Death or Glory Part III of IV

 

Death or Glory III of IV

Queen’s Royal Lancers

There is an entirely different war out in the desert. I’ve been telling American soldiers since my return from the British Army that our brothers and sisters are good to go, no matter what their own press says.

American soldiers think our press is bad to them, but we get off light compared to the Brits. One British soldier told me that when he made a journey of several hours across London, in uniform, not a single person acknowledged him. I said he should go to America where British soldiers are always welcome.

The Brits are in for a scorching summer in the deserts of Maysan Province. By the time I left, the sleeping bags weren’t necessary, though nights were cool. The soldiers are living out there on cots under mosquito nets, and their outhouse is a shovel. This past winter, the rains and cold created an opponent in the form of mud. The Iraqi mud—I know it well—is a special kind that sticks to boots and adds about five pounds to each foot.

Sunrise came a few short hours after the parachute resupply during the darkness. Once the explosives experts had destroyed the armored vehicle damaged in the ambush that also killed two British soldiers, we headed off on a patrol to the Iraqi border.
The area is loaded with munitions: vast fields of land mines from the Iran-Iraq slaughter, and uncounted tons of other explosives.

I’d seen miles and miles of minefields up north along the Iran/Iraq border when I was running with the Tennessee National Guard (278th). The shepherds know every rock and cranny out there, and they know where the explosives are. Treat those shepherds bad, and soldiers get blown up. Treat them with humanity and respect, and they can be business partners. The 278th was good to the shepherds, who were paid to collect large amounts of explosives that the 278th would then destroy, sometimes in massive explosions.

One day the 278th accidentally ran over a sheep. On a different patrol, they spent hours trying to find that shepherd to pay him for that sheep. Because the 278th took the smart approach, despite all the people who have died from IEDs, I’m sure that number is vastly less than it could have been. Moral leadership: treating people with respect goes a long way.

Up with the 278th, I sat out on the Iran/Iraq border and watched with ground surveillance radar. We saw smugglers. Most of the “smuggling” was of no account: not guns or bombs, but simple commodities like carpets and whiskey, just people doing business. One Iraqi commander, a Kurdish general, got a tattoo on his arm to match the tattoo of LTC Jeff Holmes, who commanded one of the 278th battalions at that time. The tattoo said (I believe) “Freedom Isn’t Free.”

We went on several picnics with that same Iraqi general and his soldiers, and I can remember him offering cases of captured whiskey. Of course, the Americans couldn’t accept the whiskey, but the smuggling was a different story. In any country where a desired commodity is restricted or scarce, the smuggler becomes a commodity.

British and American commanders increasingly report a huge problem with the porous Iraqi borders, and sure enough, mostly they are as unguarded as the Florida/Georgia border. Just a line on a map. So we have been building border forts around Iraq, and part of the job of the Queen’s Royal Lancers is to keep an eye on that border.

Down with the Brits, the soldiers were driving along the border, passing herds of camels, and I was sitting up front watching for land mines or whatever, when the British soldier who was driving started talking about how tough the Bedouins really are. He related how Bedouins had just ambushed some smugglers and killed a bunch of them. “Really?” I asked. When he confirmed they’d ambushed a whole slew and just wiped them out, it sounded like another one of those stories you hear every day in the war, that are probably mostly true, or mostly wrong, but interesting nonetheless.

I told the soldier that many Arabs look at the Bedouins sort of like how Americans look at cowboys. John Wayne. Clint Eastwood. Almost iconic, semi-mythical. Not totally real, but not really fake either. Like special forces or SAS dudes: not really Supermen, but definitely super men. That’s how Arabs see the Bedouins.

And so there we were riding along when suddenly the driver stamped on the brakes. There was a land mine in the middle of our path.
Yep, it was a mine all right. Luckily, the first three vehicles missed it, and we drove around it and just kept going.
A lonely Iraqi border crossing, complete with Iraqi border guards, who are said to sometimes get caught having tea with Iranian border guards. The Iranian building is only a few minutes’ walk from this Iraqi office.

Iraqi guards. Or smugglers. Or maybe they were Persians. Who knows? They were said to be Iraqi guards, though. They offered cigarettes, and in return asked for things like radios and knives, or my camera.

Out on the border.

“Death or Glory” is the motto of the Queen’s Royal Lancers. An adventurous soul could buy a camel from one of the Bedouins for two or three thousand dollars (that’s the going price, they say) and wander around deserts like Lawrence, maybe conquer and unite some querulous tribes, assemble thousands of camels and a thousand men with knives, take a harem, then attack the Persians. But the British soldiers apparently do not care to conquer the region, and most seem satisfied with confronting only those who shoot at them first.

Stopping for a quick lunch.
British rations: The British soldiers actually like American MREs, but I told them our soldiers likely would never believe such a thing. Some Brits told me they actually got American MREs for Christmas and were bug-eyed happy about it.

I found the British rations were good, but truth be known, our guys do eat a little better. Some American soldiers actually tell me that the Brits get all the good “kit” (gear), which is interesting because the Brits say the Americans get all the good kit. The Brits also think we level a city block in Baghdad every time someone shoots a mortar at us, but that’s not true. Meanwhile, the Americans think the Brits aren’t doing any fighting in Basra, and that’s definitely not true.

Desert life on the Iran/Iraq border.
Most of the people live in these easily collapsible houses. They move as the water and grass moves. Their world seems to operate on two basic rules: Leave dry. Go to water. What is a border drawn on a map in London or Washington—or even Baghdad or Tehran—to these people?
They all seem to have dogs. I remember a couple years ago one of our soldiers nearly had to shoot one Iraqi man’s dog—a frequent occurrence—but I asked him to hold fire for just a second and let me try to run it off with rocks. Luckily the dog took the hint and didn’t get shot.
They move like the wind.
They seem very poor, but people I meet in such places usually seem to be content and even happy.
Rolling up the border.
A quarry in the middle of nowhere.
Doing business.
For Iran or Iraq?
Flocks everywhere.
Yet there was space to think.
We stopped at another border fort. Young Iraqi men often are desperate to get their photos taken with Western women, which can be a serious nuisance for the women.
The next one comes for his photo, the soldier is obliging.
And many are like big kids. Got to try the radios, even though they are only feet apart.
British soldiers letting the kids play.

Just ahead, Iran.

Iranian border fort.
These Land Rovers are probably the best 4-wheel drives I’ve ever been in. Amazingly smooth ride through some of the crazy places we drove.
Camels everywhere.
They say these camels cost between two and three thousand dollars per copy. If that is so, on this day alone I must have seen between one and two thousand camels, that’s millions of dollars worth of stinking beast.
Another “convenience store” in the middle of nowhere.
The soldiers lined up, making these shopkeepers happy.
But like good businessmen, they didn’t bother the woman when there were people buying.
They had ice-cold soft drinks!
Which we bought.
And then we headed back into the desert.
Winds that whipped up the desert left a thick salt on the lips.

 

 
Back at base camp, where a Merlin helicopter dropped off soldiers.

 

And later that night, while all were asleep, I made a few photos.
At home in the Iraqi desert, with the glow of Iran in the distance.

On the next and final dispatch, we meet up with a true Bedouin, and another man who tries to sell us a sheep.

 

 

 

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