Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On The Road With Jose

Major Morse returns to the World and I want to share his latest missive. You may remember him from my previous post.

So I’m coming home. Today is the 2nd of June, and tomorrow I will leave Baghdad after just 135 days in country. It seems like a long time, but still significantly shorter than the tour of those I leave behind (tour. Such a funny application of the word, though with plenty of company in the Army lexicon: collateral damage, high-value target, smart-bomb, low-intensity conflict, knock and search. Sometimes – don’t tell anyone – I feel funny using these words, like I’m the guy who might believe there’s an alien in Area 51, or that there was someone on the grassy knoll. The language of conspirators).
Some introspection: I have mixed emotions about leaving. Can anyone commiserate? I want to get the hell out of here – fast – yet I have these feelings of not wanting to leave these guys I have trained, lived with, interacted with on a daily basis since the middle of October; of not wanting to leave this significant thing in my life; of wanting to help improve what seems, at times, a dire situation. Don’t be misled; I do not believe this to be my fight. But these are my friends, and it is my uniform, and it is my job, and I do believe, in spite of it all, that the burden borne to the biggest guy on the block is to make life better for everyone else. But it’s also my family I am going home to, and my country, and all of you. I can also take solace, if you’re into self-flagellation, in the fact that I’ll surely be back here in the near future. Baghdad is soon to be, remember, home of the biggest US embassy in the world. Surely the next time around we’ll have spread our good American cheer far and wide enough that I can get a beer outside the front gate. Already, I’ve had Iraqi school boys sing Snoop Dog lyrics to me and proudly flash me their middle finger (“hey mistah! Fucka you!”). Ah, progress. You cannot stop it, you can only hope to contain it.
Each morning here I awoke acutely aware of the paradox of being part of something I didn’t entirely agree with. Usually I contented myself with the belief that I’m an integral part of the greater good; by helping soldiers who had made some pretty stupid decisions; by helping other officers to be better people and attorneys and by trying to be a better one myself. But some mornings I didn’t know entirely how to deal with it. Some mornings I awoke wanting to be Russell Means, wanting to be Jim Harrison, wanting to be Marla Ruzicka. I want to shake things up a bit, I want to be anti-establishment. Some mornings I simply wanted some insight along with my coffee, wanted the information I think I deserved, not only as to what makes one country invade another, but also as to what makes a man strap a bomb to his back and run into a dining facility, or a group of people waiting to worship, or into a school. Surely it’s not as simply as oil; surely it’s not as simple as 72 virgins and eternal bliss. Surely it’s complicated, its discovery and pursuit merited by the loss of lives, national identity, religious upheaval, and billions of dollars. Right? Surely it’s an enviable thing, this quality of not only being willing to die for your cause, but to willingly die for your cause.
For 130 days straight neither the war nor its effects has reached out and touched me; when I’d wanted to see it, I had to go out and touch it myself. But we’ve angered the insurgency, apparently, by encircling Baghdad, and in the evening of day 131, prompted by the sound of gunfire, I stepped outside my trailer to watch tracers ricochet off of who-knows-what and fly into the night sky, framed against the backdrop of a dusty, yellowed Baghdad moon. Then on day 132, while waiting for a helicopter, I watched a VBIED-inspired mushroom cloud rise above the tree-line, the accompanying boom reaching me only seconds later. Day 133 brought a mortar round to my living area, about 200 meters from my own trailer, and today, day 134, I heard and felt – despite a building, a mountain, countless concrete barriers and a distance of about 400 meters between it and I, I felt – the effects of two 122mm rockets, the first landing harmlessly in between the chapel and the finance office, the second landing in the middle of our shopping complex, killing two and injuring seventeen soldiers, civilian contractors, and Iraqi businessmen. Two or three of the injured soldiers, and one of the dead, all members of the Georgia National Guard, had been in Iraq for less than a week. Your length of time in this country does not dictate your chances of death. Day one equals day 100 equals day 135 equals day 365. It’s like flipping a coin: no matter how many times you come up heads, you’re even money for tails the next time around.
Break. I’m home. I’m home, and I have read my above letter. Such pessimism, Jose! Such despair! Such chagrin! It sounds as if I wrote those words with bombs exploding behind me, on the run, running, leaping to latch onto a departing helicopter, my three duffel bags hanging from one arm as I desperately clung to the helicopter skid with the other (“Keep flying, Copperhead 35, I’m good! Get out of the impact area! Save yourself!). Such (melo)drama in my words, and I wasn’t even loaded when I wrote them! But I’m sending them out anyway, because I’m home now, and have so many good things to tell you – mostly how it’s not as bad as the media (or I) portray it, and that Iraqis and Americans, along with a few Italians, Estonians, Brits, Aussies, and Poles (sorry Michael Moore, I saw no Moroccan monkeys) are doing great things on a daily basis, and that Iraq, the Middle East, and hopefully America, will be the better for it. We hope.
Two stories to end with, one of ambition, one of optimism (sort of): About three weeks ago, I ran into a young soldier sleeping in the sun, lounging in a folding camping chair while waiting to talk to an attorney. Sergeant Hester, a 23 year-old shoe salesman and member of the Kentucky National Guard, is a Military Police soldier, with a mission to “shadow,” or guard, civilian semi-tractor/trailer convoys while they travel from city to city. At the end of March, SGT Hester and about nine other soldiers were shadowing a convoy of about twenty supply trucks, almost exclusively driven by third-country nationals (Aussies, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshi), when they were ambushed by approximately 75 (mostly Iraqi) insurgents. SGT Hester and the other American soldiers were in their armored vehicles at the back of the convoy when the insurgents initiated the attack with small-arms fire and Rocket Propelled Grenades. The soldiers immediately sped to the front of the convoy, where SGT Hester’s vehicle took a direct hit from one of the RPG’s. After first administering first-aid to the gunner, SGT Hester then left the vehicle and headed for an empty canal where she – yes, she – and one other soldier proceeded to kill or injure 10-20 of the enemy. SGT Hester threw grenades, fired her weapon at close range, went back to her vehicle at least once to get more ammunition, and had to take a break about half-way through the 45-minute gun battle to regain her energy. As she put it, at one point the fighting was “toe to toe.” Though none of the American soldiers were killed, several were injured. An ominous sign of the intent of the insurgents was found at the end of the battle when the US Soldiers confiscated, among other things, several sets of hand-cuffs (for taking prisoners) and a videotape of the early stages of the operation, immediately preceded by a film of the insurgents beheading a third-country national, most likely some truck driver, here to make more money in a year that he might see at home in ten years.
So is it a good thing that any young American is placed in a position where they must kill or be killed? No way. Do I hope that SGT Leigh Ann Hester, Silver Star pinned upon her busty chest, gets the opportunity to testify before Congress? Or maybe arm-wrestle some charcoal-suited, bespectacled, pomaded gentlemen from (insert red state). Absolutely.
Second story, also titled “Do it for the Chillren.”: About the same time I met SGT Hester, I hadn’t left the base in about a month and was feeling a bit stir crazy. The JAG officer for the Louisiana National Guard (yes, they’re exactly as you would expect them to be) invited me to go with them to deliver some clothes and school supplies to pre-school aged children in a western suburb of Baghdad. A convoy, in and of itself, is an adventure: the narrow Baghdad streets are absolutely slammed, every traffic circle doubles as an open market, and life zooms by through the small, bullet-proof window of your armored vehicle. Little kids smile and wave, young men glare, and women avoid eye contact all together. I have two loaded weapons, but the quarters inside our vehicles are so cramped that I could never hope to use either without getting out of the vehicle, so you’re literally along for the ride. We drive by the school twice before our translator figures out where it is, but we finally stop, announcing our presence with authority (how could we not?). Our five-vehicle convoy parks on the sidewalk; the front, middle, and rear vehicles each manned with .50 cal machine guns pointing in opposite directions. Our presence has reduced traffic to one-lane, but life continues. People are lined up outside an ice-cream parlor, three men (all in sandals) load sodas onto a truck, a man sits with his daughter on the hood of his car). But for our presence, it seems to be, fundamentally, a scene you would see in any major city in the world.
We exit the vehicles, about twenty men and one woman, all of us with loaded weapons, armored vests, and dark sunglasses, and meet a few of the teachers at the gate. The school itself, behind a gated entry-way, is two non-descript sump-block buildings without windows. Outside, trash and rubble are strewn everywhere, faded paintings of Disney characters on the walls. We are escorted to a one-room building, where the remaining teachers await us. All are women; two are dressed fully in black and but for their eyes, completely covered (how ironic, I think – I’m completed covered as well). In stark contrast to the outside, the inside of the building is exceptionally clean, tidy, and orderly. A row of miniature plastic chairs lines the far wall, each occupied by a wide-eyed, dark-haired Iraqi child. They are beautiful, apprehensive, and silent. I wonder what they must think, as we roar inside the class room, carrying boxes and talking loudly. Do they think we have come to kill them? To stuff them inside these big boxes, and take them away to teach them rap lyrics and curse words? Some of the soldiers start opening the boxes, unloading stuffed animals, clothes, school supplies, and finally unrolling a long piece of butcher paper, bearing the Crayola-ed words “Sacred Heart Elementary School, Baton Rouge Louisiana.” It appears to be signed by the denizens of that school, surely multiple Thibedeauxs, Simons, Delahousses, Therouxs, Landrys and Beaudreauxes. My friend wants me to stand with the children so he can take a picture; I politely decline. I feel like an intruder, self-conscious of the M16 slung from my shoulder, and wonder what I would have thought had armed men come to my school when I was in kindergarten (I remember my cousins surprising me once, that was alarming enough). Many of the children have begun to smile and chatter, and the teachers appear genuinely grateful and thankful for our arrival, and so I also wonder what it was like here three years ago, or five, or ten.The teachers serve us juice boxes and moon pies (universal diplomacy!), and then as quickly as we stormed in, we storm out.

Major Morse changed his mind, put down his M16 and had the photograph taken.

On the way home, we (meaning the guys I’m traveling with) decide to make a quick side trip. They’ve been looking for a local imam, leader of a mosque that is perhaps behind some unsavory activities in this part of the city, and this is, apparently, as good a time as any to see if he’s at home. We are looking for a bad guy. We turn down a side street, the lead vehicle speeding to the far intersection, blocking access and pointing the .50 cal down the road. The trail vehicle does the same at the opposite end, and the three remaining vehicles, me in one, stop about three-fourths of the way down the street. Several soldiers move towards the target house, the others pointing their weapons at rooftops, pulling security. I quickly fall in line with the men going towards the house, adrenaline rising, my mother’s face but Johnny Cash’s voice in my head (“don’t take your guns to town, son, leave your guns at home Bill”), my M16 at the ready (before, during, and after, I am disturbed at my eagerness, how quickly my thirst for adventure trumped common sense, politics, safety, care for others. Something to digest; perhaps safer to just ignore).
Alas, no one is at home (whew!), and we return to the street where we have attracted a crowd. A few older gentlemen are talking with our translator and the company commander. They look wise and well-educated, and are wearing clean, white dishdashas, or “man dresses,” and how quickly my sense of adventure has given way to another weakness, my sense of fashion. I eye the thing enviously. “I think I could pull that look off,” I contemplate. “Maybe a nice white linen, number, with matching sandals. I could wear it to my cousin’s wedding in July.”
But back to the point of the story, that of optimism. The older men continue to talk with the translator, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic, and it is clear that not only is the imam gone, but he won’t be back for a while. Our commander asks to pass a message to the imam, to come in to talk to us when he returns. Suddenly, quickly, the crowd around the translator grows. Kids. Lots of them. It appears school has let out, and the word has gone around that some Americans are in for a visit. Some soldiers open the backs of two of the humm-v’s, and start passing out paper, pencils, pens, markers, calendars, paper clocks, and the kids are going crazy. They are clean, kempt, happy. They all wear uniforms. Many come up to me, ask my name, where I am from, show me their English school books. The girls hang out in the back ground, all but one, who points out that one of the boys is named “Saddam,” again and again, and the other kids, including Saddam, laugh uproariously each time. I wish I weren’t wearing a helmet, or carrying a gun, wanting instead a soccer ball, a rugby ball, a skate board, two tin cans, anything.
The kids go from vehicle to vehicle, getting supplies, talking to the soldiers, everyone now laughing and smiling, soldier and child alike, white-haired gentlemen in man-dresses. We are interrupted only by two men with beards and long, skinny switches, who start their flock of sheep down our road. I expect a collision, chaos, confused children and frightened sheep. The two men ably divert the sheep back down the road, however, the herd first swallowing up the armored humm-v blocking the road, then spitting it out the other side.
At least for now, collision avoided.

Welcome Home, Major Morse. The you will never have to buy your own adult-beverage of choice again, as long as I am around ye!