Added Weight

Paul Warmbier

We wore varying degrees of brown and green. We stood in the full panoply of stained Nomex and Kevlar armor and steel dulled with electrical tape, both useful and ornamental, the bulk being largely unnecessary. When we patrolled, we begged for ways to lose the weight under the sun and melting asphalt. When we died, we died with or without all the weight.

We held and supported a scent of hope in the early days, which quickly dissipated into apathy, rage and hopelessness coinciding immediately upon with the first death we witnessed. It was a scent that welled up and hovered over our bodies. It was salty and malodorous, a ripeness the same as rotting fruit and gritty as dead sluffed cells and old tears and clotted blood. Some never lost the scent, and it was often a prelude to their end. Above all else, though, we carried sanity in a precarious grasp. We made the best of what we had. Once the idealism washed off us, we had to make meaning of the chaos, and most of us could until we came home.

Everyone carried the scent on him even after the armor came off. The brown and tan camouflage utilities were permanently outlined with a thin of white salt sweat lines around the chest like a target and a cut deep into the flesh, though invisible. The line dried and crackled audibly while suiting up like ice cracking before winter breakup. When the clothes came off the scent of gunpowder and cordite and death and teenage command bravado oozed out sickly sweet, molasses and anger. It pooled around our tired feet and lay bubbling lazily in the heat.

The men of the heavy weapons platoon stood huddled in small groups, red skin under the red sun. They smoked in a circle and inhaled the unfiltered French cigarettes bought for three American dollars a carton, and the smoke became a deodorant, a mask, a smoke screen. When we smoked, we joked, lewd rough, fantasizing about sex, death or both together. We joked about ways we would wash the scent off when the patrols ceased, and the bullets and hidden bombs no longer waited, perhaps one with their name on it. My name on it. It was and still is only a matter of numbers and time, a lottery. The lottery created meaning in each of us. We carried that meaning differently. For some, it became another burden, a thing that was unstoppable. They waited to hurtle toward death. Some embraced it. Others, like me, attempted to accept what would happen, but let it seep in, handicapping mind and emotion until I became a husk. Constant death does that to people, regardless of the righteousness of the struggle.

Each of the kevlar lined vests carried a discernable scent disproportional to age and experience. Rank. Billet. Responsibility. The rank carried the names of dead comrades and a mission to bring everyone home failed. At times the rank rotted simply through a lack of men. At times, instead of sergeants, lance-corporals led patrols and attacks.

Few field units carried no extra weight, and all men flinched at the thump in the distance carrying the weight of iron and sour scent of explosive cordite and RDX. Burning almonds and smoke. Blood and screams. The final sour breath exhaled into crying faces clinging cheek to cheek as if physical touch was enough to save and return the pints of blood and pounds of flesh back home.

That sour scent compounded and refused to wash off. The burden layered on, adding more weight. We were told we could remake the world through our service. We could make it better. Happier. More prosperous. Less corrupt. We all know how that turned out. I think we wanted to remake chaos. But order is hard to find, and often lost in ego and business. All we made were nightmarish and familial bonds.

I carried a letter in the folds of my armor. I remember the power in writing it. I sat on the roof of our base all alone. I was on my cot and wrote with my paper on my knees. All night I wrote before getting it right. I burned the other copies in the same burn pit where we threw red bandages and bags of shit. We knew where each other’s letters were. We made silent pledges to retrieve them from our corpses if there was enough left for us to retrieve. We carried the certainty and inevitability with us everywhere. Life and death are random and death more so. I knew one moment we would be laughing, and the next watching blood seep from a sniper’s bullet. We prepared for death by not letting it surprise us. I stopped thinking of life as an adventure, deployments as fun. I left that at home in order to be destroyed by war and remade into something entirely different.

We carried the burden of each other’s lives. We brought the history of our deeds and fleeting hopes and dreams. We carried oaths sworn to save each other, die for each other. And like the scent, the weight added up.

***

I built to get away. I made a shelter of trash and rubble to scramble down into some shallow hole away from war and myself as the mortars rained down. It was foolish, honestly. I had a few tools and an insatiable desire to shut the door behind me, to me.

We built relationships to live and to hold each other up. Our experiences and upbringings were forgotten and replaced with shared suffering. Many would not last once the immediate external world contained no bullets and bombs. We made deals with chiefs and Sheikhs and anyone else we could beg to help us defeat the enemy. The enemy. What was the enemy? Who were we trying to kill? Why were we building on some foundation that would be eroded the moment we smelled the whiff of freedom from the desert and someone else’s war? The enemy really was weight and responsibility to each other, and some ideal we were told was patriotism.

I built a little shack twice in two deployments. Both were almost immediately destroyed. The first was in 2004 along a shimmering crystal bend of the Euphrates in north Al Anbar, the diamond snake that made its way south and glittered as the immense desert sun. it’s somehow true that the sun is larger and more repressive in the desert. It’s not just the heat; it’s the atoms and particles of light that impact which add the weight and burden the invader. It’s been that way since Gilgamesh and before, when nomads began settling down for the first time and before, when the desert took over the Arabian Peninsula.

When I built the first shelter along the banks, I had three materials: a sheet of plywood and two tent stakes. I created an angle against the sun that hid me from the repression of light and gave me a false sense of protection. It also allowed me to run away from my shelter quicker and hide on the berm of dust that protected us from the mortar rounds that fell incessantly and the rockets that floated over us like smoke-tailed kites to explode like iron fireworks that rained down on us and sent small showers of sand upward at impact.

I enjoyed building it, simple though it was. I enjoyed looking beyond its edges at night and seeing the full array of stars above me that are impossible to see anywhere near modern American civilization. I enjoyed building it because I got to claim it as my own and rely on it, unreliable though it was. It collapsed once under the earthquake of outgoing mortars pounding into the earth like jackhammers feet away from my home. The ground shook, and the air bubble folded the tent stakes out from under, and they slid in the sand till I was sandwiched by the wood, still shaking as our mortar teams sent illumination skyward, the parachuting burst of light destroying the night sky and my night sight. From then on, I slept on the wood instead of under it, my body armor my only blanket.

The second shack built over a year earlier was sturdy. About thirty kilometers south of Fallujah stood a small farm we occupied like so much else in that country. The compound consisted of three homes encircled by a cinder block wall topped with broken glass shards and razor wire that glittered in the sun morning and evening as the light prismed through the shards. This one was framed with two-by-fours and closed off with plywood sheets. Three of us had racks. I built a monster bed frame out of spare pine left by the engineers, and I hammered in nails with a rock in both hands. Two weeks after moving into our new home we were evicted. In retrospect, I get it. The shack would not have withstood a mortar round, and shrapnel would have splintered the frame, but then I was furious all my work was for naught. I was furious a lot in those days. There is no point building a home when its foundations are shaky and the weight of hatred and fear bear down from all directions.

***

Three bullets ricocheted off an engine block. “The car refused to stop,” we said, we pleaded to commanders, natives, ourselves. Three bullets to stop a vehicle. Two shot off to the sun, leaving behind molecules of struck flint and gasoline. The third ripped the kid’s carotid artery to silky ribbons that fluttered momentarily like prayer flags on a mountain. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Another death among many. He lay there stinking of sweat and shit and American intervention. The weight we carried became too great at times.

Two of us sat up late that night, alone in the cold air, listening to cars beyond the wire, and the trash burn pit crackle as bags of shit were thrown into the flames to rain down on us in black soot, and a sister squad of Marines lugged their vests and guns in the shadows to the staging area for a night ambush, their scent sour, unwashed, apathy wafting over in the cloud of burn-pit shit. “Why did it happen?” He repeated on a shaky loop like the end of a record as we sat listening to the night.

“It’s war.” That’s all I could think of. Entropy was the ruling science in the Iraq war.

The textbook explanations were hollow and meaningless. They were true, but withdrew none of the weight that was building and the burden that would never leave. The standard responses rarely are good enough. We sat. He talked. Recounting what happened over and over. I listened. How could I help? This was not my first fight, nor his. Not the first stray bullet. Not the last. With each one, the scent and fear burrowed deeper into the soul, harder to scrub. It became us as our DNA replicated with a new mutation being encoded, now continuous, now the norm. It added a weight and indiscernible burden that eased with time but never fully peeled away.

Ever since this, I have tried to build the narrative of my war into something solid that I understand, but the rains always come up, and the wind always beats on my recreated world of memory, and it can never stand against fear and doubt. I have begun to try and make everything about me about creation. I think that if I can just generate something beautiful and perfect enough the history of death that plagues me and wears me down can be dispelled. The tough thing is that I know it can’t. Once the weight piles on, it always seems to be there. The images, the pain, the death does not go away when the war zone is left behind because the war zone simply burrows down from the external to the internal. This is made especially hard when the external world is still a war zone of infighting about ideology and belief, and we see others bear down under the weight, and we want to help, but nothing ever seems to make a dent, to lift any burden.

That boy who crumbled under the weight of a torn artery and a mistake was nothing new. We always seem to build on shaky ground when we send boys and girls off to war to make them adults. This has been happening since Gilgamesh attempted to take the sacred cities of Nippur and Ur as well as the rest of Sumer five thousand years ago.

Political leaders always appeal to the zeal and passion of youth to achieve their aims. And who does it benefit? It is almost impossible to relay to kids how what they are doing is nothing but a faulty system buried into the human genome that means war will be with us till our clocks stop. Our leaders seem to no longer even try to avoid war, but those who never fight continue to glamorize it while those who know what blood smells like shake our collective heads and burrow into ourselves to remake meaning from the rubble. The boys and girls who wear the uniform briefly before being shoved with a pat on the back and false adulation into wars that have no reason or thought are destined to come home old, stooping, limping, and crying when they see what humanity is capable of. To say it’s war is really to proclaim one of the absolute truths of humanity. It's war really means we’re just human as we try to pass off our inability to lift the weight as an excuse. We are about to pass our failure to another generation already on shaky ground.

Author Portrait

Paul Warmbier lives, teaches, and writes in McMinnville, Oregon. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Idaho where he also served as Associate Nonfiction Editor for Fugue. He writes essays based on place, trauma, and the value of craftsmanship in our new world of replaceable throwaway objects. He is a writer, high school English teacher, custom furniture maker, and co-owner of the Dauntless Wine Company winery.