A pile of six heads, neatly stacked, greeted us when we stepped down from the ramp. Each was easily recognizable as having once belonged atop the shoulders of a living, breathing human being, and yet each was also almost as unremarkable as the next. In death, they had lost everything that had made them so unique and individual just moments before their separation from their absent bodies. They had been carefully placed in such a way that each face was oriented the way it would be anatomically, with forehead above and neck stump below. They had each mostly bled out before being stacked, although just enough blood, mucous, and cerebrospinal fluid remained and had slowly leaked from the heads atop the pile to streak the faces of those at its base.
The day was already long, and it just kept growing longer. We stood there in the dying light, by the disembodied heads, and for a moment it seemed as if that’s all everything was doing: dying. Even us, as we stood there still quite alive, we were just passing the time until something would come and take our own heads. We rolled the dice every damn day, every damn time we left the wire and drove our vehicles through the tight streets and alleys of Baghdad. Some of us prayed, others prayed silently, and the rest at least hoped. But I’d wager that all of us, at some point, at least negotiated a little with the man above. We’d think or say things like “if I get blown up, I think I could live without some toes or my pinky fingers. Maybe a leg if it gets blown off below the knee.” I actually got to the point where I had negotiated so often, I had spent so much time imagining a life on stumps, that I had warmed to the idea of a prosthetic leg. I figured, what the fuck? I could strap on one of those robo C-legs and shave some time off my 2-mile run, maybe have a whole collection of fake legs that I could “tattoo” without ever having to fully commit to lifelong ink. Not everyone can just swap out a limb when they get sick of a few tattoos. And who the hell needs flesh-and-blood feet? They don’t do anything that a piece of plastic can’t.
Not everyone was so comfortable with losing a leg, though; some guys were so amputee-averse that they made their brothers promise to put a bullet in them before letting them go home a cripple. I’m sure they would have changed their tunes had they actually gotten a leg blown off, but for the time being they defied the possibility with a very strict and adamant refusal to entertain even the idea of amputee-hood.
One thing that we all agreed on was our heads. It’s technically impossible to live without one, so that was on the non-negotiable list for all of us. “Please don’t blow my head off” was basically a universal and implied prayer. No one even had to say it, it was just understood. Closer inspection of the pile of heads, the pile of unanswered prayers, showed that they were likely hacked off by something like a machete instead of an IED. The fact that they were neatly stacked and not scattered like roaches further ruled out explosives. An Iraqi policeman waved us over to a spot a few meters away.
There we found six headless bodies, neatly arranged in a line, hands folded on their chests, lying in synchronized poses elbow-to-elbow. We concluded that these were probably the bodies that had once been attached to the piled heads. In their hands were their tashkeels, their ID cards identifying them all as Iraqi policemen. That’s what service gets you here: beheaded. Or drowned. Or shot. Or drowned and tortured and shot and then beheaded. Take a little from each column and toss them together, and that’s essentially the severance package offered to new recruits of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army.
That day we were in a western neighborhood of Baghdad, Ghazaliyah. It was only about two miles or less from the front gate of our base and was basically a shithole of half-constructed homes, cratered streets, dirt, IEDs, and assholes. We stayed a while longer as the daylight continued to die, along with my own faith in humanity and the future of this country, before we tossed the Iraqis some body bags, wished them luck matching heads with bodies, and mounted back up. We radioed up that we were charlie mike, and we continued on our patrol of this shit-heap district.
It was business as usual, except that I requested that God recognize “death by machete” as belonging on the list of non-negotiables.