Magazine article The New Yorker

Lamb Stew

Magazine article The New Yorker

Lamb Stew

Article excerpt

LAMB STEW

Iraqis call the hot wind that blows across the Maysan desert--the wasteland north of Basra, bordering Iran--"the date cooker." The British soldiers of the King's Royal Hussars, who patrolled that desert when I was there in June, 2007, called it "the face cooker." In my experience, it cooked everything, including the parts of my brain that regulated sleep and appetite. As a result, I hadn't slept or eaten in thirty-six hours, but, strangely, I didn't feel tired or hungry.

I'd met up with the Hussars in the desert to create a temporary landing zone, which would serve as a lily pad for a nocturnal assault on an I.E.D. facility in the nearby city of Al Amarah. The SEALs who would execute the assault were scheduled to arrive from Baghdad later that night. They'd refuel at the L.Z., then launch the attack. We expected a fight, so the L.Z. had to be big enough to accommodate a ten-helicopter assault force, a field surgical suite, an ammo dump, and a Blackhawk-maintenance element.

Finding the right spot in Maysan was not easy. Sand as fine as moondust posed a brownout hazard. Debris from the Iran-Iraq War--burned-out tanks, trucks, and jet engines--ruined many a would-be L.Z. There were sinkholes--which the Brits called B.F.H.s, short for "big fucking holes"--wide enough to swallow two Chinooks. And the massive tangles of barbed wire that blew across the desert could cause catastrophic damage if hooked by turning rotors.

After a protracted search, we'd settled on a site twenty miles east of Al Amarah, where the sand was compact and the hazards were relatively few. Having marked the L.Z.'s perimeter with green chemical lights, I began marking the hazards in red, including a two-story-tall barbed-wire tangle in the shape of a swan, which buzzed in the wind like a kazoo. When I was satisfied that the incoming pilots would be adequately warned, I returned to the Hussars' WMIK, a weaponized Land Rover. Hugh drove, and Gavin stood in the rear, manning the fifty-cal.

"Back for a bit of scoff?" Hugh asked me. Scoff, I'd learned, was the British equivalent of chow. Camp was a mile away if we followed the hypotenuse of the L.Z.'s rectangle. Hugh sped toward it, raising dust that braided behind us. A black spot emerged up ahead in the middle distance, growing larger as we approached. I thought Hugh would see it and slow down. I thought he'd at least turn. …

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