Apparently one of the Iraqis made a run for it because now a man is laying on the ground and screaming in Arabic. My guys don’t see alarmed, and they’re at ready. So I’m doing the same. I can’t ignore the gurgling sound in the man’s scream. The noise is unsettling. I sit there in the fading light for a few moments and take a couple sips of water. I need to calm down.

But I don’t get a chance because suddenly I hear a strange yelling. It’s a charge. The canteen falls from my hand as I reach for my gun. Crouching down, I look over the top of the crumpled newspaper dispenser, raising my rifle instinctively and pointing it at the ground in front of me. My guys are suddenly standing up and spraying bullets. I watch one of my guys move like he just got punched in the stomach and then collapse in the dirt. I feel a surge of adrenaline because of the posture of my guys. They were taking an offensive posture; a stark contrast to the defensive one they’d taken since they got here. Gunfire echoed throughout the dark streets, and I suddenly saw a pack of Iraqi soldiers charging our way. There are fewer of us, but the Iraqis are outgunned.

I watch in horror as three of my guys twitch with the force of incoming bullets but not before taking three of the Iraqis with them. Their bodies fall to the ground as the remaining Iraqis move into a sickeningly close range. I raise my rifle, thumb the safety off, and put my finger on the trigger, but everyone is too close together. Plus, I don’t want to reveal myself unless I have to. I keep kneeling with my gun raised and watch the firefight unfold in front of me. The Iraqis are fierce, but they clearly aren’t as well-trained. They take several of my guys out mostly out of shear force and luck. They are so close together that some of them take bayonets to the torso. In only a few seconds it’s over. The noise fades into the night and is replaced by the animalistic screams of the dying soldiers. I didn’t even get to fire a shot. Everyone took fire and is now dead or dying. After a few moments, I make the disturbing realization that I am the only survivor.

It was clear that we were beginning to suffer. No one said it, but the men were growing increasingly distressed as the standstill wore on. The long spans of silence punctuated by the occasional death were beginning to take their toll on the minds and bodies of my brothers. I could read it in the way their eyes hardly blinked; how, even in the sparse street lights, I could see the fear and weakness in their faces. Our commanding officer was dead, so we were without true leadership. We were lost and afraid.

A few of the men were trying to get a few of us together for an impromptu meeting. They tried to formulate a plan, and most everyone agreed that we were in danger of total annihilation. The Americans would surely be receiving reinforcements soon, and that was something with which we could not compete. Someone suggested that we storm the Americans and crush them in one swift attack. I was immediately skeptical about this plan, but I kept it to myself. I was not about to appear cowardly in this moment of honor. One of the men across the street saw that we were meeting, and it was clear he was tired of being in the same place. He called out someone’s name, and the man crouching to my left made a gesture for him to stay put. This did not suit the soldier and he called again. The man simply ignored him. Finally, the soldier made a grave error. Frustrated and desperate, he tried to cross the street to us. I caught myself about to get up for some reason but quickly recognized the danger. A terribly tense moment passed as he started moving our way. Then the inevitable happened. Gunfire came from the end of the intersection. I watched as he took a bullet or two in the torso. Unfortunately, he did not die immediately and began screaming as he lay in the middle of the road.

I became transfixed on this poor victim, a man about my age. He was calling for help, and his accent was thick with fear. I hardly noticed that the remainder of the group was gearing up for an attack. I just sat and watched the dying man, wishing I could run out there and help him. I realized that was going to be my fate. My stomach grew cold with fear. I could hear the desperation in the voices of my brothers. They thought they were about to become heroes. I thought they were about to become corpses.

The soldier that had been screaming was growing quiet, and then I noticed that one of the men was singing a short prayer. When he finished, everyone stood up and charged after the Americans.

The streets are so quiet now I wonder if maybe I’ve been killed and my soul is about to rise out of the desert. The grinding of gravel under my feet ground me in reality, and I get up to leave the area back the way we came. I have to fall back to the rendezvous point and find out what the hell is going on. We shouldn’t have been forgotten like this. I am now alone in the middle of the city with only darkness to protect me. Most of the power is out, but a few of the streetlights are still working. It’s quiet, calm, and relatively cool right now. The desert wind blows through the vacant streets, and I get the occasional whiff of something burning. I am now terribly, desperately alone. I remember how movies and TV instilled in me a fear of getting caught alone like this in the bad side of big cities. That feeling hardly competes with this one. I can’t reach the radio because it’s in the Humvee, and I’m not about to go back to that intersection by myself. I just hope the convoy hasn’t moved. It’s hard enough sometimes to find my way around American cities, much less a foreign city in a foreign country full of foreign people that want to kill me.

I’m moving quietly but quickly away from the massacre I just witnessed, gun in hand and mind on getting back to the convoy when suddenly I see something move right in front of me. Well actually, what I notice is something that had been moving has suddenly stopped moving a few yards away from me. It is a man in a uniform unlike mine; a single armed Iraqi soldier.

I should have felt shame for not following my brothers into the face of danger, but death did not suit me as it did for them. Once they stormed off I noticed that I had not even twitched. I sat still for a moment, and when I heard their beastly charge it snapped me from my trance. The streets echoed with the staccato pops of automatic gunfire. I dove into the first alley I came upon. It was very dark in between the buildings, and I tripped a few times before I emerged into a street that ran parallel to the one I just left. I heard the beginning and the end of the battle as I ran. Once the shooting stopped, I became aware of the echo of my footsteps and stopped running.

There was nothing but silence after the gunfire. I listened carefully as I walked, noticing that my eyes were open wide. The echoing silence seemed very telling to me. No one was screaming, no one was yelling orders. No one survived, so I just kept walking. But where was I to go? I was certain that American reinforcements were on their way, and I had no way of contacting anyone.

I was walking steadily through the streets, trying to remember what the fall-back point would be. I remember thinking it had something to do with a lion, but my attention abruptly changed when I realized I was staring at another person. Though it was dark, I could clearly make out the shape of the American uniform. We were only a few meters from one another, and he was staring right into my eyes.

I don’t know who noticed who first, but he obviously knows I’m here. He’s looking right at me. Why am I thinking of Clint Eastwood? Oh God, I wish I wasn’t here.

I saw him tense up, and I wondered how he was able to sneak up on me like he did. I felt my gun in my hands and noticed he was also armed. I sang a quiet little prayer to myself.