Metaphors Upon Greeting Mosul, 2004, by TJ Reynolds

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, December 21st, 2015

"...a crowd of men whose eyes speak of an honest and well-earned hate."

tj reynolds iraq war essay nailed magazine


Metaphors Upon Greeting the City of Mosul, 2004


A man in a bank – suddenly – finds himself with no pants on. They’ve been stolen or their absence was somehow not noticed, until this very moment. His world collapses in self-conscious reverie and he prays to God for help. God answers. A gunman steps into the bank lobby and shouts “Nobody move!”

The man is cured.

I think I knew what might and could happen when I joined the infantry; I guess the only real surprise was how it felt: an oddly arousing sting of bank lobby AC passing over and around my bits. I must be the guy with no pants then. The story I’m telling is one where I’m holding a gun, though, so maybe I’m the gunman too.

We hadn’t been in Mosul long, a few weeks at most. I was the rear vehicle’s gunner, which meant I was ponderous, a sweating target every time we left the FOB. Naturally, I attempted to control my fate by worrying. My periphery began to fill with phantom insurgents. Especially in those first few dozen patrols, I’d find myself amped over a spooked chicken’s feathered explosion or a hat hung wrong in a doorframe. Fear insists on invention. Everything in this light becomes suspect.

A pile of tires adorned by a knot of plastic bags, chalk marking the curb below, seems fishy as hell through the right lens. If you consider every danger in a city of two million, the only right move is to dig in, shoot everything that moves: 360 cyclic. We’d heard that the Campbell boys who we’d replaced used to roll that hard, actually had squad leaders saying it was SOP; it had gone a long way with the hearts and minds of Mosul. When we got here, the people already knew how to hate us.

We weren’t given as much freedom.

We drove and walked around waiting to be shot at or blown to pieces: movement to contact. And of course, gunner out the hatch that I was, it was inevitable that I would be the one to make that contact. The rest was waiting and imagining. I had learned to expect men and young men, and we’d heard tales of women soldiers as well. This seemed fair enough for war, I’d cap a bitch in a heartbeat, was a common boast. We tried to prepare ourselves, but some things are simply unimaginable.

I was pulling guard, my 240’s bipod legs resting atop one of the sandbags that lined my hatch. I made a tall and distinct profile. Still, the neighborhood felt more likely to hide soldiers than a lurking bomb. I had better chances being exposed, but agile, fast enough to pivot and, God forbid, shoulder fire my badass machine gun. I was, if anything, a badass gunner or so I’d make myself believe.

As the platoon did something routine behind me, I watched the empty road along with one other soldier, a man whose name I’ve lost. We watched and the vehicles idled.

I remember huts made of mud and straw, the oldest compound. I think there were children, and the houses seemed like they’d been built all at once, their structures too similar and their spacing too precise to happen organically over time. Why had this three-acre patch of pasture been transformed overnight into a neighborhood? Who was moving in? More importantly, where were these people now?

The vast stillness of the place, made uncanny by the new structures, seemed tangible. I felt convinced we’d be ambushed. The week prior, on our first convoy into the city, we were hit by a daisy-chained IED. It malfunctioned though, and only the firing caps went off. Three pops in a row, and one rock fragment hit my squad leader in the hand. We had been surrounded by children. Forty or fifty at least. What an awful pyre that would have been.

At some point, something caught my attention. I held the pistol grip of my 240, pointed to our six, and craned my head around behind me. We were moving slow, creeping forward. Since entering the city, I’d become increasingly aware of the possibility of someone grabbing my weapon. It is hard not to think of this when driving through a crowd of men whose eyes speak of an honest and well-earned hate.

It was as I looked behind me, as I held my gun by a single hand, as I was stretching back and away from the alley I was supposed to have been watching, that I felt my gun pulled away by an inexorable force. Whipping my head back to confront my attacker, I thought only to hold on to my gun, my lifeline.

Then I saw my adversary: a thousand-stranded bundle of electrical wires. I don’t know how many TVs and coffee makers I pissed off that day, but I’m not sure if the wires thought I had it in me. I was forced to use my highest degree of beast strength to hold on as my gun lifted up and away from me. The soldier next to me had started screaming at the driver, but we were slow to stop; I was out of the hatch up to my thighs, holding the pistol grip with my right hand, and still ready to rock despite the angle of my disarray.

Soon, I’d untangled my iron sight from the mess of wires. My thoughts of ambush and Al’Qaidi vanished. That was when the embarrassment kicked in.

I’m pretty sure now that the anecdote about the pantsless man in the bank is useless. It should have been about being scared and then embarrassed afterward. Like if the man’s only option was to pull down his pants to save a bank full of people from an armed robber. Then after he’d exposed his manly wonders, he realized there was no robber at all. That might be equivalent.

Seems less likely though.

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 TJ Reynolds mosul iraq essay nailed magazineTJ Reynolds has had his short fiction and poetry published in Ash and Bone magazine, UC Davis’s Writing on the Edge, and online with Ant vs. Whale. Two poems and a non-fiction essay have also been accepted for publication this winter by O-Dark Thirty magazine and next spring in The Hour After Happy Hour Review, respectively. From 2004-2005, TJ served as a machine gunner in Mosul, Iraq, fueling his drive to witness, write and record the world in ugly, beautiful truth.


Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.