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Eat the Spoil

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 37, Number 1, 2014
pp. 108-119 | 10.1353/mis.2014.0008

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But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself, and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.

—Deuteronomy 20:14

After the day’s twenty-sixth mortar round fell on Camp War Eagle, some staff officer up at division headquarters finally saw fit to task a drone to search for whoever was lobbing the shells at us. A few hours passed, and another barrage of 60-millimeter death hummed in to shred an unlucky mechanic’s leg as he took a smoke break outside our barracks, before division staff passed down an eight-digit grid, coordinates taken from the drone, which put the origin of the mortar fire about two klicks to our east, in the middle of a dense marsh.

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Photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Bassett

We mounted our tanks and rumbled out the camp’s front gate. Slumped in the gunner’s station, I rubbed eyes sore and dry from dust, lack of sleep and too much sun. Private Rodney Sleed drove, having folded his tall, lanky frame down below in the hull; above me, Sergeant First Class Blornsbaum rode in the tank commander’s seat. Sleed’s dog, Frago, traveled in the stuffy turret, splayed near my boots, panting and looking confused in the absurdly happy way that dogs do. Months earlier, Sleed had found Frago running feral in the open desert, and over the intervening time, the dog, which looked sort of like a large fox, had grown into his current role as our platoon’s unofficial mascot. Blornsbaum hated that dog; he hated all dogs but feared disturbing the luck Frago had brought. We hadn’t had a KIA since Frago had started riding out on missions with us, and Blornsbaum, like many longtime soldiers a superstitious pragmatist, had not yet brought himself to force Sleed to get rid of his canine war trophy.

That afternoon I remember the taste of parched earth heated by the sun and the smell of burning garbage drifting over us as we drove north and hit a dilapidated cloverleaf and the highway beyond. In the median, squatters cultivated plots of soybean and rice. Their mud-brick hovels lined both sides of the road, and on the shoulder, Iraqi kids hawked black-market gasoline funneled into repurposed two-liter soda bottles. Meat sellers manned stalls with palm-thatched roofs and straw floors sticky with coagulating blood: goats, chickens and sheep were kept there in wire pens, dressed and butchered for customers on the spot.

To reach the marsh indicated by the drone, we skirted Sadr City, a slum on the east side of Baghdad where block after block of rickety tenements housed a million people. Groups of young men, zoned out on generic Valium and some of them armed, milled shiftlessly over the streets, waiting for the war to end or to begin for real—nobody was sure exactly where the situation was headed, though we knew Sadr City was a place you did not want to go if you could help it. We took the long way around. The spare, outlying land stretched into fields muddy with sewage and pocked by scummy old tires, windblown paper, hillocks of brick, gravel and smoldering trash mounds. Shepherds drove their flocks to these dumping grounds to graze on garbage. The mutton must have tasted foul.

Over narrow alleys, low-hanging power lines crisscrossed in a piratical scheme of splices and countersplices. Packs of feral dogs, most looking like some variant of Frago, ran the streets, fighting for scraps, and naked children toddled around crust-scrimmed rivulets of slime that seeped into open culverts along hard-packed roads and then into larger irrigation canals that formed a pattern like a jangled spiderweb across Baghdad. All the water eventually fed the Tigris. The sharp smell of the river hung over the city; the experience was similar to being shut in a sunbaked latrine: human waste, rotting food, industrial runoff, biting horseflies swarming over anything that tasted like life.

Hearing our convoy of tanks...

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