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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

A Corpse in a Cesspool

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David Finkel has written a stunning article about Iraq for The Washington Post, telling the story of Army Maj. Brent Cummings' and a rotting corpse in a Kamaliya sewage pit.  It is a story that reveals, as Jessica Lynch would say, the true heroism of our soldiers when the hype is stripped away.

Finkel's description is a window onto a moment that damages a soul, a snapshot of the exact moment when President Bush's brutish policy grabs hold of an American soldier and ruins his life. 

Even stronger than that, Finkel's piece is the most respectful, honest and utterly devastating description I have read of the madness our soldiers face everyday in Iraq. 

Reminiscent of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Finkel tells the story of one Army officer trying to remove a corpse floating in a cesspool beneath an abandoned Iraqi factory--a task that needed to be completed so that the Army could turn the site into a U.S. military outpost.  Along the way, Cummings tries to find a balance between military objectives, local culture, human feelings and omnipresent deadly violence -- between Muslim customs, the well-being of resident families, the mental health of U.S. soldiers, and the reality of a world where every object and every inch of land must be treated as an unexploded bomb.  And after all this balancing, all these difficult decisions, all the problem solving, all the good that a group of young soldiers can try to do for the world -- it all turns out to have been in vain, useless, for naught.

Although Finkel never criticizes directly, the rotting stench of Bush's kingly intransigence seeps from every page of  Army Maj. Brent Cummings' story.

While the article relays the absolute humanity of our soldiers, it also turns a corpse in a cesspool into a metaphor for the entire Bush policy in Iraq.

Finkel opens with a description of the task at hand:

"We can't get anybody to get Bob out. No one wants to do it," Army Maj. Brent Cummings, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said with worry one recent morning as Bob's story began unfolding. Cummings was looking at an aerial photograph of an area in east Baghdad called Kamaliya, where there was an abandoned spaghetti factory with a hole in the courtyard, a hole in which some of his soldiers had
discovered Bob.

Bob: It's shorthand for "bobbin' in the float," Cummings explained.

Float: It's shorthand for "two to three feet of raw sewage," he further explained.

Bobbin' in the float is shorthand, then, for yet another lesson in the comedy, absurdity and tragedy that is any moment in this war.

(full text here)

Absurdity and tragedy, indeed.  But the struggle between Cummings and "Bob" is more than just a portrait of the madness of war.  It is a description of a daily routine of unthinkable tasks that transpire in a setting that has -- literally -- been transformed into a seamless landscape of bombs -- social, cultural, political and military bombs.

Altogether, each task carried out by our soldiers requires a level of managerial foresight and military understanding that would send most people over the edge before they even woke up the first morning.

Finkel describes this hell as faced by Cummings:

Bob was found as a result of the new strategy of trying to secure Baghdad by temporarily increasing the number of troops and moving them into neighborhood outposts. After the soldiers identified the spaghetti factory as the best place from which to secure poor, rough, dirty, insurgent-ridden Kamaliya, they began clearing the factory in order to move in.

One day, in one area, they found 16 rocket-propelled grenades, three antitank grenades, 11 hand grenades and 21 mortar shells. Another day, they found 14 more mortar shells. Another day, they found the makings of three roadside bombs. Another day, they found a square metal cover in the courtyard that they thought might be booby-trapped. Ever so carefully, they lifted it and found themselves peering down into the factory's septic tank at Bob.

The body, floating, was in a billowing, once-white shirt. The toes were gone. The fingers were gone. The head, separated and floating next to the body, had a gunshot hole in the face.

The body, it was quickly decided, would have to be removed before the 120 soldiers could move in. "It's a morale issue. Who wants to live over a dead body?" Cummings said. "And part of it is a moral issue, too. I mean he was somebody's son, and maybe husband, and for dignity's sake, well, it cheapens us to leave him there. I mean even calling him Bob is disrespectful. I don't know. It's the world we live in."

He paused.

"I'd like to put him in a final resting place," he said, "as opposed to a final floating place."

But how? That was the problem. No one wanted to touch Bob. Not the soldiers. Not the Iraqi police. No one.

(full text here)

This is not a situation anyone should face.  It is not a choice anyone should make.  To force someone to carry out this task -- to even be faced with the responsibility of solving this problem is an experience that changes a person forever and not for the better. 

But even in this madness -- amidst this decision that can only result in madness--one wonders how Cummings and the soldiers he commands have survived up to this point.  One wonders how they survive each ten minute period of the day living in a world where everything visible and invisible must be treated, and feared, as the very thing that will explode and kill everything in its path.

Finkel captures this horror through a description of Cummings' trip to see the corpse:

Days passed. The need for the soldiers in Kamaliya increased. Bob floated on. One day the skull sank from view. Another day a local Iraqi speculated that there might be more bodies in the septic tank, that Bob might simply be the one on top.

Finally, with no easy solution in sight, Cummings decided to go see Bob for himself.

How easy is anything in Iraq, such as a short drive to a spaghetti factory? A combat plan was drawn up, just in case. A convoy of five Humvees was assembled. Body armor was strapped on. Earplugs were pushed in. Protective eyeglasses were lowered into place. Off the convoy went, slowly, never exceeding 15 mph, because slow and steady is the best way to find a roadside bomb before it explodes, unless it is a bomb with a particular kind of trigger that is best defeated by flying pedal to metal. Yard by yard, decision by decision, the convoy advanced, past trash bags that might be hiding bombs, along dirt roads under which might be buried bombs, and now past something unseen that, just after the last Humvee in the convoy passed by, exploded.

No damage. No injuries. Just some noise and smoke in the air. The convoy kept going, now past a dead water buffalo, on its back, grossly swollen, one more thing in this part of Baghdad on the verge of exploding, and now the Humvees stopped against a high wall, on the other side of which was a yellowish building topped by a torn tin roof banging around in the wind.

(full text here)

No matter how cautious they are, no matter how alert, no matter how slowly they move or how quickly, whether they move forward or backwards or up or down or not at all -- the bombs explode.  They.  Are.  Everywhere. 

And we as we read this description--we wonder in a way that makes us sick before we get to the next paragraph -- if there is a bomb in the decaying water buffalo just as there is a bomb in the corpse floating in the cesspool.  We wonder if the effort by Cummings to make things right, to be respectful, to be a good person -- will it just end with the very thing he seeks to help turning into the object that kills him.

In the end, it does not turn out that way.  Cummings makes the choice to pour lye and bleach into the cesspool.  Cummings assures local Iraqis in Kamaliya that the new American outpost is there to help them, not to displace them.  Cummings returns his men to the base, safely.

But that was only one day.  Despite it all, the next day crushes everything:

That was Monday.

And then came Tuesday, and a phone call in the morning from Jager, who had received a call from the factory owner's brother, who had received a call from someone who lived near the factory.

Cummings hung up.

"The spaghetti factory has been blown up," he said.

It was only a first report, he cautioned, but the report said that there were a dozen men, and they were armed, and they wore masks, and the explosion was huge.

"Gone."

(full text here)

A waste.  No point. No purpose.  Forced to deal with the most unspeakable horror, to brave the worst violence -- to no end.  Nothing accomplished save for a fleeting moment of good will towards a local family blown up less than 24 hours later.

Bush's policy is indeed a corpse in a cesspool:  a corpse in a cesspool that our soldiers risk death each day to clean up, only to learn hours later that the entire block has been destroyed.   

And the next day it happens all over again.

Ultimately, many of my cinematic preconceptions of a failed and useless war sunk out of site as a result of reading this Finkel piece.   It is worth spending some time to read it all the way through and to circulate to friends, and family.

A corpse in a cesspool. 

(cross posted from Frameshop)