This essay appears in my book Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia out now. Order it here.
There’s a girl I never want to let myself forget. Her name is Samar Hassan and we killed her family.
In January of 2005 in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, Samar, five years old at the time, was riding in the back seat of her parents’ car as they returned from bringing her young brother to the hospital. It was getting dark, and nearing curfew, and her father, likely aware of this, was driving faster than normal. Fearing that the driver was a suicide bomber, an army patrol in the area that evening were given permission to open fire and so they did because that is what army patrols do.
As Specialist Brad Hammond would tell it years later, he and multiple other soldiers fired at least 20 rounds each into the oncoming car. When it finally came to a stop, Samar and her siblings spilled out of the back , their parents now slumped over in the front seat, dead from the torrent of gunfire.
“I was like ‘Oh my god. What did we do? What did we do?” Hammond said in the film “Hondros”, a 2017 documentary about the life of the late, acclaimed conflict photographer Chris Hondros, who was on hand at the shooting.
Hammond still smells what he smelled that night.
“Blood, brains. You ever smelled…” he says in the film, inhaling deeply.
Hondros was embedded with Hammond’s Apache Company at the time. He quickly snapped a series of pictures of the family we destroyed, including the one above, which became one of the most searing and defining images of the war. He’d soon be banished from traveling with the company after disregarding military command’s request not to publish the photos.
Samar’s parents were but two deaths in the conservative estimate of 500,000 or more that came as a direct result of combat or in its aftermath in the collapse of Iraqi infrastructure and the subsequent takeover of parts of the country by the Islamic State, but the photographs Hondros captured of Samar and her siblings — traumatized, bloodied, devastated — did something that reading an abstract number like that can’t ever do. It brought the dead — the distant, unkowable, easily ignorable Iraqi dead — to life.
Look at her face in the photo now. What can she be thinking? Did she have any idea why her parents were murdered. By who?
A subsequent military inquiry determined that the attack on the car was “reasonable in intensity, duration, magnitude."
Samar’s brother, who was badly injured in the shooting as well, was brought to Boston the next year for treatment for his injuries, aid he was afforded in no small part by the widespread attention the photos had garnered and the advocacy of an American aid worker named Marla Ruzicka. Three years later he was eventually murdered in an attack by insurgents. Their uncle, who was taking care of the two children at the time, suspects his home was targeted specifically because the boy had traveled to the United States.
Ruzicka would also be killed in a car bombing in Baghdad not long after.
Hondros would die himself from wounds sustained in a mortar attack while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011.
But Samar. I was trying to remember her name this weekend as the week-long destination wedding ass funeral and round-the-clock 24/7 corpse watch for John McCain continued its interminable slog on cable news. I worried for a while I wouldn’t be able to bring something Samar said in an interview last year back to memory. I felt guilty for having let the specificity of her anguish slip from my mind.
The documentary makers behind “Hondros” tracked Samar down for the film. 18 then, they had come to see her, in part, to bring her an apology from Hammond, who appears in the film himself now as a broken man, unable to emotionally process the extent of what he did. Hammond still has nightmares every night, he said, over shots of an overflowing bag of medication, anxiety pills and so on. He still sees Rakan walking down the street when he goes to sleep.
He asked the documentarians to please tell Samar, if they could find her, that he is sorry.
She does not accept the apology.
“Everybody knows my story and saw my picture,” she tells the filmmakers, through a translator.
“But it’s not going to help me with anything.”
She remembers that night. It’s never gone from her thoughts.
“I hear them screaming in my head and the sound of shooting.”
“What would sorry do?” she asks. “They’re gone. Is sorry going to bring them back? No, it won’t. That’s it. It’s done.”
Here’s a tweet that’s gotten almost 100,000 retweets in the 24 hours since it was posted.
George W. Bush sneaking a piece of candy to Michelle Obama is warming my heart . pic.twitter.com/pAtDdIcSeBSeptember 1, 2018
Here’s another tweet, this one from the New Yorker’s Susan Glaser, a take whose sepia-tinted nostalgia theme abounded across social media over the weekend.
Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney next to each other at John McCain’s funeral... seems so much how Washington used to be, and is no longer. When America hears these stirring patriotic songs today, do they even hear the same words?September 1, 2018
Needless to say, the occasion of McCain’s death has driven the white collar pundit class absolutely fucking insane in all manner of ways.
The angels were crying. Here at CNN - just a few blocks away - no rain. Just there. https://t.co/0Pw2xWb90RAugust 31, 2018
Here’s what Meghan McCain said about her father, to resounding applause.
“The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful and confident and secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
I don’t know if any of the smooth-brained dullards in the media eulogizing John McCain — whose own theater of bravery, lest we forget, lead to at least a million and a half deaths, including an estimated 600,000 civilians — remember much from the Bush era, or just how ravenously horny for invading Iraq, or any other country he thought had it coming, McCain was at the time. Distance does have a way of sanding off the edges. But here’s something that came from Bush and McCain’s war I’d like more people to hear. It’s one of the last things Samar says in the documentary about the men — Bush and McCain’s men, our men — who killed her family for nothing.
What would she say to them if they were to tell her they were sorry?
“I will never forgive them. I will just leave it to God. God will punish them,” she said, her voice rising in anger.
“If they were in front of me, I would want to drink their blood,” she said.
“Even then I wouldn’t be satisfied.”
Thank you for reading. If this is your first time here please check out some of these more recent Hell World pieces.
Things in Canada look pretty fucked right now in terms of Covid. It’s honestly disorienting to hear about from an American perspective just as it seems like we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel down here. Everything is upside down! We’re supposed to be the ones just constantly fucking up. I take no pleasure in reporting this to be clear. I wouldn’t wish American-style public health and policing on my worst enemy.
In any case in order to get to the bottom of why our neighbors to the north seem to be fully chunking it on a third wave of Covid I asked a dozen or so Canadians to explain what’s happening. So here is that. It’s like 8,000 words of Canadians just motherfucking their government over and over.
Last week I sent out this Hell World to paying subscribers. It’s a discussion with a palliative care nurse practitioner about how his job changed during the onslaught of Covid and what it feels like to be the person who has to explain to so many patients that they are going to die. It’s really depressing! Even grading on a curve for what I normally cover in here.
What do people tend to say at the end of life? When they know they’re about to die? Are there any common themes?
It’s really unpredictable how somebody is going to react to the news. Largely people immediately have regrets. I hate to say that. It’s human nature to not expect yourself to die. As the protagonist of reality you don’t expect that you’re ever going to die or not be around. I think a lot of people, it’s trite, but they go through those stages of grief. There's gotta be something else you can do, or what did I do wrong or what can I change. There has to be something. I think grief and regret comes early on in the process of digesting the news.
Then a lot of times it’s pretty inspiring. People try to make amends with themselves. A lot of times you see healing, or they’ll say I need to talk to my son. There are people I need to apologize to. A lot of times people deal with the news well. When that happens I sit down with them and say tell me about your life. Tell me what you did. A common thread I’ve seen is that if somebody felt loved during their life they have an easier time accepting the end of their life. It’s not a matter of success or accomplishment but if someone just feels like there was another person who cared for them when they were alive… The tragedy is that I’m not going to see my wife again, but at least I had that person caring for me the whole time.
Prior to that I published this absolutely gorgeous essay on memory and loss and memory loss by Irish writer Sean McTiernan. It is also paid-only.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother. It's not an anniversary or anything, she's still just dead like always. I’m thinking of a simple painting of a figure alone in a boat. She made it as a prescribed activity in the amazing home she spent her final years in while suffering from dementia after a severe stroke.
It was painted with great intensity, as if light was pouring out of the man. What complex feelings, it’s easy to wonder, was she trying to convey with this painting that she couldn’t with normal speech? Should I break out The Dictionary Of Symbols to see if there were any hidden messages or confessions?
My grandfather died 44 years before my granny did. He was a legendarily stoic man who loved a handful of things in the world. One was my granny. Another was fishing alone in a boat.
Subscribe here for a big discount I’ll keep up until tomorrow.
Two weeks ago today Josh Albert was set to take off on a trip to South America. He was walking out of a FedEx in New York City after getting his passport and vaccination papers in order when the right side of his body stopped working. “My speech was messed up. I made it about a half a block and I had to sit down,” he said. “I really didn’t know what was going on. I thought, oh, this will pass.”
Having no health insurance, and so naturally afraid to go to the hospital, he tried to walk it off. An hour or two later he was rushing to the nearest emergency room, in an Uber of course, still at this point wary of potential bills. He’d end up getting those anyway.
I spoke with Albert about his experience having an unexpected health emergency then being pummeled with bills before he even ever got to fully understand what had happened. Subscribers can read that piece here.
Today I also have a piece written by Zaron Burnett III. It’s about Black cowboys and cultural mythology and what we remember about ourselves. Burnett previously wrote for Hell World on what it felt like as a Black man to wear a mask in the airport in the early days of Covid.
I’m lucky that my Pop’s memory stretches back to a time when he regularly saw Black men with horses each morning. Not cowboys, per se, milkmen. But it made it much easier for him to imagine Black cowboys. Much easier than it was for me.