The Suicide Bomber · 12:15am
Art has long been known to offer therapeutic benefits to people -- soldiers or not -- trying to overcome traumatic experiences. The Egyptians believed (as this article details) that writing words on papyrus, soaking them in liquid, and then ingesting them would allow a sufferer to overcome their trauma.
Today the military uses art therapy to reveal the hidden wounds of war, and by revealing them acknowledge their pain and begin the healing process. Painting, writing, poetry; they all work. They all engage the creative side of our minds, which is often the first part crushed and rejected when the bombs start going off.
I'm fortunate. Despite nearly three years in Iraq or Afghanistan, I've never had any trouble with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Like all of us who have been in combat, though, I do feel stress. That's a normal, human reaction. As we've learned over a decade of war, these strains are cumulative, and when the coping mechanisms aren't enough, bad things like PTSD begin to appear in the force. Like everyone I do feel those strains, and I have to find ways to re-balance.
Exercise helps. Lots and lots of exercise. Also, as you've probably guessed, I write.
Let's think about how odd that is for just a moment. This website and the wonderful community it has engendered actually helps a soldier get through a war. And I know I'm not the only one. Being a part of this community has helped me more than all the silly wellness videos the military makes us watch. Thanks, guys. You all rock.
So the next time you're tempted to feel silly for liking a children's show about magical pastel ponies, take a moment to remember that art -- in all its forms -- is a force for good in the world.
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So, about that title. What the heck, Gardez?
One of the things that's bothered me lately about war is how suddenly death can come for the wrong people. I realize that's not an original concern – in fact, it's one of the most common. It's hard not to feel sympathetic for the civilians caught in the crossfire.
There's another side to this concern, though. War also injures the people who do the killing. It took me years to realize it, but taking another life – even in combat – is a damaging thing. The soldiers who are so excited to get into the fight and get a confirmed kill are usually the young and inexperienced ones. They aren't mature enough to realize this yet. Hell, I'm barely mature enough.
Anyway, all this leads to my latest story, The Carnivore's Prayer, which touches on some of these issues. If you're curious about the first time I actually confronted them in real life, read on. Consider this a short bit of writing therapy.
May 1, 2007
The first suicide bomber my team encountered was fairly bad at his job. In hindsight, this makes sense – you probably don't send your best people out on missions you know will get them killed. You send the people who are expendable and have no other useful skills.
We were a few minutes late to the bombing. Instead of targeting us, the bomber attacked a group of Afghan police who spotted him from some distance away and started shooting. He blew himself up in the middle of the road at least 50 yards from their position. The police were just fine; startled, I would imagine, but otherwise fine.
By the time we arrived, the police had already set up a rough cordon and were keeping everyone else away. Our arrival was completely by accident. We'd spent the day at a government radio station up north and were driving back to Gardez when – surprise! – suicide bomber. The police were thrilled to see us and immediately turned things over to the convoy commander.
I was the only person on the team with a camera, and I got to work documenting the site. It was the first time I'd ever seen a dead body outside of a funeral home.
Calling what we saw a body is, perhaps, being overly generous. Body implies some sort of cohesion. An entire, whole thing. There was little left to fit that description.
The weathered gray road where the bomber stood was scorched black. Tiny pits scarred the road where shrapnel struck hard enough to leave a mark. Those same marks were still there when we left a year later. They're probably still there today.
A foot or so out from these scars, streaks began to appear. Like rays emerging from the sun, thin lines of scorched blood and liquified flesh painted straight reddish-black bands on the road, all of them pointing to where he had detonated the explosives. Some faded after a few feet – others ran all the way across the road.
Interesting fact about suicide bombers – the legs and head almost always survive. This one's legs were lying about ten feet away in reasonably good condition. The clothes and shoes had been blown off, but they were still recognizably legs. A policeman was picking one of them up by a toe when I started taking pictures – I gestured at him to put it down. For some reason, I thought the legs' position might be some kind of evidence, like in CSI or Law and Order. “Hmm, the leg landed 3.5 meters away with the toes pointing 254 degrees. The bomb maker was clearly of foreign origin and will strike again in 24 hours.” Something like that. Be kind, I was new.
The head was a little further away. Perhaps it rolled? I don't know. Again, it was in pretty good shape, except for the fact that it was a severed head. The bomber's mouth was open, and some of his teeth were chipped. I got as many pictures of his face as I could.
I should mention that we received some extremely good training before heading to Afghanistan. Our training could not, however, cover every conceivable situation. How to clean up after a suicide bomber was one of the situations we missed. We started discussing it, and at some point I mentioned that we should try to find the bomber's fingers. Because, you know, fingerprints.
In retrospect, there was absolutely no chance we were going to find this guy's fingers. Parts of him were spread over hundreds of yards. There were literally dozens of acres of grassy fields and farmland to search. But when you're in a stressful situation, like picking up after a suicide bomber, you tend to cling to any plan that makes sense. For some reason, fingerprints made sense to us.
So we started looking for the bomber's fingers. I teamed up with one of our medics, and we began walking around. We never found any fingers. We did find some other things – about a hundred feet away we found part of his shirt wrapped around a bush. There were no fingers in it, so we moved on.
Hundreds of feet in another direction, we found a shapeless hunk of pale flesh stuck in a tree over our heads. We stared at it for a while, completely baffled, until the medic finally said, “Oh, it's a spine.”
I stared at it a bit longer. It looked nothing like a spine to me. Just a tattered mass of pink and gore.
Around that point the futility of our search sank in, and we walked back to the convoy. They'd packed up the body parts, and we returned to Gardez. Our mood was good – a dumb suicide bomber had killed himself, and no good guys got hurt. Score one for our team.
It wasn't until almost an hour later that I got called to the clinic. While we were picking up after the bomber, an eight-year-old child had been brought to our FOB. He was playing with his friends on the road near the police when the bomber blew up, and a single ball bearing struck his skull just behind and below his ear.
The docs had to point out the injury for me. The rest of his body was completely unharmed. He looked like he was asleep, except for the tiny hole hidden beneath his short hair.
It was probably the worst place to get hit by a ball bearing. The ball cut right across his brain stem, then bounced around inside his skull for good measure. Death was most likely instantaneous. His uncle brought him to our FOB because, like many Afghans, he had an outsized belief in the power of our medicine. We can fix anything.
We can't. We couldn't fix him. Dead is dead is dead.
Looking back, what’s most extraordinary to me was how little I felt. Before that day I had never seen a dead body outside of a casket; by the day’s end I had helped pick up the pieces of one body and found a naked child lying dead on our clinic table. Yet all through it was a sense, never vocalized but ever present, of being cool and professional and emotionless. No one wanted to show any sort of weakness, especially so early in our deployment.
I’d like to say it was hard, that it was difficult to suppress the horror and sadness that humans are supposed to feel in such situations. I’d like to say that, but I’d be lying – it wasn’t just easy, it was effortless. I remember laughing with our squad leader at some joke he made about needing gloves. Years passed before it even occurred to me that there was something deeply wrong about how we felt that day.
It was already dark when we returned the boy to his family, so he was buried the next day. I don't know when or if or how the suicide bomber's remains were ever buried.
Like I said, there wasn't much of a body.