But the shock wears off, more quickly for some, but eventually for most. Fast food and alcohol are seductive, and I didnt fight too hard. Your old routine is easy to fall back into, preferences and tastes return. Its not hard to be a fussy, overstuffed American. After a couple of months, home is no longer foreign, and you are free to resume your old life.
I thought I did. Resume my old life, that is. I was wrong.
The car bomb went off just outside of our FOB, in downtown Kirkuk, on the highway that leads north to Irbil and the peaceful Kurdish lands untouched by the war. We felt it in the HAS, a shaking rumble like thunder on a clear hot day. We had put our gear on and were waiting for our security escort even before the call came in to go investigate.
The car had stopped burning by the time we arrived. A twisted black shell, frame, and engine block smoldering, hot to the touch. The Iraqi Police had cordoned off the scene, yelling at pedestrians to move back. The reverse dichotomy always struck me. The scene of the blast, where so much violence had happened minutes before, was now empty and quiet. The surrounding neighborhood, peaceful until the attack, was now a roiling cauldron of frustration and anger.
Castleman and I started the investigation at the blast hole. The asphalt punctured, wet with a mix of fluids, some mechanical, some human. The car frame was several feet from the crater, thrown by the force of the explosion. It yielded no clues; any wires, switches, batteries, or fingerprints were burned away in the fire. We could have found traces of explosive residue if we had had the time. We didnt have the time.
I looked up from the hulk and surveyed further out. Chunks of steel frag were buried in a nearby concrete wall. A fully intact artillery projectile, a 130 or 155, probably, from the size and shape, failing to detonate and instead kicked out by the blast, was caught in a fence a hundred feet away. We would grab that and blow it before we left.
It smells like shit! I said. And it did.
Sir, it always smells like shit in this country, answered Castleman.
He was right. But this wasnt the normal smell of shit: diesel exhaust, burning trash, sweat, and grime, the body odor of an unwashed city. We smelled that mix every day. No, this smelled like actual shit. Human shit.
Check this out, called Castleman.
He had found the target of the car bomb. Bloody shirts and boots of Iraqi policemen. A pair of pants, dropped or torn off, with a months wages in frayed and scorched 250-dinar notes poking out from a front pocket. Hands and feet. Several pools of drying blood. The smell of shit was stifling, and getting worse.
A quick count of right hands indicated a couple dead, at least. Who knows how many wounded, pulled out by their fellow police, now dead or dying at the overwhelmed hospital. The Iraqi cops had already picked up the biggest parts, so any count we made was going to be wrong. It wasnt worth the trouble to get the exact right number anyway. I continued on.
The smell of shit was overwhelming in the afternoon heat. I looked down.
Hey, I found it! I yelled to Castleman, who was taking pictures of the scene for evidence.
There at my feet was a perfectly formed, and entirely intact, lower intestine. The small intestine above and anus below were torn off and scattered, but the colon itself was pristine, and lay there like I had just removed it from the organ bag in the gut of a Thanksgiving turkey. It was beautiful, stuffed with the digested remains of an unknown last meal.
Castleman walked over and looked down where I pointed. The intestine smelled like it was cooking in a pan.
He shrugged. I shrugged back.
We walked off and left that shit-filled colon to bake on the black asphalt in the hot Iraqi summer sun.
Excerpted from The Long Walk by Brian Castner. Copyright © 2012 by Brian Castner. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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