It is easier to understand the destruction of a human body than the destruction of a city. To fully comprehend a town in ruins, you need a before-and- after shot, some solid reference to what was once there. Or at least a tour guide, someone to walk you through the remains of a neighborhood and tell you how tall the buildings used to be, who lived there, where they worked, and where their kids played.
You don’t need that with a body. When you see a person carried into an emergency room on a stretcher, his pants ripped at the knees like cutoff shorts and what appears to be piles of ground chili meat spilling from the tattered cloth, you know what is gone. You know what a leg is supposed to look like.
These are the things you think about in a place like Ramadi. I spent the last two weeks of January there watching a lifelong friend from Austin, Navy Commander Carlos Brown, perform trauma surgery at a military hospital. He took in casualties almost every day, Americans and Iraqis, warriors and civilians, alone and in groups up to sixty. They suffered from wounds caused by accidental gunshots and stray mortar fragments and homemade bombs that were packed in lorries or buried in the ground and ruthlessly calculated to hurt as many people as severely as possible. Carlos had been in Ramadi for four months at that point, his time spent continuously on call for critical care and thus split between saving lives and missing his own family back home.
As I watched him operate day in and day out, two thoughts, two seemingly contradictory ideas, kept coming to mind. The first was an unexpected realization of how resilient a body is. When a doctor performs surgery, he does real violence to a person. Take an amputation. With the patient unconscious, the mangled limb is lifted from the table and tied to a length of gauze that is fastened to a hook in the ceiling. The arm or leg is stretched out and cleaned with a thick, mustard-colored antiseptic that is painted on with sponge brushes. The dead flesh is cut off with scissors, the bone is sawed with what looks like a carving knife, muscle is scraped away from the bone with a chisel, and veins, arteries, tendons, and nerve endings are clipped with an electrocautery tool that fills the room with a flinty, campfire smell. What is left is then washed with a device that looks like a cross between an electric eggbeater and a water pick, every bit of the stub getting sprayed and scrubbed before the surgeon takes a curved needle and a strand of silk thread to close a flap of flesh around the nub.
When you watch all this, you instinctively wince. Then you marvel at the beating our bodies can take.
The other idea runs the opposite way, to the fragility of life. When a surgeon pulls a mortar frag that’s a quarter of the size of a postage stamp out of a casualty’s chest, announcing that this tiny piece of metal has opened the soldier’s aorta and that he probably won’t make it, you start to think about how dumb luck can be. You try to picture the attack in your head. You see a group of soldiers walking down an empty dirt road strewn with debris and lined with crumbling brown buildings. There’s a small cardboard box lying on the ground that they don’t notice, and it explodes in a ball of fire. You slow down the scene to find that one piece of frag as it floats through the air, sailing toward the soldier on a line that happens to run right through the armhole of his body armor. It pokes through three layers of shirts, piercing the skin and slicing through the bright-red meat underneath to clip the front side of the thick, white artery and come to rest against the soldier’s sternum.
Viewing the scene is like watching the Zapruder film each November, hoping every time that the outcome will be different. But it never is. In the scene in your head, the soldier always leans exactly the wrong way. If he’d moved a hair’s breadth in any direction, he would have been spared. But he didn’t, and he wasn’t.
Still, picturing it this way helps just a little. It lets you get your head around the event, gives a little logic to how this death happened.
It tells you absolutely nothing about the reasons why.
CARLOS AND I WERE HALFWAY through our first day together in Iraq before it mattered where we were. I arrived at his base, Camp Ramadi, shortly after three that morning, on the third Tuesday in January. The place was cold and covered by a fat layer of mud that refused to let go of your boots. When I knocked on the door of his “hooch,” a military term that avoids the leap in logic necessary to call the place where a serviceman stays “living quarters,” he’d mumbled a groggy, “Hey, Spong,” as if I was waking him up for an exam when we were roommates in college.
When he turned the light on, I saw that all the Carlosian trademarks were in place: the forehead, the chin, and the pigsty room, with piles of dirty clothes and stacks of papers and books dotted by half bags of Doritos and Diet Coke empties. The only noticeable effect of his deployment was that the clothes on the floor were tan desert cammies. Once he’d finally shaken the sleep from his head, the rest of Carlos emerged, the shrill, cackling laugh, the excited declarations of the obvious, and the incessant stream of questions that typically had no answer. In this instance, the flow was the same exclamation and query over and over: “I can’t believe we’re in Iraq together! What are we doing here?”
Carlos Brown is one of the oldest friends