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My Life as a Foreign Country


ISSUE:  Fall 2011

 

I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the Earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmatian coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brcko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.

I am 32,000 feet over the Atlantic seaboard. The fields, the orchards, the woodlands below press together the way countries on maps do, with coursing waterways paved roads and dirt tracks and furrows cutting through. Countries touching countries. Bosnia and Vietnam and Iraq and Northern Ireland and Korea and Russia pressed together in the geography below. Cumulous scattered above them, their shapes authored by sunlight on the ground below. Guadalcanal emerges from the shadows where my grandfather lives. Now Bougainville. Guam. Iwo Jima.

Hwy 1, Iraq’s Highway of Death, stretches through desert on one side and California’s San Joaquin Valley on the other. The eucalyptus trees of my childhood line the sides of the highway. In places I can see the scorch marks on the asphalt where military vehicles and transport trucks were left to burn. My dead Uncle Paul steals oranges in the night groves there, just as he did when I was eight years old, while on the other side of the highway mounds of fresh dark earth cover the newly dead. Owls perch on their gravestones calling out for water.

Or maybe it’s 1968, and the coastline below is the eastern face of the Kamchatka Peninsula. My father, a Russian linguist, takes aerial photographs of military installations and arterial roadways in the forests below as MIG fighter crews scramble to intercept the high altitude plane he flies in. I am an ICBM, spinning through the ether and the dusk and the acetylene torch of sundown with the promise of something explosive inside of me waiting to touch down. He tracks my telemetry as I curve over the earth.


We dropped ramps and most of the platoon set out on foot for the LT to touch base with a local police station. I stayed as an air guard in the radio hatch at the back of my squad’s Stryker—a 19-ton personnel carrier equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun and a slat armor birdcage mounted around it to decrease the effects of RPG attacks. While the soldiers on foot headed toward the police station, the platoon’s four Strykers drove back and forth on a wide, residential boulevard connecting two traffic circles.

We must have completed this circuit about eight times that sunny day before taking that last turn around the traffic circle. I had just seen a very pretty Iraqi woman walking along the main boulevard. I was looking down one of the side streets spoking out from the traffic circle like a giant wheel when I heard the distinctive sound. Not the thunk I’d read about—I didn’t hear that—but rather the high-pitched sizzling sound of the explosive as it flew across the traffic circle behind me.

Looking back, which I often do, I sometimes pause to consider the round itself, spinning. The way the bird stabilizes itself in the flight over water, wings in their downward motion, breathing, filling its lungs with oxygen, then rising again in conversation with the air. I like to imagine the round shining as it spun, sunlight caught in the angles of metal and cast outward at a speed too fast for the eye.

I held a jagged piece of the exploded material afterward. Hathaway picked it up as the platoon mounted up and left.

 

In the Kraljevo Wagon Factory yard, October 1941, the soldier leans over to his right, his left leg slightly off the ground to keep his balance, his right foot wedged between the torsos of two bodies lying immobile on the cold ground. (The image is burned into the negative, into the retina. I can’t get the image out of my head.) The pistol in his hand, the barrel pointing directly at someone’s skull—though that person is obscured by the bodies piled between the photographer and the executioner. The bodies form a wide river of death, ten feet across, maybe more. Like the executioner, the photographer has waded out into the middle of it, the camera now pointed upstream to where the executioner holds his breath, his jaw clenched tight, his left hand balled into a fist. I am standing where the photographer stood that cold day. From the same vantage point, my camera lens focusing through another, my feet among the dead. As my eye dilates in that tiny glass chamber, my index finger remains poised over the button while the executioner leans over in front of me. The pistol in his hand.

He must have stepped forward at some point. The other soldiers—I imagine a row of them, somewhere just beyond the camera’s view, spent bullet casings at their feet, watching as this man with the pistol walks forward. He must have heard crying or a voice of pain. The movement of an arm or a body turning its shoulder to the earth. Its body. Its pain. Already I am thinking of the voice as separated from the body, rising to the ears of those in the firing line, rising over the far treeline. The leaves there not yet falling.

 

The city of Mosul is inside of me. All of its buildings. All of its smoke and pollution. Its 1.8 million people. My old squad leader, Hathaway, stands on the slope of a hill at FOB Marez—beyond the Tigris and at the city’s edge. We’re standing in the mud under the gray ceiling of winter. Huge black plumes billow up from distant fires and flatten out against the clouds above, turning charcoal-colored as all of it drifts eastward, toward the Zagros Mountains and Iran.

A Blackhawk helicopter flies past on its patrol over the city.

“It’s beautiful,” Hathaway says. The antennas of war surround us. Vehicles with their mounted weapons pointed skyward, vinyl covers draped over as if allowing them this time to dream.

I nod. And Hathaway says, “You’re going to miss this, man.”

 

The bombs drop year after year. Look how my grandfather’s apartment in Fresno burns. Each night he dreams himself within the caves of the Pacific, the caves he filled with fire and the screaming of men burned clean to the bone, the flamethrower heavy on his back. Walk with him in the mornings as he does his circuit of blocks and pathways, though in truth he’s nowhere near Fresno—he’s walking the perimeter of Guam, the shoreline he swam ashore on, amid the dead men whose names he’ll never speak, floating in the water behind him. He returns to his apartment only when he’s exhausted, only when he’s risen from the water once more and crawled up onto the sandy beach and can return to open his apartment door and work his way down into that smoldering cave. And I never call the fire department. I never call an ambulance. I just say, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Papa,” as the decades burn and smolder on.

 

It’s 1999 again. I’m a NATO peacekeeper, a .50 cal gunner for our convoys outside of Camp McGovern, just off the Sava River in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina, an American flag sewn onto my shoulder. Croatia on the other side of the river. Serbia in the distance. Winter coming on. Turn of the century, the next millennium.

I remember many long, freezing days and nights driving through the snowfall and wind to Tuzla. Sitting up in the hatch, cold wind in my face, the humvee’s headlights streaked with flakes of snow, my mind would wander out into the groves of pines I knew stood in the darkness beyond. I would try to imagine the conversations taking place in the small squares of light cast out from houses in the small villages we drove through. How many graves had these people dug in the past few years? Whose photographs did they hold on those late winter nights?

 

On the train from Belfast to Derry, I saw what appeared to be the strange forms of people—

Dusk. And the gravestones look like mourners
Lined up in rows, the shoulders of their coats
Blackened by the rain, their heads slumped down
As they wail the blue night colder, century by century.

And in the bogside where the murals are painted on the sides of the housing blocks, I saw myself in the form of a British soldier, twenty feet tall. A sledgehammer in my hands, cocked back at the weighted far end of the swing, poised to smash the wall in, to crush brick, to cave in the bedroom walls and strike fear into the hearts of lovers and children and pensioners sitting on their couches after supper. I have come, as others before me, to help them wail.

 

You want boom boom hot fuck nasty girl?

That’s what the pimp asks after I pay the moto-remorque driver at the entrance to the Night Market in Siem Reap, Cambodia. An old man smokes a rolled cigarette outside the nearby 6-Eleven store, thankful for the boredom of the evening, while the night’s insects spiral their way down from the sodium lights above.

I half-expect him to speak to me, his voice crackling like an old song dialed up from forty years ago, saying—

We trust in the comfort of the mundane,
that it might keep in check the snarling teeth
which lie waiting beyond that known edge—
where all we hold dear might be torn to pieces.

And although he says nothing, we both know the stone faces at the Bayon temple stare out from the eighth century, the Khmer Rouge passing under their gaze, their kramas hung loose around their throats, dew in the trigger housing, the year 1972 searing itself into their hands and onto their tongues. The stone faces remain silent. They listen to the birds in the high trees before dawn.

The helicopter lifts off the tarmac at Phnom Penh. In the darkness, it flies low over the Tonle Sap. The door gunner—a Frenchman, who decades later will insist to me that he was not a mercenary—considers the moonlight boiling up through the water below. Ahead, the Khmer Rouge lie bivouacked in the ruins. The M-60 rests oiled and charged in its mount and the Frenchman knows that within the hour he will be deep in the hunt for souls. Bullets rising from the Earth to greet him.

Maybe that’s what the old man remembers now as he sits beside me at the 6-Eleven. The sound of that helicopter riding over the waters. The low thwapthwap- thwap-thwap of the rotorblades spinning—one of the sounds of death, the machinegun’s prelude. The impassive faces staring from their fixed stations within the temples. Soldiers running along narrow paths, leading most to damp holes in the Earth.

 

On the island of Serifos, rising up from the storied waters of the blue Aegean, I stood under the star-filled sky at the very top of the hilltop village of Chora. Ilyse held my hand in the dark as we climbed the stone steps to the peak overlooking the island, the city lights far below us. Somewhere in the rock nearby, Perseus buried the severed head of Medusa long ago—after he’d landed here and turned the inhabitants to stone. And even in the dark, I could feel the cold stone presence of the islanders below. Their patient stand in the wind and rain, season by season. The rough crowns of their heads become the transient respite for wayfaring birds carried on the ocean breeze.

And she taught me to stand on that thin high mount, my feet just touching the earth below me, the wind howling around us as if eager to teach us what it is to be a dark flyer in the universe. And Ilyse let go of my hand and said—”Hold your arms out and look up at the stars. It’s beautiful. You’ll see. You can feel the Earth disappearing beneath your feet.” And it’s true. I felt the world slough away, as if somehow unbound.

I felt the way music might feel, rising from an instrument.

 

Some nights, late, late at night, a great horned owl swoops in to roost in the branches of the tree outside. It calls out with its other-worldly voice.

My mind drifts, like winds working their way across the desert where the Kuwaiti border meets Saudi Arabia. I think of the regiments and battalions long buried in the dunes and trench systems and bunker complexes there. How some of them must have heard the long-range, high-altitude bombers hunting for them high up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The bomb-bay doors opening to release explosives left over from the Vietnam War, bombs not even meant for them, and yet, here they were, falling.

Concussion bombs. The men caught in the open ground. The bombs exploding at a preset distance above them—shock waves reverberating their deadly physics downward onto the Iraqi soldiers below. And the man who fired the RPG across the traffic circle—maybe he thought about this, too. Maybe he thought of his own father lying in the dunes, many of his bones shattered by the detonation’s waves pressing down, his internal organs failing, his eyes staring up at a brilliant sky, or a star field at night.

I sometimes imagine the man who tried to kill me lying in bed with his wife, who curls beside him the way my own wife does now, dreaming somewhere far off within the mysteries of the universe. It is a long, sleepless night spent staring at the ceiling above. There is a helicopter off in the distance. Fan blades rotate above my wife and me with their rotors angling down. Country is touching country.

 

The Vietnamese jungles grew around our California home whenever the trumpet player and mortar man Ray Ramos came to visit. When Ray taught me to play “Taps,” I didn’t see the dead gathering around us. It was 1979. I was only twelve. When I looked out the window, I saw only sandy loam and fields rolling out into rangeland grazed by cattle. I heard the high tenor of the coyotes in their hunger. I lay out on the cool grass of those late summer nights, gazing up at the stars, hoping to spy a satellite in its distant orbit. When my father spotted one, he’d point it out to my brother and me; we’d all fall silent for a moment as we tracked its course across the sky. My brother and I saw the distant light of machinery in its defiance against the impossible. And my father? I wonder now if he recognized a long ago plane carrying his younger self high in the upper atmosphere, a pistol at his side, the Earth an ocean below, Russian airspace ahead, MIGs scrambling from some eastern airbase as ICBMs arced in their deadly telemetries.

 

Pain is often a creature of great patience. The way the legless man spoke of the mine that waited so long for him, as if his life and what he’d lived through were somehow related to my own—

Such patience the mine has, waiting
under a canopy of years, the boy who placed it

now a taxi driver in Battambang,
a man who might offer you a cigarette

and a light, a keen believer in secrets,
whose great fear lies in knowing

all things are undone within us,
given time. Like this clockwork of metal.

This unwinding conversation
with a Tuesday morning from long ago.

All the days you may have forgotten
somehow made crucial and meaningless both—

just days, just a life, just your life
brought to this green place, the sunlight

edging the world around you in gold,
the way you’d like to be remembered, perhaps,

the green world you pass through
lit with fire, as if the landscape itself

loved you, brushing your face gently
with its many leaves.

 

And is this the moment just before the pull of the trigger? Is the man leaning over to his right side, there in the river of death, to look hard and close at the eyes of one not yet crossed over? The dark metal of the pistol leveled off with its iron sights fixed on eternity? Does he pause to see if she recognizes it? To wait for her eyes to come back into focus, or for the man lying there to try to offer one last sentence before his index finger pulls the metal back?

The cold wind lifts the hems of dresses and coat flaps. The soldiers stand nearby, wordless, one of them coughing. In the foreground, between the executioner and the photographer, lying there among the dead and dying, a man’s arm can be seen pointing upward, the index finger extended, the weight of that hand, the courage of it clearly visible in the grainy light of that long ago time, pointing at the executioner, pointing at the sky maybe, the difference negligible or incredibly important, though I have no way to know. Maybe the dying man said something then, too. And everyone there heard it. The dead and the living. And the living—the men with rifles and machine guns and pistols in their hands—they knew if they made it through the war that this moment, this one, would ruin them forever. Maybe one of the soldiers from the firing line is alive even now, after the turn of the century.

I imagine him, sitting in a musty chair, staring at a wall. A television droning in the air. The old man wrapped in a shawl, unable to get warm.

 

My grandfather sits in his chair, hour after hour, as Saturday afternoon war movies and westerns drone on the television. He sits in his recliner the way he once slumped against a sand berm on the beachhead on Guam, trying to catch his breath, a BAR resting across his legs, his hands shaking with alcohol. I am four years old.

 

Can you hear the explosions? In the parking lots. The coffee shops. The post office near the Chinese takeout by the Nichol’s Motel.

There are 500-pound bombs hanging in the air above us. Over Albuquerque and Sioux Falls. Over Krakow and Hanoi and Phnom Penh. People on the sidewalks stand staring upward in disbelief.

This is the map.

I am relearning the world. Demarcating the minefields. Surveying the landscape. Keeping an eye out for places where we might cross over.

 

Many of the bones of those executed in Srebrenica were shipped to the University of Washington for identification. I imagined femurs and sternums and vertebrae in glass-sealed containers lying patiently in the dark of a storage room near Lake Washington. Sometimes they would be taken out and placed on a stainless steel table, the camera flash ringing off of the metal as the photographer gathered images of bone, clothing, personal effects. Each piece given a corresponding number. Itemizing the loss, making it small enough to hold.

I couldn’t comprehend the devastation. I’d climb atop the metal connexes near the camp ammo point, early in the mornings and sometimes at dusk, to take in the wide compass of the world that lay beyond the camp. The fringe of the nearby city, Brcko, stared back at me with its bombed-out houses. They appeared like skulls lined up in a row. Emptied of their souls. Nailed plastic sheets hanging loose from the windowframes, flapping in the wind.

 

On the shorefront road in Phnom Penh, where the waters of the Mekong meet the entrance to the Tonle Sap, the bright flags of the United Nations flap in the breeze. The motor-remorque drivers sit in their vehicles, sleeping in the afternoon heat, exhausted from last night’s meth binge. Hung-over tourists sit up in the barstools overlooking the waters and drink vodka-heavy Bloody Marys, staring into the heat before them.

A blind musician passed by then. And I thought—

It’s as if he’s still wandering through the rubble
of Phnom Penh, and it’s 1975 again,
and his grandson doesn’t pull him by a blue cord
tied to his waist, leaning forward with the strain of it,
both hands pulling the way an ox leans into its harness
while the methed-out cyclo drivers sleep in their carriages
on the sidewalks by the quay, the old French facades
leached by rain staring down at all of them.

The old man plays a song for the sun going down,
a song the bats of Teuol Sleng might remember,
winging their way out over the waters of Tonle Sap,
as if mortar rounds were no longer riding on the breeze
coming in, as if the city were no longer on fire.

 

It’s August. I’m leaning over a rooftop in Mosul, my finger in the trigger housing, an American flag on my shoulder, a split second decision echoing through my head: shoot the man standing in the street with the AK-47. Or not. And the year is 2004. Or maybe it’s 2011. It’s every night I spend circling in the drone aircraft over our bed. My wife in her own dreams. Me, staring at the ceiling; staring down at the landscape below us. The farms and countries laid side by side the way bullets rest in their magazines.

In a small town southeast of Mosul, I watched a crew of boys scavenge the bombed-out shells of their former lives. Each morning, they would cross the dirt fields, hoist themselves up onto the swaying rooftops, and then sledge the plaster and brick until they could get at the rebar within. They were salvaging scrap. Hour after hour they took turns with the sledgehammer. The rhythmic report of the hammer face resounded off the structures they stood on. Sometimes they’d pause to hoist a jug of water to their lips, a long pull of water to slake their thirst.

And they did the impossible. They hammered at that building until the plaster and brickwork crumbled free in shards falling to the ground below. They exposed the metal framework within. They swung the hammer up over their frail, thin bodies and brought it down, over and over. The building stared at me across the dirt fields with its open-framed eyes, smoking with the plaster and dust drifting out. And the boys stood up on the crown of that dead god, slamming bone, insistent that the skull’s hemispheres break open so they might climb down inside the strange creature. And when the sun rose to its apex and the heat became unbearable with its own inexorable fist, the boys hoisted themselves down inside it, disappearing into the shadows.

And as I stood guard at the firebase, I heard the boys laughing from somewhere inside the dead king’s skull—

I know that when I land the drone aircraft on the runway of sleep
located somewhere deep inside my head,
those Iraqi children will climb atop the crown of my skull.
They will stand on that strange landscape
where country touches country.
They will pull a long drink of water from the jugs
their little brother has brought them. And they will lift
the 12-pound sledge up into the darkness of the bedroom.

 

An owl will call out from the oak tree outside.
And no matter how many nights it takes them, no matter
how much brick and plaster they must work through,
they will bring the hammer down, believe it,
they will bring it down until the skull of the dead king
crumbles to dust beneath their feet.

 

Pre-Islamic Arabs believed that if one were to die prematurely, in an unnatural death, their owl-spirit would rise from the head at the time of death to perch on their own grave. From atop their graves they would call out—”Water, Water”— until their death was avenged. In a natural death, the spirit would remain within the family household for a hundred years, watching over the family and offering news from the other side.

 

 

There’s a small Iraqi town along the banks of the Tigris River and that town and that river are inside my head. And it’s always December, a low fog pushing out from the surface of the river in the morning. There’s a dull chill in the air, the kind of cold that seeps down into you.

The platoon raid is still in progress. In the predawn, I’m standing on a dirt road in the middle of a massive orange grove with Jackowski, both of us trying to stay awake and focused. When I was a boy I’d push my way through the wet leaves and branches to hole up inside the green canopy and wait for the enemy. BB gun in hand, I’d listen for his shoes as he maneuvered among the trees.

A sergeant from 2nd Platoon has reported a dead infant under an orange tree by a nearby irrigation canal. I will remember the flat sound of his voice as he said it over the company net—and thinking, too, that the sergeant had children of his own back in Ft. Lewis, Washington, waiting for him.

Jackowski and I say nothing. Another call comes over the radio to mount up, link up with our platoon, and drive back to Firebase Eagle. As we drive along the canal bank, I see a gaunt man carrying a shovel beside a woman who carries a bundled blanket in her arms. Neither of them looks at us as we pass; they stare off toward some point in the distance, where I imagine a blue and frozen infant lies silent under an orange tree.

As the years pass, I begin to see this couple both in the orange groves of Balad and in the orange groves of Madera, California. Always in the wintertime. The man with his weathered shovel. The woman with her expressionless face, stung with the cold of December. The farmers have placed the black shells of old tires at the ends of each row, filled them with kerosene, and lit the fuel to ward off the oncoming frost.

I’d almost forgotten the San Joaquin Valley. Sleeping in the back seat of our family car with stacks of the Fresno Bee beside me, my mother driving through the orange groves at 3 a.m. as we delivered the day’s news. The predawn history of ink smeared into my hands. AM radio traffic warming the car with its conversation. And most of all—the oranges, that putrid sweetness of oranges near harvest time.

Black smoke plumes upward. I can hear Hathaway saying something from far off in the distance. Something from up north in Mosul. It sounds like he’s saying the word beauty, but I’m not so sure. It could be something altogether different.

It could be language drifting in from some other war, some other time.

 

Or maybe it’s the pistol’s report. Some of the soldiers standing nearby have flinched at the sound. Others stare as hard as they can at nothing. One lights a cigarette, brings it to his lips with cold-pinkened fingers, fingertips stinging with October’s bright cold.

And I wonder: has the executioner leaned over, just that much closer, to see what death makes of the eyes staring up at him? That cloudiness. When I zoom in on the photograph, to focus on the executioner’s face, on the face of a man who has lost his way forever—his face blurs until it’s nearly unrecognizable as a human face at all, whitening out into the landscape of the winter trees beyond, the cold distance, though it cannot be completely washed out, the black ink where the eyes should be stares forever down, through the curving lens, through ink, through the decades those eyes stare hard at death. And if I called it anything other than evil, and altogether human, I’d be lying.

 

* * *

 

I sometimes think of the conversation between the man with the launcher resting on his shoulder and myself. The way the banyan trees stare for years across a stretch of sky. Wordless. The bird flying from one branch to the other.

Everything happened slow and fast all at once. My brain instantly registered that it was an RPG. How do I explain it? Faster than I could formulate the letters R-P-G, I knew what is was and that it was behind me. And it was a great shot. A direct hit on the fuel tank right below the slat armor intended to stop it. Directly in line with me. Four, maybe five feet away. One moment I was standing on the seat cushions of the troop hold scanning the street in front of me and thinking about a beautiful woman, part of my upper torso visible to those outside as I manned the rear air guard hatch at name-tape defilade, and then—the explosion—

the properties of the physical world
shifting in slow motion, my body tumbling down
one movement at a time—boots
slipping from their station, knees
folding inward, twisting sideways as my hips traveled
in the opposite direction, my eye taking in my weapon
with its barrel pointed up at the sky where I could see
the blue world framed in the circle of the open hatch, as I fell
down, down into the troop hold, all the while my mind thinking
Why can’t I stop this? Why do I keep falling?

In the blue dark of 3 a.m., images cycle through the mind, though the eyes remain open and fixed. The way the dead dream, I think, until the mortician sews their eyes shut. And the man who placed the launcher on his shoulder and pulled the trigger to welcome me into the land of the dead, he remembers the perfect flight of the rocket as it traveled between us. He remembers the sound of that explosion and the slow-motion fall of my body into the cold green box of the vehicle. That troop hold. That birdcage where the owl calls out for water.

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