Politically Inspired Fiction: In Shock and Awe

Politically Inspired Fiction is fiction inspired by current events, by novelist Stephen Elliott. His short stories will appear weekly on AlterNet.

"Here we go," Amy says after the air-raid sirens have been ringing for half an hour and it's become clear they aren't going to stop. It's cold in Baghdad at night and we're both wearing a blue fleece, a coincidence of what we brought from home. My home being in San Francisco, a small studio with wooden floors and a moldy shower, Amy's in upstate New York on a communal farm. She gives me that look she's been giving me since we got here, two Human Shields on the same bus from the Syrian border. Two Americans squatting in an Iraqi power plant, an obvious target in the first wave of bombing. The Iraqis certainly consider it an important target, or they wouldn't waste two Americans on it.

"Yeah," I say, rolling a cigarette on my knee. I quit smoking 10 years ago, but I've started again, out of boredom. We're sitting on a long plank of wood we've been bunking on. "Say goodnight Gracie."

Amy edges closer to me, smiling. I could see why someone would think she was pretty. She is pretty. Long, brown hair, unwashed in a while now, the thin, muscular body of an athlete. Even in the baggy clothes she wears, and without makeup, it's obvious. And I should be delighted. After all, I'm short and hairy. Nobody has ever confused me with good looking. But what she's offering, or what I think she's offering since I could certainly be wrong, is sex in the name of politics, her body in gratitude for my willingness to die for a cause, mine to hers to comfort her in our last night on earth. But I'm not into it. I'm not into anything.

"I was married," Amy offers.

"I know. You've said."

"Well, when we broke up, I couldn't keep silent anymore. You know, I couldn't let the world continue to be the way it was. I had to take my place in it. I've been protesting ever since."

"Do you think they'll arrest us? I mean, if we live, when we get back to America?"

"Yes," Amy says, brushing my leg as I stand to go outside. "I do think that."

Outside the air is crisp. All around the power plant is the faint smell of bleach. All of the lights have been shut off and there are only the black shapes of the Baghdad skyline, buildings like obelisks. The stars are enormous and I wish it could always be this peaceful, except for the sirens, which interrupt all of it with their constant screams. The sirens are loud but I am steadily getting used to them.

I didn't leave much behind to come here except a good job with the University and a dead father who died three weeks before I arrived in Amman. I boycotted his funeral. I didn't want to hear the rabbi speak of his virtues. Everyone always speaks so well of the dead. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, as the Romans would say.

I have no illusions about the conflict, though I suppose everybody feels that way. Everybody feels like they live without illusions, that they have the most accurate read on the news. I remember the papers before I left. The New York Times predicted up to 10,000 casualties on the first day of the bombing. The Village Voice placed the number at 100,000. Z-Magazine said it could be upward of half a million. Harlan Ullman, the architect of the "Shock And Awe" strategy, compared it to the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. People believe what they want to believe, then they find the news source to back it up.

But I don't think I'm right to be here. This man Saddam Hussein, who our handlers refer to affectionately as Papa, with his thick mustache, is not a good man. Even the other Human Shields don't think he is good. Rather they are anti-America, or anti-war, or just anti-Bush. But for me, I'm not here for any of that, I'm trying to exist. The world is making a decision and I want to have a seat at the table. Because for so long now I've been so sad.

The original Human Shields didn't come to Iraq voluntarily. They were seized from airplanes with stopovers in Kuwait just before the first Gulf War. They were businessmen taken from buses. Six thousand hostages were taken, most were quickly released. But a few hundred, about the number of the volunteer human shields here now, were not released. Hussein went on television patting the head of an English child. The Shields were shuttled between military facilities. Some were driven out to the desert in the middle of the night, ordered to their knees, and then boarded back onto their buses. A practical joke.

I read about it before coming out here, what happened to those original Shields. The hostages. Many still have psychotic episodes, post-traumatic stress. I read a quote, in the Financial Times. They said we were denigrating their name with what we were doing. As if, by coming here voluntarily, to live in power plants and water supply facilities, we were making fun of them. It's a good argument, though irrelevant when looked at through the larger lens of history, and the larger lens still of a single person's life.

There was talk and fear among the Shields when we first arrived that we would be forced into places we didn't want to be. Corralled into factories manufacturing poison gas, strapped to the hoods of tanks shuttling forward to meet the troops. And that maybe, the Iraqi people, from their own anger and frustration, would take it out on us, pulling us limb from limb, the way the Palestinians did in Ramallah, storming the police station to get the two Israeli soldiers being held there. The soldiers had been caught selling drugs. The picture in the newspaper: two bloody hands sticking through the bars. Mob rules.

The first desert whistle streaks through the black tapestry. We call them whistles, the missiles and low flying planes breaking the sound barrier. The man who looks after the cafe nearby told us that word. He is a kind man, with thick black hair, who always laughs and never charges us for our tea. He jokes, when we are there watching the television, "Listen, the sky is whistling again." Then he smiles broadly and does this little tap dance. It's funny every time.

The fire bursts into explosions of bricks and rubble and dust and screaming. There are more whistles, drowning the sirens, and then the sirens are completely gone and there are only whistles. The obelisks fall to the ground as the sky streaks with white and the space between heaven and earth is lit orange and burning. I'm knocked to the ground in a wild explosion from the wind. I crawl back toward the door and inside the plant, where Amy is huddled in the corner.

"They won't bomb here," Amy says, above the din. I have my arm over her shoulder. She is shivering and crying. "We told our ambassador where we are. They won't bomb the power plant. They won't kill Americans."

"What's the difference," I yell. I mean between Americans and Iraqis. I'm too panicked to feel stupid. I wonder if we should get away from the walls. Twenty feet from us a hole bursts through the clay. A pipe breaks in half and falls from the ceiling and lands near our feet. "C'mon," I say, wrapping my arm around the middle of Amy's back, the bridge of my hand rising beneath her breast. I'm aroused, perhaps for the first time in months. My fingers fall in the spaces between Amy's ribs as I'm pulling her to her feet. There's a bomb shelter near the back of the facility. We had promised not to go there. We're running there now.

Stephen Elliott is the author of the novels "What It Means To Love You" and "A Life Without Consequences." He is the James McCall lecturer at Stanford University. Email him at steve@stephenelliott.com.

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