When I was 24, I watched a small white car through the 4X scope attached to my M240B machine gun. The weapon rested on the wall of a rooftop on the outskirts of the city of Tal Afar, Iraq. The street down which the car drove was otherwise empty, the United States Army having previously informed the citizens of Tal Afar to evacuate their city or find themselves caught between military-strength deadliness and the people toward whom that deadliness was meant to be applied.
Though the day was hot and hazy, and I had been awake for all but a few of the preceding 48 hours, it was unmistakably clear that from a window of the small white car the occupant of the passenger seat had unfurled a white flag of truce. This was plain even without the aid of magnification provided by my scope. Through the scope, I saw a man in the passenger seat and a woman driving. They were old, and though I can’t say with any certainty how old, their age registered immediately as an important characteristic. Old people rarely try to kill American soldiers. I believe this to be both historically true and true in that place and at that time. Old couples waving white flags of truce from windows of small white cars are exceedingly unthreatening, even in a place like Tal Afar in September 2004, where many of the young men were very dangerous, including and perhaps especially us.
Someone said, “What ya got, Powers?” And I said: “Nothing. Just an old couple trying to get out.” There were perhaps a dozen people on that rooftop, some of whom I knew about as well as you can know a person, others whom I had only met a couple of days earlier. I think someone got on the radio but I can’t say that for sure. I do know that none of the people on that rooftop were afraid of the old man and the old woman in the small white car. Some distance away from us, perhaps on another rooftop, another group of soldiers had been watching the same white car, though I did not know that yet.
I don’t remember how much time passed between my saying, “It’s nothing,” and someone in that other group of soldiers opening fire, but it was likely less than 10 seconds. And I don’t know why they did it. But I know that .50-caliber machine-gun rounds tore into the small white car and tore into the old man and the old woman until the small white car stopped moving and the old man and the old woman were both dead. So it goes. They have been dying in my mind every day for the last 14 years. I suspect they will do so until I’ve exhausted my own days on this earth. This is my moment trapped in amber. [Continue reading…]