A short journey with an American Army unit, at war
Part I of II
Reality in Iraq
Gunshots ring out at three in the morning as I write these first sentences. Gunshots, providing muse and meter for this dispatch home to America. Gunshots, three of them. The war is close.
All of the more than one hundred photos in this dispatch were taken in proximity to the three main structures visible in this photo. In the left background, smokestacks bellow columns of soot into the air. In the middle is the Church, amazingly unscathed in the middle of a war zone, and slightly to the right of that, in the background, is a minaret the enemy has used as a fighting position.
This shooting perch appears in numerous photos in the series, and in the photos where it cannot be seen, it’s always close. The 1-4 Cavalry from Fort Riley, Kansas, likely will spend the next year—and probably more—in proximity to the cross, the minaret and the smokestacks.
Most of the families in the vicinity have fled. People are murdered nearby every day, and during just one of the days I was with 1-4 Cavalry, they reported finding three murder victims. The Iraqi Police and our soldiers told me that murders are down since the security plan began, yet our people still found fourteen human bodies over the period of one week. The enemy kills entire families including small children.
On these empty streets it becomes clear that the war that began in March 2003 has been lost to rampant crime, civil war and the sundry insurgencies that have shorn the Iraqi fabric. But while our fire brigades pour up from Kuwait into Iraq, and while our allies pull out one by one, we are reinvading Iraq with not a second wave but a “surge” of brigade after brigade barreling up IED-laced highways. Ten thousand more troops, then ten thousand more, then maybe ten thousand more again. And those troops who are already here will stay longer than planned. Then longer than planned, again. (One way to get more troops into Iraq is to stop letting them go home. The announcement to extend current deployments was made after I wrote this dispatch.)
People talk of an Army breaking under the strain, but while there remains a sliver of hope that Iraq might avoid conflagration into full-scale genocide, out here, where bones splinter and flesh really does burn, there is a kind of clarity. And on these empty streets, a practiced eye regards the slivers of hope that are strewn among all the shards of broken glass.
The latest group of professional soldiers I had the honor of accompanying was the 1-4 Cavalry from Fort Riley, Kansas. They opened their doors in Baghdad and wanted me to tell the people at home the good, the bad and the ugly. They didn’t hold back; they provided plenty of all three. In one neighborhood where residents have been subject to a methodical slaughter, our people found an abandoned Christian college that had already proved itself the proverbial island in the storm.
The Pontifical Babel College, its name so suggestive of all things Iraq—Babel, the Tower of Babel, Babylon, Babylonia—a place where the meaning of words evaporates almost as soon as they are spoken into the dry desert air. The 1-4 Cavalry would spend the next few days transforming it into COP Amanche, a place where the actions of soldiers conveyed the meaning of their presence and where a practiced eye reads the reactions of civilians as glints and flashes of what could be.
Captain Cook led the raid, and he answered every question, though I tried to stay out of his way. He had a mission to run. Our people and Iraqi forces would soon have a base in the neighborhood, from which they could launch totally rested without notice to the enemy. This would be a new problem for the enemy who wouldn’t see the humvees coming from a mile away. The local people could now answer the murderers among them by telling the Americans and the Iraqi forces.
We launched on the raid, which provided plenty of exercise but thankfully no killing. We returned to the college after sunrise.
When we came back into the library, a soldier was awake and up on a ladder. A company commander, maybe it was Captain Cook, asked something like, “What are you doing?”
“Looking for something to read, sir.”
“Nope. This doesn’t belong to us. Get down from there and leave the books alone.”
“Yes sir,” and the young soldier crawled down.
And there was one, more contemporary: Iraq: Military Victory, Moral Defeat. Published in Kansas in 1991. I opened the book and began reading about our first war with Iraq:
Standing in the dark library, I wondered if the people who studied and taught at this place had said a prayer before they left, beseeching God to protect their school, their books, their sanctuary.
On the roof one night, American artillery boomed through darkness and distance, and then after a long pause, far in a different direction, an orange flash appeared, and finally a small rumble, and then more.
Car bombs that folks at home can see on the news, and read about in the papers —‘More than 50 Killed in Baghdad Attack Today,’ ‘32 Killed in Baghdad Car Bombing,’ ‘At Least 40 Victims in Latest Iraq Bombing’—can be heard from the college.
Some soldiers wonder how many booms of death they hear over the course of a year—it’s next to impossible to keep an accurate count; explosions come from so many places here. Drifting into the smell of fine books in that library, there might have been a shudder from those shelves. Over the course of the war, the rumbles and crackles of thousands of human deaths must have coursed through these books. On the first night, after the raid, a chill from sweaty clothes caused me to shiver as I fell asleep hungry on the library floor.
End of part one.
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