One more inspection and he is going to lose it.
General Omar was visiting the training camp today, his training camp, and things had to look absolutely perfect. It was a dog and pony show as always. Oversights that didn’t matter day to day had to be corrected or hidden from view. Green banners proclaiming “God’s Will” would be strewn up, faded portraits of Saddam would be dusted off and straightened, and the shit trenches would be filled with dirt and fresh ones would be dug. Just in case Omar had the squirts.
The camp was little more than three small one story buildings isolated deep within the palm groves. One was empty save for a chalkboard spanning two of the walls. On doctrine training days they’d huddle around the board as an instructor lazily explained the concept of ambushes and mortar attacks. The X’s and arrows the instructor drew reminded him of the football plays he and his brother sketched in the dirt field next to their house…
“Akmed? Are you paying attention?”
“Huh? Oh, Yes. Fully sir” he replied, his mind coming back reluctantly to the steaming classroom. Even in his own clothes, Akmed seemed to be out place. Wearing light blue sandals two sizes too small and tight black jeans, he didn’t fit anywhere. Sitting on the floor next to the other men was always a trial of patience. Even folded, his legs were long enough to annoy someone sitting next to him. After a few days, he found a spot in the back, alone. The various instructors never failed to remind the class of his bulbous nose and thick unibrow. Nearly a year at the camp, he had forgotten why he was there in the first place.
“The class would love to hear what the basic load is for a three man RPG team, Akmed. Since you’re listening so attentively.”
“Um. I know this. Three?” A few guys in the front snicker.
“Three? Are you sure?”
“It could be four, I guess.”
“That’s incorrect. At this rate you’ll barely be a mediocre suicide bomber.” The snickering turned into a roaring laughter. Akmed’s shoulders drop and his nervous smile fades. Defeated.
“I know the answer!” It was Sayid. “The basic load is six RPGS, two for each man.” Fucking teacher’s pet.
“That’s right Sayid. Perhaps you can learn a thing or two from him, Akmed. The whole class can. That’s it for today’s lesson. Class is out early so everyone can clean up for General Omar’s inspection today. So get to work.”
The class of ten trickled out into the scorching afternoon sun. The palm trees did little to shade the cluster of buildings. They seemed to hold in the heat, even during the night. Akmed scoops up an empty bottle of Class Cola and walks around to the backside of the classroom to the spigot on wall. With a full bottle of murky water he makes his way to the barracks. Even though they were the same size as the classroom, the two buildings held ten men each with all their gear and sleeping mats. There was barely enough room for that. During class, the instructor gave a list of what was needed for the layout during the general’s inspection. Akmed digs into his pocket for the folded piece of paper.
-Cleaned and oiled Kalashnikov with sharpened bayonet, free of rust
-Washed magazine bandoleer
-Four magazines filled with 30 rounds each, clean and free of rust
-Dusted off and taped grenades in order: two fragmentation, one colored smoke
-Vest filled with ball bearings and nails. Hanging straps folded neatly and taped. Words “God Is -Great” neatly written in black marker
-Mask with holes cut for eyes and mouth, clean and free of dirt
-Tools free of rust and dirt: shovel, pliers (small, large), pry bar, wire cutters
-Iraqi Police uniform and Kevlar vest, clean with patches sewn
Each man’s equipment layout had to be exactly alike. Nothing was to deviate from the picture hanging by the door. The mats were to be one Kalashnikov (without bayonet) apart in two rows of five. On the mat, the Kalashnikov was vertical on the left side, the bayonet five inches from the barrel and flush with the tip, bandoleer folded as to show all three pouches five inches from the bayonet, four magazines with the curve to the left in stacks of two on top of the center pouch, two fragmentation grenades and one smoke grenade lined up horizontally underneath the bandoleer with a two inch separation, martyr vest filled with forty ¾ inch ball bearings and twenty-five three inch nails, with straps folded in an underhand fashion and secured with black tape, “God Is Great” written in two inch letters in the center of the belt and placed in the bottom center of the mat, mask with one hole for mouth and two for eyes, cut at a 45° angle (to show aggression) five inches to the right of the vest, shovel with scoop pointing up and out across the mat from the Kalashnikov, pry bar two inches to the left and flush with the shovel, wire cutters three inches underneath the shovel and handles pointing to the left, small pliers one inch to the left with handles down, large pliers one inch to the right with handles down, Iraqi Police Kevlar vest four inches below the mat, centered, Iraqi Police uniform stacked neatly on top with shirt showing identification badges, and last, at the center of the mat with four inches distance all around, The Main Pillar of Islam, The Koran.
Akmed stands to eyeball his layout, stretching his nearly six foot frame toward the ceiling. Blood rushes back to his legs after ten minutes of meticulous arranging on his knees. Standing back, he glances at the finished layouts to his left and right. Good enough.
Akmed, the lanky, unibrowed, awkward seventeen year old from central Iraq, needs a smoke badly. The general was coming in an hour and everyone in the camp still remembers what happened the last time there was an inspection. Colonel Ali, known for his meticulous and obsessive nature, couldn’t find one infraction in the barracks. He ran a white gloved finger over the rounds in the magazines and sniffed the armpits of the uniform sleeves for odor. Everything was perfect. Then he stepped to Akmed’s mat. With a horrified look on his face, Colonel Ali froze.
“Captain, what is this meaning of this?” Colonel Ali never looked at his subordinates when addressing them.
“What is the meaning of what, sir?” responded Captain Samman with a nervous look on his face, gleaming with sweat.
“This” replied Colonel Ali, bending down to pick up Akmed’s shovel, pointing a damning finger at a spot of rust the size of a pinhead.
“It appears to be rust, sir.”
“No, Captain. It is a failure of the whole chain of command from you on down to make certain your men’s equipment is serviceable. Do you really expect this private to dig a hole with such poor tools? And while I’m at it…”
After the colonel yelled at the captain, and the captain yelled at the sergeant, and the sergeant at the corporal, and the corporal at Akmed, the rest of the men were sure to teach him a lesson. Later that night when Akmed was pulling triple guard duty, three men tackled him, held him down and beat him with a rusty chain. It was his mother’s birthday.
With a sigh, Akmed steps back from his mat with the perfect layout. Or he thought it was perfect. The last one seemed to be immaculate to him. He even ran an oiled rag over his shovel to make sure it was glistening. His mind seemed to wander off when his attention was needed the most, like when he was on guard duty or wiring a bomb. Ah, the smoke! Akmed feels around in his pocket for a pack of Five Star cigarettes. He pulls it out and flips open the top. Empty. Akmed turns and heads out the door, oblivious to the new piece of paper stapled to the door. It was a list of things needed to be done around the camp before the general arrived. It read:
Mohammed – String up barbed wire around perimeter of camp. Discard old wire.
Amir – Sweep out the classroom and take out the garbage in and around the buildings.
Akmed – Dig a fighting position ten meters in front of the main barracks. Emplace an RPK with 1200 rounds.
Sayid – Cement glass into the tops of walls for protective measures.
Get this done before 1300!
Stepping outside, Akmed sees a stout, solitary figure staring into the grove. It must be Mahmood.
“Hey Mah, got a smoke for me?”
“Not again Akmed,” Mahmood says with a smile. He reaches into his pocket. “This is the last time.”
“Whatever man, I get you all the time!” If Akmed was the tallest of the group, Mahmood was definitely the shortest. He stood five feet tall with a thick pair of sandals on, but made up for it in muscle. The only thing darker than his skin was his eyes, intense but with a hint of playfulness about them. Mahmood carried the RPK, a heavy machine gun, like it was a toy. So far he had claimed two downed American helicopters last January. It was safe to say he was the most feared man in the camp. He had taken part in the beating of Akmed after the colonel’s visit, but they had since become friends. Their personalities complemented one another, and he was the only one Akmed completely trusted.
“How’s your layout? I hope it’s better than last time,” Mahmood says with a smirk, holding the pack of Five Stars out to Akmed. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a purple lighter, sparking the tip of the cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
“I don’t think so. Mine looks as good as anybody else’s.”
“Let’s hope so. A pissed off colonel was bad enough. A pissed off general would be the end of us. We’ll be filling ghee cans with dirt all day and night if this goes bad.”
Mahmood and Akmed look at each other and spin around to see Sayid standing on top of a chair next to a wall, blood dripping from his hands. At his feet is a bucket filled with shards of glass and a spade dripping with wet cement.
“God dammit Akmed, stop staring and get me something to wrap my hand with!” With some hesitation and a hidden smile, Akmed runs into the barracks room, grabs a bandana hanging on the wall and runs back to Sayid, still standing on the chair, still bleeding.
“I hope your chore is going better than mine,” says Sayid, wrapping the bandana around his crimson palm.
“What chore? You mean the layout?” Akmed replies, with confusion.
“You mean you didn’t dig the fighting position yet?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I hope you’re joking Akmed. General Omar will be here soon, and you haven’t dug the hole? Go look on the barracks door if you don’t believe me.”
Trailing Mahmood, Akmed walks back to the barracks to look at the letter posted on the door. His skin drains of blood and suddenly the room feels cold in the summer afternoon.
“Mahmood, I might need your help.”
With clean and oiled shovels in hand, Mahmood and Akmed quickly measure out ten meters with thirty paces from the barracks door. They begin to dig, and dig, and dig. Akmed takes a break long enough to glance at his watch. A quarter to one. They had fifteen minutes until the captain’s final inspection right before the general arrived. With the sun high above them, masked by the leafy palms, the two men dig with fury, digging to prevent the consequence of not digging at all. The hole had to be big enough for a man to stand up inside chest high so he could man the machine gun with most of his body concealed. Mahmood throws down the shovel and disappears into the hole, the ground swallowing him completely. It was deep enough.
Akmed extends his bony arm to Mahmood, straining to pull him out. Stepping out of the hole, Mahmood runs to the pile of leaves and brush used for fires. It would be useful in concealing the mound of dirt excavated for the fighting position. Seemingly out of nowhere, Captain Samman is standing by the position, his arms crossed, as Akmed and Mahmood stop in front of him, their arms full of brown foliage.
“You two fuckups better hurry. General Omar is on his way, and I’ll be damned if I have another failed inspection on my hands. I already have one bleeding private. I don’t want two more.”
As Captain Samman walks away, Akmed and Mahmood look at each other and start to chuckle. They throw the brush on the dirt pile and rush back to the barracks to grab Mahmood’s RPK and a belt of 1200 rounds. On their way back, they pick up their shovels and briskly walk back inside to clean off their tools.
“Hey, any of you guys got any oil?” pleads Akmed.
“Teeeeeen-hut!” Everyone in the room scrambles to attention. Mahmood leaps across the room and drops his shovel nonchalantly on the right side of the mat, mirroring the sparkling Kalashnikov on the left side. Akmed, frozen with his arms at his side, still clutches the shovel.
“How are you men doing?” booms General Omar, a colonel on his left, Captain Samman on his right. No one answers the short, thick, ugly man with a scar spanning his forehead. Legend had it that in the Iran-Iraq War, a tank shell grazed his head, leaving an eight inch wound. Others claim he fell asleep while taking a shit in the woods, splitting his head open on a tree stump in front of him.
General Omar is a busy man. He commands all Al Qaeda units in Diyala Province and had many places to be. It was therefore strange he was there, in this small and insignificant training camp, to inspect the living conditions of his soldiers. He didn't care, frankly. These men would be led to their deaths, whether it was from a martyr bombing or getting shot while planting a bomb in the road. He was a general, and the lives these men led was of little importance to him. Still, he felt these visits improved the morale and spirit of the men fighting for an independent Islamic state, free of American will and treasonous dogs in the Iraqi Army and Police. They were usually poor and confused young boys, like Akmed, coerced into fighting by friends and brothers. It didn’t take much to bend their will or convince them of reasons to die for men like General Omar. He was an orator before a tactician.
“Men, I want you to know what a difference you’re making out there. Those American bastards are dying by the hundreds because of brave souls like you. A free Iraq is closer today than yesterday because of your will, your sacrifice in places like this. I know the training and fighting is hard, but we have more cost, more loss, ahead of us.” He casually walks down the space between pads, glancing slightly to the identical layouts and to the glassy, disciplined stares of the men in front of them.
“I came down to tell you how proud I am of this company, the best of the battalion. It’s not because of your captain or your other superiors, but because of you. You make my job that much easier.” He stops at Akmed, eyeing the shovel in his hand.
“Son, why do you have a shovel at the ready? Do you aim to retire me early?” General Omar says with a chuckle. He’s the only one laughing.
“Um, no, no, sir” stutters Akmed. “I just finished digging a fighting position in front of the barracks, sir.”
“I see. I’m sure it’s a fine job, soldier.”
General Omar looks around the room one more time. Moving toward the exit, Captain Samman stands fully erect.
“Carry on men!” exclaims General Omar. “Good luck out there!”
The colonel trailing General Omar closes the door behind him, and everyone breaths a sigh of relief. Akmed looks at his shovel, brushes off the tip with his shirt, and places it, scoop up and out on the right side of his mat, flush with the freshly oiled Kalashnikov.
(This story is a work of fiction. I wrote it after a lot of jokes about how the enemy operates. My friends and I wondered aloud if they have archaic doctrine and nonsense busywork driving their war effort, like we do.)