“So has anybody come to the office?” Investigator Wang said as he twirled a buckle of spaghetti noodles around his plastic fork.
Jeremy told the story of Jamal Izz ad-Din. When it got to the part where sand was dumped on his farm, Investigator Wang stopped twirling his fork and shook his head. “That poor man,” he said. “What a sad story.”
“He was pretty adamant about getting compensation for his losses.”
Investigator Wang raised the spaghetti to his mouth. “We don’t give compensation.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Any compensation that’s given out will be a matter for the future Iraqi government to decide, not us. The military might give compensation for property loss or accidental death or injury in a few months, but that will only apply to incidents that have taken place since May 1.”
“You mean the official end of the war?”
“Exactly. We can’t be responsible for what happened during the war. But there shouldn’t be that many claims anyway. You’ve been out there, you’ve seen how precise our weapons are. You’ll see a shwacked tank right next to an elementary school and the building hasn’t suffered a scratch.”
Jeremy remembered the tanks along the road to the mass grave.
“The other day we saw a demonstration of Johnstone’s new Bio-detector,” Investigator Wang said. “If we keep making things like that, collateral damage will soon be a thing of the past.” He still hadn’t taken a bite of his spaghetti, a shiny orange spool coming apart at both ends. “Anyway, we’ll be announcing the Human Rights Abuse Report Form over Freedom Radio this week. A lot of people will be coming to the office to share their stories. I hope you can be there to listen.”
“Of course. Working with the Iraqis is the reason I came here.”
“Glad to have you on board.”
Anybody not working for the military or the CoG who wanted to talk with a CoG representative such as Jeremy had to go to the Convention Center, and the only way to get there was through three different checkpoints. Checkpoint Roy Rogers was outside the Convention Center door; all visitors presented photo ID there and most were body-searched. Checkpoint Gene Autry was at the end of the driveway leading to the Convention Center. Photo ID was required there, but pedestrians were not searched because the soldiers were mostly worried about cars heading for the Convention Center’s parking lot. Cars were examined with a mirror fitted to a long pole and if the soldiers ever needed to stop a vehicle they could pull a lever and steel teeth would spring from the ground. Down the street from Checkpoint Gene Autry and the Al-Rasheed Hotel was Checkpoint John Wayne, the first hurdle for visitors from the outside world. Starting at the intersection, people heading for this checkpoint had to enter a long corridor made of concertina wire. This passage was not designed to protect visitors from insurgents who might profitably target the location, but simply aimed to keep the Iraqis in a single-file line. Some Iraqi visitors could not stand the indignity of waiting their turn, so they ignored the corridor and strolled right past it, calling for the soldiers to let them through. The soldiers had no time for these people and quickly learned a few Arabic words and hand gestures that were effective in sending them away. Dismayed that they were not given special privileges, the assertive Iraqis trudged to the back of the line where they began pushing the people ahead of them for a better position; clothing was torn and hands were sliced open as people grasped the concertina wire to keep from falling down. In the shaded search area ahead, a soldier kept an eye on these visitors through the sights of a mounted machine gun. Another soldier squinted through binoculars, constantly anticipating a sniper’s shadow or a truck full of explosives rushing their way. The checkpoint’s three or four other soldiers dealt with the Iraqis directly and their Iraqi interpreter ran back and forth, trying to help them with a language that sounded like everybody had sandpaper in their mouths. When the next visitor was invited to approach this shaded search area, the designated ID expert would ask for photo ID. But not one designated ID expert in the entire US Army could read a lick of Arabic; to their eyes, the national Iraqi ID card was handwritten in a meaningless scribble and could have been counterfeited by a clever child. Some Iraqis worked in the building, and upon showing their separate building ID card they were body-searched and sent along to Checkpoint Gene Autry. Others stated that they were there to look for a job, but the CoG had stopped hiring people on a walk-in basis so these people were sent away.
Occasionally there were opportunities to work as a security guard at one of the important facilities in the city. The date to apply for these jobs was set in advance and posted outside Checkpoint John Wayne, but some Iraqis invariably got the date wrong, then the Army changed it, so for three or four days before and after the original date hundreds of unemployed men would stand in the aching morning sun, talking and smoking and patiently ignoring repeated announcements that nobody would be hired that day. After several hours, the Iraqis would gradually realize that the Americans had fooled them into wasting their time. Their frustration would simmer, then boil: the men would scream, bend to their knees, chant at the soldiers and shake their fists, spit thick, thirsty saliva at them, shout elaborate insults about their mothers’ genitals and sometimes even charge the checkpoint to seize the missing jobs with their own two hands. The soldiers expected these collective expressions to erupt into violence at any moment, so they held their rifles before the would-be public servants to keep them at bay. After about an hour these demonstrations would wind down; the Iraqis would cry once more about the abuse of their rights, sling final epithets at the Americans and dissolve in the afternoon heat.
When the real hire date came, the soldiers would plan to accept a number of candidates in advance, such as 150. But the real hire date attracted at least as many Iraqis as the false hire dates did, and rather than wait in line they trampled each other inside the concertina wire corridor. Frightened, the soldiers would accept the first 150 men they could point to and the losers would spend the next hour demanding a recount. Some of these men were appeased when the soldiers told them about the next projected hire date, which they understood as a bonafide promise that they would be chosen at that time. The rest were weary veterans of the security guard employment lie, and although they had waited outside the checkpoint too many times to count, they were too invested to give up now. As the afternoon came on, these dejected men dragged their feet homeward to ponder the Americans over another plate of lentils and rice.
The 150 lucky ones would be shepherded into a line and made to show their ID cards. At least ten of them would not have brought any, so these men were escorted outside and told to come back next time. The interview over, the 140 remaining men were led into the Convention Center to start their training program. This was where the real screening process began: on one occasion an Iraqi woman on her way to the Human Rights Investigation Office shrieked upon seeing one of the men, certain he was the mukhabarat officer who had raped her years before. The security guard training program lasted two days. During that time, the idle Army truck drivers taught them how to administer choke holds and throw people to the ground aikido-style, how to say useful English phrases like “I love your big ass, baby,” how to open, cook and eat an MRE and even a few elements of military educational curriculum, such as the five steps to identifying a suspicious individual and the ABCs of combat psychology.
Visitors often told the checkpoint soldiers that they wanted to enter the Convention Center because they had an appointment. Sometimes it was enough to mention a department or a person’s name and other times the soldiers demanded a written invitation. The requirements for entry were updated every few days, but they changed so much and so often that many soldiers were unable to remember what was current procedure and forgot when things no longer applied. Even worse, every six weeks the unit managing the checkpoints was replaced with a unit that had never run a checkpoint at all. In their first week on the job, these intimidated newbies assumed their responsibilities with draconian rigor: shaking down old women for a full hour in 120-degree heat, confiscating all shiny objects and shouting at anyone who addressed them. But they quickly became jaded and by the fourth week were changing entry requirements themselves by capricious decision. Many Iraqis were rebuffed for “rude behavior.” Others were sent away for being “fucking retarded” or with the advice to “go get a haircut. You embarrass me.”
Anxious to get out of the ferocious sunlight and over to the safe side of Checkpoint John Wayne, when asked why they wanted to enter the Convention Center the Iraqis would babble, say nothing as they tried to think of the perfect answer or give several unrelated reasons in hopes of striking the right chord. All three responses were anathema to the soldiers, who indulged freely in their own fears but did not allow fear in others and assumed that everyone spoke the same dialect of American English as they did and was fluent in military acronyms and jargon. The Iraqi interpreters were clever and learned to adapt to the soldiers’ speech patterns, but sometimes they were too clever and willfully misrepresented Iraqi visitors they didn’t like. For this reason, most Iraqis tried to avoid the interpreter and speak English, but they were often so ineffective that the soldiers sent them away. Once refused, an Iraqi might cite a new reason he wanted to enter the Convention Center, such as to speak with his brother Ahmad, who worked there.
“Ahmad, huh? Which department does he work in?”
“Oh, he is working with the Americans.”
“Yeah, but which department? You’re not answering the question, dumbass. Hey Muhammad, come over and tell this guy he’s a dumbass.”
Then the interpreter would come over, smiling with a younger brother’s eagerness to impress his elder and explain to the would-be visitor what a colossal dumbass he was. It was all so much, and at least once per day the soldiers succumbed to the cumulative effects of the Iraqis’ pestering and the dizzying throb of the heat and brandished their rifles, screamed at the interpreter and screamed at the whole goddamn mob of hyperactive, lying, dirty, scheming, fucking Iraqis who kept coming and coming, day after day for these past few weeks that already seemed like years, while every day the sun grew hotter and hotter, hotter and hotter until one day it would melt the whole world, melt all the animals and people into puddles of sweat, crisp the plants into dust and suck up the oceans in one great gale of solar radiation.
Because misunderstandings were endemic and so many Iraqis were unable or afraid to express themselves, and because so many people were rejected and everyone who was rejected made a dramatic and creative appeal, the line moved with torturous slowness, like the cars in the streets outside, like the shadows under the expansive Mesopotamian horizon, like the polluted waters of the Tigris River. Every hour or so the line would come to a halt while someone delivered an extemporaneous speech on why they needed to enter. Occasionally the soldiers let these people talk themselves into a terrible thirst before turning their backs on them and quite often a soldier felt sympathy for the other Iraqis waiting in line and forced the hold-up away. Every day it was all of these things, in a variety as predictable and as constant as the exhaustion of a job that the soldiers had never imagined existed when they signed up for the National Guard back home. As for the Iraqis, whether grumbling and strong-arming their way forward or burying themselves in the crowd so they could not be seen and punished by members of the resistance, all were performing one more exercise in a lifetime of thwarted plans. All were accustomed to wasting their time; all had PhDs in Futility.
“Interpreter, what the fuck he saying?”
“He says he was tortured by Saddam and he wants to report this crime. He was tortured in 1999. They cut him with a knife.”
“Nineteen ninety-nine? That’s a hell of a long time ago. Come back when you got something more up-to-date.”
“But please, mister,” the man said, staggering from the soldier’s shove, his dirty t-shirt hanging from his wide but lean shoulders, his full black beard dewy with sweat, the pink mouth within it opening to try and explain himself directly in English, because the Iraqi interpreter couldn’t be trusted. “Mister, I… I want… go in!”
“I said get lost!” the soldier said, sending the man off-balance with another shove. “Who’s next?” He waved the next man over. “What kind of horseshit you got for me? Come on, cough it up.”