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Journal, Day Three
I’d like to share a few journal entries from when I was an infantry soldier in Iraq. The overall journal I have from that period in my life is fairly substantial and I won’t try to reproduce it all here. I’d just like to give a few snippets so that one can get a feel for the difference between poem entries and straight journal ones . . .
24 Dec 2003
. . . We call the enemy Haji. the Hajj is a journey one takes to Mecca as a religious pilgrimmage, hopefully at least once in one’s lifetime. In this faith, this is a tremendously important event. Some travel hundreds of miles, and more, simply to be in Mecca, the holiest of places for many, during Ramadan. Our Haji is the “Charlie” of Viet Nam. It is definitely a racial/religious slur and yet it doesn’t seem to be said with that in mind. It’s more a way to put a name to what is sort of faceless, and anonymous. For most soldiers, there are ‘good’ Haji’s and there are ‘bad’ ones. . . .
. . . When we catch them we flex-cuff them and put 2 sand bags over their heads, 100-mile-per-hour tape wrapping around the eyes. They sit in humvees while we finish up our mission. People gather down the streets and watch. The wives and relatives of the men, mostly women and children, cry of course. Tragedy is in the air. They curse us in Arabic. Spit at us. Show us the bottoms of their feet, a huge insult here. A boy walks up and says, “My Father, no bad man. My Father no bad. Let free my Father.” And we point to a pile of RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) and machine guns and spring-loaded magazines that are often used to make C4 bombs with, as if to say, here is our proof. Still, no one knows what it means to be here until they’ve heard a woman cry for the man we take away from her.
7 Feb 2004
. . . I could’ve been killed yesterday. Someone, a stranger in a foreign land, tried to murder me with an RPG. Who was he? Or ‘they’, more likely. If we were to sit down, if he were to talk to me, to learn what happens in a life to bring me here, to hear of my thoughts on this land, its people, what I think of him even, would it make a ripple? Would he still want to kill me?
I want to believe not. I really do.
5 Mar 2004
. . . The bomb itself was a 155mm shell placed under a slab of concrete on a street corner. An assistant tied a white line to the back of the suit and unraveled it as the bomb guy moved forward. He looked like an astronaut walking in a combat zone, slow and labored.
When he got there he stepped from side to side studying the bomb, viewing it from all angles. I heard radio traffic call up that he’d decided they could defuse it—no need to blow it in place.
Watching him walk down the street toward that bomb—I thought, Man, this guy has got guts. Nothing could rattle this guy.
Once he began defusing it, some Iraqi bomb experts in flak vests joined him and they took it apart in short order. After it was loaded up and he’d removed the bomb suit, I saw him take a second to drink some water, with no flak on or any of the usual combat gear, just the standard brown t-shirt.
I thought: How do you let go of a year of stress like that?
[Later in that journal entry . . .]
Oh yeah—airburst and 82mm mortars are attacking us now. Again.
Here is one poem that came directly out of this particular experience and found its way to the page. This is often how it worked for me…I would journal about an event, keep mulling it over in my mind, and then the world of the poem would open up on the page.
The 107s have a crackling sound
of fire and electricity, of air-ruckled heat,
and when they pinwheel over the rooftops
of Hamman al Alil
they just keep going,
traveling for years over the horizon
to land in the meridians of Divisadero Street,
where I’m standing early one morning
on a Memorial Day in Fresno, California,
the veteran’s parade scattering at the impact,
mothers shielding their children by instinct,
old war vets crouching behind automobiles
as police set up an outer cordon
for the unexploded ordinance.
Rockets often fall
in the night sky of the skull, down long avenues
of the brain’s myelin sheathing, over synapses
and the rough structures of thought, they fall
into the hippocampus, into the seat of memory—
where lovers and strangers and old friends
entertain themselves, unaware of the dangers
headed their way, or that I will need to search
the way the bomb disposal tech
walks tethered and alone down Divisadero Street,
suited-up as if walking on the moon’s surface
as the crowd watches just how determined he is
to dismantle death, to take it apart
piece by piece—the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.