Friday, April 30, 2004

Exploring the Abandoned, Bloody An-Najaf Morgue and Listening to Washington's Take on Iraq

30 April, 2004 2300 An-Najaf Camp Golf

Life is precious, it is. There is something frightening about the reality of war here – so many lives are affected, changed, destroyed, wrecked because of this war in Iraq. It’s good to want to liberate these people, no one can argue against the virtues of democracy when properly and justly exercised, but Bush made a terrible mistake believing Iraq would simply be content following liberation. It seems our government is a hazardous mix of naïve idealists, militants, liars, elitists, and shady industrialists. These people believed they could steer fate, move mountains of human emotions, and manipulate reality with their positive analysis of the situation in Iraq, a candy coated rotting corpse. Today, Marines pulled out of Fallujah, after losing over 80 young men, and perhaps women. Hundreds of Iraqis are reported killed, but death counts are always understated by at least 30%. Now America, the most powerful nation in the world, is running away from an enemy of terrorists, an enemy of sick, violent people infected with radical Islam. I ask, why did we begin a battle we couldn’t win? Why are 80+ Marines dead and countless civilians dead? It’s because our leadership is out of touch with reality – a problem reaching from Fallujah all the way to the Oval Office. What they want to world to be, and what the world is are two very different places, and unfortunately, the gap is widening.
Washington says we don’t need more troops, Washington says Iraqis want freedom, and Washington says the world is a safer place now since the fall of Saddam Hussein Al-Tikriti. I’ve been here for more than a year watching the U.S. create more problems due to low motivation, insensitivity, stupidity, lack of direction and frustration. We had a plan in place to attack Iraq a long time before the war started, the Iraqis had no time to plan for it. They awoke one morning to a wounded Iraq, a broken Iraq, a lawless Iraq. Americans saw this as an adventure, an opportunity to give the gift of Democracy, and maybe even make some people rich or richer. We oversimplified the situation in Iraq. Now, a year later, my headquarters is in the middle of An-Najaf and Kufa, and getting mortared quite frequently, like clockwork, and there is nothing we can do about it – we’re not allowed to shoot back into the source of the attack. It’s a combat exclusion zone. I don’t understand why our government places us at a constant disadvantage – where even the most positive outcomes offer little to hope for. You feel like Bush used us like a shovel and dug himself foolishly into a hole – only to leave the shovel in the hole while he struggles to get out. American leadership is in crisis, therefore, so are we.

When we were camped out on FOB Baker in Najaf, aka “The Alamo”, there was a hospital located on the fortified grounds. The hospital stood several stories and could be compared to a relatively modern hospital in the States. So, it was eerie to walk through the hospital and see abandoned beds and medications laying all around. You could see transposed on the images of broken glass and machines the ghosts of people and patients going about their business. They were just ghosts in my mind though. I did wonder, with this being a big hospital with many beds, where all the patients were. Where were people getting treatment now? Where were the doctors and the nurses? Simply vanished in the vacuum of war I suppose.
The exterior of the building was pock-marked from machine gun bullets. The rumor was the El Salvs and the Spanish took fire from the hospital and returned fire. Who really knows? Peering out of the upper stories of the hospital windows were El Salv soldiers peering out across the fields that surrounded our camps. There was often a sniper team set up on top of the building armed with a .50 caliber sniper rifle. They could put a bullet bigger than a grown man’s thumb in someone a mile or more away. As you approached the hospital from the outside, you noticed the grounds were kept like an American hospital. When you entered the doors of the hospital, you came to a reception desk manned by soldiers sometimes. There was an awful stench that filled the building though. The basement had for one reason or another flooded with sewage from the building. It wreaked terribly, and just the smell was enough to temp vomiting. Some wondered if the dark sludge at the bottom of the basement stairwell contained any bodies. No one doubted that it contained infectious filth. You could just feel the ghosts of the dead and infected creeping into your lungs and polluting spaces deep in your chest.
I have never been granted full access to a hospital, but the anarchy of Iraq made that possible, as in other all access situations I was in. I could tour floor after floor of the hospital as I wished. Some soldiers found wards for female patients, stealing signs from the obstetricians’ floor. I remember some of the artillery soldiers staying with us wandering back with a pair of lifelike latex tits. Must have been for some breast exam class or something. Other soldiers found similar female amusements. Foley and I went over the hospital once looking for an air conditioner. It turned out to be a treasure hunt that took a detour into the macabre and the strange.
We entered a small building with an incinerator and walk-in refrigerator standing outside of the building. We didn’t think much of it. Rumors had it that there was a morgue at the hospital with bodies remaining inside. We entered into a normal office space and saw nothing out of the ordinary at first. The floor of the office was littered with papers. We found an air conditioner in the window and began to rip out the insulation surrounding the window unit. There was no telling if the unit would work or not, and it looked to be a good 20 years old. As Foley and I looked around the room, we noticed two desks. We opened the draws of the desks and found pictures of the very building we were in. In front of the building were a few happy-looking Iraqis that we presumed were the staff of the small building. Where were these people now? It looked as if they left so suddenly, things still left on their desks in place. Foley and I then came across something strange. We found a few Petri dishes sealed with a single band of tape. We picked up the dishes and noticed the tape was labeled in Arabic and that the dishes contained small pieces of metal. A closer look revealed a bullet in each Petri dish. We thought it was strange, but it was only after we found several X-rays that we realized what we were holding. We found some X-Rays and held them up to the light. We could discern an image of a chest cavity and a bright white dot inside the lung area. That was an image of a bullet. We looked at other X-rays and found more images of bullets stuck in anonymous grey phantoms. Some bullets were rifle caliber while others were simple 9mm bullets. We assumed these bullets had killed people, and now we were holding them. What a history they had. Some of the bullets were deformed from impact. We rattled the bullets around inside the Petri dishes and found some more pictures.
We walked around to the backside of the building and found another doorway. Flies were buzzing all around and served as a warning for what lay ahead. What were we getting into? Should we go in at all? Of course, Foley and I went deeper into the building despite my best judgment. I covered my mouth with my salty, dusty sleeve and noticed blood smeared on the tile floor. The air was disgusting. We entered an office room and noticed Iraqi military ID books (maroon colored). We stepped across razor scalpels and more Petri dishes. There were even some syringes on the floor. It looked like a scene out of a horror movie, and the flies continued buzzing all around. We found some mortician’s tools, like a bone saw and other stainless steel oddities that I had never seen before. Foley thought it was amazing while I thought it was disgusting. I was concerned about the environment containing airborne pathogens. We followed some bloody footprints to another room. I will never forget that room. It was a pea green room, tiled from roof to floor. In the middle of the room was a sink in the form of a table. That too was covered in dried blood, lots of it. It looked like the sink was actually an examination table to place bodies on. There were other sinks and stainless steel shelves and gurneys sitting haphazardly around. You could feel death tapping you on the shoulder, and I really had to wonder if there weren’t dead bodies somewhere in that building. Plastic sheeting absolutely covered in dried and coagulated blood lay around the room. I couldn’t understand why blood would be everywhere like that. We found a stainless steel bucket and looked inside. It contained a lump of dark red tissue covered in flies and plastic. Surgical tools lay all around and jars of liquid. Foley discovered another room and called me over. I met him in the dark room and noticed small refrigerator doors. This was where the bodies were stored. The doors were shut, but Foley insisted that we see what was inside. He opened the first door. It was like some fucked up version of The Price is Right. I turned away. Foley opened the first door to find nothing there. We opened the next door and found nothing, just some metal trays they put bodies on. We opened all the doors and found nothing. That’s when we got the creeps and left the building. I felt like I needed to wash that place off of my skin. We carried our air conditioner back to the headquarters as the El Salvs looked on.