Neil Shea

writer | photographer | story consultant

Photo by Andrea Bruce.

Ramadi Nights

Stumbling Towards Victory in Iraq | in VQR

Second Lieutenant Dave Hagner was tall and smooth-faced, and like many other marines he carried himself in a way that brought his toughness into uncomfortable contrast with his youth. He was twenty-seven, older than the men in the platoon he commanded. During the day he worked out and joked around and daydreamed of the boat he would buy when he left the Marine Corps. It was long and sleek, and probably it would be white. It would whisk him light and free above Hawaiian reefs, chasing marlin, sailfish, sharks. He intended, in retirement, to be an old man by the sea.

At night he put the boat aside, slipped into his body armor, checked his rifle and his radio, his ammo clips and night-vision goggles and safety glasses. He pulled on gloves, pushed in earplugs. If he felt lucky, or unlucky, he would ask aloud how the mission would go and toss into the air an angular stone painted with various prophecies, like the Magic 8-Balls you can buy at toyshops. Fortune found, Hagner led his platoon into the ruined, stinking maze of Ramadi. Quietly they slipped by packs of feral dogs, lagoons of sewage. They stepped around the unexploded mortars and crept under open windows, the soft sounds of whispered Arabic falling over them, the speakers unaware of, or unconcerned about, the passage of armed men. When they reached a certain neighborhood, Hagner’s marines would burst into houses and bring the male occupants to him as they blinked off sleep. Then the questioning began.

It must have seemed to the Iraqis that they were being hauled before a nightmare judge. They were accustomed to this, to violent noises, interrogations, searches. But still they were cowed by Hagner, by all of it. And even though he was careful to say Thank you and even sometimes Things are gonna get better to those frightened people, the words seemed empty after what had just been done, and Hagner seemed remote and alien. Inhuman. A few hours later, Hagner would emerge from his armor cocoon, pale and sweat-soaked, a wiry, almost skinny guy from Essex, Maryland, eating candy and falling exhausted onto his bunk. Happily alive, dreaming of boats.

+ read the story here.