MORE TALES FROM THE FRONT
photo by Buck Sargent
It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.
Failed totalitarian states like Iraq are case studies in field-tested anarchy; societies with very few hard and fast rules and a glaring lack of authority figures to enforce the ones that do exist. In many respects, Mad Max would feel right at home.
The Iraqis are presently reverse engineering a modern society from the pavement up. As it stands, holding the line on mortality rates is clearly a bigger priority than holding down insurance rates. (Not that any of them have insurance, mind you.) But take traffic patterns, for instance. Vehicle ownership has exploded since the fall of Saddam, and many drivers appear to observe the same right of way rules as do teenage mallrats, which is to say not much observance at all. Here in Mosul, Iraqis often travel down whichever side of the street is most convenient for them at the time. They break for no one, not even donkeys. They speed everywhere because they can; the Iraqi police are understandably more concerned with fighting off ambushes than with setting up speed traps. And you can forget about trying to merge with a friendly wave: it’s dog-eat-mangy dog out on the highways and drive-byways. Our Strykers receive deference only because they weigh 22 tons and wield .50 caliber machine guns. Displacing oxygen with your ride apparently means never having to sit through rush hour.
I reflected on this with one of my soldiers while in a long-term surveillance of a high traffic area and a common site for insurgent mischief.
"You know, Gunderson," I said. "If I lived in this country, I think the only traffic laws I’d follow would be yielding, and only then because I’d be wary of getting T-boned in intersections or sideswiped by fast-moving convoys. I’d speed everywhere, I’d blow through red lights, pull u-turns whenever I felt like it, steer against traffic... I bet I could make daily commuting an extreme sport. What do you think?"
"I would drive backwards."
He said this without a even a hint of irony. He would drive everywhere he went in reverse, simply because he could. I believe him.
In the twilight hours of a seemingly average day in February, an Iraqi pedestrian tossed a hand grenade at our platoon during a routine foot patrol on a bustling market boulevard. My roommate Sgt. Sweet was walking point on the left side of the road with myself in the median to his right and Sgt. Romero several meters directly behind him. Sweet had just crossed the intersection I was preparing to step across when small arms fire directed across our front halted us in our tracks. (On the receiving end, AK fire often sounds closer to firecrackers than gunshots, causing momentary sensory confusion.)
Within seconds a sharp explosion erupted on our immediate left, directly between Sweet and Romero. My initial read of the situation screamed "IED" as dirt and debris shot across the roadway. Sweet had been knocked down by the blast and peppered with shrapnel in his lower legs and backside. As he later recounted, he heard the spoon of the grenade clink on the ground as it was hurled in his direction and had time only to turn away before it exploded. Romero saw it come toward him and scuttle in the ubiquitous trash and refuse that lines every sidewalk. The concussion rendered him momentarily senseless, wounding him in the inner thigh and lower legs with nearly a dozen shards of searing metal. (Another chunk we'd later discover embedded in the forehead of his Kevlar helmet.) Walking behind us were our platoon leader and RTO, also hit with minor leg wounds. I was directly in the open, smack dab in the middle of the avenue, and somehow I emerged completely unscathed. Call it the luck of the Irish. I call it dumb luck.
I glanced to my rear and saw the majority of the platoon instinctively move to cover behind an adjoining wall, but I still could not see Sweet or Romero. Only seconds had elapsed, and it had still not occurred to me that the blast had not been a much larger and more powerful bomb. Initially I feared they had been vaporized. But as I moved out of the road toward his last known position, I witnessed Sweet materialize out of a cloud of dust and smoke in slow-motion Dolby Surreal. You don't easily forget something like that.
"Are you hit?"
"Yeah," he said hobbling toward me.
"Can you make it?"
Looking back, I suppose I could have dragged him to cover against his will and put myself in for a Bronze Star with V device. Then I could run for the Senate! Maybe next time.
Together we fell back to a position behind a nearby wall since taken up by the rest of the platoon, where Sgt. Romero had already holed up. Sweet collapsed on the sidewalk beside him for buddy-aid while we waited on our platoon medic to get there. As our Stryker vehicles sped to the scene to medevac the wounded, local traffic continued to bear down on our position as the remaining daylight faded. Several soldiers stepped out into the road in a futile attempt to ward it off utilizing their tac-lights and weapon lasers. One particular blue sedan sped around the corner at a high rate of speed, refusing to stop until warning shots were fired, violently braking it to a halt. In the chaotic aftermath, an Iraqi woman riding in the passenger seat lay dead, a tragic but unavoidable casualty in a war where every speeding car is a potential bomb.
This was not a lapse in discipline on our part. It was not like the movies depicting rattled soldiers firing from the hip at anything that walks, crawls, or breathes. It was a by-the-book application of ROE, and a textbook answer to the question of what results when a guerrilla "resistance" takes their ideological fight to the streets and neighborhoods of a populace whose "honor" they claim to be protecting. Iraqi bloggers like my good pal A Citizen of Mosul will likely post about another innocent woman gunned down by the bloodthirsty Americans. Never mind that several school-age bystanders were wounded in the initial attack. We’ll probably get blamed for that as well.
In the immediate aftermath our remaining elements fanned out and searched several blocks and nearby homes for suspects with the assistance of the IPs, but by then the effort was already a day late and thousands of dinars short; clearly they were long gone. Such is the nature of the hit and run tactics routinely employed by the ghostly "insurgents." I still regret not focusing more during the initial moments, as the perpetrator likely had been waiting in the shadows just at the periphery of my sight. If I had only caught him in mid-toss I would have had him dead to rights, and my roommate wouldn’t in the future have to drop his trousers every time he attempts to pass through airport security. I’d like a do-over, please.
From a purely tactical standpoint, whoever pulled off this minor and relatively ineffective ambush failed. But from an Al Jazeera viewpoint, it was a success. U.S. soldiers got hurt, the bad guys got away, and another Iraqi civilian was sent to the morgue.
Over here, the devil is always in the details.
'The Lil' Fella's Okay'
All American casualties are given the opportunity if able to place a call home from the CASH (combat support hospital) to inform their loved ones of their injuries and to head off the Army’s vague and impersonal notification process. (If they are incapacitated, the unit’s commander will typically make the call himself to provide families an honest account of what happened and how serious the injury really is.) These calls also serve to stymie any resultant hyperventilation on the homefront by apprehensive hausfraus. But not always.
Some soldiers fear having to make this ominous call home more than the actual reason behind it. When Sgt. Blakely and I had tried to get Sweet to roll over on his stomach for treatment, the first words out of his mouth through a grimace and clenched teeth were, "My wife is going to be pissed." He was already dreading having to make The Call before the bleeding had even stopped.
Sgt. Romero dialed his wife as soon as he got out of surgery to remove the shrapnel from his upper thighs and groin. "She was pretty freaked out at first when I explained exactly where and how bad I was hit, but she seemed to calm down a bit after I reassured her, "Don't worry Honey, the Lil' Fella’s okay.'"
And as for the reaction of Sgt. Sweet’s "Household Six?" Let’s just say he called that one right on the money.
IED Pluribus Unum
No sooner had Sweet and Romero returned to duty than did our squad’s Stryker, aka the USS* Dirty Snatch, hit a roadside bomb that showered debris -- mainly dirt and pavement -- across her bow and down inside her hatches. Whoever triggered the blast must have buried it way too deep and suffered from a bit of premature initiation because we sailed through without even a hint of damage, notwithstanding the bowling ball size chunks of blacktop that bombarded the topside and open hatches. (I’d just as soon not take one of those to the face at Mach 2, thank you very much.) Although at the time, Sweet and I were actually riding below deck flipping through back issues of US Weekly and other trash tabloids that litter the interior of our truck. So while Gundy, Evans, and Romero were busy dodging an inverse meteor shower, there we were absorbing useless factoids about celebrities. It gets boring on patrol, until it suddenly and violently stops getting boring. But then it usually reverts right back to soul crushing boredom again. It's a vicious cycle!
*United States Stryker
Say what you will about the Stryker combat vehicle, though: the Dirty Snatch is one tough wench. As soon as our ears stopped ringing and we checked all our fingers and toes (they were all still there), we let out a collective war cry of defiant bravado that was a sight and sound to behold. It's probably not what most people expect to read or hear about -- soldiers actually cheering after an IED attack like their team just won the Rose Bowl -- but at that particular moment there was nowhere else I would have wanted to be. One second we’re reading about TomKat’s impending breakup and marveling over how much weight Britney has put on since having her baby, and the next the world is blowing up all around us. But we're still here, and we're still in the fight. That's all you can really ask for. And that's all that matters.
Full disclosure: Once all the excitement wound down and the adrenaline wore off, yes, Sweet and I went right back to reading our magazines.
This next greatest generation of soldiers is made up entirely of volunteers -- not a draftee among them -- and I’ve never been around a more aggressive or fearless group of Americans: guys who never fail to move to the sound of the guns, if for no other reason than because it’s their duty. (Plus, it alleviates the monotony.) But I don't believe an American army has ever fielded a more professional cadre of warriors. Admittedly, if you take a look back on our nation’s long and storied history, that’s a bold statement. But it’s a Pepsi challenge I’d be willing to take.
Consider the following from On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by retired Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman:
If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath -- a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.
The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot, and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog that intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.
Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn't tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, "Baa." Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.
Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle.
Here is how the sheep and the sheepdog think differently. The sheep pretend the wolf will never come, but the sheepdog lives for that day. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of the sheep, that is, most citizens in America said, "Thank God I wasn't on one of those planes." The sheepdogs, the warriors, said, "Dear God, I wish I could have been on one of those planes. Maybe I could have made a difference." When you are truly transformed into a warrior and have truly invested yourself into warriorhood, you want to be there. You want to be able to make a difference.
The Iraqi Army used to be the wolf. But now this new collection of Kurdish and Arabian knights we’ve built from the boots-on-the-ground up fight him alongside us. They’ve progressed from right-seat riding in 2005 to left-seat driving in 2006, and at the current pace a sizable number of them will be flying solo by early next year. We’ve remade them into our own image to hunt the wolf, and so far they’ve stunned him with their aggressiveness. The battalion of soldiers we work with in our (soon to be their) sector operate out of tiny but aptly named FOB Resolve.
re·solve [ri zólv]
1. determination: firmness of purpose
2. decision: a choice to do something
3. change: to convert into something else
These courageous Kurdish warriors can barely pronounce the word, but they’re living it every single day all the same. As the late Great Communicator once put it: "Those who say that we're in a time when there are no heroes, they just don't know where to look."
I'm willing to bet you didn’t hear about any of this in the Stateside press, although it did merit a small blurb deep inside last week’s Stars and Stripes:
U.S. and Iraqi security forces rescued three Iraqi hostages on Tuesday who had been held in Mosul, U.S. military officials said Wednesday.
The three hostages were reportedly chained to the wall of the basement in a house in the northern Iraqi city; there was no information on the hostages’ identities, whom their captors were or why they were kidnapped.
The rescue team included U.S. soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade and the Iraqi 3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi Army Division, and members of the Iraqi police. There were no casualties during the rescue, which followed tips from local Iraqis, officials said.
I can vouch for this story: we were there. 3rd Platoon was launched as a quick reaction force to back up the IA and a fellow Stryker platoon on the scene providing outer cordon. The hostages were indeed chained in a veritable dungeon whose stairwell was concealed by a false floor tile, admittedly something we may not have been capable of discovering on our own. But the Iraqis are old hat at such tricks. Dungeons were par for the course under the Baathist reign of terror.
But not all of the story is accurate, however. We were not supported by Iraqi forces, the Iraqi forces were supported by us. They worked the lead, they conducted the reconnaissance, they initiated the raid, and they ultimately secured the hostages. They did make one big mistake in tipping off the kidnappers by reconnoitering the site a little too closely and indiscreetly (a hamfisted tactic they likely learned from us), but they later made up for it. Their emplaced sniper/killer teams (SKTs) overwatched the house long enough for the suspects to foolishly return to it and stroll right into the dragnet waiting for them. Bravo, fellas. Another step forward.
Deep Thoughts from the Crapper II
Elements of our squad spent several days back in March holed up in a "hide sight" (in this particular case an Iraqi residence), staking out a known IED emplacement route that had in recent months become an O'Pucker Factor fun park ride as our unit's patrols routinely ran this gauntlet of roadside bombs. Our orders were explicit: apprehend if possible, eliminate if necessary, anyone observed digging or attempting to bury objects in the median, i.e., things that make you go Boom.
Most Iraqi homes don’t have toilets; they instead squat over recessed porcelain bowls in the bathroom floor connected to sewage pipes that lead to Allah knows where. (From the stench of the neighborhoods, they obviously don’t go far enough.) I was determined to hold out, but by about the third day I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to do the hajji squat. My only question: How on Allah's brown earth do the locals maintain this quad-quaking stress position while reading their morning paper? They must have thighs of steel.
We Can't Do It!
Vocal critics of the war continue to harangue me incessantly, snidely baiting me on what I think "victory" in the war will ultimately consist of. These Rosie the Rioters and original cynics don't really want an answer and they certainly don't want to hear any solutions. They just want to keep playing the same blame game over and over and over until their self-fulfilling defeat and retreat-ism is vindicated. It's an exercise in futility on my part, but I usually refer these "type nays" to the officially stated position of the Commander in Chief anyway. He's been hammering this point home for awhile now:
"Victory will be achieved by meeting certain objectives: when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can protect their own people, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks against our country. These objectives — not timetables set by politicians in Washington — will drive our force levels in Iraq."
There you have it. Is that really so tough to grasp?
Mosul’s Most Wanted
Major Fallah, the supercop of southeastern Mosul, while appearing as a guest on a local Iraqi talk-radio show, took a call from a Moslawi citizen forwarding a tip about a suspicious person in his neighborhood. Fallah listened intently between sips of chai tea, asked a few pointed questions, and then stood up and declared: "I’ll be back." He then turned and walked right out of the studio leaving the radio host likely dumbfounded.
Within the hour he returned and theatrically announced over the airwaves: "He’s been detained."
From what I've seen and heard about Major Fallah, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if he'd performed a spot-on "Shatner roll" across the hood of his SUV on the way out.
Not to be outdone, our 3-4-2 Iraqi army counterparts, responding to another tip from locals, recently excavated an enormous cache of artillery, mortar, and recoilless rifle shells from the muddy banks of the Tigris, wading into the water and pulling round after round from the water. Every one of these shells would be enough to inflict serious carnage on an American or Iraqi patrol if emplaced as a roadside bomb. We won't leave the wire in anything less than monstrously armored vehicles, yet they still roll out day after day in thin-skinned Nissan pickup trucks. When it comes to IEDs, they're about as protected as a bicycle. I say this not to excoriate the pace of their aquisition process; better equipment is slowly but surely being provided. I say it only because I'm not familiar with the Kurdish or Arabic phrase for "Got balls?"
Dismantling the enemies infrastructure and support system is a task that homegrown Iraqi fighters are clearly better suited for. No matter how many months we spend here, we will never be able to match their ability to shake out the bad guys and spot the out of the ordinary. With an enemy that bobs and weaves among the populace and fights only on their own terms, the Iraqis can sniff them out a lot faster than we can snuff them out. This has always been their beat and their responsibility, and they’re well on their way to finally owning up to it. Every step they take forward in reclaiming their country is one more we can step back to repatriating to ours. Isn't that what everybody claims to want?
I'm beginning to love the smell of chai in the morning. Smells like... victory.
COPYRIGHT 2006 BUCK SARGENT