I began to write Zarqawi’s Ice Cream shortly after leaving the army…not because I wanted to, but because I had to. The process hasn’t been easy. Recalling these tales has ensured that my head remained in that world long after returning to civilian life. Is it possible to ever fully reintegrate into civilian life after two tours in Iraq? Maybe not. Nonetheless, purging these war stories from my mind and onto paper has been a much-needed catharsis to putting the past behind me. Those who have served will understand; those who haven’t might not.
The following is a passage from Chapter One: Call to Adventure. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.
“Goldsmith, tell me a story about Iraq.”
“What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“I dunno, a good story.”
“You want a funny story? A sad story? A war story with a lot of action?”
“Any story—your best one.”
My best story—that’s asking a lot. Should I talk about the IRAM attack or Ranger School? Should I depict the nobility of Moneyshot or relive the guilt of blowing that poor lady’s finger off? If I had to tell one story, one epic tale to sum up years of debasement and triumph, of groveling servitude and absolute power, of stagnation and explosive growth, what would it be?
“How about ‘Zarqawi’s Ice Cream’?” I say. “So late one night we—”
“Wait! Zarqawi? Wasn’t he a terrorist or something?”
“Oh, yeah! The evilest guy in Iraq, and that’s saying something. So then the ramp drops and—”
“Did I ever tell you my friend’s sister’s fiancé is going to Afghanistan next week? He’s in the Air Force.”
Nobody likes a war story. It won’t get you laid, convince the cop to give you a warning, or get you a free pint at the bar. The veteran gets excited telling his epic tale. He expects acknowledgment, understanding, love, or something deeper. All he gets is a vacant stare, an abrupt and nervous change of subject, or no response at all. Sometimes his listeners are horrified. This guy’s a monster! He can read it on their faces. Acts of heroism, cowardice, and senseless butchery are seared into a soldier for eternity. Entire lives can revolve endlessly around a single commendable or odious event. Truly lost soldiers are forever in search of the great war story.
“. . . And then Scooter says, ‘How’s it smell, bitch?’”
“Yeah? And then what?”
“That’s it. That’s the end of the story.”
“I don’t get it—why would he do that?”
“The bullets, the explosions . . . they messed with his head.”
“See, we were all under a lot of stress, and . . . guess you had to be there.”
These tales provide a glimpse into the life of an infantryman, into an existence that is extraordinary yet mediocre—a world most people will never live in or understand. Warning: it is a masculine world devoid of feminine sentiment and solace. It is also a bigoted world, charged with the irrational hatreds of combat. The infantry life is schizophrenic: withering heat and biting cold, sloth and inhuman exertion, exultation and shame. The infantryman loves and hates his life with equal passion, and he is never far from death. There is unique pride in the struggle that forms the core of the infantry experience, boundless love in the brotherhoods cemented in the wilderness.
“Who do you think is the best unit?”
“I don’t know: Rangers, Eighty-second Airborne, maybe Tenth Mountain.”
“You know who I think is the best unit?”
“The men I went to war with.”
The men in these war stories didn’t capture the world’s most wanted terrorist, get in any major battles, or wade waist deep through the enemy dead. They were never seriously wounded, didn’t storm any machine gun nests or win any flashy medals. By anyone’s standards, we were mediocre infantrymen. So what did we do? We managed to survive some of the harshest conditions on earth, suffered bouts of insanity, and weathered the assaults of our enemies. We did what our country asked of us, stayed faithful to each other, and came home again. And through it all, we never lost our humanity.
Were heroic deeds done? Absolutely. Are there heroes in this story? Certainly not. We are your sons and your soldiers. These are our stories.