Now Playing: Jack Johnson
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
It started off as a joke. Greg wanted to build a fire because, as Beavis and Butthead taught America, “fire’s cool.” Then his idea started to take shape and mature. The thought of sitting around a campfire drinking beers and telling stories seemed as American as apple pie and Barbie dolls. Who wouldn’t want to pass an evening around the campfire with a few friends?
In late October, Newt and Greg began gently lobbying to obtain the proper approvals to build a fire. At first, the Mission’s EXO staff balked at the idea because they were afraid that the fire could get out of hand and burn down the compound. The idea of a small fire getting out of hand seemed ludicrous. The exterior of every house in the compound was concrete. Between the houses, the GSO had laid concrete sidewalks, and between the concrete sidewalks, there were large swaths of barren dirt where nothing could grow. Even if a fire got out of hand, it couldn’t go anywhere.
Nevertheless, in an effort to appease the EXO staff, Newt built a fire pit and agreed to place small stones around the pit. Then, Greg found an extra hose, which he ran from a leaky spigot to a spot near the pit. He also put a bucket full of water near the end of the hose. As an added incentive to win over the EXO, Newt suggested that he could burn all the downed tree limbs and extra pallets littering the compound. The fire could actually be used to clean up the compound while at the same time providing a much-needed social gathering point. In the face of this logic and attention to detail, the EXO eventually gave in to the proposal.
The fire was an instant success. People who normally didn’t stop by my house would walk over whenever they saw the fire. Employees with guitars would occasionally bring them by so they could string out a few bars of popular songs and encourage others to sing along. On the nights when we didn’t sing along to the guitar, I would roll out large speakers from my house and play classics from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Marley. I would even play mellow world music from Africa that rolled through the hearts of African TNCs working in the compound and foreign service officers who had served at least one tour in Africa. One American even tried to make s’mores to help us relive our childhood. To make the fire pit even more homely, I eventually surrounded it with lawn chairs, though so many people came out on some nights that there weren’t enough chairs to go around.
We quickly found out how fun it could be to burn pallets, deadfalls, and clippings. Although we had promised to keep the fire very small, the desire to see things burn eventually outweighed any moderation we had. Every night, we quickly went through all the clippings so we could focus on the larger branches and pallets. On some evenings, we stacked five, six, or seven pallets on top of the fire to make it extra-large. The pallets were exceptionally dry and threw off flames that danced in the night sky.
One evening when we were particularly interested in burning as many pallets as possible, someone noticed that the flames reached higher than the highest T-wall in the compound. The bad guys on the other side of the river could easily have spotted the flames and taken aim at our little fire. I laughed off the thought of the baddies having enough skill to hit our little fire. If they were that good, they would have been hitting the Palace every morning in an attempt to kill as many Americans as possible. All the same, for the rest of my tour, I tried to keep the flames lower than the nearest T-walls when we built the fire.
I always knew that the risk of mortars aimed at the fire wasn’t as high as the risks generally associated with being outside of a reinforced building during a war. Stray bullets in Iraq had a nasty habit of continuing onward for great distances until they hit something. The bad guys and the average Iraqis shooting off celebratory rounds seemed to aim their guns in such a way that the bullets would fly over the walls of the Green Zone and land in my compound. I never heard of a stray bullet hitting anyone working inside the Green Zone, but people found bullets inside the compound on a regular basis.
One night, some friends and I were gathered around the fire, and we heard the sounds of random gunfire in the distance. Then we realized it didn’t sound so random. The shots appeared to be coming from Assassin’s Gate, one of the nearby checkpoints, roughly a half-mile from my compound. After a few minutes of small-arms fire from somewhere near the checkpoint, the Americans at the checkpoint would open up with the large 50mm guns, which generally brought a quick end to the fighting.
“There’re busy tonight, but we’re giving them hell,” a soldier passing the evening with us proudly proclaimed.
I had grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire. When I first arrived in Iraq, the sounds of small arms were as common as a rooster calling in a barnyard in the morning. Every morning, starting around 7 A.M., the sound of submachine guns rang out in the air, and the gunfight would go on for perhaps 20 minutes before I heard the sound of American reinforcements. A large collection of large-caliber machine guns would ring out, and shortly after that a helicopter would rush in to provide air support. After the first month, the sounds of running gun battles diminished, but gunfights such as these still happened frequently enough to force me to tune them out.
That night around the campfire, the sounds were louder and more frequent than normal, but it wasn’t unusual enough to make us go inside. We continued to sit around the campfire, drinking beers and telling stories. Calmly having a beer while listening to the gunshots reminded me of listening to African beasts roaring at night, only this time I knew that people were dying rather than wild antelope. It was one of those surreal moments where my friends and I were having a calm evening as the world around us continued to fall apart. Thankfully, we were on the inside of the concrete blast walls surrounding the Green Zone. We were safe and could listen to the war from a distance, like hearing a marching band somewhere on the other side of town.
While we were enjoying ourselves, the world suddenly lit itself on fire. The sounds of gunfire grew louder and louder. Within seconds, it sounded like every gun in Baghdad had suddenly sprung to life. The gunfire came from every direction, and the large-caliber American machine guns at the checkpoint responded with round after continuous round. It sounded like we had moved into the middle of a shooting range.
Above us, a beautiful rainbow of streaking colors began to fill the sky. Everywhere we looked, we saw colors filling up the sky until it almost seemed as bright as an early morning haze. It looked like the night videos of Baghdad from the first Gulf War, where the antiaircraft weapons lit up the night sky. However, in this case, they were tracer rounds fired from rifles and semi-automatic pistols. Bullet manufacturers had brushed little bits of phosphorus onto every third or fourth round, and it burned brightly after they were fired to help the shooters figure out where their bullets were going. For every streak of color we saw—and they littered the sky—there were two or three other bullets traveling in the same direction that hadn’t been marked with phosphorus.
For the first five seconds of this, no one knew what to do. We all stared at each other or up at the night sky. We had fallen into the dangerous position of being spectators rather than participants in the war. Our bubble of confusion finally broke when a tracer round raced toward our fire and flew perhaps 40 feet directly above us.
“Incoming!” shouted Kaufman, a former soldier who normally acted as cool as Magnum, PI.
All of us snapped to attention and began to fly like rabbits scared from a brush pile by a hunting dog. We leaped up and kicked our chairs in every direction. Everyone quickly surveyed the open surroundings to find pockets of safety where they could hide from the rain of bullets dancing through the sky.
“Run for my house!” I commanded while making the quickest 30-yard dash I had ever made in my life.
I covered the distance in seconds, yet it felt like an eternity. In my mind, I could feel one of the bullets flying through the night sky toward my back. I could see myself lying face down in the dirt with blood oozing out of my body as I slowly drifted toward my death. I could see myself dying and hating myself for taking all those risks by coming to Iraq.
On the sprint to my house, I passed two people who weren’t moving as fast and urged them on with a simple one-word command: “Run!” The gunfire only grew louder and louder, and we had to make it to safety. The house, with its thick concrete walls, could provide the protection that I so desperately needed, yet it seemed so far away. Someone later told me that they heard bullets bouncing off the concrete houses and sidewalks, but I didn’t hear anything other than the sound of my heavy breathing.
As I crossed the threshold of my house, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then, I quickly leaned alongside the edge of the door and shouted words of encouragement to the other people making a dash for my house. Within seconds, four more people had made it to the safety of my house. We all looked at each other in disbelief, because there were at least 12 other people who had been around the fire, yet didn’t make it to my house.
I poked my head around the edge of the door to see what had happened to the others and spotted two people huddled on my neighbor’s porch. They had chosen to reach the partial cover of the porch, which was closer to the fire, rather than taking the risk of running all the way to my house. The marginal amount of shelter offered by the porch wouldn’t truly protect them; eventually, they realized this, and instead of staying curled up in a ball, they stood up and watched the light show dancing above the streets of Baghdad.
I later learned that most of the other people around the fire had run down the sidewalk and found an even lesser degree of protection by ducking into a small space between two houses. Eventually, someone in a nearby house opened his door to see what was happening. When he opened the door, the group raced into his house.
From my house, I could only assume that the other people were huddling on porches and along the sides of blast walls throughout the compound. I realized that they were probably scared, because I was scared from the relative safety of my hard house. I wanted to reassure them and let them know that if they wanted to take a risk, they could run to my house.
I grabbed two large outdoor speakers that were left over from a party I had thrown the week before and quickly connected the speakers to my laptop. Then, I pushed the speakers out my front door. I quickly raced through my collection of MP3 files and tried to find something funny or loud. I eventually picked “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones, which always reminded me of Vietnam: it seemed fitting. Listening to that music while bullets were raining down on the compound made me feel like somehow I was “in the shit” and earning my stripes.
On the nearby porch where two of my friends were waiting out the rain of bullets, one of the men shouted, “Turn it up!”
“Hells yeah!” shouted the other.
Inside my house, everyone began laughing. We were mocking the whole idea of war by turning the moment into yet another fairytale Green Zone moment. None of us would have ever predicted that our response to gunfire would be to turn on loud music associated with a war that had ended roughly 30 years earlier.
When “Paint It Black” came to an end, I turned on “Flight of the Valkyries.” Again, everyone in my house laughed so hard that they began to cry. Outside, I heard my two friends cheering in approval of my music selection. We were taking one more step away from reality.
I was poking my head around the doorframe to check up on my friends when I saw something that made my many fears seem foolish. Shaun, a Marine who had seen much worse during his tour in Iraq, was taking a leisurely walk across the compound. He didn’t have on any body armor, yet he didn’t seem to care. The gunfire didn’t faze him, and he seemed to be mocking all of us by walking so calmly when we were hiding.
“Good music,” he said when he spotted me.
“I’m just doing my part to prevent the war from getting us down,” I responded.
After 20 minutes, the gunfire came to an end. The insurgents never came over the walls; the soldiers at the checkpoints didn’t have to shoot anyone; there was no major effort to kill Americans in the Green Zone. The Iraqis were simply celebrating. Their national soccer team had won an international game against the Syrians, and to celebrate their victory, they had taken to the street and fired bullets into the sky.
The next morning, people found handfuls of bullets inside the compound. The Iraqi drivers and GSO staff, who were staying in an unprotected trailer, had bullets pierce the walls and ceiling of their trailer, but luckily no one was hurt. In fact, as far as I know, no one inside the Green Zone was injured. However, I could only assume that out of the 7 million people in Baghdad, some Iraqis must have been hurt, and probably a small number had been killed.