Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mind of Mansel: JR & I in Iraq, Part 9

(Note: Parts 1-8 below.)

If you took the weight of the ocean that erupts in pain at the slightest breeze from across the world and threw it at a child and then took notes on the impact you'd see before your very eyes what war can do. Those notes would be the propaganda you could use to turn the tide on the floor of the U.S. congress and that propaganda could sustain any rationale of turmoil or loss or life. Sound irrational? In the young year of 2007 the political landscape of the world has become the wall that mankind has been backing up towards since the beginning of time. The spear flies through the eye of the storm, through its splendour and blue skies, through the calm and bereft moment of wreckage only to land as the clouds begin to darken and the rains re-approach from the east.

There is no soundtrack on the ground, "boots on the ground" as they say. No combat photographer in khaki has a camera crew following him or her around making sure they are captured in the right light as they help the wounded child to safety or as they seduce the Catholic missionary in the dimming light of the battlefield. War is ugly, it is obscene and the sounds you hear are the screams and the sounds of gunfire, the recoil. If you listen close enough you can hear the gunman next to you change his field of vision, not because you have spent so much time together in a war zone or in that distinct battle but for the fact that your senses are so heightened that your fears are leaping so far from your skin they erupt like the ocean with the slightest breeze from the gunman's movement from across the room.

Jack and I had been in many situations before where our lives were in danger and we had been in situations where we were so compelled into an idea that as we moved along with the story we ached for adventure or excitement.

On the campaign trail, following presidential candidates we would often sneak away from the subject and do what the industry calls a "human interest" story. You've read that line before and wondered what that means. It's not slice of life or inspirational as you might think. A hardened newspaper or wire service editor will call it a story about a nobody, a worthless sidebar or whatever he can come up with at the moment until it gets picked up or noticed. Then you are gold.

For instance we did a story once on a midnight shooting about a woman who was shot two blocks away from a hotel where a candidate was staying. It was a parallel piece. We mirrored their movements. As the candidate was taking the stage and fluffing out his speech she was being struck by the first shot. As the candidate told the first of many jokes in his speech the cartilage in her leg exploded and severed the nerve in her leg and she began to bleed uncontrollably.

When the story was presented the next day we were attacked from one end of the country to the next for sensationilizing the candidates visit to that dear city. We were told directly not to come back. This was the way we felt as we raced ahead of a grenade in Iraq in the back of a car with a family who's only thought earlier that day was survival.

As we each grabbed a leg and the man cradled her head we hurried as best we could out the back of the house. The noise was unbelievable. We could hear the private security forces shouting in english behind us. I was bleeding and all I could think about was their safety and Jack's and going back out the front of the house and somehow returning fire with whatever I could find. I had been shot at before by americans in my own country but not in Iraq. These were criminals, government sponsored thugs who were sure to get away with murder if we didn't do our job.

As we got outside the man's family was cowering in the front of the car mindful that we had to get the now deceased matron of the family into the backseat. I've never helped to put a dead body into a small car, especially one that I had to ride in also. I looked up and Jack's expression was of hurt and anger. He was quiet which was unlike him in a situation of stress but I was aware that he was focused.

As we got her into the car the man noticed that my hand was bleeding. In poor english he took me by the bicep and said, "Wait, here."

He reached into the backseat and tore a piece from the old woman's dress and wrapped it around my hand and tied it there. I couldn't move I was so struck by what he had done. Tears sudenly and immediately streamed down my face. The man padded me on the arm and shook Jack's hand and motioned us into the backseat of the car.

I looked at Jack and he looked at me. I couldn't do it and neither could he. There was no way we could crawl inside on top of the woman even if it meant that we would be shot at any minute. That was the difference between people like this man and his family, people like Jack and myself and the people who were terrorizing this country from both sides. We were good at heart and could not and would not break the simple and fundamental means of life that make us who we are.

We motioned for him to get in the car and go. He tried and tried to get us to get in but we said no.

Jack stammered, "No, take your family and go! Go! Go!"

As we watched the man drive away his son turned around in the front seat and watched us with no expression. I don't think he had any idea what was taking place but it saddened me to know that this boy would remember it all some day. War is no place for a child.

- Chris Mansel