The warden of Fallouja

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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


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.

You won’t be able to tell your wife about the near-miss when you call home because you know she’ll be worried, and when she worries, she cries, and you cannot, absolutely cannot, have her cry, mainly because it will make you cry, and you’re a captain in a crowded phone center surrounded by junior Marines. Your neck will cramp up for two weeks, as if all your fears have been concentrated into a small kernel of misery somewhere north of your shoulder blade. Then, one day, the pain will be gone, and you will walk up to the side of the truck and place your fist inside the divot to remind yourself that it really happened.

[ 6 ]

You will screw up.

A sergeant will push one of your female Marines too hard during physical training, and she will turn on the waterworks and accuse him of sexual harassment. You will chew out the sergeant, but later discover that she is simply angry with him for forbidding her to visit her boyfriend in another unit.

You will apologize to the sergeant, but the incident will have cost you some of the platoon’s trust, and you will find yourself hating her. She will hate you too, until she goes home early, knocked up by the very same boyfriend she was forbidden to see. You will feel a quick self-righteous high, followed by a prolonged low; your neglect of your own rule — don’t take it personally — means you failed her as a leader.


[ 7 ]

You will drink water until your urine is clear.

You will drink and drink and keep drinking until you’ve drained more than 800 bottles of water during your stay in the Iraqi desert.

[ 8 ]

Your interpreter will be your greatest hidden ally.

Ali is rotund, aged and bearded, a prototypical Islamic authority figure. He reads the facility rules to all new detainees, his face hidden behind dark glasses and a ball cap. Your understanding of Arabic progresses to the point where you know he’s adding regulations. You take him aside, and he explains that he tells the new arrivals that there are snipers in every tower, that trapdoors lurk beyond the borders of each gravel path and that attacking a Marine in the facility would result in a coward’s death, voiding the promise of 72 virgins. You allow him to continue.

[ 9 ]

You won’t abuse any detainees.

Your property room will hold a sniper rifle that killed a Marine and bears the fingerprints of the man inside Cell 4A. Evidence photos will show a bomb crater and bloody boots with shinbones still laced inside, and wires that lead from the crater to the home of CF-7634. As you perform your daily cell checks, you will occasionally want to smash and kick and eye gouge and palm-heel strike. But you won’t. You will need to look in the mirror tomorrow when you shave.

[ 10 ]

You will get by with 20 words of Arabic.

When your prisoner-release convoy is waved into a field strewn with basketball-sized boulders by an Army lieutenant too new to speak Arabic, that will be just enough to get the entas to stop washing their feet and shouting blessings to Allah and to herd them into the civil affairs compound. Later, an 18-year-old lance corporal will fall asleep at the wheel and swerve off the Fallouja cloverleaf. As the 7-ton rumbles down the embankment, the entas will fling themselves off the truck. One enta will break his arm, and, again, your 20 words will coax him into medical treatment. Through it all — the bungled release, the accident, the medevac — you will not be attacked. Two days later, a similar convoy traveling the exact same route will be blown up by an IED, and the ache in your neck will return for another two weeks.

[ 11 ]

After seven months, you will fly home.

On the way back to the U.S., your Marines will be told by Maj. NASCAR that they can drink, and they will — to excess. You will resign yourself to breaking up the inevitable fights, and as you step between two Marines about to swing, you will realize that this has been your purpose. You set limits.

[ 12 ]

You will return to civilian life.

You will be jumpy and vaguely unsatisfied, disconnected from the civilians around you who care only about text messages and gas prices and catty e-mails. Navy doctors will find Iraqi sand trapped in the innermost pathways of your ear canals. Your wife now snores, and all her unfamiliar noises combine to drive you from your bed.


On one such night, you will turn on the television news and see that Anna Nicole Smith’s death has trumped the coverage of America’s 3,118th fatality, 31-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class Gilbert Minjares Jr. You will note that, at 39, Smith was younger than most of the helicopters flying in Iraq. You will turn off the TV and sit in the dark and feel your eyes water as you think about how you took 55 Marines and sailors into a combat zone and brought all 55 back home, and that no one in America besides you and those 55 really cares or understands what you went through.

You processed 1,230 detainees, without a single incident of abuse, while America sat on the couch and watched girls go wild. As far as you know, you killed no one. This used to bother you, because killing is what Marines are trained to do. But now, after viewing documentaries and reports that paint American forces as Redcoat invaders, you take some comfort in the fact that you never pulled the trigger.

Those numbers — 55, 1,230 and 0 — will allow you to sleep tonight, and the next night, and the next. But each night you will insert a mouth guard made of silicone before you go to sleep, because your dentist informs you that you are always, always, always unconsciously grinding your teeth.