In Tim O’Brien’s masterful, short-story collection, The Things They Carried, the first-person narrator talks about returning to Vietnam with his daughter twenty years after he was a foot soldier there. While fictional, the story isn’t too far off for many Americans, who have returned to Vietnam on vacation. Unlike Vietnam vets, however, it seems unlikely that the latest generation of U.S. military veterans will ever return to places like Iraq or Afghanistan as tourists. At best, they are or will be relegated to showing their children screenshots of Google Earth, which is not exactly a bad thing. I mean take the following screenshot for example.
Besides the words “Latifiya Town in Iraq,” what do you see?
Zoom in, and the picture gets digitized. So, take a guess.
Yes, that is a road or highway, and yes, that is a vehicle pileup in the southern or bottom end of the photo. But why is there a pileup?
Once you have opened Google Earth,* type in “Latifiya” in the search field and click on the first thing that appears, “Latifiya, Babylon Governorate...” Zoom in until you see the road, slightly right of the red marker, and then start heading south until you see the pileup in the following photo.**
Is this pileup the same as the first photo?
No, it isn’t. The second photo is actually north of the first one, i.e. it's on the same road but with a good amount of distance in between. In other words, what you’ve witnessed is the result of an IED or potential IED trapped in time. In between the two logjams, an IED has either 1) exploded already, 2) has been spotted but not yet detonated, or 3) is the figment of somebody’s, most likely an American soldier’s, imagination.
I know this because I’ve traveled this same road, which Google calls “Baghdad Road,” as a U.S. Army grunt, and I’ve experienced similar pileups after my convoy either 1) got hit with an IED or 2) blocked off traffic to investigate a potential IED, inconveniencing and therefore pissing off the local populace.
Need or want more proof? Look at the following photo, in which seems to appear at least three, military-grade vehicles, most likely Humvees.
This barren stretch of roadway is what you’ll find in between the first and second photo.
Actually, the two vehicles at the middle bottom (tan one on the left or southern-bound lane, green one on the right/northern-bound lane) seem to appear in the first photo as well.
In The Things They Carried, the first-person, male protagonist says more than once (seven times to be exact) that he’s forty-three years old. After the fourth iteration, he talks about his visit to a particular 'haunt' in Vietnam with his daughter, who “had just turned ten.” The former foot soldier makes it clear that he was twenty-three the last time he visited that location, a dung field where he witnessed a friend die, if not caused his friend's death.
No friend of mine died while traveling Baghdad Road, but the last time I was on that road, I was like O’Brien’s character: twenty-three. And while I am scheduled to turn forty-three before my daughter turns ten, I cannot imagine a time when it will be safe enough for me, let alone her, to travel back to the Middle East to visit a place where I, once upon a time, was attacked with roadside bombs.
Google Earth, therefore, will have to do.
*If you don’t have Google Earth on your mobile device or PC, download it now. It’s an app. Otherwise, it’s called Google Earth Pro for PC/Mac users. You can view the same photos using Google Maps. Google Earth, however, is better.
**The screenshots were taken with my Android.