Friday, January 30, 2004

Disturbing Conversations, Understanding True Iraqi Gratitude, and Wannabe Warriors

It’s early and I’m crusty eyed and tired. It’s pretty cold outside and inside the tent. I stayed bundled up all night. I guess it gets so cold because we are out in the open. It’s a crystal clear night sky outside and the stars are so bright. You can especially see the constellations Scorpio and the big dipper.
Hopefully we’ll get a flight out today. I’m excited about getting out of here right away. I’ll actually start feeling normal once I get to Kuwait. Nixon is starting to get up now. He’s exhausted too. We’ve got formation at 0700 to find out if we’ve got a ride out of here. Hopefully the mortar attack won’t affect any flights.
Well, I’m going to start packing my things for this formation. Hopefully I’ll get some good news! I love you Nora!
1340 – I’m mentally exhausted. Today we waited outside for 3 hours only to find out that 13 people could fly out and the last flight out of here is tomorrow and not on the 1st of February. We signed in yesterday and they didn’t even put us on the list this morning. I had them add us to the list again. In the Army, you have to personally see to it that things get done. I can get anything I want from the Army, but only when I handle issues myself. Unfortunately, I can’t do everything myself. I called you this morning to tell you the bad news – and it ripped me apart. Right now I feel dead. This rollercoaster is getting to be enough. I’ve got to stay strong for you though. I love you, and it hurts to tell you bad news. I love you. The last two flights leave tomorrow, and that will be my last chance to get out of here.
Day before yesterday, SSG Newsome (who’s wife is down the road and also in the Army) told me, “Pack your things T, you’re going home tomorrow!” So, I believed it. Of course, I’ve been told I’m going to Qatar, not going to Qatar, then told going again, then going home, next to go home, not going home because we’re not married, then going because of combat fatigue, then not going, and now waiting to go. I was told I was getting out of the Army in March, then told I would have to stay against my contract. Then told I would go to Freedom Rest hotel for 4 days. That didn’t work either because “they need me here.” Whatever, I love you and I am never doing this again. The sacrifices aren’t worth it, because the results or return on all this is so minimal. Iraq is pretty much on its own, and we’re in the background spending loads of money amongst ourselves. If our sacrifice brought about real change and I felt like I made a difference – then it wouldn’t be so bad. Sometimes I feel like I make a difference, but that’s when I interact with Iraqis as a civilian would – not as a soldier. I could do the exact same thing and be as effective in an NGO or with the UN. It’s independent of the Army. A lot of times I realize very clearly that I don’t belong in this Army. I realize it when SSG Siegel points his shotgun at people just to show off. Or some NCO says to hit a car when you see that women and children are inside. Iraq is an asshole’s dream. You can do a lot, flex your ego, exert your authority, destroy things on a whim, and there are no consequences. I refuse to push a car full of kids into an intersection because, “We own the road.” There are a lot of times where I didn’t do something when driving because it would have killed someone for no reason – and I will not be responsible for anyone’s death. Especially if totally innocent – that is murder. You can get away with that here though. If I wasn’t the best driver in the battalion, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to drive. But, I can get fast through busy streets and through anything. All that practice in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Berlin, Milan, Washington D.C. and other places. It’s a rush for me. I can weave my way through a lot. It’s dumb to just hit cars that can’t move anyways. This reminds me of something. A few days ago, we (SGM Walker, SSG Gonzales, SPC Foley, the scouts, and I) were driving around. We took Ali the laundry guy with us. He’s a brown-nosing Iraqi that I don’t trust because the first time I met him, he lied to me saying he had permission from CPT Nicks to bring his truck into the back gate. That wasn’t allowed because there were a lot of car bombs going off. I confirmed he was lying to me, so I arrested him until a representative from CPT Nicks could come and claim him. Anyways, he kisses ass, he lies, and the Army loves him. He deserted from the Iraqi Special Forces during the war and went to Lebanon (or so he says). His brother was arrested because Ali ran away. Now his brother works for him at the laundry place. We were at Alpha Company for some reason, and SSG Gonzales and Ali were talking about SGM’s MP5 machine pistol.
“Yeah son! Bitch if I had one of these back home, I’d be killin’ muthafuckers! BAAM, BAAM! Yeah!” SSG Gonzales is a Puerto Rican, California or something. Good at Army stuff – dysfunctional at everything else. He was playing with the MP5, then Ali started playing with it. I didn’t like Ali having that gun – but I guess it didn’t matter, because he was carrying a loaded, confiscated 9 MM that our battalion gave to him.
“Where the American Army is, there is also Ali laundry,” Ali said like an idiot – but like someone trying to look like an idiot. “I don’t deal with civilians, only American Army. You go to Syria, Ali goes to Syria too!”
“Yeah son! Fuckin’ Syria, Iran, North Korea, they all goin’ to get some,” Gonzales said throwing one hand up and putting the MP5 away.
“North Korea,” Ali said stunned. “No man, I think North Korea is too much. You won’t win man.”
“What do you mean, we’ll bomb those mutherfuckers to hell,” Sergeant Gonzales was getting excited and using more street gestures. “We won’t let them know we’re coming like we let you know.”
“Yeah man, but Iraq is easy. No one stay and fight for Saddam.”
“Because the Hajjis are pussies, the Iraqi army ain’t shit, they all ran away, ‘cause they know we’d kill every one of them.”
“You know,” Ali said, still not bothered by Gonzales’ comments – not yet, “Iraqi soldiers had two bags in war. One for military and one for civilian clothes.” Ali laughed nervously, but I could tell he was getting aggravated.
“Yeah son! But you see, Iraqis are fuckin’ stupid. Look how little time it took to get to Baghdad. We’ll do it in Syria and Iran – anyone who fucks with the U.S.A.” Gonzales was getting all caught up in himself talking trash.
“Why are you here?” Ali then asked. “Why?”
“For George Bush,” Gonzales said quickly.
“Ah, George Bush? So you do anything for George Bush?”
“Damn straight, son!”
“You come to Iraq to free Iraq?”
“Naw, to fuck motherfuckers up and make an example to other countries. Let Iran and Syria know they are next,” Gonzales continued ranting like a hip hop singer. I was amazed myself at all the trash he was talking.
“You know,” Ali said while placing three small pebbles on the pavement, “you think Bush is God. France, we don’t like you.” He stepped on one pebble and acted like he was rubbing it out. “North Korea, we don’t like you,” again crushing a rock. “Iran, you don’t do what we say – you all die. Uncle Sam is coming.” Ali acted like a monster crushing things.
“That’s right, because we are going to get them before they get us – Americans don’t give a fuck, we’ll nuke a motherfucker before we die – ask motherfuckin’ Japan. We nuked their ass, no problem son,” Sergeant Gonzales was really on a roll – and dead serious.
“Man, if Korea and America go to war – it is the end of the world,” Ali started looking very distressed and lost his idiot mask. “You know Iraqi army not stupid. We fought in the south and came behind you.” Ali said defensively. I thought that was strange he said “we” and started to defend the Iraqi army. He usually always makes fun of Iraq or kisses our ass. Then he went further, but no one noticed except for me. “We’ll see in 10 years. You’ll be back in Iraq fighting all these ICDC you are training. They will kill you. No one will save you because you think you are the best.” My suspicions about Ali were starting to find justification. Everyone else just ignored his comments. He was angry inside though, trembling outside.
“Fuck that,” Gonzales said, “in 10 years, we’ll nuke this place – nuke North Korea – fuck it – we’ll nuke the world before America loses.” Some soldiers started laughing. I just stood there silent and serious. I wanted to write about this. Ali all of a sudden looked gravely troubled, looked at everyone around him nervously just as someone would when realizing he’s surrounded by wolves and not ordinary dogs. He suddenly looked at me, as if pleading, grabbed me (I guess he saw I was the only one not amused by this conversation).
“Thompson,” he said emphatically, “Get out of Iraq and away from these people – they are crazy, they will make you sick. Go home and be a teacher or write books. You are not like soldier!” I was shocked, because Ali doesn’t personally know me – only works around me, but he sounded so incredibly sincere and almost begged me to do something else with my life – as someone who knows me would. It was surprising when he said to write a book. That was exactly why I was standing there, to put the conversation in my book. All of a sudden, I felt he was a friend – because he knew me, just as I know who he is really. So we’ve respected each other ever since. He was upset that I arrested him, but he knows he was lying. So now we respect each other. I don’t think he’s a laundry guy though. I have a feeling he may be gathering intelligence on us.
Ali then said something that shut Gonzales and everyone else up. I thought it was interesting. “If America goes to war with North Korea, or if it gets attacked again, it will be the end of the world.”
“Damn straight,” Sergeant Gonzales said. “We’ll destroy everything.”
“No,” Ali said, “The Koran says Jesus will come at the end of the world.” Ali became very serious, “and he’ll send some to paradise and the others to the fire. The Koran says this. You will stand in front of Jesus and he will send you to fire or paradise.”
“Well fuck it, I already know I’m going to hell,” Gonzales said while laughing. Other soldiers echoed the same comment. As soon as Gonzales finished his statement, he looked as if he got very nervous. Other soldiers exchanged glances nervously at each other and stopped laughing. Everyone fell silent with preoccupied expressions on their faces. That was the end of the conversation.
I speak all the time with Iraqis, all kinds. I’ve spoken to pro-Saddam people to Kurds to Sunnis and Shiite and Catholic Arabs. I don’t get my perspective on daily Iraqi life from the news or military – I get a wide variety of information on a daily basis. Haider, Abbas, Ali, Sadr, Tariq and many more – we all eat together a few times a week discuss politics, religion, and Arab culture and the lighter sides of life. We talk a lot about Arab courtship and relationships and religion. Recently I was talking to a watchsmith, he’s Kurdish, and now running a watch business in Baghdad after being restricted from going to Baghdad since the first Gulf War. At any rate, he’s older, very friendly, and the soldiers at the base (501st old Olympic Stadium) are loyal to him. He sells Rolexes and other copied watches to soldiers, and really enjoys working with them. He and I talked for about 2 hours last week.
“Will Bush be president again?” he asked this very curiously.
‘Hmmm, I don’t know. He’s spending a lot of money and not everyone agrees with it,’ I said. I didn’t want to say anything hurtful.
“I don’t know about Americans, but I hope he stays president,” he said confidently, but unsure of how I would react. Some other soldier made a comment that Bush wants to go to Syria and Iran. The man continued, “Bush is like my king. Maybe you don’t see, but you are not liberated like we are. If I were to have another son, I would name him George. I’m serious,” he said without wavering. “You soldiers, you are liberators, you are like a king to me – and many Iraqis are thankful. Only a few don’t like Americans – because they are bloodsuckers, they suck on Saddam’s blood. Many people were Baathist, but hated Saddam. It was only for money. But you, I thank God you are here, my family thanks you, you are a gift from God.” I could tell he was completely sincere. I could only thank him, caught a little off guard by the overwhelming praise. “Iraq is very happy you are here, we want you to stay.”
I took into account that he had been living in the very peaceful Kurd region of Iraq for over a decade – so his love of Americans may be more than average. We may have lost a lot of support from some Iraqis because our stupid behavior here. I guess it’s asking a lot for America’s young ex-potheads, delinquents, and trouble makers to be ambassadors for America. Especially after being trained to kill and destroy. But like Haider says, “All soldiers have nothing in their heads – it doesn’t matter the country.” I guess it could be worse, like rape, open looting, and more killing.
The watch smith then said, “I’m not saying this so you buy watches, I don’t care about it. There are people who’d kill me just for working for Americans. I don’t care. I trust God. If I get killed, I thank God. If I get sick, I thank God, and when I’m healthy.” Usually I have that same attitude, and later that night, I sat on my bed and said to myself, ‘Thank God for everything – everything is going to be OK. Don’t be foolish to think otherwise. Stay strong for Nora.’ It’s true though, you’ve got to thank God.
2200 – I thank God my time in Iraq is almost finished. We stood outside for 3 hours waiting for seats. 4 were given out. I’ll continue to wait until tomorrow – the last day to fly. I don’t know what to think. We’ll see what happens. I love you Nora. Stay strong, you’ve been so perfect in supporting me. I can’t wait until you’re my wife, and I’m your husband. You’re my best friend Nora, and I am trying to get home to you…if only I could tip-toe across the stars. I love you so dearly.
Now I am in an old World War II style tent with no lights, cramped with tired and teary-eyed soldiers who’ve given up hope of going home to lonely wives and children. What a profound sacrifice these guys are making. Ask any of them though, and they’ll say they shouldn’t be here.
I liked being in this tent, and not some barracks like we’ve got at our camp. It’s simple. I’ve got a light stick (modern day candle!) and some accordion music playing on my walkman. It’s nice. Tonight Nixon and I went to the chow hall for dinner and are well. All the chow halls here are run by KBR. They are well appointed and provide high quality food in excess served by tidy, uniformed Pakistanis (although nationality hasn’t been confirmed. I call them the “little, kidnapped brown people. I think KBR may have bought a small Pacific island where these little brown people are forced into slavery!). At any rate, these slaves can be found all over any camp – working at the well stocked PX, working at laundromats, cooking and serving food, and not to mention the Iraqis cleaning portapotties, ditches, showers, trash bins, and other tasks. Tonight I watched one brown guy very courteously and politely serve ice cream to soldiers. There was a bucket of vanilla ice cream and a scoop. That’s it. Why soldiers don’t get their own ice cream, I don’t know. I watched soldier after soldier walk up and hand the little brown guy their bowl. The soldiers stood their like masters not making eye contact with the servant, only snobbishly gesturing that they wanted more. The little brown man would smile, and eagerly serve more, and attempt to earn the approval of the soldier. Each time, the soldier walked off without saying a word or even making a sign of thanks. The little brown man’s smile would fade a bit and he looked unsure of himself, looked around the room, then the floor, scoop in hand – waiting for the next ungrateful customer. He smiled all the same, and they ignored him as if he was an ice cream dispensing machine. Then you look on the collar of some of these soldiers, and you realize they are (or should be) servants themselves. Low ranking enlisted kids who probably never had much served to them in the first place and who were probably punks contributing very little to civil society before coming into the Army. Then I thought about this new “Warrior Ethos” concept some hard ass general is pushing in the Army. It’s a creed meant to instill basic soldier qualities in our modern day Army. So the Army says modern soldiers are losing the basics of soldiering – BUT, they serve some snot nosed private ice cream, they do his laundry for him, clean his piss off toilets for him, pick his hair out of clogged shower drains for him, pick up his trash for him. What kind of “warrior” gets by doing nothing for himself? What kind of person does that develop? Self important, ungrateful boys – that’s all. I like this old tent I am in now. I like having the basics, I don’t mind eating Army food. It reminds you you’re in Baghdad – a messed up place requiring your full attention – not at some holiday resort. KBR would like to make Iraq a resort. It would mean more money for them. Heck, we want the “best” for soldiers. Maybe that money should be spent on putting armor on Hummers and properly equipping our guys out on the most abstract front since the Vietnam War. Santos could have used some steel armor on his truck.
A lot of soldiers have started paying lots of money to have steel plates bolted on to their trucks to protect them from roadside bombs. You see all kinds of crude designs. Crude gun turrets, metal boxes, wooden chairs strapped down and a tripod tied to the roof of a Hummer. You go anywhere now, and you’ll find welding jobs of every kind. Going back to Warrior Ethos, we’re too busy trying to act like a peacetime army on camp. It detracts from the real danger soldiers face off camp. As for all these servants, it reminds me of the Roman Empire’s soldiers. I believe they could force anyone to carry their gear for a few miles on demand. Privates should learn to take care of themselves before people start serving them. That used to be common sense.
I thought about all the Polish soldiers here and wondered what Iraq has to do with them. It’s so transparent that they are seeking to further their influence and legitimize their position in Europe and the world by assisting the U.S. In principle, I don’t agree with this – because exploiting Operation Iraqi Freedom is only a means of improving their own standing. Deploying to Iraq is a means to an end (or should be) – Iraqi freedom and peace. Exploiting a war for personal gain is criminal and immoral – but seems to be OK with Bush and Poland and others. It’s the principle of the matter. Once we start allowing our principles to crumble – we’ve got nothing firm to build on. Only after failure and disaster will we come to realize why we as a society have principles in the first place and a moral code that has developed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Government must be principled, because it is the center of gravity and example to our society. Once our government throws away principles or throws caution to the wind – you can expect the same from its citizens – only worse.
Before Iraq, the U.S.’s biggest deterrent was Hollywood’s portrayal of our intelligence services and military and the mask of invincibility. We’ve seen that deteriorate in Iraq as soldiers get killed by bombs hidden on the sides of roads. The U.S. looks weak and lacking a clear mission. That may embolden our enemies. Sometimes, restraint or threat of war is weapon enough.
Anyways, after seeing all the money being wasted here, I can say I never want to hear a politician complain about welfare again.
Oh Nora! I love you! If I loved you any more, I would be an angel. You bring me to life, you are everything right in this world, and you’re always supportive. Ich liebe Dich without end Nora!

It was only a matter of time until someone tried to shoot down a helicopter behind our barracks along the Diyala River. On the eastern bank of the river, which was densely vegitated, an unseen attacker fired a rocket or missile device at a passing Blackhawk helicopter. I had no idea the attack occurred, until I went in a friend’s room that looked out over the river. He said he heard a loud pop sound and a subsequent hissing noise as the helicopter flew past at a low altitude. He said that the bird’s countermeasures (flares and chaff) began dispensing as he looked out of his window. Several other soldiers told me the same thing.
I told Assad about the attack. He said that there were missiles everywhere, but the Iraqis are too afraid to turn them in out of fear of incarceration. He told me an Iraqi urban legend about a boy who walked for two days to an American base to turn in a Russian man portable missile. At this time, there was a sizeable reward offered for such weapons. Well, the story goes, the boy’s booty was taken away without a reward being paid. I thought that sounded a little fictitious. The Iraqis didn’t though. I heard the story again from several other translators. Where is the truth in Iraq? The truth is whatever the Iraqis want the truth to be.


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