How can you ask me if I want steak for dinner? Do you have any idea what I saw? What I picked up out there? You don’t, do you? Do you really understand? No? Well, just sit down and listen, then see if I want meat for dinner.
You’ve heard of triage, haven’t you? No? It’s a process of prioritising the injured into who can be saved and who it would be pointless to help. You’d think we wouldn’t have this in the 20th century, would you, but we do. It’s quick, blunt, numbing and calculative.
The floor is littered with the injured and the dead. They have been poured out the back of a Humvee like some Nasi Goreng, all intestines and gore. We don’t know who is who and at what stage of injury they’re in. Many of them will die by noon, and those few that survive will be spoon-fed and wheeled for the rest of their lives.
We aren’t in the hospital here, but the garage of a Humvee in Camp Price, just outside of Gereshk.
The surgeon peers into the eyes of a US Marine. He’s working through the litter. He looks at me. “Leave him.” Then he moves onto a child, maybe six or seven – same age as my nephew.
The sigh is broken by gurgles. Soon the child is convulsing on the floor.
“Hold him! Fuck.”
The surgeon reveals the scalpel. There’s something caught in my throat and he’s there lightning-quick, like Jack the Ripper. The throat is cut. “That’s the fucker,” he says, then looks right at me.
“Well, hold him down, Sergeant.”
His eyes are steeling for the next horror.
There’s a sigh as a rubber pipe is stuffed down the fleshy tube of the boy’s throat. The child calms and I focus on the blade, which the surgeon places back like a chess piece.
The boy’s legs begin to rattle on the floor. I think I’m in a scene from Hostel here. He shoves the boy away and moves on to the next casualty. I slip on gore. This is an immediate care situation where I can hear the words of mother on every tongue in the garage. Blood and grime and burn trauma fuse as one. There’s no intimacy between the surgeon and the casualty; there are simply too many. The boy continues convulsing as the surgeon works on another US Marine whose legs are stumps of roast beef, pinkish and raw; a tourniquet round the leg like a piece of string around a joint of pork.
The aroma of burnt pork thickens the air with a pungency that reminds me of barbecues, when the meat is overdone. The Marine stares up at the ceiling with intense white eyes, he is trapped somewhere between blast and trauma; caught in the flash. I turn and bring a hand to my mouth.
“Not now, Sergeant.” The American Army surgeon purrs to me, his voice strangely soothing. I nod.
You look at me now like I’m a freak, but I’m a victim as well. I told them not to go. They didn’t listen to me. I should have tried harder.
I should have.
Stupid Americans and their bravado.
Now, do you still think I want steak for dinner?