Haircuts for the Dead: An example of the horrors of War I lived

This is a short except from my book Quest for War, and one Green Beret’s subsequent evolution. This incident took place on March 29th, 2003, after the first day of Operation Viking Hammer, which was when 10 thousand Kurdish fighters and 6 Army Green Beret teams assaulted a Radical Islamic organization called Ansar Al Islam (AAI). This is the part in which I was given the task of cutting hair samples from the dead in order to confirm or deny that there may have been chemical weapons engineering in the Sargat Chemical Facility.

[…] and we were told to go cut hair samples from the dead AAI bodies that were littered throughout the valley. We were told to place the hair samples into zip lock bags, take a picture of each body from which we had cut the hair using a digital camera, then label each bag of hair with the corresponding photo name.

My medic and I looked at each other in disbelief, and I set out on foot with a few Kurds towards the north side of Sargat to get the job done. I immediately arrived at the edge of a seemingly endless expanse of dead and disfigured human bodies.

The first dead person I encountered was severely burned. His lips were burnt off one side of the mouth along with most of his face. This created a horrifying snarl expression, because his teeth and burnt gums were exposed only on one side. The combination of the ghastly snarl, the burnt and wrinkled black eyes that seemed to peer through my soul, the smell of his burnt flesh, and the contorted frozen expression on his face seemed almost supernatural to me. I reached out and grabbed his hair, touched his hair, and snipped some off. I was so close to him I could see individual gnarled facial hairs protruding from the pores of his lifeless skin. His head wobbled a bit like an unstable inanimate object in a hideously abnormal way, unresponsive to my touch. I was sickened as I stuffed the hair into a plastic bag; almost forgot to breath as I stood over the corpse, and then I continued through the rolling hills of death before me that were littered with motionless mangled corpses. I think I confirmed the existence of Hell this day.

There was a group of 5 bodies that had been charred and melted together into a heap of gore; almost like a pile of slightly melted and burned human wax figures. The pile of shocking revulsion was mostly blackened, but also consisted of twisted skin (some burned and some not), burnt clothing and equipment, and exposed and broken bones and entrails. One of the men’s abdomen was burned through, so his intestines had spilled out and were also charred. The motionlessness of their bodies and eyes was indescribable. Their mouths were agape under empty eye sockets, and they wore perpetual expressions of pain and agony. It was as if a demented artist had erected a monument to horror.  The level of anxiety I felt as I approached the pile made my entire body go so numb and tingly that I could barely feel myself.

One of the Kurds said the men had been hit with a 106mm round; I guessed it was an incendiary round because that’s the only thing that could have burned them to death so fast that they couldn’t separate in time, hence causing the merging via melting that I stood there looking at in awe, shuddering. As I got close enough to cut some hair, the smell of burnt flesh was staggering as I inhaled their fumes. I cut some hair off the ones that actually still had small patches of hair left; crispy flesh fell off in some places because of the movement when I grabbed…touched…felt… the hair in order to cut it. I was careful not to pull too hard on the hair to extend it so I could cut it, because I didn’t want to pull the partially encrusted scalp off with it, and if the hair was singed I didn’t want to break it. It was very difficult to force myself to touch them, and at one point I almost passed out from forgetting to breathe again.

 Another had blown himself up with a suicide bomb vest. Some of the AAI had strapped themselves with explosives so they could blow us up in the event that they were overrun. This guy was one example and he’d blown himself generally in half. Entrails, red, with small clumps of dirt stuck to them, mangled and slightly burned, were hanging out of his lower torso and broken twisted legs, and so much blood had drained from this half of his body that there was a coagulated trail of sticky dark redness extending probably 50 feet down the sloped hill we were standing on. It was a seemingly impossible amount of blood; surreal. The body smelled like feces because of the exploded and exposed intestines dangling out of the torso. The whole area actually smelled like feces because of the scattered pieces of intestines that were spread around the area from the blast. Some of his upper shoulders and head, attached to broken, shredded, and burned arms with bones extruding in fragments from them, were about 20 feet uphill. One side of his ribcage was ripped open and presented itself like some kind of monster’s claw, draped in gore. The face, mouth gaping and impossibly crooked, with dead eyes facing different directions, was perverted into a bizarre unnatural expression, and the horrifyingly demented position of the head evinced a brutally broken neck. He had those same relentless eyes…and the motionlessness really got to me again. He still had some good hair, so I kneeled down, grabbed some and cut it. It’s impossible to convey or describe the emotion elicited by being inches away from, and touching, mutilated dead human bodies like this, in this context. Horror is the only word that comes to mind, but that word still fails to deliver the magnitude of the sentiment that overcame me– sheer dreadfulness, sheer anguish, and other wordless emotions, overcame my soul.

Another bestially brutalized corpse was smashed into a small aqueduct that ran laterally across the ridge. His face was completely concave like a bowl; pushed inward all the way back to the back of the inside of his skull, similar to how a flat soccer ball can be pushed in to itself. This made his eyes bizarrely face each other, staring past each other. Brains, grey and chunky, and a large pool of black coagulated blood were splattered underneath the broken and twisted neck, and upper body. I tried to imagine how this could have happened, but could not completely figure it out [93]. I bent down, put my left knee on the ground, then swung my right leg over his body onto the other side of the small aqueduct, hence straddling the carcass. I looked deeply into his frozen concave and sparsely bearded face, and into those open but empty eyes. One eye was pointed slightly upward and the other slightly downward, both unseeing. I drew a shuddering breath as I mustered up the courage to reach down closer to cut off some of his hair. It was difficult to cut, because it was like most of the hair was inside of a bowl. I pulled the hair pretty hard to detach the skin from the skull slightly so I could get the scissors inside the bowl enough to cut off a decent amount from the area above his forehead. It made a sickening wet ripping sound as I pulled the skin from the skull. I cut the hair, then I slipped as I was getting up from the straddle position with the hair in one hand and scissors in the other, and I got some blood and brains on my hand as well as my fingerless black leather gloves.

One body was still bleeding somehow, very slowly. A Kurd explained that this bleeding AAI man had killed his brother during the attack. The Kurd poked the body with his barrel, holding the AK by the pistol grip. The way he poked the body was as if he was simply poking a piece of meat and he did it with no expression on his face or any indication of emotion whatsoever. This is when I fully understood how numb the Peshmerga are to the brutality of war. I cut the hair and kept moving forward, wading through the filth.

We cut hair and took pictures most of the day, switching places at times. The images are all still vivid in my mind. A head that had been savagely ripped off was on the ground with no sign of a body anywhere near it, a seemingly impossible scenario; we cut its hair. A body was blown in half the long way from crotch to neck, peeled apart into a heart shape with the head in the middle; we cut the hair. Legs on the ground. Arms on the ground. Fingers. Feet. Hands. Sections of spinal columns. Meaty ribcages. Skull shards with patches of hair. Fragments of bone and skin and randomly distributed chunks of striated muscle meat. The smell of burnt hair and flesh and feces and gunpowder permeated the air.  Everywhere I looked across the expanse before me, hundreds of yards in any direction, a view of something awful could not be escaped. Death was maddeningly and inescapably everywhere and literally made my head spin [20].

Finally, we ran out of plastic bags, so we silently walked back through Hell holding dozens of zip lock bags full of hair samples and a digital camera, down to the house we had stayed the night in. We hadn’t even put a dent in the amount of dead bodies there were in terms of collecting hair samples, but at least it was over.

Imagine looking across 100 football fields and seeing a mangled dead body or cluster of dead bodies lying every five yards across the entire expanse. It was like a scene out of some absurd zombie apocalypse movie. The Kurds were throwing bodies into trucks like cordwood towards the end of the day. I was stunned at how mechanically they did it. They had to get the bodies out of there somehow since Kurdish families were already moving into houses in Sargat, and to do it effectively they just had to stop feeling anything. The Kurds have spent generations in war; they had it down to a science.

We found passports from countries all over the world on the dead bodies and in the buildings in Sargat. They hailed from multiple North African countries, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, Afghanistan, and there was even a member of the PLO there from Palestine, and that’s just a few [21].

The notion of achieving glory on the field of battle, which I had dreamt of my entire adult life, was crushed. I was immensely sick and exhausted, traumatized, and thoroughly disgusted with the whole scene, including my own performance during the battle (since I had frozen). The only thing that helped me cope was that we had just made more room for the Kurds to live in peace (as much as they ever could I guess) in this corner of Iraq. I kept telling myself this over and over as a way to rationalize what I’d just experienced.

We spent another day in the Halabja area, firing rockets and mortars at members of AAI as they escaped into Iran. The sound of the Katooshas and mortars became maddening; every time one fired all the fibers in my body tensed and tore. I watched many dozens of them in the distance climbing over the snow packed peaks along the border on foot; black specs moved across the white peaks that pointed high into the huge blue sky over Iran. Periodically, the Iranian border positions also fired at them as they tried to get into Iran. Because of the immense terrain, most of them got away.

As I watched so many AAI fighters escape into the mountains, I felt surprised, and then disillusioned, that we hadn’t actually killed all of them. Then I thought about where they’d pop up next and whether what we had just done had been pointless or not.