Saturday, October 25, 2003

A Day with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), Wounded Soldiers, Ministry of Oil Mortar Attack, Iraqi Officer Dreams of Returning to Europe

25 OCT, 2003

It’s been a few days since my last journal entry. I’m feeling the most depressed I’ve been since getting here. You’re in Spain, so I can’t talk to you about it, and calling you only makes me frustrated because you’re so hurried and worried about the cost. It’s only because you’re gone though. You’re not like that at home. So, I am a little grouchy.
I got to work this morning after a good night’s sleep – and it felt great to sleep in. As soon as I went to see what was going on in the operations center, I noticed the captain was on the radio. This meant too much radio traffic for the enlisted guys to handle. Well, sure enough, there was an IED explosion along Canal Road that took out one of our Hummers. It was our Apache Troop attached to us from 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. It happened just right up the road. 4 people wounded pretty good. Shrapnel to the legs, ribs, and face. I filed through the reports and saw reports of metal stuck in knee joints, in faces, in a rib, blood leaking from the ear holes, lost hearing. A mortar round was made into a remote controlled bomb and exploded as they drove past. I was just at the site a day before driving to the Ministry of Oil, as did everyone driving that day. These were additional wounded to our count – the last wounded in action being the mechanic that was hit by grenade shrapnel in the hand on my convoy. As of now, it sounds like the guys attacked today are going to be sent home to the U.S. or Germany.
A few days ago, the Ministry of Oil was attacked (where our headquarters company is) in a mortar attack – a very accurate mortar attack. The front of the MOO has been transformed into a fortress, tall barriers, blocks, wire. It really is a sight. We expected an attack, because the MOO was being shot at pretty frequently. Our guys would return fire across the way – so we knew something was up. So up went the barriers. We didn’t want another U.N. situation.
“If the Ministry of Oil went up, we wouldn’t have a reason to be here,” Major Ramirez said. He was right too, it’s the most valuable building here. Yesterday I went to the MOO with a truckload of Iraqi Civil Defense Corps recruits – mostly raggy young men. One African was among them. They had to go to the MOO for medical screening.
“Some guys are missing fingers, toes, testicles,” CPT Beck told me as we were getting ready to leave. I had a laugh at this. Before we left our camp at Rustimiya (Al-Rasheed Airfield), I ran up to my room to get some water and my CD walkman. I’m trying to listen more to music to break this depression spell. When I got back to the truck, I climbed inside the cab with my tiny bottle of water.
“Mister! Give me water! Give me, please!” one of the raggy looking young men asked through the back window of the cab that connects to the flatbed where the load of 20 or 30 men were.
“ICDC don’t beg,” CPT Beck yelled at them. “All these guys do is beg and lie, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said like a man given a 500 pound gorilla to care for.
We drove to the MOO and dropped off the ICDC guys. CPT Beck led them into the medical building. I drove off to the command post to visit Kerry, a guy I’ve know since 1998 or so. I also wanted to see the damage done by the mortar attack. I went inside the small building and noticed holes in the map board against the wall behind the radio desk. Holes were ripped in the paper map. I asked Swafford, who was sitting behind the radios, what happened.
“I was in my room, and the explosions started going off – sending shrapnel through our door window in my room. Over here, the guy on radio watch ran into the supply room, but realized he would get covered in debris if the roof came in. So he went under a desk and put a Kevlar on.”
I went outside and noticed a piece of shrapnel stuck in the radiator of an air conditioner. It was square, jagged edged, and black. About the size of a piece of dice. And to think hundreds of these pieces fly through the air in an attack! The first impact was dead on – and the roof of the mechanics’ building had a blackened hole on its metal roof. That was where the first round exploded. Then another hit near a truck and flattened the tires. The next one hit right next to the building (HQ). The accuracy of the fire was incredible. The accuracy was too good. They think someone on the inside may have paced or gathered data on the distances from inside. That wouldn’t surprise me. At any rate, they were lucky no one was wounded. Around 7 rounds landed in all – not all exploded. The launchers were later found abandoned. They are now in our office on display, sitting alongside the large mortar launcher the Iraqi police found the other day – as some men were about to fire it. The IPs probably saved some U.S. lives that night.
I went back to my truck to pick up the recruits from the medic station. As I pulled up, they would wave and smile. I thought about the future, and how these men have a role to play in that – even though they were dirty, ragged, and wild eyed. They then came over to my truck to talk to me.
“You want hash?” They got all excited and offered to get me everything from beer to pills. “I get it for you,” they all said, totally believing I wanted what they offered.
‘No, no, I don’t want it, no good,’ I said. They shrugged their shoulders, but didn’t lose their energetic appearance. They got in the truck.
Before we left, Hassan, now an ICDC 1st Lieutenant who used to be our translator, jumped up into the cab of my truck because he was going to ride with CPT Beck and me back to the camp. His uniform looked sharp, professional. When talking to him, I make sure to say ‘Sir’ just to show some respect. He deserves some for taking the job as an ICDC officer. He could be killed just for working for us.
“These men are shit,” he huffed as he climbed into the cab. “It’s crazy, you know? Too many drugs and whiskey.”
I thought to myself, ‘Hassan, it’s like that everywhere – even in our army.’ I really wanted to talk to him about some issues I needed answers to – from an Iraqi. I always use opportunities to speak to trustworthy Iraqis to figure out what is really going on here. He told me a lot.
“You know we have freedom, but it’s too free. Everyone says or does what they want, it’s not good. You see, Arabs all yell and talk at once. In America, one person talks, and people stop and listen. Arabs are crazy. Now religion too? Saddam said he’s a Muslim, Osama Bin Laden, and Arafat all say they are Muslim. But all these people are violent. Sadr’s father was killed by Saddam in the street after prayer at his mosque. Not until after the war did anyone hear about his son (the one who’s giving us trouble now). Now he wants power? Where was he all of this time? Freedom and religion are no good here, it’s dangerous. It’s like a new Saddam is here.” He seemed to grow immersed in thought as he spoke, and almost sad. I sensed it would be best to stop talking about it – because it seemed understood that Iraqi is in serious trouble – and that is a frightening thought.
‘Hassan, I’m pretty sure all will be OK. The U.S. will stay as long as it takes so Iraq can be OK. They really want the best for you,’ I said, trying to believe in what I was saying myself. I hope it’s true.
“Yes, I know you are trying as much as you can,” he answered understandingly. “After 1991, Saddam had no power, so he created the Fedayeen to scare the people. Now these people are running around killing anyone. Before 1989, Iraq was beautiful – wonderful – very nice actually. Now, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
I felt bad for even talking about Iraq.
“I love Paris, I was there in 1988. It was snowing! We were saying, ‘What is this? Can we eat it?’ My brother is in Munich – it’s beautiful.”
‘Will you go back to Paris?’ I asked.
“Yes, yes, I would love this!” he exclaimed.
I thought to myself, ‘He is a pilgrim in an unholy land. He’d probably be better off in Europe.’
“Here, everyone is crazy. No respect for others, no helping each other, no peace,” he continued – back on a negative topic. I couldn’t help but think he would be a good Christian! Because of the ideals he spoke of. I do wonder sometimes if that is a problem here, Islam. I don’t want to think that, but sometimes I do think that is the problem.
A few days ago, the employees of the MOO staged a protest which caught the eye of Al-Jazera and Al-Arabia TV. ICDC had to be brought in and razor wire put between the workers and the soldiers. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia reported that a soldier threw a copy of the Koran from a woman’s purse during a routine search. It was a lie, of course. Lying seems to be a part of everyday life here. Anyways. The people at the MOO were angry about the bomb dogs sniffing their belongings. Dogs here are considered dirty animals or wild. So it’s like a giant rat sniffing them. They have to be searched though, there’s no other way. Al-Jazeera was airing video of a soldier punching an Iraqi. It was old footage.
“Call the MOO and see if anyone threw a copy of the Koran on the floor or punched anyone,” LTC Jagger said to me. I called the MOO, and CPT Russo confirmed nothing like that happened.
‘Sir,’ I said, just realizing something, ‘No soldier would even be able to tell the difference between the Koran and a pocket planner – because none of our soldiers can read Arabic.’ Hassan was there and told me,
“Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia were there and I saw with my own eyes what happened! And they lied, no truth, not even a small bit. Saddam gave money to Al-Jazeera so they tell lies. The woman who made the complaint is always a problem, she complains always – and tell lies to get support. She does not like Americans.”
It was something to hear all of this from an Iraqi, and not FOX news. Hassan loves the west though. He was arrested by Saddam’s secret police for having a satellite dish. He was in prison for 3 months. Whenever we would go to regiment HQ (that used to be the secret police HQ), Hassan would smile because the main building was blown up – a huge gaping hole in its face passing through the center. It seemed like poetic justice to see him on that compound with us.
Well, as I am writing this, there is a demonstration of about 100 people gathering around our back gate.
‘Attention in the TOC, there is protest going outside of the gate,’ I said.
“Fuck ‘em, just ignore them and they’ll go away,” Major Ramirez said. The guards called up again and seemed concerned. These people, many of them, used to be our friends – but since our new leaders came in, they don’t talk to the Iraqis at all.
“Na, thanks. I already had my cigar today,” said LTC Jagger. All the people in the TOC were talking about cigars, sitting back, relaxed. No one cared about the people. I sat there amazed. Then the tower reported to me,
“There are now 150 people with banners and flags.”
‘Roger,’ I said, ‘continue to observe.’
We just got a report about the injured guys from this morning’s bomb attack. They are all going to live. I believe one may be going to Germany.
Some platoon leaders and the Apache company commander came in asking about a good time to conduct their raid.
“2100 is the time to do it,” Major Ramirez said. He leaned back in his chair self-satisfied.
“May I ask why,” asked Apache 6. He continued before Major Ramirez could answer. “We would like to do it around 0300, or 0200. When we go at 2100, there’s a very likely chance no one will be home.” Apache 6, CPT Peters, has conducted many risky raids since we arrived in Iraq. He’s in the know about this kind of work. Major Ramirez came from division or corps (I can’t recall) and got to our TOC after our earliest major operations. He acts like he knows what’s going on here – like when he almost got us killed at the underpass.
“Well,” responded Ramirez in his own funky arrogance, “If they ain’t there, then they ain’t there. You leave.” He seemed a bit challenged. The toothpick in his mouth bobbed up and down.
“Roger, Sir. Well, we’ll figure it out,” CPT Peters said. The look on the captain’s face said it all. The lieutenants looked on. CPT Peters has been in the fight, knows what’s going on, and I felt sorry that he had to stand in front of a lounging Major P-Diddy-Ramirez – who’s often scared to leave the gate. But – you must listen to him because of his rank.
I remember a conversation where Major Ramirez was teasing Sergeant Daniels about Sergeant Daniels being a scout. There is a lot of rivalry between tankers and scouts. Then, Ramirez said, “How many confirmed kills you have? I have eight.” I know that is part of Army life – the machismo and the fantasy – but bragging about how many people he killed in the first Gulf War seemed so wrong. If you really think about it, it’s insane. When I heard him say this, again, I thought about the look on his face as we got attacked in Baghdad – a terrified, big eyed, trembling man. Now, here he is bragging about the people he killed. Then, he was the hunter. In Baghdad, he was the hunted. There was no bragging about that. It’s poetic in a way, or karma, or whatever you want to call it. Boasting about killing isn’t right. What I’m trying to say, is that he boasts of killing, but in the Gulf War, he was in a far superior force, in a near invincible tank, killing people who couldn’t really kill him. I don’t agree with the Iraqi army taking Kuwait, but don’t celebrate death! It’s so animal, so shallow, so evil, so wrong. It’s a matter of principle. When we got attacked in Baghdad, he was outnumbered, not in control of his surroundings. Sometimes you notice the general attitude here, even among the educated soldiers, that Iraqis are conquered and should pay tribute. Or, Iraq is ours, or they should do what we say – regardless of if it makes sense or not. It’s the “Fuck ‘em” doctrine. You see this in Germany too sometimes. Here, you see right is determined by might. The problem is that this attitude only lives as long as the people allow it. If one day they decide we don’t understand them, or haven’t brought new life to them – they may reject us. It’s confusing, because the evidence shows Iraqis are happy with their freedom, scared of their freedom, and still want to be free. So, what is freedom? Time will tell. I think the solution for Iraq lays in a different approach to these people. We should get away away from treating these people as if they are alien, or subjects, or animals. We need open partnerships, active cooperation with communities. We can do that. We can afford that. Something isn’t working though – and there’s a reason for that. We came into Iraq with leaving as our goal, and that attitude has infected many, and that coupled with a lack of motivation has produced a negative effect. Iraq can be salvaged. Our goal should be to rebuild Iraq. Only after that should we discuss leaving. For now, “leaving” should not be a part of our American vocabulary. We should encourage a relationship between the U.S. and Iraq, an involved, hand in hand cooperation. That would benefit both the U.S. and Iraq and the world. There is so much opportunity here, but the opportunities shrink everyday. We will never have another opportunity to bring about so much positive change in the Middle East as we have today. This is a tremendous moment in history – it can spell peace or disaster for years to come depending on how we handle it. We need to think of a realistic future, a good future, and work backwards from there in finding waypoints. It’s possible.

It was at this stage in the conflict we were facing that motivation, sense of purpose, and sense of urgency really began to wane. I remember hearing varying opinions about the state of Iraq and the role we were playing in progress. Many of those comments were negative. It seemed that people lost interest in helping the Iraqis, or fell into the attitude of, “Well I’m here, now let’s go home.” I found it amazing that this very critical time in history was being treated so casually. We treated it like a training rotation to the field. Everyday that we waited to fix a problem was another day lost. Over time, this created a decrease in momentum. This owing to wishful thinking on the American side, and lack of strong initiative on the Iraqi side – although you could argue that the Iraqi leadership was not there because they didn’t have the time or resources to organize. The ones who did organize and take the initiative were ironically the resistance fighters, or more aptly, terrorists. Why they didn’t channel that energy into the political system, I have yet to figure out. I do think many groups set out on vendettas against the Americans to extract revenge from collateral damage related deaths.

[1] Terrorists attempted to kidnap Hassan’s daughter months after we had this conversation. Retaliation against the translators and new Iraqi armed forces emerged as a large and vicious problem, often manifesting itself in the form of a knock at the door in the early morning hours.


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