Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sensing Combat: Smell

(This is part three of a five part series. Scroll down for the previous entries. And vote, damnit!)


Some doors are more stubborn than others. A particular door in Baghdad was the bane of my squad's existence. On a routine clearing mission where every single house had to be searched and searched thoroughly, a reinforced door stood to deny the mission's success. Nothing could bring it down - kicks, shotgun rounds, the old fashioned shoulder charge. The door's metal frame rejected all modes of entry. My squad leader Lee was determined to simply pry the frame out of the cinderblock wall after all other measures failed.

In the cramped courtyard, the whole squad stood around the doorway to watch the ongoing madness of the insurmountable door. Jeun, a super quiet Korean guy from the Bronx, stood behind Lee as he put all of his weight into the pry bar and pulled back. The frame gave way and sent Lee tumbling backward. Jeun, seeing 200 pounds of Alabama fury coming toward him, gingerly stepped out of the way. Lee rolled into the corner and stepped right into an open septic tank, drenching his leg up to his shin in jet black tar. My first reaction was to laugh, but with Lee's famously short temper, I stifled my giggles. Instead I gave him a bottle of water to wash his leg off. The smell that carried off of him made me gag almost instantly.

That same sweet, thick smell of shit swirls around just about every street in Iraq. The country has no plumbing infrastructure in place, so citizens have to be clever about waste disposal. From porcelain bowls in the floor, plastic tubes filter waste into the street where it pools with the waste from other houses on the street, creating puddles and streams of liquid excrement that bake and ferment under the desert sun. It takes a while to grow accustomed to a pungent smell that mingles with rotting garbage (surprise: no modern trash collection either).

The smell, overwhelming in the first couple of months, tends to wear away as the days drag on. Digging up bodies that had been rotting in the ground for 42 days brought a smell only marginally worse than the open sewers of the street. The odors were so strong that I have not been able to smell as well since. I feel like I have a permanent head cold when it comes to using my olfactories.

Anyone up for a dip?

If only cameras could capture smell


Putting rounds into an insurgent's body always brought back memories of Fourth of July in my backyard. Lighting Black Cats and M80s and watching them pop in the air. Setting a pinwheel up on the fence and waiting for it to start its furious spin in an explosion of color and sound. The smell of gunpowder would hang in a cloud of lazy smoke long after the fireworks were expended. The same smell from childhood came rushing back during firefights as spent shell casings went flying through the air, ejected from the bolt in a spurt of gas and sent tumbling toward the ground.

When in the confines of a room, the sulfur smell attaches to everything: clothes, armor, gloves. It's not an attractive smell; inhaling too much of the gas coming out of the barrel will send your head spinning. But the smell is addicting. Once it permeates throughout the air, you can't wait for the next time it fills your nostrils and ignites the rest of your senses. The scent of war is remarkably the same as an American childhood in the summer, waiting for the next opportunity to set off explosions in brilliant displays of color and sound while the musk of gunpowder settles on the warm wind.


JT said...

The video is great to have- it may not be long but it gets the point across even without smellavision or nosetube.

13 Stoploss said...

On a mounted patrol in the hottest part of the 2003 August midday sun in Mosul, we were driving a little too fast and swept around a corner. I was in the back of the Humvee, pointed out--back when there were no armored plates, just open air and a pair of WylieX's separating flies from your eyes--just trying to hang on. Suddenly, a huge unseen dip in front of us was seen a little too late, and the flood of the simple green espresso shit sludge of death that was running through the street was splashed into the air, like the Humvee parting the red sea. At the exact instant, two unfortunate ladies cloaked in black had been in the wrong spot at the exact right time, and all that sludge, black as night came slamming down on them. It was he first time I felt the torture of being genuinely sorry (it was an accident) coupled with the uncontrollable burst of laughter. Anyway, if you've ever ridden in the back of a standard open-air Humvee, and the sprinkle that sprays your face when the driver goes a little too fast over some puddles--yeah, that shit smell doesn't ever leave.

video brings back memories.

Anonymous said...

Hi Friends,

I Find Absolutely FREE PlayBoy & Penthous

If I find something else I'll inform you.

Best Regards,

Anonymous said...

Brilliant writing as usual Alex. Congratulations on making the finals. I won't go into my thoughts about Yon and Black Five being on the list!

I read this morning that Austin was rated the #1 city in the U.S. for dating. You don't have to worry about that though. I hope you and Lauren are doing well here in Texas.

Mariya - Your links might be more appropriate on BT's

Anonymous said...

Austin is the #1 city for dating? I suppose I should come stay with you and Lauren for a while, and get some ladiess.

I'm still voting, and pimping you out.


Anonymous said...

Well, I'll go into my thoughts about Yon and Black Five being on the list! Yon is soooo into himself, so boring, so lackluster. ZZZ-zzz-zzz... And, Black Five, while a good guy, should be competing in the cut-and-paste category. It's not fair to Army of Dude and others who write essay after essay, to have to compete in the same category as Yon and Black Five, nice as they both may be. It's just not fair. Army of Dude and other bloggers spend literally hours writing their essays that make us laugh and cry and rip our hearts out and make us feel the pain. Heck, anyone can sell books and t-shirts. Anyone can cut-and-paste. It's just not fair. Right now, I consider the contest between Army of Dude and The Big Tobacco, both powerful writers of war and life experiences. BTW, AOD, I'm staying up past my bedtime every night in order to vote for you. I'm an old lady, so I hope you appreciate that! ; )

Alex Horton said...


Any longer and I'd feel like a distracted idiot with a camera. That was considered the most dangerous road in Baqubah.


It's funny that no matter when you went over, six years ago or six months ago, we all share similar experiences.


Thanks for your support! You're my most steadfast friend in this matter!

2SBT Mom and Laurel,

Thank you both for your continued voting and support.

Matt and Michael are both hard workers who deserve their place in the milblogging world. I appreciate you guys framing your opinions in a tasteful manner however. It doesn't quite go that way on some sites. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Alex the smell of burnt gun powder will bring back memories for me too...mostly of weekend afternoons Skeet shooting with my old man...some of the best times I ever had with him.

Thanks for sharing

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Anonymous said...

"...The country has no plumbing infrastructure in place, so citizens have to be clever about waste disposal..."

Is that because of the war, or is it the normal practise?

Your pics and video add so much to your narrative - So glad I found this blog!

@willard_captain said...

"The scent of war is remarkably the same as an American childhood in the summer, waiting for the next opportunity to set off explosions in brilliant displays of color and sound while the musk of gunpowder settles on the warm wind".

Awesome, dude. I´ve been reading your blog for a long time, and when you say that what you want to do is write, all I can think is "great, someone who will be doing what he should be doing". Some of your material reminds me of "Dispatches", by Michael Herr - only less "crazy". Anyways, it is always extremely well put, able to make the reader feel like he is "over there". Reading your blog makes me feel grateful for the technology that enabled it - and for millions of readers to find such gems in the "cyberspace".

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I know I'm late on these Alex, but I hope you wont hold it against me that I just now am catching up on these. I'm glad I did, because I completely forgot about Dewey and his graceful fall into pure unfiltered shit as Jeun moved out of the way like a ninja. Good memories that I hope to continue cherishing.

Regulars Forever Forever Regulars

Winton, Bryan SGT USA