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Playing Call of Duty in Baghdad

Richard Weiss | 5 Nov 2013 09:00
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Lunch is over. I'm walking back to work, and I'm almost out of my apartment when the first one hits.

In Baghdad, you become a connoisseur of bombs, able to tell the type and size by the sound it makes, and the way they feel. This feels like a car bomb - those, especially the really big ones, thump you in the chest.

Then the second. And the third. It isn't a car bomb - it's just that close. The rockets make an awful descending moan as they pass overhead, and when the fourth slams home, I can feel it in my teeth. My windows rattle in their frames. Five, six. They're getting louder. Getting closer.

Seven, eight. Five. Adrenaline disconnects my mental abacus. Sternum to the tile, I start giggling through clenched teeth. The duck and cover alarm sounds, an afterthought.

Then it's over. My brain reconnects. I scramble to the blast-hardened part of my apartment and wait for the all-clear. I'm cold, though I don't get the post-rush shakes, like someone said I might.

About a dozen 107 millimeter rockets hit Baghdad's International Zone that day, including a few on the U.S. Embassy compound. That night, I Skype a friend back home.

"That felt nothing like Call of Duty," I say.

You become a connoisseur of bombs.

Like most Americans, I derived my concept of war from entertainment. War was a series of tropes stretched between mediums, assimilated by watching Tom Hanks storm the beach at Normandy, and then storming it myself in Medal of Honor. Grizzled sergeants, nervous lieutenants and faceless, dehumanized enemies filled out the mental portrait. It was brutal and harsh, but also triumphant, heroic, even noble. It was, at least, always a spectacle.

I loved it. My friends, civilian and military alike, loved it. In the States, we played Call of Duty to dabble in inherently unimaginable death and destruction. We died a thousand times, and still, the story sprinted to its gasping conclusion. It was fireworks - all pop and flash, no wumph in the chest.

After the lunchtime rockets, I tried to process the fact that someone I'd never met had tried to kill me. The seriousness of their effort was debatable; 107mm rockets are low-yield and inaccurate, and seldom inflict mass casualties. Rocket attacks hadn't killed anyone at the Embassy in almost one year.

Yet thinking about it I could feel myself shrink reflexively in my chair, trying to make myself smaller. I strained to properly remember the descending moan of the engines. It wasn't like anything I'd ever heard before; it was both terrifying and thrilling, which left me wondering whether I wanted to go immediately home, or stick around to hear it again.

I came to Iraq as a civilian, enlisted as a short-timer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the biggest and most expensive diplomatic mission in history.

It was brutal and harsh, but also triumphant, heroic, even noble.

More than 10,000 diplomats, security guards and support personnel crowded onto the hundred-acre compound in Baghdad's heavily-fortified International Zone (née Green Zone). Look one way, and it was a normal diplomatic mission, full of paperwork and bad coffee and weak-chinned middle managers. Look the other way, and it was a parade of armored trucks and private security guards, all bristling with shiny black guns.

Excursions into the Red Zone - the world outside the IZ, known to normal people as Baghdad - were treated like Call of Duty missions. Diplomats wore body armor over their suit jackets, and traveled in convoys of armored SUVs. Diplomatic security agents panned the alleyways and traffic jams for bad guys looking to make a big, smoking CNN headline out of their Land Cruiser.

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