Death or Glory III of IV
Queen’s Royal Lancers
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.
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.
“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.
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.
On the next and final dispatch, we meet up with a true Bedouin, and another man who tries to sell us a sheep.