I speed along on 80.
80 is referred to, by many, as the Highway of Death. There are two such roads with the same moniker. Iraqis stopped up this main artery recoiling from American/Coalition Forces during Desert Storm. They knew retreat was their only option left. So they did. Announcing their intentions to comply with UN Resolution 660, they abandoned Kuwait and clogged up two of the only roads back the way they invaded. Filling all available lanes, they jammed upon each other and waited in their vehicles like commuters in morning traffic. Someone cursed a last breath as the missiles shot into the jam and burned them all silent.
Two thousand people incinerated as they waited and waited for someone to get out of the way.
Tanks, supply trucks, tactical, non-tactical vehicles alike and even civilian cars formed burnt out husks littering the landscape after the jets flew away from their devastation. Smoke, wispily waving after their delivery boys like the passage of so many souls rose into the wind.
The Highways of Death are now immaculate, with hardly a scar of their namesakes as I break speed limits toward our next mission.
Raindrops make slapping sounds of clashing against our windshield and run in rivulets away from the wind. The wet weather is an abrupt change from the sandstorm that tried to tear our paper quarters apart last night and for the past two days.
Sympathy from the desert. From the sand. From the dying.
A fly, trapped in my vehicle all morning lands on my hair. I slap the top of my head like I’m special. I miss.
The radio stations are still playing in a state of mourning for the Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah who died just weeks ago. With an I-pod radio transmitter plugged into my PDA, we avoid the country’s radioed self condolence with The Mars Volta, Wolf Parade, Mattoid and a bit of the Sufjan. But I know that beneath Take the Veil, Fancy Claps, Rat Poison and John Wayne Gacy, someone is singing a song of sorrow in honor of Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
My Commander sits uncomfortably silent through the tunes. I know he dislikes my music which puts a slight dent in my enjoyment but not much. Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter is much better than suffering through his eclectic schizo-mix of Beach Boy pop between Gloria Estefan’s Greatest Hits and Bette Midler’s Biggest Shits.
At the encampment we work through patient after patient and after we’re done, the Commander says he wants to visit the border. He’s nervous. I can see his hesitation and hear the fear in his voice. The Iraqi border looms just beyond the concertina-wired sand berms and at night, gunfire picks different angles from which to snap and the occasional mortars booming through the tents, shaking in sympathetic vibration scare the shit out of skittish soldiers.
“We don’t have to go if you don’t feel like it” he suggests.
“I don’t mind going back there, sir” I reply, studying my Commander’s nervousness.
He looks uncomfortable in his Battle Rattle (flack jacket and Kevlar).
The zone between the two countries is a purgatory of Customs officials and various military authorities that one should expect to see in a place such as this. I drive slowly. We stop at the desert’s shitiest parking lot and the sailors I’ve brought with me dig out their digital cameras. The parking lot is a holding station for wreckage coming out of battle that must first clear customs through whatever paperwork tanks and humvees are supposed to have after they’ve been IED’d to shreds. The shit part of this lot is what we’re about to see.
Our escort, a Lieutenant Colonel, tells us where these vehicles have been and how long they’ve been waiting to enter the country.
“Seven days” he says in a deep military tone of disgust.
A fly lands on my face as his friend buzzes the tower. This isn’t altogether unusual considering the closer we get to Iraq, the more flies we meet. They bunch together in clouds and the atmosphere here becomes cloudier by the minute. I’m reminded of starving Ethiopians with dead, asking eyes on TV. A narrator admonishes me for my money as obese flies treat the bony faces of Nun’Knu and SeSay La’ki like pedestrian walkways while I search desperately for the remote. I shoo the flies away with a swipe of the hand.
“These six vehicles here are so tore up and melted shut that there are still pieces of people stuck to the floors in there” says the LTCOL in a resounding voice. The presence of my friendly fliers makes more sense now. So does the smell.
More wrecked humvees, tanks, trailers and trucks and it’s time to get out of there.
It was time to go the minute we arrived.
Next Piece is . . .Significance