I’ve only been to Iraq for one tour, which has been turned into fifteen or sixteen months depending on which eight ball you ask. A good deal of those around me are in their second tour, which was from 2003-2004. They deployed eight months after the beginning of the war. I hear it often: their living conditions improved as time went on. From tents they moved into squad rooms, and finally two man shipping containers with AC. In 2007, we have de-evolved. From containers in Mosul we moved into a bay that housed the platoon in Baghdad. NCOs shared rooms with each other in a separate area. Now in Baqubah, the whole platoon shares one tent. On average, we spend five days out of the week at an outpost in the city, a house once owned by a family until we kicked them out. We pay them rent now, and gave them their stuff. We just got some AC units for the place, but it’s not much help in the heat. Some choose to sleep on the roof instead of inside since it’s a bit cooler. Everyone, on the roof or otherwise, must combat the mosquitoes, which can only be described as persistent. Our trash and excrement are burned daily. War is about a lot of things, but one of them is progress. So what happened to this one?
My battalion lost three men the last deployment. Two were from an accident. This time twice that many died in one nanosecond last month. Since June 2006, the total comes to twelve. One in Mosul, one in Baghdad and ten in Baqubah. What a difference three years can make.
I’ve been a stickler for military history ever since I can remember, and one thing that is clear to me is that wars are most difficult and dangerous at their beginning. Fighting an unknown enemy makes a man edgy and nervous. You’re never certain how well you’ll perform under the stress of combat. As time goes by, that turns into confidence. Tactics that are understood in theory are put to test on the battlefield. Supply lines, nonexistent before, start picking up steam. Days melt together as everything becomes routine. It’s called progress and it has been the case for every war in our history except Vietnam and this one.
The conditions have worsened in steps since we arrived here last year. We started out in Mosul, where the Iraqi Army was well trained and well disciplined. We had no qualms with them watching our backs. The unit we were relieving, the 172nd Stryker Brigade, kept the city under tight wraps. IED attacks were common but rarely resulted in a death or injury. As we learned the city, we dropped into a schedule: a mission or two every day, mostly for two hours or more. If it came to two and a half hours, we moaned at the possibility of missing lunch. The worst thing that happened was getting force protection, which meant sitting in a shack for four hours, guarding the base. You had a plate brought to you if your hours fell during meal times. Curses to anyone who didn’t bring mayonnaise with your sandwich!
Four months later, we got the word we were going down to Baghdad. This made everyone a bit nervous; nothing happened to us in Mosul, just the occasional ineffective IED or a novice sniper. It was easy street. Missions turned from community engagements to twelve hour clears of multiple neighborhoods. We would leave for three, four or five days at a time and stay in the city to get an early start. In Baghdad, we fought a more sophisticated enemy. They had a certain weapon we never encountered, an IED with a copper projectile that tore through any kind of armor we had. They were rare and expensive, but they were killing us. The media was making Baghdad out to be the very center of hell. It was a tougher fight, but we were wondering where all the bad guys went. We got into a few skirmishes during the four months we were there, but nothing like we expected. After awhile, we started to feel the strain of operations. Nearly nine months later, and we’re starting to see the toll on our equipment and ourselves. It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to be walking around in the desert heat from sunup to sundown, searching every house, car, lot, trash pile, sewer drain, abandoned building, garage, apartment and warehouse we came across. At about hour ten, you start to get the giggles from exhaustion, walking around in a delirious state, not concerned with banalities like getting shot. The only thing we could look forward to was going home in a few months. On the eve of the big push through Sadr City, rumors started flying about us moving up to Baqubah. We all thought, “Where?” No one knew where it was or why it was so significant. On the Ides of March we convoyed, with two companies, to Baqubah to assist the cavalry unit there. The next day we started an area familiarization in the city.
Two hours into the mission my friend was dead. In Mosul and Baghdad, we lost a man each, but I didn’t know them. Maybe I’m just not very social, but I only know people from my company, but I recognize dudes from other companies. I didn’t recognize the two dead. Instead I recognized the body bag being unfolded next to the corkscrewed Stryker that lay on its side. I recognized the school ablaze next to it with dead and dying kids. I recognized that we were so strained by the fight that we had no time to mourn the fallen. It came back to routine. Everywhere we were beforehand, there was a rotation in place so you could rest at some point. Two companies holding a city does not allow that. This is how serious the situation is: Al Qaeda moved their headquarters to this city, to this province. It’s their Alamo. In response, not even a whole battalion was sent to put out the fire. Out of twelve dead in the deployment, ten have been killed in Baqubah since March 14. We can never match the days in with the days out. We just returned from eight days in the city, battling the heat, bugs and insurgents. If we are lucky, we will finish out three days back in the rear, to rest and recuperate. Soon, the shortsightedness of sending two companies here will be corrected by the arrival of reinforcements. And to think, it only took the deaths of ten men for someone to see the folly in that. It was nine until last night, June 5, but this city, this province, this adventure in the desert, they are all black holes of progress. Another day, another slain soldier. What can you say? When you hear someone has died, you feel numb. Unless you were there, you don’t know who it was. He was from another company, but I knew him. In Mosul, I was tasked to be a radio operator at an outpost for two weeks. It was my job to record significant acts in the city, plot them on a map and deliver messages. He showed me the tricks of the trade and I quickly managed the routine. He was a quirky dude. We talked about computer games and the laptop he bought with his reenlistment bonus. I made fun of his big goofy glasses he wore. Since Mosul, I saw him a few times here, and we exchanged hellos. It was our progress.
Today is June 6, D-Day. Month twelve for our deployment. Before coming to Baqubah I decided Iraq wasn’t as bad as it was on the nightly news. Now, the few days we make it back in are spent going to memorials for those killed. We had one two days ago and soon enough we’ll be going to another. I’m just a lowly enlisted dude, so I don’t have the privilege of reading reports from generals and colonels saying how we’re sticking it to the enemy, or of how many schools we’ve built in the last year, or anything of the sort. But from what I can see, the only progress that is absolute it the progression of time, moving like a glacier to that day when we fulfill our obligation and make our way back home.