Mo didn’t think that it was a foxhole, really, but more of a shallow depression left when a recent mortar misfire had landed in the soft, moist, often-tilled black earth of this poor farmer’s field. The ground itself was dismally flat, even this close to the river, as was most of the land in this country. But the hole itself was very difficult to see, surrounded as it was by the withered tall stubble of common wheat that littered the field. The failed crop appeared to be more than a year old; the acres around the hole carried a general feeling of abandonment. It was that very ground under that very stubble which had provided him with a hardpan path that would not easily show his footsteps.
He had thanked God, as was his long habit, for the stubbled hardpan and now he thanked God for the foxhole that had been provided without the expense of any his waning energy. Thanking God had somehow become routine even when he was alone, despite his doubts. Between his highly religious brother and strong social pressure, there was a reflex action to at least think the words. He shook his head and allowed himself a small smile. Whatever the reason, he had been well ahead of the enemy patrol when he had come upon this field and decided to take a chance on the stubble. He had felt safer as soon as he left the deeply rutted road. Better, now it was twilight and Mo had a place to hide for the night.
He was almost sure that the men who were after him would feel that he had disappeared into thin air if he was just smart enough to stay where he was and keep his head down. With that thought, he settled into the shallow hole and took a sip of water from his canteen. That was when he heard the sound of rotor blades from above and off to the East. He really hoped that the enemy was not looking for him from the air. In actual fact, Mo didn’t think he was worth the trouble. There was some doubt that anyone would think that he was worth the trouble.
Mo’s wife, for one, was definitely not in favor of him being in the middle of a war zone. Nor was she as religious as either her family or his. Her sometimes sharp tongue had flayed the religious overtones behind this war often enough, sometimes even within earshot of their relatives. It was becoming an awkward situation, all the more so because Mo increasingly found that he was on her side and was unable to say so because of the pressure placed on him by family and friends. It did not help that she was five months pregnant.
He studied his surroundings in the fading light. The mortar shell had come down in the center of a thick stand of dried stalks, surrounded by weeds, almost all of which was still intact. Unless searchers flew directly over his position, they would never see him. Even from directly above, if they were moving as fast as they usually did, they would have a very difficult time picking him out from the rest of the litter that made up the field. Mo’s little bit of exposed skin was almost as dirty as the earth he was laying on, and so was his uniform.
Still, these people were fanatics. He would not put it past them to sound a national alarm in an attempt to locate and capture one lonely soldier that had become separated from the rest of his brothers in arms. Mo did not like to think of what would happen to him if he was captured. He would need to keep an ear and eye out for men on the ground looking for him or his trail. Often, the same men that captured stray soldiers beat and tortured them. He did not think that he could stand up to much torture. Nor did he want even a quick death at the hands of the enemy.
When the large enemy patrol had scattered Mo’s small platoon of commandos, they had been ready for it. At the completion of the mission, or if they were surprised by the enemy, the commandos were to gather in a safe spot known only to them and the small convoy that would pick them up. As hard as Mo had tried to reach the rendezvous, the enemy had stayed, perhaps unknowingly, between him and safety. It was the enemy that had won that skirmish.
Mo decided, finally, that it would not be a good idea to move any further tonight. The troops that chased him had been tenacious; he did not doubt that they had the skill to capture him if he was not very careful. So he lay quietly in the shallow depression, surrounded by the ghostly dead vegetation. In the gathering darkness, with no action to distract him, his mind relentlessly returned to a subject that had hammered at him for months.
It was difficult to live in this sect-against-sect war zone and not begin to think about the violence that religious zealots perpetrated upon each other and everyone else. He thought back to the bodies in the streets of Baghdad, blood running brightly to the curb, a severed foot, still in its shoe, under a blackened car. Sunni against Shiite, Iraqi against Iranian, Arab against Jew. He knew it was just the latest struggle in this war-torn part of the world, but that did not make the particulars any easier to take at close hand.
It seemed that everyone was willing to shoot or blow up anyone that did not believe in the same God and the same rules that controlled their own little band of believers. The shrillness of the Imams, amplified from their towers, and the shrieking of the women in the marketplace while he was on duty there, had deadened his nerves to nearly flat-line level. When you have seen too much, your mind refuses to clearly see any more. All of the blood-red and shattered-bone-white blends into a shade of gray.
The images of violence had begun to run together in his mind. Sometimes he was confused, as an old man seems confused, feeling a lack of certainty but not really caring about it. It was sometimes hard to tell if he had seen some particular small, limp, bruised child dead in the arms of her wailing father in person or on a television screen. The constant violence that was a part of his everyday life had almost completely drained him of meaningful emotion. Intellectually, Mo understood what he saw, and it still revolted him. Emotionally, however, there was not longer much reaction.
He extended his thoughts, in a more or less clinical fashion, to the other suffering in the world. It was a way, he knew, to attempt to escape from his surroundings, but it had the opposite effect on him tonight. He knew that people all over the world were oppressed by both politics and religion. He had heard some politicians say that religion was holding the common man down. He had heard priests of many religions say that politics were the cause of the problems. Mo had found that he could no longer believe either of them.
Mo had read some history at the university and afterward. He could see that many of his ancestors had been crushed underfoot, just like the people all around him now. Short, vivid mental videos of bloody close-combat battles during the Crusades, of the Inquisition burning heretics at the stake, and of knights on horseback slaughtering villagers seemed to be always close to the back of his eyes, joining the replays of similar scenes from his own short life, old violence bending in with the new.
Mo once again surveyed the area around him. It was very dark and was rapidly becoming cold. Although his line of sight was obscured by the parched vegetation that surrounded him, he was confident that he would be able to see moving lights or hear moving men if either were near. Instead it was completely quiet and dark. Idly, he wondered about the religious sect of the farmer in whose field he sat, and if that farmer would be compelled to kill him on sight due to the simple matter of his clothing.
That brought his mind back to the near certainty that the religions of the world often taught many more men to kill than they taught not to steal. It was clear to him that the holy men of all religions were not teaching people to do the right thing; they were instead teaching men to do the things that the holy men wanted them to do, which often went against the grain of the most basic teachings of any religion. That was especially true in this maelstrom of sectarian battles in which he found himself.
He wondered how the Imams, the powerful and over-fed figures he sometimes glimpsed atop their towers or in television interviews, could exhort their followers to kill neighbors who worshipped the same God and ate the same meals, but differed in their interpretation of some line in the Quran. How could the Pope speak of word peace one day, and of the inferiority of all non-Catholics on the next? How did their robes stay so pure and white among all the dark lies? How could the followers of such narrow-minded holy men not see the false nature of their words?
His brother was just one of the deeply religious, violent men that had been all around Mo in his youth. They were so certain that their God was correct, and that they were the tools He would use to smite their enemies. They were mostly simple people, farmers and other rural characters, just as sure of their righteousness as they were of the tales carried by the old wives through the generations. His young wife had warned him, almost as soon as they were married, that they would be better off in a city, away from these men that she called “religious buffoons.”
Mo shook his head. It was likely that some of the religious fanatics who wanted to kill him, or worse, had sometimes had the same thoughts that he was having tonight. But they had remained convinced of their faith. And Mo found that tonight, tired, hungry, and trapped in a shallow hole in the ground, he finally could no longer believe in their God or any god. Belief required him to disregard the reasons for the mayhem and human suffering that surrounded him in this merciless place. He simply could no longer ignore all of the blood in all of the streets during all the centuries since the first God had appeared to the first man and taught him to hate anyone that was different.
Mo closed his eyes briefly. He knew he would not pray, tonight or any night ever again, out of habit or for any other reason. It was nearly midnight, God was dead, and he knew that he should sleep. There was only a thin crescent of a moon to see by and he was sure that he was safe for tonight. Tomorrow night there would be no moon at all and he would travel. He needed to get to safety soon, or his life would quickly become very complicated. But he knew with a diamond certainty, on a dark night, in the hidden center of a farmer’s bombed field, that he had become an unbeliever. It felt like the lifting of a burden. He felt cleansed, like hands freshly washed, or a white shirt newly laundered. He just wanted to go home, to tell his wife that he understood her doubts, and to await the birth of their first child.
Feeling lighter than he had during most of his life, Mo curled up in the shallow depression in the farmer’s field and felt himself to be truly at peace in the midst of a war. It would be different tomorrow, he knew, when the fanatic American Christians were looking for him again. In truth, more than half of his fellow Iraqis would be as likely to kill him as the Americans would be if they caught him.