Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mojo's World

The day before Muqtada al-Sadr lifted the Mahdi Army's freeze of attacks on Coalition Forces, things were obnoxiously normal in Anu al-Verona. Kids playing in the dirt, women shopping in the market, old men casting geriatric judgements from front porches, teenagers leering for the sake of leering - you know, the works. It all seems so distant now. Multiple 24-hour plus missions tend to have that effect on the memory.

As usual, Mojo was found near the combat outpost, on the front steps of the governance center. As the mayor’s son, he has the unofficial responsibility of hawking as much crap obtained by less than legal means as possible our way. Phone cards, cell phones, movies, iPods, and various forms of porn far more creative than necessary are always readily available through him – and that’s what he’s willing to try and sell in front of the LT. I’ve been informed there are even less refined aspects of the Mojo inventory. This isn’t exactly your friendly suburban neighborhood lemonade stand.

“LT,” he said, greeting me with a sly grin and green eyes that are far too dubious for one so young. “Maybe you want the phone cards today?”

I paused next to him, meeting the extended fist bump, and took off my Kevlar helmet. “I’m good on phone cards,” I told him, relishing the simple pleasure of running my hands through my cragged spikes of hair still drenched in sweat. “You got any Boom-Booms?” I asked, referencing the local brand of energy drink. The theories of what exactly makes up a Boom-Boom are many, but it certainly can keep a man awake hours beyond what the body is capable of. If it means anything, I haven’t failed a piss test yet.

“Why don’t you ever go to school?” It was the voice of SFC Big Country. My platoon sergeant has the rare gift of asking questions in the form of an order, no matter whom it is posed to. I’ve seen many young soldiers turn into deers caught in headlights because of this, and Mojo was no different.

“Because … well, because they would steal me or kill me if I went,” he responded eventually, kicking pebbles as he spoke. The green eyes swung back up at us from the concrete. “Mother fuckers. So I stay here, where the Americans are. And my father says getting my English better is better than school.”

SFC Big Country and I looked at each other, and exchanged conciliatory nods. “A fair point,” he said. “Although you probably should know soldier-English is a little different than regular English, Mojo. You can’t say ‘fuck’ every other word in America like we do here.”

A group of my Alpha section soldiers walked up at this time, bringing a bright smile to Mojo’s face. He momentarily shed the front of mischievous skeptic when SPC Haitian Sensation picked him up and twirled him around, and began to giggle - freely and easily and joyfully, just like any other child deserves to in this world.

“How old are you today?” SPC Haitian Sensation asked him, putting him back down on the ground, next to the broom closet that serves as Mojo’s shop.

“I’m still fifteen,” came the reply. It’s not as outrageous of a lie as it appeared, even though Mojo doesn’t look a day over a malnutritioned nine; the brutal reality is that most Anu al-Verona citizens do not know their exact age. Birth certificates aren’t exactly a traditional commodity over here. Most aren’t even sure what year it was when we invaded, even though that was only five years ago. Time is a lot more malleable in the third world.

We waited for the rest of the platoon, and started moving towards the combat outpost again. Mojo bartered quickly with a few of my soldiers, something I decided I was better off turning two blind eyes to. I had a patrol debrief to get to, anyways. I was halfway up the stairs when I heard a voice behind me.

“Hey LT!” It was Mojo, scurrying after me. He handed me a Boom-Boom, and winked. “On the house,” he says, repeating a phrase SSG Bulldog taught him. As he ran back over to his Gravedigger clientele, I shook my head in bemusement.

That kid is going to either end up very rich or very dead, I thought to myself. Local kingpin or bust. I cracked open my Boom-Boom, and decided that it will probably be the former. He has certainly had enough examples of the latter over the course of this war to study. Just another sort of education that can’t be learned in school.

Mojo is still at his lemonade stand as I type this. He hasn't gone home with the sunset for a few days, though. Call it a hunch, but it may be a couple more days until he does.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rules of Engagement

Hour 18 of a 24-hour mission. Well, two missions really. We had spent the day pulling outer security for General Petraeus himself, while he strolled down Anu al-Verona with no helmet and basic body armor, surrounded by a camo entourage and media parade Patton’s ghost would respect, to buy some falafels. I didn’t get to meet the Big Man, but I did get a photo of the aforementioned circus from about 100 meters away, with all three rings in action. Trust me, I didn’t want to be any closer. No matter how many gorgeous aides there were in his posse who would have been dutifully unimpressed with a too-cocky, too-skinny scout platoon leader who can’t get rid of the black bags entrenched underneath his eyes, had drank 10 bottles of water in the past eight hours to fight off sunstroke, and hadn’t showered in two weeks.

After the General left, the Gravediggers charlie miked straight into an escort mission for an engineer unit tasked to fill potholes. A straight forward enough concept – surround the engineers in a Stryker diamond, and destroy any and all terrorists hordes that pour over the Anu al-Fulda Gap in the mean time. Translation: Rotate gunners and institute a much-needed and well-deserved rest plan for the platoon. Also, it gave us a chance to bring the three new Gravediggers – SPC Tunnel Rat, PVT Stove-Top, and PVT Hot Wheels – up to speed on the mechanics of our Strykers. Sounded like a great plan, at the time.

Then the war got in the way. Again.

45 minutes after we established our outer cordon security positions – right at the aforementioned hour 18 - SSG Boondock’s words boomeranged across the net, hiding the thrill in his voice as much as a teenage boy does while issuing instructions before a panty raid.

“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3 … we got some real shady mother fuckers low crawling onto the road, down from the canal. It looks like two of ‘em.”

I bolted straight up in the back of my Stryker, and started studying my map. The 3 vehicle was on the complete other side of the diamond from my vehicle, oriented due south, overwatching a well-traveled north-south thoroughfare.

“Keep watching him,” I said, stating the obvious while conflicting thoughts of violent chaos and escalation of force procedures pumped through my mind like a million competing race car pistons.

Are they sure they’re seeing two guys low crawling? It’s night. They still haven’t done anything wrong yet. Technically. Not yet. Are they sure? Why are they low-crawling? Did I leave my rules of engagement card in the laundry? Are they sure? I need to stay calm, that’s what Lieutenants do in the movies in situations like this, they stay calm and make good decisions or they freak the fuck out and fuck everything up. Why are they low-crawling? Why can’t we just shoot, again? It’s not just night, it’s midnight. He said they were shady. Are they sure? Can they be sure with night-vision? Can they ever be sure with night-vision? Just don’t be the guy who yells CHARGE and you’ll be alright. I need to ask if there’s another heat signature other than the bodies. That’s what I need to ask. Are they fucking sure?

“Heat signatures?” I finally sputtered out, hoping my question would be accepted as proper radio brevity, and not typical LT G brain vomit.

Five seconds that felt like a standard Pentagon deployment passed before SSG Boondock replied. “Roger! Roger! It looks like there’s a box and my gunner reports they have set it down 250 meters from our position.”

Cue brain retching.

Light ‘em up. A quick burst or two of 50-caliber rounds should suffice. I’ve never tasted bloodlust before, not the lethal brew anyhow, but it seeped into my soul this night. As I’ve written before, I didn’t come here to kill, and never felt to impulse or desire to truly end a man’s life. But here it was, arriving as quickly as the crawling terrorists had. Kill or be killed. Never has this war been so clear, so pure, so obvious, so clean. And yet …

The platoon leader in me knew we couldn’t shoot yet, and tugged at my brain like a giant anchor holding in place a battleship on full throttle. Escalation of force. Fuck. Rules of engagement. Double fuck. They haven’t technically dug anything yet, thus, haven’t begin emplacing anything. SGT Axel was ready, certainly, zeroing in on the two human silhouettes with a long-barreled machine gun of raw destruction, but the Iraq War has become so PC, so cluttered, so trigger-shy five years into the war, that any round fired – no matter how justified or understandable at the time of the incident – yields paperwork inquiries and scrutiny more fitting of a Senate Judiciary Committee report. Staff monkeys have found new purpose in this combat zone as Monday morning quarterbacks, conducting investigations with omnipotent spotlights to cut through the fog of war days after the storm passed. I’m not claiming that such retrospective studies are not healthy for a military unit, nor am I arguing that precision and restraint should not be fundamentals ingrained in every soldier fighting an insurgency. Part of what makes an American soldier an American soldier is that he fights with rules that sometimes hinder him, in an attempt to keep sight of the ideals and principles which led him to fight in the first place. That’s all gravy. I am stating, however, that the fact that these thoughts clouded my mind in a decisive moment of combat – and not just my mind, as it would turn out – proves that we are officially no longer on the offensive here. To repeat a new mantra of some of my NCOs, “Uncle Sam has gone soft.”

I didn’t want to spend the next decade at Fort Leavenworth cutting stone, and certainly didn’t want any of my men to do that, either. Maybe that’s what would have happened if I had ordered them to shoot then. Maybe not. Anything now is just surmising, reflecting back with the benefit of hindsight on decisions made in mere seconds during a black tempest of confusion. We employed proper rules of engagement, just like we’re taught to by the Army lawyers hired to teach us how to avoid jail-time and war crimes and sensationalized scandals reported by a clueless, leaching mass media to an equally clueless public addicted to shock and awe. For every Abu-Ghraib there are hundreds of stories like this; unreported acts of trepidation brought on by the castigation of our combat operations in the name of nation building.

I kicked out my Bravo section’s dismounts, one team led by SFC Big Country (whose 4 vehicle was closest to the 3), the other by SSG Boondock, with the hope of being able to detain our targets. They were standing by behind the cover of our vehicles for the time being. I told SGT Axel, the 3 vehicle’s gunner, to beam the targets with a bright naked eye laser, to let them know we were watching. Then I told him, “If they begin to run, open fire and engage the targets.” There. I had satiated the gods of what if, and found an avenue for my soldiers to still do their job.

“Roger, will comply!” SGT Axel responded.

I had given the order to kill. Haughty enough to condemn two individuals to The End because they had been stupid enough to be fucking seen in a war of shadows. Somewhere in the time-space continuum, the boy who cried after my first fistfight - not because I was hurt, but because I thought I had done something to upset the instigator and still didn't understand the concept of bullying - hung himself with a calendar rope. At least he succeeded. That’s something at least.

“X-Ray, this is Gravedigger 1.” It had been a few minutes since I had sent up a situation report to Troop; an instrumental part of any Lieutenant’s job is to serve as a connection between the front line and whatever is behind us. Remembering such at this precise moment would turn out to be my only lasting regret from this whole ordeal.

“We have a possible IED-emplacement happening time now, at our location. Grid to follow. (Grid follows.) We’re employing ROE, and will engage with fire if they run and detainment is no longer a viable option.”

“Negative Gravedigger 1, you will not engage!” It was CPT Whiteback now on the other end of the radio call. What the hell was he still doing up? “Attempt to detain the individuals. Do not open fire unless the individuals attempt to directly engage you.”

I could hear the frustration oozing out of CPT Whiteback’s voice like puss coming out of a popped zit; I’m sure he wanted us to kill these two as much as we did. He has no love lost for insurgents. And as he reminds us at least twice a day, he had been in Sadr City in 2004, and knew what it was like to be pulling triggers all day, every day. So this newfound act of hesitation wasn’t a result of inexperience or nerves. That didn’t stop me from seeking clarification, though.

“This is Gravedigger 1 … I copy the only way we can open fire, even after positive identification, is if these guys open fire at us with rifles they don’t have or try to actually detonate the IED on us?” There may have been a few F-bombs in there, as well. I can’t recall.

“Roger,” came my answer.

I sighed, disbelievingly, and switched back to the platoon net. “You monitor the CO’s traffic, 3-Golf?”

SGT Axel’s voice could have cut through steel. It was that sharp. “This is 3-Golf. Roger.”

The next few hours morphed into a blur. I unleashed a primal howl and ripped the hand mic out of our radio, throwing it into the back of the Stryker, waking up a confused Biggie. SGT Axel lasered the two shapes, who quickly darted back into the canal. The two dismount teams moved after them in hot pursuit, but with it 1) being night and 2) not being our native terrain, we were automatically at a huge disadvantage in this impromptu hunt. No one was surprised when the only thing that was found was sets of muddy footprints behind some broken reeds. No one was really surprised either, when SPC Tunnel Rat and newly-promoted PFC Das Boot stumbled upon a compact brick-like object covered in tumbleweeds; after PFC Das Boot gave it the scratch-and-sniff treatment and informed SSG Boondock (“You did what, you big German fuck? You scratched it and smelled your finger? Are you high?”), we cordoned off the area and called the Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Turns out the brick was a state of the art pressure plate IED designed specifically for attacks on armored vehicles. EOD then blew it up without incident. Too tired to care anymore, the Gravediggers returned to the combat outpost with nothing to say to anyone who hadn’t been there with us. We felt like neutered wolves.

48 hours later, an individual detained by another unit outside of our AO admitted to attempting to emplace an IED exactly where we found the pressure plate exactly when we had observed him attempt to do so. Just like all emplacers, he was just a punk teenager who knew next to nothing, got paid $20 to feed his family for a week for his act, and literally shit himself when he got detained. According to the intel geek rumor mill, he was also very curious as to why we hadn’t shot him up instead of tipping him off to our whereabouts with a green laser. No word yet as to the fate of his shadow buddy from the night in question.

SSG Boondock came up to me the morning after the initial event, as I brooded on the Crow’s Nest. I don’t let go of things easily, and while my platoon seemed to have shed the events of the previous night rather quickly with some sleep and Guitar Hero, I had not. He took a seat next to me and lit up a cigarette.

“Fucked up shit last night, Sir,” he said.

“Yeah.” SSG Boondock had killed before in this war, and would be ready to do so again. I could only imagine his thoughts on the matter, and quite frankly, was not sure I was ready to hear them.

He leaned back and chuckled. “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have given the fire command to open fire like you did. That took balls.”

I felt my eyes open wide with surprise. This was the last thing I expected this NCO to say. He had never hesitated to tell me how he felt about anything, even when it might hurt my feelings. I’ve always valued his candid voice, and simply could not believe he would have done anything but open fire if placed in my position.

“You’ve done it before,” I said. "A few times."

“Yeah … it was different then, though. Shit now … it’s just hard to explain how much things have changed here.” He patted me on the knee. “You did fine, LT. No one expects you to be Dick Winters. Fuck, no one wants you to be Dick Winters.”

I looked at him skeptically. “Did SFC Big Country put you up to this to cheer me up?”

Another cackle. “Naw, nothing like that. Three years ago, fuck yeah, those guys would be rotting corpses on the side of the road, and nobody would blink an eye. Things are just fucking different now. Everyone’s so scared to make a mistake, convinced they’ll end up on the cover of Time.” He paused, took a final drag, and continued. “Just get us home, LT. I’ll take care of the rest.” He cackled again, and walked back inside. I stayed on the Crow’s Nest to finish brooding.

Is one detained terrorist with some information better for the war effort than two dead terrorists? To hell if I know; it’s kind of one of those “is the glass half-full or half-empty” questions. I do know though, that the lesson I’ve retained from this sequence of events is simple and straightforward, and something that could be garnered from any Clint Eastwood film ever made: shoot first, ask questions later. The way out is through. Even if the only ones who understand that are the ones on the ground, living in the Suck every day and every night, placing themselves in harm’s way every time they roll out of the wire in a manner that their countrymen cannot, will not, and should not ever comprehend. That IED wouldn’t have hit the vehicle of the guy who tweaks the rules of engagement, or the guy who would’ve been appointed the investigating officer if we had shot, that’s for damn sure. They are tucked away safely and comfortably in some glass house on the Beltway and the FOB, respectively, casting stones. The IED would have cut through me, or my men, or some of my comrades in the other platoons, in an instantaneous fireball of death. Fuck it. I will not hesitate again, even for just a few seconds, nor will I call up an update until after the fact. There’s too much at stake now for me to not employ those lessons learned. The next time, we might not be able to find the damn thing until after it explodes and we’re separating scrap metal from human remains.

We’d be out looking for the other insurgent right now, but we can’t leave the combat outpost. Some jackass somewhere else had a negligent discharge and destroyed a clearing barrel, causing the entire Brigade to go on a safety stand-down. Beyond being Grade A Garrison Bullshit, I’m just hoping that the terrorists got the memo that the war’s on timeout for the next 40 hours. I’m certain that they did. The actual war part of this war may be carefully regulated now, but the paperwork machine still has free reign to terrorize.

It is what it is.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Gravediggers Photo Essay (2)

I'm too tired for words now, and the words are too tired for me. From top to bottom:
1) The NCOs weekly(ish) poker game.
2) SFC Big Country the Benefactor gets mobbed for toys. The slow kids get toothbrushes, but the fast ones earn Beanie Babies.
3) Patrol brief. Note how I'm the only one wearing cold weather gear. You can take the kid out of the desert, but you can't take the desert out of the kid.
4) SSG Bulldog takes an Iraqi child for the ride of his life.
5) SGT Chico, SGT El Cortez, (now) PFC Boomhauer, and SPC Haitian Sensation take cover ... and a seat.
6) The classic LT radio shot.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Deep Thoughts with Biggie Smalls

As someone whose foreign language efforts usually resemble beluga whale mating calls, I have zero right to criticize non-English primary speakers attempts at my native language. I rationalize this by saying that my love for the English language is just too pure and too right to be tainted by something else, but really, who knows. I guess that synapse hadn’t connected yet before I escaped the womb in a Caesarian jailbreak. I even dated a French chick for a few months and never made any serious progression to learn her language. If a woman can’t make you do something despite all her harassments to the contrary, it probably isn’t meant to happen.

Still, one cannot avoid the very obvious truth that English sounds funny when it comes out of mouths untrained to its’ complexities. That’s not being culturally insensitive, that’s just straight comedic fact. Language – any language – inevitably develops into a multitude of dialects, nuances, and cultural references that can be nigh impossible to understand, let alone replicate. Such is the case for the Gravediggers’ ever-present and always amusing interpreter, Biggie Smalls. A good-natured grandfather who has a weakness for ignoring his diabetes in the name of Pepsi Cola and cannot stand punk teenagers, Biggie causes as much of a ruckus around Anu al-Verona as we do; his diversity due to his heritage in the Heart of Africa and midnight black skin, when blended with his ability to make newfound friends everywhere he goes and the rolling chuckle that follows nearly every statement he makes, has proven to be an instrumental asset in the counterinsurgency fight. Everyone knows Biggie, and Biggie knows everyone.

Here is a short collection of some of Biggie’s finer moments with my platoon. Keep in my mind, that some of my soldiers think he suffers from PTSD, due to surviving multiple IED strikes in the three years he has worked for Coalition Forces. Also, after some prodding, he reluctantly revealed that he lost three young children during Desert Storm, and that he visits their graves every time he goes home. He has seen far more war over the course of his life than one man ever should. Not all warriors in Anu al-Verona carry rifles when they leave the wire.

-- Biggie: “I do not understand why you Americans insist on missions in night. Night is for sleep!” Me: “You’re right. You should take it up with CPT Whiteback.” Biggie, completely straight-faced: “That is a good idea, LT. I will summon him as soon as we return from mission and explain the situation.”

-- Biggie: “I am worry that my family would be hurt if people knew I work with Americans. That is why I do not tell them.” Me: “Wait? So you’re saying no one in your family knows you work here? Not even your wives?” Biggie: “Women cannot keep from the talk. They be too proud of me and do the chatter when I am away. Then they will die!”

-- PFC Boomhauer: “How do you feel about rules of engagement, Biggie?” Biggie: “I say kill them all! That way, I do not have to leave Stryker.”

-- Biggie: (after walking into a maze of wire at night, that my soldiers had to help him get out of): “Why is that still there! I say to have it to be taken away.”

-- SGT Chico: “I only have one wife, Biggie. That’s more than enough for me. Not to mention, she’d kill me if I married another woman.” Biggie, shaking his head in confusion: “But why? If they do not want to share, you must hit them around to show who is king. I had to do that with smaller wife when she stop listening to me.” SGT Chico: “Yeah, well, my wife would just hit me right back.”

-- Me, sitting in a Sheik’s house, anxious to return to my Strykers and feeling slightly guilty that not all of my soldiers are partaking in the impromptu feast laid out before us: “Let’s go, Biggie.” Biggie: “But … but why, LT? There is more food and chai to come. It is Arab culture!” Me: “I need to check on my guys, man. Let’s roll.” Biggie, clearly perturbed and shoving food into his mouth as I thank the Sheik, and begin to head out the front door: “But … but … LT, it is Arab culture! We must stay for more food!”

-- Biggie, who I stumble upon in the breakfast line, staring at a piece of sausage. “This is pork, yes?” Me: “Yeah, it is. Sorry man, I know you’re not allowed to eat pork.” Biggie: “Gah! I do not understand why Allah does not allow us to eat the pork when it smell so good.”

-- First Sergeant, catching Biggie carrying a new mattress to his room in the combat outpost: “No, Biggie, we don’t have enough mattresses for everyone. Not even all the soldiers are going to get one.” Biggie: “But you have one for Biggie, yes?”

-- First Sergeant, catching Biggie with a dinner plate that would feed a block in Anu al-Verona: “Come on Biggie, you gonna tell me you gonna eat all that?” Biggie, who puts his plate down and flexes: “Of course! I have two wives, I must be strong for them!”

-- Me, seeing Biggie grab a Pepsi during a meeting: “Biggie, put that down. Grab something without sugar.” Biggie, laughing: “You are good leader of me, LT! I will have orange drink.” Me: “Biggie, how long have you known you have diabetes?” Biggie: “Oh, I don’t know. Ten years?”

-- Biggie, after unleashing a tongue-lashing on a Shi’a fourteen-year old kid who failed to produce his ID in a timely fashion: “Stupid mother fucker.” Me: “Man, Biggie, what did you tell that kid? He looks like we ran over his house.” Biggie: “I tell him next time he looks at Americans with the angry we will come and drop him off alone in Sunni neighborhood. We will not have problem again with him.”

-- Biggie, who has become addicted to Macgyver re-runs: “It is excellent show. He always use his mind, you know? Very good hero.”

-- Biggie, on the Saddam era: “It was not so bad. There were discos.”

-- Biggie, on his actions during the initial American offensive in 2003: “I see smoke from American tanks and American heli-choppers and American bombs and I go inside. I stay in house for three weeks and make two new babies with my wives.”

-- Biggie, on his actions in 2004, when members of the Mahdi Army showed up at his business and requisitioned all of his assets, financial or otherwise: “There were 30 men with AK. They tell me we shoot you and kill or you give everything. I say, ‘okay, have it all, bye bye! I go home now.’”

-- Biggie: “I tell all the other LTs and all the other terps- no one works like Gravediggers! We work, work, work. We no talk – we just do.” Me: “Word, Biggie. Word.”

-- Biggie, with a sense of absolute wonder in his voice that only someone from a third-world nation can attain: “Ahh-merr-ikaaa … America. It must be very beautiful place, yes?”

It is Biggie, it really is. I just wish we could understand that the way that you do.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Field Trip

The only time CPT Whiteback can get all of his lieutenants together in one room is late at night, sometime before the cock crows, sometime after Arab MTV airs three hours worth of Laguna Beach re-runs. During one of these sleep-deprived, coffee-fueled, wild-eyed-do-not-question-me-at-this-hour sessions, our CO announced that one of the line platoons would have “the pleasure to escort some Green Zone moneybags around Anu al-Verona tomorrow.” Apparently, they wanted to see what the real Iraq was like, and as per the military industrial complex tradition, would be bringing all kinds of pogue-alicious brass with them. He scanned the room and smiled viciously at me.

“The Gravediggers will hate this mission the most,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got the golden ticket, G.”

I stuck my hands in the pockets of my fleece and glared at my laughing comrades. No respect for the senior platoon leader. “The real Iraq, huh?” I said. “To see real life Iraqis in real Iraqi homes with real Iraqi poverty?” CPT Whiteback nodded, familiar with my brand of rambling, overindulgent sarcasm. “Can’t they just read my blog instead to educate themselves?”

He arched an eyebrow at me, elevating his wild-eyed look to crazy-commander levels. “Don’t flatter yourself. There aren’t enough stories about me for your blog to be the sole authority on the ‘real Iraq.’ Be Redcon 1 by 0900. I have to go, too, so don’t think you’re the only one drinking from the Suck hose. Now, LT B, you and the War Pigs …”

Sure enough, five hours later, under orders to trudge through a shitty-but-not-too-shitty portion of Anu al-Verona, the Gravediggers found ourselves serving as shepherds to said Green Zone moneybags’ clueless sheep. My platoon was doing exactly what it was supposed to – executing a combined mounted and dismounted patrol, with SSG Bulldog’s Stryker in the lead – with textbook spacing in between the vehicles and interspersed dismounts. The same could not be said however, for our attachments, who clustered together in the center of our formation like a gaggle of moshers at their first punk concert. Some of them hadn’t even bothered to put a magazine into their weapon, let alone charge the damn thing. I had spent the first ten minutes of the patrol attempting to inject some tactical sense into the Green Zoners, as tactfully as a young lieutenant can while making recommendations to a group of superior officers. Only one of the Majors had even bothered to acknowledge my existence. Fine, I thought, telling my men to back away from the parade of clowns. If they wanted to die, they weren’t going to take any of us with them.

I reminded myself of what SSG Bulldog always tells me when I get frustrated with attached elements. “It ain’t their fault, LT – they just don’t know no bettah.” It didn’t help. My internal scowl must’ve spread to my face, because as we pulled into a short halt to talk to some local shopkeepers, the aforementioned Major walked over to my position. The Gravediggers had automatically posted 360-degree local security, and I joined them on the perimeter, kneeling against the end of a building, rifle peeking around an alleyway. He took a knee next to me.

“Lieutenant, I just wanted to thank you for taking us out today,” he said. “I know it must be like herding cats.”

I did my best to keep my voice steady. “No worries, Sir. That’s what we’re here for.”

We talked for a few minutes. He was doing what good field grade officers do – asking about the ground situation, asking about the soldiers’ welfare, actually giving a shit about the executors of his plans and not pretending to be above it all. He listened instead of lectured. Once the mission continued, one of his peers proved to be the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll.

“We’re ready to move,” he yelled to no one in particular. “Why isn’t this vehicle?” He was referring to the Stryker.

I had the hand mic in my grip, and was radioing up to the lead Stryker to begin movement. ‘Just give it a few seconds, Sir,” I said. “We’ll be moving shortly.”

He looked over at me, eyeing me up and down with all the pomposity of a French dignitary. “Just make it happen, Lieutenant,” he said.

I felt the red rage rise up through the base of my skeleton and blaze across the wheat fields of my mind. Gotta dig that instantaneous Irish temper. I wanted to tell him to put a fucking magazine in his weapon before we left him alone in the wilderness, as helpless and oblivious as Tom Wolfe at a frat party. Only the presence of my men within earshot forced me to utilize the brain-to-mouth filter. “Roger, Sir,” I said, biting my lip, arching my eyebrows, and quietly thanking the smidgeon of Scottish practicality imbued into my spirit by my mother’s side of the family.

I don’t really remember the next few minutes; my world was now a post-Armageddon wasteland, complete with lava rivers, crashing meteors, and cackling demons. I’m more of a scrapper than a brawler, and I’ll never be confused for a big guy, but I have beaten the living shit out of another man before when the situation called for it. (A story from the Old World for another time.) Just like that moment - when nothing else mattered except for the the fight itself, blood-drunk, the object to gain supremacy on my adversary in order to channel an eternity’s worth of primal wrath and contemporary justice through my knuckles onto his face and onto his face and onto his face - I knew nothing but the vehicle of my own righteousness, and was only faintly aware that such was simultaneously driven and fueled by my own insecurities. Unlike then though, there was nothing I could do about it, except to keep walking, and check on the Gravediggers’ intervals.

We stopped at a house on a dirt corner. The Green Zoners began to talk to the residents, and without provocation, my platoon posted security around them, keeping them alive for no other reason than they knew they were supposed to. I took a deep breath and leaned against a wall. I spied SSG Boondock across the way. He was smiling wildly, and then began to cackle, hands and arms outstretched like a starman.

He’s laughing at me, I thought. He thinks it’s funny the LT is so pissed off. That bastard. We’ll see who’s laughing next time the guard roster comes out.

I whipped out my Camelbak hose, sucking down some hydration, closing my eyes in the process. When I opened them, CPT Whiteback was leaning against the wall next to me.

“How’s the water?” he asked.

“Stellar,” I said, forcing a smile. “Always stellar.”

“What a clusterfuck,” he said, pointing to the Green Zoners. They had trotted out a video camera and were filming audaciously. It was more than evident that this simple conversation with locals about their daily struggles in Anu al-Verona would end up as a public affairs commercial in due time.

“They’re going to talk about this 30-minute excursion for the rest of their lives,” I said. “At every dinner table conversation it can be brought up, their ‘experience’ with the tragedies of Iraq will be trotted out in an all-out dog and pony show, for everyone to ooh and ahh at. And think of the children! The poor, poor children!”

CPT Whiteback chuckled. “Whoa there, sipping on the Hater-Ade a little early today, aren’t we?”

I took another sip of water. “I spiked it myself.”

My CO patted me on my back with his giant gorilla hands, and nodded. “Yeah, well, you’re probably right,” he said. “This is probably the first and last time they’ll leave the Green Zone. But hey, at least they did. And they have a lot of money to dole out. If them coming here means we get more funding to help these people, don’t you think one morning of bullshit is worth it?”

I stared blankly back at him. He’s really good at making me feel like a jackass, when he wants to.

He winked at me and started walking back towards the live commercial. “Ease up on the pogues, brutha’,” he said. “They’re just trying to help. And think of it this way – at least we know there aren’t any snipers in this area right now. I can guarantee you that they would knocked somebody off by now, if there was. How’s that for a combat operation?”

I stroked my chin in contemplation. “Sir … this isn’t the war I thought it was going to be.”

He turned back around and looked at me quizzically. “They never are.”

A fair point, I thought. Ten minutes later, we mounted everyone back up in the Strykers, and returned to base, two hours earlier than planned. Whatever it was that our visitors needed to see or hear, they had seen and heard en masse. The Gravediggers rolled back into Anu al-Verona that night, platoon pure, finding it just as we had left it. There is comfort to be found in knowns.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Stepson of Iraq

A walking exit strategy, the Sons of Iraq – also known as the Sawha – spread across Mesopotamia with an industrialist’s spirit and the subtlety of a drunk weatherman. When I stop playing Army and finally grow up, I want to be one.

Every LT worth a fuck dreads the harsh inevitability that his platoon leader time is a transient experience; a fleeting familiarity with the hands-on and the hardy reality of the front lines. After that, it’s off to become the XO, a logistical whipping boy and desk jockey, or even worse, to staff, where the Iraq War is simply something for the Powerpoint gurus and TOC-roaches to design reports around, and firefights occur so photographs can be taken for the after action storyboard. Through a sporadic mix of luck, guile, and shameless throwing of peers under the proverbial bus, I’ve managed to stick with my platoon for over a year now, with no replacement yet to pop up in my crosshairs. Still though, there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to pull these shenanigans off for the duration of the deployment, and thus, I’ve had to deal with the possibility of LT G’s post-PL life. And that’s where the Sons of Iraq come in.

Consider my application pending.

As far as I can tell, a Son of Iraq has three basic job tenets. One, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Or, in this case, remember not to blow up the people who are paying you. Two, show up to work enough of the time that you aren’t in the grossest violation of the Americans’ compliance inspections. This will differ from week-to-week and from area-to-area, but from my perspective on the ground, two out of three (days) ain’t bad – just like the Meatloaf song states, and will keep you out of the most trouble. And three, show up every month on the doorstep of the American combat outpost, demanding anything and everything short of Chemical Ali’s vintage pog collection.

Dormant? Check. Lazy? Double check. Obnoxious? Show me the dinar, mistah! Triple check. Hell, I’ve found my ideal vocation. It’ll be like being a towel boy at the casinos again, just with even more time to read books and without the solicitations from fat Bay Area pedophiles. I’m sure the dental plan isn’t as good as the one I have with Uncle Sam, but the hours would be a huge improvement.

Granted, I don’t necessarily bring the traditional resume to Sawha, Inc. I didn’t come through the traditional street pipelines of Jaish al-Maida or Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and don’t have any shady connections to the various mob bosses that run the Sons of Iraq. I’ve never emplaced an IED in an attempt to kill and maim infidels, and don’t profess blind, scathing hatred towards my Shi’a/Sunni counterparts. Further, I tend to hit what I’m shooting at, although in all fairness, I’ve never worked with a Cold War-era AK-47 before. If I purposefully wet my powder and got access to some Guinness here, I’m fairly certain I could learn to miss my targets with that musket.

If granted an interview with any of the Sawha bosses, or sub-minions, I will promise them the following things, in order to land a job on one of their checkpoints: I will only search cars if the Americans are directly overwatching me (thus forcing them to spend their time on the job ensuring that I’m doing mine, redefining the word “inefficient”), I will never tell the Americans something is amiss, and I will definitely nap away at least half of my shift, and claim confusion regarding the sleep rotation if inspected too closely by said powers that be. I’d also tout my legit understanding and historical knowledge of the paramilitary movement, focusing on the relationship and development of guerilla warfare and politics in twentieth century Ireland. That’d be sure to impress them, and if they’re an anticipatory leader, they’ll value the possibilities such education could yield them and their men in the near future. Stockpile those caches, mistah – the Coalition of the Willing willfully can’t find them all, willingly or not.

While there are some Sawha leaders who would be shocked by my candid honesty, and claim that they’d never hire such a degenerate scumbag with a shamrock fetish, I know a few that would appreciate my bluntness. Even Iraqi bureaucracies fear boat-rockers and bomb-throwers. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) And yeah, I know men much smarter, much harder, and of much more rank than I have decided the Sawha are instrumental to American success in Iraq. I’m not disagreeing with such an assessment. I’m simply stating that I want in on this epical greatness. As SSG Bulldog sometimes tells the Joes, the Army seldom provides you an opportunity to “get you yours. When it comes, you get you yours.” This is one of those rare times. I would play by the unwritten Sawha rules of sit, watch, and wait. I’ve been doing that my whole life; the military man of action I now serve as shouldn’t be too hard to discard in the name of nation-building.

Viva la Reconciliation!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Fiddler's Green

If you think and/or pray, please remember both 1LT David Schultz (1-31-08) and 2LT Mark Daily (1-15-07), who lost their lives in the Iraq War. I graduated with both of them from the Armor Officer Basic Course and the Scout Leaders Course in 2006. Both were capable officers and good men, who left behind young wives and loving families. 1LT Schultz left behind a baby son, as well.

Personal feelings about Christopher Hitchens aside, he wrote an excellent article about 2LT Daily here, at Vanity Fair.

If there is a more fitting tribute to Cavalrymen than the following poem, I am not familiar with it. Rest in peace, both of you, and see you on the other side.

Fiddler's Green

Halfway down the trail to hell
In a shady meadow green,
Are the souls of all dead troopers camped
Near a good old-time canteen
And this eternal resting place
Is known as Fiddler’s Green.

Marching past, straight through to hell,
The infantry are seen,
Accompanied by the Engineers,
Artillery and Marines,
For none but the shades of Cavalrymen
Dismount at Fiddlers' Green.

Though some go curving down the trail
To seek a warmer scene,
No trooper ever gets to Hell
Ere he's emptied his canteen,
And so rides back to drink again
With friends at Fiddlers' Green.

And so when man and horse go down
Beneath a saber keen,
Or in a roaring charge or fierce melee
You stop a bullet clean,
And the hostiles come to get your scalp,
Just empty your canteen,
And put your pistol to your head
And go to Fiddlers' Green.

-- Anonymous