Towards the end of Gulf War 1, on February 26 & 27th of 1991, a lengthy column of Iraqis irregulars and civilians fled from the advancing Coalition Forces on the highway connecting Kuwait City and Basrah. The retreating column contained several thousand vehicles, both civilian and military. The fleeing Iraqis were intercepted by air forces of the Coalition and subjected to an intense attack of horrific magnitude, as result from which thousands of Iraqis were literally incinerated by napalm and other terrible weapons that were unleashed on the fleeing soldiers. The carnage was so extreme that the highway became known as 'The Highway of Death' and the attack is today generally regarded as having been an extremely disproportionate amount of force to use against people who were essentially fleeing for their lives from the pursuing army of the Coalition. I still have personal photographic images of the unbelievable horror and death that was to be seen there, following that attack. The following story takes place in that part of Iraq, some time after the 'Highway of Death' incident occured.
THE DOODAH ROOM
In the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun, the twig cast an odd shadow across the dull rust of the undisturbed sand. Protruding only an inch or so from the wind-swept crescents of the striated dunes, it did not seem at first glance to be anything remarkable from Joachim’s vantage by the Toyota.
As he leaned back on the truck’s fender, holding the black cigarette thoughtfully between right thumb and forefinger, Joachim continued to stare at the distant spires of the Kuwait City television tower. Something about the twig in the sand kept drawing his attention back to the heaped-up sandy piles which lay some 50 yards ahead of him. Distracted from the golden shimmer of the sun’s reflection on the towers, he turned his full attention on the twig.
The thought suddenly came to him, as he gazed bemusedly in its direction, that it might not be a twig after all, since no natural growth—certainly nothing resembling a bush—could be supported in the perpetually desiccated waste of endless sands that stretched in all directions. With one last deep drag on the cigarette, he flicked the butt away and decided to walk over to examine the enigma.
Savoring the strong Balkan tobacco’s bite in his mouth, he covered the short distance on his stocky, sunburned legs with an unconcerned languidity, scattering the wind-smoothed grains of sand with each scuff of his Birkenstocks. Within a few moments he was standing over the curious twig and stared down at it for a second before hunkering down to examine it at closer proximity. Joachim was a Bavarian, and Bavarians never did anything without affecting a studied insouciance. But Joachim was also an engineer by profession, and the natural motivation of a scientific background usually overcame the provincial habits of his regional origins. Confronted by the strange twig, his natural instincts yielded to the analytical habits acquired through his training as a 'Herr Doktor'.
Pulling his knife out of its sheath, he sank the blade into the sand around the projection and carefully swept the grains aside so as to fully expose the object which had captured his attention. The twig gradually took on a more familiar form in the fading light as it finally stood revealed as a mummified vestige of bone, heat-shrunk, incinerated tissue baked onto it like the bark of a weathered tree. Joachim felt a mild uneasiness as he continued to scrape away the sand. It could be anything, he found himself musing—the long dead remains of a camel, possibly a sheep. But...and the thought lingered with a delicious distastefulness...might it also be part of a human remain? This was, after all, an area in which heavy fighting had occurred during the retreat of the Iraqi Army Republican Guards, en route from Kuwait City to Basra, during the Gulf War.
The bone was not coming free and remained fixed, apparently deeply rooted in the dunes. In the east the sun was now very low on the horizon, and the spires of Kuwait City were starkly outlined by the feeble rays of sun which strained to penetrate the eternal background filter of airborne dust. Shrugging off the brief reflection, Joachim took a closer look at the object slowly revealing itself as the sands parted around it. There was no longer any doubt. It was a human finger bone, attached still to the rest of the hand, and it pointed upward towards the sky as if flinging a futile, silent and long-dead accusation to the heavens above.
The gathering dusk by that time had rapidly made any further discoveries near-impossible. Glancing across the sand at the Toyota truck, Joachim stood up, wiped his knife instinctively before replacing it in its sheath, and retraced his steps back across the wind-riffled eddies of dune. Standing once more by the truck’s door, he could barely make out the stark outline of the pleading, skeletal hand in the thickening gloom of the desert twilight.
With only the merest residual thought of his discovery left, and already abstractly filed away in that scientific part of his mind wherein such findings were deposited, Joachim quickly turned towards the more immediate matter of preparing something to eat from the box of food which lay in the Toyota’s bed. More importantly, in a separate box nearby, a large 10 litre plastic jerry can held the latest batch of home-brewed, dark Bavarian style beer. Lighting a Bluet Gaz-fueled camp light, Joachim was in the process of cutting up some schnitzle to eat with the beer when he heard the loud hail that came some distance from the illuminated circle of the camp.
Joachim cringed slightly, vaguely resenting the attempt at humor, as his American companion advanced into the light. Putting the glass of strong beer down, he surveyed the figure beaming naively before him.
The American, Arnold Sawyer by name, was at first glance an amusing study in contrasts—even by the relatively weak light of the gas lamp. A full six feet tall, sturdily built, and projecting an air of still somewhat gawky innocence, Arnold was the blonde, blue-eyed offspring of Swedish immigrants who had settled in the state of Alabama some hundred years ago. Standing before Joachim, Arnold’s youthful eyes moved animatedly from food to beer and back again. Hunger and thirst were clearly on his mind after the trek out across the dunes, from which he had just returned. “How about some of that stuff you brewed, bud?” he asked in his curiously twangy southern American accent.
Regarding Arnold with a gaze which one normally reserves for an inspection of one’s effluent after a successfully brief 'reign' on the throne of human necessity, Joachim gestured towards the jerry can. “Help yourself. Did you get lost out there?”
“Naw, I wasn’t that far away. And besides, I figured you’d have a fire lit to steer back to, anyways.” Arnold had his small daypack slung over his shoulder, and as he spoke deposited it into the bed of the truck, close to the beer jug. He was wearing faded US Army desert camo pants and a T-shirt. The T-shirt, also somewhat faded, carried a slogan that said: 'EAT RIGHT, STAY FIT, DIE ANYWAY...' The irony of the statement was completely lost on Arnold, who wore it simply because his girlfriend had given it to him.
The beer, a product of the last week’s batch prepared in the bathroom at Joachim’s accommodation on the Siemens compound, was excellent. It was far from being anywhere near a true , commercial quality Bayerische dunkle brau, but as an example of the expedient brewing methods employed out of geographic and cultural necessity, it was strong and smooth and very potent. Joachim was quite proud of it, and silently complimented himself briefly after hoisting another glass of it to his bearded mouth. Savoring the pungent flavor of the dark fluid as the draught coursed down his throat, he regarded Arnold again, who was by this time pouring himself a glass of the powerful beverage.
Arnold was one of those exasperating Americans—sehr typisch, in Joachim’s view—who, despite having left the insular boundaries of their native country, persisted naively in maintaining a world-view that was simple and unaffected. Clearly the product of a characteristic, near-institutionalized ignorance of the world beyond American borders that obtains in the United States, Arnold was an eloquent exemplifier of that narrow and parochial outlook. Moreover, he was still painfully young--23 years old in contrast to Joachim’s 50--and appeared to be afflicted with that universal American tendency to think that the rest of the world views life through American eyes.
For Joachim, it was the most unfortunate combination of characteristics possible—youthful naivite and cultural ignorance. And although philosophically he knew that a figuratively lobotimized American youth was probably a better companion (after a fashion) than a deeply sensitive, culturally aware one, the thought didn’t make his being stuck out here in the depths of the desert with a kasekuchekopf any easier. Leaving this reflective fragment abruptly, Joachim took another gulp of the beer and mused pleasantly that it was starting to run its fingers around his brain more discernably, as fumes from the frying meat brought him back to matters at hand.
The schnitzle had burned, but there was cheese, Egyptian flat-bread, and other food to consume. Arnold, already into his 3rd glass of the beer, was similarly unconcerned with the quality of the meat, and had discovered the peaches and grapes—their juicy qualities especially pleasing in the desert dryness. Turning to the German, he asked, “What were you up to this afternoon, Sidiyk?”
Joachim had lit another of his special Balkan Black Russian cigarettes. He puffed deeply, amid gulps of the beer, and regarded Arnold with indifference.
“I? I was looking at the sand.”
That was the extent of his response, which by the look on Arnold’s face was clearly insufficient for purposes of starting or maintaining a conversation. Arnold’s expression brightened, however, as Joachim continued, after a pregnant pause, “I found something interesting, not far from the truck. Can you guess what it was?” Joachim’s eyes seemed briefly to loom brighter from of the shadows on his face as they caught the reflected glare from the gaz lamp.
“Sure can't, Sidiyk. A Bedouin humping a sheep? An Olympic-sized swimming pool? Adolph Hitler’s burned corpse?” Joachim started for the briefest second at the mention of Hitler, took another puff on his Balkan Sobranie Black Russian, and focused on Arnold.
“Almost correct.....it was, at any rate, a burned human body.”
This time it was Arnold’s turn to glance up at Joachim, his youthful lack of subtlety suddenly piqued, despite the strong effects of the beer.“You’re shittin’ me! You didn’t really find some stiff out there, did you?”
Arnold put the glass of beer down for a second as he waited for Joachim’s reply, openmouthed.
The night had deepened and the only light aside from the vast canopy of intensely bright stars, which filled the clear desert sky overhead, came from the direction of Kuwait City; its dull glow merely a suggestion of some human habitation in the desert landscape of sand to their east. The silence which prevailed, attending the stygian dark of the wastes, was otherwise vast and complete. Joachim, for his part, took a moment to glance around their site before answering. Before long the sands would be intensely cold.
“No, I am not shitting you, and yes, it appeared to be the body of someone who had been incinerated.....someone whose body has apparently been there for a long time, now, and possibly that of a soldier killed in the Gulf War. It is, in fact, just a few metres from where we sit, and if it were not so dark you could see part of it, which sticks oddly up out of the sand.”
Joachim did not reflect upon his use of the word “it” instead of a more personal pronoun, in referring to the corpse, possibly betraying his cold, scientific preference for objectifying phenomena in his choice of words. “I don’t have any more idea of what it is than that, and we shall have to wait until morning to look more closely....if that is truly what you wish to do.”
“Damn,” muttered Arnold, arms now propped up on his knees and glass of beer drained. “Must be some Iraqi, do you think? There could be a whole slew of ‘em out here, since this is near where they blasted the shit out of that Republican Guards regiment that was making a breakout to Basrah, back in 1991.”
Arnold was caught up in some fanciful speculation for a moment, doubtless confusingly related to an internal contextual conflict between his own fondness for Alabama squirrel hunting, gun adulation, and the events of the 1991 Desert Storm action which took Kuwait City back from Saddam. His eyes glazed, then he turned back to Joachim.
“Was it gruesome?”
“Couldn’t tell....only a hand that’s visible, but the hand is very badly incinerated. The rest of it, if there is a body connected to it, lies under the dunes. It has been sitting out here for some time, as I said, and I am not interested in investigating further.”
Joachim was thinking of some other badly fire-damaged remains he had once viewed as a child, when an American airlift transport had crashed short of the Templehoff runway and practically in his family’s front yard. “At any rate, dead is dead, whether it is someone we know or not, and who knows whether or not it is better to be where that unfortunate creature is now than where we are here.”
Who knew, indeed! But more to the point, he surmised, what did it matter? Joachim personally had no fear of death. Rather it was, he had determined, the fear of dying that gave him most pause for thought. Death was merely another state of being or nonbeing. The dying phase, however, was marked by pain (usually) and was something that the physical body’s senses were poorly structured to accommodating. Joachim hated pain.
Dying, he reminded himself, is simply a natural part of human experience, but preferably it did not come horribly—thoughts of Goya’s tortuous depictions of (undoubtedly) agonizing impalement surfaced, simultaneous with his imagination’s recreation of how the Auschwitz vistims had died....or possibly the Japanese Hiroshima casualties....the possibilities for a horribly painful death were certainly endless, given mankind’s ingenious capabilities for violence among its own. He allowed himself a fractional second of rueful awareness that his own father had been responsible for some of those deaths, under the Hitler regime. Don't go there, he cautioned himself silently.
Arnold, seated across a short expanse of lighted sand from Joachim, looked out into the darkened vicinity of the burned corpse. “Hell, he must have been napalmed. The Air Cav guys in the Blackhawks just liberally wasted those Iraqis when they got bottled up on Route 80. That must have been quite a sight to see, from up there in the choppers. I saw some pictures of it, but I sure would have enjoyed being in on that squirrel shoot from the git-go!”
Joachim, himself feeling quite well lubricated after several glasses of the dark home-brewed malt fermentation, considered half-heartedly the arduous difficulty of attempting to fathom the populist, southern-styled reactionary well-springs of Arnold’s Americanismus for a brief moment before mentally shrugging the subject off. It was probably beyond his ability to understand, he decided, mindful of the obvious aspects of Arnold’s age and national origin. Further, after the beer and horrible mish-mash of food that they had had with it, such thoughts mattered little by any reckoning and he leaned back, suddenly aware of the almost fluid coolness of the sands upon which he sat.
With the sensation of coolness under his butt came a cold awareness of the utter futility of human life, of pathetic human attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, of even trying to regard the whole chaos of human experience. Quite suddenly, Joachim felt very much older than his 50 years. Fortunately, the rough Bavarian part of his dual nature stepped forward out of his consciousness to rudely remind the scientist in him to shut the hell up! Just in time, too, he reflected, patting his full stomach with some contentment, noting that Arnold, now quiescent and feeling the powerful effect of the beer, was starting to nod. Getting up, briefly to get the bedrolls, he pitched Arnold’s bag at him and turned the gaz lamp off.
Overhead the stars, earlier revealed in bright swarms, had begun to become slightly obscured by the usual blanket of fine dust which hung forever suspended in the air. Time passed. The silence, which had followed Arnold’s verbal speculation about the corpse whose burial ground they shared for the night, had deepened, and now was unbroken, except for the soft sounds of their breathing. After some time, both men, off on different planes of sleepy, ruminative reflection in this expanse of empty desert, drifted towards a neutral sleep.
The hard sand, now quite cold and belying the fierce daytime capability of the sun’s heat to mold both a burning crucible or a chilled coffin from its silicate particles, paid no more attention to them than it did the blackened corpse sleeping eternally nearby, as another dreamless, meaningless night descended. It descended noncommittally and equally upon all three figures, two live and one very, very dead, bathed by the coldly indifferent light of its far off bits of firey cosmic dust.