New Years Eve - 11:50 pm, 31 December, 2007.
Walking to the gym at the Embassy compound, the night is dark and foreboding. I approach an intersection. Its Iraqi police, typically found wanting in their vigiliance, loomed over a large fire in a desiccated barrel, its flame shining through its porous sides. I can't see their faces because of the intense flame blotting my vision in the dark. They seem like puppets. Archetypes of our perception of Arabs; lazy, tribal, cunning.
Their presence is unnerving. They watch me intently, as I watch them. I lack the typical uniform of an American soldier, though they know I wouldn't walk alone and unarmed. Perhaps I was a mercenary, they likely thought. This time, they're wrong. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I'm no stranger to dark streets and its denizens. Their blank faces say more than they ever would. Who are you? What do you think of our violent, beautiful land? I pass them, half of me hoping one day we won't have to kill each other. The other half hoped we would.
I check my watch as I near the gym. 11:57. I pull out a cell phone, to call my girl friend. As I dial the long number I picture her, safe and warm in the Tennessee winter, curled up in a ball on our crescent moon couch, in front of the TV on a quiet night. When she answers, it's always with the same relieved sigh of "Hhhii babbyy!" Sometimes it's almost motherly, as if I were a delicate child, and the slightest thing might upset me. I tell her about my day, the normal diatribe of frustration, and the conversation always stops short of giving her true fulfillment. Too much must go unsaid, but her heart yearns for knowledge. I know she silently curses my profession, equally torn with reverance and respect. She tells me as much, everytime we talk.
I check my watch again, 11:59:47. I almost forgot to count down with her! We count the seconds together, even though she won't pass into the new year for another 9 hours. As we reach zero, the skies around me erupt into a glorious chaos. Bright, phosphorescent tracer fire wreathes the huge city from every corner, on every street. The barks of fire are so loud I can barely hear my horrified loved one, her voice a mousy squeak over the masculine noise of machine guns. I watch in staggered amazment, unable to close my mouth, or to speak, as I witness the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. No mountain vista, or beach view, ever compared to the sight of thousands of rounds of angry 7.62x39 arcing in long strings of bright red stitching. I thought, this must've been what the first gulf war looked like over Baghdad. I was just a boy then, watching the lazy patterns of anti aircraft fire loop over the city, my heart pining for the day I could join in that holiest of mankind's creations, the act of war.