Michael's Dispatches

Bird’s Eye View


In fact, there is a company TOC at the other end of the tent in which I now reside with a company called C-52. C-52 is the smallest company with only 54 men, who all live in this tent with a huge amount of weapons, and great combat experience to back them up [to whit: Superman].

The simplicity of some TOCs was noted when I wrote about how the 1-4 CAV transformed an abandoned college into COP Amanche in one Baghdad neighborhood.

The next highest level is the battalion TOC, which consists of many radios enabling communication with and between all companies, helicopters, jets, laterally (to other battalions) and vertically (up to brigade). Often a few monitors hang on the walls, maybe a flat-screen television normally dialed to a news channel, and one with a live feed from the battalion’s UAV.

Some battalions have tiny hand-launched UAVs that buzz around. This Raven used to fly over Baqubah.

Raven launch over Baquba during February 2005.

Back in 2005, soldiers in Baqubah told me the story of a little Raven crashing in Baqubah. They recounted how insurgents danced around holding the Raven’s little wings, and even got on television as if they had shot down a U2.

Increasingly, battalions use Shadows, which fly higher and provide a great deal more information. The enemy in Iraq has learned that when he can see a Shadow, the next thing he might see is death. Shadows are unarmed, but the information they beam home can be used to conduct a vast array of attacks. We see Shadows launching from their catapults or buzzing overhead every day that weather permits.


Often, on the TOC screen next to the Shadow screen, will be a down-link from a Predator. The Predator can be used as an eye, but it can also launch missiles. There might also be a down-link from an F-16, which can deliver devastating attacks in addition to eyes from above.

Yet another screen will show “SIGACTS.”

At battalion level, maybe ten soldiers sit in front of these and other screens. One soldier will be the S-2, or intelligence. Another will monitor counter battery radar. Another will communicate with those who operate the UAV, which often is launched and controlled from elsewhere. The battalion can “task” the UAV, but an outside unit actually maintains, launches and flies it. The more high-flying UAVs might be operated from back in the United States.

The larger the unit, the more control stations in the TOC. Whereas company-level TOCs generally are limited to little more than a radio and a map, those at the battalion level are more like nerve centers which actually help coordinate battles, hence the person in charge is called the “Battle Captain.”

The next level up is the brigade and the thirty or so officers and soldiers at a brigade TOC will be clustered around computers and monitors at different stations, often three rows deep. In something reminiscent of the early NASA days, the Battle Captain sits up front in the first row, with computer screens wrapped around cockpit-like. At the next highest level up, the Division HQ, the TOC really looks like a NASA control center.

Shadow ready to be loaded onto catapult (background) in Baqubah

On Saturday morning about 0300 0n 23 June, a jet roared low and loud over the tents. Some soldiers rolled out of their cots to the floor, thinking it was “incoming.” I lay there in the tent looking into the darkness. The night was quiet for now. A few minutes later, I heard a Shadow launch from its catapult in the distance, sounding like a weed eater flying into the ink. Something was up. But that’s normal here in Baqubah for 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I couldn’t sleep, so rolled out of bed and pulled on my boots.

Michael Gordon, a reporter from the New York Times, covered the first days of Operation Arrowhead Ripper from the ground with the 3-2 SBCT, seeing firsthand both the fighting on the street as well as the planning behind the scenes.

Units in Iraq that aren’t fighting much seem more intent on keeping their TOCs top-secret. I’ve seen exceptions, but as a general rule, access seems to increase with action, and in the case of 3-2 SBCT, embedded journalists are given full access 24/7. Journalists actually are given more access than they possibly can handle. They can stay all day and night, coming and going as suits their needs. They can go off on missions, and then come back to watch from the TOC as missiles and bombs splash across the television screen just like on those History Channel shows, only here, a few seconds later the TOC rattles from the blasts.

So I walked into the TOC at about 0320 that Saturday morning, and there was a video feed coming in from an F-16. Crosshairs were steady on a house the pilot was circling. We could sometimes hear the jet as it orbited over the Baqubah. The Shadow was circling the same house but from a lower altitude.

“What’s up with the house?” I asked.
“An element took SAFIRE [small arms fire] and the enemy ran into that house.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Trying to decide. Probably bomb it.”

Bomb it,” he said. Sounded simple. Question is, with what? Commanders have myriad options. Some weapons are within their direct authority to use, while other weapons require higher permission. Rules of Engagement (ROE) constantly change, and in order not to tip the enemy, I’ll only talk about the ROE in a general sense. For the early days of operation Arrowhead Ripper, the ROE were relaxed, giving robust options further down the chain, with caveats to mitigate civilian deaths, which had been few.

The 3-2 is combat seasoned—many 3-2 soldiers have served three or more combat tours—but if such relaxed rules were extended to a brigade without a similar depth, the results might be muddier missions from commanders whose soldiers had either sticky trigger fingers, or were too quick on the draw. Either extreme could result in catastrophe.

A week after serious fighting began on 19 June, I watched as Michael Gordon of the New York Times and Alexandra Zavis of the Los Angeles Times tried to tally civilian deaths. After being out and seeing the battle firsthand, Gordon and Zavis were a few feet away from me, talking with Major Robbie Parke and comparing notes, trying to figure out the civilian deaths, and finally arriving at a consensus of about 7. Their earnestness was not an agenda-driven hunt for collateral damage victims. A number that low—and five of those deaths were from a single explosion that locals said had come from a US bomb—is almost unbelievable, considering the amount of firepower that had been used. Except when commanders have made avoiding civilian casualties a primary part of the battle plan, which is a basic tenet of counterinsurgency warfare. It’s hard to build civic relationships out of body parts.

I shot this photo near the northern city of Mosul in early 2007. A man disguised as a woman tried to enter a mosque. He was wearing a bomb. A guard grabbed him and the bomb exploded. Al Qaeda murders Iraqis every day in an attempt to widen the civil war.

The F-16 and Shadow both beamed down live images of the house where the terrorists had hidden after firing on US forces. Now was option time. Which weapon to use? There were so many choices: mortars, missiles, and cannons of various sorts, among others. With the enemy hiding in the building, an F-16 and a Shadow orbiting in the black above, both peering down on thermal mode, the Battle Captain asked the Air Force experts (the JTACs), what weapons the F-16 was carrying. As a JTAC started ticking off a long list, I was thinking, “How in the world do those little jets carry all that?” In fact, I believe they were reading down the list for two jets flying in the same package. They carry a mixture of weapons cross-loaded between the jets so that they will have the black magic needed for a likely situation.

In addition to the F-16’s bombs of various sorts, there was the MLRS rocket system dozens of miles away that had been precisely punching rockets through Baqubah rooftops for days. The MLRS had been flattening buildings that were rigged as giant bombs. There were the 155mm cannons on this base that can hit and flatten anything in Baqubah and beyond. The Apache helicopters could spin up with their rockets and cannons. Infantrymen could just roll in. Or tanks. Or Bradleys. Or Strykers. Even Humvees. The idea was to use just the amount of force to kill the enemy fighters, but leave everyone in the surrounds unscathed, if possible. If that was not possible, often they would simply not fire, but other times they would. Judgment call.

By about 0400, the Battle Captain had decided to use 120mm mortars. As a reference, if a 120mm were to land on a car, the car would be obliterated, but a 120mm would not be enough to flatten a decent house. The first round was shot, and the explosion left a black-hot thermal cloud on the two video screens. The impact looked hundreds of yards off target. Successive shots did not hone it, but got worse. It was starting to look like a turkey shoot, so the Battle Captain ordered the mortars to cease fire and refused to consider using the mortars again for that mission.

They discussed dropping a JDAM (a special type of bomb from one of the jets), but were worried about CD (collateral damage). The idea of a strafe run came up but that would likely cause even more CD, and so that idea was also nixed. Things sure look different from the comfort and safety of the TOC, even though the TOC is still so close to the battlefield that often the explosions can be felt from there. Still it’s like being a thousand miles away by comparison to being with the infantry in the dark and danger. (TOCs do get hit by rockets or mortars sometimes.)

The MLRS rockets and JDAMs were good enough to actually hit buried IEDs, and could easily take the house. The F-16 was carrying at least one concrete bomb—literally, just a bomb made from concrete, like throwing boulders at people—but a JTAC said, “We are not dropping a concrete bomb.” For some reason he didn’t want to just throw a rock. Personally, I don’t like to see bombs explode because it means we are still at war. But a strange feeling came over me: I wanted to see the F-16 drop a boulder on the people that shot at our guys. I knew if the rock hit them, the neighbors would be fine.

While they were discussing how best to kill the guys, the F-16 was running low on fuel. The jets flew low in a show of force and rumbled away. I walked to breakfast at 0515 while they were still plotting. I have no idea if they killed them and if they did, what method they finally settled on. But I know that when there is that kind of careful deliberation in the TOC, combined with excellent combat soldiers on the streets, numbers that otherwise would seem unbelievable are believable.

While standing in line at breakfast, I met Chris Elwer, a “Deuce Four” soldier I had known in Mosul in 2005. Back then, Chris was in recon, and we talked about his lost friends Adam Plumondore and Ben Morton. Chris still hunts or goes crabbing with “Plum’s” dad on weekends, and he said that Walt Gaya is trying to come over here as a photographer.

In the mornings after breakfast they hold the daily BUB (Battle Update Briefing) at the TOC, where the happenings of the last 24 hours and various important matters are discussed. The Safety Officer, Bob, says that although people should be treating their uniforms with permethrin to keep the bugs at bay (and they make you itch pretty badly if you don’t—I’m scratching right now), that permethrin can reduce the flame-resistant properties of Nomex. For those garments, the recommendation is to put the bug repellent on the skin and not on the Nomex.

At the end of Saturday’s briefing, Captain Pike showed a slide with a bird from Iraq, stating that birds are cool. When it was over, I told him that I am a birdwatcher, and that I’d even written about the birds I’d seen in Iraq. The Captain told me he goes birding every Sunday morning and invited me to join him at sunrise.

After the briefing, Safety Bob singled me out and quietly made sure I understood the danger of treating my Nomex. (They really look out for you here.) I told Bob that I’d put that in a dispatch so more people would know.

LTC Fred Johnson was about to head downtown in Baqubah to meet with Iraqi officials, so I tagged along. Iraq has a voucher-based food distribution system that predates the invasion, and hearkens back to the sanctions and trade restrictions Iraqis had to live with because of Saddam’s practices. Basically, there is one “food representative” for about every 200 families, and those families get vouchers to pickup food from local warehouses.

In Baqubah, the warehouse had been captured by al Qaeda—despots always seem to go for the food supply first—but the people here are not starving. Hefty Iraqis are everywhere. For instance, the grapes in Baqubah vineyards are as good as any I get at home. Very sweet and juicy. I was with 1-12 CAV yesterday and we got into a little fighting yesterday (16 July) while we were in a vineyard. The grapes were very sweet and juicy. As our folks clear the city of al Qaeda, the first thing people ask for is cigarettes, not food. Cigarettes were outlawed by AQI. They celebrate the routing of AQI by smoking and drinking cold water. (People say Al Qaeda also outlawed cold water, but I have no idea why.)

Meanwhile, the civil war continues to exert pressure here. As AQI is run off or bashed down, one of the larger concerns is that the Shia JAM militias will fill the power vacuum. Even as LTC Johnson and others were arranging food drop-offs in late June, the politics of whether to drop supplies to Sunni or Shia first became acute and gave rise to arguments. Soldiers don’t want to be seen as killing al Qaeda only to pump up JAM, which exists to “protect” Shia, usually by attacking Sunnis before they can attack first. Some months ago, a soldier told me that JAM reminds him of the KKK. I said “That’s strange; JAM reminds me of the KKK too, but I have no idea why.”

The morning of 23 June, the meetings between American officers and Iraqi officials in Baqubah are frustrating and long. The Iraqis—these Iraqis anyway—were putting far more energy into explaining why food distribution will not work than in finding ways to make it work. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help thinking that I hadn’t seen many skinny people in Iraq. The Red Crescent is in Baqubah to help, but it seems there is no emergency.

While the battle goes on just nearby, battalion commanders like LTC Mo Goins (who had lost a soldier days earlier) keep popping out of combat to attend civil meetings to keep nudging and whipping forward the momentum for getting things working again. There’s something odd about the way these commanders come in sweating and dirty, and grindlessly switch gears to talk diplomatically—and sometimes not-so diplomatically—about water distribution.

LTC Goins explained that his soldiers had delivered chlorine to a water plant, but they had a problem with farmers pumping water out of the Nahr Khraisan tributary, which comes out of the reservoir, much faster than it comes in. And when Al Qaeda recently blew up a bridge in Baqubah, the explosion also cut some important electrical wires that brought in current. (Much of the electricity in Diyala Province actually comes from Iran.)

What our people are trying to accomplish here is simple. Simple in the sense that a simply stated goal might be very hard to achieve. After vanquishing al Qaeda (that’s what the Iraqis here call them), the goal is to have no pause in the restoration of services. This is about mental inertia and psychology. The idea is to jump-start the people and facilitate their taking responsibility for their communities.

After the initial invasion of Iraq, things seemed to just stop in most places. Many people held their breath. We paused. The type of folks who read these words are more likely to know the rest of the story. But up in Nineveh in 2003, a commander made his first priority sparking some hope during that moment of opportunity, and the people in Mosul made it their Job One to get their university up and running again.

Even though LTC Goins must leave the meeting and return to the field, each day he (along with other commanders) has to put his mind to work on how to administer Baqubah, and he knows one of his problems is water. Solve water, and lots of things can be carried forward on that momentum. (Actually, solving the fuel issue comes first; many of the water pumps and generators depend on the fuel, as do the vehicles, so they are concentrating on the fuel issue while prepping the water issue.)

The idea is to get the Iraqis to run their own cities but most of the old leaders are gone, and the new ones are like throwing babies to cow udders. Many just don’t know what to do, and in any case, most of them have no natural instinct for it. So our soldiers are mentoring Iraqi civil leaders, which is a huge education for me because I get to sit in on the meetings. The American leaders tell me what they are up to, which amounts for free Ph.D. level instruction in situ: just have to be willing to be shot at. (The education a writer can get here is unbelievable.) Meeting after meeting—after embeds in Nineveh, Anbar, Baghdad and Diyala—I have seen how American officers tend to have a hidden skill-set. Collectively, American military leaders seem to somehow intuitively know how to run the mechanics of a city.
Watch video of LTC Johnson in action at a meeting with Iraqi Army officials to plan for the delivery and distribution of diesel fuel, another commodity formerly under al Qaeda control.

I have wondered now for two years why is it that American military leaders somehow seem to naturally know what it takes to run a city, while many of the local leaders seem clueless. Over time, a possible answer occurred, and that nudge might be due to how the person who runs each American base is referred to as the “Mayor.” A commander’s first job is to take care of his or her forces. Our military is, in a sense, its own little country, with city-states spread out all around the world. Each base is like a little city-state. The military commander must understand how the water, electricity, sewerage, food distribution, police, courts, prisons, hospitals, fire, schools, airports, ports, trash control, vector control, communications, fuel, and fiscal budgeting for his “city” all work. They have “embassies” all over the world and must deal diplomatically with local officials in Korea, Germany, Japan and many dozens of other nations. The U.S. military even has its own space program, which few countries have.
In short, our military is a reasonable microcosm of the United States—sans the very important business aspect which actually produces the wealth the military depends on. The requisite skill-set to run a serious war campaign involves a subset of skills that include diplomacy and civil administration.

We live far better on base here in Baqubah than many people who are living downtown (though there are some very nice homes), and it’s not all about money. Not at all and not in the least. When Americans move into Iraqi buildings, the buildings start improving from the first day. And then, the buildings near the buildings start to improve. It’s not about the money, but the mindset. The Greatest Generation called it “the can-do mentality.” It’s a wealth measured not only in dollars, but also in knowledge. The burning curiosity that launched the Hubble flows from that mentality, and so does the revenue stream of taxpayer dollars that funded it. Iraq is very rich in resources, but philosophically it is impoverished. The truest separation between cultures is in the collective dreams of their people.

When I listen to people in these civil administration meetings inventorying the obstacles, giving detailed and passionate speeches about why the things that need to happen cannot, often next comes the tired lament, “You can do these things because America is rich.” This seems like a chicken-egg argument, but it’s not. They will stare at you like a bird. Blinking. Blinking. As if waiting for an answer to a question that seems to forever loop back on itself. “But you are rich! You put a man on the moon!”

When a person holds an egg in hand, the question seems answered. And when a person holds a chicken, the question seems answered.


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