All For Nothing: An assignment to Iraq yields more questions than answers.
Thursday, January 29, 2004
This officer stands up to get her prize. She’s wearing a sweatsuit and a gun in the mess hall with a hundred or so other soldiers at a place called Camp Muleskinner, a cavalry fort on the poverty-stricken eastside of Baghdad.
It is Christmas Eve morning and her fellow troopers all clap for her. They’ve just finished a three-mile foot race they’re calling the Jingle Bell Run, which began in the mud at seven-something that morning with saccharine Kenny G holiday music wafting creepily over the start line.
Muleskinner is not a very big place; you can walk around it in under an hour and run it in less. Although they depart regularly in menacing convoys, the Americans spend most of their time confined to the interior, while outside the thick 10-foot high concrete-and-razorwire fence, local Iraqis go about their business. Farmers work the fields only yards away from a dirt perimeter track patrolled by tanks, watched by paired-off soldiers in sandbagged gun posts. Off the eastern wall runs Canal Road, a busy stream of Iraqi traffic honking, speeding past Camp Muleskinner and further to the north, speeding past the shattered, twice-bombed and abandoned UN headquarters.
All the cars and diesel trucks make for some awful air. And some Iraqi some time ago apparently got a hold of one of those Boss Hogg sing-song car horns and started a fad—now every other truck lets out a squeal every few minutes.
But for all of this, it is peaceful here compared to Fallujah or Ramadi. As of Christmas Eve, Muleskinner had not yet been hit, but the night before, someone just off the road shot a rocket up between a pair of scout helicopters, missing both. They skimmed in low, invisible without lights, back over the wall and into the safety of the base.
This female officer though, she stands up to get her prize in her sweaty running gear, and she might have passed for any other runner at the end of any other holiday race, on Cape Cod or Newport Beach or Lake Michigan, except she wears a 9mm pistol in a shoulder holster with two loaded mags tucked in her underarm. Having been in Iraq a week, this was not a new sight to me, but it was still novel. Americans go nowhere in Iraq without plenty of weapons. So it was a given that here, even in her Nikes, she would be ready to shoot, while her neighbors back home stumbled through the holidays, sitting in traffic at the mall on Christmas Eve, oblivious but for a quick sound bite about one or two or three American soldiers killed.
That morning being at a place like Muleskinner was starting to seem normal—sort of—with the exception of the M-16s and M249s stacked under each table during breakfast, and except for women that looked like my sister packing heat. There was a football game playing on each of the widescreen televisions, hot coffee, Christmas decorations on the walls and post-race Americans cheering for finishers in the female-23-to-27 or male over-40 brackets.
Being Christmas, the winners got holiday-type prizes. A gunner named Carlos sitting across the table won second place in his age group. One of his prizes was a T-shirt. Across the back it had a map of the Middle East printed over a US flag. Over his heart, a skull with two M-16s crossed beneath and the words “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” He’d had his eye on it at the camp store but took a pass. “I was going to buy it but it was too expensive,” he says. “Fifteen bucks.”
Carlos was excited and grateful. For whatever reason, it made me really sad. Maybe just because the holidays can be so depressing.
As a civilian journalist I just kept tripping over contradictions. The Americans want to leave but have to stay. When they’re told they can go they’re told they have to stay a little longer. The Iraqis hate having their nation occupied—which I understand after watching a couple of women wail when their home was mistakenly raided by an Army assault team in the middle of the night. But at the same time, they don’t want the Americans to leave, because, among other things, there’s the very real possibility of civil war, in which case you can expect a bloodbath. The Americans are spending millions to fix Iraqi schools while schools at home crumble. That old cliché about making the Air Force hold a bake sale so they can buy a bomber? The real thing.
The whole ordeal is called “Iraqi Freedom,” but America’s soldiers must stay behind walls or risk death and maiming if they step outside the gate.
The contradictions breed ambivalence. I’m a journalist who would like nothing more than to walk through a Baghdad neighborhood and ask questions, but to do so might mean some horrible thing for me, but something even worse for the Iraqi who talks to an American.
When people ask me about Iraq, I don’t know where to begin. So I tell them to ask me questions. Over the weekend I was asked to name the most telling thing I saw there. My answer, which I’ve written about in these pages, had to do with a bunch of little kids hurling rocks at the Americans who had rebuilt their school. But my answer didn’t seem to make a difference to the questioner, who had his mind made up about Iraq.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion but there’s so much misinformation flying around it’s hard to find traction anywhere. I saw Iraq firsthand and close-up and I still don’t know what version of history to trust.
As soon as you say the war could end up being good for Iraq because Saddam was a sinister thug, then you have to ask: what about North Korea? Or why didn’t we intervene in Rwanda? And if it’s good for Iraq that the US is there, I have to wonder what I could have said to a young Iraqi widow I met, whose husband was killed by a nervous soldier at a roadblock.
And if this war is about democracy, and democracy is inherently good, why does everything keep getting tied up in knots? Can you say something so simple, that it’s a place in terrible conflict and so it’s terribly conflicted? Would it be less so had George Bush not picked the fight in the first place? Do we need to be aggressive in this weird post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 era, which seems now to be infinite? Nothing makes sense. And that’s not just me saying that, but plenty of smart people who are there now.
There are no guarantees. At a certain point I just wanted to be sure I could get out, and I honestly wondered how I would if I missed my one shot at a seat on a cargo plane. Could I take a cab to Jordan?
After only a few days there, my Monterey life seemed like it was frozen on another planet. It felt as if getting back would be like getting the space rover onto Mars. That eerie, remote, ground-control-to-Major-Tom feeling only got worse watching the same football game my friends at home were watching.
Rules set down at home go out the window. As an embedded reporter I was with the Army the whole time, tagging along unarmed with armed Americans. Before leaving I’d been told to ditch the Army for a few days and find some non-governmental organizations, to go get a non-Army perspective. I did try. Before leaving I made the contacts, but by the time I got there, they had dried up. No one e-mailed me back. Forget using a telephone. After the UN got bombed, the NGOs went home.
Had I had a place to meet some peace organization in Baghdad, I would have had to rely on the kindness of local Iraqis to get there, have the meeting, and make it back to the American base. Do any reporters wander solo unarmed, I wondered? To carry a gun makes you a combatant, forfeiting your protection as a neutral observer. But it was already well known that reporters were being picked off as “soft targets.”
I knew the non-embedded journalists hired drivers, translators and armed guards, but I had no reliable contacts, and there is no Coast Weekly bureau in Baghdad. Even the big shots broke the rules. While I was there it was disclosed that a veteran New York Times reporter was carrying his own pistol, prompting another correspondent there to ponder online whether he should too. Again, goodbye rules.
In my case, every humvee ride began with the questions, “Do you know how to use a nine [9mm pistol]? Do you know how to use a 16 [M-16]?” The same instructions followed: “If you are the only one left, these are the radio codes for the medevac.” (I’ve still got the numbers scribbled on one of my notebooks.)
The soldiers did this as much for their protection as for mine, but they knew not to actually hand me a gun when we set out. The gun would just be there.
Journalists live with the awful reality that the worst things make the best stories. It’s part of the reason news media are despised by the public, called vultures and opportunists, and that never feels good if you just want to write good stories. But when your very appearance makes you a target, that rather cynical attitude about bad things happening to other people takes a doubly sickening, bitter and cynical twist. Call it the proper comeuppance.
I went there to write about whether Iraqis and Americans were communicating; I hooked up with the Civil Affairs unit through Monterey’s Defense Language Institute. But as it happens, the Army mostly relies on expensive contract translators. Without knowing Arabic myself, instead what I saw had more to do with two groups of people, one of which wanted to help but wanted to leave, and the other of which wanted the help and wanted the Americans to leave.
In the span of months, America’s mission in Iraq has degraded from toppling a regime to fighting an ugly guerilla war.
Whatever the motives of the Bush administration, its soldiers are being alienated from the Iraqi public. They are lured into retaliations and raids that humiliate families and spur cycles of resentment and revenge. While grotesque bombings slay unprotected Iraqis, Americans ring themselves with bomb-proof fortresses, compounding the resentment. It’s as simple as that.
After a while the whole thing just felt terrible. It had this twinge of illegality, as if, yes, it really is not right for the US to be there, and yes, there is something unseemly and internationally criminal about this occupation. There’s something creepy about American soldiers occupying Saddam’s former palaces, even if he was a bastard. Soldiers sleeping in old Republican Guard barracks are one thing, but there’s something even more unseemly about they fact that they’re using Saddam’s old prisons for captured insurgents—or even just captured citizens who have a pair of binoculars or a gun.
Hell, if the roles were reversed and the Iraqis occupied Monterey, that means everyone I know would be in some form of detention, and what kind of man would I be if I did nothing about it? The line between right and wrong was very clear, and at the same time very murky. Cop-out? Sorry.
Another female officer, also armed, told me at one point that when I got home, even though I was only there two weeks, it would all come down like a ton of bricks. Iraq was her fourth trip to a combat zone and maybe that’s why she was telling me this. She told me that after being in a place that is so unpredictable, where there’s a new story with each step, where you see people you want to help but want to kill you, and where people see you and want to help you but you want to kill them, where the threat of death makes you feel more alive, that in the absence of all that, this woman told me, ordinary life in America would be boring and depressing. That she would and I would feel nothing in the sudden void. And for once, I thought, someone said something that made sense.