Ten kliks south—that is the location of the first human target of gun number six, which belongs to the artillery team of the story’s narrator, an American Marines artilleryman in Fallujah, Iraq. From the moment the shot is fired, the laconic coordinate becomes a center of undefined curiosity for the nameless protagonist. “I knew ten kliks south of us is a cratered area riddled with shrapnel and ruined buildings, burned-out vehicles and twisted corpses,” he says, but he needs more. While the short, minor journey on which he embarks when his teammates go to bed does not take him ten kilometers south, it does bring him slightly closer to the verge of understanding the greatest mystery to us mortals. Through brave choices and simple language, dotted with lyrical moments, author Phil Klay, who was awarded the National Book Award for this collection of short stories, leads us into the inner workings of the utterly palpable reality of an artillery battery in Fallujah—a glimpse away from man’s darkest, most desired destination.
This morning our gun dropped about 270 pounds of ICM on a smuggler’s checkpoint ten kliks south of us. We took out a group of insurgents and then we went to the Fallujah chow hall for lunch. I got fish and lima beans. I try to eat healthy.
At the table, all nine of us are smiling and laughing. I’m still jittery with nervous excitement over it, and I keep grinning and wringing my hands, twisting my wedding band about my finger. I’m sitting next to Voorstadt, our number one guy, and Jewett, who’s on the ammo team with me and Bolander. Voorstadt’s got a big plate of ravioli and Pop-Tarts, and before digging in he looks up and down the table and says, “I can’t believe we finally had an arty mission.”
Bolander says, “It’s about time we killed someone,” and Sergeant Deetz laughs. Even I chuckle, a little. We’ve been in Iraq two months, one of the few artillery units actually doing artillery, except so far we’ve only shot illumination missions. The grunts usually don’t want to risk the collateral damage. Some of the other guns in the battery had shot bad guys, but not us. Not until today. Today, the whole damn battery fired. And we know we hit our target. The lieutenant told us so.
Jewett, who’s been pretty quiet, asks, “How many insurgents do you think we killed?”
“Platoon-sized element,” says Sergeant Deetz.
“What?” says Bolander, He’s a rat-faced professional cynic, and he starts laughing. “Platoon sized? Sergeant, AQI don’t have platoons.”
“Why you think we needed the whole damn battery?” says Sergeant Deetz, grunting out the words.
“We didn’t,” says Bolander. “Each gun only fired two rounds. I figure they just wanted us all to have gun time on an actual target. Besides, even one round of lCM would be enough to take out a platoon in open desert. No way we needed the whole battery. But it was fun.”
Sergeant Deetz shakes his head slowly, his heavy shoulders hunched over the table.”Platoon sized element,” he says again. “That’s what it was. And two rounds a gun was what we needed to take it out.”
“But,” says Jewett in a small voice, “I didn’t mean the whole battery. I meant, our gun. How many did our gun, just our gun, kill?”
“How am I supposed to know?” says Sergeant Deetz.
“Platoon-sized is like, forty,” I say. “Figure, six guns, so divide and you got, six, I don’t know, six point six people per gun.”
“Yeah,” says Bolander. “We killed exactly 6.6 people.”
Sanchez takes out a notebook and starts doing the math, scratching out the numbers in his mechanically precise handwriting. “Divide it by nine Marines on the gun and you, personally, you’ve killed zero point seven something people today. That’s like, a torso and a head. Or maybe a torso and a leg.”
“That’s not funny,” says Jewett.
“We definitely got more,” says Sergeant Deetz. “We’re the best shots in the battery.”
Bolander snorts. “We’re just firing on the quadrant and deflection the FDC gives us, Sergeant. I Mean…”
“We’re better shots,” says Sergeant Deetz. “Put a round down a rabbit hole at eighteen miles.”
“But even if we were on target…, ” says Jewett.
“We were on target,” says Sergeant Deetz.
“Okay, Sergeant, we were on target,” says Jewett. “But the other guns, their rounds could have hit first. Maybe everybody was already dead.”
I can see that, the shrapnel thudding into shattered corpses, the force of it jerking the limbs this way and that.
“Look,” says Bolander, “even if their rounds hit first, it doesn’t mean everybody was dead, necessarily. Maybe some insurgent had shrapnel in his chest, right, and he’s like—” Bolander sticks his tongue out and clutches his chest dramatically, as if he were dying in an old black-and-white-movie. “Then our round comes down, boom, blows his fucking head off. He was dying already, but the cause of death would be ‘blown the hell up,’ not ‘shrapnel to the chest.’”
“Yeah sure,” says Jewett, “I guess. But I don’t feel like I killed anybody. I think I’d know if I killed somebody.”
“Naw,” says Sergeant Deetz, “you wouldn’t know. Not until you’d seen the bodies.” The table quiets for a second. Sergeant Deetz shrugs. “It’s better this way.”
“Doesn’t it feel weird to you,” says Jewett, “after our first real mission, to just be eating lunch?”
Sergeant Deetz scowls at him, then takes a big bite of his Salisbury steak and grins. “Gotta eat,” he says with his mouth full of food.
“It feels good,” Voorstadt says. “We just killed some bad guys.”
Sanchez gives a quick nod. “It is good.”
” I don’t think I killed anybody,” says Jewett.
“Technically, I’m the one that pulled the lanyard,” says Voorstadt. “I fired the thing. You just loaded.”
“Like I couldn’t pull a lanyard,” says Jewett.
“Yeah, but you didn’t,” says Voorstadt.
“Drop it,” says Sergeant Deetz. “It’s a crew-served weapon. It takes a crew.”
“If we used a howitzer to kill somebody back in the States,” I say, “I wonder what crime they’d charge us with.”
“Murder,” says Sergeant Deetz. “What are you, an idiot”?
“Yeah, murder, sure,” I say, “but for each of us? In what degree? I mean, me and Bolander and Jewett loaded, right? If I loaded an M16 and handed it to Voorstadt and he shot somebody, I wouldn’t say I’d killed anyone.”
“It’s a crew served weapon,” says Sergeant Deetz, “Crew. Served. Weapon. It’s different.”
“And I loaded, but we got the ammo from the ASP,” I say. “Shouldn’t they be responsible too, the ASP Marines”?
“Yeah,” says Jewett. “Why not the ASP?”
“Why not the factory workers who made the ammo?” says Sergeant Deetz. “Or the taxpayers who paid for it? You know why not? Because that’s retarded.”
“The lieutenant gave the order,” I say, “He’d get it in court, right?”
“Oh, you believe that? You think officers would take the hit?” Voorstadt laughs. “How long you been in the military?”
Sergeant Deetz thumbs his fist on the table. “Listen to me. We’re gun six. We’re responsible for that gun. We just killed some bad guys. With our gun. All of us. And that’s a good day’s work.”
“I still don’t feel like I killed anybody, Sergeant,” says Jewett.
Sergeant Deetz lets out a long breath. It’s quiet for a second. Then he shakes his head and starts laughing. “Yeah, well, all of us except you,” he says.
When we get out of the chow hall, I don’t know what to do with myself. We don’t have anything planned until evening, when we have another illum mission, so most of the guys want to hit the racks. But I don’t want to sleep. I feel like I’m finally fully awake. This morning I’d gotten up boot-camp-style, off two hours of sleep, dressed and ready to kill before my brain had time to start working. But now, even though my body is tired, my mind is up and I want to keep it that way.
“Head back to the can?” I say to Jewett.
He nods and we start walking the perimeter of the Battle Square, shaded by the palm trees that grow along the road.
“I kind of wish we had weed,” says Jewett.
“Okay,” I say.
I shake my head. We get to the corner of the Battle Square, Fallujah Surgical straight ahead of us, and turn right.
Jewett says, “Well, it’s something to tell my mom about, finally.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Something to tell Jessie about.”
“When’s the last time you talked to her?”
“Week and a half.”
Jewett doesn’t say anything to that. I look down at my wedding band. Jessie and I’d gotten a courthouse wedding a week before I deployed so that if I died, Jessie’d get benefits. It doesn’t feel like I’m married.
“What am I supposed to tell her?” I say.
“She thinks I’m a badass. She thinks I’m in danger.”
“We get mortared from time to time.”
I give Jewett a flat look.
“It’s something,” he says. “Anyway, now you can say you got some bad guys.”
“Maybe.” I look at my watch. “It’s zero four, her time. I’ll have to wait before I can tell her what a hero I am.”
“That’s what I tell my mom every day.”
When we get near the cans, I tell Jewett I left something at the gun line and peel off.
The gun line’s a two minute walk. As I get closer the palm trees thin out into desert, and I can see the Camp Fallujah post office. Here the sky expands to the edge of the horizon. It’s perfectly blue and cloudless, as it has been every day for the last two months. I can see the guns pointing up into the air. Only Guns Two and Three are manned, and their Marines are just sitting around. When I got here this morning all the guns were manned and everybody was frantic. The sky was black, with just a touch of red bleeding in from the rim of the horizon. In the half-light, you could see the outline of the massive, forty-feet long, dark steel barrels pointed into the dark morning sky and below them the shapes of Marines hustling about, checking the guns, the rounds, the powder.
In the daylight, the guns shine crisp in the sun but earlier this morning was dark and dirty. Me and Bolander and Jewett stood in the back right, waiting by the ammo while Sanchez called out the quadrant and deflection they were giving to Gun Three.
I had put my hands on one of our rounds, the first one we sent out. Also the first I’d ever fired at human targets. I’d wanted to lift it up right then and there, feel the heft of it in my shoulders. I had trained to load those rounds. Trained so much I had scars on my hands from when they had slammed on my fingers or torn my skin.
Then Gun Three had fired two targeting rounds. Then: “Fire mission. Battery. Two rounds.” Then Sanchez had called out the quadrant and deflection and Sergeant Deetz had repeated it and Dupont and Coleman, our gunner and A-gunner had repeated it and set it and checked it and had Sergeant Deetz check it and Sanchez verify, and we got round and time and Jackson had gotten powder and we moved smooth, like we trained to, me and Jewett on either side of the stretcher holding the round, Bolander behind with the ramming rod. Sergeant Deetz checked the powder and read, “Three, four, five, white bag.” Then, to Sanchez: “Charge five, white bag.” Verified.
We moved in with the round, up to the open hatch and Bolander shoved it in with the ramming rod until we heard it ring, and Voorstadt closed the hatch.
Sanchez said, “Hook up.”
Deetz said, “Hook up”.
Voorstadt hooked the lanyard to the trigger. I’d seen him do it a thousand times.
Sanchez said, “Stand by.”
Deetz said, “Stand by.”
Voorstadt pulled out the slack in the lanyard, holding it against his waist.
Sanchez said, “Fire.”
Deetz said, “Fire.”
Voorstadt did a left face, and our gun was alive.
The sound of it hit us, vibrating through our bodies, down deep in our chests and in our guts and in the back of our teeth. I could taste the gunpowder in the air. As the guns fired, the barrels shot back like pistons and reseated, and the force of each round going off kicking up smoke and dust into the air. When I looked down the line, I couldn’t see six guns. I just saw fires through the haze, or not even fires, just flashes of red in the dust and the cordite. And I could feel the roar of each gun, not just ours, as it fired. And I thought, God, this is why I’m glad I’m an artilleryman.
Because what’s a grunt with an M16 shooting? 5.56? Even the .50-cal., what can you really do with that? Or the main gun of a tank. Your range is what? A mile or two? And you can kill what? A small house? An armored vehicle? Wherever we were dropping these rounds, somewhere six miles south of us, those rounds were striking harder than anything else in ground warfare. Each shell weighs 130 pounds, a casing filled with eighty-eight bomblets that scatter over the target area. Each bomblet has a shaped explosive charge that can penetrate two inches of solid steel and send shrapnel flying over the battlefield. Putting those rounds downrange takes nine men moving in perfect unison. It takes an FDC, and a good spotter, and math and physics and art and skill and experience. And though I only loaded, maybe I was only one-third of the ammo team, but I moved perfectly, and the round went in with that satisfying ring, and the round went off with that incredible roar, and it shot out into the sky and hit six miles south of us. The target area. And wherever we hit, everything within a hundred yards, everything within a circle with a radius as long as a football field, everything died.
Voorstadt had the lanyard unhooked and the breech open before the gun had fully reseated, and he washed the bore with the chamber swab and we loaded another round, the second I had fired at a human target that day, although by this point, surely, there were no more living targets. And we fired again, and we felt it in our bones, and we saw the fireball burst from the barrel, and more dust and cordite went into the air, choking us with the sand of the Iraqi desert.
And then it was done.
Smoke surrounded us. We couldn’t see beyond our position. I was breathing hard, taking in the smell and taste of gunpowder. And I’d looked at our gun, standing above us, quiet, massive, and felt a kind of love for it.
But the dust began to settle. And a wind came and started picking at the smoke, tugging it and lifting it over us, then higher, into the sky, the only cloud I’d seen in two months. And then the cloud thinned, disappearing into the air, blending with the soft red Iraqi sunrise.
Now, standing before the guns with the sky a perfect blue and the barrels piercing up into the air, it doesn’t seem as though any of it could have happened. No speck of this morning remains in our gun. Sergeant Deetz made us clean it after the mission was over. A ritual, of sorts, for our first kill as Gun Six. We’d taken apart the ramming rod and the cleaning swab, attached the two poles together, along with a bore brush, and drenched the brush in CLP. Then we’d all stood in line behind the gun, holding the pole, and in unison had rammed it through the bore. And then we’d repeated the process, and black streaks of CLP and carbon snaked down the pole, staining our hands. We kept at it until our gun was clean.
So there’s no indication here of what happened, though I know ten kliks south of us is a cratered area riddled with shrapnel and ruined buildings, burned-out vehicles and twisted corpses. The bodies. Sergeant Deetz had seen them on his first deployment, during the initial invasion. None of the rest of us have.
I turn sharply away from the gun line. It’s too pristine. And maybe this is the wrong way to think about it. Somewhere, there’s a corpse lying out, bleaching in the sun. Before it was a corpse, it was a man who lived and breathed and maybe murdered and maybe tortured, the kind of man I’d always wanted to kill. Whatever the case, a man definitely dead.
So I walk back to our battery area, never turning around. It’s a short walk, and when I get back I find a couple of the guys playing Texas hold ’em by a smoke pit. There’s Sergeant Deetz, Bolander, Voorstadt, and Sanchez. Deetz has fewer chips than the others and is leaning his bulk over the table, scowling at the pot.
“Oo-rah, motivator,” he says when he sees me.
“Oo-rah, Sergeant.” I watch them play. Sanchez flips the turn card and everybody passes.
“Sergeant?” I say.
I’m not sure where to start. “Don’t you think, maybe, we should have a patrol out, to see if there were any survivors?”
“What?” Sergeant Deetz is focused on the game. As soon as Sanchez flips the river, he throws his cards in.
“I mean, the mission we had. Shouldn’t we go out, like, in a patrol, to see if there are any survivors?” Sergeant Deetz looks up at me. “You are an idiot, aren’t you?”
“There weren’t any survivors,” says Voorstadt, tossing his cards in as well.
“You see al-Qaeda rolling around in tanks?” says Sergeant Deetz.
“You see al-Qaeda building crazy bunkers and trenches?”
“You think al-Qaeda’s got some magic, ICM-doesn’t-kill-my-ass ninja powers?”
“No, you’re goddamn right, no.”
The betting is now between Sanchez and Bolander. Sanchez, looking at the pot, says to no one in particular, “I think the 2nd and 136th does patrols out there.”
“But, Sergeant,” I say, “What about the bodies? Doesn’t somebody have to clean up the bodies?”
“Jesus, Lance Corporal. Do I look like a PRP Marine to you?”
“What do I look like?”
“Like an artilleryman, Sergeant.”
“You’re goddamn right, killer. I’m an artilleryman. We provide the bodies. We don’t clean ’em up. You hear me?”
He looks up at me. “And what are you, Lance Corporal?”
“An artilleryman, Sergeant.”
“And what do you do?”
“Provide the bodies, Sergeant.”
“You’re goddamn right, killer. You’re goddamn right.”
Sergeant Deetz turns back to the game. I use the opportunity to slip away. It was stupid to ask Deetz, but what he said has me thinking. PRP: personnel retrieval and processing, aka Mortuary Affairs. I’d forgotten about them. They must have collected the bodies from this morning.
The thought of PRP works and worms through my brain. The bodies could be sitting here, on base. But I don’t know where PRP is. I’d never wanted to know, and I don’t want to ask anyone the way, either. Why would anyone go there? But I leave the battery area and walk around the perimeter of the Battle Square, over to the CLB buildings, dodging officers and staff NCOs. It takes a good half hour, sneaking around, reading the signs outside of buildings, until I find it, a long, low rectangular building surrounded by palm trees. It’s offset from the rest of the CLB complex, but otherwise just like every other building. That feels wrong—if they cleaned up from today, severed limbs should be spilling out the door.
I stand outside, looking at the entrance. It’s a simple wooden door. One I shouldn’t be in front of, one I shouldn’t open, one I shouldn’t step through. I’m in a combat arms unit, and I don’t belong here. It’s bad voodoo. But I came all this way, I found it, and I’m not a coward. So I open the door.
Inside is cool air, a long hallway full of closed doors, and a Marine at a desk facing away from me. He has headphones on. They’re plugged into a computer that’s playing some sort of TV show. On the screen, a woman in a poofy dress is hailing a cab. She looks pretty at first, but then the screen cuts to a close-up and it’s clear she’s not.
The Marine at the desk turns around and takes off his headphones, looking up at me, confused. I look for chevrons on his collar and see he’s a gunnery sergeant, but he seems far older than most gunnys. A trim white mustache sits on his lip and he has a white fuzz of hair over the ears, but the rest of his head is shiny and bald. As he squints up to look at me, the skin around his eyes scrunches into wrinkles. He’s fat, too. Even through the uniform, I can tell. They say PRP is all reservists, no active duty undertakers in the Marine Corps, and he looks like a reservist for sure.
“Can I help you, Lance Corporal?” he says. There’s a soft, southern drawl in his voice.
I stand there looking at him, my mouth open, and the seconds tick by.
Then the old gunny’s face softens and he leans forward and says, “Did you lose someone, son?”
It takes me a second to figure it out. “No,” I say. “No. No no no. No.”
He looks at me, confused, and arches an eyebrow.
“I’m an artilleryman,” I say.
“Okay,” he says.
We look at each other.
“We had a mission today. Target was ten kliks south of here?” I look at him, hoping he’ll get it. I feel constricted by the narrow hallway, with the desk squeezed in and the fat old gunny looking at me quizzically.
“Okay?” he says.
“It was my first mission like that…”
“Okay?” he says again. He leans forward and squints up at me, like if he gets a better look, he’ll know what the hell I’m talking about.
“I mean, I’m from Nebraska. From Ord, Nebraska. We don’t do anything in Ord.” I’m fully aware I sound like an idiot.
“You all right, Lance Corporal?” The old gunny looks at me intently, waiting. Any gunny in an arty unit would have chewed my ass by now. Any gunny in my arty unit would have chewed my ass as soon as I walked through the door, waltzing into some place I didn’t belong. But this gunny, maybe because he’s a reservist, maybe because he’s old, maybe because he’s fat, just looks up and waits for me to get out what I need to say.
“I just never killed anybody before.”
“Neither have I,” he says.
“But I did. I think. I mean, we just shot the rounds off.”
“Okay,” he says. “So why’d you come here?”
I look at him helplessly. “I thought, maybe, you’d been out there. And seen what we’ve done.”
The old gunny leans back in his chair and purses his lips tight. “No,” he says.
He takes a breath and lets it out slow.
“We handle U.S. casualties. Iraqis take care of their own. Only time I see enemy dead is when they pass in a U.S. med facility. Like Fallujah Surgical.” He waves his hand in the general direction of the base hospital. “Besides, TQ’s got a PRP section. They’d probably have handled anything in that AO.”
“Oh,” I say. “Okay.”
“We didn’t have anything like that today.”
“Okay,” I say.
“You’ll be alright,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks, Gunny.”
I stand there, looking at him for a second. Then I look down at all the closed doors in the hallway, doors with nothing behind them. On the computer screen behind the gunny, a group of women drink pink martinis.
“You married, Lance Corporal?” The gunny is looking at my hands, at my wedding band.
“Yeah,” I say. “About two months now.”
“How old are you?” he asks.
He nods, then sits there as though turning some hard thing over in his mind. Right when I’m about to take my leave, he says, “Here’s something you could do for me. Can you do me a favor?”
He points at my wedding band. “Take that off and put it on the chain with your dog tags.” He scoops at the chain around his own neck with two fingers and pulls out his dog tags to show me. There, hanging next to the two metal tabs with his kill data, is a gold ring.”Okay?…”
“We need to collect personal effects,” he says, putting his dog tags back in his shirt. “For me, the hardest thing is taking off the wedding rings.”
“Oh.” I take a step back.
“Can you do that?” he says .
“Yeah,” I say, “I can do that.”
“Thanks,” he says.
“I should go,” I say.
“You should,” he says.
I turn quickly, open the door, and step out into the oven air. I walk away slow, back straight, controlling my steps, and I walk with my right hand over my left, worrying at my wedding band, twisting it around my finger.
I’d told the gunny I would do it, so as I walk I work at it, getting it off my finger. It feels like bad voodoo, to put it with my dog tags. But I take them from around my neck, undo the snap clasp, slip the ring onto the chain, redo the clasp, and put the dog tags back around my neck. I can feel the metal of the ring against my chest.
I walk away, not paying attention to where my steps are leading me, passing under the palm trees lining the road around the Battle Square. I’m hungry, and it should be time for chow, but I don’t go that way. I go to the road by Fallujah Surgical and I stop.
It’s a squat, dull building, beige and beaten down by the brightness of the sun like everything else. There’s a smoke pit nearby and two Corpsmen are sitting there, talking and dragging on cigarettes, sending faint puffs of smoke into the air. I wait, looking at the building as if something incredible might emerge.
Nothing happens, of course. But there in the heat, standing before Fallujah Surgical, I remember the cooler air of the morning two days before. We’d been going to chow, all of Gun Six, laughing and joking until sergeant Deetz, who was yelling something about the Spartans being gay, stopped midsentence. He froze, then shifted, straightened to his full height, and whispered, “Ahhh-ten-HUT.”
We all snapped to attention, not knowing why. Sergeant Deetz raised his right hand in a salute, and so did we. Then I saw, off in the distance, well down the road, four Corpsmen coming out of Fallujah Surgical carrying a stretcher draped with the American flag. Everything was silent, still. All down the road, Marines and sailors had snapped to.
I could barely see it in the early morning light. I strained my eyes looking at the outline of the body under the thick fabric of the flag. And then the stretcher passed from view.
Now, standing there in the daytime, looking at the two Corpsmen in the smoke pit, I wonder if they’d been the ones carrying that body. They must have carried some.
Everyone standing on the road as the body went past had been so utterly silent, so still. There was no sound or movement except for the slow steps of the Corpsmen and the steady progress of the corpse. It’d been an image of death from another world. But I now know where that corpse was headed, to the old gunny at PRP. And if there was a wedding ring, the gunny would have slowly worked it off the stiff, dead fingers. He would have gathered all the personal effects and prepared the body for transport. Then it would have gone by air to TQ. And as it was unloaded off the bird, the Marines would have stood silent and still, just as we had in Fallujah. And they would have put it on a C-130 to Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Germany, and silent and still at Dover Air Force Base. Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness, would end.
*Copyright © 2014 by Phil Klay