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This might be an abuse of PoetryZoo - it's a short story, not a poem. I hope you can forgive me!

Camp Victory

Screen_shot_2017-12-05_at_08.50.24by Patrick Howse10 Dec 2014

The civilian airport was closed.

He had to use the military base, a bloated bit of Texas airlifted into the desert.

He left the office before six to try to beat the early rush of bombs. Only a final blast of thinned adrenaline was keeping him awake.

He peered over the drivers’ shoulder from the back of the beaten-up Kia van they used as low-key transport to see anything. Sweating uncomfortably in his flak jacket, now and again bumping painfully against the armour plates concealed inside, he coddled his groin with his blue ballistic helmet.

The air-con made a lot of noise but no difference to the dark sweltering steaming interior. Frozen bottles of water would be loaded before a trip, and by twenty minutes in, they would have melted. They would be warm on the return journey. But for him, today, there would be no return journey; he was going home on leave.

He felt mildly sick.

At the last checkpoint he noticed a large watch tower, incongruously painted with jungle camouflage: sand stretched away in every direction.

“Why did they bother camouflaging that watch tower?” he asked his tough, ex special-forces minder, who was covering up his AK47 with a Arab headscarf.

“What watch tower?”

The reply was dry, without a hint of a smile.

They all giggled. It was said that this was the most dangerous road in the world.

Now, at the American base, there were three hours to kill before the flight might come. It was already very hot. Once the stress of the journey was over, he began to wilt, his shoulders sagging.

There were lines of skips and shipping containers, some with ration packets, others for the piles of rubbish generated by the base’s fast food outlets. Only in the very far distance could he see any trees; all else was sand.

Behind hescos - the giant cubes filled with sand which acted as blast walls - there were rows of fiercely air conditioned tents where traumatised infantrymen could look at their laptops, watch films, and wake sobbing from nightmares in the middle of the night.

There were wooden steps up to the portacabins that housed the shop, the PX. Later he might sneak in and buy US military tee shirts he wasn’t entitled to have. The best he’d seen was from the Marine Corps, with the slogan ‘Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body’.

In front of a row of administration buildings he noticed an area of golf-ball sized stones, set out in a neat triangle, the sand on all sides packed down beneath a thin scattering of cigarette butts and detritus.

He laid his flak jacket on the gravel, balanced his rucksack on top of his helmet as a pillow and made himself comfortable.

Music had kept him going throughout the trip. It helped him to distance himself from his surroundings; they made a soundtrack to his film.

Green Day had helped him train on the bureau's running machine, and Arvo Part had helped him go off to sleep after seventeen hour days of bombs, reprisals, sectarian killings and unleashed militias. American Idiot was brilliantly appropriate to the time and place, and Part's Summa was Beauty parachuted into Hell.

He listened to it now as he lay back on the damp and smelly flak jacket. All about him American soldiers, marines and airmen loitered, scuffing the stones with their feet, smoking and waiting for their planes home.

The music soared in his ears, graceful swirling simplicity. In the painfully bright sky giant transport planes were circling the airfield, making their corkscrew descents to avoid insurgents taking a pot at them with RPGs or small arms fire.

The music and the hot breeze and the merciless sunshine exhausted him.

He was dreading getting home, at the same time wishing the journey was over and he was already there. He hated the days of futile readjustment to normality: the cars stopping at traffic lights; the temperatures below 40 degrees; his family. He hated the ignorance and complacency he would encounter in Britain. He had come to Iraq to make his country understand what was happening, but he had failed to even make his colleagues in the London newsroom get it.

A hundred people had died every day of this trip. He had the smell of bombings in the back of his throat. He could taste it now - part burning rubber, petrol, rubbish dump and piss.

“It’s not enough dead”, they said, but later they had insisted on a report about the crash of a British helicopter in which two Britons had died.

He remembered running by the Tigris with his bodyguard and watching a body being dragged from the reeds. It left a slime trail over the stone embankment, and stared to Heaven, looking in vain for mercy, a hole drilled in its forehead, hands tied behind its back. They had carried on running, then turned and run back, swerving round the body and its salvagers.

He had tried to dismiss one request with a caustic line: “if we did that, everyone involved would end up dead”. But his email bounced back seconds later with the reply “does that mean you won’t do it?”.

He looked at the young men and women around him wasting their time, walking up and down, lining up in their units to be briefed, lining up to be marched away to their waiting planes. How many of them would be unchanged by their experiences? How many were damaged, and how many of them would take that out on the people who loved them?

The hanging around, the hurry-up-and-waiting for the next thing, the next stage, the next part of the journey, when they could all have been doing something useful like playing with their kids, kissing their sweethearts, stroking their cats, walking their dogs, decorating their spare rooms or washing their dishes.

And then there was someone standing in front of him.

A tall black NCO, arms akimbo, was staring down at him.
He pulled the earphones out and squinted up.

"Sir, you're not allowed to lie on the stones.”

He looked at the two stripes on the soldier’s sleeve, and wondered if that meant he was a corporal.

"I'm sorry corporal, I don't understand, what's the problem?"

"You're not allowed to lie down here, sir."

"Oh, sorry.”

He began to struggle to his feet.

“Why not?”

"I have NO idea sir".