Monday, January 05, 2009

Sensing Combat: Hearing

(Author's note: Voting for the Best Military Blog begins today. Go here to vote.)

"So, what's Iraq like?"

For the number of times that question has been asked since I've come home from Iraq, it remains one of the great unanswered questions of my life (Why are we here? and Why did they cancel Arrested Development? are up there as well). I have to closely consider my audience before I answer. Most people pose the question to confirm their suspicions or bias about the war and the military. If they lean right, they want to hear how many Iraqis thanked me for their new found freedom, or they want to find out if Iraq is safer than the inherently evil media portrays it. If they lean left, they want to hear about how much it sucked being a tool in George Bush's war for oil. In nearly all cases it leads to the same place: getting a leg-up on their friends in a discussion of the war by saying, "I know a guy in Iraq who said..."

Thankfully some are genuinely interested in what it was like being in Iraq at the height of the surge. Yet I still find it difficult to describe it beyond seven words: It's hot and it smells like shit. A million little things need to be described before one thing is explained, especially to a civilian that knows very little about combat and the military. It is this disconnect where a good description of what actually goes on in Iraq fails. I intend to remedy this. For the next week I'm going to describe in detail the feeling of being in Iraq using the five senses as a guide. As rockumentary director Marty DiBergi might have put it, I want to capture the sights, the sounds...the smells of deployed life.


The most awful sound in Iraq is what we would hear five times a day like clockwork. From the mosques and high, cylindrical minarets all over the city, megaphones boomed with prayers. Often they reflected the mood within the city itself. If things were going well and firefights were at a minimum, the prayers would be said with a neutral voice. If a lot of violence was flaring up, the voice became angry and belligerent, almost like a call to action to fight against us. If anything the prayers were bewildering and a bit scary to young soldiers thrust into an entirely different culture. The droning voice blanketing the city could be anyone; an imam lobbying for peace or an insurgent sending out a war cry. We couldn't tell the difference.

The prayers at night were particularly unsettling. In Mosul we developed a strategy to insert small teams to watch areas where IEDs were typically planted. No more than ten men infiltrated a house in the middle of the night to set up a position. We effectively immersed ourselves in the city hoping to remain undiscovered. At night the prayers went on as scheduled, but I could never sleep through them. To me, the prayers sounded like the ramblings of the undead.

Hat-tip to Dozer for the video


"Is that a dude?"

"I think it's a dead dude."

On a patrol through Baqubah, someone spotted a couple of guys dressed in black running around on a rooftop. Black is the color of choice for insurgent attire, and it was apparent they were up to no good. Our platoon set up shop in an abandoned school about 300 meters away and quickly positioned machine guns in the open windows before the insurgents had a chance to set up weapons of their own.


The machine guns erupted, sending a volley of rounds that crashed into the brick building and blew apart the previously sharp-dressed men. It was unknown if the house they were in contained any more nefarious characters, so a helicopter was called in to level the house with a Hellfire missile. Before they could fire, they had to be certain what house to destroy. The machine guns continued to rake the outside of the house to confirm the insurgent's location, setting it up for the missile:

The video shows a proportionate amount of action versus bullshitting that you're likely to hear during a deployment. Short bursts from a pair of machine guns and a Hellfire missile slamming into a house give way to a casual conversation about dead insurgents hanging out of a hole on the roof.

I have a feeling my hearing won't be so great in twenty years. Almost daily a sharp piercing tone will overtake my left ear (my firing side) for a minute or so. Earplugs are recommended but unacceptable for the common grunt to wear. Hearing is perhaps the most valuable sense to a soldier on patrol or in a firefight, giving the ability to pinpoint incoming enemy fire or an approaching enemy's footsteps. In less extreme cases, however, your ears can be used to enjoy Pink Floyd while watching the desert endlessly drift on.


shea holliman said...

Why did they cancel Arested Development? I loved that show.

Anonymous said...

It's not open yet. As of now, it opens in 1 day 21 minutes. I hope you'll repost when it really does open so I'll get it in my RSS feed and remember to vote for you.

Alex Horton said...


I don't know, but I heard they were making a movie.

Polls will open sometime today. I'll make an edit on the top of the post when that happens.

13 Stoploss said...

AD movie has been confirmed--check IMDB, and google comments by Ron Howard. :)

Teddy Wilson said...

Excellent post...and I dig the new look.

Big Tobacco said...

I'll admit that it can be hot. But right now, it is so cold that I am burning Christmas cards in the burn barrel to stay warm.

That's the one misconception that I would want to let people know. Iraq gets *cold* at night.

Richard said...

All the muezzins together sound like air-raid sirens.

Victor said...

Excellent post. Great topic to cover.

bigD said...

Hi Alex,
It is sad to me that so many soldiers are going to experience hearing problems at some time in the future due to their war time exposure to elevated decibel levels.
Many have already experienced significant irreversible hearing damage. Just another box to check on the long laundry list of ailments that our soldiers must live with daily. Does anyone really think about the long term ramifications of losing one's hearing? I doubt it. Ear plugs? Huh? What did you say? I didn't catch that.

Iraq's "eau de cess pool" seems to be universally abhorrent to all who are forced to set foot upon its coliform-infested soil.

Keep on regaling us with your tales Alex. Voting for you on every computer in the house.