Abu Ahmed was asleep when our squad slipped into his shack. He slept through the room clearance. He slept on as one of our soldiers approached, waking as he was thrown to the ground. He shouted in alarm as they rushed to zip-tie him. I ran over with the interpreter to interrogate him. I jittered with the adrenaline of my first raid since I’d deployed to Iraq and the rush of finally getting to do what I had been trained to do. As I moved toward Abu Ahmed, the tip of my rifle made contact with his forehead, making a decent-sized gash. He cried out again and looked at me in shock. In that initial moment, he didn’t look afraid, just really confused. I apologized and called the medic to come wrap his forehead.
As the medic worked, I questioned Abu Ahmed. The reality of the situation started to hit him, and his fear response kicked in. His eyes widened, and he struggled to breathe normally and began to shiver. Who would run the generator, he asked, as the squad tore up his shack looking for any evidence of bomb-making materials. We found none but took his cell phone, his notebook, and some other belongings in a couple of sealed bags, and then we blindfolded him and took him back to the Stryker. We had the target. We didn’t find anything during the sensitive site exploitation, I reported back to higher headquarters. Hit the house where he lived as well, they radioed back. Awesome, I thought, I get two raids in one night.
As we headed to his house in the Palestine neighborhood of south Mosul, Abu Ahmed began to weep.
On a raid, with 40 soldiers at my back, bristling with weapons, stacked with body armor, and ready to kill anything in my way, I felt like a god. We hoped and prayed our Commander would send us on raids—exhilarating, action-packed, and so unlike the normal tedium of a 12- to 14-hour patrol through filthy streets where I felt like a walking target. We conducted raids usually in the dead of night, out of Iraq’s hot midday sun, letting us work in more comfort than during our blistering daytime patrols.
Three weeks into my first tour, I led my first raid. I could have jumped for joy when my Commander gave me the mission and said to pick up Abu Ahmed’s target packet at our intelligence shop. The intel guys greeted me with a sneer they reserved for the infantry—no way they could know that I was a secret nerd. They handed me the packet and I dug in.
The intel on Abu Ahmed had come from the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, and the packet contained a description of him and his legitimate and alleged illegitimate activity. He ran the local generator and was also a bomb maker. There were two addresses—his place of business and his home—and the packet contained a few maps of where these were.
Abu Ahmed worked in a 400-square-foot shack sat in an open field, making it easier for us to move in and carry out the raid quickly. Intel didn’t know what the inside looked like, but from our patrols in Mosul we knew most of those places had a cot for the operator to sleep on, maybe a nightstand, and an old, toxic, smoking generator. Abu Ahmed was its operator. He ensured it had fuel. When the generator broke, he would fix it. He slept next to the oily monstrosity. And he worked nights, so we decided to hit there first. We rehearsed the mission a few times that afternoon, ensuring the Squad Leaders and my Platoon Sergeant were clear on everything, and then we rolled out.
At 2 a.m. we spotted the shack, which sat in near-total darkness. We owned the night. The Strykers moved swiftly into place. The vehicle drivers let the ramps down, careful not to lower them all the way lest the heavy doors clang against the ground and wake the neighborhood. First squad rushed out of the vehicles, each one a trained killer with violence in his mind. I followed behind.
The squad stacked alongside the building, and as the last soldier in line, I held my rifle behind us to ensure no enemy snuck up from the rear. Strykers with 50-caliber machine guns looked on, monitoring all sides of us, ensuring no forces would amass away from our field of vision. The might of our empire focused on the tip of a spear that was about to seriously ruin this alleged bomb maker’s sleep.
The Squad Leader motioned for one of the soldiers to check the door. It was open, saving us the need to breach with a shoulder or a small explosive charge. The squad rushed in.
Abu Ahmed sat zip-tied in a Stryker weeping when we turned our sights on his house. We lined up against the wall and sent a soldier up and over the gate to open it from the inside, and then we rushed in. The house was filled with men, women, and children, probably 20 people in all. What the fuck. Why so many. Abu Ahmed had been relatively quiet during the previous raid, before and after he’d woken up, but the house erupted with wailing as we rushed in with our guns.
The women flew to protect the wailing children. The air filled with Arabic. We continued to clear the house, separating the women and children in one room and the two men—Abu Ahmed’s brother and his dad—into another as we tried to quiet everyone down.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt gathering energy, like lighting was about to strike. The air was heavy and thick with all that had just happened. I sat down with the men. They were sullen with rage, tight-lipped and drawn into themselves; they stared in my direction without looking at me. I got one-word answers when I asked about Abu Ahmed. From the next room, hot waves of fear radiated from the women and still-crying kids. The rest of the platoon tore apart the house looking for evidence, but found nothing.
I reported what we’d found up to higher headquarters: two military-age males, a house full of women and children, no evidence. Their response chilled me. Bring the males in. I reported back. We didn’t find anything. It didn’t matter. As we grabbed the men they started shouting. “Shut the fuck up,” we told them, and they did. We zip-tied and blindfolded them, and put them each in a different Stryker. Before we left, the interpreter, a fire team, and I went into the room where the women and children stood, fearful, apprehensive, and confused. We’re detaining the men, I told them. They started keening, shrieking cries of distress, and I stumbled backward. Their cries were like physical beatings, like baseball bat after baseball bat was being slammed against my chest and my stomach. Overcome with nausea, I wanted to cover my ears and run away. Waves and waves of suffering battered me. They are banshees. They are trying to kill me with their screams, I thought. The children’s cries mingled with the women’s screams. We fled the house.
Their chorus of grief followed us outside, but as we mounted the Strykers, they drowned out the women’s screams. The last thing I saw as we drove off was the women clawing their own faces.
The sky began to lighten as we drove the men to the jail on the base to drop them off and fill out all the paperwork. The blindfolded men were stiff and afraid as we dragged them out of the trucks. One of my soldiers shouted in disgust, The haji pissed on the fucking seat.
Don’t call them hajis, I said.