What does War Smell Like?

I was deployed to Iraq’s Al Anbar province. This is a particularly arid desert region which is important to understand the next point. When stepping off the plane you are instantly embraced by the heat and the smell. Immediately after the heat, depending on the time of year you are there, you get a smell that I have only been able to describe as the smell of “thousands of years of death and woe.” It was somehow very different from that of training in the Arizona deserts of Yuma or even in Kuwait.

Dust

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In Al Anbar, the smell that is ever present is of earthen dust with a certain staleness. You don’t notice this smell anywhere else because of the particular weather conditions that are present there. The region suffers permanent drought which means that you might see less than a few inches of precipitation a year at best. The environment also causes sandstorms known as haboobs that happen at least once a year. The haboob will pull up all top layers of soil and deposit the finest of it on the surface, while helping to weather the rest for future generations of desert dwellers. The result is an ultra fine layer of dust coating the entire region. After a few weeks of no moisture, that being a return to the norm, every step you take creates a cloud of dust beneath your feet. The collected dust is almost liquid; it will flow through your fingers like water, but solid enough to leave a perfect imprint of your boots preserved in the dust until the wind carries it away perhaps hours later. In parts, the dust dunes, not quite “sand” dunes, seem to create seas of it. This video, recorded by an Army soldier demonstrates this perfectly.

The dust is so fine that all of it never really settles. You can look in the distance and always see a dull orange haze darken the blue sky along the horizon. This is the dust that is always circulating literally everywhere around you, but only visible en masse from a distance. The net effect of this layer of dust on the entirety of a region is a smell that always exists. The hardest part of describing the smell is describing what it is like to remove scents you have always experienced and have long ago filtered from your conscious thought. Moisture and the various aromas of vegetation are usually all around us in parts of the planet people enjoy living, so we forget about them until they are gone. Take these away, and replace it with the dusty desert and you are left an arid, earthy, stale, chalky smell that will be a constant for your next seven months. For some reason, I immediately attributed this smell with the scent of something ancient and long dead, like what I imagined to be the smell inside a tomb, or perhaps a stale old dumb.

Gunpowder

The second smell I would think of is that of gunpowder. I worked at a rifle and pistol range as a weapons instructor for two years with the Marines, so I became very familiar with the smell. Though I never was given the responsibility to fire a shot in anger, the constant training for such an event left an indelible mark on my memory. I failed to articulate it though, so I asked the question What does gunpowder smell like? to try to refine it. Some of the best answers were fellow veterans.

Sam Morningstar

I’ve been in sustained gun battles in Iraq and I found the smell to be distinctly like a “metallic sulfur” (if that makes any sense).

Nick Layon

To me, it smells of “burnt earth”.

Takeo Eda

Sharp, pungent, leaves a metallic flavor on the roof of your mouth. If in sufficient quantities it will water your eyes, will deaden your smell sensitivity for other things for a long time.

The common themes I can identify with were the presence of a sulfuric “rotten egg” scent. I can only guess that this is from some modern derivative of the classic saltpeter brew of gunpowder. I wouldn’t know the specifics of that. This is overridden by an acidic, lingering, metalliod aroma that one could taste, as much as smell.

As I stood on the range behind my shooters firing round, after round, after round, the scent became very familiar to me, pleasant even. I’d never experienced it before pulling the trigger for the first time at the rifle range in boot camp. The target I fired upon descended into the pits and registered a hit for full points. I was a good shot and I loved the smell of that moment. Even today, when I go to the range as a civilian hobbyist, the scent of gunpowder is a pleasantly nostalgic. It brings about feelings of accomplishment, of power, and of pride. It is the intoxicatingly manly scent that accompanies the military experience and one finds that they long for the sulfur rich acidic bitterness long after they’ve left the war behind them for good.

BO

Next is the presence of yourself. Frankly, there are some things you can never get clean.

I couldn’t find an image of a grimy flak jacket, so I took this guy because he will never get all of that out. Eventually, after wearing the same piece of equipment every single day for months, sweat and mud will dry and congeal into a strange type of black film that you can never get clean. You can take away the top layers of the muck, but you can never prevent it from staining the once khaki colored gear to non uniform shades of grey and black.

Add to this the constant smell of yourself after not getting to regularly shower, bathe, or really function on any degree of civilized cleanliness and you have a smell that I can only describe as pure and unadulterated manfunk. I also didn’t know how much salt could come from the human body. It turns out, that if you are forced to wear the same clothes over and over again, such as the few cammies you are capable of taking with you, and work very physically demanding jobs, you leave salt deposits on your clothes which will never wash out. Trust me. Over time, this uncleanness and chronic discomfort has been attributed more to the decline of morale over the long term in periods of prolonged fighting than most other factors barring the actual death of teammates and can be a leading factor in the breakdown that leads to psychiatric casualties in war. That fact surprised me, that people could stink so bad that they go crazy. Just go without bathing for a few weeks while rolling around in dirt, dust and a moderate supply of gun oil to top off and you won’t feel like a warrior, but you’ll smell like one.

Decay of a Nation

War has a few distinctive smells that are relatively common in most warzones, but rarely occur anywhere else today together. In the early stages of war, the government is broken down and basic services fail. Fires burn out of control if there are no government agencies to administer them. When delegates were sent in by the Americans following the collapse of the Hussein regime, they entered Baghdad and saw the smoke rising from all around. Fires had been burning nonstop for weeks. At first, the question centered on getting the firefighters back up and running, It was made obvious very soon that the fires were directly caused by the American weapons or the fighting. The real problem was those who set the fires intentionally. Looters were unpoliced by a police force that had abandoned their posts when their source of income had dissolved. Eventually, the fires would just burn themselves out. Imagine the time before this where for months, every breath was partially choked with the raspy irritation of soot, burning rubber, ash and smoke from distant fires burning from every direction of the city all around.

Then there is the fact that none of the public utilities are in operation. One element that many people know little about war is that it rarely takes anyone by surprise. The signs of it happening in Iraq were more than six months long. This resulted in what many called a “brain drain” effect among the Iraqi educated, where all the scholars, engineers, civil servants, and major leadership just disappeared prior to the war beginning or not long after. It happens in every major war. Part of why we couldn’t get power back up and running, along with so many other basic services we consider necessary for human civilization, wasn’t because of lack of effort. It was much more because everyone from Iraq who had the means to run the country from the middle, the managers, the engineers, the doctors, all had fled abroad. This meant that even basic problems were magnified when there were no educated and experienced individuals left to take care of it. Children die of the common cold. Power plants that weren’t even hit suffer catastrophic failures because a low level engineer hired three weeks ago is now the senior manager. Honestly ask yourself what exactly is the President of the United States and the US Military are supposed to do about jittery electrical grid in the town of Hīt in Al Anbar? Is some Lance Corporal supposed to just hook a generator to the central grid and solve all that? What if someone blows that up, again, and again, and again? What then? I’m honestly curious why people think combat statecraft is supposed to be easy.

That said, this brain drain had it’s own unique odor. Basic plumbing ceases to be a reality. It’s hard to keep pumps running without power, or knowledgeable people who know how the system works. Really, when you’re government is gone and you are unsure of getting a paycheck next week, why would you shovel human feces from the deep pipes? The system backs up and the putrid aroma hangs distantly, in the air, distant if you’re lucky. It was the same on base. We didn’t use the regular in ground systems where they existed because most needed too many engineers and support we didn’t have to keep them working. There were more pressing matters, war you know. Instead, we had hundreds of port-o-johns keeping our needs met. In the summers they were the worst possible inconvenience. We called them BLIS units: the Blue Water Iraqi Saunas. By the second deployment in 2007, we had a much better infrastructure in place. By 2005 though, the smell of sewage was a weekly recurrent. I am willing to bet that for the Iraqis beyond my base, the smell was etched in their memory of that time period, as well as billions throughout history of their wars.

Along with police work and firefighting, other crucial services of government fail and leave those who witness war in its early phases with an unforgettable memory. At its worst war has the faint odor of putrescine and cadaverine. You probably aren’t familiar with these two chemicals, but your body instinctively know them. When you first experience it, you experience a visceral sensation in your gut and you may feel the desire to vomit as they give off a putrid aroma. These are chemicals released as the body decomposes. It has a sickly sweet scent that you will recognize very quickly. It is the smell of death and your body knows it because you are evolved to stay away from the dead as an innate safeguard to not spread disease. Your olfactories know this scent and your body will react to it as is natural. It could be an animal killed on the side of the road after a few days or, during times of war, of people, insurgents killed in an active battlefield or civilians with no one to safely remove their bodies. This is the end result of a nation caught in war, there are no government agencies or rescue workers who can safely remove of the dead with dignity and protect others from disease, no one left ensure the streets are clean and fires burning everywhere.


Thanks for reading. This is a post presented by the Quora blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

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