RETURN OF TALES FROM THE FRONT
The Iraqi Army standing tall in Tal Afar
photo by Buck Sargent
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Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.
You’ll notice if you read your history, that the work of the world gets done by the people who aren’t bellyachers.
-Harry S. Truman
Warming The Bench
Not long after arriving in Tal Afar last summer our platoon rolled into a small town called Muhalabiyah, roughly 30km outside of the city. We stopped by the local police station in order to try to establish some initial rapport, as well as to troll for any actionable intel. While we were there, the IPs received word that a mukhtar (a local official) had just been ambushed and assassinated while foolishly out driving alone. He was most likely killed for agreeing to work and collaborate with coalition and Iraqi security forces. This type of intimidation over here is unfortunately quite common.
By the time we got to the scene, his body had already been carried to his home. And what a scene it was. There were what appeared to be hundreds of people there screaming and wailing in intense shock and pain. Either this man had quite the extended family (in tribal Iraq, that's not exactly uncommon), or he was the most popular figure in the entire town (probably also true, based on his position). Children were everywhere and every single one of them were crying hysterically, as were all the adult men. Women were wailing and flailing their arms to and fro. Never before have I witnessed such a display of mass anguish.
The mukhtar's body was inside, and we entered to offer whatever medical aid we could. But he was clearly already dead, having been shot through the head multiple times. Seeing that didn't really bother me -- it's not like it's the first time. But that scene of all those people so torn up by his murder really shook me. I've just never seen anything like it. This wasn’t simply a grief-stricken family -- it was an entire grief-stricken crowd. I didn't even know how to act, other than to return to the stoic soldier role we routinely assume.
Normally, I'd be filming out-of-the-ordinary events such as this, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't know how reporters can capture such intensely personal moments without feeling like vultures, but it just didn't feel right to intrude on their loss and suffering like that. Are "journalist" and "human being" mutually exclusive terms? I suppose then I’m a terrible journalist. I can live with that.
Several weeks later our platoon was called out to provide outer cordon security for an IA raid on a target house. An Iraqi informant -- a terrorist cell member-turned-snitch on his former compatriots (to get them before they could get him) -- had fingered a Muhalabiyah safehouse that he claimed was being used to shelter several notorious AIF operatives in the Tal Afar area. The information was 15 days old, the decrepit source was badly shot up from previous run-ins with the Iraqi police, and his credibility was suspect; yet our platoon leader made the call to go ahead with the mission regardless. We had seen our share of "dry holes" over the course of the past year, and this one was shoring up to fit that pattern, but perhaps we would get lucky and find a weapons cache and some residual intel whether we found anybody home or not.
With only two weeks left in country, this would be our last opportunity to chase bad guys before some of us returned home to chase our kids around the house, or others to return to chasing women and tequila shots. As I had been tasked out for other duties at the time, I volunteered to tag along thinking this would be my last patrol in Iraq. [If I had only known…]
Led by a small American Special Forces contingent, the IA officers and their jundis loaded to bear and made their way to the target house, with our Strykers in blocking positions at key intersections ready to assist if needed. It was a bittersweet conclusion to a long year in Iraq. Our mission all along has been to provide the Iraqis the time and training necessary to allow them to plan, execute, and take the initiative on missions precisely as this one, but once the ball gets rolling you find yourself resentful that it is now in their court rather than your own. Your remaining tour is nearly to single digits -- the last thing you should want is to find yourself in a firefight. But when the shots ring out to your position a few blocks away, you’re stuck with that benchwarmer feeling.
"Any way you look at it, it still sucks being second string," remarked Sgt. Grant over the Stryker’s radio intercom. Those of us on the net all nodded knowingly in the darkness.
Back to the raid: Two unidentified men on the rooftop had opened up on the IA as they crept up to the target house, but were quickly overwhelmed by return fire, threw down their AKs and hightailed it out of there. At the same moment, their cell leader was busy cramming the remainder of his posse into a concealed crawl space before running upstairs to try and squeeze his extremely corpulent self into a tight spot that was definitely not built for two.
While our Strykers moved to the target building amid reports of hostiles on the rooftops, "Fat Bastard" was meeting his end to a hail of bullets as he refused to surrender when approached by swarms of Iraqi commandos. They were taking no chances with the deadly "grenade in the pocket" tricks of AIF insurgents who frequently abuse the exclusively Western penchant for taking prisoners.
Several of the detainees were confirmed as among the top five wanted bad guys in the greater Tal Afar area. Fat (and now very dead) Bastard turned out to have been a cell leader from the Mosul area. Another had raped and murdered his own pregnant sister after having discovered her providing assistance to coalition forces. And yet another was the very man who had assassinated the mukhtar from Muhalabiyah.
As the Iraqi soldiers stood around basking in their most recent coup against the forces of evil in their country, we all took turns drinking the dead man’s chai that they had cooked up in his kitchen. It tasted especially sweet.
Things That Make You Go Boom
In order to catalog the extensive cache of terrorist weapons that had been discovered inside the crawl space with the detainees, I sat upon what I thought was a stool inside the pitch black room so I could rotate my body around it and take pictures of each item. My camera revealed AK-47s, a sniper rifle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, grenades, detonation cord, as well as several initiators and bomb-making material. After I had squeezed myself back out of the crawlspace, my LT asked me if I remembered to get a good photo of the "one-five-fives" that were in there.
"What 155’s?" I asked him.
"The ones in the room," he said.
"I didn’t see any in there."
"Trust me," he said. "They’re in there."
I shoved my weapon’s tac-light back in the hole and to my horror discovered that what I had just used as a "stool" was in fact a tightly wrapped trio of 155mm artillery shells pre-rigged to be used as a vehicle-demolishing IED. Oh well. All in a day's work.
Creating Yeast in the Middle East
Later that morning after EOD had arrived to cart away the explosives and we were preparing to depart the area, the young, pretty wife of one of the detainees could be heard vocalizing her distress over the fate of her husband and was pleading his case with the ranking Iraqi officer on the scene. As unlikely as it sounds -- considering all the ordnance that was being stashed in her home -- perhaps she really didn’t know what he was involved in. And you think you know a person.
But it’s always fascinating to watch the transformation that rarely fails to occur among terrorist "bad asses" whenever they’re caught with their man-dresses around their ankles. These "fearless" insurgent asswipes suddenly develop a raging case of vaginitis -- whimpering, sniveling, and rolling all over the ground -- as if being cuffed and stuffed and made to sit cross-legged on the ground is the worst torture ever devised by man. If only the subjects of their campaigns of terror could see what pathetic creatures these men really are. Perhaps then they’d take more of a stand against allowing so many of them to essentially highjack their own country.
‘I’d Like To Thank The Academy’
Prisoners of all stripes will throw down the pussy card whenever you roll up to the DiF (detainee facility) to turn them in for processing. They know full well the legacy of Abu Ghraib that the media continues to sow throughout our political system, and that if they only playact a little bit they’ll get the red carpet treatment every time from the prison administrators. If they’re really good, they may even turn the tables on their interrogation to focus on our behavior rather than their own. As such, it’s now practically par for the course for them to complain of abuse after being handed over. And sometimes, people even buy what they’re selling.
One of the biggest shocks upon arriving in Baghdad was the realization that not everyone in theater had been making the same progress that we had been all year throughout Mosul and Tal Afar, especially regarding the training and mentoring of the local Iraqi forces. We had always just presumed that what we had been doing routinely up north was what was going on everywhere else in Iraq. Talk about your all-time boneheaded assumptions.
What we found instead was a city that was not only woefully under-patrolled by American forces, but whose Iraqi counterparts were at least a year or more behind the IAs and IPs that we had been used to working with. It was discouraging to say the least, and often infuriating.
"What have these guys been doing all year?" was a common refrain around our unit at the time.
"We have to stay in Iraq longer while they pack up and go home, just so we can come fix their mess for them?"
"They get here after us and leave before we do? What total bull****!"
"Here we are patrolling with these corrupt IPs in front of the people, dragging our credibility right through the mud in the process."
"Yeah, those Iraqi police aren’t out catching the bad guys because they are the bad guys."
I’d spent a good part of the past year castigating the "Green Zone FOBgoblins" in the press for taking such a narrow view of Iraq and passing it off as representative of the entire war. What I failed to understand until I arrived in Baghdad this past August was that the gloomy picture they’ve been painting -- while not indicative of the progress throughout the rest of the country -- is indeed accurate so far as it relates to the capital. Here it’s an entirely different war.
For whatever reason, Baghdad had been left to rot from the inside out. What they failed to comprehend was that while the Iraqis are quick studies, they are not exactly what you’d call "overly motivated." You’ve got to poke, and prod, and cajole them into learning their jobs, regularly performing their duties, and then kick them in the ass and drag them along with you every single day -- for months if need be -- until it sinks in that nothing in their area will improve until they start waking up before noon and actually leave their compounds to patrol, walk the streets, and talk with the very people they are charged with protecting. If you do this long enough, after a bit they start to get the hint, the true leaders among them will emerge, and you’ll notice you don’t have to encourage them quite so forcefully anymore. They will start planning, organizing, and running operations entirely on their own.
But you cannot expect this result if you are not willing to put in the long hours and brutally hot days with them initially. It was glaringly apparent that this was not being done in Baghdad prior to our arrival. Someone didn’t just drop the ball, they kicked it straight into the gutter. And now it’s been left up to us to retrieve it, clean off the poo-water, re-inflate it, and put it back into play.
The Kids Are Alright
In our apparent bid to personally meet every living resident in Baghdad, we spend a lot of time on the ground in the mixed neighborhoods shaking hands, holding babies, and talking with residents, soliciting their views and feedback. My company in particular has spent extensive time in the former "problem areas" of Ghazaliyah, Adhamiyah, Shaab-Ur, and in recent weeks, Bayaa.
Our presence instantly alters the mood as residents line the outside of their homes, kids play in the streets again, and people congregate openly and freely among their neighbors without fear. They instinctively know that we won’t harm them, and that if anyone dared cruise by on a mission of intimidation, they’d learn a swift and humbling lesson. So far, few have dared to test us.
Iraqi children are the easiest barometer by which to measure the underlying attitudes of a community. You can instantly recognize which areas are used to seeing American soldiers mixing among them and which haven‘t seen them in quite a long time, if ever. When you‘re instantly swarmed by hordes of Iraqi children pestering you with unrelenting cries of "Mistah! Mistah! Mistah!" then you know that you‘re not blazing any new trails. On the other hand, some enclaves will be oddly standoffish -- not necessarily in a negative manner, but rather in a display of amazing discipline on the part of the children. They’re either unfamiliar with us, or they’ve simply had better parenting.
On the flip side, a "bad" neighborhood will be teeming with adolescents who viscerally give off the "I would very much like to slit your throat" vibe. It’s rare to witness, but always creepy. Suffice it to say, I’ve only gotten this vibe in districts that butt up against Sadr City, the bastion of Shia militia membership in northeastern Baghdad.
Our unit’s home state of Alaska has a Permanent Fund Dividend that distributes oil and gas revenue equally to all its residents, provided you’ve lived there for a year and have plans to stay. Well, we’ve been here 14 months and have no idea when we’re leaving. As such it would be a wise idea to implement a similar idea for all Iraqis to personally have a stake in their country’s natural wealth. But if that ever becomes a reality, I’ll be expecting my cut.
Late night raids on target houses that local sources report as concealing pre-rigged IEDs are now what passes for fun around here. Not to mention it was a joint raid with a unit from the Iraqi National Police, whose balls had in recent weeks been squashed in a vise for being corrupt and infiltrated with undue militia influence. Oh, and did I mention that it was in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad (yes, they actually named it that) and that the clock had just turned midnight on Friday the 13th? Ha ha, jokes on us.
Still, the house didn’t blow up, so it’s all good.
The last time I recall spending Jason Voorhees’ birthday in the Middle East, it was departing KIA (Kabul International Airport) on a rattling Air Force C-130 to travel across the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and back to the Devil’s Playground in the southeastern border region. And our plane didn’t even crash.
Which leaves me to believe that next year I’ll probably be spending the 13th doing something completely normal like watching a ball game in my living room when -- à la Final Destination -- I’ll trip over my coffee table jumping to my feet after a big play, spill my beer all over the floor, crash my head through the tv screen and electrocute myself on the wiring while kneeling in a fresh puddle of Shiner Bock.
Before we even left Kuwait en route back to the Iraqi front lines, the leaks began to spring up in the camelbaks of many relationships that had already endured nearly to the breaking point. In years gone by, soldiers had to wait weeks to find our that their betrothed were no longer as in love as they thought they were. But thanks to rapid advances in modern technology, our hearts can be ripped from our chests within seconds upon just the press of a computer keystroke.
One of my soldiers received just such an email from his betrothed before we had even made it to back to Baghdad. It’s fairly clear that there were cracks in the relationship that would ultimately have widened anyway once they were reunited, but to write off your loved ones before they even return from war is unconscionable. The only lower blow I can imagine is a wife sending a postcard to her wounded husband at Walter Reed to let him know that she’s "tired of waiting for him" and would like a divorce. I don’t know, I suppose a cell phone instant message would be lower. Who’s to say?
Barely a few weeks into our new mission, a letter appeared in the syndicated Dear Abby column in Stars and Stripes from an anonymous young woman in Memphis who asked for advice on whether to call off the engagement to her now-extended soldier/fiancé. Considering our brigade was the only recent unit kept past it’s one-year deployment, I’m guessing there’s only so many troops that could fit the profile of being engaged to a someone from Memphis.
And women tell us we’re the ones who have communication issues?
As my mother wrote to me recently:
I cannot for the life of me understand these women. I know I am from a very different generation...but don't the words loyalty, devotion, commitment still have the same meaning that they did for the past six decades? Do these women know history? What about the World War II soldiers who were gone for years at a time? What about POW wives (like Yuba) who wrote letters constantly...never knowing whether her letters reached her husband and never getting anything in return...for two years? She went to work everyday and of course she grieved. But did she complain and wimp out? No. She just kept writing and hoping and hanging on, never knowing if she would ever see him again.I was raised a Christian in the Episcopal Church, though much of the time I don’t really know or care anymore where I stand on religious belief or issues of faith. It’s simply a subject matter that I rarely spend much time thinking about. My wife recently rediscovered her strong relationship with God, so perhaps she can help enlighten me when I return from overseas. I look forward to that more than you could possibly know.
What about Vietnam POW's wives whose husbands were imprisioned for 5 years or more. There was no cable TV then but much was written about the wives and they were often interviewed. I never heard a complaint...just sadness...but always hopefulness...and always support. I don't know what happened in their relationships later but I do know that their families were intact when they came home. I watched it on live TV (and cried) when each and every one of them got off the plane.
What is wrong with this picture? Why is this happening so much? This is not the first I've heard of this and you even talked about it in your journals in Afghanistan. It actually interests me more from a sociological standpoint...more than psychological. Is it the result of the "me" generation...the sense of entitlement that so many seem to have? But hey, you and your fellow soldiers are a part of that so-called generation...and you're not like that. How much more selfless can you be...given where you are and doing what you are doing...for all of us!
But for now, it’s difficult to believe that God has a plan for everyone’s life when you’re aware of and subject to so many of the routine horrors that can and do occur in a war zone. I’d like to believe that God didn’t have a plan for all of the sickening ways so many fellow soldiers have been killed or wounded here. Or the multitudes of civilians pulled out of their homes or cars and shot by the side of the road on a daily basis, with no one bothering to even check their vitals, much less offer medical attention. Or the little kids who’ve been blown to bits by people who lay exclusive claim to their god’s favor. If that’s also part of "God’s Plan," then I want nothing to do with it. To put it frankly, that plan blows.
Theological issues aside, however, I strongly feel we all determine our own fates and make our own destinies, and one thing I do believe in is what Buddhists refer to as karma. And I must say that some of these aforementioned women are going to have some serious run-ins with the karma police to look forward to. In a just world, perhaps. I’ll leave it up to others to decide whether or not we live in one.
Some Things Never Change
On a random patrol in the reportedly tenuous but recently calm district of Shaab I came across a particularly beautiful young Iraqi girl watching over a gaggle of her even younger brothers who were intently watching us. "Inti jamiylah," I whispered to her as I passed by. If there’s a female on the face of the earth that doesn’t like to be told she’s pretty, I have yet to meet her.
Once she realized it was her own language I was butchering and not my own, she smiled and blushed profusely at the compliment. A short while later I noticed to my surprise that she had repositioned herself several blocks ahead of us, so that I would again have to cross her path as we made our way through their neighborhood. I stopped as she approached me from the sidewalk, her dark eyes boring into me and a broad smile on her face.
"Looks like someone has a crush on you, dude," came the jeers from the peanut gallery of my platoon.
"Shonak," I asked her, playing along. "How are you doing?" She stared at me coyly, playing hard to get. "Shismak? What’s your name, sweetie?"
She stuck her hand out, palm up. "Mistah! Mistah! Give me money! Give me money!"
What’d I tell you. Women are the same all over the world.