Even when things went wrong you could come out grinning. On a night patrol, I found myself huddled behind a truck making a farcical pirouette as bullets pinged off the metal all around me. Those rounds came from friendly troops engaging the enemy on the far side of the truck. I was terrified and ashamed of getting into that position, but managed to extract myself.
I returned to base with the rest of the patrol, enjoyed some back slaps all round and could not wait for the next firefight.
“War offers endless exotic experiences, enough ‘I couldn’t fucking believe its’ to last a lifetime,” US writer William Broyles said after serving as an infantry commander in Vietnam.
Part of the lure is the fundamental human passion to witness and see things: “What the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the marines in Vietnam called eye fucking,” he said.
There was plenty of that in Iraq: From Chinook helicopters slicing through the heat haze, to mortar illumination rounds trickling down the face of the night like fiery teardrops throwing shifting shadows on to the desert floor. Or sitting in a Hercules transport plane as the interior lights turned off, replaced by a lone red hazard light as the pilot executed a steep descent to the runway to avoid enemy fire; tank turrets flickering with flames after rocket-propelled grenade warheads exploded; a market stall dangling off the end of a barrel as a tank motored through the empty streets of Amara; and smoking a shisha pipe beneath the globes of the Kuwait Towers during two days of operational standdown — the eye-popping slide show never ended.
The aural experience could be just as rich: Warrior armored vehicles letting loose six rounds of 30mm automatic fire, a beautiful sound when you needed it. Closed down in my turret on a night-time operation into Amara, I listened entranced to the voice on the radio of the US operator in a C-130 Spectre gunship aircraft — call-sign Basher-75 — discussing the acquisition of targets on the ground.
“Keep your heads low; it’s going to get hot down there,” he drawled.
I had never heard anyone sound so utterly damn cool.
I do not know exactly where the attraction lay. Perhaps the synthesis of man and machine up above, all-powerful with a bristling array of weaponry trained on insurgents, omniscient with night vision and radar systems, or knowing it had my back and could be called on no matter what, but there was something seductive about such moments.
Yet, at the same time, I know how wrong these experiences were — especially Basher-75 circling malevolently in the night sky — how, while I was bouncing off the inside of my turret with glee, Iraqi children huddled and wept in their beds, scared out of their minds by fire fights raging around their homes and the ominous rumble of armored vehicle columns; how the market stall dangling off that barrel — which we all had a good laugh over — represented some faceless Iraqi’s livelihood.