By Steven Pressfield
Published: September 28, 2016
If you’re a writer struggling to get published (or published again) or wrestling with the utility or non-utility of self-publishing, you may log onto this blog and think, Oh, Pressfield’s got it made; he’s had real-world success; he’s a brand.
Trust me, it ain’t necessarily so.
I don’t expect to be reviewed by the New York Times. Ever. The last time was 1998 for Gates of Fire. That’s eighteen years ago. The War of Art was never reviewed, The Lion’s Gate never. My other seven novels? Never.
I’ve got a new one, The Knowledge, coming in a month or two. It will be reviewed, I’m certain, by no one.
If I want to retain my sanity, I have to banish such expectations from my thinking. I cannot permit my professional or artistic self-conception to be dependent on external validation, at least not of the “mainstream recognition” variety. It’s not gonna happen. I’m never gonna get it.
If you’re not reviewed by the New York Times (or seen on Oprah) your book is gonna have tough, tough sledding to gain awareness in the marketplace. No book I publish under Black Irish is going to achieve wide awareness. BI’s reach is too tiny. Our penetration of the market is too miniscule. And even being published by one of the Big Five, as The Lion’s Gate was by Penguin in 2014, is only marginally more effective.
There are maybe a hundred writers of fiction whose new books will be reviewed with any broad reach in the mainstream press. Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, etc. I’m not on that list. My stuff will never receive that kind of attention.
Does that bother me? I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t want to be recognized or at least have my existence and my work acknowledged.
But reality is reality. As Garth on Wayne’s World once said of his own butt, “Accept it before it destroys you.”
On the other hand, it’s curiously empowering to grasp this and to accept it.
It forces you to ask, Why am I writing?
What is important to me?
What am I in this for?
Here is novelist Neal Stephenson from his short essay, Why I Am a Bad Correspondent:
Another factor in this choice [to focus entirely on writing to the exclusion of other “opportunities” and distractions] is that writing fiction every day seems to be an essential component in my sustaining good mental health. If I get blocked from writing fiction, I rapidly become depressed, and extremely unpleasant to be around. As long as I keep writing it, though, I am fit to be around other people. So all of the incentives point in the direction of devoting all available hours to fiction writing.
I asked hypothetically in last week’s post, What if a writer worked her entire life, produced a worthy and original body of work, yet had never been published by a mainstream press and had never achieved conventional recognition? Would her literary efforts have been in vain? Would she be considered a “failure?”
Part of my own answer arises from Neal Stephenson’s observation above.
I wrote for twenty-eight years before I got a novel published. I can’t tell you how many times friends and family members, lovers, spouses implored me for my own sake to wake up and face reality.
Because my reality was not the New York Times or the bestseller list or even simply getting an agent and having a meeting with somebody. My reality was, If I stop writing I will have to kill myself.
I have no choice.
I don’t know why I was born like this, I don’t know what it means; I can’t tell you if it’s crazy or deluded or even evil.
I have to keep trying.
That pile of unpublished manuscripts in my closet may seem to you (and to me too) to be a monument to folly and self-delusion. But I’m gonna keep adding to it, whether HarperCollins gives a shit, or The New Yorker, or even my cat who’s perched beside me right now on my desktop.
I am a writer.
I was born to do this.
I have no choice.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
1 A Brother
My most ancient memory is of a battlefield. I don’t know where. Asia maybe. North Africa. A plain between the hills and the sea.
The hour was dusk; the fight, which had gone on all day, was over. I was alive. I was looking for my brother. Already I knew he was dead. If he were among the living, he would have found me. I would not have had to look for him.
Across the field, which stretched for thousands of yards in every direction, you could see the elevations of ground where clashes had concentrated. Men stood and lay upon these. The dying and the dead sprawled across the lower ground, the depressions and the sunken traces. Carrion birds were coming down with the night—crows and ravens from the hills, gulls from the sea.
I found my brother’s body, broken beneath the wheels of a battle wagon. Three stone columns stood above it on an eminence—a shrine or gate of some kind. The vehicle’s frame had been hacked through by axes and beaten apart by the blows of clubs; the traces were still on fire. All that remained aboveground of my brother was his left arm and hand, which still clutched the battle-axe by which I recognized him.
Two village women approached, seeking plunder. “Touch this man,” I told them, “and I will cut your hearts out.”
I stripped my cloak and wrapped my brother’s body in it. The dames helped me settle him in the earth. As I scraped black dirt over my brother’s bones, the eldest caught my arm. “Pray first,” she said.
We did. I stood at the foot of my brother’s open grave. I don’t know what I expected to feel: grief maybe, despair. Instead what ascended from that aperture to hell were such waves of love as I have never known in this life or any other. Do not tell me death is real. It is not. I have sustained my heart for ages with the love my brother passed on to me, dead as he was.
While I prayed, a commander passed on horseback. “Soldier,” he asked, “whom do you bury?” I told him. He reined in, he and his lieutenants, and bared his head. Who was he? Did I know him? When the last spadeful of earth had been mounded atop my brother’s grave, the general’s eyes met mine. He said nothing, yet I knew he had felt what I had, and it had moved him.
I am a warrior. What I narrate in these pages is between me and other warriors. I will say things that only they will credit and only they understand.
A warrior, once he reckons his calling and endures its initiation, seeks three things.
First, a field of conflict. This sphere must be worthy. It must own honor. It must merit the blood he will donate to it.
Second, a warrior seeks comrades. Brothers-in-arms, with whom he willingly undergoes the trial of death. Such men he recognizes at once and infallibly, by signs others cannot know.
Last, a warrior seeks a leader. A leader defines the cause for which the warrior offers sacrifice. Nor is this dumb obedience, as of a beast or a slave, but the knowing heart’s pursuit of vision and significance. The greatest commanders never issue orders. Rather, they compel by their own acts and virtue the emulation of those they command.
The great champions throw leadership back on you. They make you answer: Who am I? What do I seek? What is the meaning of my existence in this life?
I fight for money. Why? Because gold purges vanity and self-importance from the fight. Shall we lay down our lives, you and I, for a flag, a tribe, a notion of the Almighty? I did, once. No more. My gods now are Ares and Eris. Strife. I fight for the fight itself. Pay me. Pay my brother.
I served once beneath a great commander who asked in council one night, of me and my comrades, if we believed our calling to be a species of penance—a hell or purgatory through which we must pass, again and again, in expurgation of some crime committed eons gone.
“I do,” he said. He offered us as recompense for this passage “an unmarked grave on a hill with no name, for a cause we cannot understand, in the service of those who hate us.”
Not one of us hesitated to embrace this.
Book One: Euphrates
2 Espresso Street
Ninety miles south of Nazirabad, we sight a convoy of six vehicles speeding west and flying the black-and-yellow death’s-head pennant of CounterArmor. The date is 15 August 2032. In that country, when you run into other Americans, you don’t ask who they’re working for, where they’re from, or what they’re up to. You help them.
We brake beside the CounterArmor vehicles in the lee of a thirty-foot sand berm. The team is pipeline security. Their chief is a black dude, about forty, with a Chicago accent. “The whole goddam city’s gone over!”
“Over to who?” I ask. A gale is shrieking, the last shreds of a sandstorm that has knocked out satellite and VHF comms for the past two and a half hours.
“Whoever the hell wants it!”
The CounterArmor commander’s vehicle is a desert-tan Chevy Simoom with a reinforced-steel X-frame and a .50-caliber mounted topside. My own team is six men in three vehicles—two Lada Neva up-armors and one RT-7, an Iraq-era 7-ton truck configured for air defense. The outfit is part of Force Insertion, the largest private
military force in the world and the one to whom all of western Iran has been contracted. I’m in command of the group, which is a standard MRT, Mobile Response Team. The overall contract is with ExxonMobil and BP.
The CounterArmor trucks are fleeing west for the Iraq border. The Turks have invaded, the chief is telling us. Or maybe it’s the Russians. Tactical nukes have been used, near Qom and Kashan in the No-Go Zone; or maybe that’s false too. “Get in behind us,” he shouts. “We’re gonna need every gun we can get.”
I tell him our team has orders to enter the city. Five American engineers, civilian contractors, are trapped there, along with the TCN security detail assigned to protect them. Our instructions are to get them out, along with a technical brief they have prepared for the commanding general’s eyes only.
“You can’t go back there,” the chief says.
Nazirabad is a Shiite city of about three hundred thousand. They’re all Shiite cities in Iran. You can tell a Shiite city by the billboards and the vehicles, which are plastered with pix of their saints, Ali and Hussein. A Shiite truck or bus is festooned with religious amulets and geegaws. Reflectorized pinwheels dangle from the rearview and outboard mirrors; framed portraits adorn the dash; every square inch is crazy quilted with talismans and mandalas, good luck charms and magic gimcracks.
Anyway, that’s what we’re seeing now—forty minutes after leaving the CounterArmor convoy—as Iranian civilian cars, trucks, and buses flood past on the highway, fleeing. Comms are still out, whether from the nukes, the storm, or man-made jamtech, we can’t tell. Our orders are to rescue the engineers. Beyond that, we know nothing. We don’t know what we’re riding into or what our chances
are of getting out. This is the bitch of modern warfare. Every technological breakthrough spawns its dedicated countermeasure, with each generation getting cheaper and more accessible. X knocks out Y; before you know it, you’re back to deadfalls and punji stakes.
So we’re relieved, forty miles south of the city, when two Little Bird choppers—the kind used by the Legion, one of Force Insertion’s subcontractors—show up topside and communicate to us by line-of-sight that other friendlies are up ahead. Twenty minutes later we pick up radio traffic from Legion vehicles heading our way and, half an hour after that, two black bulletproofs—GMC Kodiaks with cork tires and gun-slit windows—roll up and brake, coated with gray dust. An operator springs down, wearing a tuxedo jacket and white linen shirt over cargo pants and boots. We can see, in the distance, the three-level overpass south of the city. The merc comes up, grinning in his black tie. My #2, Chutes Savarese, hails him.
“Where’s the party?”
“We brought it, babies.”
The merc introduces himself as Chris Candelaria and shakes
my hand and the others’. His ring says SEAL Team Six. He wears another that I don’t see, under the Nomex glove on his left hand: the Wharton School. The team he’s leading is from DSF, Dienstleister Schwarze Flagge, the crack German–South African outfit that evolved in the twenties out of the Zimbabwean Selous Scouts. He just got out of Isfahan five hours ago, he says. Dried blood paints both his hands and arms; the shoulder of his jacket has been charred through; he’s got a dust-caked battle dressing on his neck, above an ear whose bottom third is scorched black and slathered with green combat antiseptic. But he’s grinning. Like me, he wears a beard. His hair is long and falls in a cascade of black ringlets.
“You guys going in there?” he asks. From our rise south of the highway, we can see Dragonfly drones in swarms over the city. Every punk-ass gang and militia is flying these little fuckers, some the
size of kites, others no bigger than pie plates. The streaks of their rockets—high-explosive and flechette—blow away in the wind. “Want some help?”
The merc and I do a quick map orientation, marking the in-city locations and the routes, order, and sequence we’ll use to approach them. What about supporting fires, I ask. Our team has zero; has he got Close Air Support, drones, anything?
The cupboard is bare, the merc says. “It’s just you and me, partner. We are officially OOO”—On Our Own—”and SOL.” Shit Outa Luck.
The contractor has a case of Jack Daniel’s in the lead Kodiak. Standing at the rear doors, he passes us two bottles for each vehicle. He’s got cups but no ice. He introduces the rest of his team, who are more comm guys than trigger pullers. I note two DSFers packing Heckler & Koch 416s, German superguns, with 40 mm grenade launchers underslung. On the truck’s roof squats a donut satlink receiver in a fiberglass cover; inside the vehicle I note a bank of tech gear, including a Xenor encryption box.
“What kind of team are you leading?” I ask.
“We’re a financial unit. I’m specking oil and gas contracts. Haven’t had a rifle in my hands for seven years!”
I’m laughing now. So is Chutes. “Thanks for the help, bro.”
“I’m coming from an embassy ball,” says Chris, indicating his tux. He nods toward the trucks and guns. “We grabbed this shit and ran.”
He tells us Isfahan is burning. Tehran too. Mobs are storming the U.S. embassy—and the Russians and the Chinese. He doesn’t know who’s attacking whom. He has caught snatches on al-Alam, the Iranian satellite channel, about a rising in Saudi Arabia; the fear in the West, says the report, is of a Shiite sweep across southern Iraq and into the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Or maybe it’s all bullshit. The one thing the merc can tell us for sure is the nearest safety is across two hundred miles of hell. “Salter’s at Kirkuk with
two armatures, moving toward the Iranian border. If we can get to him, we’re home free.”
He means our Force Insertion commander, Gen. James Salter. An armature is the equivalent of the old conventional-army airmobile division. The word comes from Latin, meaning equipment or armor. Force Insertion has, along the Iraq-Iran border, four armatures with all supporting arms including artillery (105and 177 mm howitzers), drone and truckborne antiarmor, and air defense in the form of mobile Chinese I-SAM rocket trucks. Salter’s air assault complement, we know, is at near full strength, meaning each armature has three battalions of extended-range Black Hawk and up-gunned War Hawk choppers, a battalion of heavy Chinooks, plus seventy-two owner-operated AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, all outfitted with the latest aftermarket Chinese, Czech, and Israeli missile technology, American and Indian avionics and satcomms, and flown by American, Russian, South African, Australian, Polish, and British mercs, most of whom have in the old days been majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels in their respective conventional air forces. Our new friend eyes our ragged-ass gear, which looks like it came from Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the faces of our guys—Chutes Savarese, Junk Olsen, Adrian “Q” Quinones, Marcus Aurelius “Mac” Jones, and Tony Singh, our six-foot-four Hindu from Sri Lanka. He indicates the city.
“Gentlemen, as Sarpedon said to Glaucus, ‘Let us go forth and win glory—or cede it to others.’ ”
Chutes is grinning. “What’s your name again, man?”
“Chris, you’re my kinda dude.”
They bump elbows. In we go.
Nazirabad is situated at the juncture of two highways—8, which runs north-south, and 41 east-west. The three-level interchange and
its security station, Checkpoint 290, is the funnel through which all motorized entry and egress is channeled. There’s an industrial slum to the north called Ali City, from which most of the bad actors come—tribal militias, criminal gangs, Mahdi revivalists, cabals of displaced army officers, as well as Jaish al-Sha’b, “Army of the People,” which has replaced AQP—al-Qaeda in Persia—plus every imaginable hue of nationalist, separatist, and irredentist forces, including foreign fighters—Turks, Chechens, Syrians, Saudis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uighurs, as well as Shiite Kurds, Afghan Hazaras, and Lebanese.
As recently as ten years ago, Nazirabad was a secure, attractive tourist destination. Brochures called it the “city of artists.” The Old Town had four souks, one entirely for tiles, another for decorative ironwork—gates, lamps, chandeliers. Nazirabad had two synagogues, believe it or not, and a Christian bookstore. A woman could walk alone and bareheaded, even after dark. Eighteen months ago, when our team deployed, a foreigner could still get a private villa, with cook, driver, and laundress. No more. In the space of ten weeks, since the start of the third Iran-Iraq war, the place has degenerated to a level of violence equal to Baghdad or Ramadi twenty-five years earlier—and the last half year has been even worse.
We take side streets into the city, bypassing Checkpoint 290. The sun is dropping fast. Mac has made radio contact with our engineers; they have abandoned the company compound and made their way to a safe house (actually the home of their supervisor’s father) on Espresso Street, a well-to-do boulevard so named because it has the only Starbucks within five hundred miles. The only problem is that Espresso Street has become the epicenter for whatever conflagration is currently consuming the city.
We approach from the west, so the sun is behind us. We can see Iranian-badged Hind gunships overhead, putting out rocket and machine-gun fire—probably at sniper teams on rooftops—and see
the propellant trails of heat seekers and SFRs, shoulder-fired rockets, corkscrewing up in response. I’m navigating by the electrical power lines, which run along central thoroughfares and are the only objects taller than three stories in the city. In an urban firefight, you can’t simply race to the action like a fire truck toward a burning building. You have to patrol up to it, employing “movement to contact,” which basically means keep advancing until somebody starts shooting at you. Our engineers are talking us in over line-of-sight squad radios, which work for two seconds and then break up as buildings and vehicles intervene. “How close are you to the fight?” I speak into my mike.
“We are the fight!” comes the answer.
Espresso Street, when we enter it, is as broad as a boulevard and sizzling with spent shell casings, smoking bricks, rubble, and blocks of concrete-and-rebar and is pocked by craters from which ruptured water-main fluid floods, mingling with raw sewage, garbage, and gasoline to form an inch-deep burning lake across the welcome-to-hell cityscape. We pass one Russian-built Iranian T-79 tank coming out, protecting two gun trucks with wounded regulars inside and on top. Local civilians are running up to my window and Chutes’s,’ shouting that there are snipers on such and such a rooftop or drone swarms above such and such a block. Unarmed boys race on foot toward the action, just for the excitement. We see a press pickup, with “TV” on the windshield in masking tape, zig past a roadblock. Chutes is my driver. The boom box blares Bloodstone’s “Death or Dismemberment”:
Eat me, beat me
WOlf me down and excrete me
I’m here for your ass, motherfucker
Cars are burning in the middle of the street; we’re jinking around downed phone poles. Adrenaline is flooding through me; I can tell
because the pulse hemometer on my wrist reads out at 180/15. But my subjective experience is the opposite. I’m cool. The hotter it gets outside, the cooler I become. This is nothing I can take credit for or claim to have achieved by virtue of training or application of will. I was born this way. When I was nine years old and my old man would wallop the tar out of me for some infraction of his demented code of honor, I would stare up at him icy eyed and not feel a twinge of rage, even though I could have and would have killed him on the spot if I had taken a notion to. I was remote. I was detached. I felt like another person was inside me. This other person was me, only stronger and crueler, more cunning and more deadly.
I never told anyone about this secret me. I was afraid they might think I was crazy, or try to take this other me away, or convince me that I should be ashamed of him. I wasn’t. I loved him. In sports or fistfights, in moments of crisis or decision, I cut loose my conventional self and let this inner me take over. He never hesitated. He never second-guessed. Later, in combat, when I began to experience fragments of recall that were clearly not from this lifetime, I knew at once that these memories were connected to my secret self. They were his memories. I was only the temporary vessel in which they were housed.
This secret self is whom I surrender to now, entering Nazirabad. I become him. I feel fear. At times it threatens to overwhelm me. But my secret self pays no attention. I hear the gunships overhead and see the vapor trails of their rockets. A man must be crazy, I think, to head of his own free will toward that. But at the same time, no force beneath heaven can keep me away. This is what I was born for. I’m geeked out of my skull—and I’m curious. I want to see what’s up there. How bad is it? What kind of fucked-up shit will we run into this time?
In action there is no such thing as thought, only instinct. We blow
past two sharp exchanges of fire and suddenly there’s the house. Our engineers have spray-painted on the compound wall
THIS IS IT!!!
in block letters two feet high. I wave to the other trucks: Keep moving. We can’t burst in or our own engineers or their bodyguards will shoot us, not to mention the wicked stream of fire that is pouring onto the compound from rooftops and circling drones and is now zeroing on us.
“I know the place!” Chutes is shouting across at me. We accelerate past the rusty front gates—seven feet tall and perforated like cheese graters by .50-cal fire—and swerve hard left into an alley. Chutes is bawling across the seat at me. I can’t hear a word but I understand from his gestures: there’s a way in, from the rear, which we can access from one of the myriad cross-channels if we can find it. I’m raising the engineers and telling them to hold their fire when they see the rear gate blow in. “I will throw a flash-bang,” I enunciate with exaggerated clarity into the Motorola mike duct-taped to the right shoulder of my Kev-lite vest. “When you see the flash, run straight out to us.”
Nothing works in combat the way you think it will. It takes us almost twenty minutes to cover the two hundred feet to the rear compound gate. By then our besieged engineers are too petrified to stick a toe out. Snipers are on every rooftop, with rocketmen racing up, more every minute. We break in the gate with our Lada Neva’s tailboard and are just starting in reverse across the court to the rear entry of the house, when one of the security men—a Fijian, no taller than five-foot-two, probably making forty bucks a day—appears in the rear egress, shouting, “IED! IED!” and pointing to the dirt drive over which our truck is about to roll. Three 177 mm artillery
shells sit unburied, big as life, with their wires exposed, lining the south side of the lane. “Brake!” I shout to Chutes. The Fijian dives back into the house, one nanosecond ahead of a fusillade of 7.62 fire that blows the jamb and the security door to powder. Chutes powers the Lada Neva back out through the gate, to safety behind the four-foot-thick main wall. “What the fuck do we do now?”
There’s nothing for it but to go in on foot, blasting every hajji triggerman on every rooftop as we go.
Junk, Q, and I bolt back through the gate. The rear door of the compound is about sixty yards away. We dash past a line of parked Toyota trucks and Tata/LUK compgas cars; I can hear the sheet metal shredding as gunfire pursues us. We can hear Iranian voices everywhere, not just on the overlooming buildings, but on the flat roof of the compound building itself. They know exactly what’s happening. They could trigger the IEDs right now and take us out, but they’re greedy—they want our vehicles, too. We dive into an alley and take cover beneath two gigantic air-conditioning units supported by pipe stanchions. I can hear one gunner on an overhead taunting us in English. Another in a baseball cap pops up behind the roof wall and starts firing. I jack myself left-handed into the clear and blow his head off. “Man!” shouts Junk, whooping.
I’m shouting to the Fijian, telling him we’re coming. “All!” I cry, pantomiming the group. “Run for it!” Does he understand English? I can’t see him. Where are the engineers? The Fijian pops out again, flashing five fingers and a thumbs-up. Again gunfire shreds his nest as he plunges back inside. Junk and I spring out. Hajjis are pouring gunfire from rooftops and upper-story windows. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Junk take a hit and drop. “Go!” he’s shouting. “I’m okay!”
I reach the rear door. The engineers and two other Fijians crouch back in the dimness, which is dense with brick dust and smoke from the pulverized walls of the building. The engineers wear body armor
and blue civilian Kevlars. The security men have nothing thicker than khaki; one dude is in flip-flops. “There!” I point to the alley where Junk and Q have taken cover. “Now!”
The mob gets ten steps and the first 177 blows. It’s the far one, the one closest to the rear gate. The dumb-bastard triggerman has pushed the wrong button. The blast still knocks every one of us flat and annihilates our hearing. I’m in the rear, driving the engineers forward. Everybody’s still alive. My head is ringing like a Chinese gong, but I can still hear the Iranians on the roofline cursing their numb-nuts triggerman. Our gang plunges to cover under the air-conditioning units. Quinones is kneeling between the A/Cs, firing at the V of two tenement rooftops above us. The enemy keeps popping up between clotheslines and satellite dishes. Every time Q pings one and the pink spray blows out of their heads and they drop away out of sight, the engineers yelp with terror and relief. Q and Junk are cross-decking now, firing over each other’s shoulders. We’re halfway to the compound wall, halfway to safety. “Move now!” I shout.
The group bolts to the gate and wall, to Chris, Chutes, and the others. Q and I are dragging one engineer, who has lost sight and hearing from the concussion of the 177, with Junk hopping on one leg and hanging on to one of the security men. We plunge back to safety just as full darkness falls.
Chris’s two Kodiaks, which we had held in reserve two blocks back, have come forward now, ready to take us out. They’re revving in the alley, thirty feet north, in the safe zone shielded by an adjacent building. Enemy 5.56 and 7.62 fire is ripping into the wall above us. Now the rocket rounds start flying; our Lada Nevas and 7-ton truck have to pull back. Someone is helping Junk into the first vehicle. I hear one of Chris’s DSF men shouting in a German accent, “Who? Who’s missing?” For a moment I think they mean Junk. I look over. Junk is okay. Then I realize they’re talking about someone
else. I turn back toward the compound. On the ground beside the air-conditioning units crawls one of our Fijians.
Sonofabitch! The man is in the dirt, clawing his way toward cover. Furious fire rakes the ground around him. I see him scramble face-first into a cooking ditch, just as a full burst from an AK takes him square between the shoulder blades. Both elbows fly rearward, then flop; his neck snaps; he crashes face-first into the dirt. He stops moving. “Brake!” I’m shouting to Chutes. “Q! Chris!”
“Go! Get out!” Chris Candelaria is calling, waving the vehicles to pull back. He has packed Junk’s wound and stripped his own tourniquet, worn lanyard-style around his neck; he’s cinching it around Junk’s thigh as he and the German DSF man help him toward the first Lada Neva.
“We’re going back!” I shout.
“The Fijian. We’re not leaving him!”
A shoulder-fired rocket whistles overhead and blows the hell out of a house across Espresso Street. What little hearing I have left is now gone.
“We’re not leaving without him.”
It’s my secret me who’s talking. He has made the decision.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” This is Chutes, my tightest mate and most trusted brother. He sticks his jaw six inches from mine.
“We’re going back,” I tell him.
Junk curses. “He’s not our guy, chief! We don’t even know who the fuck he is!”
“He’s dead!” says Chutes. “There’s two more 177s in there, waiting to blow!”
Other faces stare at me.
“Leave the body,” cries the Fijian team leader. “The man would say so himself if he could!”
I tell the Fijians he’s not theirs, he’s ours.
Chris Candelaria’s two Kodiaks are hauling ass now; they know we’re targets. Iranian rocket gunners are trying to blow down the building that protects our flank. As their rounds scream in, blocks of concrete the size of bowling balls sail a hundred feet into the air and fall back, crashing all around us. We scramble into the slit trench of sewage. Guys are trying to crawl up inside their helmets. I’m peering around the corner, back into the compound.
Chutes clutches my sleeve. “Bro, listen to me. We got the engineers, we got the report . . . that’s what we came here for.” He points past the gate to the compound, to the fresh enemy streaming in along the rooflines. “We go back in there, somebody’s gonna die.”
There’s no fear in Chutes’s voice. He’s just stating the truth.
I meet his eyes.
“Fuck you,” he says, jamming fresh magazines into his belly rig. “You hear me, bro? Fuck you!”
Back we go. Chris Candelaria comes with us. We can hear the
enemy hooting with anticipation. In the interval they have brought up a Russian PKM, which fires Eastern Bloc 7.62 rounds with a nutsack-shriveling rat-a-tat sound, and these are tearing the hell out of the open space we have to cross. The foe has got his second wind now. He is going after our Lada Nevas and the 7-ton truck, which have stayed behind to cover us. Rockets are zinging across the compound like Roman candles.
We grab the dead Fijian, Chutes does, and haul him facedown from the dirt behind the blown-down cookhouse. The IEDs never go off. Chutes curses me all the way back to the gate, curses me when I bag the security man’s effects and lash them around his waist with 550 cord. And he curses me all the way out of town.
Two hours later, our team has reached safety in Husseinabad, in the fortified compound of an Iranian police chief whose real name is Gholamhossein Mattaki, but whom everyone calls Col. Achmed.
Col. Achmed has his own doctor, his cousin Rajeef. Rajeef has a pharmacy and a little surgical suite in a side building of Col. Achmed’s compound. Rajeef is our team doctor. He supplies all our pills and powders. We call him “Medicare.”
I have driven flat out to Col. Achmed’s, to get Junk (and two engineers whom we discover have been wounded in the dash across the compound) under serious medical care. Our medic Tony is a superb under-fire practitioner, and the DSF tech is good too. But neither one is a surgeon—and neither one has Dr. R’s goody-box of Vicodin and Percoset, Ultram, Fentanyl, OxyContin, and plain old central Asian smack. I also want to bury our Fijian in a site that won’t be desecrated. While our guys rehydrate and wolf down a meal of lamb and lentils, I grab Chutes and Chris Candelaria and organize a powwow with Col. Achmed. We still don’t know who’s invading whom, how dangerous the situation is, or what the hell is happening east in Isfahan and Tehran.
Achmed is not just a police chief and commander in the paramilitary Masij. He is a hereditary tribal leader and a grandson and great-grandson of Harul and Arishi sheikhs; he is responsible for the safety and welfare of several thousand men, women, and children of allied families, clans, and subtribes. He’s a serious man.
“Get out now,” he tells us, in the tone that your favorite uncle would take if he were looking out for you. We are in the third of his four storage buildings. The place looks like Costco. On racks and pallets sit unopened packing boxes of air conditioners and computer printers; cartons of Pennzoil, Pampers, and paper towels. Achmed has cases of Evian water, V8, Gatorade; crates of Nike running shoes, T-shirts, and tracksuits. The IRGC, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, smuggles in half the goods sold in Iran; the stuff comes in, billions of dollars’ worth, by launch and lighter from Kish and Qeshm, “free trade” islands across the gulf, via the port of Bandar Ganayeh—not to mention whatever the colonel’s minions have
looted from ExxonMobil and BP. Guns and ammo are everywhere, in and out of crates—M4-40s, mortars, boxes of 5.56 and 7.62 NATO cartridges. Col. Achmed’s family, he tells us, is packing up. The women and children will flee to southern Iraq and then to Syria. Achmed’s sons and goons fill the room, armed to the teeth. “Don’t wait even for morning,” the colonel tells me, Chutes, and Chris. “If you do, you and your men will be massacred.”
I ask him who will come after us.
“Me,” he says with a smile. “Everyone.”
Col. Achmed explains.
“They will not be able to help themselves. First they will come
for your weapons and everything of yours that they can steal, then for honor, to avenge the humiliation you and your countrymen have inflicted upon our national manhood simply by your presence and your blue eyes. Next they will come to get you before others do, for the greatest honor goes to him who strikes first, while those who hesitate will be accounted cowards.”
I ask him what will happen in the next week or ten days. He gives it to me in Revolutionspeak, but the gist is this: Shiite Iran— meaning those Revolutionary Guardsmen, army colonels, patriots, tribesmen, and true believers who have been biding their time throughout this long, phony war will unite now with their Iraqi Shiite coreligionists and, casting off the yoke of the West and its hirelings, strike east along the arc of the Shiite Crescent that runs from the Dasht-i-Margo—the Afghan Desert of Death—across Iran to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (not coincidentally the swath of real estate that contains the richest petroleum reserves on earth) and purge this land of those who do not belong or believe.
“Do my men and I have time,” I ask, “to finish dinner?”
Achmed’s tribal code mandates hospitality. He helps us bury our Fijian, though he insists, first, on declaring the man a convert to Islam (which Col. Achmed can do, being a mullah as well as a tribal
chief, and to which none of our Fijian’s mates objects to under the circumstances), then tops off our fuel tanks and loads us up with Neda spring water and sixteen-ounce cans of Beefaroni. One of Achmed’s sons brings a tray of delicious homemade sohan—pistachio candy.
Col. Achmed maps out the safest route to the frontier (the one he’ll be chasing us on) and helps key into our GPSes the sequence of junctures—all unmarked desert and mountain tracks that we could never find without his help. Dr. Rajeef rigs mobile hospital beds for Junk and our two wounded engineers; he stocks us up with two dozen vials of morphine, plus sample packs of Demerol and Dilaudid with sterile syringes and a hundred ampules of methylephidrine, which we all need in our exhausted, postadrenalinized state.
We take our leave over cups of black Persian coffee. It’s midnight. Our engines idle beyond the walls in the night. Achmed and his men leave us alone, for our final prep and words for each other.
“Chief.” It’s Chutes, stepping forward before the others. “I’m sorry for what I said back there in Nazirabad…”
He apologizes for refusing, at first, to go back after the Fijian, whose name, we have learned, is Manasa Singh. Chris Candelaria seconds this. I thank them both. It takes guts to speak up in front of the others. The act is not without cost to proud men. I appreciate it and I tell them.
The men surround me in the headlight-lit court. Safety lies two hundred miles east, in the dark, across country none of us knows— back valleys and passes peopled by warriors who will know where we are, how many we are, and where we are heading. Every one of us knows this, and every one feels the fear in his bones.
“Because we went back when we didn’t have to,” I say, “we know something about ourselves that we didn’t know before. You know now, Chris, that if you fall, I won’t abandon you. I’ll come back, if it
costs me my life—and so will Q and so will Junk and so will Chutes. And we know the same about you.”
A bottle makes the rounds.
“The contract we signed says nothing about honor. The company doesn’t give a shit. But I do. I fight for money, yeah—but that’s not why I’m here, and it’s not why any of you are here either.”
From inside the compound, Col. Achmed and his sons listen. Two hours from now they’ll be hunting us as if we were animals. But for this moment they know us as men, and we know them.
“What we did today in Nazirabad,” I tell my brothers, “would earn decorations for valor in any army in the world. You know what I’ll give you for it?”
I grab my crotch.
Chris Candelaria laughs.
Chutes follows. The whole crew shakes their heads and rocks back and forth.
You have to lead men sometimes. As unit commander, you have to put words to the bonds of love they feel but may be embarrassed to speak of—and to the secret aspirations of their hearts, which are invariably selfless and noble. More important, you have to take those actions yourself, first and alone, that they themselves know they should take, but they just haven’t figured it out yet.