• Costs of War: On the Ground with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps in Mosul

    From Nick McDonell's Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars

    No one sleeps for long. At around ten o’clock that night word goes around: a new mission, also on Pepsi Road. Word goes around in springs and flows, breaking down, dammed and exaggerated. Facebook pages report on certain neighborhoods. Texts arrive from unknown numbers. The army makes requests, too, and the militias, and the bereaved, and friends, neighbors—the whole city, except the airborne Americans who actually collapse the buildings. Not their responsibility, perhaps. In any case, in Ras al-Jadah station Colonel Rabih is arbiter of it all and doesn’t always explain the politics behind whom they must try to rescue and when, and soon it’s time to get back in the van.

    Night missions are common and in some ways preferable—not as hot. Under the Mujasar highway approaching Pepsi Road, however, a stink of bodies still spices the cool night. Staging there, Rabih and Qusay hop an army Humvee to consult with a Ninth Division general at the front, leaving their men to tell stories in the roadside dark. One concerns a father who rushed from bombarded ISIS territory over the line to an Iraqi Special Operations Forces position, carrying a dead boy in his arms. The father, in shock, somehow thought the boy alive. Told by soldiers the boy was dead, the man began to wail. What happened? the soldiers asked. He told them an airstrike had killed one of his sons, and so he decided to try to escape with the remaining one. He’d quickly dug a shallow grave, the closest he could come to halal burial under the circumstances, and laid the dead son down, and covered him. Then he scooped up the surviving son and fled. But in his panic he’d taken the dead boy and buried the living one.

    Other stories circulate in the darkness, jokes, boredom. After an hour or so Rabih returns. The army has changed its mind, and forbids any rescue operations off Pepsi Road that night. The men return to their stations to sleep.


    In the morning, Rabih’s red van crosses Pepsi Road without incident and parks at the near corner of the Abajis’ street. A pair of army Humvees holds the far end. The men of civil defense, in red or blue jumpsuits, keep to the street’s sides in deference to sounds of continuing gunfire—safely distant, they’re told. Metal gates and stone walls run the length of the street, behind which concrete buildings stand, one to three floors each in various degrees of destruction and hues of sand. Some boast stone columns, others razor wire, others gaping mortar holes. All are bullet and shrapnel marked.

    In the center of the block, where the damage is most severe, lies the Abajis’ house. The homes on either side are shorn open in cross section, so that it is possible to see into a carpeted hallway; a bedroom with unmade bed; a study, its books overturned and scattered across the floor, a Koranic verse framed on the wall above a soldier swiveling in a black office chair, looking out over the devastation. Which is utter, a massive pile of brick and concrete, rebar thorning out. It’s difficult to imagine anyone alive beneath, but civil defense has made some surprising rescues. Colonel Qusay paces the pile in aviator sunglasses, urgently directing his men. Shards and slabs of stone grind beneath his stained brown boots.

    “He’d quickly dug a shallow grave, the closest he could come to halal burial under the circumstances, and laid the dead son down, and covered him.”

    Center pile, the Baghdadis’ lead man, Hussein, 43, hefts a gas-powered hacksaw. He’s over six feet and broad beneath his blue helmet. A Texas “Fire and Rescue” patch in that state’s shape adorns the left biceps of his red jumpsuit. A friend gave it to him during their training by American contractors in what was once known as Baghdad’s Green Zone. Hussein was top of his class. With a yank on the pull starter he brings the saw sparking to a piece of rebar. The rubble’s twisted skeleton, rebar must be broken up so chunks of roof and wall can be separated and cleared. The pile is like a giant puzzle in which each piece must be removed carefully, to prevent slide or collapse. The cutting is laborious. Hussein leans into it as other men take turns holding his belt from behind, lest he lose footing. When he cuts through to an open space, men chip around it, expanding the hole until it’s large enough to enter, which Hussein does.

    Then, from down in the pit, he shouts, “It’s ISIS,” and, for evidence: “They have a weapon!”

    He’s found a body. A pocket in the crush suggests the possibility of survivors. They would be on life’s edge, unlikely to have eaten or drunk in nearly four days. A strong basement is the best chance, but the pile still stands two stories above street level.

    “Boys,” shouts Colonel Qusay, “nobody else down there . . .”

    Lieutenant Jabar paraphrases his commander’s order to the men at greater volume, according to habit. “Boys, nobody go down! Only the team.” Then he softens. “Once they become tired, I’ll put you in.”

    Hussein shouts evenly from the pit: “We have two bodies here.”

    From all sides, shouted suggestions. Like many groups of men faced with a problem of spatial reasoning—say, packing suitcases into a trunk—the civil defense group argues about the best way to proceed. One of the most vocal is stubbled, pouchy Adil, who sometimes hovers near Colonel Qusay, and other times disappears entirely from the pile. He wears a white bandanna around his chins and a red T-shirt over his prodigious gut. Printed on the shirt is a cartoon of a half-naked, enormously muscled Caucasian fireman, holding a drooping fire hose and flashing a thumbs-up. ONLY THE BEST ARE IN THE FIRE DEPARTMENT, reads the German caption.

    “Sir, if you go from here,” Adil says, “and we pull them out, it would be better. There’s lots of rubble on them.”

    Colonel Qusay ignores him, shouting down into the hole: “Check them! If they are ISIS, don’t bother with them, leave them. Check them; if all of them are ISIS we’ll video them and go back.”

    “Sir,” calls back Hussein, “two of them are ISIS here.”

    “Record them,” says Adil. “Record them.” He sounds unusually eager for them to be ISIS rather than civilian.

    A bulldozer driver who has been observing this exchange suggests a more careful process. “Sir,” he says, “let’s take out the rubble and then identify them.”

    “There’s one of them lying on his stomach,” calls Hussein. “You can’t identify him.”

    “Hussein, come out,” orders Colonel Qusay, and then to another man, “Bring the bags!”

    As men help Hussein up and out of the hole, Adil asks him, “Hussein, are they wearing military clothes?”

    “I don’t know, it’s dark.”

    “They’re wearing military clothes, right?”

    ISIS fighters aren’t consistently uniformed, but they often wear military gear.

    “It’s not clear, ISIS or not ISIS,” a nearby fireman interjects from behind a mask.

    “Do they have weapons with them?” Adil wants to know.

    “No weapons,” says Hussein.

    “I heard there are weapons.”

    “The smell is too much,” says the masked fireman. “There must be a lot of bodies here.”


    Eventually, the pit is big enough for several men. Saleh, a Muslawi from Rabih’s unit, climbs down to join Hussein. He’s even bigger than Hussein, six and half feet tall, plainly mighty but also gentle, with no equipment but a baseball cap, a white surgical mask, and red gloves. He’s known for heroism. The day before, he single-handedly carried an unexploded missile from the basement of an old man’s home to the street, comforting the wide-eyed elder along the way. Now Saleh stoops, scrabbles, passes warm stones up into the light. The temperature is 105 degrees or so when he finds the body of a woman.

    “Do you want the pickaxe?” a voice calls from above.

    “Give it to me,” commands Lieutenant Jabar. At the pit’s edge he runs the operation like everyone’s stern uncle, like the assistant director on Maestro’s final shoot. Seen it all before. “Nobody come through here, nobody come through.”

    Saleh pulls another stone loose. Only the woman’s arms and head are exposed. It will be hard and delicate work to free her without damaging her body. For a moment, Saleh leans against the side of the pit, breathing heavily. Someone tosses him a bottle of water. He catches it, pulls down his paper mask, tilts his head back, pours half the water into his mouth, gargles, then spits it all out. It’s Ramadan, so he’s fasting, won’t even drink. He stoops to dig again.

    Colonel Qusay calls down to Hussein beside him. “Hussein, how is it? Do you want the fork to move rubble? Abu Akil! One more scoop!”

    Across the street a mortar lands, sending aloft a wispy plume of smoke.

    “Sir,” someone shouts, “come here, a mortar just landed there!”

    Lieutenant Jabar adds calmly, “Watch out.”

    “Everybody keep going,” orders Colonel Qusay.

    In the bottom of the pit, Saleh exposes the fullness of the woman’s body. Brief silence from the men amid screeching saws and bullets.

    Noon light as lamplight, a dome of dust. Golden bracelets ring the corpse’s bloated wrists.

    “Get them the blue bags and a blanket!” orders Qusay. “And no one come around here, rocks will fall on the guys who are working down there. . . .”

    Body bags, also known as cadaver bags or human remains pouches, vary in quality. The bags standard to American hospitals retail at a little over 20 dollars. More durable versions—manufactured to prevent contamination, or contain infectious disease—run up to two hundred dollars apiece. Qusay’s are cheap, bright blue, and made, probably, of polyethylene, the world’s most produced plastic—constituting soda bottles, recycling bins, much of the plumbing in the wall. Polyethylene is also found, increasingly, in the oceans. One of the highest concentrations discovered so far lies in a gyre of the northern Pacific Ocean and is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Though some sailors have reported great swaths of floating debris, the patch is actually invisible, innumerable microscopic particles. Few of the men of civil defense have ever seen the ocean, or likely ever will. Certainly the woman won’t, now, rotting in the pit, and her own particles are unlikely to mingle with polyethylene in the oceans or atmosphere anytime soon. But one day they will.

    “In the bottom of the pit, Saleh exposes the fullness of the woman’s body. Brief silence from the men amid screeching saws and bullets. Noon light as lamplight, a dome of dust. Golden bracelets ring the corpse’s bloated wrists.”

    Mighty Saleh folds a blanket around her body. He tucks her bangled arm away and, with Hussein, hoists her, wrapped so, into one of the blue bags. But then he can’t close the zip. It’s stuck.

    Saleh pulls, fiddles. At pit’s lip, men shift, embarrassed, on their feet.

    Colonel Qusay calls down, “Close the zip!”

    Lieutenant Jabar: “Pull the bag closed!”

    Saleh struggles with the mechanism, kneeling, his broad back in the sun, his huge red-gloved hands fumbling.

    21 bodies remain.


    Seven more have been extracted and lie in six body bags along the broken sidewalk (two children sharing) when the brothers Abdulilah arrive. Both are slightly paunched, in late middle age, their hair sensibly parted and receding. Muad’s is snowy, but Moghdad’s retains some iron gray and rusty brown from when he was a younger man. At this moment the lines around his eyes and jaw, half a nickel deep, are trembling, but in his pressed plaid shirt he holds a dignified silence. You can see it costs him, there beside his brother Muad, who, by contrast, sobs on his feet. Their father and stepmother, they suspect, lie in the rubble, perhaps other relatives.

    Rabih immediately identifies the brothers as bereaved and steers them through a fractured wall to the shade of a neighboring courtyard. We join them there.

    “Tell him,” Muad shouts at my fixer, spittle in his beard, his breath hot. “Tell him it is all death, death, death! Death! Death! Death!”

    Moghdad, quieter but enraged: “America caused this.”

    “Tell him to write three words. Mosul is death, death, death. There are 20 people, my dad is one of them. My dad and my dad’s second wife.”

    “This was by airstrike, or mortar?”

    “Airstrike! An American airstrike! The missile lands exactly in the center of the house”—a screech of metal erupts nearby, but Muad shouts over it—“into the basement.”

    “Was ISIS with them?”

    “We don’t know, we weren’t in the house,” says Moghdad. “Sometimes, only one ISIS is there and 20 or 12 or 15 civilians die.”

    “Let me be clear,” Muad objects, index finger in the air, “not even a quarter of an ISIS was here!”

    “America destroyed us,” says Moghdad.

    Where Moghdad is exhausted by grief, Muad is energized, and in his rage appears ready to lift the pile himself, or perform some other act of strength defying the conventions of society and physics.

    “America, America, America!” he screams. “They kill more than they liberate! This is America’s fault!”

    The men of civil defense have heard such screams before. Lieutenant Jabar soon takes Muad and Moghdad to identify bodies. The brothers can do only so much. The Abaji house, it turns out, was sheltering the Abdulilahs and several other families besides—Hassawis, al-Numas, Hamdanis. The brothers identify a single corpse of those so far collected: The woman with the gold bracelets is their stepmother. Moghdad massages his temples in absent grief as, with the bag open, Lieutenant Jabar explains the care with which his men account for all valuables— never stealing anything, like these gold bracelets.

    “Come on, come on,” Muad cries, snot running into his mustache. “Cover the face and close the zipper!”

    A young man in jeans and a maroon shirt, pistol on his hip, no uniform to mark him, declares of the bodies: “Nothing is clear, you can’t recognize them.”

    Muad crying, steps away from his stepmother’s corpse.


    From The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars by Nick McDonell, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2018 by Nick McDonell.

    Nick McDonell
    Nick McDonell
    Nick McDonell, born in 1984, is a writer of novels, journalism, and political theory. He studied literature at Harvard and international relations at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. His fiction has been published in twenty-two languages and appeared on bestseller lists around the world. A film adaptation of his first novel, Twelve, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. His academic work on nomadism—The Civilization of Perpetual Movement—was published in 2016. As a reporter for the London Review of Books, Time, TheNewYorker.com, and Harper’s, Nick has embedded with the United States Army and Marines, the Afghan Special Forces, the African Union Mission to Darfur, and the Iraqi Special Forces. Nick’s last book, The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars, was published in 2018. Nick is a cofounder of the Zomia Center for the Study of Non-State Spaces, which supports scholarly and humanitarian projects around the world.

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