June 22, 2005

A Second Lieutenant's Grim Commentary From Iraq, Part I



An old friend of mine from high school is a 2nd Lieutenant commanding a tank north of Baghdad right now. Back in 12th grade civics class, he took random devils-advocate stances just for the hell of it, arguing for positions totally opposite his own just for the sake of open discourse and to either a) show his opponent how much they hadn’t done their homework (literally or figuratively) or b) educate himself about a viewpoint opposite to his own. Debate vs argument. Discourse vs flameouts.

In regular e-mails to family and friends back home, he solicited questions about anything to do with Iraq. I hadn’t asked him much initially, but I soon became more curious about his opinions on some specific issues, though, because even as someone who thinks he knows things, I still am obviously ignorant about details of a culture and place I’ve never experienced. Plus I knew he would give me the direct approach and tell me I’m full of shit if I said anything stupid—he never failed to do that back in high school.

Many servicemen & women had been writing or emailing from Iraq with their own (often widely varying) thoughts and firsthand experiences ever since the invasion. They also obviously speak to their friends or family when they rotate back home, and those people would then speak with their friends, and on and on. Some had been posting weblogs, too- some liberal, some conservative, some whatever- it ran the gamut like everything else. My “interview” took place over the course of two or three mammoth e-mails, and he had a lot to say.

Every gripe here about the media is either that it’s not reporting “the good things” happening in Iraq and it’s only focusing on the violence, or that it reports exactly what the military tells it to, truth be damned. Either way, people believe we’re getting an incomplete story. How true is that from where you sit?

There isn’t all that much good stuff to report and as you know “if it bleeds it leads,” so go figure. There are some positive stories that we see but compared to body parts raining down on school children they sometimes fail to really take hold. The media is lazy and fairly inaccurate most of the time. We have had some reporters with us and they have screwed up most every story they filed, and not just little stuff but serious misquotes and slanted journalism. Most of us see the media here as a hindrance but understand the necessary evil...we just don’t want to deal with them. Let the bigwigs get their time in the sun.

Is it dangerous everywhere outside the green zone? I know you’re not exactly in Baghdad but any of the urban areas appear hazardous.

My unit’s sector is one of the better areas in the northern part of Iraq. Southern Iraq is pretty squared away but once you get near Baghdad and to the immediate north is when shit gets hairy. We have been very lucky so far concerning casualties, however deadly shit happens multiple times a day. It is a bit like playing craps every time you roll out the gate. After a while you know you’re gonna roll a seven. But that is part of the game, and war so you just keep rolling and hope your streak holds up. To answer directly, everywhere here is dangerous for everyone. Troops, Iraqi army and police, public office holders, kids, shop owners...everyone. Bombs tend not to discriminate so lots of civilians get hurt.

Do you or your men have much experience with the new Iraqi Army? Are they as incompetent and detrimental as they seem? It appears that they’re the same guys Saddam hired- at least if all the torture stories are true.

We work with them all the time and they are coming along. Most were not in Saddam’s orginal Army and if they were they were not higher-ups. Our guys don’t cut and run like some of the stories you have probably read but they do have issues with discipline and basic soldier shit. You would think that with all the people getting killed around them you would not have to nag at them to wear their protective gear. That is not the case. They are getting better though and as their leadership continues to learn and develop the junior guys this Army will turn out OK. It will just take 15-20 years. You have to remember the the US Army was in shambles after Vietnam and took 15-25 years after the all volunteer force to truly be a complete force. We Americans just aren’t a patient bunch nor do we ever apply a historical perspective.

How big of a deal are private security contractors where you are? Do these people really get paid more than you guys, or get better armor or whatever? Are they as arrogant as they seem?

These guys are all right, most of them are pretty cool and they range from cooks to ex-Delta force security guys. They make ungodly sums of money and are outside of the realm of Military bullshit so the real answer is “If I had to come back here again, I would do it as a Contractor.” There are guys here that work with the Iraqi police (cops from home) and hardly do shit that make $120,000 a year. I am totally qualified for that job so it is difficult to see the pay and labor disparity. I don’t hold anything against these people though, because most are just using their skills to make enough money to help their families...also some adrenaline junkie/mercenary types too, but once this shit gets in your blood it is hard to just stop. Their equipment is not better than ours, but they get to choose whatever they want while we have to conform to Army issue.

Have you or your men noticed anything positive at all among Iraqi citizens? I don’t know how often you guys get to interact with them, but do they really have no water or electricity for most of the time? Did they really buy into those elections at all? Do they think anything good will happen?

Well, as for quality of life, this place is a shithole. I call it Tijuana without the booze. Actually it is worse. The water is filthy and in short supply. The electricity never stays on for more than an hour at a time (if you don’t have a generator you’re fucked) and the concept of waste disposal or trash pickup is totally foreign. Sewer systems are almost non-existent and human waste is everywhere. People just throw their trash out on the street and it too is omnipresent. This whole country is one big smelly landfill.

The soldiers all hate it here because the people don’t seem to care about making their own neighborhoods more livable. It is always what can WE give THEM. Personal responsibility is something that seems rare around here and that causes some rifts. I don’t mind helping someone help themselves but if I am the only one doing the heavy lifting then what the FUCK. They are starting to get better but it will be a slow process. You are a history guy...there is a reason that these people have been ruled by outsiders for centuries...they are ripe for colonization. We need to help them get over that and move into the modern world.

My interaction with the Iraqis- Overall, this has been positive when not totally frustrating. They are a friendly people once you engage them. They are generous and like to smile and bullshit. The kids are adorable and love Americans. They come out and chase after your trucks giving you thumbs up and waving...we try to share candy and toys and soccer balls as often as we can. The political system is plagued by corruption (just like ours except they are too young to survive it as easily) and patriotism and nationalism seem secondary to tribal and religious identities. This makes things pretty tough.

The final thing I always notice is FEAR. Everyone is afraid and not too many people are doing anything about it. In America if a car blew up on your street people would be outraged, would organize and fight anyone who jeopardized their kids. It doesn’t work like that here. People have been brutalized for so long that it seems as if they are just accustomed to the violence and feel powerless to stop it. Lastly, they are frustrated that the USA has been unable to solve their problems already. The way they see it, if we can put a man on the moon how come we can’t get the power working? A pretty reasonable question but not a simple one. This frustration undermines our relationships but we do our best to combat it.

From my point of view here it seems like the war falls out of peoples’ consciousness unless there’s a particularly nasty attack. I mean, we had to deal with Michael fucking Jackson again for the last month, and before that it was Terry Schiavo and euthanasia. The only time anyone brings up the war is if they can make it suit whatever agenda they want.

This is a weird war. One unlike any we have fought before and it saddens me to hear that it is not in the forefront of public consciousness. People need to become more engaged and stop worrying about Michael Jackson’s trial. The important thing to remember is that your sons and daughters are being killed and maimed here everyday...the numbers are not waning and BILLIONS of your tax dollars are being spent. If these kinds of expenditures were being made nearby I guarantee you would pay closer attention. I hope that this helps and like I said, questions are good so if anything is bugging you or someone you know just ask. It might take me a bit to respond because my usual email spots have gone away so getting emails out is a lot harder now but I will do my best.


Part 2 is here.

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