Forty-eight hours turns into a week, and we move to a new neighborhood, further North within the city, in the middle of the night. Intel has given us a target house, and the plan is to detain our target and use his house as a patrol base. Our combat engineer has made us some breaching charges out of det cord, and everyone's pretty excited, it seems. Except me.
I'm unexcited because I'm tired and filthy and still pretty sick, and we were supposed to have been back a long, long time ago. In addition, none of the breaching charges we've used so far have managed to open a door, and I doubt the double size of this one will make a difference. But most of all, I'm unexcited because those fucking retarded POGs in the Intel shop have never given us a single solid piece of intel the entire time we've been in this country.
We roll up in good time and scouts dismount and stack on the objective smoothly, the charge is set, the fuse lit, and we wait in tense silence.
The boom is pretty big and shatters the windows on our entire half of the house. But the deadbolt is in the wrong place and the door remains locked.
Lcpl V_____ finds an alternate entry and simply kicks the door in and we pour into a living room full of women and children. We quickly clear the rest of the house, tying up and blindfolding the three males in the house and we find a rifle and a pistol.
Of course, our target, a supposed anti-coalitionist, isn't there, and the three males turn out to be between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. There are two middle-aged women, a tiny, stooped elderly one who looks about a hundred years old, a young teenaged girl, and three elementary school aged girls. I quickly realize that the older of the two middle-aged women is currently the head of the household and begin to question her.
I can't seem to make clear to her exactly how limited my Arabic is, and she starts to babble at me at a million words a minute, to which I can only respond, over and over again: "I speak only a little Arabic," and "I don't understand, please speak slowly." Periodically, the entire group, including the little girls, start to babble at me all at once and I am completely inundated, overwhelmed just trying to pick out a word here and there.
I manage to gather that the man of the house, her husband or brother, I'm not sure which, is a cop, that he has a permit for the pistol, but I can't get exactly where he is. After passing what information we can gather up to higher, we leave a team to occupy the house while we go and begin our patrol, searching houses and trying to find one suitable for a patrol base.
That's when the bullshit begins. We're given orders over the radio that we are going to continue as planned, that we're going to use the first target house as our patrol base, that we're going to kick out the family that lives there. And of course that responsibility falls on me.
Sgt. W_____ tells me to go ahead and start thinking about how to tell the family and I am incredulous as we patrol back to the house.
Once there, I have trouble meeting the woman's eyes as I ask her if she has any family in the neighborhood.
I think the word I use for 'family' actually translates as 'direct family' as opposed to 'relatives,' I'm not sure I've got the right word for 'neighborhood,' and I'm sure I'm misusing prepositions left and right, and I keep forgetting to address her in the feminine. In any case, she doesn't understand so I try again.
"Aunt, is there a house you can go to for two days?" I ask her. I'm not sure she gets it, but she starts babbling at me again.
By this time we're behind on our patrol schedule, and Sgt. W_____ tells me to just tell them to go somewhere. V_____ a little while later, also impatient, tells me to just kick them the fuck out, but, of course, neither of them have to look them in the eye and tell these people that they have to leave their house in the middle of the night because some violent foreign soldiers want to use it.
Exasperated, I close the door and when I turn back, two of the little girls start crying and they all hold their palms out toward me, begging me not to do something. When I realize they're asking me not to kill them, I almost cry. I realize exactly what we've done, and that they've all been terrified out of their minds this entire time, from the moment that fucking det cord went off.
"Peace, peace," I tell them as I sling my rifle behind me and take off my helmet.
All the exhaustion, all the pain and loneliness, all the moral uncertainty, and all of the doubts, all the madness, the anger, the frustration, the isolation, all of the misery I have accrued during this deployment hits me then like a blow to the chest, and suddenly I feel like the worst kind of person, who has done the worst kind of thing. Suddenly I'm sure that I've done more harm than good in this country, that this place would be better off had I stayed thousands of miles away.
"Aunt," I address her. "Aunt, I am sorry. I am very sorry we American soldiers come here late at night while you sleep. Aunt, you must go to a different house now. You, with your family, must go. I am sorry, I have military orders."
She babbles at me and points to their bare feet, asking if she can get shoes.
"Yes, yes," I say, and I follow her into another room. She points to her jacket, and I respond by indicating the whole room, opening the closet and making packing motions, trying to tell her to take anything she needs.
As she packs, she finds a bag of candy and, unbelievably, offers it to me. She finishes packing and goes back into the living room. She takes the old woman, who is apparently nearly blind, by the arm, and they prepare to leave.
When they get outside, they're afraid to pass in front of our vehicles which are parked in front, so Lcpl B_____ offers to escort them past.
Before they go, I touch the woman's arm and tell her again:
"Aunt, I'm sorry."
She shows me a sad smile, places her right hand over her heart and tells me:
"I understand. It is not a problem. God be with you."
And those are the first words she has spoken that I understand entirely, and I am stunned.
After they're gone, I take post on the roof with B_____, and wracked with guilt and anger, I begin to chain-smoke shitty cigarettes we bought from a local store a few days earlier.
B_____ tries to tell me it's not my fault, that I was only following orders, but I know better. What we've done here tonight is fucked up.
As dawn approaches, it gets a lot colder and more than ever I just want it all to be over. We shouldn't even be here right now. This whole thing should have been over after Haklania, but instead we came to Haditha only to find that there isn't any insurgent activity here, that all the intel was bogus, as usual, as always.
For the rest of the day I'm pissed off. I tell my scouts I'd better not catch them fucking with any shit in this house, and I rant at length about how retarded and fucked up this op was. I turn around to find my Platoon Sergeant standing behind me, but I don't care, and he actually looks a bit mollified.
On patrol, the friendliness of the neighborhood and the inquisitive children brighten my mood a bit. This is a much poorer neighborhood than the one we previously occupied, but the people are still very open and cooperative. They invite us to tea, and show us their little ones, laughing when the very young children are frightened of us. But every house we search confirms the total incompetence of our intel shop, of intel in general, and I wish someone with a shiny collar would just go on a patrol with us instead of looking at pictures from spy drones or listening to cell phone calls, look at the people's faces, look into their eyes and understand that these are not our enemy.
As we return to the patrol base, I see one of the boys we displaced, and I wave to him, but he only stares at me impassively. I doubt I'd be able to show that much restraint.
I hope I can get a shower soon. I hope I can change my socks and underwear, get into a clean uniform soon. I hope we go back to the dam so I can eat some decent chow, get a full night's sleep, even just four solid hours.
But more than all these things, I hope upon hope that we haven't created an insurgent today.