A short journey with an American Army unit, at war
Part I of II
From the Vatican to Paris to Baghdad, we cross the heart and seek refuge in hope. I came across these photos in a Christian college in Baghdad. Faces of Iraq we never see.
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.
Baghdad as seen from the roof of the Pontifical Babel College for Philosophy and Theology, where the 1-4 Cavalry from Fort Riley, Kansas, have set up a Combat Outpost, or “COP.” The soldiers from 1-4 Cav have named it COP Amanche (Apache + Comanche).
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.
The minaret, riddled with bullet holes.
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.
The streets near the base of the minaret are mostly deserted.
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.
When I first reported more than two years ago, back in February of 2005, that Iraq was in a civil war, the condition was painfully obvious. Nobody seemed to believe that lone and lonely voice then, and there was a price for speaking out. More than two years later, into April of 2007, these streets are empty. The people who could leave have mostly gone. Many of the wealthy and the educated have abandoned Iraq. The lights rarely come on here.
Street empty except for palm shadows.
Street after empty street.
While markets thrive in some neighborhoods, others have been abandoned.
Some of the soldiers are reading a series of books called Left Behind, which they say depicts what it would be like to be left behind here. The leap is natural; many Iraqis have truly been left behind, much as occurred during other brain drains in places such as East Germany after the end of World War II. If those left behind lack the capacity or will to run their lands, entropy will become the new social denominator, as secular denominations become factional demarcations.
Twitches of a national life: a lone Iraqi flag in the wind. A small sign that hope has not been entirely abandoned.
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.
The college was abandoned, as if the people were beamed up and out somewhere without warning. In fact, they were warned to leave with death threats, issued by people who make good on death threats every day in this city.
A painting hanging on a wall inside the college was one of several renditions of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, seen by some as a symbol of man’s hubris before God.
The destruction of the Tower of Babel is described in Genesis 11:1-9 as the event which gave birth to all the human languages, and the vexing problems of translation and miscommunication.
Post-It notes were left sticking on desks. The clocks all stopped at different times, but all had stopped as dust settled.
Pages in calendars all showed June, 2006.
The hand of civil war stopped Christian calendars in this college. I called one of the church officials in California who told me the people moved to Irbil, in the Kurdish north.
The phones were still off their hooks, as they’d been left just before the last person walked out of the office.
It might sound so distant, my writing these words from Baghdad (and now Basra), but when I contacted church officials in California, they were happy for any news of the college. These people are very real and reachable. They have a website
explaining their mission and facilities.
The Cardinal’s portrait hung undisturbed in a prominent place.
This poster of the Pope was printed before news of a quotation he referenced in a speech, about a purported violent core to Islam. His words sparked death threats, church burnings and violent protests the world ’round. There were apologies and overtures for interfaith dialogue. Meanwhile, the 1-4 Cavalry from Fort Riley, Kansas began moving into the Babel College just after midnight of 25 March, the morning of 26 March 2007.
The college needed little more than a dusting and a new country around it, and classes could have begun the same day.
Classrooms were ready for lectures, meetings and trainings.
Only the echoes were left behind.
After checking Babel College for boobytraps, the officers and sergeants of 1-4 got to work with their men. The first job was securing against attack.
Everybody was working. From private to sergeant to captain and major, our soldiers sweated, hauling in sandbags (sometimes dust bags) by the thousands.
Stacking sandbags in the windows, soldiers from the 1-4 plan to live in this neighborhood for at least a year.
They seldom stopped working in the days I spent with them.
Putting stretchers to use carrying more sandbags.
The soldiers cleared the kitchen, dining hall, classrooms, offices, and library, checking for ambushes of any sort, including hidden explosives, but nothing was found other than a small college that had been. The sanctuary and altar were intact.
There were no guards and the college was filled with expensive equipment.
Modern office facilities, with big copiers, fax machines, brand-new computers, a beautiful library. Nothing had been disturbed.
Headphones resting on a monitor in the language lab.
In a land where looters steal screws and rip copper wire from walls, and where warfare was literally raging around this place with gunfire and bombs everyday, bodies in the streets, the place was untouched.
There was even paper in the copy machine.
The Babel College kitchen was equipped with modern conveniences.
And a library like I haven’t seen in a long while . . .
. . . periodicals, journals, magazines in a dozen languages . . .
. . . paperbacks . . . hardcovers . . . theology, philosophy, history . . .
. . . and for some, a title that seemed especially relevant.
It could have been a university in the States. General Petraeus got a PhD back at Princeton, but will his ideas work here?
After immediate security, our soldiers’ second job was to secure the valuables into the library and begin an inventory.
Books in Arabic, English, French, German and other languages. Thousands of books. On that first night, as our soldiers secured the college, they let me photograph everything they did.
It wasn’t enough to just secure the place. LTC James Crider, commander of the 1-4 Cav, was serious about showing to the owners that their college would be cared for during this war and about aligning the actions of his soldiers with the statements they make. By 27 March, valuables were being locked down.
Our people had developed some intelligence about a couple of murderers nearby, and during the first night the commander asked if I wanted to go on the raid. I was exhausted, but it’s hard to turn our soldiers down when they are just as exhausted but still moving forward.
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.
Captain Cook and other commanders checked their men. Except for soldiers who were pulling security, the men were sprawled everywhere.
Combat soldiers can sleep anywhere: leaning curled in hallway steps, with bricks as pillows. With practically nobody here to tell the stories of their hard work, sacrifice and heartening professionalism, we have left our soldiers behind in this war.
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.
I went back to the library for more photos.
Many interesting books, such as India in Early Greek Literature. I’d spent much time in libraries in India, searching out clues to mysteries.
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.