Audio: Read by the author.
ORDERS SAID HAUL OUR HAPPY PLATOON up the Sinjar Mountains, and, at the convoy brief, Lieutenant told us this is what we had trained for—honest—when we had been running routes outside the wire for months. If where we were headed was what we had trained for, we couldn’t help but wonder what was supposed to have prepared us for where we had been, for the operations and orders we carried out in those places. Staff Sergeant told us we had to stay vigilant—the sound advice he always issued before a convoy—and we laughed the way we always laughed, with our heads cocked to our shoulders, humor primed and chambered in our throats to later explode when we mimicked Staff Sergeant’s mumble and drawl and his unrepentant mispronunciation of the word vigilant so that it sounded time and again and with exponential hilarity like the word belligerent. This is a dangerous area of operation. Good to go. I need every one of you to stay belligerent. Copy that, Staff Sergeant. Stay hostile, aggressive, engaged in combat. We were to remain at war.
Sinjar Mountain burst through the monotony of our Anbar routes, and we welcomed the rising landscape with its heightened threat levels and our additional difficulties defending vehicles from potential attacks on a third axis. Height had been of little concern. This is what we trained for. Ridges broke upward and forward and corralled the road as we climbed. Small, unadorned homes sat high on plateaus, their walls the same dust-and-rock texture as the surrounding earth. We scanned open windows and studied for the intentions of those who may or may not have waited inside. Our trucks whirred high through their turbine inductors and churned a howl from their great knobbed tires which must have echoed and telegraphed our approach across staggered farmland for miles. Young boys waited, waved from rooftops as we passed. A pool of short grasses waited below, waved in a wind churned within the bounds of mule-high stone walls. We watched from behind ballistic glass and mounted guns and steel doors with hinged openings large enough for a rifle barrel or for a bunch of contorted fingers to press through and wiggle return greetings, muted waves, as we rolled on and up the mountain. We engaged with no enemy combatants.
We reached our destination at the peak, where we were debriefed—great job, great job this morning, everyone, really—and we sat against rocks and ate hot lunch from paper trays. Great job: resupply radio communication personnel stationed way, way up, somewhere north of four thousand feet. This height may be one reason locals consider the Sinjar Mountains a sacred place, why the Yazidis—a minority monotheistic community located primarily in northwestern Iraq—built Chermera Temple on the mountain’s highest point, where the ridge slopes to the south and drops almost vertical at its northern edge. This temple, no bigger than our trucks, reached into the heavens as if continuing the rise of the mountain itself, a stone-white peak topped by three spheres and a spire which held a crescent moon against the midday sky. This, it seemed, was what we had trained for, and many of us wondered at its beauty. When asked, our interpreter—a southern Iraqi of Muslim faith who called himself Joe—claimed the temple was ancient, older than the trees, and shied from further questions with warnings to stay far. Devils inside. A place of devil worship. We should not stay here. Joe refused to entertain our continued interest and finished his meal in the back of a truck.
We took photos near the temple at the top of the mountain, where coils of concertina wire banned us from entering, from verifying or discrediting our only available interpretation, and kept us penned in our devilish curiosities. We raised rifles over the desert beyond. We posed, waved to the camera, took photos of ourselves with horrified faces. We mimicked the temple and crouched at the cliff, the steel toes of our boots conducting jolts of adrenaline from northern sky, from soft metals stratified into the mountainside below. Our boot-laced tags glimmered with bits of our names and our various bodily numbers, plain statements of our religious preferences or lack thereof. At the top of the mountain next to that lonely temple, we kicked at loose earth and watched it fall over the edge to crumble and collect and settle against its larger self.
Staff Sergeant snatched us up—hey, reign it in—and told us stories of bombings, skirmishes reported near the Syrian border. This area more than any. Let me catch you playing. Let me catch you sleeping out there, I swear, kill you before you kill us all. A cabled antenna loomed. Some marines some time before had erected a communications relay just steps from the temple—a tower meant to intercept conversations from personnel on southern ground, to hurl signals to listening personnel someplace north and below. Or perhaps it went from north to south. Or both ways. Either way, they couldn’t communicate through the mountain, so they had to send messages up one side and back down.
Our return convoy was an improvisation of jake brakes, sporadic compressions in release, diesel engine pops, cylinders sputtering and choking on pistons as we slow-coasted the same winding roads we had climbed. We rattled the ground, noised the air.
Years after our convoy to the top, we hear news of what has come to be called the Sinjar massacre—the isolation, abduction, rape, and murder of thousands of Yazidi people by Islamic State terrorists—which forced tens of thousands of civilians into life-threatening exile among the Sinjar Mountains. Long past active duty, many of us respond with familiar bravado—they’re lucky we weren’t over there, never would have happened with us on the ground, given a chance at them now we would take it, take those terrorists out, save those civilians, drive the children back to their towns, to their farms, back to their quiet family homes—discounting, of course, the school of thought that cites our presence in the Sinjar region as the main progenitor of this hostility, and discounting further the history of atrocities visited upon Yazidi people. Many of those exiled do make it home, some years later. Many return to a familiar place which no longer resembles the home they left. Many of those killed are found in mass, unmarked graves. The outcomes for many more remain unknown.
The Yazidis use the Sinjar Mountains to commune with a higher power—some deity or devil depending on who you ask—to send their conversations way up, higher than any peak, or to drop their thoughts with the volume and momentum only a mountain can bestow. We too recognized the communication advantages available in the Sinjar Mountains. We drove up, parked our trucks at the peak, razor-wired gates around a small temple, and sent a radio fence to unclimbable heights. I was never the religious type. I go more for plain statements or lack thereof. Still—and I don’t speak for my platoon here—I feel like asking someone to forgive us for using that mountain, for passing our own conversations over, for talking up and back down to ourselves.
We descended through late afternoon, rangebroken rear views, ridges shrinking behind. The convoy struggled to slow. Two boys smiled from the roadside where they had stopped with their saddled mule, four jugs tethered to its sides. They waved. We waved. Water jugs, from the perspective of a military convoy, look a lot like jugs of fuel. These boys were either working their fields or improvising an explosive device. This is what we had trained for, now, stay belligerent, but we could not, and no one waved them aside or stopped to investigate. Tall grasses waved from their terraced patches. We lost our jobs in the scenery, in the vista of a region at war. To stand on a roof or at the edge of a mountain or the edge of a road and to communicate, to signal toward that which we fail to understand, this is how we remain belligerent or vigilant—words which, for us, had taken on the same significance—to remain awake and at watch, mindful, confrontational, to hold a peaceful demonstration, or, as in vigil, to make spiritual preparations or to pray.
Christopher Notarnicola’s work has appeared in Best American Essays, Hotel Amerika, North American Review, Southampton Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Pompano Beach, Florida.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.