By Brian Turner, from My Life as a Foreign Country, out next month from W. W. Norton. Turner, a veteran of the Iraq war, is the author of two books of poems, Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.
My unit trained to fight in Iraq, in part, by conducting field exercises out in the high desert country near Yakima, in eastern Washington State. This was in 2002. I remember an overcast day, my squad on the slope of a low ridge covered in dead, waist-high grass. Some of the men sat in the grass and drank from the tubes of their CamelBaks. My machine gunner, Barnes, a self-proclaimed Flori-baman, said, “Goddamned if it don’t ever cool off in the daytime here. Jesus H, Sergeant, I swear — it’s hotter’n a French whore in N’Orleans, even with the cloud cover.”
It was about this time that a soft-shelled Humvee drove up and parked with its wheels turned at a hard angle, ready to leave in a hurry. A thin, older man stepped out from the passenger side and half-waved to us in a gesture that said, “No need to get up, men” — though none of the guys had moved from their stations in the grass. He was an unexpected sight: dressed in jeans and a light windbreaker, dark sunglasses, and an Army baseball cap. The man introduced himself as Colonel Wardynski. Smiling and shaking my hand, the colonel asked how we were doing and went on to explain that they were developing an online computer game for the Army and that they’d like to “grab audio” and get some video of us, if we didn’t mind. The colonel’s driver, leaning against the Humvee in his pressed green combat fatigues, lit up a cigarette and gazed in full boredom at the rolling landscape. In the middle of nowhere — “Bumfuck, Egypt,” as Barnes often put it — the colonel’s presence and request seemed like a bizarre intrusion, as if we’d suddenly discovered ourselves on a television game show, part of some elaborate hoax. Dog-tired, salt-crusted, most of the men down to their final few cigarettes or worse, we stared at the colonel and didn’t really know what to say.
“America’s Army. That’s what it’s called, men. And we’re going to put you inside the game. You’ll be one of the characters.”
As acting squad leader during the mission, I was asked to step away from the squad and into the burned summer grass, where Colonel Wardynski began filming me with a handheld video camera. He didn’t use a tripod. He simply aimed the camera at my face and upper torso before lowering the camera down to my boots. He repeated this process for each side view and for the back. He then held a digital recorder near my chest to record me depressing the button on my squad radio, asking me to say a few common phrases. I said, “Bravo Team, move!” and “What’s your status? Give me an up.” I said, “Suppressive fire!” and “Talk the guns!” and “Roger that.”
I’ve often thought back to that day in Yakima, when Barnes later stood atop a ridge, arms fully extended, his M249 hanging from its shoulder sling, saying to the sun dying on the horizon, to all of us and to no one at all, “From this day forward and for all time, I proclaim everything that I can see, from here to the Pacific Ocean, as the Land of Barnes.” And I’ve wondered about the digital version of me, Sergeant Turner, wandering through the wreckage of war, year after year, calling out to the others in the game, shooting at blurry enemy combatants, crawling through the grass, running through the ruined streets of unnamed cities and villages, scanning through the scope of my rifle for the silhouettes framed by windows across a digital river. I’ve wondered at the things I’ve seen there, the things I’ve done, the soldiers beside me moving forward when I say, “Bravo Team, move!” The Bravo Team leader calling out to me, moving his team forward and deeper into the shit every time I tell him to “Move, move, move!”
At three a.m., when I’ve finally drifted off to sleep after curling up with my wife in our bed in Florida, someone in Saginaw or Portsmouth or Kettleman City steers Sergeant Turner into the firefight, the radio squelch unmistakable before my voice cuts in, eyes scanning the pixelated alley ahead, faded laundry hanging out to dry on the balconies above while a medic in a nearby room treats the wounded, whom the squad and the game will soon leave behind. And when Sergeant Turner takes a knee, the battlefield assumes a certain calm. Flies buzzing. A dog barking in the distance. It is a world where the wounded don’t bleed and the orphaned don’t wail in anguish and confusion.
And the enemy dead — they are left facedown on the hard soil they come from, not one of them rising to follow Sergeant Turner through the streets and fields of this phantom world.