A dog infiltrated the outpost, bewitching the gate guards with its black marble eyes, and slinky, pink tongue. The privates slung their rifles, ignored their posts. They tussled its fur, dangling off its bones like Spanish moss. It chuffed, rolled on its belly, bit at the rifle as if a branch. The blonde animal cantered past the horizontal steel barber pole, past the serpentine of earthwork baskets, past the reflective stake in the ground, the kill line—lethal force authorized beyond this point, First Sergeant had said.
Tran watched Sergeant Finley walk out to meet the creature. No doubt the dog smelled the burning ribbons of pork and bags of powdered eggs—slit open like a belly onto a hissing griddle. The smell of an American breakfast, the yellow haired animal, the smiling white faces of the other soldiers—it almost felt suburban.
When Tran’s family made it out to the suburbs, they bought a big empty house. As a child, Tran wanted to fill it with plastic toys and friends that never materialized, but more than that he wanted a dog because those light skinned children on TV always got them for Christmas. The big suburban house stayed empty for years until his parents went bankrupt and they moved to a rented row house at the edge of Alexandria.
It was a retriever perhaps, or some kind of sheepdog. It yipped and hopped into the air as Finley held his hand up, as if concealing a morsel of meat in his palm. Half the platoon—LRAZ, Eight Mile and the rest of Alpha Section gathered around the dog—luring it over to the landing zone with a baseball. They threw the ball between them while pup sprinted back and forth, leaping and twisting in the air. It was the most normal thing Tran experienced since leaving America. The dog reminded him of a Brooklyn neighbor’s golden retriever, who loved Tran and Miri for no other reason than it knew them. Miri never liked dogs, she was allergic, but you would never be able to tell. He imagined her here, rubbing this retriever-everything mix behind the ears, calling it puppy. She could make anyone or anything feel loved. Sometimes strangers would tell her their whole life story on the subway. Maybe it was the way she clasped her hands on her lap, or her big sleepy eyes.
Sergeant Barker approached to the group, his Mossberg shotgun slung across his back. He clicked his tongue, drawing the pooch to follow him. It loped and bounced beside him. The men stopped throwing the ball, stopped laughing, fixed in place by something Tran couldn’t see. He watched Barker cooing to the retriever, calling it puppy and rubbing it behind the ears. It sat, its tail sweeping a fan of gravel out from behind it.
Tran remembered that he shared a home state with Barker. Tran had grown up just across the river from DC, nothing for miles but sub developments and shopping centers, but there was a whole state to the south, full of fields of cattle and those Blue Ridge Mountains. Summers, Tran would help out at his best friend’s family farm. There, he could breathe, away from the black mold that laced the drywall of the rented row house.
Maybe Barker grew up on a farm. Tran imagined Barker hauling bales of hay onto a trailer on some Piedmont homestead, or sowing a field. Did he grow wheat, or cotton and tobacco? Those are southern things. He wondered if families still worked their fields together at harvest time, imagined Barker and his father reaping crops together. Tran had so little to bind him to his own father; they had never even played catch.
He observed Sergeant Barker, surprised at the warmth he showed the pup, and Tran felt like he discovered something new. Maybe that was what silenced the platoon, the shock of his tenderness. Maybe it was always there, and Tran just never saw it. His platoon sergeant—platoon daddies the NCOs called them—was a pillar, hard to think of as anything but stone. Barker reached behind him—Tran wondered if Barker hid a treat in his hip pocket. The sergeant could be nurturing, so unlike Tran’s father.
His own father hated dogs, though Tran never learned why. By the time that man—if you could call him one—abandoned Tran and his siblings in that row house, there was no room left for childish desires.
A sound like a blade drawn through wet gravel arrested his attention.
Then a report, muffled but resounding, like a steel balloon popping. The oxygen rippled, and he smelled that Fourth of July smell. Tran felt gravel strike his leg. The dog’s neck puffed cardinal dew, like a bloody sneeze.
Tran dropped onto his belly, drew his Beretta. He felt like a thousand spiders crawled out of his spine. He wasn’t ready for this shit. Could he make it to his rifle? He chambered his pistol. His hands trembled to his snare drum heart. Targets, he searched for targets, but saw that the rest of the platoon, staring at Sergeant Barker.
The dog lay a few feet away from where it was—tossed back—prostrate with strawberry streaks in its fur. It lived, heaving, leaking thick claret streaks from its trunk. Tongue lolling. Barker fed his weapon another shell, cycled it. He walked up to the animal, aimed.
The Mossberg said Boo! in Barker’s hands.
“Show’s over,” he said. The platoon dispersed, wordless.
Tran was still on the ground.
“It’s okay sir, get up,” said Finley.
One of the other scouts chuckled. Tran looked like a shave-tail, a slick-sleeve, a fucking cherry.
“Sir, get up.”
Tran balled his fists, pushed up by his knuckles. He wanted to crush a stone with his bare hands.
A hundred holes dotted the animal’s fur, as if pecked apart by birds. Double-aught buck burst one of its eyes, spilling like a shattered egg; its hind leg broken and bent up in surrender. Breakfast climbed back onto Tran’s tongue.
Did this make him a man?
It was just a dog.
He followed Barker, his platoon sergeant, his subordinate.
“The fuck was that sergeant?” he said loud enough for the men to hear.
“Standing orders to kill dogs. The health and welfare of the men comes first, sir,” Barker said without turning, his soles crunching the gravel.
“Sergeant, you just discharged a weapon in the cantonment area without warning.” Tran heard his voice waver and break. That stopped Barker.
“Sir, I don’t question you in front of the men. I would expect you to extend me the same courtesy.” Tran could smell they syrupy sweet tar of tobacco on Barker’s gums.
“People forget that the animals we love used to hunt us. In Iraq, I saw a lung-shot dog raped by her pack while she bled out. Maybe those things out there don’t deserve your pity.”
“This isn’t Iraq. You heard what the Colonel said—it’s hearts and minds. That’s the war we’re fighting. How am I supposed to trust that you’re going to do the right out there?”
“Sir, what do you know about Iraq?”
Tran said nothing, so Barker walked away.
“Sir, it’s okay,” said Finley, “what are you going to do?”
Tran looked at his pistol.
“Sir, say something.”
Tran stood there.
Sergeant Finley and one of the men took the dog by its legs, carried it to the burn pit.
A man like that could not have sown seeds.
Tran knew the stories about Barker. To some he was a real-life G.I. Joe with Kung-Fu Grip, to others a cross between a Catholic School Nun and Charles Manson. Except Barker killed more people than Manson—enough during the invasion that The Army gave Barker a Bronze Star, “V” for valor. Like some mythical talisman, a boon, or a hex—the men only whispered of it.
When Tran first took over the platoon months ago, he pieced Barker’s story together while the men of Apache Troop still waited for orders to Afghanistan. He heard it from the old hands, who always marveled at how much time had passed—a decade later and they were still fighting.
It was Baghdad, a staff sergeant said.
Impossible, definitely Al Kut, said another.
Sergeant Claesson agreed, it was Al Kut, he was there.
Bullshit, the other two sergeants had said.
It was never clear who the adversary was. One man said Baath Party, another said Mahdi Army. The only clear thing to Tran was how little they valued Iraqi lives.
Nine men against a hundred, some real Thermopylae shit. You know, go tell the Spartans, hot gates, all of that, one of the other platoon sergeants said, but when it was clear Tran had eavesdropped, they changed topics.
Angelina Jolie’s ten times hotter than Beyoncé.
Not with those little boy’s hips.
Those NCOs, with their second wives, their ravaged joints, the aches that came over their bodies, their hearts—the old breed that cured what ailed them with fermented grain—they were silent when asked about Barker. Instead, they tried to distract Tran by teaching him how to drink beer out of his beaver felt Stetson, or by gently correcting infractions on his uniform.
Tran only knew what he heard. They had to bury hajjis with a bulldozer after that TIC, they said. Tran had thought of the scene in Platoon where they did the same to Vietnamese.
He remembered being nauseated when he heard that, not because of the grotesque, but because of his lust for it. If Tran could just have one good scrap like that, he could die happy. It wouldn’t matter how good of an officer Tran was—if he ever got that “V” device, no one could touch him, he could do no wrong.
Tran heard other stories. The privates and E-4s in the Task Force hated Barker, called him a pouge ass bitch for enforcing discipline. Tran overheard one private say, he would correct the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs if there was something unsat about his uniform, and report him to his first line.
The other young officers told other stories—unsanctioned, rogue patrols performed off the books, late night small-kill-teams in the dark corners of Iraq, the suspicious death of a corrupt Iraqi police chief. Not a word was verifiable, only guesswork and conjecture.
Tran remembered an article fifteen hearing—a disgraced sergeant caught selling coke at the Post Exchange. Though he was Tran’s soldier, he had never met the soldier, who was just a name on his roster, waiting to be dropped from the rolls. By all accounts he had been there at Baghdad or Al Kut, wherever Barker had made his name.
Barker told Tran to recommend the full sentence: reduction in rank, revocation of pay, and a bad conduct discharge. The MPs marched the prisoner into the little cinderblock office; his wrists and legs shackled together, their hands wrapped all the way around his thin biceps. The soldier’s uniform bore no rank or badges. He stood in front of Captain Geddes, as waiting to hear the charges. Tran feared the prisoner might blow away if Geddes breathed too hard. The proceeding was quick, but when asked if he had anything left to say, the prisoner screamed at Barker, chains tinkling as he seethed.
“You motherfucker, don’t you feel anything? After all of the shit in Iraq, you don’t have anything to say!”
The prisoner glared at Tran.
“You fucking officers, you’re just as guilty, you let him off the leash!”
Tran felt his breath, flecks of spit.
“I wish I died over there. All those people we killed, all those people!” The prisoner cried at no one then, folded over as if sobbing, screaming into the latex painted cinderblock walls. Was he once stalwart, revered? Stripped of all things but his clothes, perhaps even of a medal with a “V” for valor.
“I followed you. I can’t believe it, I followed you,” the prisoner said to Barker.
Barker and Tran saluted Geddes and marched out of his office. A pair of Vernon Parish policemen in grey straw hats waited outside to take the prisoner away.
The whole time, Barker was silent, shedding not an inch to the disgraced sergeant. That is why they follow him, Tran thought, nothing moves the man.
There was no moon, to light the night, only the million pinprick light-leaks in the blanket draped over the sky. The Afghan mountains disappeared into the night, dark as tar. After evening chow, Barker stopped Tran outside the barracks.
Barker seemed larger in the dark—that heavy breath misting tobacco juice, and heft.
That broken yolk of an eyeball, spilling down the fur in a continuous tear. A hot sort of illness steeped in Tran’s chest.
Barker offered him a stubby Marlboro 72, which he took. The sergeant lit the lieutenant’s cigarette, guarded the flame with a cupped hand.
“Shoulda called out a test-fire or something,” Barker said.
“Sir, you really gonna let some animal screw with what we got here?”
Tran’s father said something similar the first time he borrowed the allowance Tran’s mother doled out once a week for good grades. Loans, his father called them.
“That assumes a lot,” Tran said.
That first time, Tran’s father doubled that allowance. The second time, he tripled it. Tran was young enough not to understand where the money was coming from, but that was the last time his father gave him any money.
“Listen to me—”
Tran didn’t know how to wrap his head around that popped eye.
“What did we gain by you shooting a helpless animal?” He wondered what moral bankruptcy followed.
As a teenager, Tran learned that his college fund disappeared that same way, with inchoate promises to his mother that money borrowed would return doubled, tripled. His sister’s. His brother’s. It never materialized, disappeared into the coffers of some Atlantic City casino. Tran confronted his father, shouted him down for an hour. The next day, the man was gone.
Barker pulled on his cigarette instead of answering, finished his smoke, lit another. The outlines of his hard brow, the menacing curves of his cheekbones, his unsmiling mouth—a man’s skin illuminated into a gargoyle’s mask.
“When we rolled into Baghdad, the police were gone by then, all deserted or dead,” Barker said. “No garbage collectors, no doctors. Everyone was hiding, waiting for the hammer to fall.” The tendons in his neck relaxed. Tobacco exhaust tumbled out his nostrils. “So this hajji mama, she comes up looking for her daughter who’s been missing these past few days. She’s hollering and beating her chest, so we go out looking. We looked for days, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, house to house. Got so desperate, we started asking looters.”
Tran felt something unpacking inside his chest.
“A few days later, we roll up on a canal, under a bridge, and there’s this pack of dogs tearing at something, must’ve been a dozen of them.”
Barker’s cigarette lit his eyes, unfocused and looking past Tran. He didn’t want Barker to go on.
“We found her. All that was left were her bones and the rags of her dress. Recognized it from the polaroid.” He spat on the ground with his teeth, put out his cigarette just before it burned his fingers.
“The mother, what’d you tell her?” said Tran.
“Nothing sir. Nothing. Got orders to for Al Kut right after we found the girl.”
The dark figure in front of Tran chuffed, then snarled—a wet growl vibrating on the back of his throat. Tran shivered, told himself it was cold. He stepped back, tried to see what was in Barker’s eyes, but could not read them, knowing only that they were there, catching starlight.