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The warden of Fallouja

Taking charge of a detention center in Iraq? Here's what you need to remember.

March 04, 2007|Mike Carlson | Mike Carlson served as the officer in charge of the Camp Fallouja Regional Detention Facility from March 2006 to October. He is now a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Central Florida.

[ 1 ]

They're not prisoners, they're "detainees."

It sounds better, as if they're merely inconvenienced rather than shoehorned into cinderblock cells, thumbing their military-issued Korans and waiting to be interrogated. One-third are innocents caught up in sweeps; one-third are jihadists who will slit your throat, and one-third are opportunists who will rat out their neighbors. You will hold them for 14 days, no more, while the interrogators try to figure out who is what. Each gets a CF, for Camp Fallouja, and a four-digit number. No names will be used, mainly because numbers fit more easily onto spreadsheets. They will be forever known as entas. "Enta" means "you" in Arabic, and that's what you call them day after day, meal after meal, port-a-potty call after port-a-potty call. "Enta, ishra mai," you say, and the enta drinks his water, and if you say, "Enta, ishra mai kulak," he drinks all of his water, every drop, and holds the bottle upside down to prove it.

[ 2 ]

It's not personal.

The enta who screams "meesta!" every 10 seconds for 48 hours straight isn't doing it to infuriate you, his captor. What it boils down to is that he can't pronounce "mister," and he was carrying that 155-millimeter round in the back of his pickup, and he was going to try to blow you up, and the reason he was picked by the insurgent leaders to haul the shell is that he's soft in the head, which is why he cannot stop screaming "meesta!"

The major who watches NASCAR races on satellite TV in his air-conditioned office at the battalion headquarters while you and your Marines march entas to and from the latrines in 120-degree heat isn't doing it to antagonize you, his subordinate. Frankly, he's just over here for the retirement money, and he didn't want to be in charge of four regional detention facilities in Al Anbar province any more than you wanted to end up as the warden in Fallouja. He wants to keep his head down and forget about the fact that if one, just one, of your Marines snaps and goes Abu Ghraib on a detainee, his pension is out the window.

[ 3 ]

You won't fire your weapon in anger.

You'll fire plenty of training rounds. You'll be awakened nightly by outgoing artillery shells being blasted into the ether a mere 400 meters from your tin-can hooch, where you fall asleep to the drone of your air-conditioning unit and the faint yelps from the sergeant-next-door's porn videos.

Your fingers will ache from absently squeezing the grip of your M16A4 during endless nighttime convoys, transporting detainees from Fallouja to Abu Ghraib or Camp Cropper. The only illumination in the back of the truck will come from the red-lens flashlight you pan across the entas to make sure none of them have wormed loose from their flex cuffs and hatched a plot to kill you.

Your truck will stop one night outside Abu Ghraib. You will wait for explosive ordnance techs to clear a suspicious burlap bag. Because there are so many bombs, you never know how long you'll sit exposed on the road. During the second hour, CF-4562 will ask you in perfect English if he can pee. You will escort him to the edge of the road. When he thinks you aren't looking, 4562 will slink away from you and your rifle. You will immediately see through such a feeble escape attempt, and here, outside the site of America's shame, this enta will be one sandal step away from giving you an absolutely justifiable reason to finally click your weapon's selector off of "safe."

You will raise the muzzle slowly with muscles that ache from humping 60 pounds of body armor and ammo and water and Quick-Clot coagulant, but before your thumb moves over the safety, you will automatically say "kiff," Arabic for "stop," because it's been drilled into you as part of the rules of engagement. You will want to shoot, and 4562 will hear that in your voice. He will stop. He will manage a feeble stream of urine before you shoo him back aboard the truck.

[ 4 ]

You will be a constant target outside the wire.

A green beam of light will dazzle you through the Cyclops lens of your night-vision goggles as it streaks toward the armored sides of your truck. You will grit your teeth, and the rocket-propelled grenade will hit, and then, by the grace of some malfunction, it will only gouge out a divot from the big green plates, an errant golf swing's worth of metal. You will pan your rifle barrel across the garbage-strewn fields and pockmarked buildings, but you will see nothing, just a stray dog scurrying away from the tiny blast. A feeling of anticlimax will wash over you, of one beer short of the perfect buzz and a throw just wide of the catcher's mitt. You are a Marine and trained to kill, but you can never find any insurgents to shoot.

[ 5 ]

You will tell yourself lies about how being shot at will change you.

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