Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Make sure everything is well at home- we'll take care of things here.
I wrote a post a year ago from the heart of the insurgency in Iraq's al-Anbar province. At the time, Ramadi was still one of the most violent cities in Iraq- the province as a whole was considered by many to be a lost fight. How things have changed in a year!
Now, I can do all the things I told you to do in that letter a year ago. My brothers and I shoveled the driveway. I opened presents with my family and my girlfriend, and talked to my sole remaining grandparent- the last man in the family before myself to have walked the deserts of the Middle East. Last night, I raised a toast for my friends who have now taken over my fight. They, and we, are succeeding, despite the opinions of some to the contrary. I don't begrudge others their viewpoints, and I certainly appreciate that proceeds from "Christmas in Falluja" will benefit wounded troops, but I feel that lyrics such as "It's Christmas in Fallujah/And we ain't never coming home/We came to bring these people Freedom/We came to fight the Infidel/There is no justice in the desert/Because there is no God in Hell" reflect poorly on the reality of what we are finally accomplishing.
I'm rambling again... this post started out as a cheery "Merry Christmas", and turned bragging/political. I'll let it stand though. Thank you all for the support you have shown us, and have some happy holidays!
Monday, December 10, 2007
Iraq did change my driving habits, though- I've always been a bit more of an aggressive driver than most, and I'm worse now and more vocal about it. I think living in Idaho makes it particularly bad- drivers here are some of the worst I've seen, and I don't react to them particularly well.
For a week or so now, I've been noting all the stupid things I see while driving. The truck that made a right turn from the left turn lane during a red light was notable, as was the truck that tried to turn left during a red light, got caught in the intersection and still tried to creep through the stream of oncoming traffic. I noticed the van that turned from a cross street into the turning lane, because the driver got impatient with the car in front of him that was actually trying to turn and pulled into oncoming traffic to pass.
The worst incident for me occurred while I was traveling towards Oregon, heading for my parents house. I was the second car in a stack of five or six when I noticed a small white car parked by the side of the freeway. Suddenly, he pulled out into the right lane, and nearly caused a pileup.
The last time something like that happened, I was gunning on a trip from Falluja to Ramadi. We were passing by a "named area of interest"- a hot spot known for multiple sniper, grenade, IED and VBIED attacks. When the little white car suddenly edged into my truck, he was too close to bring the machine gun to bear.
I was tightening my finger on the trigger of my M4 and wondering idly to myself if I was too close to fire a 40mm high explosive grenade into him with being hit by the fragmentation when the driver looked up. I saw in his eyes the terrorized realization of the dumbass move he had just pulled, and how close it had brought him to death.
I remember that Iraqi driver every time I see stupid maneuvers occurring on the roads at home, and I wonder if the American driver sporting the yellow "Support Our Troops" ribbon understands that his driving would literally risk his life at my hands in another country.
I know he doesn't understand, and so I am angry once again about the blissful ignorance of my countrymen.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq) has the story-
Baghdad, Nov 14, (VOI) - The Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) said on Wednesday that the government's Sunni Awqaf (endowments) department closed the association's head-office at Um al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad and ceased its radio broadcast.
"A force sent by the head of the Sunni Awqaf department Ahmed Abdel Ghafour al-Samarrae forced employees of the Muslim Scholars Association to leave its headquarters at Um al-Qura mosque and to cease its radio broadcast under orders from al-Samarrae," the association said in a press release published on its official Web site.
The history of AMS and its leadership is somewhat long and complex-
The Association of Muslim Scholars was formed just after the invasion of Iraq as a religious group concerned with representing Sunnis in Iraq. As such, the ASM oversaw thousands of Sunni mosques, and hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
The AMS started out non-violently opposed to the war and the occupation of Iraq, but quickly became an encouraging mouthpiece for many elements of the Sunni insurgency. Official AMS releases indirectly encouraged the insurgency, while Sunni Imans within the association sent many young men to fight without directly telling them to wage jihad. AMS condemned the siege of Falluja in late 2004, and used their network of Sunni mosques to gather and funnel water and food into the city before the battle in November 2004.
AMS continued to occasionally speak out against the worst crimes perpetuated against the people of Iraq, including admonitions to al-Zarqawi to limit his killing of Shi'a after the bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque. In doing so, AMS continued to walk the fine line between encouraging the insurgency and alienating fellow Iraqis.
Late in 2006, the leader of AMS, Harish al-Dhari, fled to Jordan in advance of a warrant issued for his arrest by the Government of Iraq. He continued to speak out against the GoI and the newly-formed Anbar Awakening Council of sheiks co-operating with coalition forces and the Iraqi government.
He recently responded to questions about splits within the AMS in an interview with the Iraq News Network:
About your question of AMSI split, I answer that there is no such split as some thinks. There are two figures of our consultation council who have joined the new Council of Iraqi Scholars that recently installed. ...The Council of Iraqi Scholars was formed earlier this year in response to a call from the Sunni waqf to stop sectarian violence and promote national reconciliation. Some of the scholars call for "legal ways and means to end the occupation"- a long step from insurgency, while Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Ghafour Al Samarrae says that all Iraqis must work to promote moderation and counter the takfiri. Takfiri is the radical, messianic branch of Islam that calls for war against all non-Muslims while at the same time laying the groundwork for fundamental Islamic rule- in short, al-Qaeda and similar groups. Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Ghafour Al Samarrae is also the head of the Sunni waqf and the man who ordered the closure of the AMS offices and radio station today.
AMSI is more tied [tight?] than ever from the point view of all aspects.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The night of my last post was the opening party for the blogworld expo. There was a light dinner to be had with conversations yelled over the thumping music. There were awards handed out to the winners of the 2007 Weblog Awards (congratulations to Michael Yon for the Milblog win, and Michael Totten for the Best Middle Eastern blog). Best online comic went to a site near and dear to my (nerdy) heart- XKCD has math and computer jokes, romance, and obscure references. Mouse over the comics for shockingly funny notes hidden within the frame. Best of all, the opening party had an open bar. I managed to match Uncle Jimbo and AWTM drink for drink till we all stumbled home.
The next day was a blur of people and motion made all the more fantastic by my lack of sleep and food and compounded by too much caffeine and a slight touch of hangover. Hey, it's Vegas, right? The only thing I didn't understand is why the restrooms stock a half-standard width toilet paper. Seriously. People come to Vegas to see strippers, not to feel like one!
That night was spent at a so-called tequila bar that for some reason happened to also be the first place I found Guinness and decent whisky in Vegas. We gathered all the milbloggers and associates around (and since the inestimable Steve Green seemed recovered from his last bout with milblogger parties, we invited him along). We weren't long into the night before someone (Uncle Jimbo, if my memory serves) clumsily opened a wallet and "accidently" dropped a challenge coin ringing to the table. T Boggs and I dropped ours, and Major Z followed immediately with his own, and the words "Anyone beat me having one made just for me?". BLACKFIVE's response glittered blue and white on the tabletop- the Seal of the President of the United States.
Jack and Jill Army sat together looking cute and happy to be together again. Speaking of cute, Townhall columnists Mary Katherine Hamm and Katy Favazza stopped in for a few hours. The SpouseBUZZ ladies sat together, trading obscure references and setting someone up teh bomb.
Bill Roggio and Paul Hanusz traded stories with Butterfly Wife. Michael Totten's friend Ali stopped by as well.
I ended up back at the hotel around 5am, following far too many scotches (and a brief history of same from BLACKFIVE) and a few long talks with new friends. I flew out at 8am.
You can sleep when you're dead.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
It's been an eventful day. I got up earlier than I ever thought I would while in the City of Sin, and the whirlwind hasn't stopped since. I was interviewed today by a French radio/news service (I'll post a link once it airs), and was tapped as a last-minute panelist addition to the conference session "From the Front" which as the name implies covers blogging from combat zones. I also started to explore some other venues for publication.
Speaking of venues, the quote of the day belongs to Bill Roggio with a gem that I'll paraphrase from memory as "Things have gotten to the point where I need to have a new blog on my blog". Blogs on blogs is like Starbucks across the street from Starbucks. What is the world coming to?
I'll post some pictures and maybe talk a little more later- for now it's time to think about heading towards the door for the opening night party at the Hard Rock Cafe. I'll be knocking back some of those beers and talking with newly-met old friends.
Friday, November 02, 2007
There was a world without danger / A world without war
And I would take all your suffering / If it would do any good
Cause we are one flesh / One breath, one life / One blood
I was with her a couple of nights ago, driving back from a weekend with the family. The sun was setting- the globe of it was crimson and hung low in the clouds. I found it odd that the clouds did not catch and tease the light like they normally do, taking on its color and spreading fleeting glory across the darkening sky. The sunset fascinated me me; I found it beautiful and captivating and terrible all at the same time.
I mentioned that it was similar to some I had seen in Iraq- I did not mention which sunset still haunts fading in my memory, the sunset that the other night was most like. I pulled off the freeway a few exits early and sat at the top of the ramp for a few minutes, quiet in my thoughts, and watching the sun slowly sink.
She looked at me and said "You miss it, don't you?". She struck closer than she knew: at that moment I was remembering it, but not missing it.
I do miss it, and I don't.
I don't miss the boredom- the waiting for something to happen, the third time through The Simpsons because no one can sleep and our next mission is still a couple hours off.
I stood by the river / That ran red with shame
I stood in the killing fields / Where death had no name
I stood with my brothers / And awaited flood
And we were one flesh / One breath, one life / One blood
Then I fell to the ground / Tasted ashes on my tongue
Thinking that only the dead / Are forever young
Lyrics from Terence Jay - One Blood
Thursday, November 01, 2007
On the MilBlog front, the contenders are:
The Long War Journal
Army of Dude
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
There were six American flags set out in front of the crowd that gathered at Gowen Field to welcome us home. Six flags, guarded by veterans of other wars- one for each soldier our Task Force lost over a year in combat. If we came home today, there would be seven flags standing silent before the formation
Sergeant First Class Tony "Ski" Wasielewski died earlier this month at home in Wisconsin. He had volunteered for Iraq as a veteran route clearance soldier, having already served a tour in Afghanistan. He was badly injured in an IED attack on May 15th, 2007, along with two other soldiers. He was well enough to attend welcome-home events for some of his soldiers, only to be felled by a blood clot in his heart.
I know that at least one of the guys from Boise that knew and worked with him managed to make it to Wisconsin for the funeral; I neither really knew nor worked with him, but I know he will be sorely missed.
A toast, my friends:
For those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,
And for those now on their final tour-
Raise up your glasses for absent companions.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
The Washington Post has an excellent piece of journalism entitled Left of Boom: The Struggle to Defeat Roadside Bombs
The article is a series of four parts, chronicling the appearance of IEDs and how the often frantic efforts to counter them have finally moved "left of boom"- neutralizing IEDs and IED networks before the bombs send more young men home.
I found a very interesting graphic on the article site: the snapshot "Iraq Hotspots" shows the IED activity in some of Iraq's hottest cities in May 2007.
Baghdad: 418 IEDs found, 538 attacks
Basra: 6 IEDs found, 13 attacks
Diwaniyah: 46 IEDs found, 82 attacks
Mosul: 78 IEDs found, 109 attacks
Tikrit: 383 IEDs found, 512 attacks
Falluja: 195 IEDs found, 34 attacks
According to the numbers used to construct the graph, the only "hot city" where the find rate for IEDs was over 50% was Falluja. In Falluja in May 2007, the find rate was 85.2%. I have always bragged about the good work that we did in Iraq- this is a material indication of the kind of impact we made. Lest anyone think we had it easy out there- most IEDs in the Falluja region from March-April on were large (100lb+), deeply buried IEDs. Deep buried IEDs are the difficult to detect specialty of the Sunni insurgency, and they kill more American troops than all other types of IED save EFPs. No wonder the commandant of the Marine Corps wishes he had more route clearance!
The article is quite thorough in discussing the various high-tech approaches the military has taken to minimize the IED threat. In Parts 2&3, there is an extensive discussion on electromagnetic countermeasures (ECMs, or simply "jammers"), in which the author notes the complexity of maintaining the multiple distinct systems used in Iraq. Adding to the complexity that the author mentions is the fact that certain types of jammers wreaked havoc on certain other types. The problem was a nuisance at best- at worst, a passing patrol could burn out the incompatible jammers on another patrol and leave the second team vulnerable to radio-controlled IEDs. Such situations were not common, but they did exist- perhaps such troubles are a natural by-product of the rush to field new equipment. In war, the battlefield becomes the testing ground as disparate systems are thrown together in an attempt to make something work.
The author covers nearly every portion of the IED fight of which I am aware, with one glaring exception- route clearance. He relates that the human eye and the soldier behind it is "more adept at finding bombs than any machine", but does not follow the thought through to the logical conclusion- make teams of soldiers to hunt IEDs, arm them with specialized equipment, and turn them loose. This lapse is not one that I blame him for- the military is notoriously close-mouthed about route clearance assets. In the past two years, I know of three articles written about route clearance: two were in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, and another was in some other soldier's publication. None were informative. I understand the need for secrecy, for preventing the enemy from knowing our strategy and tactics, but this is ridiculous. While we were in theater, our enemy was circulating videotapes detailing what they thought we did and how they thought best to kill us. Every Iraqi can stand by the corner and watch us pull an IED from the ground. Route clearance units are no secret to them. Here, back home, almost no one knows that anyone does or can do what we spent a year doing. I still get emails with words to the effect of "It's so great what you are doing! I never knew we could even find IEDs; I thought you just drove and hoped not to get blown up." That represents a criminal lapse. The Washington Post article makes the point that IEDs have more strategic impact than tactical. Commanders and troops see an IED just like a sniper- a battlefield threat to be minimized and then accepted. Mothers and politicians, however, see a rampant killer. Terrorists see an impotent occupier.
In that kind of strategic environment, it is a crime to allow the enemy to think that there is nothing we can do to stop them.
Monday, October 08, 2007
I will be attending the BlogWorld Expo, held on November 8-9 down in Las Vegas. One of the featured events will be the awarding of the 2007 Weblog Awards, for which nominations are now open. According to the link tracker, this blog has already been submitted under the "Best Military Blog" and "Best of the Top 3501-5000 Blogs". Take a look over there, and submit a blog or two. You can also "plus up" a nomination, thus seconding the nomination and making it more likely to become a finalist. There's many excellent blogs over there to choose from.
Speaking of excellent blogs and bloggers, the upcoming book from The Sandbox is due out soon. Keep an eye out for it- I've had a bit of a glimpse inside, and it is well worth the wait.
Monday, October 01, 2007
Bill Roggio reported from Iraq on the spread of tribal movements similar to the Anbar Awakening. He touches on the story from Baghdad province- similar things are happening in Salad al Din and Diyala provinces, to the northwest and northeast. In Diyala, the tribal council includes 80% of the major tribes, and involves Sunni, Shia and Kurds.
I wrote shortly before I left Kuwait about the murder of Sheik Sattar, the leader and primary founder of the tribal movement in al-Anbar province. His brother has stepped up into the role, while US Special Forces captured his murderer.
Violence was widely expected to rise during the holy month of Ramadan, both because of past trends towards violence and because of al-Qaeda / AQI affiliate warnings of a "Ramadan Offensive". In fact, Reuters reports that violence over the first three weeks of Ramadan is around 40% lower then it was last year. As a cautionary note, the last week is considered especially holy for martyrs, and we may therefore see a spike in violence over the next few days.
Another recent post- Dead Eyes- received a weekly writing award from The Watchers Council.
Other old favorites, including Walker: [Iraqi] Ranger?, Walking on History and War Cocaine
will soon be available alongside many other excellent bits of writing in the upcoming book The Sandbox.
Invisible Keepsakes has been updated with three new posts, and more will be forthcoming.
I've been home for five days now, and I'm mainly occupying myself with beer drinking and lazing around. It's strange to have to contend with the realities of an "ordinary" life- making sure the bills are paid, looking for a new car, buckling up to ride in the car, getting my own mail, etc etc. I looked through some of my pictures and video with a couple friends tonight and felt what I can only describe as homesickness. I'll get over it, I'm sure.
I'm tired already of hearing the same questions from people: "So what's it like?"- you might as well ask an astronaut about the moon. The other standbys of "So are we winning?", "Did you kill anyone?" and "So how bad is it, really?" aren't any better. I realize that such questions reveal what is in many cases an honest desire to understand, but I still find it irritating to answer them over and over. Selfish and irrational, I know. I'm back, and ignorance and curiosity are in full swing.
Please, never ask a soldier if they killed anyone. It's a pointless question, because the ones that have won't want to tell you, and the ones that haven't will be only too happy to spin you a tale that means less than nothing.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
We've traveled a long road to get back home again- along the way the 321st became the most decorated Reserve unit since World War II. We did our job well, and we were an example for the rest of the theater. All that is behind us, though... we're all back home.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Missions Performed - 647
Improvised Explosive Devices Reduced - 458
Kilometers Traveled - 51135
To put those numbers in perspective:
Our missions lasted anywhere from 2 to 60 hours, but were commonly around 8 (not including 2 hours prep time for each mission). The longest mission any platoon conducted without stopping for rest was somewhere around 24 hours. Those kilometers rolled by at a glacial pace that rarely exceeded 30 kilometers per hour and was often much slower. Most importantly, we believe that each bomb we found potentially saved between 1 and 5 American or Iraqi lives. That means that our company alone could easily have saved over 2000 lives.
We brought 102 men to war, if my memory serves. Among those, 97 experienced at least one attack by the enemy and earned the Combat Action Badge. All three of our medics earned the Combat Medical Badge, for giving medical aid in combat. Those same medics helped save the lives of several of our soldiers- 35 of 102 received a Purple Heart for wounds received during an engagement with the enemy. Sadly, three of our best were killed in action.
We are going home.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Under his stewardship, the Sahawat Al Anbar, or Anbar Awakening Council, grew from a loose organization of 20-odd tribes to a council of 42 Sunni tribes today. He endured attempts on his life, including a full-blown suicide assault on his home. He lost four brothers and more relatives, but he never backed down. In a way, he couldn't- he would either have the pleasure of seeing al-Qaeda finally and completely banished from Iraq, or he would give his life in the attempt. The forces he fought are too brutal and violent to allow any half measure. In the end, it has come to exactly that.
His death is a grievous loss to all who long to see a free Iraq. He provided vision, determination, and stubborn perseverance in his leadership of the sons of Anbar. His brother Ahmed has been selected to replace him as head of the council- there is no turning back in the face of terror. As one deputy chief said: "if only one small boy remains alive in Anbar, we will not hand the province over to al-Qaida."
Muslims believe that a man who is martyred during the holy month of Ramadan will be especially blessed for his sacrifice. My hope is that Sheik Sattar's blessing will be the continuation of his efforts and an even stronger determination among his kin to see terror driven completely from Iraq.
Rest in Peace.
Monday, September 10, 2007
It could have been a bad night, but it turned out pretty well. One of the few tense moments for me was when our driver suddenly took the Humvee through a long chain of potholes. The conversation went like this:
"Hey, stay out of those!"
"Why, what's the big deal, man?"
"Those aren't potholes, those are blast holes!"
"Yeah, and the thing about this screwed up country is that they like to put new bombs where the old bombs were. If I get blown up one more time, I'm gonna have to kill someone, and the bombers are awfully hard to find."
We made it, though, and after a day and a night sitting in TQ, we caught a flight south to Kuwait. The comedy of errors continued there- the officials at Ali al Saleem airf force base had no idea that were were coming, nowhere to put us, and no way to get us to where we needed to go. We sat for four hours in a parking lot full of buses, complete with drivers, while the powers that be tried to find us the mandatory escort personell. We finally made it to our next stop around 1am.
Since I've been in Kuwait, I've been relaxing. I slept half the day today, and took a long shower (all notices to take water saving "combat showers" be damned!) (a digression: the Army has an annoying tendency to use "combat" as a ridiculous prefix, e.g. "combat fueler", "combat shower", "combat camera". Leave the combat prefix to people, jobs and events that actually involve the thrill and terro of combat, k?)
I've been watching the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker to Congress in the USO building here. No big surprises there. They reported the simple truths and pleas for more time- the ladies and gentlemen of the hearing seemed to barely listen. It seemed to me that Mr. Lantos tried a little too hard to force the appearance of a division between Gen Petraeus and other military commanders. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen needs to learn how to form a question. The full report tomorrow might be a trifle more interesting, but I doubt it.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Some of Bravo company is there almost every night; I'm there every night that I'm in Ramadi. Other people drop in occasionally- some from other companies in the task force, some from other units. There are a few shadowy figures that come and chat now and then- they are happy to talk, and we are happy for the company. Neither party talks much about Iraq, which is fine with both sides. The deck is normally an Iraq-free zone; mission talk is loosely banned (although exceptions are made for particularly exciting or hairy stories)
Every night, the Green Beans becomes a refuge of sorts- a place about what Iraq isn't. That worn and dirty deck is a place to sit around and talk about home, play some chess, draw in sketchbooks, or write poetry. In between cups of tea and chai and Indonesian clove cigarettes, there's good natured flirting with the baristas- lovely young ladies from Kyrgyzstan. They've taught most of us a few words in Russian and memorized our regular orders; we keep them supplied in smiles and tips.
Last night was a little different, though. We broke the only "rule", and talked about Iraq. Everyone gathered on the porch was out of work- we had all run our last missions out on the road. We sat and talked for hours about the year; about the friends we'd made, the battles we'd won, the lives we'd saved. We talked about the successes and the failures; we talked about the prospects of the new guys. We talked about how exhausted we were when we got in from our last missions- how a year's worth of tension unraveled all at once, and we felt like sleeping for days.
Mainly, we talked about going home.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
In other news:
I'll let Desert Flier tell you about the random encounter he and I had the other night here in Ramadi.
Likewise, Badger 6 has the story about our appearance in the Idaho Journal. For those of you that commented on it, fear not: the molesta-stache is gone.
If you happen to be one of the few interested in Invisible Keepsakes, go check out the new updates.
Also, while you follow links, you might check out Pin Ups for Vets- the website of an enterprising young lady raising money and moral for wounded troops in a way my grandfather would recognize and appreciate.
I finally updated my Blogroll with a few long-overdue links from some of the many sites linking back to here. I still have a number to track down in the logs, but you'll find several new sites to browse, including
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
The new LT asked "Is it always like this?". His eyes had the dawning realization that he was now at war- that he was about to begin a year of one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq. The "Oh shit" look, we call it. It's the moment when you realize that these heavy armored trucks are not the panacea that Senators and Army trainers make them appear, not when faced with a determined and ingenious enemy. It's what you get when you see something go wrong for the first time, and the guys around you accept it with a quiet prayer and stoic determination, rather than any outward signs of shock or fear. It's the moment that makes you stop and wonder "Oh shit... what did I get myself into?"
I remember when that moment first came for me- it was right after we got to Ramadi. The Transfer of Authority ceremony had just finished, officially putting my battalion in charge of route clearance operations across a broad swath of western Iraq. I saw an old friend from ROTC back in college, and went over to talk to him. He'd been a platoon leader for the last year, and he looked a hundred years old. The last time I saw him was two years prior, just before he left for his final training as an officer before going to his first command. Then, he'd been lively and vibrant and (dare I say it?) he was a little bit of a dork. Always clowning around, that sort of thing. Now, he looked dead, and I knew that the last year had taken something out of him that the years ahead would be hard pressed to put back in.
The circle has turned, now, as it always does. Now, we are the veterans- the calloused, dead-eyed men who just want to turn over the mission and go home. There's so many things that wear men down- the slow, slippery slope of progress, the questioning and lack of support in news from home, the steady churn replacing wounded (and God forbid, dead) men. The lack of sleep, the hectic stress of changing missions, the broken men, broken families, broken children.
I hope these new guys make it through all right, but for now, we just want to go home.
Of the three guys we lost, I was closest to him. We'd talked during mobilization back in the states about opening up a coffee mini-bar when we got to Iraq; it was a series of conversations that revealed later how little we understood about the environment we would find ourselves in. We never got the room with an espresso machine that we'd talked about, nor did we really have much spare time to make coffee for people other than ourselves. He did it anyway, though- producing some decent brew on a tiny little machine in his room.
Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly
I've always had vivid dreams, and Clev has made his appearances in them as long as I've known him. Back before deployment, he showed up in dreams of crazy stunts and wild times back in Boise. Then, he turned up in dreams of a memorial service in the dusty future. I never told him about those- superstition aside, there's no point in worrying about something that's never going to happen. After it did happen, he kept showing up from time to time. Once, he told me the same thing he told me the last time I spoke to him- "Don't feel guilty, man... we all have a job to do". I'd told him not to stay safe, because I was supposed to be out on patrol until I drew guard duty instead, and I'd feel guilty if something happened out there.
Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow
The latest dream was earlier today, just before I got onto the internet to be surprised by his picture. The platoon was back home; a bunch of us were at the mall for some reason. Everyone has little quirks about them- in the dream, those quirks were exaggerated until each person was nothing more than a caricature of themselves. Anderson was off shopping for guns, while Kildow and Sgt Kelsch were having a no-holds-barred grappling match in the middle of the food court. Yaw was doing pull-ups on an overhanging railing, and LT was standing on a little stage telling stories. I was sitting and writing behind a pile of coffee cups. When I went back to the stand to get fresh coffee, Clev was standing behind the counter making coffee.
At least I know he's happy, somewhere.
*Poem is "Dreams", by Langston Hughes
Sunday, August 26, 2007
From a Michael Totten report:
"When you came and liberated this country,” he continued, “Iraq had 25 million Saddams. America is turning us back into human beings.
The quote makes me think, in rabbit-trail fashion, of an evening I enjoyed with a few Iraqi Army soldiers a few months ago. All three were officers- drawn from two different divisions to train new Iraqi soldiers to fight. I went up to Ali while he was smoking and said hello. He introduced himself, and invited me to join him and his friends for a movie. Partway through Apocalypto, he looked up from the scene of mass murder and brutality and exclaimed "See! It is like Saddam!"
Ali and one of the others laughed. The third soldier scowled, then laughed when Ali punched him in the arm. That was when I got introduced to the rest of the group. The other laughing soldier was Sayeed, the scowler, Saddam. Saddam was from Tikrit, and quite likely a relative of the "Big Saddam", although I didn't ask. His name is prominent among Sunnis- Saddam was a hero for a lot of years, after all. We talked for a while after the movie; Sayeed had been in the Iraqi Army for quite some time, Ali for a while as well. Saddam had joined more recently- he wanted to help Iraq become what it had been once. He told me that he wanted to try to help change Iraqis minds about Americans and the Iraqi Government, and give them something to do other than fight with each other.
When tribes stop fighting Americans and each other, when the citizens of two of the most strife-ridden cities in Iraq start to contemplate tomorrow, when a man from Tikrit named Saddam steps up to help Iraq...
That's when I start to feel just a little bit of hope for this place.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
So I'm not doing a long post tonight. However, I've run across a few noteworthy tidbits lately that deserve your attention:
First: donate something to Bill Roggio's startup independent media company, Public Media International. He's thrown himself into a venture to bring all of us the kind of reporting we deserve. There are 6 PMI embeds either in Iraq or on the way, and PMI is looking to raise $20,000 to support them and their sucessors.
Second: for the Brits out there. Go to this site, and sign the petition for reduced/free parcel post to British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Royal Mail is granting for the holidays, this troop supporter would like to see it extended.
Third: Engineers rock (but there should be more of us). From a blogger roundtable with COL Simcock, the commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team-6 (our high-ups here in Falluja):
Question from Dave Dilegge (Small Wars Journal):
Answer from COL. Simcock:
"Yeah, if I could just follow up on one quick thing here. If you
were, say, commandant for the day or CINC for the day, what one or two
capabilities that you may not have or need more of would top your
"That's an easy question. And the commandant was just out here a couple weeks ago and I told him exactly what I wish I had more of. Engineers and route clearance. Those are the two capabilities. It's a lowdensity, high-demand type capability that we just -- we need more of out here. ... They do a great job for us, but I'm just -- I just don't have enough of them. "
I hear it's pretty much the same story everywhere. What's more (as you'll soon hear when I have the final details and time to write), my guys are some of the very best.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Our time here will soon be up, as I've mentioned. It doesn't seem that way; no matter how much gear I pack up and turn in, this desert still feels normal, still feels like home. A year doesn't seem that long- twelve months, less than five percent of my life to date- but I barely recall what "normal" life is like. It feels so distant to me now that it might as well be a second lifetime, an earlier incarnation of myself. Leave wasn't that long ago, of course, but that was only two weeks, lived under the specter of impending return.
Before I left for Iraq, before I even boarded the plane that would take me to my pre-deployment training, I worried that my friends would leave me behind. I thought it might be a little like excusing one's self from a party, coming back minutes later to find the party a year gone and the merrymakers scattered. That mind picture skirted the truth, but as usual, analogy is suspect. When I left, most of my friends were in college. Now, most have indeed graduated and scattered- they range in domicile from Austria to China and many places in between. The difference is the time- rather than a year for them and seeming minutes for me, a year has passed for my friends. A lifetime has passed for me.
It seems like it's been forever since I lived that "normal" life- the normalcy that I know I'll never quite grasp again. Paradoxically, the last year blends and runs together into one long, blurred day. It doesn't feel like a year- it feels longer and shorter all at the same time. I want to leave, to go home, to take things for granted again. I also can't stand the thought of leaving now, of turning my back on so many things left undone.
There's good to come out of all the suck, though-
I've used some of my time in purgatory to finally put together the separate poetry page that I hinted at so long ago. There isn't that much there, yet, but some of you still might find it interesting.
Choice of gold star or cookie for the first one to identify the origin of the title (without cheating!)
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Iraqi cities look something like others that I've seen, and the fertile stretches along the river are less impressive than green farmland back home. The desert, though- the desert is different. The sky was clear of dust and haze- we were far past the lights of the city, and the stars shone soft and brilliant. The Milky Way stretched out overhead like a band of cotton. I heard bats launch from their hiding places in the abandoned buildings, and shrill aloft on their hunt for food. Somewhere overhead and out of sight, an owl hooted and stooped for his own dinner.
There's a stark, harsh beauty in the desert. In the daytime, it seems more harsh than at night. The sun beats the dust bone dry, and the wind drives it with a force that occasionally threatens to rip the body into atoms. The night is more subtle- the sand cools, while both the sky and ground come alive with predators. The bats and owl I heard last night are not the only ones- once I saw what seemed to be a herd of scorpions moving blackly across the road, pinchers waving. Camel spiders emerge from holes, skittering impossibly fast in search of those same armored denzians. Scattered across the desert are the moving dirt bumps, the ones that turn into hedgehogs as you approach.
The parched soil rises and falls in abstract patterns laid down over years- the product of men with earthmovers equally as much as of the wind and winter rain. Here and there the lines of hills fall sharp where the dirt has collapsed away to form jagged cliffs; dust pools below the precipice, below the fox holes and lizard lairs.
Somehow, in the midst of the broad, bleak expanse, life continues. The harsh conditions strip away some of the layers of complexity common to other environments. It's a hot or cold, night or day, life or death duality of existence- the yin-yang of the world.
I find myself enthralled by it.
Monday, August 13, 2007
As a result of some of the shuffling we've done, I've lost dependable internet acess while in Falluja. It's a frustrating situation for me, because I can write all I want and have time for, but getting the written stories onto the internet is difficult indeed.
For now- don't worry. I'm still around, and there will be more blogging to come. I just have to put up with terrible Iraqi internets.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Side note: the Persian Sassinid empire (circa 600AD) was the origin of the word "Anbar", meaning storehouse.
Not that I am bitter.
Viva la monopoly!
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I have witnessed the appearance of local fighters in an area several times- an advent that is normally followed quickly by relative peace.
The first area in which I saw local fighters appear was along the Euphrates river near Falluja. The newly-formed Neighborhood Watch was controlled by the sheik I mentioned in "ISF Primer"- the one that was wounded fighting American troops in the 2004 battle for Falluja. It is mainly because of him that so many units began calling the neighborhood watch the "Good Bad Guys". There are many Iraqis like this sheik and his men, former insurgents who have grown to see Americans as allies and al-Qaeda and foreign fighters as the real threat to their future. The region controlled by the sheik is marked by fighters manning checkpoints- originally hasty affairs built from rusted engine parts and cinder brick, and upgraded to sand-filled plastic Jersey barriers as the local forces transitioned to PSF.
Now, the sheik commands a company of PSF fighters, as well as unincorporated Neighborhood Watch along his eastern border. He receives funds fom the Iraqi government to provide a stipend for his men and to help pay for equipment. As far as I am aware, there has been only one attack in his territory since the local citizens stood up- a double IED strike one night that was followed by the PSF going house to house looking for the bomber. The problems and friction that many feared have not developed, even during the transition from the Marine unit that initially held the area to their successors.
A soldier gives 1st aid to an adult wounded in the mortar attack
Standing up to the insurgents is not without risk. There have been several times that our patrol has passed dusty little cemeteries nestled among the trees, clustered with mourners burying fallen brothers. The non-uniformed forces in Iraq such as PSF or NW are in danger from multiple sides- from insurgents who wish to kill them, and from trigger-happy Americans who may shoot them thinking they are the enemy. Both have happened on occasion, but the tribesmen continue to serve.
Mourners gather at the funeral for 7 fighters killed by insurgents
Insurgents still hold out in Zaidon , sandwiched between Falluja and the Euphrates. The bombs there have gotten bigger and more numerous, as well as appearing in previously calm areas and including VBIEDs. Recently, a stretch of several bad days saw multiple trucks from each route clearance patrol in the area strike IEDs. There is a possible light in the tunnel, though- several new classes of PSF have just graduated, and some of those men are serving now in Zaidon. IED activity has already been markedly reduced. If the past is any indication, the Iraqi effort will spread wider and encompass the entire area, helping American troops to bring calm to one of the last major centers of violence in al-Anbar province.
Monday, July 16, 2007
There are three general divisions of Iraqi Security Forces:
The highest level in the Iraqi Army- the soldiers of an IA brigade are drawn from a broad region, and they generally have the best training of Iraqi troops. Some IA divisions are considered to be quite competent- for example, I have heard good things about the 1st and 5th IA, both from American observers, and from Iraqi troops who have served in those units.
Below the level of the IA is the Iraqi Police- policemen are generally drawn from a city and the surrounding rural area. The quality of IPs varies widely by location: in al-Anbar province, most IPs are good men, trustworthy, and decently trained. In other areas, IPs have sometimes proven to be corrupt- or worse, more loyal to their tribal connections than to the government. IPs also have to deal with the dangers inherent in serving the Iraqi government near their hometowns- if they are recognized, their families could be in danger. One can watch the security situation in an area improve in the faces of the IPs-in Ramadi last year, most IPs (when they were present) wore face masks out of fear for their families. Now, they are usually uncovered.
The lowest level of ISF is the Provincial Security Forces. They come from an even smaller slice of countryside than do the IPs, and they attend a short academy that teaches basic skills before putting them into the field. PSF often serve directly alongside IPs, manning vehicle checkpoints and patrolling villages. They lend a direct knowledge of small communities that the IPs for the broader area may lack. Many PSF will prove themselves on the beat with the IPs, and will go on to the IP academies to become policemen themselves.
Below the scope of government security operations is the "Neighborhood Watch". These are volunteers from the local population, often managed by the local sheik and unpaid by the Iraqi government. The appearance of NW is often the portent of change in a historically violent area, because the formation of a local security force (as compared to outside intervention by Coalition Forces or ISF) represents a shift in the attitude of the local population. NW members are normally encouraged to join one branch or another of the ISF- after vetting, many of them eventually do become soldiers or policemen. American troops call them the "Good Bad Guys" or GBG- a title which reflects the checkered past of many fighters. One sheik, one of the first to stand up a militia in the Falluja area, now commands a company of PSF troops. His men began as a militia, became recognized as NW by the local Marine command, and many eventually went to the academy to become PSF. The sheik himself was wounded fighting Americans in the battle for Falluja- he has been working with us now for close to a year. His community near the river is beautiful, acts of violence are extremely rare, and we have never had problems with him or any of his men.
This sort of turnaround is the future of al-Anbar province- convincing former insurgents that America is here to give them help, not to take their land, their oil, their culture, or their religion. Many have come to realize that we will leave once our job is done, and have turned their attention to helping root out the stubborn and the terrorists- the ones who will never stop fighting.
Look down fair moon and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night's nimbus floods on faces ghastly,
On the dead on their backs with arms toss'd wide,
Pour down your untainted nimbus sacred moon.
Michael Yon provides pictures, video, grid coordinates and interviews to verify a mass grave, and the most definite news byte that the Associated Press will print is that mass graves "reportably" exist in Baqouba? That isn't even up to the level of the common complaint that the media fails to report good news. That's failing to report the bad news correctly. In response to an email wondering why the AP did not pick up Yon's excellently sourced story, the AP replied that no military press release had been issued, so they would not print the story. Excuse me? Your job is to seek out and find news- not wait for it to be handed to you by the military PAOs you claim to distrust. If the APs only source of news items is another news service, what reason is there for it to exist? It took days of intense and growing criticism by sources all over the internet for the AP to finally publish any of Michael Yon's journalism.
How about how talking heads still debate whether it was really al-Qaeda we fought in Baqouba, despite the public proclamation of al-Qaeda in Iraq that Baqouba would be their capital? Yon hits another nail on the head, by the way- AQI militants don't issue ID cards. We call an enemy fighter al-Qaeda not because we wish him to be so, but because he belongs to a group that has identified itself with al-Qaeda and that embraces al-Qaeda's cruel and barbaric tactics.
Whomever we fought before- feyahadeen, Sunni nationalists, Shia zealots- this war in Iraq is now against al-Qaeda and similar terrorists. Al-Qaeda capitalized on the opportunity to grow radical cancer within a disorganized and lawless state, and they have become our most dangerous enemy in skill, tactics and threat, if not actual numbers. Bill Roggio does an excellent roundup of the claims, myths, and facts about the strength and presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. I suggest you check it out.
Blog the war, folks. It's the only way you'll learn anything.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
It is an individual decision to support or oppose the war- and once made, that decision is worthless unless backed up with action. It is impossible to make a worthwhile decision without becoming properly informed, and that is the source of another rant in and of itself:
Some news outlets report the facts- sometimes grudgingly, and sometimes with a negative opinion following, but they still manage to report facts. Some "news" sources neglect facts altogether, and attempt to sway opinion through some sort of delusional haunted-house fairy tale, filtering current events through the ugly memories of past failures.
Take the following as an example:
On June 17th, the Village Voice published a warning of the deteriorating situation in Falluja, decrying the mistreatment of aid workers by US forces, as well as the punishing curfew imposed on the city, and implying that we were bombing hospitals in Falluja. The article also predicted a repeat of the Nov. 2004 assault on the city.
Almost one month later, the assault has still failed to materialize. This seeming lapse in the warmaking decision process cannot be due to the lack of resistance in Falluja. After all, violence is up, hospitals are being bombed, and legitimate residents of the city are fleeing the city in fear. IEDs are being found in record numbers, and the torture houses are open for business again.
The preceding paragraph is of course sarcasm, albeit sarcasm that the Village Voice would likely prefer to believe. When I was a child, my father used to sarcastically tell me that "If the facts aren't on your side, speak louder and pound the table".
The Village Voice fails to mention the reason for the vehicle curfew in the city of Falluja- it was a decision made by the mayor of Falluja. Iraqi Security Forces maintain responsibility for the city of Falluja, and they have done a good enough job that the main threat in the city became strikes by VBIEDs brought in from outside the city. VBIEDs strike soft targets like tribal gatherings, traffic checkpoints packed with civilians- anywhere thorough vehicle checks are hard to perform. From Febuary through late May, when the vehicle ban began, Falluja was rocked multiple times by VBIEDs that killed civilians and police, and shredded the downtown area that Iraqis have worked hard to rebuild. The logical response was to ban intra-city vehicle traffic until a solution could be found.
Vehicle traffic inside the city persists at a much lower level- most civilian vehicles do not cross the city boundary, buses roam the city to serve the population, and heavy goods are moved by bongo truck (the unmistakable middle eastern version of the pick-up truck) or young boys selling handcart services. The city officials have taken the opportunity afforded by decreased traffic, and formed work crews to clean the streets- a job that badly needed done.
I do not sense the nasty undercurrent to the city that the Village Voice alleges is there. Lest anyone say that the people would restrain their opinion in the presence of men with guns, I would encourage you to ask an OIF or OEF veteran whether he or she could tell when the people didn't want you there. The people will glare, shoo their children inside, and move away as you pass. They won't wave, they won't answer to a simple "as salaam alaikum". What I see in Falluja is quite different. Today, for instance, I saw a thing I had never seen before in Iraq- a woman on a cell phone. The terrorists have taken to blowing up cell towers, because they fear the people having an instant connection to security forces more than they value the utility of a cell-phone detonated IED. Women hold their babies up to see us wave to them. Children play soccer in the streets and wave as we drive by. The markets have people, and relative to others I have seen, they are well stocked. I can't speak with authority on the subject of electricity because I have never spent a complete 24 hours in the city and watched the blackouts roll, but I'm sure that the new power plant under construction will help.
I could keep ranting, and I may, at a later time. I'll stop now, with a final message that all of you should already know: don't believe everything you hear.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The three-day mission I mentioned in the last post was to clear a route into the area of interest, nestled within a loop of the Euphrates river near Amiriyah. Following us was a combined force of Army, Marine, and Iraqi Army troops, who would then seal off the area and fan out gathering intel, "making face" with the villagers, and searching for caches.
We staged out of a small Combat Outpost (COP) near Amiriyah. This COP was one of several constructed just a few months ago in a largely successful effort to secure the main route from Falluja to Amiriyah. Amiriyah had been the scene of much fighting between the local al-Qaeda and Iraqi Police; American patrols happened rarely, as the nearest major patrol bases were separated from the community by long stretches of dangerous roads. Now, the situation in Amiriyah and the nearby neighborhood of Feris is largely under control in the hands of the Iraqi security forces, and Coalition efforts have begun to focus on the surrounding villages.
Our mission for the first day was mainly spent clearing alternate routes out in the desert that the unit were were working for had used in the past and would use again in the future.
Investigating an IED
We finished our mission for the first day by midafternoon, and pulled into the COP for the night. The weather was hottest I had felt yet- when we got back to Camp Falluja, someone told me that the thermometer had hit 131 degrees in the shade.
Even collapsing on the roof provided little relief.
Evening shade on the roof of a COP
We had some small visitors drop by, wishing to share our shade and perhaps a few nuggets from the MRE crackers that some of the soldiers were snacking on.
After a restless night spent in the heat, we were up at 0400 to prep and lead out on the next mission- the actual operation on the river. Soldiers racked weapons into their places atop the trucks; others stocked water and MREs in anticipation of a long day. No one really knew what kind of environment we were moving into: the villages and farmland could be quiet and peaceful, or they could be alive with fighters and minefields of IEDs. Both scenarios have played themselves out in other nearby villages, and no one had spent enough time in this particular area to predict the outcome. Our only resource was to be prepared for the worst case.
A gunner preps his battle bag
The first half of the second day was largely uneventful. The troops following us in had little to report- some men who tried to dodge to cordon, an extra AK-47 in a house. We found nothing in the roads.
A infantryman of 3/6 Marines patrols alongside a "Gator"
Later on, one of our vehicles ran over a sharp piece of metal, flattening a tire. Towards the end of the tire change, two more vehicles starting taking single rifle rounds from a building off in a grove of palms in the distance. Some of our Marine security contingent tried to chase the shooter down in their Gator, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.
A "Gator" chases down a sniper
We moved on out of the area, after notifying the force commander of the small arms fire, and proceeded down the route. Just down the road, an alert Gator crewmember noticed some things that seemed out of place at a small shop by the roadside- possibly connecting the men there to the recent gunfire. We stopped to talk to the owner to ask him a few questions and look through his car. He seemed happy to allow the search, and tried to tell us, in a mixture of broken English and Arabic, where we should look for the shooter. We thanked him for his time and help, passed the information up, and moved on.
With Day 2 over, we went back to the COP for another long night in the stifling air. I went to sleep listening to feral dogs growling around the camp's burning trash pit and watching their moving shadows dance with the flames. Day 3 began early, again, and beautifully. We were treated to a postcard-perfect sunrise as we moved through Amiriyah towards our area of operation.The sun rises over a peaceful Euphrates, near Amiriyah
One last bit of excitement remained- one that underlines the difficulties we face in Iraq. The picture below is of a bridge construction site, spanning the Euphrates between the Zaidon region and Amiriyah/Feris. Look carefully at the photo.
A bridge in progress from Zaidon to the Amiriyah region
The three trucks closest to the river are VBIEDs that are under construction. Southern Zaidon receives little attention from American patrols- as with Amiriyah just a few months ago, the roads leading in are long and dangerous. A local villager on the Amiriyah side of the river pointed these trucks out to a Marine patrol. If it weren't for the relations we have built on this side of the river in recent months, the first sign we would have likely had of these VBIEDs would have been their detonation, probably in the midst of a crowd of innocent civilians.
It will be Zaidon's turn soon enough, though- and for now, Amiriyah is looking good.