- Published: Monday, 18 June 2007 00:00
Death or Glory IV of IV
Few things are as reliably deceptive as appearance. If one of our jet pilots must eject, he might land out here among someone’s camels. I recall an officer talking about one of our helicopters crashing in Mosul, where local Iraqis were the first to the scene, and tried to help our people. Of course, sometimes the opposite occurs. The point is these people who live different lives and have different religions are not all out here plotting ways to kill us.
In journeys I made before the war, to places like India, Nepal, Tibet and China, most of the people I encountered seemed to think about us just as often as we think about them: practically never. Most of the peoples of the world are living simply, and simply living. Or trying to. They do not aspire to map and explore the depths of the seas, or to tease the secrets out of quarks and quasars. Most people in the world cannot read. Many languages have no alphabets. No dictionaries. Many peoples have no access to libraries, museums or cultural institutions. Most haven’t time to care about geo-politics.
But when war begins, usually caused by big people for big reasons—be it money, power, religious crusade or jihad—native peoples such as the Kampas in Tibet suddenly become important to big people. Most don’t appreciate the new status and the disruption and danger it brings.
Take the Bedouin. Suddenly, what they think of us is important. Even very important.
Arbitrary borders of Iran and Iraq mean nothing to many of these people. But rest assured that collectively, in their wanderings, they know everything that goes on here.
There is no way for our people to just “melt into the desert” unnoticed. The battle here, as General Petraeus keeps saying, is for the people. Whoever wins the people will hold the greater influence Iraq, and therefore the region. Soldiers, be they from Scotland or Scottsdale, come out here and battle for the sentiments or business sense of the people. Soldiers, who only months ago were perhaps drinking beers in London pubs, and who speak only English, who’ve been taught to shoot straight and to blow things up, now are learning to win battles without firing shots.
It is being done, at least to some degree, because it has to be done. Over the course of the past couple of years, our own military has had to quickly adjust its mindset.
The Brits I ran with down in Maysan Province were good at stopping to talk with locals. These British soldiers had just lost two buddies in an ambush almost exactly 72 hours ago, yet they had treated the locals, even at the ambush site, with respect. Some Iraqis have told me that we treat them too well—that we should wipe out a village after such an ambush—and truly that must be tempting at times. But we didn’t come to Iraq to wipe out villages, and should it come down to that, it’s time to go home.
When we saw this Bedouin family, the British officer ordered the vehicles to be parked far away from the house, weapons pointing away from their home. He didn’t approach with a platoon of soldiers, but only with his interpreter. He left his helmet and rifle back at the truck, and carried only a pistol on his leg. As he walked up, the Bedouin man walked out to greet him.
Greetings done, the British officer introduced me, saying I am a photographer, and asked if it was okay for me to be there. The Bedouin man welcomed us all in. I asked if I could photograph, and he answered through the interpreter that I could photograph the children but not the women. The women stayed hidden; I have no idea how many wives there were.
The Bedouin welcomed us into the tent. He owned a great herd of camels. Though he seemed poor to us, the interpreter said the Bedouin was very rich, and could sell his camels and buy a big house and a car and live the big time. According to Iraqis, in addition to their simple toughness and great fighting spirit, this is part of the mysterious allure of Bedouins. Many of them are fantastically wealthy compared to others in the region, yet they wander the desert, following the grass, breaking down their tents and moving in the desert sea. What I would give to know the stories they tell!
The Bedouin said he didn’t need anything. He said he had never met British or Americans before, but that he heard the British were good to the people. I sensed he was telling the truth. As the conversation wandered, I wanted to make many photos, but did not want to insult the Bedouin. He was not the camera hound that so many Iraqi police and soldiers are. When I showed him one of the photos, he said he looked old, and he smiled and held it up for the women to see. I never heard their voices or saw the women. They were behind a screen.
Though he had declined any candies or other types of items, he mentioned the tire on his motorcycle was flat. It seemed like perfectly fine desert etiquette to ask for help if you have an honest need, so he came right out and asked of the Brits had anything that could fix the tire. They searched the vehicles but had nothing to repair the flat.
When we left, the Bedouin walked us away from his home, saying it was not polite for him to say goodbye to guests without walking them out.
As we walked away, the Iraqi interpreter kept shaking his head, saying he cannot understand the Bedouins, saying that man was probably a millionaire even in American dollars, yet he lives out in the desert, in a tent, wandering around. The interpreter kept on the subject for several minutes, unable to reconcile or understand what was going on inside that Bedouin head.
Eventually coming to another man. This man was less manly than the Bedouin and seemed almost effete. He didn’t hide his women and didn’t care if I photographed them. He was a shepherd, but not with camels. He had a great herd of sheep, but he seemed primarily interested in money.
The man tried to sell the officer a sheep, and they began to haggle the price. The officer said he had been to India and would haggle with rickshaw drivers over a few rupees, and he enjoyed the sport of the haggle. I said I’d been to India and still think about that place every day, even while on combat missions. Nothing I’ve seen in Iraq compares to the great adventure of India, but I did not haggle hard with rickshaw drivers. It’s a common sight to see travelers haggling ten minutes for the equivalent of ten cents with a man who might make a dollar a day. For most it’s not about the money, but about the “principle” of being charged more as a traveler. For this officer, it was about the art and the sport, which Indians and Iraqis alike seem to enjoy. But it was ironic to be standing so close to the imaginary border with Iran with a British officer who’d also haggled in India.
The geo-political irony of an American writer standing with a British officer haggling with an Iraqi shepherd just near the Iranian border which borders Afghanistan—where Brits and Americans are fighting, and opium is involved and there is a border with China—which borders Pakistan which borders India which borders Burma . . . that’s enough . . . and that British people see this as an American war they got sucked into, was nearly traumatically humorous. Our tracks just keep overlapping and following us. A slight smile was nearly unavoidable.
The man said he knew where our camp was and would walk it over. The officer said it was much too far, but the man said (through the interpreter), “No, it’s just over there,” and said everyone knew where it was, and that if we loaded into the trucks and drove back to camp, he could beat us to camp on foot by taking shortcuts.
While we waited, one of the young British soldiers dug a hole, and then they partially buried another soldier in the hole, and then several of the young soldiers began making fun of each other’s accents, which turned into a sand-throwing contest, and then some rough, full-contact wrestling as young soldiers duked it out on the ground, and finally got up laughing, dusting each other off, waiting for the helicopter.
When the Merlin landed, I tried to get a good photo, and that’s when I made the unfortunate discovery that Merlins have a LOT more down blast than Blackhawks. Luckily I was wearing body armor or I might have (seriously) been a casualty from the rocks. I couldn’t believe how hard they were hitting my armor as I hit the ground, but at least I got a photo. The pilots must have thought I was dense. (I will never do that again.)
And that was how my final mission with the British ended. An excellent and professional group of soldiers, doing their best under bad circumstances. They were every bit as good as I had heard.
As these words go to print, I am entering into major combat along with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda.