White Whale

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Jason Ar­ment

The trib­u­tary stretched out in front of us from the Euphrates, point­ing to­ward the north­ern­most fringes of Saqlawiyah, Iraq. Weapons pla­toon ma­neu­vered a col­umn of ve­hi­cles down from the main sup­ply route (MSR) to a small dirt road that ran par­al­lel to the river. A lat­tice­work of paths and ir­ri­ga­tion ditches, swollen with water, striped the green plain of farm fields. Half­way down the slope from the MSR to the dirt road, ev­ery­one but the driv­ers dis­mounted to form up for the sweep: two col­umns, one on each side of the road. The car­cass of a long-dead cow, mum­mi­fied by the desert, crunched as a Humvee’s front tire crushed its skull, then ribs. My sergeant stopped to dry heave. “Oh my God,” Prockop said be­tween gags. “That smell. Fuck. It’s ran­cid.” A few other dead cat­tle lay along the slope. I didn’t know for sure, but I could guess that some bored marines killed them from be­hind the guns of a pass­ing con­voy. I gath­ered this from how the car­rion scat­tered out from the MSR, like a herds­man had pushed his small herd up from grassy fields, only to have them spooked by diesel en­gines and gunned down by men half his age. The Humvee’s rear tire crunched over the dried bag of bones, push­ing more de­tri­tus from in­side. I started to open my mouth to retch, only to have the blow-dryer heat of the desert push it back down my throat. “Hell of a start to the big sweep,” I said to Prockop. The Humvee we’d been guid­ing moved down the slope, into po­si­tion be­hind a Mine-re­sis­tant Am­bush-pro­tected (MRAP) ve­hi­cle. The rest of the ve­hi­cles sat on the MSR, a few of them idling. There was a pause, while ra­dios crack­led and peo­ple tried to fig­ure out what was go­ing on. There hadn’t been a mis­sion briefing, so I had no idea of the big­ger pic­ture. I’d thought about ask­ing for a mis­sion brief be­fore we’d stepped off, but knew bet­ter. I’d learned a long time ago that our for­ward op­er­at­ing base (FOB) al­lowed for some of the habits of gar­ri­son to re­main a part of our daily lives, de­spite the threats from the en­vi­ron­ment and sur­round­ing ville. Cap­tain Vor­gang liked the pomp mus­tered for him in gar­ri­son, and so did Staff Sergeant Gnade. The cap­tain liked to tell sto­ries about his last de­ploy­ment to Afghanistan; Gnade talked about his SWAT train­ing and fallen com­rades.

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