Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Sickness in Baghdad and the Iraqi General Who Never Was

10 June 2003

Another day in Iraq, with America’s finest. I am sitting here in our headquarters wondering how the hell I am going to keep my sanity working here. The absolute bullshit that goes on here is immeasurable. I work mostly with people 10 years older than I am, people with wives and children, people who have the maturity level of a 12 year old. I am justified in believing little kids that play soldier become big kids that play soldier. I have worked HQs for a long time, and I know how things should be run. I have never worked with more unprofessional, immature, or uneducated group of people. There are so many personalities here, and in only a few I do find any common ground. Now that I have that out of my system, on to other things…
Yesterday, I was sitting in my chair after going on a patrol in Baghdad City, relaxing a bit after vomiting most of the day. I ate some baked Iraqi chicken, and I presume that caused my illness. I was sitting in my room listening to the BBC World Service, now on FM in Baghdad, listening to an address by a minister to the House of Commons. It was concerning the change from British Pounds to euro. I was listening to this speech, and it occurred to me what an important time this is in our modern history. I don’t simply mean that this war is important, I mean the position of the EU is increasingly important. Also yesterday, Poland voted for EU membership. Africa remains in turmoil, Palestinians continue to engage Israelis, Israelis continue to engage Palestinians. North Korea admitted also of developing nuclear weapons. I don’t remember a time in my lifetime when the world order seemed to be so fragile. I also cannot remember a time when I had so little faith in the professional abilities of our government. I have long been interested in and followed government, and I am utterly disappointed in the lack of intelligent debate and accountability our Congress has practiced over the past year. Let me focus in on my main thought – that of EU expansion. Following the Iraqi war, or “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, the world seemed split over whether or not to side with the U.S. in supporting this war. It was apparent to me then, as countries like Romania and Poland offered their support for the war, that this was going to be an opportunity for opportunistic, second-rate nations to stand shoulder with George W. Bush in exchange for money, trade consideration, and a White House reception. Rumsfeld called the Europe of WWII “Old Europe” while implying the future of Europe lay in the former eastern bloc countries. Now Europe is feeling a bit sour after the U.S. carelessly spoke badly about France and Germany. You can tell in the media that the tensions between the U.S. and Europe are growing. Not so much over military or security tensions, but tensions over influence. Who possesses the moral compass? Europe is growing, it is developing greatly, it is thoughtfully harnessing its potential with a sense of greater purpose for its people. Britain is caught in an awkward position, having supported the U.S. in wartime, but fails to admit that it is a part of Europe. The Europe of today is a Europe that I trust, a Europe of checks and balances, a Europe aware of the catastrophic consequences of war, a Europe concerned with the improvement of quality of life and family. I know no such America. Liberty carries a torch. It seems that torch is going to be passed to Europe from the U.S. as the world seeks an alternative power. I think the EU is emerging as a major super power. It is very possible over the next decade. The incorporation of Russia and even Turkey could also have very positive, lasting implications for the world order.
Britain decided to postpone the acceptance of the euro currency until next year – at least the referendum. For that I am not totally sad. At least they are moving towards Europe. The big question is who England will eventually side with? Who will they trust? One thing is for sure, Europe is growing and increasing its potential to influence and balance world power and activity. If the U.S. continues to force Europe into morally compromising issues, it will begin to go its own way. It seems as if the U.S. is growing more and more paranoid, and looking at some of the most desperate states as allies, or better yet, numbers on a sheet of support. No matter the politics, this is an important time in history, and a time in my life where I no longer see the greatness of many leaders. This year was a great indicator, a great test of character, of courage. Courage came in many forms, but for me, courage was Pope John Paul II declaring war and arms sales as immoral – despite the fact that Bush would dismiss his ideas as naïve. Courage was Joschka Fischer telling Rumsfeld that he could not give his support for a war his people do not believe in. Courage was Jimmy Carter letting the American people know that this was not a just war. Greatness of men depends upon their reputations. It’s the reputation that may be overblown, exaggerated, or unfounded. The great only seem to be great so long as we believe them to be great. We allow them to be great, and it is with just as much ease we can take that greatness away. The more I see of the world, the more I realize how many people have little confidence, little practical intelligence, narrow life experiences, and live a grossly under -disciplined lifestyle. This is only a portion of society, but it is useful in putting “great” men in power. Our president, our judges, our congress people, our mayors, our county officers, all the way to our military generals are nothing more than extraordinary people. To be ordinary is to lack the ability to see your potential to attain greater power. To be extraordinary is to possess something more, some foresight, some insight, some passion. Sometimes people are made extraordinary. I think that is the case with many world leaders today. They are crafty, they are opportunists, and they are able to maintain an image of power. I do believe that many people in the U.S. government are just ordinary people, who have been elevated to extraordinary status. I think it is important to realize that just because someone is a recognized leader, that does not justify their future behavior. They must be held accountable, and constantly scrutinized. Just because Bush or Rumsfeld say something is the truth, that does not mean that is the case. Just because they say they have a master plan, doesn’t mean they are correct. They are simple men – sometimes extraordinary, seldom great. So this is a major revelation in my life, coming here to Iraq has facilitated that. Great men? I would think anyone with passion and foresight could attain a position of greatness. Greatness really means nothing though, in my opinion, unless you have done something for the common good. I would rather be a saint than great, and if I were to have power, it would be for the good of the people. There is so much wrong in the world, but there is a lot of right too. That is easy to forget sometimes. I was reassured of the power of goodness on my pilgrimage to Vatican City.
A lot happened yesterday. A man shot himself in the leg by accident, and a police captain was murdered in his home. I went on patrol yesterday, and was able to see some of the city. I was at the Martyrs’ Monument, a turquoise blue heart made of stone, cut in half to show an Iraqi flag between the two halves. The two teardrop halves rise about 200 feet into the air. It is really an impressive sight. Our interpreter said it was built for the mothers of the Iran-Iraq War dead. The grounds are now a U.S. Army headquarters. I saw a picture today of a U.S. soldier who re-enlisted in front of the Iraqi flag.
From the monument, we drove to regimental headquarters. On the way there, our interpreter told us he had been jailed for 3 months at this facility (a former Republican Guard base) for having satellite TV. Now he is interpreting for the U.S. against the government that arrested him. One of the first things I noticed was a large, bombed-out building. You could actually see the entrance area and the hole the bomb punched diagonally through the building. Conroy and I walked to the heavily guarded gate, where some goofy, well dressed Iraqis were selling all kinds of soft drinks and blocks of ice. I managed not to throw up. Don’t eat the chicken!
We then drove to the Ministry of Oil, seemingly the only government building not bombed in Baghdad. Our unit occupied it as a headquarters. It is a modern complex in a dumpy area. The ornate fountains are now used by kids as a swimming hole. I went over to the medics to get some medicine for my stomach. I was very dehydrated, but opted to slowly hydrate on hot water rather than get stuck with an I.V. I didn’t have time anyways.
Then we were off again, to stop by a poor neighborhood to show that we are trying to keep security. On the way there, on the highway, people were driving by cheering and waving to us. A bus of Africans even drove by cheering. When we reached the neighborhood, with narrow roads, and multiple story buildings, all brown and grey and dirty, laundry hanging from balconies, children running in the streets covered in sewage water full of bright green antifreeze. Some women and children came out to their balconies to wave, and all of the men waved to us. We stopped to talk to one group and some boys came up to me and gave me some sunflower seeds. One thing I noticed was the low priority the clean up and appearance of their homes seemed to be. There was trash everywhere, but all you could see along the streets were teashops full of working age men sitting around while trash builds up. There is very little initiative being shown in relation to community pride and cleanliness. I am not sure if public services kept the streets clean before the war, but they are surely trashed now. The people smile and wave all the same.
Well, today was another day of paranoia. All of our ignorant, self-important, NCOs are sitting around coming up with grand ideas. The beginning of today included a raid by our soldiers on the houses of the surrounding poor families. One of our biggest hot-heads and exaggerators said that he saw the villagers doing suspicious things. So, this morning, the soldiers went through their houses. What did they find? Scared women and children and lots of blankets. Our illustrious S-3 Sergeant Major Fleischmann – a man I lose respect for more and more everyday – has made a hobby of arbitrarily making life complicated for the Iraqis, and talking about them in a cold manner. He is a brownnosing, ass kissing, German immigrant-turned-American. He is constantly giving speeches and walking around with a self-satisfied look of arrogance on his face. He is fake though, and quick to betray his loyalties. He’s running around here saying “Oh screw them, they can move!” I thought it was funny that one patrol he sent out found an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile truck just 50 meters from our fence! I said “Sergeant Major, maybe if you weren’t so afraid to go outside the fence and actually meet Iraqis instead of scaring them, you would have found those missiles a week ago!” Everyone started laughing, but I made my point. He also started cutting down trees in our area. That just made me angry. He’s doing so much, simply because he can. That is when someone’s character truly shows – when they are in authority. So I asked him, “Are these enemy trees you’re cutting down? Do they discriminate between Iraqi and American bullets?” The truth is, the trees provide cover from sniper fire (our latrines are out in the open!) and provide firing positions. BUT, now we are getting paranoid again. Build the fences higher, alienate these people who want to know us, and make them feel as if we are separating ourselves from them. I doubt this is very effective in securing peace. In fact, I believe more than ever that it is time to allow the U.N. fully into Iraq. We alone are doing a poor job of policing, and the mentalities here are conflicting with the opportunities we have to make a real, positive difference. We have a bunch of soldiers trying to be diplomats, and the last time I checked, young men full of machismo combined with extremely narrow personal experience makes for lots of miscommunication and failure. We need the U.N. now, we cannot shoulder the load of Iraq on our own, we need to swallow our pride.
Two days ago we took an Iraqi lieutenant into custody for selling weapons. The same guys who brought the little guy here a few days ago brought this big, smart looking Iraqi. The interpreter asked with some sympathy why he had the weapons. He denied everything, but you could sense that he was lying. It didn’t matter though, because eyewitnesses saw him selling weapons. I was going to give him some water, but I decided not to, as he was fat and well cared for. Our intelligence officer got all excited and interrogated him. After some time, our intel officer took it upon himself to sit the prisoner out in the grass by our building, in plain view of the villagers here. Soon, the prisoner was shouting at the people (who were gathering more and more by the minute) and the little kids were yelling at him, saying “Ali Babba, Ali Babba!” Some of the adults were yelling at him too. He sat on a folding chair out on his grass stage. I got a call on the radio that too many people were beginning to mass along the the fence. By the time I got there, people were harassing the prisoner and selling Pepsi and cookies. The scouts who were there were getting aggressive towards the crowd. One asked, “How do you get over this fence, I am going to fuck these people up!” As he said this, he extended a spring baton he planned to use. I told him to chill out and let me take care of it, that we have our side of the fence, and they have theirs. I then walked to the fence and said forcefully “GO!” and gestured for them to leave, and put my finger to my lips to signal “quiet.” They listened and moved away. They just wanted to know why the man was taken prisoner. The challenge is to keep everything low key and under control, before and NCO or officer comes along and blows everything out of proportion. That is a big problem – miscommunication and exaggeration. Well, I told them if they didn’t want a crowd, they shouldn’t put him out for everyone to see! So they promptly moved him to a room, one scout yelling, “HOME MOTHERFUCKER! THIS – HOME!” I wonder if they act out of control when they are unsupervised. We are having a problem with soldiers using excessive force. There is still a story I have to tell about a week ago when a convoy of ours got “attacked.” I’ll do that later.
Going back to the one man I dealt with a few days ago – it turns out he was running from his brother. Then I found out that the soldiers took him back and placed him execution style in front of a garbage pit. They played head games with him for a while before releasing him. This was in addition to his experience here at my building. I found this all out when the company commander boasted childishly that they “scared the shit out of him.” I was the only comforted that no one laughed at this, and that in turn caused him to change his tune. There is obviously stuff going on with captives and civilians that we don’t know about.
Today, three more people were captured and brought in. This time I went to make sure they were being treated humanely. One of the ugly three had his wrists too tightly zip-stripped, so I had them adjust his hands. I didn’t feel too bad for these three gross looking men, they were drinking alcohol and shooting at people in a mosque. What was interesting was the sniper rifle and paperwork, Palestinian Liberation Organization membership card, pictures, and a video of a wedding in Kuwait. The pictures showed a Republican Guard special forces captain, and we have the uniform to prove it. There were also pictures of himself at Baath Party functions. There were certificates from Saddam Hussein as well. In short, we have found a Baath Party member’s possessions, but not the man himself. Fleischmann then thought we had captured a Republican Guard general (he thought this after seeing a picture and immediately, without asking got the colonel and the major to show them this prisoner). Well, I let it play out to where Fleischmann would take the commander to see the “general.” They all showed up to see the prisoner, and I had to laugh to myself as the commander said, “That’s not the general!” Well, he was right, it was not him at all.


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