At the Ajeerda divide, the strip of land that separates the marshes on the eastern side, east of the city of Amarah, we were gathered into deeply dug-out positions. Thousands of soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms, we were packed together, drenched by the rain, with our helmets and weapons. We placed ourselves in various positions, small sandbags above us, their exposed sides submerged in water and mud.
The mud was so deep that we sank into it up to our thighs. The rain hadn’t stopped for two whole days. The sky rained down on us relentlessly and covered the area with a nightmare of water. Before we joined this battle—nearly ten days ago—the soldiers were repelling attacks by themselves from the direction of Amarah, where a huge number of Iranian soldiers were advancing farther into the strip of land and converging onto a number of armed detachments.
Actually, three months prior I was at the front, but I didn’t participate in a real battle. Before that, I was stationed at a number of rear positions in the supply line. I would silently watch the injured soldiers on stretchers and the dead officers, those who would be laid to rest in coffins. I would look from a distance, never approaching them. For long stretches of time I would watch the supply trucks move along in a strict column, and follow the artillery shells that fell on the heavy cement blocks of the army camp’s trenches.
The city was sad and distant, as if it had been exiled to the furthermost frontier. It was completely, utterly empty, save for the trucks spinning out in the mud while crossing its streets. Just a day ago, in this very place, I witnessed a pitiless lineup of wounded bodies on stretchers, and nurses in white scrubs walking in the field clinic—the mobile hospital that would follow the battlefield, remaining at its edges. There were a large number of coffins placed atop each other. At an old, abandoned garden I paused to smoke a cigarette and began watching, with sorrow, the funereal intertwinement of the colossal trees, as they rose to dark heights surrounded by a thick cloud of flies. From time to time columns of soldiers would pass by in their filthy coats in front of barbed-wire checkpoints; columns of soldiers who within hours would be dead and placed in these wooden coffins. This is the other image that completes the nightmare.
The young officer had a rough appearance, a jet-black mustache, and a stern look. He was busying himself with staring at a map laid out on the table. His forbidding expression simultaneously ignored and condemned. I don’t know why he looked at me with such deliberate scorn. His provincial appearance betrayed an affected arrogance and an unjustified resentment which I knew I would face many more times here at the front.
He ordered me to join the reserve camp near the hospital . . .
I put my sack on my back, placed my gun on my shoulder, and headed toward the truck parked near the headquarters. I threw myself on its cold iron bed and crept toward the right corner, squatting down and pressing my knees up toward the top of my chest. We were more than twenty soldiers, crammed together, absentmindedly staring at each other in silence.
The trucks traveled the long route that connected the rear camps to the combat trenches. They passed a number of encampments, grave, solemn, their many flagstaffs carrying the banners of their legions and regiments. Images of the harsh bombing campaigns, one after another, on the road: ambulances full of the injured passing quickly by, their sirens blaring; supply trucks continuously passing by. On both sides of the military route were bleak stations, packed with injured soldiers, their heads wrapped in white gauze, their broken bones in casts, on crutches; grim cities completely smashed by artillery; muddy trenches, frozen from the cold.
Not one among us—the soldiers in the truck—uttered a sound. In these remaining moments of our lives, not a word was spoken. That silence alone was enough to demonstrate the slow penetration of death into each one of us. It was enough to corroborate everything we had seen in the abandoned cities that we were passing by. Our deferred deaths in the form of burned homes. After those images of ruins, blood, ashes and smoke—nothing. Nothing but silence. The silence of those soldiers, on that morbid and rainy afternoon, heading toward an unknown fate.
In the last heated battle more of the battalions’ troops were killed in the positions at the front and they began to replace them with us. That’s why they named our rear encampment a “replacement center.”
“A replacement center,” that’s what the soldiers say to someone they don’t know. It’s a camp surrounded by barbed wire, stretching over a large area on the rear lines and supply depots. Arriving there, however, was the beginning of the inevitable end. The replacements continued their work because the killing continued. It was death alone that incessantly marched forward, devouring lives. You replace a casualty and, at the same time, feel that your own death is only being postponed. There are plenty who wait for your replacement. You think of nothing except the hope of life . . . an unconquerable hope. In moments of pain you think of preparing to accept death, the way that a cancer patient endures the thought of death after his condition suddenly worsens. Doubtless, most thoughts during wartime are about death, not life. During the harshest moments of war, these two thoughts interchange to the point that you confuse them completely. Yet you cling more to life. Through an imminent death you become more deeply acquainted with life.
What do I do here, between the bodies, dirt, and weapons?
You say to yourself that life from afar seems like an extended moment of time.
You doubt death, but you never doubt life, yet you feel like that you’ve just now learned that. That’s the sad thing about it: you won’t know the meaning of life except when you stand in front of the humiliation of war, the hideousness of killing and the passing smiles of soldiers.
After marching for two days I reached the front. My khaki jacket was completely drenched. The rain was pouring on my face and kept dripping down my chin, and the mud stuck to my shoes until it prevented me from marching comfortably. I was very skinny, pale, and twenty-three years old. I had graduated from university almost a year earlier and hadn’t participated in any battles. I didn’t know what a battle was. All that I knew about them was what I had read in novels by Hemingway, Remarque, and Tolstoy.
My passion for reading was such that my mother had sewn a pocket inside my military uniform that could hold at least one or two small books that I would carry with me wherever I went. In the off hours I would sit apart from the other soldiers and sink into my book. I would drown in words as if I were in another time and place, as if I were living in another world. Not the world I was forced to exist in, something different from it completely.
Reading: this was truly a special privilege. It was an escape from this world into another world. Thus, almost every hour—even at times of intense shelling and during the horrifying terror of attacks that knew no bounds—I would escape through reading. I would move quickly through the events of a book, without stopping, arming myself with the strength of a passion that possessed me, so that I would never return to my actual time and place.
I would perpetually wonder: was the young Proust wiser when he secluded himself in his room and drowned himself in his books so that he could avoid seeing his grandmother, who was suffering and in pain?
Far from the putrid smell of dead bodies that would waft toward us from the battlefield and far from the gunpowder that penetrated my inner depths causing me to vomit, at times convulsing my insides, to the point that vomiting became routine, I would secretly isolate myself and read. It was a guaranteed sense of harmony, I could savor the smell of my book, like the fragrance of a distant lily . . . or the scent of the wood in my library rubbed down with alcohol, or the smell of a stone house drenched in water.
Reading was a real alternative to having to surrender to the degrading world that I was living in. It was a kind of infatuation with escaping from a wretched, fated life—a pleasure, unrestrained by a muddled mind. I existed among the dead, or among those whose deaths were suspended, no doubt, until I would be killed. Yet, I felt myself sitting down like a wild apricot tree growing out of the stones of a wall.
I got out of the military car and saluted the officer. He then ordered me into a dimly lit fighting position. Under the cover of the sounds of explosions and a plethora of constantly shifting images, the scene was slowly distorting and fading. I could no longer see anything, save for a sort of pale darkness and a soaking wet night because of the rain that covered everything. On that harsh, stormy day the rain would not stop. Everything became water: the sandbags at the door of the position a soldier carrying his gun, even the words that we exchanged between each other, which, in the end, shielded our wet lips from the water pouring down from our brows to our chins.
I entered with slow steps, my gun in hand and my iron helmet sliding off a little. I didn’t bother adjusting it, mainly because my shoulder bag was bearing down on me, too. I was stumbling through the water in my enormous shoes, weighed down by mud. Every minute I would run my hand over my books in the interior pockets that my mother had sewn for me, nervously trying to keep them from getting wet. I was aware of my comical appearance and ashamed of it as well.
At the time I was often preoccupied with my physical appearance. I would pay close attention to such shallow things, because of my upbringing and my age. But, what lessened the sorrow that I felt imposed upon me were the smiles I encountered from the older officers, and those who were guarding the front of the position, who would greet me in a friendly manner. Their clothes were muddy and dripping. Their khaki helmets dripped with water and their young faces were soaked. Until today I wonder just how during this time of fighting they had the time to greet me with smiles that I’ll never forget.
I looked around the tight position. Someone was holding a book in his hands, near a small lantern so that he could read in its weak light. That really cheered me up.
The corporal approached the lantern and raised it. He lit his cigarette and started puffing smoke into the air.
Another person was sitting a bit farther away, in the right corner. He was sitting on his knees oiling a rifle in his hands. In this encampment, packed with war materials, arms, papers and books, there was another group of soldiers sleeping against a wall, wrapped in blankets.
I looked at them. Their knees were pressed up against their chests, and their heads and parts of their backs and shoulders were leaning against the wall. I, on the other hand, was tired, scared, and very confused. Would there be an attack today?
“No,” they said, “maybe tomorrow.”
I looked at the corporal with a shy smile and asked him if he would let me sleep with my fellow soldiers who were sleeping against the wall. I was tired, wet, and wanted only to doze off for a bit. He was a little confused when I pointed over to them.
He gave me a hard look and nodded his head in agreement.
He gave me permission without smiling. So I quickly went to take my belongings off my shoulders, not understanding what I saw in the eyes of the other soldiers around me, quickly looking at one another.
I placed my belongings close to me and turned toward the sleeping group. I approached, glanced at them and, just as they had, sat down to go to sleep.
I tossed my wet clothes on the ground, my shoes, too. I pulled a bit of the blanket away from the soldier sleeping near me and leaned my head and part of my shoulder against the wall. I put my knees close to my stomach, as if I were squatting.
Sleeping like this wasn’t comfortable, but I had no other choice. I had to sleep like them in order to pull some of their blankets over my body. The sleeping soldier’s face was close to me, looking the other way. His foot was close to mine, outside the blanket, in a black shoe and bright green socks. Slowly but firmly, so that I wouldn’t wake him, I pulled some of the blanket over myself. All that remained in my mind was the bright color of the green socks that the soldier near me was wearing—the one with whom I shared the blanket.
I was so young, learning about life with all its details. Maybe these superficialities had a high value for me at the time, but I make fun of them now.
“How can this soldier wear green socks with those pants?” I said.
That color truly irritated me. It was a bright color and left quite an impression on me.
I spent the entire night slipping in and out of sleep, waking up to the sound of shelling and explosions. I would hear distant cries and yelling. The images of the nightmares of war and death would mix with the sounds of the living soldiers and the sound of the Morse near me. Time and time again, I would drift off into sad and disconcerting dreams, dozing off and then waking up again. What really stuck in my head was the image of those green socks that the soldier near me was wearing, the one who wouldn’t turn toward me so that I could see his face. He didn’t turn over, didn’t move, didn’t shake, didn’t snore, and didn’t say a word. He didn’t seem aware of me at all.
As the night wore on, I was overcome by the curiosity to see the face of this soldier with the bright socks, but he wouldn’t budge.
I opened my eyes in the morning. Light was filling the position. The shelling had just about died down. Soldiers were passing in front of me and speaking to each other. But the soldier with the bright green socks hadn’t moved a bit. Not him, nor the five others tossed against the wall who were sharing a blanket between themselves. Everything was talking and moving, but these bodies that were face to face with me hadn’t moved at all. After a few minutes, and against my will, I stretched out my arm in his direction and shook him a little.
“Brother . . . brother.”
Neither sound, nor movement; I pulled him aside a little, so that we were face to face.
It was as if he had just fallen asleep. His face was still. It showed no signs of movement and had gone a little pallid. His eyes were half-open, his mouth slightly agape. His black hair had uncurled onto his forehead. He was around twenty years old.
The panic almost killed me. I stood up and screamed in protest: “Why did you make me sleep with dead bodies the entire night?”
The corporal said, “I was afraid to tell you that they had died, since you would have been scared and this is your first time at the front.”
I realized at that moment that seeing a dead soldier is more terrifying than our own death. We won’t ever see our own death. However, seeing a dead person reminds us of our own mortality. It reminds us of the mystery of death, just as the newborn baby’s face reminds a woman of the enigma of life.
Will I also end like this—as a cold body? What sanctity will I leave behind in my death for those men?
There’s no glory or holy symbolism in dying during warfare. The young soldier’s face exposed not only the atrocity that was our presence in the war. If this tragedy was related solely to death it wouldn’t need all of this commentary, but it’s related to a savagery that we want to sanctify.
I would ask myself: How could our deaths be transformed into heroic acts by others, when death was simply the act of dying, and nothing else? How did that terrifying open grave transform into something sacred—religiously and nationally—something that we rise in front of, like a ritual, as if it is a great act, when it is death, and nothing more?
That we die is not what scares me. What scares me is that, during wartime, death transforms into something holy. And life changes into a corpse, leaning against the wall waiting for the shovel and pickax so that it can be buried. Rarely does death during wartime change into knowledge that we can use to condemn war. Rather, death transforms into a great act that prolongs and repeats wars.
While I was pondering the deaths of those young men in this way—without tears or commotion, tossed aside on the muddy earth like piles of garbage—I realized why my fellow soldiers let me sleep with them under the same blanket.
These lifeless faces are completely disconnected from the civilian world you know. These are people who are waiting for their own deaths. I am not mistaken. They smiled at me only because after a short while I would be like those young men, dead as well. Gradually, with idiocy and patience, my mouth will fall open like any other dead person. I await a grave, shovel, and pickax . . .
© Ali Bader. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Amir Moosavi. All rights reserved.