Jesus Ate My Brother
By: Andrew Hill
We didn’t have very many luxuries or comforts in the first year of the Iraq war. There was no air conditioning, cool water, fresh food, or form of commercial communication easily available to us. Our packing lists didn't allow for many personal items, so the few books and magazines we may have brought along were worn out or traded away long before we had even arrived in Baghdad.
One of the few luxuries that was available to us was a little time to ourselves; just to be alone for a minute. There were soldiers everywhere, so one of the places that you could find some peace and solitude was in a porta-potty. If you were really lucky, you might have access to the type of porta-potty typically seen around construction sites back home, with the blue chemical water. I personally didn’t have a lot of luck in those days, so I spent most of my quiet moments of reflection sitting on splintered sheets of plywood covering a half-barrel of diesel fuel, housed in stifling, makeshift wooden crates that were filled with flies and smelled like death.
The cost of having this luxury was that some soldier, slightly less lucky than myself, would have the duty of removing the barrel mixture of waste and fuel and burning it. This was done by stirring the mixture with a large iron fencepost, lighting it on fire until the top was ash, and repeating the process until all you had left was ash in the barrel. After that, the soldier would bury it. This was one of the many unpleasant details in our lives, but that's what we had, so that's what we did.
Being that these were one of the only places you could go to have some privacy, and I relished any bit of alone time I could get, I grew to think of them as little temples of solace as grand and as spiritually comforting as any house of worship could be. When I needed some time to myself, I'd stow away in an available stall and shut the world out for a few minutes.
While I got a lot of thinking done in those fly-infested sweatboxes, one thought that never seemed to be too far from my mind was the idea of a mortar landing squarely on top of the one I occupied. I envisioned my diesel and urine soaked remains scattered about in glistening puddles of excrement. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, I suppose.
To distract myself from this idea, I liked to read the nuggets of wisdom and innermost thoughts of the other soldiers scribbled in permanent marker on the walls. It was like a community diary of sorts. Or a primitive blog.
I read some of the most amazing things on those walls: beautiful poetry, anecdotes, proverbs, and clever jokes. On occasion, you could carry on entire conversations over the course of weeks with someone without having any idea who it was.
At the beginning of the Iraq war, when everyone was collecting in Kuwait in preparation for the impending march to Baghdad, there were a lot of the standard things you’d expect to find written on any bathroom wall: crude humor, biblical passages, and declarations of misplaced pride. Things like: “For a good time call..." or “Jesus is my SAVIOR!” or “82nd Airborne Rules!” were common. Underneath these, it was normal to see responses along the lines of: "John 3:16," or "You couldn't handle this much man," or “82nd sucks! 10th Mountain Division is #1!" These, of course, are relatively tame examples.
Compelled to contribute to this ridiculous discourse, I had my own “calling card” of sorts that I would leave written in Arabic in the early days, without a translation to add to the intrigue:
نعم نعم يعيش صدام
Something to the effect of "Long live Saddam.”
I thought it was ironic and funny. Granted, it was a joke very few would get as there weren't many Arabic speakers in our ranks (I was often the only Arabic speaker among thousands of soldiers).
But as time went on and the war took its toll on people’s minds and lives, some of the writings became more and more personal and bizarre in nature. The porta-potties became porta-confessionals, covered wall to wall with everything from absurd, disjointed thoughts to paranoid manifestos. I'd occasionally find long letters to family members written as if they were actual letters that were going to be read, or confessions of crimes like, "I shot an unarmed man and I'm going to Hell for it." In one case, I remember reading a long eulogy to an anonymous fallen comrade that ended with the curious exclamation, “Please don’t come back!”
There were occasionally suicide notes too.
One day, well into our 15-month deployment, as I sat in a porta-potty reflecting on the past 12 months or so, I looked up to find this scrawled in large, childlike letters directly in front of me:
“JESUS ATE MY BROTHER!”
It was a little frightening, sad, and hilarious all at the same time. I felt like I was looking at the random thought of an insane person. I knew that whoever wrote it was somewhere close. Maybe it was one of the guys on my team? Even worse, maybe it was me, and I just didn’t remember doing it?
I sat there considering it for some time. I analyzed it and ruminated on it as if it were a complex mathematical equation. I turned it over and over in my mind, comparing and contrasting it to messages I had seen early on, particularly the upbeat biblical passages and references to Jesus' love. What did it mean? Surely, I thought, there was something significant to be understood from that seemingly inane sentence; some hidden meaning or divine secret to be realized from that absurd phrase. I could vaguely sense it, but I couldn't quite articulate it to myself.
Finally, with those words staring at me in the dim light, sweat dripping in my eyes, and flies buzzing around my head, it came to me. In a rare moment of absolute clarity, I understood what those words meant.
I leaned over and wrote under “JESUS ATE MY BROTHER!”:
بكى لفقد البراءة
و سواد قلوب الناس
“Baka li faqd al bara’a wa suwad qalub al nas.” He wept for the loss of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart.
I didn't know if the language was perfect or if it even made sense in Arabic. It was the best I could come up with at the time for my recollection of the last line of the book Lord of the Flies.
The phrase, and the story from which it was derived, perfectly reflected what I had come to realize—that we were all just a bunch of lost kids, oblivious to the abnormality of our behavior and the consequences of our decisions. Soldiers and presidents alike.
We had become savages; strangers to civilization.
Until one day, an adult might happen along, and we’d break down in tears as we suddenly remembered the difference between right and wrong.
And just like in the story, that rescue came too late for some of us.
Andrew Hill grew up in the mountains of Northern Arizona, which is at least partly to blame for his life-long love of rugged landscapes, adventure, and all things wondrous.