In 2007 As the Surge wound down and our efforts to stabilize the population spun up, I had a neighborhood in North-Central Baghdad that was the sight of intense sectarian violence; relatively calmed now, this Sunni-dominated neighborhood was ringed by Shia homesteads and from looks alone you could tell who was getting the raw deal. I patrolled there often on the troll for civil-reconstruction opportunities – very different types of targets than I am used to rooting out. In one part of what was known as schoolhouse road, among the destroyed and now abandoned shops lived an old drunkard. Jovial most days, sullen and forlorn others, we always stopped to check in and see how he was; we checked in on how everyone was mind you, that was the entire point of my being there now that major hostilities had ‘subsided’. Getting handouts from his good fellow residents, our old friend managed to stay well-lubricated.
One particular day, my Major wanted to tag along with me and “see the battlefield” so to speak [poor guy seemed to miss about every combat deployment our generation had since Vietnam – I use the descriptor loosely]. Seeing as how he was now on his first deployment and was seeing it stuck on base as the executive officer, I figured I could do right by him and take him along with us real-boys and at least let him get the soles of his boots dirty for a day. We were heading up schoolhouse road when my point man called back that there was a disturbance in the road ahead. I stepped up my pace to get to the front of the formation and it was our old friend the town drunk, pleading with Allah who had forsaken him, cutting at his body with a flimsy and very dull-looking steak knife. (never-mind his man-dress was exceptionally tattered that day and old boy’s junk was swinging three-sheets to the wind as much as he was – I’ll leave the poor bastard some dignity). Via my interpreter – whom I loved and trusted with my life so much so, I ensured he had his own AK-47 because when he wasn’t interpreting, he was another rifleman – I learned that dude was just really drunk and sad.
“Bocian! That guy’s got a knife!” I hear the Major… exclaim. It wasn’t a shout, it wasn’t a statement – it was an exclamation. He was now beside me as well as we slowly made our way up the road as our old friend stood in the middle of the road, flailing his arms about and wishing his life would end so his homelessness and suffering would end. None of the men felt threatened – none of the men were threatened and we were in no danger. Sure, everyone gripped their rifle a little tighter instinctively but drunk or not, this guy wasn’t even seriously harming himself – it was all pro forma, acting out of self-pity. “Aren’t you going to shoot him?!?” The Major exclaimed. “This local national is wielding a knife, you can shoot him right now!” Note the use of the words you can in this exclamation. ‘Sir, we see this guy all the time, he’s a drunk. No harm no foul.’ We continued to walk and he continued to rant, my interpreter now talking to him as we passed, trying to calm old-boy down. The Major kept nipping at my heels “But you can shoot that guy! Aren’t you going to shoot that guy? Should I shoot that guy?!? Aren’t you going to shoot that guy?’ It was like a naughty kid let loose in the joke store; the sadistic type with a new puppy and a rolled-up newspaper, just hovering over the thing waiting for the first time it pissed the carpet so he could let out some justified smack-down. ‘Sir, I done ’nuff killin. Won’t be any killin here today I’m afraid.’
We stopped to take a breather, set up security, talked to the locals and got old-boy to go sit in his ramshackle rubble-house where he slept, gave him some water and my interpreter bought him a falafel. Hell, we even gave him a blanket because it was November and it was cold. The rest of the night back on base I had to hear it from the rest of the officers in the Squadron about how the Major was shocked and stunned that I wouldn’t kill that man. They were razing me about it mostly; the joke was more on the Major than me. Anyone who spent serious time out there would know why it was such an absolutely ridiculous notion to look at that situation, check some rules of engagement box, and end a man’s life. But it just goes to show you there are still some that think like that…