Saturday, January 27, 2007

Saved, But Not Saved

Early on a Tuesday morning last week, we began the day before the sun came up. The mission was simple: park vehicles on the on-ramp to a Baghdad highway and randomly block in traffic to conduct searches. We’d stop dozens of vehicles at a time and paw through the whole thing while others frisked the occupants for guns, detonators, fake IDs, anything rousing suspicion. We did this for a few hours until another platoon came to relieve us around lunchtime, and we would fall back to a base to rest for a few hours. We rushed to the chow hall, hoping to get back to the vehicles for some shut eye. Others walked to the free internet to kill some time. On my way back, our driver came running up to us saying “We have to go, we have to go now.” We cursed the thousands of possibilities why we had to return an hour early and walked in that direction. On our way back we ran into our sergeant major, who urged us to hurry up, saying a Blackwater helicopter crashed (Blackwater is a security firm for State Department officials in Iraq. They also train foreign military). At that point we rushed to the vehicles and headed in the direction of the crash site, having a very general idea where it was.

Our Strykers went blazing through neighborhoods hot on the trail. After a few minutes, ominous words came across the radio. “We just passed a bunch of bodies on the side of the road. They looked Caucasian.” We hit a U turn and doubled back to the bodies when several men started running away, some covered in blood. Since the rules of engagement are counterintuitive as I’ve pointed out in an earlier entry, we couldn’t shoot because they did not pose a threat to us. They made their way through alleys and side roads, escaping our grasp. Our vehicle, being in the lead for the effort, dropped ramp nearest the bodies. We set up near a corner, and I turned to see a white man, stripped of almost all his clothes laying face down, blood pooled all around him. No sign of the downed helicopter. We went further into the neighborhood to capture anyone making an exit. A few steps to the alley, we encounter three more American bodies in a group. I don’t have much time to notice their faces but I catch a glimpse of glassy eyes and tattooed arms. A trail of blood leads through the alley but abruptly ends. A shotgun blast erupts as my team leader shoots a lock off a door. We enter and clear the building, finding no signs of activity. I notice an expended AK47 round near some drops of blood outside the door. We continue through the alley, picking up no signs. We round a corner and see the ground totally swamped with blood. Divots, holes and ruts are all filled to the top. It all leads to one closed door halfway down the alley. A kick to the door opens to a surreal image: a helicopter, almost severed in half, crashed into a roof of a house. It sits on the second story ledge, so we begin clearing all the rooms in the building. I tear down sheets used as doors leading to dark, empty rooms probably occupied until a helicopter came roaring in. We used a broken wall to climb up to the crash, sending bricks falling down to the ground. Inside of the helicopter tells the whole story. Expended rounds from American and insurgent weapons. They tried to fight their way out after the crash. It was assumed they died in the crash according to early reports in the news, but there were obvious signs of struggle. In a few minutes, waves of Blackwater members stormed the area to get ahold of any sensitive documents and equipment. Our medic began to put the bodies in bags for their men to carry back. Security was set up for this, and after awhile, people in the neighborhood began coming out to investigate. We waved them back into their houses and apartments.

The call came to load up after roughly 45 minutes to an hour after we went to the ground. Smoke was thrown to conceal our movement to the trucks. We were moving back to the scene where the bodies were left, presumably to be loaded on a vehicle by insurgents to later show decapitated heads on internet clips. As always, progress was thwarted.

A constant hum of machine gun fire erupted from the tall building across the street from our position. Not ordinary machine guns, but DShK guns, suitable for shooting down airplanes and demolishing vehicles and buildings with their 12.7mm rounds. Two platoons, 60+ men, took the building we first looked in. Machine guns were taken to the roof. Couches and desks were placed as stands to shoot from the high windows. The order to fire was given.

On the decibel level, gunshots must be close to a jet engine when in the confines of a building. The sound of rifle and machine gun fire filled the entire neighborhood, but on the bottom floor, it was the loudest thing I have ever heard. People in your face shouting can barely be understood. Since I’m a lowly specialist in a building full of higher ranking men, there was no window for me to return any fire. They were reserved for the heavier SAWs and team leaders. My team leader began to have malfunctions with his rifle but would not jump down so I could replace him. I watched as others fired for twenty minutes straight, even taking a video of the offending building getting pummeled by rounds. I was finally directed to shoot a grenade from the launcher underneath my gun, something I haven’t done yet. I relished at the opportunity to send a grenade into a window occupied by a machine gunner. I stepped outside on the corner of the building, loaded a grenade and flipped my sight up. I am seconds away from shooting when a cease fire is called. Everyone foolish enough to be outside the building comes back in. We begin the long process of loading up, but this time we make it. All in all, I didn’t fire one round.

It’s obvious from what you have read in earlier accounts that I believe we make no progress in this war, that this has been a constant waste of time and effort. For seven months that has been true. But on January 23, we have tangible progress. We could have never saved the Blackwater guys from being killed, but we saved their remains from being taken and were able to secure them for their families. Various reports construe that around eighteen insurgents were killed in the fight, along with some civilians caught in the crossfire. Some of our guys suffered cuts from falling bricks but no one was seriously hurt. But those who were there will carry the image of those four Americans in the streets forever.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Stupidest Shit...Ever!

Since the inception of the Stupid Shit editions that find themselves scattered across this blog, I had planned on a Stupid Shit of The Year, listing all the candidates and having some sort of vote on what you, the most faithful of readers felt was the most inane and infuriating of all entries. Up to that point, they were all unexplainable rifts in common sense. All of it was maddening but we took it in stride as part of our job. It was so close to that moment, but before the end of the year, a single second stood tantamount to the stupidest shit I’ve ever witnessed.

On Christmas Day on the streets of Baghdad, we were greeted with student protests, hundreds marching throughout the city shouting anti American slogans as the mosque loudspeakers boomed with harsh rhetoric. Atop rooftops we could see them massing, and eventually we were called down to street level to deal with possible rioting. We met face to face with the protesters, both sides debating the consequences of dealing the first blow. I took a knee next to my compatriot and loaded a soft tipped grenade into my launcher to dissuade the more restless in the crowd; one tap to the chest and you’d be sent hurling into the mud. After a hasty Mexican standoff, we loaded up to head back to our base as the crowd cheered an apparent victory. Down the road, more were waiting for us with burning trash used as barricades to stop us in our tracks while rocks and chunks of concrete rained down on the hatches from rooftops. Grinches were definitely out in full force, but everyone made it back safe.

We're Here! We're Queer!

Wait, is this the line for PS3?

The stage was set for the next day, the day it came together for me. The day I finally understand how this conflict is being fought, in all the wrong ways most dangerous to those who are doing the fighting, protecting the very people at the top who are not. The day I was shot at for the first time in almost six months to the day I deployed, and the first time I ever shot back. Our mission was hazy and vague; sit outside the volatile section of Sadr City and wait for the enemy to come to us. We lazily scanned rooftops watching for machine gunners and snipers. I had just come from the stairwell where I was watching for anyone try to ambush us, but met only women and friendly kids. I was there but a few minutes when the horizon shook with a fierce sound of fire: clack-clack-clack-clack-clack. It was not the sound of our own. Five men including me pinpointed the fire coming from a rooftop in the Sadr City limits, and engaged. He soon disappeared, maybe dead, maybe not. We continued to lay down fire until I was told to stop. In between shots I attempted to mark the target with smoke grenades but both failed to perform. I intricately repeated through my head what happened for the next few minutes, coming up with all kinds of ‘what if’ scenarios. I’m sure it’s normal.

The rules of engagement were designed to protect the innocent and to prevent madmen from becoming murderers under the guise of defense. It states you must only fire at targets that are a direct threat to you. But, you can also shoot when you feel your life is threatened. In conventional war, this must have been simple to follow. You have two opposing sides, using conventional tactics with the wear of recognized uniforms. It wasn’t hard determining who was on your side and who wasn’t. There was honor and respect between foes. Flashes of history show us this. On Christmas Day in 1914, British and German troops ceased fighting for that day to trade cigarettes, coffee and stories. They played soccer in no man’s land, the ground where hundreds of thousands perished on both sides during futile advances. In Bastogne during WWII, again in the spirit of Christmas, German and American troops exchanged lines of Silent Night from their respective lines. They too continued one of the bloodiest battles of the war the next morning.

Welcome to twenty first century warfare.

American soldiers are breaking their backs to be the good guys in this war, to represent our leaders and the public we serve. We’re trying to remove the shame of Abu Ghraib and soldiers who raped and murdered Iraqi girls. When clearing blocks, we cut locks and if necessary, kick doors off hinges to search for weapon caches. If the people are home, we give them a number to call so they can collect money for their damaged property. In WWII, troops cleared houses by throwing in grenades without checking to see if a family is huddled in the corner. A terrible thing could happen, but it’s a war after all. We now have paintball guns and non-lethal shotgun rounds. Do you think the enemy carries the same? Who is this really helping?

I told you all of that to tell you what else happened on the roof that day. Minutes after the firefight, all of us noticed a black sedan making the same rounds through alleys and side streets. Always stopping in the same spot, always backing up at the exact same distance. The driver along with a passenger in the front seat and back seat were concealing most of the frame behind a building, leaving only the right passenger door facing us. Insurgents have been known to use sniper rifles inside cars so they can make quick getaways in traffic. It’s something we all know and watch for. This car was using textbook actions in a moving sniper platform. Immediately my team leader called up to my squad leader, who too became suspicious. We all wanted to take a shot, at least in the trunk of the car to scare the driver off, who was more than 300 meters away. Instinct was prevailing. We kept our sights on the car, which disappeared only to come back to the same spot and repeat his routine. It’s been 20 minutes. The call to take the shot went higher up the chain, the story getting more distorted and twisted the more ways it was interpreted to a higher ranking officer, all who weren’t there with us. It came back down the chain: don’t take the shot. It became a political decision; what if we were wrong? That's a lot of paperwork. We all cursed whoever kicked it back. I thought out loud about shooting and defending my actions later. I was told not to again. We watched the car leave, only to round the corner one more time and stop. He backs up, once again exposing his rear right window in a perfect line of sight to our rooftop. Once again the request to open fire was denied.

The window comes down.

Children in the alleyway scatter in all directions.

A flash of light fills the open window.


When bullets fly near you, they pop as they make sonic boomlets. Closer still, they make hissing noises like a rattlesnake slithering past you faster than the speed of sound. In a split second, you realize you’re not dead. Your second thought is, “where did it go?” I looked over to my team leader five feet to my right, shouting obscenities and holding his ear. I thought he had been shot. Quickly I realize the bullet came so close to his head that it damaged his hearing for a moment. My ears were ringing as well. As for the sniper, he got away. The time from the shot to when the car moved into the alley was less than a second. Kill or no kill, the sniper made it back to his family that night. He used against us our most honorable and foolhardy trait: our adherence to the rules. And we, the most powerful force the earth has known, have been effectively neutered.

So dreadful the thought of civilian casualties that rules of engagement get more constricting by the day. Americans and the rest of the world are unwavered at the sight of our boys coming home in body bags, but Iraqi deaths are too much to handle. They call for tougher rules, for more discipline. They want us to accomplish our mission but can’t stomach the fact it could result in civilian deaths. Now chew on this: what if we shot at that car, and it turned out to be nothing? What if it ricocheted and killed a little girl? Would we still be right? The answer is yes. It’s unsettling to think in such cold terms, but you, the American public that cover your SUVs in yellow ribbons with the most shameful definition of support that has ever been conceived, burden those in the military with all the responsibility and guilt of a war that couldn’t exist without the Senate you elected. You thank us for protecting your freedom, then with infinite ignorance, look the other way while the death toll mounts, largely because of limits imposed by the government, all the way down the chain of command to the individual on the rooftop. It’s perpetuated by the vocal citizens who demand we keep civilian casualties down at all costs, and that reverberates through the halls of Washington. It trickles down to the senior officers who have careers to protect, where accountability comes back on them. The ones who make the call not to shoot at the alleged sniper in a car somewhere on a cold street in Baghdad.

Before I left for the Army, my father told me an old adage I should have kept dear: “I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.” It needs no explanation. Those who were on the rooftop agreed that the next time we get that gut feeling, we’re acting on it. Even if the world says it’s a crime. I’ll leave this with another quote, from famed journalist Dan Rather:

In a constitutional republic such as ours, you simply cannot sustain warfare without the people at large understanding why we fight, how we fight, and have a sense of accountability to the very top.

The next time, I’m shooting. I might be judged by twelve, but it beats the alternative.