Alright, I’m back now, after several days. I went to stay with a local tribe a couple of days ago—well, to be more precise, I was at the palatial estate of the sheiks who run the million-member Hamdani tribe—and was sort of evacuated from there last night. There was a firefight on the sprawling property earlier in the day and somebody died. Colonel Wisam, whose base I’m staying at here at the Iraqi Army Second Battalion [25th Brigade, 17th Division] thought the shooting reason enough to send for me.
I was sitting in a side diwan, watching swallows fly around inside, in circles around the ceiling of this room, as I was being grilled by this shithead 12-year old Iraqi kid (a real aspiring prick) who had a real hard-on for the U.S. You know me, I’m about the least flag-waving person you’re going to meet, but I’m also a natural contrarian. So when this shithead starts in with the notion—through hand gestures and broken English—that the U.S. comes here only to shoot and kill Iraqis, I just shut down and tuned him out. In all candor, I was sitting in a room with three other Iraqis, the uneducated help (people with whom I usually identify) and I wasn’t real comfortable with the way this kid was skewing the group dynamics.
He started asking me questions in Arabic, to which I’d just give him Ma fahemptic, I don’t understand you. He was giving me shit, I could tell, about being American. And hell, on one level I agreed with him. I felt like saying, “You wanna talk about empire and neo-modern colonialism, motherfucker, ‘cause I’ll give you a much more thorough run-down than your illiterate, uneducated ass is going to put together.”
Part of what burned my ass is not only that I’d come there unarmed and in good will to hear what they had to tell the world, but that I was working hand-in-hand with Sheik Mizher Hamdani to put together a piece talking about a new council of sheiks he wants to institute to involve that system more directly with the government. I was there to help. And the Hamdanis were being gracious hosts (I didn’t want for anything). Here this rat-bastard dumbfuck son of the slave-servant, a guy who dresses like Sinbad from the 16th Century and runs for coffee when someone calls for it (why is it that the indentured help, like that dumbfuck kid, is always so fucking brainwashed into dying first for its oppressors?) is grilling me, the one fucking American that’s come to his town without an M-4 and body armor (I showed up in a dishdasha and flip flops, for Christ’s sake).
I was just sitting there listening to the little prick, nodding my head and watching those swallows, when a blur went past the window and another little kid peaked his head in and said the jaish Iraqi had arrived. I was already in a slightly weird space because of that precocious little prick and when that kid said jaish Iraqi (Iraqi Army) I thought he said Jaish Al Mahdi, the militia of Muqutada Al Sadr and the most prominent terrorist organization in the area (these are the guys who went hand to hand with Al Qaeda, and more recently against the Americans). My heart fluttered. For that briefest of moments I thought the game was up. I thought I’d just seen a half-dozen of my own executioners flitter past that window. But then I realized the kid was talking about the Iraqi army—and those are my boys.
Sure enough, it was Lieutenant Ahmed, about the best friend I have here at Second Battalion, with a squad of his soldiers following him. And he wasn’t fucking around, now that I think about it. This is the first time I’ve really replayed his arrival in my head, and he rolled straight up onto the Hamdani’s property boldly and without asking questions (they’re powerful and influential sheiks, but then again Ahmed represents the army—an interesting clash of power models in contemporary Iraq). He had that look in his eye like ‘I’m going in there with or without your permission, do yourself a favor and cooperate.’
He came into that diwan and I was like, ‘Ahmed, what’s up you ole fucker?’ This is a social land, where etiquette is important—even more so at a sheik’s house—and in the short time I was there a constant stream of people (sheiks, politicians, dignitaries, etc.) showed up and strolled through the property. At first, in fact, I thought the soldiers were there for a social call.
“Get your bags,” Ahmed said. “We’re going.”
“Yeah, man, I telling you.”
“Everything okay, man?”
It wasn’t till we were loaded up in the Humvees he told me somebody had died three hours earlier, in that firefight.
“No shit, man. I heard that firefight plain as day.”
Pulling me out of there was merely a preventative measure, but it was sure nice to know I got people looking out for me here. Ahmed once told me, in Colonel Wisam’s presence, “I’d rather lose one of my soldiers than have something happen to you.” I thought, Shit, man, you better be careful saying that in front of your CO. But Colonel Wisam goes, “Rather lose a hundred.” And I’m starting to believe the dirty ole dogs are serious.
I’m at the palatial estate of the Hamdani Tribe right now, in the town of Mahmudiya, 20-minutes south of Baghdad. It’s a trip, walking around this place and bumping into and “chatting” with (bumbling through misunderstood words, really) a bunch of men wearing dishdashas (man dresses) and turbans, many of whom are considered minor royalty. Last night Mohammed (one of my hosts and the son of one of the central Hamdani sheiks) took me to his cousin’s house for dinner, where we first we ate ice cream and drank fruit drinks in the garden. The cousin’s house reminded me a lot of being in Florida. It was a bit humid and the evening was cooling off nicely as the sun went down. The house was made of block, like they are in Florida, and palm trees—big ones—dotted the lawn. We came back to the Hamdanis estate, afterwards, and a group of sheiks was sitting in a semi-circle in plastic chairs on the lawn, as they do every night, discussing the day’s events, politics, etc. A quarter moon was nestled in the sky, propped up by a number of sprawling palm trees in the yard, the temp was cool and perfect. It was my vision of Arabia, to a tee.
(24 hours later)
Alright, I’m picking up where I left off, yesterday. A lot’s happened since then. There was a firefight here on the Hamdani’s property yesterday, between the Sons of Iraq (the civilian army being paid by the government to fight against al Quaeda and insurgents) and some unknown entity. I heard the firefight but didn’t think much of it as I’d heard gunfire several times in the two days I was there. Three hours later though, I was sitting in the diwan in the main guesthouse when the Iraqi Army showed up—guys from Second Battalion, where I’ve been staying for the past month. I was like, “Ahmed, what’s up man?” and he was like “Pack your bags, man, you’re coming with us.” I asked if everything was okay and he said, “Just get your bags.” I went and packed my shit up—fortunately I got to talk with Sheik Hamdani before I left, a benevolent man with a PhD from the University of Utah—and minutes later we were packed into three Humvees and heading back towards the town of Mahmudiya.
Somebody died in that firefight, which was enough of an excuse for (Colonel Wisam, the guy whose base I’ve been staying on) to send for me. Truth is, the Iraqis weren’t altogether comfortable with me going to the Hamdanis (actually, they aren’t completely comfortable with me going anywhere outside of their care). In fact, the intelligence officer and The Three (their third in command) warned me not to go there at all. Colonel Wisam signed off on it though, so I thought it okay. When I was at the Hamdanis, I felt completely safe. I guess it’s the area around the Hamdanis that’s not totally secure. I talked to a sergeant in the American Army today and he said their intel is that Al Quaeda’s pushing to take the Hamdani’s estate—which I find a bit dubious. It’s so hard to tell over here. The danger seems so far away sometimes, but there’s always a hint of it just around the corner. And nobody that lived through the hell of ’04-’08 is going to believe it can’t come roaring back if given half a chance.
Whatever the case, it made for a nice change of pace—an exciting evening. After being whisked away form the Hamdanis, I was taken to meet Colonel Wisam for a teeming dinner at the house of the sheik of the Al Obaidi tribe; they had some great doma there (which I’m just starting to appreciate).
During much of the day and at evenings, I spend a lot of downtime with Jaider, Josem and Sa’ad. The Colonel is generally out at those times and there’s nothing to do. No frantic scurrying to be done, chasing chai or this paper or that, when the Colonel curtly bellows out for it or rings the phone line that brings one of the men running. We sit around and watch TV or talk. The three men spend a lot of time on their cell phones. Josem had a thumbdrive filled with porn and he coerced me into the laborious process of downloading it onto my laptop and then using Bluetooth to send it to his mobile phone so he could watch it.
On TV they watch a lot of music videos (mostly Syrian and Egyptian, interspersed with American songs). There’s a Turkish nightly TV drama, overdubbed in Arabic, that they’re obsessed with (a cop show with a romantic interest, that could be described as a cousin of the U.S. series 24) and they watch a smattering of U.S. shows with subtitles (they all know who the Friends are, and Oprah and Dr. Phil). Jaider—who speaks a little bit of English and who is virtually my umbilical chord—is kind of king of the dipshits. He’s got a nearly shaved dome, he dresses either in camouflage jacket and pants or the pink button-down and black pants that is the servant’s uniform, and he smokes cigarettes endlessly (a common trait among Iraqi males).
The smoking reminds me much of Mexico and other places I’ve seen in the Third World. The floor is generally an ashtray and there is nowhere that is off limits (I’ve seen people light up in hospitals). Jaider spends a lot of time in the main hallway, right outside the Colonel’s door, and smokes those cigarettes while he watches TV. He’s the A-dog somehow and he passes work off to to Sa’ad whenever he can. I’ve seen him call Sa’ad away from work in the kitchen, to answer the Colonel’s plaintive ringing, when he’s doing nothing more than flicking through channels on the TV.
Sa’ad, meanwhile, is a slight and quiet man of 25 who speaks no English. He’s got a pointed face that recalls the caricature of a rat and his skin is the color of a light chestnut. He’s a diligent worker and obsequiously committed to the Colonel. The Colonel is a short, dark-skinned man with a charming smile and a quick laugh—he’s easy to like. But he’s also demanding of his hired help. He expects Jaider and Sa’ad to come running when he calls, and he’s not shy about berating them—in front of anybody.
I sometimes look at Sa’ad—the epitome of a frail, Third World servant-sycophant—and I wonder if he doesn’t sometimes entertain visions of a pole-axe working its way into the Colonel’s head. Unfortunately, our shared language skills don’t allow us the communication level for me to begin asking him about it. Honestly, I don’t suppose he’s even thought that deeply about it. He’s a poor man in a poor country, he probably has very little education, and I’m sure he’s ecstatic just to have a job in a country where the unemployment is staggering.
Several night ago, Jaider gave me some heartbreaking news. Sa’ad’s young wife miscarried. Due to language difficulties, I’d been under the impression that she’d already delivered a boy, a week before (I guess he thought I was odd and a little daffy the night I began showering him with congratulations and hugs for a baby that hadn’t yet been born). Jaider explained that she’d miscarried and Sa’ad had found out—by phone—an hour before. He didn’t go home though (these guys work for two or three weeks at a time—they sleep in the kitchen and the small dining room at night and are on duty all waking hours), he didn’t go home for another day. I found him in the kitchen where he was standing at the sink, staring blankly.
I pointed at my belly and made a gesture indicating roundness and there was no confusing what I was saying. In silence he nodded his head and started crying. I have him a hug and told him I was sorry (in English) and that was it. I couldn’t ask him if here was anything I could do or if he needed to talk. But that’s the Third World for you. Life comes pretty raw, without seatbelts or a safety net, and you take what you get. Sa’ad was back less than a week later and nothing more was said of the event.
I’ve seen Lt. Hamid deliver ‘morality lessons’ on two different occasions. Both times he received a call on his cell phone while we were out patrolling in his diminutive pick-up (us and his driver in the front, two armed soldiers in the bed) and we drove to some other point of town. The first time it was the sherta (Iraqi Police), the second time it was the Sons of Iraq (Sahawa) that called. Both times, they were waiting with a sheepish detainee when we arrived. In both scenarios the young men (in their teens or early 20s) had been drinking (while not taboo here, drinking doesn’t happen much … I’ve only seen one Muslim man imbibe, though I’m told it’s not that uncommon to have a drink or two at a celebration).
The first detainee had also been caught buggering his buddy (a practice more common in this Arab society than in the West, but still not generally accepted). Both times, the detaining authorities brought the detainees out in the street to be questioned (in front of small crowds) by Lt. Hamid. I suspect that the Sherta and the guys from Sahawa are afraid of recrimination from judges and possibly U.S. authorities—the Army is the most intimidating presence in the area and it harbors no such fears (Lt. Hamid doesn’t anyway). On both occasions, Hamid asked couple of questions of the scared and quiet young men and then start yelling, before winding up—both times—and slapping the shit out of them.
The blows were slaps though (he never made a fist) and I doubt they left any more reminder of his malice than temporarily red skin. The events would have cost any cop his job in the U.S. (and any soldier his rank), but they weren’t any more severe—public humiliation and light corporal punishment, really—then American school kids were subjected to 50 and 60 years ago. The only real scare for me came after the first event, which was the worse of the two. Hamid began slapping the kid with those big haymakers, and pulling him—dragging him—by his shirt to a waiting Humvee. A couple of the kid’s buddies were standing by, begging Hamid to stop. The were screaming for his mercy, then they started crying, which chorused with the plaintive wails of their captive buddy.
Hamid’s soldiers, meanwhile, were keeping the crying buddies and onlookers away and helping drag the detainee to the back of the Humvee. The dark and trash-strewn street was crowded with men, most of whom were simply curious onlookers. There was a nucleus to that group though, and I suspect that they were waiting to deliver their own vigilante justice if Hamid did do it properly (I’m sure his efforts satisfied them). After slapping the kid around a few times and dragging him forcefully enough that his shirt was nearly ripped off, they got him to the back of the Humvee and threw him in the trunk—with some other man they picked up (I still don’t know what that guy was detained for). The picked the kid up—against his will—and manhandled him into the trunk.
The kid panicked (maybe he was claustrophobic) and started wailing horribly, begging for them not to shut him in there (it should be noted that prisoners are commonly carried in the large, accommodating trunks of the Humvees … where a person can sit up comfortably). The kid freaked out and then two of his buddies freaked out and they were screaming and crying at the soldiers—the scene was a fucking mess. It took three soldiers to hold the guy down and then crunch the trunk down on top of him. They had to sit on it to get it latched. Then we loaded up in the vehicles and took off. And that’s the only time I really sweated the possibilities—the fact that they might cross the line, which I’d be forced to report.
Far from hiding anything from me, the Iraqis seemed proud of their minor transgressions. Hamid not only didn’t mind me taking pictures of him roughing up these kids, he wanted to make sure I got good shots. The good news (and the bad news) is that if there were any kind of human rights violations going on, I was going to be the first one to know about it. And that’s why I was nervous on that drive. Was this kid about to get beat really bad? Would they shoot him or do something that egregious? And where the hell were we going? We drove for a few minutes, with these anxieties going through my mind, until we came to a street I recognized—where the sherta station and jail was. We pulled over next to the station and Hamid opened the trunk on the Humvee. Here we go, I thought.
He pulled the detainee out of the trunk. The kid’s hair was disheveled, his shirt was hanging off of him, his sandals were long-since lost and his face was red from the slapping. The soldiers stood around and laughed as the guy wobbled around, scared and confused, and tried to get his bearing. They cut the plastic cuffs off his hands as the continued laughing at him, and I wondered what was to come. Hamid pointed up the street and said something to him in Arabic. The kid looked around, confused, and then started wobbling in the direction Hamid had pointed. It was at that point I realized how drunk the kid was. I asked Hamid what was going on and he laughed and said the kid had to walk back from where we’d picked him up. So they’d roughed him up a little bit and made him walk home.
The second time, the guy (another 20-something) didn’t seem so intoxicated. Hamid smacked the shit out of him a few times and then put him back in the hands of the men who’d detained him—the Sahawa. In hindsight, it’s refreshing to see those two groups (Sahawa and the sherta) actually call a higher authority to handle their corporal punishment. I’m sure the corporal punishment used in interrogations is harsher—I guess it probably crosses over into torture. I don’t support torture, but I don’t lose sleep over it, either. All of the officers I was with have lost friends and relatives over the past five years to the violence that racked this country for all of that time. I’d feel like an idiot trying to explain human rights to one of those men, in the context of the bizarre juncture of time and place in which we found ourselves.
Looking at American public schools, teenage pregnancies, kiddie-hackers and every other phenomena that decries the coming of the apocalypse, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a bad thing to institute another police training program—this time in reverse. Maybe a couple of thousand Iraqi officers like Lieutenant Hamid should be sent stateside to instruct American officers in delivering morality lessons, on the street and in real time.
Last night talking with Lieutenant Ahmed and Major Salahh … they told me that if the Americans were running Iraq’s government the country’s problems would be solved in a year. They also said that Iraq is full of liars and corrupt people—especially the government. They said Iraqis, the Iraqis that count anyway (who they identified as the educated class, the doctors, engineers and teachers) want the U.S. to stay—weather they have guns or not. They said they (the Iraqi people) want the U.S. to stay forever. When I said it’s going to take 15 years to sort out Iraq’s massive infrastructure problems, they said they know Iraqis, and if it’s left to Iraqis, it will take 200 years. I called them on the histrionics behind that figure, and they said, ‘no, no bullshit. It’ll take 200 years.’ Almost all of the officers I’ve met here are unabashed, gringo-fellating lovers of the U.S.
We went on another successful mission last night (which played foil to the dud of a mission the night before). That mission came on the heels of the weapons cache discovery in which Johnny Cash attempted to go down on Mr. Cool. We left Headquarters with two full platoons of Iraqi soldiers, and rolled into a dark and quiet neighborhood somewhere in Mahmudiya. The soldiers piled out and walked down a dark alleyway, and then ponderously crossed through a small gate, into a schoolyard. There they began searching the lawn with flashlights and digging holes.
I was later told the intelligence for this fizzling dud of a raid came from Brigade, and intelligence from higher in the military (I’ve come to learn on both sides of the Iraqi-American divide) is apocryphal. We ended up standing there for more than an hour (probably closer to two)—I being weighed down in burdensome body armor—and waiting as different groups took blank shots in the night by digging gopher holes all over that courtyard, looking to turn up a cache of weapons. I was happy to get back to Battalion, and to bed, at about three in the morning.
Last night was different. The Americans were along (a good sign because when the Americans come along, it means the mission—at least theoretically—requires backup). And as was the case with the first raid I went on, the Iraqis returned to headquarters with three captured targets (suspected insurgents). The detainees were young (the same as last time)—they appeared to be in their teens or early 20s—which would seem to indicate one of two things. If this is what the insurgents have resorted to—recruiting bright-eyed babes for foot soldier positions—it means that they’re increasingly desperate and probably that their popular support is withering. It could also be an indication that Coalition forces are only able to hunt for bad guys at the lowest of levels on the insurgent food chain (another compounding factor is that the higher you move up the food chain, the less subjects there are and the more thoroughly they’re insulted).
I went with Lt. Hamid, as has become a habit. As usual, his squad alighted their Humvees running. The fuckers seemed to know exactly which gate to go to and it was kicked open and breached in a matter of seconds. Simultaneously, another soldier was working on the gate next door, though that one didn’t open so easily. A group of about four soldiers poured in through the first gate and in short order I heard muffled yells from inside the house. I moved into the courtyard and followed another officer—Captain Mazen from Brigade—inside.
The house was typical for Iraqi. A small kitchen (a block room with a sink and a couple of cheap hutches) was connected to the main living room or diwan, which was another block-construed affair without any furniture. A number of sleeping mats and blankets were laid out and two small children sat in the middle of the room, looking shy and a bit dazed. Next to them stood two young men, both of them taciturn and looking like they’d just been pulled from sleep. A woman (who I’d say was in her 20s or 30s) was in the corner of the room, covering her mouth with apprehension, as if she wanted to cry. She showed enough control that I figured she’d either been through this drill before or had at least (on some level) expected it.
Another man, a little bit older than the two being watched by the soldiers and questioned by Hamid—and whom I took for the head of the household—was bleating about something, and questioning Hamid (who actually seemed to be paying him some kind of attention). The guy wasn’t fanatical or screaming, and I think his composure helped elicit Hamid’s cooperation. Regardless, after about five minutes of (at points heavy) discussion, Hamid pointed out one of the young men and two soldiers grabbed him. We made our way out the front door, collecting soldiers as we went, and moved back to the Humvees.
We walked down the street, to another residence—this one larger and under construction—where a soldier hopped the sliding gate and let the rest of the troops in. The front door was glass, and we could see there was no one in the large kitchen. The soldiers knocked and a young man came and opened the door. Five or six soldiers piled in and by the time I got to the main hallway, which had steps leading up to the second level, Hamid was in dialogue with the people upstairs, asking for a certain young man. They seemed to be obfuscating, futilely delaying, but identities were narrowed down and eventually a young man who appeared to be in his 20s came walking down the stairs. Two soldiers grabbed him and another man, and we left.
The three were blindfolded and their hands were cuffed with plastic straps. They were put into the back of a pickup truck. They kept their heads down, between their legs, with their hands cuffed behind their backs. When we drove into the parking lot at headquarters, dozens of troops were swirling around, parking Humvees and cleaning up from the mission. I wondered what was going through the heads of those three young detainees, blind and cold, with bare feet and a cacophony of strange voices that must have seemed pretty damned threatening. Those young men—boys really—knew a lot better than I what was awaiting them that night.
Iraqi Army protocols is largely the same as the U.S. and beating and torture aren’t allowed—but everybody knows they still do it. Iraq may be an American conquest right now, but it’s still the Third World, and that’s a place where nobody is restrained by the notion of human rights. Weeks ago, a group of Iraqi widows told me the sad stories of the disappearances of their husbands. They all know their men are dead and at this point they all just want to recover bodies to put their ordeals to rest. Several of them knew the men who were the instruments of their husband’s kidnappings—men that are now being held in the Iraqi prison called Bucca. The problem, they said, is that the men aren’t talking and because the Americans are involved, Iraqi authorities aren’t allowed to beat the information out of them.
The Americans are nowhere to be found as those young detainees are unloaded from the pick-up at Second Battalion Headquarters. They are bathed in the dim orange light of an urban streetlamp, and they’re to be transported to Brigade Headquarters, down the street, where they’ll be interrogated. While I know what that is (legally) supposed to entail, I can’t imagine what it will look like in the sordid reality of this place called Mahmudiya, a place that was—for several years—a cardinal point on the Triangle of Death. An Iraqi Captain, who until that point wore an eerie black snow cap over his head and face, pulls a stun gun from his pocket and the inimical sound of arcing electricity crackles through the air. I look to the three young men and none of them flinches or makes a sound.
Fucking great, I think, what fresh horror am I going to be treated to here? I’ve been here for a week and a half and have waited with bated breathe for the Iraqis to cross the line—to go beyond the pale of human rights (a pale I think has greater breadth than peacetime societies)—but they haven’t yet. They’ve tread on the far edge of the envelope a couple of times, toeing the other side, but they haven’t stepped over. And it’s certainly not for shyness or fear of being uncovered. If anything, they seem naively enthusiastic about showing me everything—good, bad and questionable—they get involved with. I don’t think they fundamentally understand the concept of the media as a watchdog and the Fourth Estate.
Captain Stungun, if he does understand my mandate as a reporter, doesn’t give a fuck. He zaps the back of one of those kid’s neck and push the gun down hard enough that the kid’s head is forced down between his legs. The kid doesn’t make a whimper. It’s almost as if the charge isn’t that bad (somebody in my dorm got hold of one of those things my freshman year of college and we all suffered strikes … I remember it as a highly uncomfortable pinching sensation, but nothing that did irreparable damage). I suppose he knows that this little charade is a but a game compared to what he’s likely to face later in the night. At the same time, I’m surmising. I don’t know what the hell happens behind those closed doors at Brigade (or even the ad hoc interrogation rooms at Battalion, for that matter).
I get the sense the local police, the sherta, are legitimately afraid of beating prisoners for—presumably for the sanctions they’d face. I presume they’re more beholden to the system of judges and courts the Americans have endorsed and redoubled. It’s not like human rights have been abandoned here. In fact, I’d say this place isn’t even as bad as Mexico, vis-à-vis the treatment of detainees. My impressions are founded largely on talk—the talk of Americans, regarding their IA counterparts and of the very IA guys who are carrying out interrogations. When it comes to hard facts and what I’ve seen with my very eyes, the worst I’ve witnessed is a couple of roughing-ups—but those didn’t involved anything more nettlesome than slaps with open palms. I’ve not seen beating worse than any number of American kids get on any given night at boxing practice, or even a rough football practice, for that matter.
It’s quarter-of-nine in the evening and the next mission isn’t till ten or twelve. I think I’m gonna watch a movie. I downloaded a half-a-dozen of them last time I was at the American base, at the Mortar Platoon’s tent (Delta Company of the 1-63 Combined Arms Battalion). There’s not a drop of booze to be found in Iraq, but every soldier has a computer and on that computer he’s sure to have three things: a shitload of movies, a larger cache of music, and porn (Americans aren’t supposed to have nudie flicks here, as it’s culturally insensitive, though all the porn I’ve seen here has come from Iraqis).
Tonight’s next mission is supposed to be action-packed. Iraqi Army (IA) Lieutenant Hamid is to be on shotgun—and that in itself is exciting (Hamid strikes me as the kind of good old boy who just don’t give a fuck). I’m told that on this mission, two full platoons will be kicking in doors on five different houses. The Americans were here at Second Battalion Headquarters for two hours today, planning something out (tonight’s activities, I presume) and they left with an excitement in the air that spoke of imminent activity.
We’ve only just returned from another mission—this one to uncover and confiscate a cache of weapons. A mortar tube, eight 60-mm mortars, a grenade launcher, and a few belts of 7.62 ammunition were unearthed in three different places around a residence. It was a strange event. I didn’t know exactly what we’d gone for, and when we showed up I began snapping pictures, and the soldiers—whom I thought were about to roll somebody up—began posing for shots; sometimes in groups of three and four. I was like, “Uh, hey friends … what about snipers? Bad guys? Shouldn’t you be doing something right now? Anything other than posing for glamour shots?”
It was another of the small details that tell me I’m indubitably not with the Americans anymore (the Americans ignore the camera—as mission security says they should—which is so much more photographically compelling). That first mission was the harbinger of weird times in Mahmudiya. Sitting next to me was kid who looked to be about 19. He was dressed Johnny Cash style in a black suit, and he was the source who was taking Lt. Hamid and Lt. Jaider to the cache. We were packed into a tiny Japanese pick-up, five of us (me, the kid and Jaider in the back seat) and they were chattering rapid-fire in Arabic. I’d no idea what they were talking about. Hamid alternately raised and lowered his voice and I wondered what the hell he was saying. I had the feeling the kid was nervous about me taking pictures. All I knew for sure was that he was affiliated with the Jaish Al Mahdi (JAM) militia that the IA has been fighting most intensely in this sector.
About midway through the ride, the kid started leaning on Jaider (we were all packed pretty tightly, to begin with), and at first I thought he was trying to get to the window—but what the hell was he gonna do, jump out? Then he had his arm around the officer and kissed him on the cheek (which wasn’t shocking as the men here are much more comfortable with male-on-male contact than we are in the West). Then he put his hands in Jaider’s lamp and started bending over, like he was gonna blow him, or something. I was like, WTF? Hamid yelled something at him from the front seat, looked disgusted and turned as if he was going to punch him. Jaider’s a phlegmatic dude and he just sat there, stone cold still, as usual. He wasn’t encouraging the kid, but he wasn’t pushing him away, either.
Then the kid leaned into the front of the cab and gave Hamid a kiss on the cheek, wrapping his arms around the officer’s neck. Hamid came over the seat, trying to punch him. We arrived at the cache-house about that time and Hamid yelled something and got out. I’ve seen Hamid beat up three detainees, one of them for getting caught buggering his buddy, and I thought to myself the kid didn’t know what he was getting into. The driver, meanwhile, a big dude who looked to be in his 30s or 40s, leaned back into the truck, shaking his head and talking real low to the kid, like he was saying “you dirty little prick.” He raised his fist as if to hit him, as I scrambled out so that I might not miss the door-kicking action I thought was coming. Instead, I found those knuckleheads lining up for the photo-op. My title for this mission: “WTF?”
So we’re driving down horrible, sewage-littered dirt roads in a pick-up half the size of my motorcycle, five of us packed in like sardines (a sergeant behind the wheel, two lieutenants—who could be described as Bad Ass and Mr. Cool—as well as Johnny Cash and me). I’m the only one in body armor (the Americans make me wear it and these guys are going to follow the American lead on anything), which further cramps the space, so I’m gripping the oh-shit strap above my head to keep myself out of Johnny Cash’s lap, and tripping out on the bizarrity of it all.
We’re in a place that reminds me of a fly-speck town on the far side of the Utah moon, with deserted earthen streets that could have come out of the hinterlands of Mexico, and I’m wondering what kind of insanity we’re about to get into. Are the guys I’m with going to be shooting, or are we going to get shot at? Is somebody going to die tonight? If I get killed, will these guys send my possessions back to my family—or will they end up spread out through military houses across Iraq? I turn and look at the young soldier standing in the bed of the pick-up—his automatic rifle hanging at his side and a twitchy smile on his face that says we might be ready to see the shit—and I decide I should have taken Major Ammar up on his offer to let me carry and AK-47.
Bad Ass is pontificating in his light, raspy voice from the front seat, addressing everybody and nobody at the same time, talking about god and Armageddon, for all I now. Mr. Cool looks silently out the window to his right, and the driver lets go with a chortled laugh every now and then. We pass yet another litter-strewn median strip in the half-life of revitalization (a process that’s apparently been stalled for months or years), and a dog begins chasing the Humvees in our convoy, barking menacingly and handing us off to a mongrel on the next block. I look back to my right and that’s when Johnny Cash starts trying to go down on Mr. Cool.
The convoy crosses to the other side of the road (the wrong side), facing down headlights and forcing people onto a shoulder that is merely an extension of dirt, a whole group of dogs accosts us, going after tires and barking truculently, and we pass a kid riding on a bike with two flat tires. “What the fuuuck,” I’m thinking. Where the hell am I? I must be caught on the other side of some kind of astral Parcineum Arch, because somehow this wantonly absurd bullshit doesn’t seem to raise eyebrows for anyone else in the pick-up. The others are annoyed at Johnny Cash’s amorous frivolity (I’m thinking the kid is sure lose some teeth instead of getting a cock in his mouth) but all in all, the strange events seem to appear about par for the course for these guys.
Hamid turns again and raises his fist, as if to punch Johnny Cash—who shies away but smiles and says something with the high-pitched voice of a tweener—and then he catches my eye. He smiles and raises his thumb in my direction and says the same thing he always says before we’re about to pile out of the trucks with AKs locked, loaded, pointed and at the ready … “Good mission? Good mission?”
And this is only the first one of the night—what’s been laid out as the quiet before the storm.
I’ve lost count. The days have already run together. This assignment’s gone so smooth, the time’s just sailing away. I get up in the morning and write, break for lunch, take a nap, have a second coffee, write some more and then go upstairs to wander the officer’s hallway and see what kind of mischief and adventure is afoot. I’m a minor celebrity with these guys—the token American—and it’s a damned nice thing when everybody you see says, “Heeeyyyy, how you doing?” and grabs you by the arm and pulls you into their room to chat for a few minutes … or makes you sit down and with them while their cook makes you lunch or dinner.
The thought (hope) is that in an adventure like this—through a journey of ten-thousand miles—what you discover has something to do with yourself. And after just a week with the Second Battalion, I’ve come to a deep realization; an appreciation for the things we take for granted—or maybe it’s for the fine line separating the habits we choose from those we can’t do without (I think of the narrator in Graham Greene’s Quiet American). A pure, but completely overlooked joy, is waking up in the morning, sitting down at your desk, and having the whole world open up to you. Knowing (almost simultaneously) what’s going on anywhere—everywhere—as well as what your friends are doing, the mindset of the popular culture, the obnubilate directions in which the society is moving… this is the power of the internet and I miss it.
In fact, I now realize I’m addicted to the internet (maybe it’s the access—the immediate and unfettered access to knowledge, all knowledge, that I crave). It’s a quiet addiction and it didn’t become obvious till the juice was cut off. Now I carry the undefinable feeling that something is missing. I’m in search of something I can’t express, and I think of the multitude of small joys and tiny triumphs I’ll experience going through my inbox and opening all those letters from colleagues, comrades, former lovers and current interests. My life is in that box and without a keyboard to plug into my arm, my life will feel vaguely incomplete. I’m a fucking junkie and it took the abject connection speeds of a placed called Mahmudiya to show me how bad off I am.
A waking thought: we bought this country (and the rates are worse than a fucking abortion). As a nation, the U.S. bought Iraq in March of 2003. A general (I don’t know who, exactly) expressed that sentiment years ago, and he was right. We bought it. It was George Bush who actually signed, and the terms are horrible. The note is for at least ten years—maybe 20 or 50—and the product has turned out to be a fucking lemon (nothing against the Iraqi people or their culture). I’m talking about the country’s infrastructure and it’s working (or more precisely, barely functioning) systems. I’m talking about crumbling, ghetto-like housing projects with pools of septic water bubbling in their courtyards, schools that should be condemned, roads falling apart, and a central municipality—Baghdad—that was built to service three-million people and which now holds seven-million.
We bought this country and to leave before it’s fixed—a fixing that’s going to go far beyond what we broke—would be as dishonest as putting a new paint job on a bad car and trying to sell it off the lot to the first unassuming schmuck that can be schemed. Because we got hoodwinked—because George Bush got us into a horribly bad deal for his own selfish reasons—doesn’t mean we should walk away from the deal and pass the buck. This country is going to need trillions more dollars and a lot of work to mend what Saddam Hussein fucked up (or allowed to rot) for forty years—the investment will be more than any First World nation in its right mind would consider. But George Bush signed a blank page in the nation’s checkbook, and we’re all going to be smarting from the fucking we’re now taking, for a generation.
But I like the idea of smarting. If we’re honest about the whole thing and we pay up, it’ll make us think twice the next time a cowboy is set loose in the Oval Office and starts playing with the company’s books. In addition to that, if we’re honest about the whole thing, if we do what’s right, we’re going to have an ineradicable ally in this country. Many of these people already love America—they look on it with the kind of hero worship the Greatest Generation knew. I don’t want anything to do with heroism or trying to match the (misunderstood) deeds of my grandparent’s time, but being looked at as a liberator and hero beats the hell out of the guilt-trip hangover we’ve been building ourselves into since 2003.
Yesterday, the Second Battalion opened a local mosque that’s been shuttered for nearly two years (an Iraqi Army officer was assassinated there before it was shut down). The Commanding Officer of Second Battalion, Colonel Wasim (pronounced Wasam), gave a speech at the opening. I attended with a young, degage lieutenant named Jaider, and another man, one of the colonel’s servants. We were joined by a group of other officers, at the event. There were a couple of hundred men in attendance and a huge feast was prepared. I sat in a small guesthouse with Jaider, Ahmed and three other officers. As usual, we laughed endlessly. They taught me some words in Arabic, I told them some things in English (with Ahmed translating), and we laughed some more. There was another officer I’d not met before, who reminded me of one of my wild uncles. He had a hint of something crazy in his eyes, and he had the room in laughter the whole time.
Jaider pointed to the guy and told me he was always on the go, hellbent for action. I couldn’t understand the guy’s name, so I began calling him Lieutenant Go-Go. Lieutenant Jaider, on the other hand, had already become Straight Ahead. The night before, we’d gone on a mission to check military checkpoints around town, and every time he got back into the Humvee, he’d point through the windshield and say something that translated as adelante, or onward ho.
As characters, the two men are foibles. Both like to laugh and carry on, and they’re harbingers of that subterranean sense of mischief given to men in their early 20s, but their bearings are appreciably different. While Go-Go is always looking for (and usually finding) the next humorous line, Straight Ahead is quiet and phlegmatic, with a stony expression. A man from the south, with the dark color and fine features of an Indian or Pakistani, he’s something of a dandy. He walks quietly around headquarters with a measured gate, his hands behind his back, and seems always in deep thought.
But it doesn’t take much to bring mirth to the surface of his facade—he’s quick to smile and as quick as his fellow officers to laugh. Two nights ago, I gleaned one of the reasons for his seriousness. It was my first mission kicking in doors, and I realized the inherent danger these guys face on a daily basis—parlous circumstances they lead other young men into. There’s nothing rational about kicking in a door and charging into a room that might be holding men with guns—or a bomb—and common sense speaks against it. But these guys have a job to do (a hallowed one, when state sovereignty is put into the mix) and they do it well and without complaint.
Driving in the dark, on the way to a couple of those raids, I notices a hint of what I interpreted as nervousness in the bearings of Lt. Jaider and another Lieutenant, the Battalion intelligence officer, a man named Hamid. A good looking guy in his mid 20s, Hamid has the attitude of a high school prom king. His wit is quick and his tongue sharp. When he laughs, he does it several beats after everyone else. If his confidence is robust, it’s not without merit. He’s the guy who goes toe to toe with targeted individuals when unidentified men have been pulled out of a house and the platoon waits—vulnerable—to figure out who stays and who gets carted off.
He makes split second decisions and good reads. And if he doesn’t, the consequences are heavy (innocent men will go to jail, the safety of his own men will be jeopardized, etc.). Another young officer, X, is an educated man who’s seen enough violence for a lifetime and who likes to laugh. He’s recently gone through a different kind of soul-twisting. Two days ago he told he was going to share a secret with me that I had to keep it to myself.
His girlfriend was pregnant, he told me, and he was torn up about it. I didn’t know they did abortions in this Muslim country, but he said they do, and that’s what the couple had decided upon. They weren’t even dating anymore, he said, and he’s not far into his 20s—he’s got a full life ahead of him.
“I’m going to lose a child,” he told me,” but if we had the baby, I’d be losing two—her family would kill the baby and then it would kill her.”
Yesterday I talked with him and he told me the operation had been done. It cost $300. He was quiet and preoccupied. He laughed when we were with others, but when I got him alone he told me he was distraught. I killed a child today, he kept telling me. My son or my daughter, I killed it. He said he was bitter and angry with the ex girlfriend, that she’d told him she was on birth control—and that he’s not having anything to do with a girl again until he’s married.
[One week update: X has a new girlfriend already, and seems to have abjured his renunciation of women]
I realized there was no use in further debating the merits of Saddam Hussein with my friend Ahmed, or the relative security Iraq enjoyed before the gringo arrived in 2003. We just weren’t going to see things the same. But though we disagree (to some extent) on the fundamentals underlying U.S. involvement in Iraq, I have a lot of respect for Ahmed. He’s a bright kid and great fun to hang out and laugh with. But he’s also an officer (2nd Lieutenant) in an army at war. Just two years into his commission, he’s seen more firefights than he cares to remember (the toughest were in Sadr City—where he was hit and knocked unconscious by a round from an RPG … he’s one of the very few worldwide survivors of such an event) and he’s kicked in the doors of a lot of insurgents during late night raids. He talked to me about the reality of those firefights and I knew that he wasn’t only brave enough to walk into hostility and live fire, but as a 22 year old kid he was leading other young men into the same parlous conditions. I have a lot of respect for him.
The other officers here are much the same. I wasn’t sure about them when I arrived, but after two nights of kicking in doors on the houses of putative insurgents—knowing that a fiery end to one’s own mortality could be curled up and breathing quietly, right around the next corner, just waiting for an unsuspecting protagonist to set it off—and watching the phlegm and selflessness with which they did it, my views have ameliorated. My first impression (one that still obtains) was of a frat house. Second Battalion’s headquarters is in an old Baath Party political building that’s been converted into martial barracks.
The arrangements are ad hoc, the windows are all sandbagged, and the long, wide and barren second-floor corridor is lined with dorm-like rooms housing one to three officers each (depending on rank). Apart from the fact everybody here is armed, the house dispensation and standard operating procedure reinforce the frat sensation (people sleeping as they need to, planning and running missions, restlessly lounging—bored and looking for something to do, watching TV, smoking cigarettes like crazy, commenting on the girls on the tube, and socializing). Aside from the lack of alcohol (almost all Muslims here), this place could have landed as spot as one of the competing Greek organizations in Animal House.
There’s a sense of entitlement found in the officers, as well, that translates in the frat house-Battalion Headquarters analogy; that ethereal feeling that the shit doesn’t stink here, somehow, that these guys are a little better than the rest. The difference is, these officers might actually have legitimate claim to their superiority complex. For starters, they’re educated, which separates them from much of Iraqi society (this country’s pedagogical system—at one time the pearl of the Middle East, has paid hell for Saddam’s wars and international sanctions). Their innate sense of pride, meanwhile, which passes for mild arrogance (or maybe it’s merely arrogance sublimated as pride) is a trait shared with U.S. officers—probably officers the world over; it’s a Tolstoyan attribute that could have spilled off the pages of War and Peace.
As with officers the world over, these men are among the best and brightest of their time and place (which is all relative … in a country where many have struggled to finish public school, most of the officers here have merely finished high school and capped it with a 10-month course at the military academy). A sizable percentage of them, however, have looked down the barrel of oblivion. Many of these men have seen combat and put their lives on the line. As with Ahmed, most of them have lived through three wars and to a man they’ve friends or relatives to the violence (in the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War or the insurgency). The emotional scarring of this country can’t be overplayed. I realized last night, talking with a young Lieutenant named Omar (the 23-year old Sunni product of a Baghdad neighborhood) that his entire generation knows someone—a cousin, friend, uncle, brother or father—who died violently during the insurgency. And that phenomenon is a mirror of the reality of their father’s generation (during the futile six-year Iran-Iraq war, this country of 20-million suffered a million casualties).
Could it be day four already? I’ve lost track of time so quickly here. In some ways, it feels as if I arrived at Second Battalion just yesterday. It’s been fun. The two most crucial factors: they let me sleep my own schedule (three or four in the morning til about ten) and I have coffee whenever I need it. With those two needs met, I could be happy about anywhere in the world. Which reminds me of a conversation yesterday with my new friend Ahmed, whom I’ve come to like and respect, quickly. We were talking about the rest of the world (Ahmed, like the majority of Iraqis, has never been out of the country) and the topic of American prisons came up.
Ahmed told me how great they were. They’re like a dream for an Iraqi, he said. They’re clean and warm and spacious and the people there get fed everyday—three times a day. I asked him how he knew this, and he told me he watches the series Prison Break, and some other program about jail life. I warned him about developing his impressions from TV and movies. It’s all relative, I told him. I’m sure if you ask someone in one of those prisons, they’ll tell you they’re hell.
“That’s ‘cause they haven’t been to Iraq yet,” he told me. “Just let them come see this place and then they’ll know how good they have it.”
Ahmed is 24 years old and infatuated with the U.S. He wants to be an American more than I do. We joke about trading citizenships. It’s odd and touching to me how much he loves the idea of America (ironically, that unrestricted good will and optimism that built and at one time defined the U.S., now seems to live outside its contiguous borders … at the same time, maybe America’s greatest admirers, people like Ahmed, are the ones who’ve grown up in the grottos of dictators like Hussein, and have learned of American democracy from the Plato-like fire-born shadows dancing on their cave walls—or TV screens). Whatever the case, in Ahmed’s eyes the U.S. is an entity sent by Allah and run by saints.
Where he comes from, in the south of Iraq, the people used to pray everyday that the U.S. would come and free them from the chains of a repressive dictator, one who’d maintained them in a hellish kind of poverty.
“And now you’ve come,” he said. “You’re sent by God—believe it, man.”
I’m an American by passport, but a journalist by trade, and I’ve never shown much compunction about shitting on other people’s dreams.
“What about all those Iraqis who don’t agree with you? I asked him. “Surely their opinions are as valid as yours. All those people saying America go home.”
“Where?” he said. “Where are all these people? There aren’t any people like that. I’m telling you, my friend.”
“Don’t tell me that, Ahmed. You’re insulting me. With all due respect to your nationality—you’re Iraqi and I’m not—I’ve talked to people all across this country; civilians, government officials, sheiks, shepherds, teachers, doctors and housewives. And if you think there aren’t people out there who want the U.S. to go home, you’re deluded.”
“They’re all Baath Party people,” he said. “People who were made rich by Saddam—and they’re all dirty. You can’t listen to them, not a single one of them.”
Ahmed's father teaches high school electricity classes; his older brother is a doctor. His friends call him the Russian because his countenance makes him look something other than Arab. He has a quick wit and his English is solid (he learned it from public school and from watching TV), and we laugh constantly. Most importantly, he’s honest. He’s a great admirer of America, no doubt, but he’s realistic, too. I told him it’s dangerous that America has decided to come to another country and solve its political problems—that we’re riding on the rim of a slippery slope. Americans with guns have no right being in so many foreign countries—and that’s why the twin towers fell.
“Why do you think that?”
“Because that’s what Al-Qaeda fucking said,” I told him.
He nodded his head in acknowledgment and said he understood my concern. In answer, he told me again about the repression the Iraqis were under, their abject poverty and what they’d come to see as a curse visited upon them by Allah. He talked about the fanaticism of religion, and of people who use his sacred Islam as an excuse to unleash violence and proliferate their agendas. As we got deeper, I realized we were butting up against opposite sides of the ideological crevice I hadn’t seen between us. When he asked, I told him I thought the U.S. came to Iraq for a perfect storm of bad reasons, natural resources chief among them (the driving force behind most imperial conquests).
“I’m sure liberating the Iraqi people factored into the decision to invade,” I said, “But you’re naïve if you think it was a primary reason.”
He agreed other factors played into the invasion impetus, but then came right back to the fact the U.S. has liberated a repressed people. I smiled. He was refusing to let my benighted version (one that I see as simple common sense and realpolitik rationality) take hold in his more effulgent interpretation of history. Maybe through his example a motif of victimization can be seen in the contemporary Iraqi psyche (one that, other people have told me, is bruised at best and possibly shattered). You can tell a woman who’s been freed of the chains of domestic abuse that the man who pulled her out of her hell—who beat the shit out of her abusive husband and carried her away—only did so because he was sick to death of the screaming that kept him up at night, but on a deep level she’ll only see that man in the positive light of her own redemption and liberation.
“I’m 24 years old and I’ve seen three wars already,” Ahmed said. “Three wars—what the hell is up with that?”
Day Two (or waking the second day at 2nd Battalion):
This is a military installation, after all. These people are accustomed to waking at six or seven in the morning. I'm told the Battalion Commander, Colonel Wasim, goes to bed at two o’clock in the morning (I saw him up, before turning in last night at one a.m.)-- he gets up at six in the morning. As I said then, that ain’t human. The anecdote brings to mind the words of my Spanish brother-in-law, a man who works 60 -80 hours a week and just made partner in his law firm (but who, like all lawyers I know, doesn’t start working before 10 a.m). Gonzalo once told me that anything before 9 a.m. is poor man’s hours.
The Iraqi Army carries some of its own traditions and customs, distinctly different from the U.S. Army, and I was hoping the waking hour was one of them. Last night, for instance, I was supposed to go on a mission with a Lieutenant. The evening wore on and about 11 p.m. I started looking for him but couldn’t find him. Eventually, I walked into Colonel Wasim’s office—the Colonel was talking with Ahmed, a bright young Lieutenant who speaks decent English—and asked after the man who was supposed to carry me on the mission. I was told he’d gotten tired and gone to bed. I was flabbergasted. That would be inconceivable in the U.S. Army. (Looking back over this entry, I now realize Lt. Hamid's schedule varies erratically depending on the intelligence he gets everyday ... missions material-- and fall apart-- at the last minute).
I figure there’s some piece of information I wasn’t privy to—something that was lost in the translation. The Iraqi Army is lax in ways the Americans aren’t, but the idea of a Mission Commander canceling an operation because he’s tired … that’s beyond the pale. I figure maybe the target they were after (it was a snatch and grab op) failed to materialize or something. Even there, U.S. officers would have held a meeting to discuss having another meeting to set up a meeting about canceling the operation. There would have been copious paperwork, a long series of calls to higher up in places where you didn’t even know there were places, and eventually a debriefing of everyone who’d ever heard of the mission. In the Iraqi Army, they just go to bed.
The fact they’ve allowed me to sleep in (it’s almost 10 a.m. and nobody’s come knocking) is a propitious omen. I have few requests on assignment, but a human sleeping schedule is one of them. With the right sleep (and with access to coffee) I can do about anything. And I’ve just solved the coffee problem (in the knick of time). Two days before embedding with the Iraqis, I made a trip with the Mortar Platoon of the 1-63’s (U.S. Army) Delta Company to Camp Falcon, near Baghdad. It was at the PX there I bought a water boiler for nine dollars (something I should have done the first day I arrived in country). This piece of extremely hazardous technology (it’s German engineered, but so fraudulently unsafe I think it’s actually a sneak attack on U.S. forces) has changed my life—and it’s almost killed me three times already. The thing is, it’s so effective it’s almost lethal.
It’s just a one-liter white water pitcher—all plastic—which houses a stainless steel (and highly effective) heating unit. The thing brings water to a boil in less than a minute. The problem is that about two minutes after that, the water’s evaporated and it would be mere minutes after that (I almost discovered the exact time) that the heating unit melted through the plastic housing and ignited whatever surface it was on (and the thing was so hot it could have ignited tempered steel). We are in a war zone, after all. Ironically, this maliciously effective piece of German subterfuge is about the most danger I’ve faced.
Last night, my second night at the Battalion, felt like a breakthrough experience—and so early in the trip. It almost gives me a bad vibe—like things could only get fucked up from here. But last night was so good, I don’t think that will happen. I was hanging out upstairs with the officer Corps from the Battalion (this building has wide halls and bare plaster walls – I would call it Soviet-style, before the fall—and it used to be a Baath Party headquarters). In the Iraqi Army, the second lieutenants have a single star (as opposed to the bronze bar of their American counterparts). First lieutenants have two stars and Captain’s have three (as opposed to the two bars of the Americans). Now I’m fucked up. I had it all figured out last night.
Colonel Wasim has a full-bird (Colonel’s marking in the U.S. Army) with a star underneath it. The Lieutenant Colonel I saw yesterday had a full-bird. The Major in the Battalion has three stars and the Captain’s have two. So, by process of deduction, I suppose that all lieutenants (First and Second class) have one star. They’ve mentioned First and Second grade to me, among the Lieutenants rank, so I suppose they have some way of differentiating. I’ll have to find out. Anyway, last night I dined with the officers upstairs and we traded stories and vocabulary. About three of them speak sputtering English—enough that we could communicate in a pinch. Then there’s Ahmed, whose father was a high school teacher and whose brother is a doctor and whose life ambition was to go to the military academy and become an officer (his second life’s ambition is to be an American).
Ahmed translated between me and two other insatiably curious officers—Captain Zaiad and Major Sallah. Major Sallah is the Executive Officer of the base. He’s a proudly fat man (he continually grabs his belly with both hands, like a pregnant woman, and says, Fat man, with a heavy Arabic accent … other times, Captain Zaiad—himself the bearer of a more than modestly-sized paunch—points at the Major and says, Fat man). In fact, the majority of the officers here are fat—which has me ruminating. Certainly the ideas of exercise that we entertain in the West don’t translate here (I wonder how much of that has to do with our obsession with media and mass communications and the derivative fixation with looking like the people on television), and I wonder how much that has to do with the fact that for the last thirty years the people of Iraq had only two TV channels (the Saddam channel and the children’s channel … run by Saddam’s boys).
The fit officers are the anomaly here—an inversion of the U.S. Army model. Perhaps it has something to do with the image of Saddam and its interspersion with notions of success. Maybe it has to do with the idea (which was entertained in the West at one point) that a person able to pack on the extra pounds has to have the leisure time and access to food of the wealthy (and therefore successful). Whatever the case, the fulsome bellied officers (the Major, with his quick smile and propensity for laughter, reminds me of Jackie Gleason) sat back—we were seated around a conference table next to the operations room—and regaled me with questions. We also traded views and questions on my own insatiable curiosities regarding contemporary Iraq.
We’re sorry for asking so many questions, they kept saying, are we bothering you? We’re just so damned curious.
The conversation was typically cross-cultural. At some points I was struck by how similar all societies are. We hit on the point, for instance, that there are a lot of good people in Iraq—and there are some bad people. That’s true all over the world, I told Ahmed (the vast majority of Iraqis I’ve met have never been outside the country … and until six years ago, they weren’t allowed to know what was happening outside Iraqi borders), there are good people and bad people everywhere. But there are also great differences in our societies (aside from dress codes, religion and the number of wives one takes). The Major and the Captain, for instance, were befuddled by the fact I was working in journalism but my degree is in Comparative Literature.
If you go to school to be a doctor in Iraq, they said, you become a doctor. The same with an engineer or a school teacher.
I explained that for the specialties, it’s the same in the U.S.—but that for people with a Bachelor’s degree, something like 80-percent of them work outside the area of their studies. They just seemed tickled by that. When they comprehended the concept—and the reasons behind it—they smiled and sat back satisfied, and told me again how insatiably curious they were. Are we bothering you with so many questions? they said.
[and here, a periodic power outage robbed the final thoughts of the entry]
(see photo section below: Marine Corps Graffiti)
When the U.S. Marine Corps cleared neighborhoods in Anbar Province they went house to house. After each building was cleared, it was marked (on the front door or gate) with a letter designating the call sign of the Company that cleared it (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Gulf). Circles around the letters indicated something different, as well as other lines and markers (house cleared, unit moved in direction of arrow, etc.). Every house in the small town of Haditha had the marks (now several years old) and I even saw some graffiti that copied the U.S. markings.
I figure that in about ten years, if this country's able to pull itself out of the hell it's just experienced, the underground art scene will pick up on this trend-- "the letters" will be part of the new generation's lexicon and symbolism. I've already seen graffiti artists (not so much graffiti here, and the examples I've seen haven't been very creative) that immitate the U.S. markings ... the brilliant first leap to representation.
George Bush may have struggled to align a First World coalition to invade Iraq in 2003, but the Third World fell into queue quickly when contracts began flowing for Third Party Nationals (TPN), the name given to non-American support personnel (kitchen workers, bathroom cleaners, plumbers, electricians, security guards, et al.). Rough estimates say there are as many contractors in Iraq as soldiers. And anybody who’s worked with them directly knows English is not their first language.
I became aware of TNPs at Al Asad Airbase in Anbar Province. The dark black men guarding the base there spoke a strange form of English. I eventually learned they were Ugandan. The Marines called them all Jumbo—a practice I thought particularly racist. I mean, if the Ugandans called all the white people Kent or Biff, the Marines might make a stink. I shook my head at the brazen xenophobia of it—until I learned that Jumbo means Hello in Swahili. The Marines were simply being polite.
I’ve since run into Kalashnikov-toting Ugandans all over Iraq—they guard the U.S. Army Forward Operating Base I’m now on in Mahmudiyah, 20-minutes south of Baghdad. At CPIC Headquarters (Combined Press Information Center) in the International Zone, Peruvians carried the AKs and provided security. All over Iraq I’ve seen people from India (mostly men) working as kitchen personnel. At Al Asad I heard some sad stories from them—about the way they’d been hoodwinked, lied to and financially abused. The problem, they told me, was that once they got to Iraq, they had little recourse to correct their situations—they were prisoners until their contracts ran out (several told me there were earning just $300 a month … and that they sent the bulk of that to their families back in India).
Unfortunately, the company those men worked for was from Kuwait (Gulf Catering Company, GCC … which didn’t return calls or emails). GCC was a personnel company that contracted out to Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), formerly Halliburton. KBR wasn’t at fault, GCC was hard to track down (and because it works outside of the U.S., it’s not held to labor laws), and making the picture cloudier, it sounded as if the real culprits in the scheme were the Indian recruiters who’d lured the men into their rotten deals. I told the men I would do what I could to expose the situation. What’s really needed, however, is a good and thorough ass-beating for those immoral recruiters.
I traveled with the Mortar Platoon of Delta Company (1-63 Combined Arms Battalion) to a base called Stryker yesterday (near Baghdad International Airport). First Lieutenant Cameron Mays explained to me that March has traditionally been the month that sees the most violent action in Iraq. For whatever reason, things seem to flare up around this time. This year, however, has been relatively quiet-- even in light of the drastic decline in violence. It's continuing proof that things are moving in the right direction.
Things haven't been completely quiet in Mahmudiyah, however. I've heard whisper that last week an Iraqi Army (IA) soldier was kidnapped from the market in Mahmudiyah by a group of five men. He was lucky and escaped. Then, two nights ago, a Katyusha Rocket was shot at the Forward Operating Base where the Mortar Platoon is stationed (20 minutes south of Baghdad). The rocket hit a tree, fortunately and broke up-- leaving no injuries and no fatalities. But it's a reminder that there are still enemy factions out there, intent on fighting the Americans.
The Mortars, meanwhile, are now fighting boredom. They're ready to head home (to Ft. Riley, Kansas) and doff the diplomat's clothes they're wearing. Or to move to a place where they're actually able to do what they're trained to do-- fire mortars. At the same time, says the platoon's First Sergeant, Steven Webb (a combat vet from the bloody push for Baghdad in 2003), "I'll be happy if I never have to shoot at anybody again."
A source from the U.S. government, an energy guy who’s been studying Iraq’s power grid for three years, says the prognosis here is grim. The Iraqi government is claiming it currently produces 6,000 megawatts of electricity, and it estimates that demand is 12,000 megawatts—ergo periodic power outages throughout the country. The source told me he’s studied hundreds of Iraqi substations and according to his calculations, demand is at least 18,000 megawatts (it could be thousands higher than that).
The problem in Iraq is demand, he says. Skyrocketing demand. As Iraq has launched into the modern world (satellite TV and cell phones were banned in Iraq during Saddam’s time and now seemingly every person in the country has both), its energy demand has begun climbing exponentially. The source tells me the Iraqi Ministry of Energy plans to double it’s energy capacity (to 12,000 megawatts) in five years—but that he expects demand to double as well (to 36,000 megawatts); effectively meaning no change in rolling blackouts and power outages.
“We have to stop the hemorrhaging of the patient,” he says.
But he also says the idea of curtailing commercial growth in the country (the only effective means of controlling soaring demand) is verboten on both sides of the Iraqi-American political divide. Ironically, a basic factor driving the demand problem is security. As the violence has dropped off and the country has stabilized in the past two years, demand has begun outpacing new capacity (because of breakdowns and equipment failures, the source says, advances over the past year have been nullified – the grid is fighting to maintain the status quo). He expects that if security continues progressing at its current pace, demand could double in as little as two years. And the 36,000-megawatt demand threshold isn’t unfounded, he says. Neighbors Saudi Arabia (like the Saudis, Iraqis don’t pay for electricity) and Iran have demand in the 36,000 megawatt vicinity.
Another Coalition foul—again under the watch of Paul Bremmer—was to build hundreds of electrical substations in the year after the invasion. The idea was to give more Iraqis access to the power grid. The problem is that substations only distribute electricity, they don’t generate it. Which meant that an already overburdened system was sunk further into its crisis of inability-to-cope (with thousands of new households tapping into the beleaguered grid). That, in turn, put more stress on a factor called frequency. Frequency, the source says, can roughly be described as the kind of load put on the system at any time. As with an automobile engine and transmission, when you continually rev and drop that load (as happens when power is systematically outed) parts throughout the system are stressed—hence frequent breakages and costly repairs (with long downtimes).
Adding to the dilemma, the grid was a prime target of the insurgency. Ironically, the insurgents weren’t trying to destroy the country’s electrical network. In fact, they had sources high enough in the government that they knew exactly which parts of the system to target in order to meet their objective. And their objective was discrediting the government (which, theoretically, would give them a chance at taking it over if it popularly failed). Insurgents wanted to down the system enough to make things inconvenient for the populace, without destroying it.
Now that the insurgency at least appears to be largely defeated, the government has begun to honestly assess the job it has ahead of it to reach it’s own goal—which is to produce 40,000 megawatts, nationally, and export to the rest of the energy-needy Middle East. And that job is massive—gargantuan. The American source says it’s going to take a 15-year $80-billion commitment. That’s going to take massive foreign investment. G.E. and Siemens are already providing generators in the country and another massive project to add 6,000 megawatts to the grid has been slated (a project that will take several years to complete); though Iraq is having trouble making the down payment (when oil prices dropped last year, the country’s national budget was stung).
And the massive bill the country is looking at for that project is solely for the thermal generators stipulated by the contract. There will still be massive costs to pay for the fuel that will run those thermal generators, the infrastructure to get the fuel to them, the transportation costs, the infrastructure that has to be built to accommodate them, the manpower to run them, etc., etc., etc. Energy is incredibly expensive. To put it into perspective, the Ministry of Electric’s total budget last years was $2.8-billion (meaning that estimated $80-billion overhaul is going to take 28 years to accomplish). Part of the problem, the source points out, is that people—not just laymen, but those in the government, as well—don’t realize how complicated or expensive electricity is.
The U.S., he says (as well as most of the world), sits constantly on the verge of power system deficiency or failure. The fact is that the world is already facing an energy crisis—and as the demand of the third world (and the much talked about China and India factors) increases, the crisis will only become more pronounced. During Saddam’s time, the source says, most of Iraq’s power grid was dedicated to Baghdad and the country’s weapons factories—much of the rest of the country went without power. That’s changing dramatically in the country’s introduction to the freedoms of Western first world democracy. The price tag will be high.
Another unsettling fact is that power is only one of the parallel infrastructure woes facing the country. Water, sewer, and roads systems are also in distress. Another overlooked factor in all of this is that the electrical system depends heavily on the water system, and visa versa-- as well as oil production. And yet, the American source tells me, the Iraqi Ministries of Oil and Electricity bicker like cats and dogs. This reconstruction is going to be a bitterly contested uphill battle.
For two hours we drove west by northwest, the phlegmatic Euphrates our loyal companion. From Fallujah we went to Ramadi, then Hit and Baghdadi, deeper into the heart of Anbar Province. I was in the back seat of a four-man SuperCab and behind me, reclined behind a monstrous anti-aircraft gun in the bed of the pickup, was a strapping Iraqi I called Lenny. By way of his slightly pointed but not unattractive face and eyes the color of ash, Lenny reminded me of a beautiful Jewish girl I knew at a university in Ohio, eons ago.
Maybe the two shared some ancient strain of Middle Eastern blood, or maybe the sun of the Syrian Desert had compelled itself into their genetic signatures. Whatever the case, all similarities ended there. Lenny was undereducated (if I had to guess, I’d say he quit school in the fifth or sixth grade) and as poor as the rest of the young soldiers in the Provisional Security Force (PSF) detachment I was with.
He was in his mid 20s (many of the men I was with weren’t clear on their birth years—I’m told the trait is cultural) with a lanky and athletic build, a la Joe Montana. His otherwise handsome phiz was dotted with post-adolescent pimples. He had hands the size of softball mitts and he smoked like a chimney. He was the emblem of the young men I came to know in the personal security detachment of the mythical sheik Mohammed Hussein Shaffir (MHS to the U.S. Marines in the western Iraqi town of Haditha).
The three-vehicle convoy bearing us west was led by Captain Daham, Shaffir’s 21-year-old son. It was manned by ten of the Colonel’s wily, youthful inner guard (MHS is also a ranking officer in the quasi-Iraqi Army PSF). They were kids really, post adolescents with old Kalashnikovs and a propensity for laughter. Our paths had collided in that strange place as I was seeking quality one-on-one time with the Colonel—to figure out whom exactly was this important figure in the impending post-U.S. phase of the war in Iraq … and where his heart lay.
After three months of living embedded with the 3/7 Marines on the small COP (Combat Outpost) in Haditha—a town that at one point in 2006 and 2007 was the capital of the insurgency in Iraq—and talking with dozens of civilian politicians, U.S. military officers, Iraqi police and Iraqi businessman, I’d come to realize the importance of men like Shaffir in the country’s future. When the security agreement (SOFA) expires between Washington and Baghdad in three years, and all U.S. troops come home, it’s men like Shaffir who will have the guns and control the streets. (Nobody I talked to in Anbar believed a complete U.S. withdraw will happen—they hoped not, anyway. They said they need Americans on bases here, until the Iranian threat can be offset with the Iraqi Army … a realization that seems at least five years out, maybe a decade).
Many Hadithans revere MHS—he’s a hinterlands celebrity, a minor deity in some corners. Others are scared shitless of him. And all for the same underlying reason: MHS is a bad motherfucker. As U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Patrick Malay told me—the Colonel is charged with the security of the western half of Anbar, an Area of Operation the size of South Carolina—MHS is a cold-blooded killer. Shaffir himself said he’s captured 355 terrorists (most of them Al Quaeda in Iraq) and handed them over to the Coalition—and that he’s personally killed 56. Several U.S. officers told me that four-years ago the PSF Colonel was fighting for both the U.S. and Al Quaeda (Shaffir skips that detail in his rendition).
The Colonel has a brood of kids running around his house and he’s a gentle and affectionate father—a family man and a good Muslim. In college he was a soccer star and at one point played for the second division of the national team. After living with him for a week I still can’t decide if he’s the Godfather or a benevolent Iraqi soccer dad (with a background that would make the Pitt/Jolie household look yawningly normal). When I asked if he and Allah saw eye to eye on the fact he’s killed so many people, he told me he never killed a man who was unarmed or surrendered—only those who were gunning for him, too. And plenty of them have: he’s been shot a total of seven times (spanning three different incidents).
The Young and the Dumb
Lenny sat in the reclining chair (an incongruent car seat, welded into the bed of the pickup), behind that ridiculous monstrosity of a gun, for two chilly hours on the ride to Haditha. Anybody who’s owned a motorcycle knows how wretched that kind of ride can be. Lenny didn’t seem to mind at all—in fact, he was in his prime. I’m tempted to say he was so ecstatic because he loved that gun so much, but that’s not exactly true. What he loved was being seen with the gun.
Those lovable PSF misfits loved the power that was a predicate of their weapons—their badges of badass. Simply by merit of possession, they were made more powerful than the unarmed civilians around them. The guns, meanwhile, were worn Kalashnikovs (as well as some other variant that had a barrel on it about four feet long—and which looked as ridiculous as the AA gun, the way it weighed them down). They were old weapons, but so familiar to those kids they were more like an extension of the body than a thing that’s obliged to be carried.
MHS was shot with a Kalashnikov, in 1993, by a Baath Party official—which ignited a ten-year running gun battle with Saddam Hussein’s forces. Before that he’d been a college student and soccer phenom (described to me by his former grade school teachers as one of the smartest kids in Haditha). When I asked him how he ever learned to shoot an automatic weapon, he told me that growing up in the desert (the backwoods of the Middle East), shooting AKs was a way of life (analogous, I figure, to owning a shotgun in rural Kentucky).
The Colonel’s soldiers were country boys and they loved the anti-aircraft guns screwed and welded into the back of those tan pick-ups. They were so enamored of them, I think, because big guns are intimidating as hell (to the uninitiated). In reality, it doesn’t take much military prowess—basic common sense, really—to figure out that in an honest-to-god firefight with armed insurrectionists (unless they’re attacking with a Cessna), that AA gun is about as useful as a garden shovel in Home Ec class. But try telling that to the largely illiterate soldiers driving the trucks toting them. Windswept Lenny sat in the back with a smile that couldn’t be pried off his chapped and red-skinned face.
In the passenger seat was Captain Daham, a 21-year-old who carried himself as if he was 30 or 35, but who—when around his young subordinates—liked to laugh and carry on. He had dark brown eyes and black hair (with a wispy black mustache) but whitish, European skin. He tried repeatedly to communicate with me, despite the fact I speak only about four licks of Arabic and his English wasn’t a whole lot better. Eventually we laughed and agreed—through a jumbled mess of words neither of us understood—to wait till later (whenever I could hire a maturgim, interpreter) for more cogent communications.
Driving the truck was a young Lieutenant, about Daham’s age, with sharp, clean Arabic looks. I called him Sadie (Sir, in Arabic), as he was the most formal, officerly and hard-ass of all the PSF crew I met. Though he had enlisted men under him, I don’t believe he had any experience with higher learning (he likely lacked even a standard public school education). He seemed a bit more refined and maybe more aware than the others (they were, by and large, Iraq’s equivalent of good ole boys and rednecks … kids who grew up around guns and who were no strangers to a good beating), but I think his overriding credential was that he was a cousin of MHS—and family connection trumps everything in tribal Iraqi culture.
Sadie was the only PSF soldier to show me any kind of an edge, and that was only briefly. He was generally taciturn, a bit aloof (in comparison … the others laughed and goofed, constantly), but would always break down eventually and prod a gimmick out of me for a laugh. Many of the PSF soldiers had been stationed with Marines—in local police stations and government buildings—when the U.S. military moved out into the population, during The Surge. But I think I was the first American they’d ever seen without a gun.
For their exposure to the Marines, most of them sported decent arrays of U.S. curse words and all had mastered the use of fuck (fuck, fuckin’, fuckers, motherfuckers, etc. … they could put a fuckin’ in front of anything). About the third day of the adventure, I realized MHS was a genuine cult of personality, a power figure replete with erratic schedules and chased by a lingering air of mystery. Though a gracious host in the Arabic manner … I had lodging in his plush diwan and was stuffed full, three-times a day … I realized I was only going to see him a handful of times that week.
His security detachment began taking me around Haditha, and I started leaving the diwan … carrying on with the soldiers and hanging out in the cramped trailer they inhabited, in front of the manse. Their digs were like a Hollywood rendition of rickety Eastern European soldier’s quarters. In their small trailer (split into two rooms) were a kerosene space heater and a kettle for chai tea. Chai is the customary drink in Iraq and the natives sip it from diminutive cups (about two shots worth or liquid), heavily sugared. They drink it a lot—but nothing else (I only met one Muslim man who drank alcohol).
I would sit in the trailer with the young soldiers—who were perpetually clad in their cammies (many had mismatched outfits and accouterments like brown boots, that were garish and often snicker-provoking)—and smoke cigarettes like they were going out of style. (Iraq was epiphanic regarding the general levity of the U.S. tobacco industry as it looked into the teeth of that multi-billion dollar class action settlement a few years ago … it’s got nothing to worry about, the rest of the world still smokes by the boatload; especially the third world, which is a striking irony… the place where people have the shittiest healthcare and can least afford serious diseases like cancer, they’re sucking down the carcinogens fiendishly).
We would sit in that cramped trailer, bathed in the harsh light thrown off by a single bare bulb, smoking cigarettes and watching the chai work towards a boil on top of the heater. The young soldiers, piled nearly on top of one another on the far side of the room (Arabic men are far more open to touching … holding hands, heads in laps, etc., than we are in the West), would watch me and talk between themselves. Then they’d ask me a question, through our muddled communications (which actually worked, somehow) then we’d make a joke and laugh. By the end of the week, they’d begun getting me to repeat lines in Arabic. I had no idea what I was saying, but it was funny as hell to them.
One of the lines was from a song, “Hey mister, no tee gee em ee,” which I got good at. It translates, Hey mister, come here. They laughed endlessly when I sang it. I cut up like the typical American—as the rest of the world expects (that, I think, is the side of us other cultures love … and the redeeming factor that balances our propensity for bombing and our push for empire). I had my Canon and I snapped shots of them. Then they picked it up and snap shots of me, before we put it down and had another chai and a smoked. Then somebody tried to communicate a grand point—which ended up in half-assed understanding and laughs.
Daham wasn’t around much when I was hanging out with his subordinates. He stayed in the house, with his family (back in the bowels of the place, beyond the diwan—the central meeting room—the only one to which I had access). I didn’t see a whole lot of Sadie, either. Lenny was around a lot and we laughed and smiled broadly every time we saw one another. In just a week, he became like a brother to me—despite the limitations of our verbal communications.
I would call him crazy, giving the Arabic sign for loco, and he’d act hurt (I think their idea of crazy is more derogatory than ours), then I’d laugh and give him a hug—he must have stood six-foot-three—and he’d break into a smile. Other times, he’d come up, grab me, and either say something I didn’t understand or start with Hey mister … to which I’d finish singing, No tee gee em ee …. There were two other soldiers with whom I bonded that deeply, Obidayah and Abu Abdullah.
Obidayah was tall and lanky, like Lenny, with similarly giant mitts (like a baby Rottweiler you can tell is going to be huge by the size of its paws). He was 27 and had dark hair and eyes with copper skin that almost glowed. Like Lenny, I could easily imagine him being a 1950s prep, or a European pretty boy. Given more money, he would have been particular about his dress and into expensive cologne. As it was, he smoked like a chimney, he was constantly adorned in his standard issue cammies, and he wore a pair of fingerless black weightlifting gloves that had to be among the most tasteless hand appurtenance ever created.
Obi was Shaffir’s inside man—the guy who served chai when guests were in the diwan (which is often in an Arabic household) and who was put in charge of my care. I saw MHS only sporadically through the rest of the week, but Obi was a constant companion. We’d sit on one of the half-dozen couches in the diwan and talk, laugh, and smoke cigarettes (like all the people I met, Obi couldn’t smoke alone … the Arabs are extremely hospitable people and when they smoke, drink, or eat, it’s a social event—somebody has to share it with them). At the time I thought MHS’s diwan was huge (it’s about three stories high and probably twenty feet by thirty), but I’ve since seen several that make it look diminutive.
The diwan is a long room, ringed with couches or cushions, where guests—generally other sheiks—sit and sip chai, smoke cigarettes by the carton, and talk. It’s the diwan where Arabic social matters are settled, not the city council, boardroom or courts … which is a crucial piece of understanding. One of the central questions in post insurgency Iraq regards the amenability of Middle Eastern tribal society to Western democracy. The conglomerate answer I found in those diwans (and there are dozens of variations of it) is that there will be a democracy here, but it won’t be America’s democracy. It will be tribal and Arabic, with Muslim overtures and a strong centralized authority (it’s no accident a despot like Saddam Hussein ran this place for 30 years … in a paternal society where the father figure is almighty and the people expect stern authority—where they almost feel lost without it).
Obi spoke more English than the rest (I suspect he had more contact with the Marines who regularly visited MHS) and his celerity with the term ‘fuck’ was laudable. In the morning he’d bring a large tray with fuckin’ breakfast, which generally consisted of several pieces of flat bread with jams, eggs and dipping sauces. Then we’d have fuckin’ chai and figure out what the day would entail. Generally I’d go out with a small security detachment to take pictures or conduct an interview, or I’d follow MHS on his daily rounds (stopping by his base or meeting with counterparts in the Iraqi Army or Police).
The other close friend from that week, Abu Abdullah (Abu means father in Arabic and Abdullah was the Poppa Bear of the group) was a protector type. He was big and bulky, with a perpetual three-day growth on his face; in America he would have played tackle on the high school football team. He had a stony expression that sat atop that grizzly bear frame, and it camouflaged a soft and gentle heart. With brown eyes and brownish hair on a countenance that looked perfectly gringo, he struck me as the kind of guy that young woman like to have as a friend—one who’s feared and respected by other men, but who’s also trustworthy and kind.
Abdullah told me—through strained and random communication, as we were walking down the road holding hands (a social trait that though endearing and poignantly social, still felt odd), that he had a wife and two kids in Mosul. I never quite figured out why he’d ended up so far from home. I’m sure it had to do with the insurgency. All of the young guys I encountered showed me pictures or cell-phone videos of their dead brothers (or fathers, uncles, or cousins … sometimes all of the above)—victims of the terrorists.
One congenial soldier showed me a video of a man he claimed was his brother, and it pissed me off to no end. In it, a trio of cammie-clad Arabic fighters loaded a huge machine gun and stepped into the street—into the line of fire—to wildly unload full belts of ammunition; wasteful expenditure that’s verboten in military protocol. And sure enough, the video flipped from those Rambo-like shooting vignettes to close up views of the same three men as fatalities; one of them with his head splayed across the street.
It was explained to me—as I could have guessed—that the dumb fucks expended all their ammo and were then defenseless when the “terrorists” overran them. They were executed. I thought about the guy who put that video together—the one who laid the music over the edited clips. He must have been a friend, maybe even a brother of the victims, and I can’t imagine what combination of pain and retarded pride was going through his head as he cut and spliced.
Terrorist, I’ve come to learn, is a protean and meretricious term in a civil war. The fighting here happened because of so many dirtied and complex reasons, and there were so many different sides and factions—and ancient scores to settle—that the word largely came to denote anybody who didn’t agree with you. As the chips have fallen, MHS (who was apparently fighting with both sides, for a while) is an ally of the Americans. He’s come out on top (for now).
His soldiers, the victors, are therefore the just; the story is theirs to write. And so their dead comrades (and brother, in this case) are the valiant and noble victims of the terrorist insurgency. I watched that video and I was so pissed off—a venomous anger that cut right to the heart of this whole clusterfuck. I was angry at the stupidity of it. Call me an elitist, but I was hatefully mad at that dumb and uneducated Mesopotamian Rambo (the brother of a man I’d come to care for as one of my own).
I think I hated him deeply for his lack of education (or maybe I was sublimating my hate for the situation, and my shock at his death, into something more manageable). I’m continually more offended by the uneducated throngs of the third-world and the stupid shit they put the rest of us through. I know the uneducated are usually victims of some sort, and not responsible for their pedagogical challenges—but the problem (and it’s poignantly obvious over here) is they eventually make everybody else victims through their godamned stupidity.
Like that dead Iraqi soldier. I’ve never fired an automatic weapon, nor even (outside of my time as a civilian in Iraq) carried a gun—and yet I know that you don’t go firing a weapon like you’re in a low budget Hollywood Western simply to … I don’t even know why they acted like that. I hope it’s because they were scared (and if that’s the case, shame on them for that, too). Because if not, it goes back to a retarded Arabic sense of virility expressed through big guns and displays of power. And if that’s the case, then ironically, maybe the guy went too close to the light wrote his own fate.
At the end of the day, I think it comes back to that fundamental kind of stupidity that’s stepchild to lack of education. And that—the lack of learning that comes with lack of opportunity (the unequal and inequitable distribution of wealth, as Marx would have seen it)—is the crux of this whole bleeding conflict. As a wise and successful 35-year-old small businessman in Haditha, a man named Ahmed, told me, “You want to know who the terrorists were? The terrorists were the uneducated hillbillies that live down the street and who would have come to my house and raped my wife and stolen everything I owned, when some foreign fanatic came to town and told them to do it in the name of Allah.”
This conflict has marked a monumental test for this civilization, a direct confrontation with fundamentalism. One of the fault lines exposed (as is always the case) sheered on class and economic lines. At the bottom of it all, it’s the propensity of the poor and undereducated to be so easily lead—in such nefarious directions—that pisses me off most about that dead soldier. Because it’s plain stupidity that got him killed that sunny day (so that his brother could endlessly watch his final moments on grainy cell phone video).
That stupidity is conterminous with the fanaticism that deeply rattled Ahmed, and made it possible for a small legion of foreigners from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Chechnya, etc., to come to a defenseless country and pillage (everybody involved, the military included, tells me Paul Bremmer was the biggest dipshit involved in this whole conflict and erred utterly when he disbanded Iraq’s army … leaving it like a body with no immune system in a Middle Eastern cancer chamber).
Actually, I think it was a perfect storm of bad factors that laid the country open. Nearly two decades of pilfered education coffers (owing to Saddam’s wars and international sanctions) left an undereducated, hungry and dissatisfied society prone to insurrectionist ideology. Foreign paleface occupiers (and the dissolution of the country’s military) were the primer, I think. After that, it only took a couple of well-placed sectarian bombings to ignite the whole powder keg. And now, nearly five years later, we’re dealing with this gem of absurdity—things may well have leveled off and stabilized because many of the undereducated and fundamentalist-thinking have been killed off. I’m not for exterminating the poor and fanatical, but the deed’s largely done—and I’m deeply happy for Iraq that it’s regaining some sense of deserved peace.
I just wanted to say thanks for putting pictures of my soldier on your website. It is very refreshing to see him and know for a fact that he is ok. He tells me every day what he is doing, etc. but it helps to have pictures to go along with the stories. Every word I hear spoken from or about him and every picture I see taken of him give me a sense of pride that I've never felt before. I am honored and very proud to say that Josh Back is my husband and my best friend. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart!