“Alarm red, alarm red, alarm red. All aircraft and vehicles will hold their position until further notice. The airfield is currently under attack.” The radio crackled to life with the startling announcement. The gravity of the situation was made more chilling simply because of the matter-of-fact tone of voice in which it was said; the woman speaking into the radio may as well have been taking an order through a drive-thru window as declaring the imminent possibility of death for servicemen on the ground in Iraq.
Our plane rumbled to a stop as commanded by the monotone voice on the other end of the radio, and an expectant silence filled the cockpit. Glancing outside, we saw men and women scurrying across the parking ramps towards the concrete bunkers. The follow-me truck in front of our aircraft screeched to a stop and the driver threw himself onto the pavement and covered his head. After a few moments, our cockpit was filled with nervous laughter as we watched the driver get up from his position on the taxiway, jump into his truck and accelerate towards the bunkers, come to a stop, and run inside. The obvious distress of the driver contrasted sharply with the placid command to hold position just received over the radio. We laughed at the driver’s behavior, not so much because his behavior was amusing as because it provide a release to our own anxiety as we sat patiently in our own giant, winged, target.
It’s been said that when an Iraqi base is under attack, your odds of surviving being hit are exactly the same whether you stay in the same place or move towards shelter—apparently the insurgents don’t have access to precision-guided munitions. Still, there is something a bit unsettling about sitting still, waiting for an explosion, and hoping you’ll live to remember the sound of the explosion.
Fortunately for us, after what seemed an interminably long period of time, normal operations were continued. The insurgent shells fell short of their intended targets, and the air base quickly came to life. Trucks began to roll across the ramps, aircraft taxied to parking, cargo was loaded and unloaded as planned, and off-duty soldiers picked themselves up, brushed the dirt off their shirt fronts, and went back to killing the time in their own way, until the time would come for them to kill something else.
This war we are fighting sways in the balance. Its final outcome remains to be seen, and the world holds its breath, hoping for a comedy rather than a tragedy. National and international politicians, pundits, and generals argue over the proper ends and means of American foreign policy while eighteen year-olds dive for shelter every day on the hot pavement of a former Iraqi airbase taxiway, or into holes in the unforgiving Iraqi desert. The alacrity with which the soldier jumps will effect the decisions being made at the top of the chain of command; whether through adding to the body counts touted on the evening news or through bolstering the efficiency estimates and progress reports sent up to the military commanders.
The juxtaposition of such facts would be amusing if they weren’t so real. That every moment matters while also seeming so mundane should make the onlooker laugh or cry, or perhaps do both. We, the American soldiers, are daily waiting for our leaders to decide. We are many degrees removed from the cool and austere halls of power, but are only inches from danger and death.
“Alarm red. The airfield is under attack…would you like fries with that?” Sometimes the most grave situations are also the most absurd, and tragedy is only once or twice removed from comedy.