First Gulf War; Iraq, 1991
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
The words were whispered under his breath, his fingers rubbing the beads of the rosary. His eyes were squeezed shut, his hands trembling. He couldn't stand up, could only slump on his knees and lean back against the rough, cool stone of the wall.
He wasn't sure if the silence was real or if his hearing had been blasted away. Whatever the case, the world was silent around him.
A bullet bit into the wall near his head, and he threw himself to the side. He felt a brief spat of pain as his head crashed against the ground. He’d heard no gunshot, so his ears must not have been working. Another bullet, a third and fourth, and then a whole murderous hailstorm impacted the wall and the dirt road, shredding the stone and flecking him with stinging shards of rock. He lunged to his feet, stumbled into a run, and ducked into a doorway. Bullets followed him, thunking into the wood of the door, disappearing into the darkness within, zinging and ricocheting. He let himself fall to the floor, then rolled over and curled into the corner.
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
His ears rang, popped, and cleared. Immediately, the sound of assault rifle fire filled the air, a harsh hackhackhack, a pause…hackhackhack; the whistle-whoosh of an RPG, followed by a brief, fraught, waiting silence…a deafening crump as the grenade exploded nearby, shaking dust from the ceiling.
A man screamed shrilly in Arabic a few feet away…“Allah! Allah!”
Another voice, farther away, screaming curses in English.
Hackhackhack…an AK-47; crackcrackcrackcrack…an American M16A2 returning fire.
He managed to rise to his feet without vomiting or collapsing. He was in no way ready for this—he'd signed up to take pictures, write a story, not to be shot at. He was a journalist, not a soldier. Stop shooting at me, he wanted to say but couldn't.
He huddled against the wall and inspected his camera, breathed a sigh of amazed relief to see it intact. A bit miraculous, actually, considering how he'd been throwing himself around. He poked his head around the corner, scanned the scene for a shot.
There: a man in a red-and-white checkered keffiyeh standing on a rooftop firing an AK-47, the stock of an RPG poking up above his head. The photographer swapped lenses, wide-angle for telephoto, focused in on the insurgent—snap—caught him as he lifted the rifle to his shoulder, one eye squinted—snap—again as he lifted the rifle above his head in jubilation. The photographer flopped down to street level, lying prone, snapsnapsnap, capturing the dying slump and fall of a Marine, the tortured disbelief on his face, the arms clutched about his red-weeping throat, then snapsnapsnap as his buddy knelt in the street beside him to draw bead on the insurgent, crackcrackcrack…crackcrack: The keffiyeh jerked and was stained pink.
He heard a rustle and whimper from a far corner: a boy and his sister huddled together, holding tightly to one another. The boy stood up slowly, resolve hardening in his eyes. He reached down to the floor, lifted a rifle, and aimed it. The photographer raised his hands to show he was unarmed; the boy jabbered something in Arabic, motioned at the photographer with the muzzle. He shook his head, edged backward, lowered his hands: he had a Beretta 9mm at the small of his back, a precaution he'd hoped he would never have to use.
If he'd learned anything as an embedded journalist, it was the single rule of warfare: kill or be killed.
He was already making justifications, excuses.
The boy began to yell, shrill and angry. The photographer backed up against the wall, hand edging slowly towards the hard lump of the pistol against his spine. He gripped the gun tightly, preparing to jerk and fire. If he had been facing an adult, the move would have been obvious, but this was a boy, just a boy, no more than ten or eleven.
He held the AK like he knew how to use it, however, and the desperate terror in his eyes spoke of a short life lived in a perpetual war zone. He probably had been lulled to sleep by gunfire and explosions as much as mother’s song and father’s arms. He probably had played with that rifle as a toddler, sitting on his father’s lap, lifted it, pretended to shoot it, making the sounds boys make the world over when playing soldier. This boy, though, had actually seen war. He playacted things he'd seen, not just scenes from the imaginations of sheltered children. He had seen uncles and cousins shrouded by old blankets, still and cold, had seen Marines tromp through his village, tall and arrogant.
Maybe he had been given a candy bar by one, a cuff on the head by another, a cold stare by a third. Maybe his father had been killed by an American in desert camo. Maybe he was left alone with his sister. Now, here was an American, and he had a chance to even the score. What did this boy know about rules of engagement, or the dishonor of killing an unarmed noncombatant? Of course, the boy couldn’t know anything of this, and of course, the journalist was not unarmed.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…
He pulled the pistol as quickly and smoothly as possible, fired once, twice. The boy jerked sideways, left arm blossoming red, dust pattering from the missed second shot. The boy fell in slow motion, blood blooming like a pink, spreading rosette. The look in his eyes was something the photographer would never forget. The boy looked at the American, his expression doleful, accusing, baffled, hurt, as if a toy had been stolen.
His sister was screaming, but the journalist couldn’t hear it, his hearing gone out again, but her mouth was opened wide and her chest was heaving and she was leaning over her brother. She turned to the photographer, screaming at him, shaking her head no no no.
He lowered the pistol, turned away, head clutched in trembling hands, trying to shake the vision of the boy falling. He didn't see the girl stop screaming and take up the AK-47. She held it as she has seen so many times before: low at her waist, strap hanging like a distended belly, black muzzle-mouth wavering, two fingers on the trigger, scarred and scuffed wooden stock tucked into her underarm.
She pulled the trigger, and it was the roar of the rifle that brought him back to the present. She missed, and he was frozen. He could shoot her brother because he was a boy and would grow into an insurgent by the time he was a teenager, if he wasn't already.
This was just a girl, twelve years old, if that. Maybe she had just begun wearing the hijab, maybe she was the only mother the boy had. He couldn’t shoot her. He just couldn’t.
She had no such compunction; she did not miss a second time.