Outgoing Fire in the Night

E-mail Harrigan

July 25, 2006 10:12 a.m.
Fallujah, Iraq

There's a big difference looking at these Iraqi soldiers, as compared to the ones we saw last winter. They walk differently, with much more confidence. The ones we saw last winter were new recruits.When the Iraqi base in Fallujah came under fire this week, the Iraqi soldiers ran back to the base to defend it. They were running to the battle.

I went off the main chow line because 130 degrees Fahrenheit is too hot for fried chicken. Instead, I went to the pasta bar. The midnight chow, also a staple here, begins at 11:30 p.m. It's scrambled eggs, sausage, cherry pie, and lots of iced tea to stay awake.

There was a large boom last night, and while I was in my bunk I thought to myself, it is far away. The next boom shook my head a little — it must have been outgoing. The next one after that shook the bunk and it made a squeak. I said, "Oh F" aloud, but softly. Then, I thought about waking Rudden, who can sleep through anything. After the next boom, I said, “Pete,” but he kept sleeping.

I looked up through the darkness and imagined all the possible places the mortars could hit, but then I turned in bed and changed the subject. After a hotel got hit in Baghdad, little Raf said that one night he just stared at the ceiling waiting — and he's not a good sleeper to begin with. If you go down that road you could end up like Triple R, sleeping in the tub with a mattress on top of you. 15 booms later, I realized they were outgoing — steady outgoing — hitting somewhere out there in the dark.

July 23, 2006 3:16 p.m.
Fallujah, Iraq

I got on an elliptical machine in the gym. There were five across — three silver and two black. The two black ones were occupied; they must be better for some reason. The Tyra Banks Show was on the Armed Forces Network on a big screen in front.

There was a large boom off to my left.

It may have been a controlled detonation, which is when the military regularly destroys captured explosives. It usually happens at the top of the hour, and it usually happens in the daylight. It may have been outgoing artillery; no cause for alarm. Or it may have been incoming. I glanced left.

The woman on the elliptical was not looking around, nor was the guy on my right, who had iPod headphones on. No one seemed to sense anything out of the ordinary, so I kept running. A few seconds later, there was another boom. It was hard to tell just what it was over the sounds of the machines and The Tyra Banks Show.

The Tyra Banks Show was following the standard format of choosing a model — all the models come up and one gets rejected in front of everyone.

There was another boom.

Each of the models had to act out one line that said, "If I don't get it, I will die."


I looked at the elliptical counter. In seven minutes, there had been 11 explosions. I always counted them. People took large bottles of water from a fridge and put in warm ones. "If you take one out, put one in," the sign read.


"If I don't get it, I will die." The models were not convincing. Their black and white still photos looked good, but when they had to talk it all disappeared. They were nowhere near being able to say, "If I don't get it, I will die." Not like that Korean hostage they killed. They had him plead on the air first.

I found the PX and realized I had been there a year ago. When I was inside, I remembered there was a mortar attack and everybody paused for a second in the fluorescent air-conditioned world, then went back to shopping. I walked by a building where I remembered taking cover during another mortar attack. I got between two concrete walls of the building, away from the glass, squatting down as low as I could go, until the lieutenant who was escorting me came and found me. That attack had killed one man in the camp.

A year or two ago, when you embedded, you (maybe) got a green cot that you had to put together to sleep on out in the hallway of a palace. Maybe you had a fan, if your producer didn't point it towards himself after you fell asleep, and in the morning you sweated through the green cot. Now there were containers, trailers with air-conditioning, and bunk beds. There were high-speed Internet connections. But at night, when you went to bed there were still explosions. They were off in the distance.

July 21, 2006 1:40 a.m.

“I didn't talk until I was three. I had nothing to say.” — Johnny Fumbles

I've been thinking about two things I learned from war correspondent Peter Arnett. One was to eat bananas wherever you go. They are the perfect war zone food, he said, because they are peeled, they are clean, they contain no groundwater, which is often contaminated, and they soothe your stomach.

The other thing he said was that he saw a lot of correspondents go down because of drinking. I never saw him drink at all. I don't think he liked it. He liked being on TV and in wars.

When Arnett was in his early 60s, I went with him to Chechnya. We had to go over some rocky hills on foot. We spent the night in Basayev's brother's house, the guy who was just killed. Several Chechen fighters were out cleaning their weapons in the late afternoon, sitting on the grass around Arnett, who sat in a chair. Someone knew who he was, and they were asking about Vietnam.

Someone asked Arnett when he first thought it would go bad.

"Two hours," he said. He had gone on patrol upon arrival, he said, and the soldiers he was out with had to hold hands to avoid getting separated in the jungle.

Just heard the first explosion on this trip. Only Z and me are up. He is working on a small stack of orange-tinted Pringles. He knows a lot about weapons.

"Pretty close," he said, "mortar round incoming," then went back to his computer.

July 20, 2006 7:50 p.m.

I never liked briefings. The last time I left Fallujah, it was supposed to be by air, but the weather was bad, so it was a ground convoy. It was a big convoy and a big briefing, with one officer up front with a display on an overhead projector. Most of the display was attacks — different colored stars for different kinds of attacks, little red stars for IEDs, little gold stars for small arms fire.

Along the route we were supposed to drive, there were exploding little stars all over the place. One star was on top of another, gold and red in a blur of attacks. I thought about canceling, waiting for the weather to clear. The major with me smiled when he looked at me.

Just talking about stuff like that made you have to remember to breathe. The last briefer I had showed photos of attacks. When he talked about something particularly dangerous there was a little "ohm" sound at the end of the sentence, a slight musical note, a tic of death.

"That Route Ten is no joke, ohm."

I would wait for the ohm, and when it came, it was bad.

July 19, 2006 7:43 p.m.

I knew where the men's room was at Baghdad airport. You had to make a quick right before passport check. I entered and broke right, but the door was locked. It used to be attended. That's all right. After the passport line there was another on the left. Locked too. Then a guy with a rifle pointed out a door in the distance... light from an open room.

It is one of the effects of fear. On the 40-minute ride to the airport, Rudden and I didn't talk. On the plane still no talking, although I did manage to kill two flies, bringing my total on this trip to TWO. I killed them both with right backslaps against the window... the second one took several blows to stop and I fear I may have alarmed some of the passengers with my repeated strikes against what, for them, may have been an unseen foe.

So to the plane no talking, on the plane no talking, then on the ride to the place we stay in Iraq, no talking. Today I loosened up my jaw a little. I had been locking my teeth together. We went into the Green Zone to pick up passes. Rudden started talking about old westerns and I worked out a sign for us, a wipe of one finger across the nose, which would mean, "no talking." I also noticed when I took off my armor and walked in the sun I slouched, trying to make my body smaller, as if not standing up straight would help.

July 18, 2006 10:00 a.m.
Amman, Jordan

By U.S. standards, the driver was late. By U.S. standards, the checkout was slow. The phone rang throughout the checkout, the ring seemed very loud, and there was no one to answer it.

The man ahead of me had to pay for his alcohol. He had two Amstels. I had to pay for my chocolate. I had one Kit Kat, one Twix and one Swiss bar.

The last time I remember staying up all night was to finish a paper in a New Testament class in college.

Russians sit on their suitcases before a trip. I turned off the TV, sat on the edge of the bed, closed my eyes, and prayed for a safe ride.

July 17, 2006 4:36 a.m.
Amman, Jordan

Johnnie Darts told me I'd be up until 7 a.m. the first night, and until 5 a.m. the second night — then he laughed on the phone. He was calling from Baghdad in a war nobody cared about.

The old section of the hotel here in Jordan, where people used to smoke cigars and drink beer, and locals on cell phones used to meet their dates, is all gone now. Gone, too, is the Bulgarian string quartet that once made the heart of Slim Fagen skip — it's all been walled over after a suicide bombing.

There's just a white wall now where once there was joy, time, pleasure, and smiles. That place has all disappeared. I walked over to look for it, to see if anything remained, but the white wall was all there was.

July 12, 2006 1:05 p.m.
Knoxville, TN

I was lying on the couch watching TV, and a news report came on about people who were dragged from their cars in a part of Baghdad and being shot.

The best crossword puzzle-solver I ever saw was my friend Fay, who hated outside interference. I once asked him if he ever met a puzzle he couldn't solve. He thought for a few seconds, then said no.

I didn't mind outside interference, which I had this morning from my Aunt Hush and my mother.

There were doughnuts, milk and coffee. The day before was bacon and eggs. I had put in the request for two newspapers, so Hush could work her own. I called out when I needed help, on the "bearded gnu." I looked across from my big chair with some satisfaction at Hush, who had the Arts section of the paper twisted into a knot, looking for support on a titanium knee and dealing with multiple cross-outs. The cause of the satisfaction was a clipboard.

My mother had asked me the day before if I needed anything to prepare for Iraq. I said yes, I needed a clipboard. Her lack of surprise, or even a question, showed her long experience in dealing with eccentric personalities. We went to the mall, tried Hallmarks and were referred to Walgreens. I left the air on in the Town Car, made a finger and thumb into a pistol and told my old ma I'd be out with the cash.

I found the stationary aisle and saw them hanging, dull brown — I tested the give, and made my purchase. Ideally I would have had scissors, too, although they are difficult to travel with. I could have cut out the puzzle in a near-perfect square and filled it in, error-free.

E-mail Harrigan


Good to hear from you! I prefer the cryptograms rather than the crossword puzzles.

South Carolina

Two Steves: Your mother's son ... and mine. Same place; same time.
Godspeed Steves.

Lehigh Acres FL

Dear Steve,

Your blog brought a smile to my face today. I used to work in a small rural hospital ER, and crossword puzzles were a favorite during our "slow" times. It was a collaborative effort, each person contributing their bits of knowledge until we could at last gaze upon the completed project. We were especially fond of the Sunday crosswords, which would sometimes last into Monday or later if we were really busy. I now work in a major medical center, still in the ER. "Slow" times are rarely, if ever, found there, but the ritual of the crossword is practiced with just as much enthusiasm.

I read you are headed back to Iraq. Stay safe and keep your head down. You and yours are in my prayers...always.


Dear Steve,

My family are also huge crossword puzzle fans, and my dad is a devoted clipboard user. They only let me play if they are well and truly stuck, so I guess that I am pretty good at it too. I still prefer pencil though, with a white eraser. The guy who invented those disposable mechanical pencils has my undying gratitude. One can't always carry a pencil sharpener. Since scissors are hard to travel with, get one of those clipping cutters, I think that maybe Barnes and Noble have them, or maybe Levinger.

I don't go to war, but I am a substitute teacher, and they are a great help there. The kids seem to be impressed that I know so many words, and I need something to do and yet be able to keep an eagle eye on them (middle schoolers). We have been spending the last month at the hospital waiting for my brother to decide to get better, and they are a comforting ritual there too. As I say to my son: Follow the rules, be safe, have fun.

Houston, Texas