WEEK three: "the smell remains inside"


I'm currently on the outskirts of Karbala. The rest of my unit has left this area, heading north to secure the newly christened Baghdad Airport. Because of my recent "aggression" towards a higher-ranked, "Embedded" CNN drunkard, I've been demoted to "Affixed" which means I had to forfeit my seat to an "Attached" Washington Post reporter. I'm on my own here at camp--but that's fine. I need time to think.


I can see allied trucks passing about half a mile away, moving towards Baghdad. The airport is now the forward staging area, and more "sticks" arrive there each hour. I should explain: In military parlance, groups of 100 men are called "sticks." Ten sticks, 100 men per stick, that's 1,000. Twenty more would make it 1,020. Add nine and you'd have 1,029. I think a group of sticks is called a "faggot." I'll have to ask later.


Armed forces radio brings news of Geraldo Rivera's banishment. That clown has always been a liability. Any real "journo" knows you don't compromise your unit's tactical information. Loose lips sink ships, went the saying in WWII, and the camel, of course, is known as "the ship of the desert." It can be dangerous, even deadly, to report your location or any other strategic details, whether you're reporting or just bragging to impress friends. For example, if a certain embedded CNN reporter widely known to enjoy a stiff drink every time the wind blows needed to boast about his recent posting with the 101st Airborne Division, he'd be a lot safer leaving out the particulars of his basecamp. It might make this boozy CNN blowhard feel like some sort of daredevil to tell everyone how he's holed up in an abandoned elementary school less than two kilometers south of Aziziya, but it might also get him into a lot of trouble one day. And no matter how much he might be admired for the hilarious pranks he might play on his lower-ranked colleagues, he should probably think twice before telling the world his windowless, robin's egg-blue, two-story building is a flammable deathtrap with a single door, guarded intermittently by a half-dozen inexperienced soldiers armed only with small caliber arms and totally lacking night-vision equipment.


While monitoring the radio today I picked up a report that a stockpile of sarin was discovered in an agricultural facility near Baghdad. A few moments later, another voice, astoundingly similar to the first, comes on and says no, the barrels contained only "pesticide." Chills went down my spine. In my mind's eye I can see the first soldier laying unconscious while an identical fake soldier (answering to Saddam) takes his radio and sends a reassuring correction. How very perfect.


I've been wearing my chem suit 24/7. Better safe than sorry. These airtight coveralls do a great job of sealing out invisible toxins and sand. The downside is they're equally effective at sealing everything inside as well. After two weeks of constant wear, the smell is interfering with my vision. I've had a lot of headaches, and in strong sunlight I have to vomit a few times to settle my stomach. The fumes are strangely familiar like turpentine or maybe Ranch dressing. I think it reminds me of something I smelled at a picnic when I was a boy. It's hard to tell. My head hurts. I'm probably inhaling too much of myself. Once it gets darker I think maybe I'll go shoot some goats.


It's dusk, and the stars are out. If it's true Saddam's Fedayeen soldiers can assume the shape of goats, I thank God I have a rifle and plenty of rounds, borrowed last week from a unlocked cabinet. I'm alone here, and I don't want to wake up with my throat cut, looking up into the golden, vertical pupils of my killer.


Tonight's tally: Six goats! From the stories I've heard, I thought these Fedayeen killers would be a lot more savvy. What good is it to control the weather and fly if you just stare blankly when you're under fire? As I wait for the pile of cooling goats to revert to human form, I breathe my own vapors and wonder: In this empty desert where nothing is what it appears, even if we manage to find and kill Saddam, how will we ever know if it's really him?