cover of KABOOM

Embracing the Suck
In a Savage Little War

by Matt Gallagher

Published by Da Capo Press
ISBN: 9780306819674
ISBN-10: 0306819678
Where to buy KABOOM
Excerpt from KABOOM:

It was the day after the great red dust storms ended, a little more than a week after our squadron lost its first soldier to a deep buried IED in the farmlands west of Saba al-Bor. I lay in bed, staring at the wall from the top bunk, basking in the rarest of days—one in which I could sleep in. I thought about nothing and how awesome it was to think about nothing and how if life went well, nothing wouldn’t be so rare anymore. The gears of my mind were just beginning to grind toward muscle movement, mainly a product of memory rather than a conscious decision, when SFC Big Country barreled through the door.

“The IA got Mohammed Shaba!” he said, staying just long enough to drop off his now empty mug of coffee. Just like that, he was gone, I was back in Iraq, and my nothingness had burst like a star cluster, illuminating all kinds of gut-wrenching, hidden somethings back into plain sight. I cursed to myself, slapped myself in the face, and hopped off the top bunk. The nothingness was now gone. Maybe next lifetime, I thought to myself.

So, they got the Ghost. Saba al-Bor’s native son, a known terrorist and wanted murderer, had been a general thorn in the side of Coalition forces for the better portion of the past year. Much of his celebrity status was overblown, mainly due to his self-designated nickname, which translated to either Mohammed the Ghost or Mohammed the Shadow, depending which terp had been asked. Nevertheless, Higher had longed after this JAM insurgent in a manner that bordered on Brokeback. Capturing him was a public relations dream, if not a key strategic blow for Shia extremism in our area. The Gravediggers had already been on a few boondoggles going after him, but we were always a room away, ten minutes late, or finding his grandfather with a full piss bag but without a grandson. When Mohammed Shaba missions came down, it usually felt like we were hunting a black dog in the night. These experiences weren’t isolated to just our platoon; they encapsulated all of Bravo Troop’s bouts with the Ghost. And now the Iraqi army had him. Sure, I was shocked, but good for the IA, I thought. That was what we were aiming for, after all—a self-sustaining Iraqi security force.

Yawning noisily, I strolled out of our room and into the main foyer of the combat outpost. Captain Whiteback and a few of the soldiers from Headquarters platoon were heading out the front door, en route to the IA compound to tactically question the Ghost and his fellow detainees. I bumped into Lieutenant Virginia Slim, who was coming up the stairs and taking off his helmet; he had just been over with the IAs.

“Dude,” he said, “you should head over and check these guys out.”

“Why?” I didn’t really feel compelled to put on my gear. I was more interested in grabbing a few banana nut muffins and seeing if there were any pieces of bacon left. “Did the CO [commanding officer] say he needed me?”

“Naw, I just thought you’d appreciate the scene. They’re just a couple of scared, punk teenagers. We probably could’ve had them months ago if we had set up a trap with XBoxes, a few porn mags, and some pounds of weed.”

We laughed, and I sauntered toward the pantry. I rubbed the stubble of my face. I should probably shave too, I thought. It had been a few days. After breakfast and a quick dry shave, curiosity got a hold of me, and I walked across the street to the IA compound. I poked my head around the fence line and spotted a crowd of IA soldiers—commonly referred to by their Arabic name of jundis —interlaced with a group of American soldiers sent over to ensure the detention process stayed peaceful. There was a post–prize fight feeling in the air. The soldiers of both countries were joking with one another incessantly, crowing like young bantams at a cockfight. They crowded around three grubby, emaciated shapes in handcuffs and wrapped in blankets that were stacked against the building. The three shapes were separated along the wall so they could not communicate; they were crouched in the traditional Arab squat, and only nervous darting glances from downcast heads confirmed them to be human beings and not teenage scarecrows made of dirt.

As I walked closer, I recognized Mohammed Shaba from the mug shots we’d used for countless previous missions: same scar across the right cheek, same long chin, same mop of black hair jetting out. In the photograph, he snarled toward the camera, menacingly challenging the viewer to dare to venture into Saba al-Bor’s alleys to hunt him. Here, at the Iraq Army compound, though, he did not snarl, or challenge, or dare. He sniffled like a bullied child, trying desperately to hold back tears, cradling his swollen nose, which dripped with blood. It had been broken by the Iraq Army when he bit one of them and tried to escape. The teenager handcuffed next to him—who I later learned was another top target of ours known as Ali the Prince—wept far more openly and reeked of feces. Wait a minute. Had he really—

“Yes, sir, he actually shit himself,” one of our Headquarters platoon NCOs said to me, apparently provoked by my sniffing of the air and subsequent grimace. “Gives new meaning to the term scared shitless, don’t it?”

I nodded, hoping I appeared aloof and knowing to my enemies, who now had faces. Why I cared in the first place, I still don’t know.