I am back in Baghdad, having driven with Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger more than 1,200 miles up and down Iraqi roads over a ten-day period. CSM Mellinger’s direct boss is now General David Petraeus, and although the general has only been commanding the war in Iraq for three weeks, changes he’s made are already apparent. More on that during subsequent dispatches.
In a place where a single day could sometimes make an interesting book, I often go days without writing a word because I am out with soldiers running missions. When I return to base, reality is not respectful to readers or writers, and many important dispatches will never be published simply because I was unable to get internet connections. For the soldiers and their families who wonder why I never published something about this or that mission, or never published even a single photo of a good unit I did a mission with, the breakdown is most often an internet connection that does not work. Full stop.
Today, the logistics challenges entailed in finding a suitable place to live and work (in Baghdad) afford only about one hour for this quick overview of my experiences in the past couple of weeks.
Often the most dangerous places in Iraq are at the front gates of bases where suicide attackers roll in. Outside the wire—and often inside the wire—is bad-guy country. A block away from a base might as well be a hundred miles away. We rolled out in humvees for what would be about a 1,225 mile trip inside Iraq, and another portion to Germany and back.
On the 18th, we drove from Baghdad to Ramadi for a “Transfer of Authority” from the 1st Brigade 1st Armored Division, to the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Geraldo Rivera was there. He’s got a cool mustache. Monte Morin of Stars & Stripes was there. Monte’s a serious war correspondent. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno was there. Odierno is a serious general who runs a huge portion of this war. Next time Odierno comes on the news, it can be good to stop and listen.
Leaving Ramadi, some of the soldiers couldn’t get over Geraldo’s cool mustache. Many soldiers joke about Geraldo, while others greatly like him, but not even Bruce Willis can approach the cult status of Chuck Norris for combat soldiers. Soldiers love Chuck.
That same afternoon, we drove from Ramadi to Balad, bomb craters pocking the route like mile markers. In fact, for the entire 1,225 miles, the only constant was the bomb craters, those that had already happened and those waiting for the right vehicle to trigger them into existence. Both kinds carry the specter of instant or prolonged death, like a stowaway passenger with a suspicious cough. But in war, that passenger is more of a mascot, so CSM Mellinger was “walking the line” like he always does: out there with the warfighters. One of the highest ranking soldiers in Iraq spends more time on the roads than practically any young soldier.
With the odometer running over many embeds, Mellinger has taken me about 4,000 miles (total) up and down Iraqi roads, visiting units from north to south, east to west, showing that the military truly opens their doors to writers who will stick it out. They don’t even have to like you: my fights with the Army are well-known, yet they continue to open their doors. There’s a lesson in there. I wrote that Iraq was in a civil war shortly after covering the first elections. I wrote about commanders who did poorly, and ISF units that couldn’t shoot straight, and I wrote about the veneer of victory in Afghanistan cracking under the weight of a poppy-fueled Taliban resurgence. Yet they still let me in.
It’s a reminder of why I am so proud of my country, despite our many problems. It’s also a caution about why we must stick with our people who have been mostly abandoned at war. I understand the position of the journalists. Especially the ones who get blown up or shot at fairly regularly, but the informed interest of ordinary Americans is critical to the outcome of this war. And the truth is that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom rarely (if ever) see a writer, are abandoned by default.
In Balad, we stopped at Anaconda, where many of our dead and wounded are lifted out. We accompanied a C-17 medevac flight straight to Landstuhl, Germany. On the jet to Germany were many wounded soldiers. Some seriously. One soldier was dying. About thirty of his pals had come to the hospital in Balad to say goodbye. Everyone knew he would not survive. I’ll have to write about that flight with the details the topic warrants, as time permits, but sufficient for this is that the care was outstanding. However, when the Washington Post recently exposed serious shortcomings on the stateside aspects of care, the reports seemed to confirm conversations I’ve had with some wounded veterans last year.
There’s a lot of talk back at home that morale among American forces is low here. While writing this, I called Rich Oppel from the New York Times, who is in Baghdad, to ask him how morale looked from his vantage. Rich said that a lot of the soldiers are not happy with the extensions of their tours, something I have heard soldiers complain about also. However, I watch morale very closely. More closely than all else. Low morale in a particular unit can be the result of poor leadership in that unit, or just not getting mail, for instance. But gauging morale is not a simple affair of asking a few soldiers. A person has to live with them across Iraq. Having done so, my opinion is that overall troop morale is good to high. (If their morale could be bottled, it would probably would sell like crack, then be outlawed.)
During this latest loop around, we visited American and Iraqi soldiers, and people in very different kinds of locations. Most of the things I saw, heard and smelled will never find their way into any particular dispatch. But they will be added to the near mountain of background facts that shape the context that allows me to speak with a little authority. Just a little. If morale starts to sag, I will be one of the very first to know. I’ll know it even before most of the troops know it. And if I see morale sagging, I’ll write about it.
Many “reliable sources” talk about the unreliability of the various Iraqi Security Forces (a blanket term for Army, Police, Border Patrol and other groups.) Some of the ISF clearly are a dangerous part of the problem. On a joint American-Iraqi compound call FOB McHenry, some Iraqis were apparently fiddling with some explosives about a week earlier. Apparently they made one of those little “mistakes,” the kind that shattered their trailer and rocked the American side of the compound. Four Iraqi soldiers were killed and one was wounded, demonstrating the rationale for the policy which actually prohibited their having explosives on base. Apparently they were trying to kill someone, but nobody is sure who the actual target was. Several days after our soldiers thought they had it all cleaned up, they found another leg. The rest of the Iraqi unit disappeared. This would appear to be a major setback if we panned over and focused on the incident, but in context it’s just another day at war.
We got on a helicopter for a short ride, and when we landed we watched the live video from one of our spy planes as it beamed down the carnage of a bomb (ours? theirs?) in the road that apparently detonated near some Iraqi civilians. The body of one adult lay on the road, and a child had clearly lost a leg. The Iraqi forces did not seem to be hurrying to take the child away.
Soon we drove to Baquba, where I had spent months in 2005. Today Baquba is a hardcore battleground. These Iraqi soldiers and police were preparing for a live-fire exercise conducted by American soldiers just outside FOB Gabe. I’ve heard many people claim that putting small groups of Americans out with Iraqis is suicidal for the Americans, but that’s just uninformed talk. (In fact, about half the people living with me in a tent in Baghdad are Iraqis.) There are definitely ISF people who will kill us, but they seem to be the exception. If they were the rule, I would have been dead at least two years ago; I am frequently either alone with armed ISF or am with American soldiers and we are vastly outnumbered by ISF, yet I have never been attacked by ISF. (Not on purpose, anyway. There have been a few “friendly fire” incidents but I never got shot and they always apologized.)
During the live fire training (yes, that’s a loaded assault rifle and the Iraqi soldier is running by me to shoot targets), a massive firefight erupted not far away. One of those firefights where there is so much shooting that all the shots sound like one very long shot that can last for a whole minute.
The American and Iraqi soldiers just kept training while the firefight roared and ebbed away. There were the sounds of mortars landing in the distance. During a mission maybe a month ago, I was with CSM Mellinger and we were “moving to contact” (meaning moving into a firefight in this case) and there were some explosions. His gunner said something like, “IEDs!” And Mellinger responded with something like, “Shut up and keep the comms clear. Those were just RPGs.” Turns out, Mellinger was right. And during this fight in Baquba, Mellinger was timing the seconds between mortar impacts while watching the live-fire training I was photographing. (This is like Alice in Wonderland sometimes.)
Finally, we loaded up the humvee and drove away from Baquba, through the middle of where the firefight had just occurred maybe thirty minutes earlier. Shell cases littered the ground, and we plied our way to the end of that particular journey, back to Baghdad, where I would spend the next several days attempting to publish a single word.