An M-16 rifle hangs by a cramped military cot. On the wall above is a
message in thick black ink: "Ali Baba, you owe me a strawberry
It's a private joke but could just as easily summarize the worldview
of American soldiers here in Baghdad, the fetid basement of Donald
Rumsfeld's house of victory. Trapped in the polluted heat, poorly
supplied and cut off from regular news, the GIs are fighting a guerrilla
war that they neither wanted, expected nor trained for. On the urban
battlefields of central Iraq, "shock and awe" and all the other "new way
of war" buzzwords are drowned out by the din of diesel-powered
generators, Islamic prayer calls and the occasional pop of small-arms
Here, the high-tech weaponry that so emboldens Pentagon bureaucrats is
largely useless, and the grinding work of counterinsurgency is done the
old-fashioned way--by hand. Not surprisingly, most of the American GIs
stuck with the job are weary, frustrated and ready to go home.
It is noon and the mercury is hanging steady at 115 Fahrenheit. The
filmmaker Garrett Scott and I are "embedded" with Alpha Company of the
Third Battalion of the 124th Infantry, a Florida National Guard unit
about half of whom did time in the regular Army, often with elite groups
like the Rangers. Like most frontline troops in Iraq, the majority are
white but there is a sizable minority of African-American and Latino
soldiers among them. Unlike most combat units, about 65 percent are
college students--they've traded six years with the Guard for tuition at
Florida State. Typically, that means occasional weekends in the
Everglades or directing traffic during hurricanes. Instead, these guys
got sent to Iraq, and as yet they have no sure departure date.
Mobilized in December, they crossed over from Kuwait on day one of the
invasion and are now bivouacked in the looted remains of a Republican
Guard officers' club, a modernist slab of polished marble and tinted
glass that the GIs have fortified with plywood, sandbags and razor wire.
Behind "the club" is a three-story dormitory, a warren of small
one-bedroom apartments, each holding a nine-man squad of soldiers and
all their gear. Around 200 guys are packed in here. Their sweaty
fatigues drape the banisters of the exterior stairway, while inside the
cramped, dark rooms the floors are covered with cots, heaps of flak
vests, guns and, where possible, big tin, water-based air-conditioners
called swamp coolers. Surrounding the base is a chaotic working-class
neighborhood of two- and three-story cement homes and apartment
buildings. Not far away is the muddy Tigris River.
This company limits patrols to three or four hours a day. For the many
hours in between, the guys pull guard duty, hang out in their cavelike
rooms or work out in a makeshift weight room.
"We're getting just a little bit stir-crazy," explains the lanky
Sergeant Sellers. His demeanor is typical of the nine-man squad we have
been assigned to, friendly but serious, with a wry and angry sense of
humor. On the side of his helmet Sellers has, in violation of regs,
attached the unmistakable pin and ring of a hand grenade. Next to it is
written, "Pull Here."
Leaning back on a cot, he's drawing a large, intricate pattern on a
female mannequin leg. The wall above him displays a photo collage of
pictures retrieved from a looted Iraqi women's college. Smiling young
ladies wearing the hijab sip sodas and stroll past buses. They
seem to be on some sort of field trip. Nearby are photos clipped from
Maxim, of coy young American girls offering up their pert round
bottoms. Dominating it all is a large hand-drawn dragon and a photo of
Jessica Lynch with a bubble caption reading: "Hi, I am a war hero. And I
think that weapons maintenance is totally unimportant."
The boys don't like Lynch and find the story of her rescue ridiculous.
They'd been down the same road a day earlier and are unsympathetic. "We
just feel that it's unfair and kind of distorted the way the whole
Jessica, quote, 'rescue' thing got hyped," explains Staff Sgt. Kreed
Howell. He is in charge of the squad, and at 31 a bit older than most of
his men. Muscular and clean-cut, Howell is a relaxed and natural leader,
with the gracious bearing of a proper Southern upbringing.
"In other words, you'd have to be really fucking dumb to get lost on the
road," says another, less diplomatic soldier.
Specialist John Crawford sits in a tiny, windowless supply closet that
is loaded with packs and gear. He is two credits short of a BA in
anthropology and wants to go to graduate school. Howell, a Republican,
amicably describes Crawford as the squad's house liberal.
There's just enough extra room in the closet for Crawford, a chair and a
little shelf on which sits a laptop. Hanging by this makeshift desk is a
handwritten sign from "the management" requesting that soldiers
masturbating in the supply closet "remove their donations in a
receptacle." Instead of watching pornography DVDs, Crawford is here to
finish a short story. "Trying to start writing again," he says.
Crawford is a fan of Tim O'Brien, particularly The Things They
Carried. We chat, then he shows me his short story. It's about a vet
who is back home in north Florida trying to deal with the memory of
having accidentally blown away a child while serving in Iraq.
Later in the cramped main room, Sellers and Sergeant Brunelle, another
one of the squad's more gregarious and dominant personalities, are
matter-of-factly showing us digital photos of dead Iraqis.
"These guys shot at some of our guys, so we lit 'em up. Put two .50-cal
rounds in their vehicle. One went through this dude's hip and into the
other guy's head," explains Brunelle. The third man in the car lived.
"His buddy was crying like a baby. Just sitting there bawling with his
friend's brains and skull fragments all over his face. One of our guys
came up to him and is like: 'Hey! No crying in baseball!'"
"I know that probably sounds sick," says Sellers, "but humor is the only
way you can deal with this shit."
And just below the humor is volcanic rage. These guys are proud to be
soldiers and don't want to come across as whiners, but they are furious
about what they've been through. They hate having their lives disrupted
and put at risk. They hate the military for its stupidity, its feckless
lieutenants and blowhard brass living comfortably in Saddam's palaces.
They hate Iraqis--or, as they say, "hajis"--for trying to kill them.
They hate the country for its dust, heat and sewage-clogged streets.
They hate having killed people. Some even hate the politics of the war.
And because most of them are, ultimately, just regular well-intentioned
guys, one senses the distinct fear that someday a few may hate
themselves for what they have been forced to do here.
Added to such injury is insult: The military treats these soldiers like
unwanted stepchildren. This unit's rifles are retooled hand-me-downs
from Vietnam. They have inadequate radio gear, so they buy their own
unencrypted Motorola walkie-talkies. The same goes for flashlights,
knives and some components for night-vision sights. The low-performance
Iraqi air-conditioners and fans, as well as the one satellite phone and
payment cards shared by the whole company for calling home, were also
purchased out of pocket from civilian suppliers.
Bottled water rations are kept to two liters a day. After that the guys
drink from "water buffaloes"--big, hot chlorination tanks that turn the
amoeba-infested dreck from the local taps into something like
swimming-pool water. Mix this with powdered Gatorade and you can wash
down a famously bad MRE (Meal Ready to Eat).
To top it all off they must endure the pathologically uptight culture of
the Army hierarchy. The Third of the 124th is now attached to the newly
arrived First Armored Division, and when it is time to raid suspected
resistance cells it's the Guardsmen who have to kick in the doors and
clear the apartments.
QUOT-The First AD wants us to catch bullets for them but won't give us
enough water, doesn't let us wear do-rags and makes us roll down our
shirt sleeves so we look proper! Can you believe that shit?" Sergeant
Sellers is pissed off.
The soldiers' improvisation extends to food as well. After a month or so
of occupying "the club," the company commander, Captain Sanchez, allowed
two Iraqi entrepreneurs to open shop on his side of the wire--one runs a
slow Internet cafe, the other a kebab stand where the "Joes" pay US
dollars for grilled lamb on flat bread.
"The haji stand is one of the only things we have to look forward to,
but the First AD keeps getting scared and shutting it down." Sellers is
on a roll, but he's not alone.
Even the lighthearted Howell, who insists that the squad has it better
than most troops, chimes in. "The one thing I will say is that we have
been here entirely too long. If I am not home by Christmas my business
will fail." Back "on earth" (in Panama City, Florida), Howell is a
building contractor, with a wife, two small children, equipment, debts
Perhaps the most shocking bit of military incompetence is the unit's
lack of formal training in what's called "close-quarter combat." The
urbanized mayhem of Mogadishu may loom large in the discourse of the
military's academic journals like Parameters and the Naval War
College Review, but many US infantrymen are trained only in
large-scale, open-country maneuvers--how to defend Germany from a wave
of Russian tanks.
So, since "the end of the war" these guys have had to retrain themselves
in the dark arts of urban combat. "The houses here are small, too," says
Brunelle. "Once you're inside you can barely get your rifle up. You got
women screaming, people, furniture everywhere. It's insane."
By now this company has conducted scores of raids, taken fire on the
street, taken casualties, taken rocket-propelled grenade attacks to the
club and are defiantly proud of the fact that they have essentially been
abandoned, survived, retrained themselves and can keep a lid on their
little piece of Baghdad. But it's not always the Joes who have the upper
hand. Increasingly, Haji seems to sets the agenda.
A thick black plume of smoke rises from Karrada Street, a popular
electronics district where US patrols often buy air-conditioners and
DVDs. An American Humvee, making just such a stop, has been blown to
pieces by a remote-activated "improvised explosive device," or IED,
buried in the median between two lanes of traffic. By chance two
colleagues and I are the first press on the scene. The street is empty
of traffic and quiet except for the local shopkeepers, who occasionally
call out to us in Arabic and English: "Be careful."
Finally we get close enough to see clearly. About twenty feet away is a
military transport truck and a Humvee, and beyond that are the flaming
remains of a third Humvee. A handful of American soldiers are crouched
behind the truck, totally still. There's no firing, no yelling, no
talking, no radio traffic. No one is screaming, but two GIs are down. As
yet there are no reinforcements or helicopters overhead. All one can
hear is the burning of the Humvee.
Then it begins: The ammunition in the burning Humvee starts to explode
and the troops in the street start firing. Armored personnel carriers
arrive and disgorge dozens of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne to join
the fight. The target is a three-story office building just across from
the engulfed Humvee. Occasionally we hear a few rounds of return fire
pass by like hot razors slashing straight lines through the air. The
really close rounds just sound like loud cracks.
"That's Kalashnikov. I know the voice," says Ahmed, our friend and
translator. There is a distinct note of national pride in his voice--his
countrymen are fighting back--never mind the fact that we are now mixed
in with the most forward US troops and getting shot at.
The firefight goes on for about two hours, moving slowly and
methodically. It is in many ways an encapsulation of the whole
war--confusing and labor-intensive. The GIs have more firepower than
they can use, and they don't even know exactly where or who the enemy
is. Civilians are hiding in every corner, the ground floor of the target
building is full of merchants and shoppers, and undisciplined fire could
mean scores of dead civilians.
There are two GIs on the ground, one with his legs gone and probably set
to die. When a medevac helicopter arrives just overhead, it, too, like
much other technology, is foiled. The street is crisscrossed with
electrical wires and there is no way the chopper can land to extract the
wounded. The soldiers around us look grave and tired.
Eventually some Bradley fighting vehicles start pounding the building
with mean 250-millimeter cannon shells. Whoever might have been shooting
from upstairs is either dead or gone.
The street is now littered with overturned air-conditioners, fans and
refrigerators. A cooler of sodas sits forlorn on the sidewalk. Farther
away two civilians lie dead, caught in the crossfire. A soldier peeks
out from the hatch of a Bradley and calls over to a journalist, "Hey,
can you grab me one of those Cokes?"
After the shootout we promised ourselves we'd stay out of Humvees and
away from US soldiers. But that was yesterday. Now Crawford is helping
us put on body armor and soon we'll be on patrol. As we move out with
the nine soldiers the mood is somewhere between tense and bored.
Crawford mockingly introduces himself to no one in particular: "John
Crawford, I work in population reduction."
QUOT-Watch the garbage--if you see wires coming out of a pile it's an IED,"
warns Howell. The patrol is uneventful. We walk fast through back
streets and rubbish-strewn lots, pouring sweat in the late afternoon
heat. Local residents watch the small squad with a mixture of civility,
indifference and open hostility. An Iraqi man shouts, "When? When? When?
Go!" The soldiers ignore him.
"Sometimes we sham," explains one of the guys. "We'll just go out and
kick it behind some wall. Watch what's going on but skip the walking.
And sometimes at night we get sneaky-deaky. Creep up on Haji, so he
knows we're all around."
"I am just walking to be walking," says the laconic Fredrick Pearson,
a k a "Diddy," the only African-American in Howell's squad. Back
home he works in the State Supreme Court bureaucracy and plans to go to
law school. "I just keep an eye on the rooftops, look around and walk."
The patrols aren't always peaceful. One soldier mentions that he
recently "kicked the shit out of a 12-year-old kid" who menaced him with
a toy gun.
Later we roll with the squad on another patrol, this time at night and
in two Humvees. Now there's more evident hostility from the young Iraqi
men loitering in the dark. Most of these infantry soldiers don't like
being stuck in vehicles. At a blacked-out corner where a particularly
large group of youths are clustered, the Humvees stop and Howell bails
out into the crowd. There is no interpreter along tonight.
"Hey, guys! What's up? How y'all doing? OK? Everything OK? All right?"
asks Howell in his jaunty, laid-back north Florida accent. The sullen
young men fade away into the dark, except for two, who shake the
sergeant's hand. Howell's attempt to take the high road, winning hearts
and minds, doesn't seem to be for show. He really believes in this war.
But in the torrid gloom of the Baghdad night, his efforts seem
Watching Howell I think about the civilian technocrats working with Paul
Bremer at the Coalition Provisional Authority; the electricity is out
half the time, and these folks hold meetings on how best to privatize
state industries and end food rations. Meanwhile, the city seethes. The
Pentagon, likewise, seems to have no clear plan; its troops are
stretched thin, lied to and mistreated. The whole charade feels
increasingly patched together, poorly improvised. Ultimately, there's
very little that Howell and his squad can do about any of this. After
all, it's not their war. They just work here.
Christian Parenti is the author, most recently, of The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror (Basic) and a fellow at City University of New York's Center for Place, Culture, and Politics.
Copyright © 2003 The Nation