…must have been psychologically exhausting. Kudos, then, to VQR copyeditor David Caligiuri. It’s not that the text presented unusual challenges—there were no side-by-side poetry translations, no essays about Finnish bodies of water—but that the Winter 2007 VQR, section for section, was one of the most intense periodicals I’ve ever read.
I’ve had my copy since Christmastime, but the image of a Nigerian burned by the oilfield flame behind him, well, it was intimidating. I finally sucked it up today and read the issue. I can’t imagine being Caligiuri and not having the luxury of skimming or altogether skipping passages that got to be too much.
The issue’s feature was Oil in Africa. It opened with four essays—two on the Nigerian Delta, one on new-to-oil Equatorial Guinea, and the last on Chad. By the end of the first, your own anger and pity is laid bare. By the end of the Chad piece, you’re ready to set fire to every drop of oil in the world, if even that were an option.
Then—THEN!—you’re launched into David J. Morris’s exemplary essay on Marines in Iraq (full-text available on the VQR site). While it ends with a rehashing of the obsessions of reporting on war, the intimacy Morris communicates, the images of Ramadi he is able to evoke, make you almost heartsick.
So I am in awe of copyeditor Caligiuri for having to read three hundred pages of passages like this:
Sometime in the early morning of April 17, 2006, local al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents attacked it in a style that had never been seen before in Iraq but that clearly harkened back to the 1983 Hezbollah attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut—an assault that had precipitated the US withdrawal from Lebanon and was later cited by Osama bin Laden as one of the primary examples of American impotence. This assault began when a yellow dump truck filled with an estimated 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives crashed into the earthen barrier surrounding the Marine position and detonated. Dozens of explosives-laden suicide vehicles had been staged along the highway, waiting for the inevitable American reaction forces that would be dispatched to reinforce the post. The force of the blast at OP VA was so great that everyone who heard the explosion assumed that all the men who were there had been killed instantly. I was told by several marines who were in western Ramadi at the time, “There was no way anyone could have survived that blast.” They inevitably paused for dramatic effect, “No fucking way.”
In quick order, teams of insurgents with RPGs and machine guns moved on the American post, engulfing the building in a hail of fire. For a period of time that no one can pinpoint exactly—time becomes a staggeringly malleable commodity in combat—there was no return fire, and the absence of any radio traffic from the marines there led many to conclude that the position had been lost. What no one in authority knew at the time was that almost every man at OP VA had been knocked unconscious by the raw concussive force of the dump truck explosion. Survivors spoke later of waking up to a desolate, last-man-on-Earth feeling that gripped them as they looked around and saw dozens of their comrades lying immobile and presumably dead. Many veterans of the battle whom I spoke with claim to have no memory of the blast whatever and simply recall waking up to the gut-clenching whoosh! sound of RPGs impacting into the sides of the building. Visibility inside the OP was down to two feet. Most of the men made their way around by touch.
One by one, the marines at OP VA stirred from their involuntary slumbers and took up positions around the building. The outgoing fire, which had at first been a goose egg, then a trickle, within an hour had turned into a hailstorm, and it wasn’t long before the marines had suppressed the various teams of insurgents who had besieged the compound.
As the battle turned, Marine noncoms began taking a head count, trying to get a sense of the casualties they were looking at, and were flabbergasted to discover that no one had been killed or seriously wounded. It was beyond miraculous. The barrier system, created with an ample stand-off range, had saved them. Like most firefights in Iraq, the battle for OP VA ended with an ever-increasing volume of fire emerging from the American position followed by the insurgents fading back to their urban hideouts. In terms of ground held, nothing had changed in Ramadi.
Still, no one who was there and who repeated the story of the attack had outlived the mystery of his own survival or found a way to express his dark fascination, bordering on nostalgia for it. Each acknowledged the sheer horror of it and the fact that had the attack enjoyed even slightly better luck or a few more elements in its favor, it would have proven disastrous to the marines. At times in the retelling, the story seemed to possess these men and they struggled with the impossibility of conveying the intensity of the experience to others who had not been there. It was, as with so many things in Iraq, lost to the vapors and the shadows beyond human knowledge and yet inescapably central to the experience itself.