By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 11, 2011
Of all the excellent non-fiction accounts written by participants in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the most underappreciated is Brandon Friedman’s The War I Always Wanted. That’s a great title, isn’t it? I suspect that was part of the problem. Mr. Friedman, an infantry lieutenant in the 101st Airborne, takes a point of view that is decidedly non-hero-centric, if there is such a word. His account is war as he actually found it and not as he had secretly always wished it would be.
I’m a big fan of The War I Always Wanted. I’d love to see the book get its much-deserved day in the sun. Here, toward that end, are four representative passages, picked by the author (who claims, like all really good writers, to be a poor judge of his own best work but has here come up with, I think, some pretty damn good choices.) The titles of each passage are mine, just to give them names:
At over one hundred miles an hour we flew past craggy rocks and snow-filled canyons. As the pilots hugged the terrain, I pondered how much someone would pay to take this trip as a tourist. In places like this, places free of industrialization, the sky is such a deep blue that it almost blackens. At lower elevations I could see green trees. There were browns and whites and blues and blacks and greens. I got tapped on the shoulder. One of my soldiers held up five fingers and mouthed, “Five minutes!” I took a breath and then made the signal for those around me to lock and load. Then I pulled the charging handle back on my own M4 before allowing it to slam forward, chambering a round.
I stopped thinking about everything There was nothing else in existence but the roar of the helicopter around me. Nikki no longer existed. My family no longer existed. I had no memories. I had no dreams, no plans for the future. It was all gone—as if the helicopter’s vibrations had liquefied my soul, allowing it to evaporate in the rushing wind that brought combat closer with each passing second. My mind became a pure, blank slate, capable of only repeating a single mantra: Go left, keep Taylor by your side, keep moving—no matter what. Go left, keep Taylor by your side, keep moving. . . .
I felt the helicopter slowing, beginning its hover. It lurched and bucked before coming to rest on the side of a mountain. I still couldn’t hear anything but the whine of the engines and the whompwhomp of the rotor blades. Then the tail gunner moved out of the way and I instinctively held my breath. The ramp began to lower, and light flooded the interior of the aircraft.
My brain clicks back on. I yell the obvious. “SNIIIIIIIPER!” The call is echoed throughout the platoon. I hit the ground. On the way down, I snag my helmet. As I lie on my stomach shivering, I put it on and try to snap on the chinstrap with my nearly numb fingers. I can feel rocks digging into the palms of my hands as well as my knees. I try to flatten myself as much as possible. As a kid, I’d seen surprised squirrels do something similar to this in my neighborhood. Now I am doing my best imitation. It seems like the thing to do.
Complete thoughts slowly begin forming. That round came from behind us. What the fuck? Everyone else realizes the same thing and they are instinctively repositioning themselves to face the northwest.
Then: “Who sees him?” I yell it. Another voice asks if anyone has been hit. Suddenly there is a jumble of “Who sees. . .I don’t. . .anything. . .do you. . .what?” Words and sentences become tangled. As the squad leaders desperately try to glean from their men if anyone has seen anything, I look for Taylor. He has the radio.
I see him twenty feet away, but he may as well be on the moon. Sergeant Divona is with him. I start to crawl toward them, but I only get a few feet before I realize I don’t have my load-bearing vest with my extra ammo magazines. I move quickly in reverse and grab it. I drag it behind me, knowing full well that sitting up on a knee to don it can mean a bullet in the head.
As I crawl, I become aware that my teeth are chattering—literally knocking together—in my head. I notice that I am still freezing. For some odd reason, I feel cheated. I had hoped that if I had to fight, I’d at least have enough adrenaline pumping through me to ward off the cold. I feel that this isn’t fair. It never happens like this on TV. On TV no one ever has to fight with teeth clanging and hands so cold they can barely operate the trigger on a gun. I had hoped a shootout would at least warm me up.
Blood and Death
As I stepped out, the first thing I noticed among the moving soldiers and growing crowd of onlookers, were the footprints on the dusty ground.
They were bloody footprints. But it wasn’t like somebody got some blood on his foot and then walked around leaving partial prints. These were solid crimson footprints. I could see every single toe. I could see the entire outline of the foot—where it narrowed at the arch, and then where it widened and curved back into the heel. They had come from an open gate to our right. I followed them in reverse for ten or fifteen feet. Walking inside the gate, I noticed the prints went as far back along the concrete path as I could see. They were spaced widely apart—as if the man had been running and bleeding profusely at the same time. I turned and followed them back out on the street. This time, though, I followed them to their source.
He was an Iraqi civilian and he was lying on his back, nearly naked. He wasn’t moving, and there was blood everywhere. Kneeling over him and working feverishly were two sergeants I recognized from Charlie Company. Sergeant Salido was bent over the man trying to insert an IV into his right arm, in a last desperate attempt to replenish his limp body with fluid. At the same time, Sergeant Iosefo was performing CPR.
Watching his hands and his face as he worked, I could see desperation beginning to work its way into Salido’s movements. The man’s circulatory system was rapidly failing and Salido couldn’t find a vein. Suddenly he looked up and cried out, “I can’t find a vein! I can’t. . . .” His eyes were searching for anyone who could help him. For some reason I noticed he was still wearing his glasses. Then, for a brief second, we made eye contact, and I stood there, frozen.
Salido knew that no one could help him. We were all the same there—everyone was nearly equally ignorant in how to treat traumatic injuries. His statement seemed to have been posed more out of exasperation than anything else—as if he were trying to preemptively explain to the universe why the man was going to die. As he went back to work, I noticed that the man’s eyes had already rolled back in his head.
Sergeant Iosefo was across from Salido, trying to perform mouth-to-mouth. He pumped one, two, three, and then bent over to breathe into the dying man’s mouth. I watched him do this three times. But then the man’s lungs began to fill with fluid, and the next time Iosefo blew into his lungs, the man began to vomit. Iosefo kept going. He kept pounding on the man’s chest and breathing, pounding and breathing, until finally, he started to gag himself on the man’s vomit. Gasping and coughing, he finally quit and sat back. Iosefo didn’t move—he just sat there next to the body, staring straight ahead. By that time, Salido had also stopped. He dropped the man’s arm and stood up.
A good thing or bad
After a while, I walked back to the barracks building. Several guys had started photographing themselves with the dead body and I wasn’t interested. I was neither interested in participating, nor in putting a stop to it. I just didn’t care anymore. They could have started playing soccer with his head and it wouldn’t have made a difference to me.
Detachedly, I wondered what was happening to us. I thought about how I had once gotten angry with the sergeant for shoving the kid in Baghdad. I thought about how bad I felt after the bags went on the heads of the looters on our first full day in that city. Back then I had cared. I looked at my watch. It was 11:57 p.m. on a night in October. After only seven months in Iraq we were becoming savages. I wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.