The first round

Photo by James Clark

What did I just do? A loud crack. What am I doing? There's a soft clatter as something metallic hits the dirt near my feet and sends up a small plume of dust.

Why am I shooting?

Another series of solid and hollow cracks as more cylindrical casings pool at my feet.

Where are they?

Where did they come from?

What am I doing?

Five minutes ago we were walking along. The only shooting was from a small camera. The only sound aside from the clomp of boots on dead earth was the snap as the shutter opened and closed.

It's odd how that goes. Time. Just minutes ago we were all jim fucking dandy before john doe started some shit. And several month's ago, before all of this; I was peachy fucking keen, relaxing on the catwalk of my barracks, sipping cheap beer and dipping Cope Long Cut, back home in the states. And what seems like eons before that, I was relaxing on the beach in sunny Santa Cruz, California. The archetypical hippie. Dreadlocked. Stoned. Naïvely innocent and so sure of what I knew and understood.

How did things go so wrong?

Or maybe they went just right.

The sweat stings my eyes and spills down my neck bringing me back to the present.

We're on patrol across the arid landscape that makes up the countryside of Afghanistan's Helmand Province. We're looking for the Taliban.

We pass dead crops and dying one's. Dried up husks of plants curl their fingers up at us in protest of our trespassing. Our patrol slithers along.

We head northwest. That's where they are. Just walk twenty minutes and you'll get contact. That's what we were told. So Charly, a fellow cameraman, and I just nodded our heads with all the foolhardy eagerness we could muster.

We showed up, easily excitable by the prospect of 'contact.' Such a deceptive word for incoming enemy fire. Out to cover the war. To get the scoop. To see action.

Northwest. That's where it is.

They were absolutely fucking right.

We walked for just over a half hour. Trudging along because we had intel that a machine gun nest was located somewhere within the cluster of mud huts before us.

Charly and I, with our cameras and pads of paper. Our pens and pencils.

Oh, and our rifles and ammunition. Turns out we needed those.

Passing through a hole in a mudwall we begin to step across another blank space. That's what it would look like on a map. Just empty smudged space, like when you write something with a number two pencil and try to erase it with that shitty pink rubber at the end of it. You get that off-greyish brown smear. That's what this place would look like on a map.

Seven men passed out into the open. I was the fourth back from the front. Charly next to me, his video camera rolling and me, snapping away – getting hero shots.

Then we heard the first crack. Then the next.

The first gunshot is always the loudest.

The other thirty or forty are hardly noticeable. Save for the clouds of dirt that kick up around your feet or the high pitched squeal as they zip past your helmet, the air tickling your ears as it roars by and imbeds itself into the wall behind you.

This is my first real patrol since we've been in country. It's early January and just a month since we've gotten here. My first taste of what I've been after. My chance to do the gig. To do it for real, the way it's meant to be done.

But, for some reason, all I do is make a stupid face and stand there for a second, watching as everyone else does the same. We seem to be debating crouching down and returning. Then, as a whole, we realize we just walked past a wall. A foot thick chunk of dirt that appears to be doing a very good job of stopping incoming bullets.

It's not fear that grips me and I don't really hesitate. I just seem to be waiting. Maybe for a bullet to come hurtling out of the distance and lodge itself lovingly in my chest, snuggling up against my heart until it pierces that most vital organ and rebounds throughout my chest cavity.

In that brief moment of stillness it's not trepidation or fear. It's elation. Excitement. A thrill of being alive this close to death. I can go at any second. But I don't want to, not just yet. That would put an end to the 'game.'

Turning on our heels we sprint with a speed that we've never had before. Leaping over discarded plows and wheelbarrows. We bolt back to the wall and jump over the lip, like Bruce Willis in a bad action movie as the bullets chase us. They swerve, rise and fall as we do. They're drawn to us. Bullets have a thing for Marines.

The volume, which was turned down, suddenly jumps back up. We're being ambushed and we don't feel too bad about it. In fact, I can't stop smiling.

I didn't think I would like this. I feel like I shouldn't. But, against my better judgment and conscience. I do. I do a great deal.

Peering from behind cover I see muzzle flashes from the compound across from us.

Looking around, I see that the grunts have begun to work. Their confidence is infectious. It seeps from them. They look down range, standing tall and unafraid, like some fairy tale creature made real.

As they press up against the wall or peer around corners sighting in. I mimic them, bringing my rifle up and looking down the scope, but my mind pulls me to my camera, dangling at my hip.

Charly slinks about, head low and knees bent, but his videocamera is up and rolling. One eye glued to the LCD screen as he checks the footage, and the other open for incoming rounds.

I can already see the smile forming at the corners of his lips. That Cheshire Cat grin tells me he's making the movie of the year, a real-time Full Metal Jacket.

I should be taking photos. There are still Marines in the open scrambling for cover, but I should let the grunts handle it. They have it under control, they don't need my help, but it's not a matter of need. It has become a matter of want, and before I can think on it any more I commit. My finger curls around the trigger and pulls it back.

I fire and the empty cartridge ejects. Falling to my feet. I do it again and again. Each time the voice gets quieter, until it has faded completely and all I'm left with is the comforting cacophony of gunshots.

We unleash a wall of lead. Dust seems to fall from every inch of the compound as bullet holes appear, turning the outside into Swiss Cheese. After a few moments we can't hear the flat clatter AK-47 fire anymore nor can we see muzzle flashes.

We keep shooting anyways, just to be sure.

After a while, I pull back. Camera in hand I scurry about. Each round fired is followed by a series of snaps as the shutter opens and closes, making the moment eternal.

It's not like the movies. No one shouts “Oorah” or “Get Some!” They are consummate professionals. These are the Wall-street poster boys and Oxford grads of warfare. They are the Lebrons of combat. The Kanye Wests and Bob Dylans of death. This is their world. War is their oyster, or whatever the saying is.

This is what they do and they execute each movement with a precision that stops you in your tracks. It's beyond muscle movement, their weapons aren't just an extension of themselves. The very act of war is a part of them.

I watch as they shoot and assess the impact. They react instinctively, never losing a beat. Several of them hold conversations in between bursts of fire. “Think we'll get back in time for chow? Shit, did you see that?! I wonder what we're having for dinner, probably same shit as last night. Damn, he's getting close, how many do you think there are?” and so on.

The quiet that has begun to settle is interrupted as a stubborn fighter opens up with his AK-47. He shoots wildly and the bullets fly everywhere. They hit the ground, the wall and zip past our heads. None of the grunts move.

A Marine to my left, with a stocky build and a bulldog's shoulders and under-bite, snorts and then spits, embarrassed for his attacker. I get the feeling he feels sorry for the poor fuck. So sorry he levels his M249 SAW, which looks like a tommy-gun on steroids, and peppers the compound with rounds.

The shooting stops.

As the minutes wear on , we prepare to move from the wall to another series of buildings. Everywhere we go we're chased by incoming rounds. Signal fires are lit and smoke unwinds skyward. The universal sign for 'come here and help us kill the Marines.'

Breaking up into several four man teams we prepare to cross the vast divide. That long stretch of ground is our own personal slice of no-man's land.

We are so fucked.

Photo by James Clark

The first group tears out into the open. A few seconds pass and we begin to breath easier – the others are near the half-way mark. Then, like the Grinch trying to steal Christmas, they snuff out our elation. Soviet made machine guns scream to life as bullets tear past the Marine's legs, or slide across backs and under chins.

Screaming with a voice that never goes hoarse, Sgt. Bee, the consummate grunt, hollers “I want a fucking wall of lead!.” Our reaction is instinctive, and every Marine turns towards the sound of enemy gunfire and unloads. We don't care what we hit, we're sending a message.

You don't fuck with our friends.

Abruptly, you can see each man turn it up a notch. The war-time marathon runners reach the far compound and crash behind oil barrels and thick mud walls. They're safe.

Now it's our turn.

The order is given. I'm the third man back, Charly just behind me. We tear off, the remainder of the squad in tow. Our feet struggle to get purchase on loose earth. Ankles strain to the breaking point as we leap over rivets in the ground at a thunderous pace. After sprinting at dead speed, we begin to slow down. Maybe we got them, they're not shooting at us anymore.

That was a very bad idea. The moment our pace slows, you hear it. The first round. This time, they're close. They're aiming this time. They're really trying to kill us. The thought is strangely unexpected.

Someone's trying to shoot me. What the fuck did I ever do? Oh wait, my bad, I'm a Marine. Carry on then. My inner monologue won't ever stop. If I do get killed, it'll keep going until the last neuron has shot off its remaining rounds. Well, this death thing isn't so bad...I mean, it stops hurting after a whi–...(Insert flat-line here.)

A tingle runs up my spine as I feel a rush of air. A bullet. A fucking bullet just flew past my neck. Without knowing how I do it, I'm suddenly tearing across the field. We all are. Our breathing is heavy, but it goes unheard over the thumping of our hearts.

There's no motivation quite like impending death.

We're almost there and the Marines on the other side have opened up on a dilapidated farmhouse, or the Afghan equivalent of a farmhouse. It has four walls, one with a hole for a door and at one time or another, a roof.

Once again it's quiet, if only for a moment.

Days later, Charly shows me some of his video clips. He left his camera on by accident while we ran and although the video is useless, it captures the moment perfectly.

It's the noise.

The ragged and enraged way we breath as we run. The clatter of rounds hitting the dirt around us, and of course Charly'sflippant commentary, 'Well, that'll make you run faster,' and the like.

The key lesson is this; just because someone's trying to kill you, it doesn't mean you can't die with a smile on your face and laughter in your belly.

Soon enough other fighters have heard the call, and minutes move into hours. The allure has begun to wear off. Rounds are traded. Rockets are swapped. Curse words are hurled back and forth in different languages.

There's never any conclusion.

We just shoot back and forth. Fire and move. Duck and dodge. Never getting any closer to ending it. We pantomime one another.

At one moment we've got them on the run and the next we're surrounded. They advance and are pushed back by Marine snipers, holed up in the crushed shell of a building. It's like any healthy relationship, with equal parts give and take.

At one point we lob three rockets toward a building a hundred feet away and miss with one, destroying the storehouse next to the occupied compound, before taking them out with the next two.

The next second, we're taking fire from medium machine guns and watching as vibrant red tracer rounds zip overhead like low-flying shooting stars.

Throughout it all Sgt. Bee stalks about, his helmet discarded earlier in the fight. Sweat has dried and come anew, plastering the mud across his face. A cigarette hangs from his lower lip, smoked down to the filter, but he doesn't seem to notice. He grips his rifle in one hand as he shouts orders to the men along the wall of the compound where we now take cover.

Grabbing the radio, Sgt. Bee requests air support. When he's off the radio the acronym-riddled radio jargon vanishes and he switches to Marine-speak. The word fuck, in all its diversity, is used frequently.

After what seems like an eternity they give the A-OK and a premature cheer goes up amongst us, only to fall silent in our throats.

The harrier roars in, low and vicious. I can imagine their white and wide eyes. The insurgents. The Taliban, clinging to cover, praying it doesn't happen. Scared out of their fucking minds as this metal bird of prey rips out of the distance, low and fast.

Photo by James Clark

As it screams overhead it flares...No bombs, no boom, just a limp dick show of force. We got air, but that doesn't mean much if we can't drop any ordnance.

The strike has the opposite effect. We're disheartened and our opponents are elated. They fire back in earnest, and the tradeoff continues as if it never stopped.

As daylight fades we chase shadows until darkness falls and they disappear. We never know for sure how many we get.

How many we get.

Like war is some massive game of freeze tag. Ohh! I got you, you're dead now, no moving. Hey cheater! I said no moving. Yeah, a game...just one big fucking game.

As we trudge back to the patrol base, a small part of me can't help but hope that I missed. Each and every time.

I'll have more opportunities to miss and many moments of doubt ahead. Many more, I just haven't realized it yet.