Fort Apache, Iraq
Travel the bloody roads with GIs, meet the carpetbaggers, go inside Abu Ghraib and witness the catastrophic nature of the American conquest. BY MATT TAIBBI
I. THE GANG THAT DIDN'T GET HIT
The 158th Field Artillery had been in country since January and had never been hit. They were never going to get hit. You could just feel it. They were a security detail of good-natured Oklahoma boys, guardsmen from Fort Sill back home, traveling all over the country as they ferried a hotshot California colonel around to inspect Iraqi police facilities.
Back in Baghdad, they'd thrown me in the back of the third of four Humvees in the convoy, a truck code-named Juliet.
"Juliet is like cock and ready to rock," said Sgt. Stephen Wilkerson as we roared out of the motor pool in Camp Victory to the exit of the base, headed on a six-day journey across northern Iraq, the first stage of my five-week stay in the war zone.
To understand the war in Iraq, you first have to understand the people who are fighting it. And the way to do that isn't to burst in with your head in a point, bitching about WMDs and croaking passages from Arab-history books. Jump in the truck and shut your mouth; get on board, literally and figuratively. In America, everyone has an opinion about Iraq, even me -- but if you're going to take the step of actually going there, you've got to give it a chance.
Our route was north 225 miles to the city of Mosul, site of numerous bomb attacks in recent months, then on to Tal Afar -- same situation there -- and then back to Mosul before veering east to Irbil in free and peaceful Kurdistan and then south toward Baghdad again. When I arrived, there was news about a new prime minister, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was about a month from getting killed in an airstrike. And maybe some of al-Zarqawi's men were hiding behind car wrecks, watching us through the cross hairs, but nobody was worried about that here. We were never going to get hit. The real problem was lunch -- rumor had it that it was to be meals ready-to-eat, or MREs, on this first leg of the trip. Fuck al-Zarqawi: When do we get hot food?
"Hey, look up ahead," said the driver, Spc. Kevin Spicer.
Spicer isn't that tall, but his head is shaved shiny bald and he can bench-press about 9,000 pounds. His physique suggests something out of The X-Men, but underneath it all he is a softy who has a weakness for schlock soaps like The O.C. He pointed at a kid on the side of the road with a dirt-covered face.
"There," he said. "Cute kid."
The kid came into focus. Mud-streaked, in rags, standing in a trash pile. Roadside Iraqis were seemingly always doing two things: peeing and standing on trash piles.
"Scrawny-ass little boy," muttered Wilkerson, the team commander, sitting behind a big navigational console in the passenger seat. Wilkerson has an outstanding tattoo on his foot, an arrow pointing to his big toe that reads TAG GOES HERE. Back home in Oklahoma, he'd been one half of the inspiration for an underground comic book called Split-Dick and Stretch-Nuts. Which half? Wilkerson could pull his nut sack so far out of his zipper that he could balance a sixteen-ounce can of Heineken on the outstretched membrane-tray. It was a trick the whole squad referred to, with reverent awe, as "The Grandmother's Tongue." "I just have stretchy skin, I guess," he said.
Wilkerson has close-cropped dark hair and keeps his helmet shoved down just above his eyeline; he speaks with a twang thick enough to scare the banjo guy from Deliverance. Taking a second look at the kid on the horizon, he lurched forward suddenly.
"Oh, shit!" he said. "He just gave us the thumbs-down!"
"Well, fuck him and his Tonka truck," Spicer shot back.
Wilkerson shook his head in mock despair. "You know," he said, "we're over here doing who knows what, and he's giving us the thumbs-down." With great pathos he sighed into the vehicle-intercom system. "Shit," he said. "If we weren't in this country, his mommy and daddy wouldn't be getting paid to blow us up."
"That's just ungrateful," said Spicer. "Sad, really."
Above us, the team's truck gunner, a languid ex-cop, Sgt. Dustin Hames, who had been following the conversation on the VIC but apparently had not been sufficiently impressed to participate, ended the debate by tossing the kid a Beanie Baby from the gun bay in the Humvee ceiling. Somebody at home donated the Beanie Babies in massive numbers, and we donated the ones that we didn't give to female MPs ("Can I have your moose?" one had asked us) to kids on the side of the road. Thankfully, this one fell wide right. Earlier in the day Hames had thrown a blue furry animal at a little girl and bonked her square in the forehead. Since then we had been debating the need for Hames to draw silhouettes on the side of the Hummer for every kid he nailed with a Beanie Baby.
"Damn," said Wilkerson. "Some guys are worried about how many insurgents they kill. We're worried about how many kids we hit with Beanie Babies. Shit, man. Wow."
We rolled on. We were somewhere on a road headed north out of Baghdad, just beyond a notorious stretch of highway that was hit so frequently by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that most squads trembled at the thought of driving on it -- most squads except this group from the 158th, which was never going to get hit. The highway was a flat road ringed with sun-cooked brush. As is always the case in Iraq, the road was littered everywhere with war-zone hazards: unsmiling young men tinkering with broken-down vehicles, animal carcasses, unnatural-looking piles of stones, potholes, mysterious trash formations. All the classic warning signs of IEDs. We roared right past them.
"If we stopped to check out every last thing," said Wilkerson, "we'd never get anywhere."
Toward nightfall we reached the base at Mosul. Along with Tal Afar, it was a favorite stronghold of foreign fighters, particularly from Syria. A police training academy here had been blown up twice. Even the cafeteria at the FOB (forward operating base) we were visiting later that night had been blown to bits once. The place we were planning to eat dinner!
"This looks like Ireland," said Wilkerson philosophically, surveying the fields just outside the city.
"They even got sheep," noted Spicer.
"That's what I mean," Wilkerson agreed. "You see Ireland in the movies, you always get motherfuckers herding sheep in this green-ass pasture and stuff."
We stayed overnight at the FOB in Mosul. Like all FOBs, it was an otherworldly suburban expanse of mud, gravel, white-paneled trailers and ad hoc fast-food joints carved incongruously into the ancient landscape of Iraq like giant, teeming anthills of Americana. The FOB in Iraq is often absurdly luxurious, with an array of Middle American comforts like Popeyes, Burger King and Cinnabon at the soldiers' disposal, and most of the services (from food to laundry to shuttle buses to the rec centers) maintained with peak capitalist efficiency by the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, which goes so far as to leave customer-survey forms almost everywhere you go.
These preposterous Tell Us How U Like Our War!-esque survey sheets ("Please give your overall level of satisfaction for services provided by KBR....") provided a stark contrast to the idea of customer service just beyond the FOB wall, where gangs of Islamic extremists might put a bullet in your brain for buying the wrong thing -- bluejeans, cigarettes; there were parts of Baghdad, it was said, where Sunni insurgents were killing civilians for making ice, ice of course being unholy since it wasn't around in Mohammed's time. (There weren't Kalashnikovs, either, but who's counting?)
In the morning, Wilkerson stood on the trunk of the Humvee and cleverly emptied the melted ice in the water cooler in such a way that it looked, from the side, like he was peeing first on the forehead of Spc. Matt Adamson and then on the scalp of the bespectacled medic, Spc. Aaron "Doc" Gray, who opened his mouth and let the "pee" run down his throat. The photos came out great. Adamson's girlfriend was about to have a baby back home, but Doc's wife was the more immediate concern in the squad because she had sent Doc a picture of herself naked except for a few strategically placed rose petals. The production values of the picture were tremendous -- hence the concern.
"Somebody, somebody took nekkid pictures of Doc's wife," said Steve. "And he claims it was her. He claims it was her."
"How could it be her?" I asked, the investigative journalist in me taking over. "She's got rose petals all over her."
"My wife finished third in her high school class," said Doc defiantly. "She's a very smart girl."
"That's why you'll never find out who he is," snapped Spicer.
We rolled out of the FOB -- our objective on the first day had been just to reach Mosul, but now we had actual business in the province -- steamed through the city and roared forty-six miles to Tal Afar. During our brief stay in Mosul, an American soldier from another unit had been killed by a bomb just outside the wall of the FOB, and an Iraqi policewoman had also been shot to death -- but that was never going to happen to us; it just wasn't possible.
We had a better shot at action in Tal Afar, a place lately beset by IED bombings and foreign-fighter attacks after a period of relative quiet. Not long ago, President Bush himself had given a speech in Cleveland and declared Tal Afar -- an ancient-looking city near the Syrian border where foreign fighters had been slipping into the country -- safe ground. Bush said that Tal Afar was "today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq." Not surprisingly, the insurgents had responded by bombing the living fuck out of the place, so much so that by the time we got there, we found the mayor and most of the rest of the municipal government huddled up back-to-back in a heavily guarded castle on a hill like the last trembling teenagers in one of the Halloween movies.
"I love the president, he's my commander in chief," said one of the sergeants in our convoy. "But sometimes I wish he'd keep his fucking mouth shut."
Our cargo, Col. Donald Currier, a stately, silver-mustached officer who, dressed in anything but camouflage, would look very much like an English professor, was in charge of inspecting Iraqi police efforts around the country, and also helping administer and coordinate American aid to said stations. A former deputy Cabinet secretary to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Currier was a soft-spoken intellectual who believed implicitly in the ultimate success of the American mission in Iraq. He worked tirelessly toward that end, seemingly visiting every police station in the country in search of weak links in the chain.
In Tal Afar, a place where the police stations were under constant siege, the bureaucratic life preserver he represented was clearly needed. We met with the city's mayor, the lean, nervous-looking bureaucrat Najim Abdullah al-Jubori, who first asked for money and equipment and then presented Currier with the good news that "the people no longer call the insurgents mujahedin. They call them terrorists." That was enough good news to keep the ball rolling, so we moved out of the castle keep and inspected a few scattered police stations in town, including one where a small gang of miserable-looking American MPs were holed up on guard duty, four of them occupying a closet-size room on the second floor of the precinct house, where they lived seemingly round the clock, joylessly consuming MREs and playing Halo. Those MPs saw a lot of action: They not only had to fend off constant insurgent attacks against the police station, they occasionally had to break up violent struggles between local Iraqi army units (IAs, as we call them) and the Iraqi police (IPs). While the Iraqi army has traditionally had a closer relationship with U.S. forces, Iraqi police have often been more independent, and have been known to fall prey to infiltration by various extremist groups.
"Our guys will go out and catch somebody who attacked us," said Spc. Dan Mulford. "Then the IAs will roll in and say, 'How come you took this guy? He's a good guy.' And we'll say, 'No, he's a bad guy.' " He shook his head. "Next thing you know, the IAs and the IPs are going at it. We'll fire a round in the air to disperse them."
The 158th had better luck -- it was nothing but blue sky, empty roads and happy children waving at us as we roared down Iraq's Third World streets in our monstrous Space Age machines, spitting Beanie Babies in all directions. We stormed out of the city back toward Mosul. A week later, Tal Afar would be the site of a horrific suicide bombing that would kill twenty-four and wound dozens more, but of course we were long gone by then.
As we pulled out of town, the sides of the road were lined for miles and miles with IPs loyal to Col. Wathiq Ali, chief of police for the province. The show of force by Wathiq was probably a means of heightening his prestige in Currier's eyes, but getting that many men to stand up in public with the United States in today's Iraq was no small achievement. The police saluted as we drove by, and the line went on seemingly forever, or at least for most of the whole road back to Mosul. It was an impressive show of force and, my eyes fixed on the passing desert behind cool wraparound sunglasses, I allowed myself to be seduced by it.
That's right, motherfuckers, keep those hands up. America is driving by!
The conventional wisdom about Iraq these days is that this war was and is a colossal blunder, a classic crime of hubris that has metastasized into a disaster rapidly spinning far beyond our control. And, well, who knows, that may be true -- but only a goddamn Canadian can fail to appreciate the dream of omnipotence roaring along these Middle Eastern highways.
At home we deride every American soldier as a potential war criminal, we label them committers of massacres, we call them dumb and when we're really being nice, we say they're just dupes, field hands for the rich frat boys who got high on punch and drove us into this mess. But there's something beautiful about the way you can pluck fifteen American kids from the parking lots of the Midwest, drop them anywhere in the world, and you'll get the same thing every time: dip, dick jokes and 50,000 pounds of finely tuned convoy rumbling at top speed. Our kids may not be the best educated, they may not read many books, but in a fair fight, they will kick your ass.
Whether or not this is a fair fight is another question. But you can see why the Army is still convinced we can win this thing. The Army thinks it can do anything. The Army looks at Iraq like a drooling six-foot-six-inch bully would, staring in at home plate with an arm full of ninety-nine-mph heaters. To that kid, the game is never over. They almost all think like that over here. God forbid they should ever stop thinking like that.
It was a drive of several hours back to the FOB in Mosul that night, and after we made it without incident, we sacked out for the night. While we were sleeping, another soldier got shot outside the wall, but he wasn't with us. Moreover, word filtered back the next day that the first police station we'd visited in Tal Afar the day before had been shot up with AK fire. When we gassed the vehicles before leaving the FOB, we ran into another squad that had been hit; I talked to a twenty-year-old Californian named Anthony Matthews who was just coming back from medical leave after taking an IED in the face. Matthews looked just barely old enough to have a beard and reminded me of someone I'd see pumping Slurpees in a Georgia truck stop, but his face was already lightly scarred from the bomb fragments. Like most of the Iraq casualties of late, he was a gunner.
"What happened? I got blowed up," said Matthews, who told me right up front that he disliked the media. "I blew up at this one reporter," he snarled. "She was like, 'So you saw an IED?' And I was like, 'Motherfucker, I touched an IED.' I got six pieces of shrapnel in my face, so don't talk to me about seeing."
The guys in the squad listened vaguely to the story, then jumped in their vehicles and drove off, past the spot where the sniper had picked off one of ours the night before, past the spot where the other MP had caught shrapnel in his chest two nights ago, and then finally out of town and due north. If the enemy was watching, we didn't know it; not even a cat crossed our path all day long. Eventually we made it to a Kurdish city called Irbil, where everybody loved us and we got to stay in a hotel and eat pizza and watch shitty American soap operas on a giant projection television in the hotel lobby, where we lolled around with our feet up on the furniture like cows sleeping in high grass.
Kurdistan is paradise for American troops. "If only they were all Kurds" is something you'll hear said often by soldiers. Oppressed for centuries by Arabs of all stripes -- Sunni, Shia, Syrian, Iraqi -- the Kurds have been legitimately worshipful of American troops. This raw countryside with low, rolling mountains and smiling dark-haired men and women in Western dress provides a stark contrast to the rest of Iraq, covered in garbage and full of people who sneer in the best-case scenario.
The rumor in Kurdistan is that the local Kurdish militia -- the formerly anti-Saddam guerrillas, the Peshmerga -- will kill ten civilians for every American killed, which means you can walk the streets here. So we walked the streets, with their old markets of hanging clothes and cheap gold chains and big baskets of nuts and fruits, bought ice cream, winked at girls and snapped pictures of ruins. Conquering heroes. We were Donald Rumsfeld's wet dream.
But later that night, after we visited an Iraqi-police target-shooting range, a somber mood fell over the squad. Who knows what it was. Maybe it was because it didn't really feel right being here, if you weren't getting shot at. "I'd just like to feel like I was participating," said Cpl. Jimmy Shepard, an affable weightlifter. The lot of us were crammed into a pair of civilian SUVs run by the MPs up there -- they have no need to drive in armor all the time in Kurdistan -- and on the way home from the range, everyone's head was hanging as the sun went down on another incident-free day. The 158th is a wonder when it's loose and working; it doesn't do too well with silence.
Just then something horrible befouled the air: One of the guys farted, breaking up the somber moment. It was the perfect response to the overserious "war is hell" vibe threatening the atmosphere.
"That shit just ain't right," Spicer protested.
"That's as wrong as two boys fucking," agreed Wilkerson.
Then the group broke out singing a song called "Gay Factory Worker From the South" and the mood was restored. The trip ended a few days later without incident. The 158th was never going to get hit.
II. THE BIG SCORE
Porkfest in the Desert
Iraq is many things -- a horrifically dangerous war zone, a crumbling nation-state, a lousy place to buy a blintz. It is also a privateer's paradise, a macro version of one of those department-store contests where the contestant gets to run up and down the aisles cramming as much shit as possible into his shopping cart. Except the time period is ten years, not ten minutes.
By the time we reached a Kurdish city called Sulimaniyah, less than a week into my trip, the euphoria I'd felt in my first days with the 158th was rapidly giving way to more predictable feelings of paranoia and self-recrimination. As a journalist in Iraq, you can't help but start to feel like what you are, which is a vermin and an outsider. In many ways, being embedded with U.S. troops in the liberal-media/Michael Moore age is sort of like being asked to march into Sunday services in a Lexington, Kentucky, megachurch wearing an assless biker-dominatrix costume: One is conscious of having been the subject of many past sermons. In the Army mind-set, the relative success and failure of the Iraq War is all a matter of perception, and if you follow that calculus far enough, which a certain unmistakable minority of soldiers will, all of the bombings are actually the media's fault.
Any journalist in Iraq who does not regularly feel the urge to puke his guts out from conscience-sickness is probably not in the right line of work, because increasingly, almost anything he does here is a gruesome betrayal of someone or other -- the soldiers and their mission if he tells too much of the truth, himself and the public if he does not.
I was already beginning to feel weighed down by that issue when we reached Sulimaniyah, having seen things that I knew would fall under the category of "not helpful" if they appeared in print. The job in Suli was a visit/inspection by Currier of the Sulimaniyah Police Academy, a training facility built by the Americans and maintained by a pair of steely-eyed, sun-beaten Las Vegans whom I will call Bob and Ray. As the conduits to American funding of the school and, indirectly, the region, Bob and Ray clearly enjoyed the status of local emirs of the Man Who Would Be King genus, suckling languidly at the teat of the war effort and cheerfully overseeing various budget-devouring construction initiatives. When I arrived, they were in the middle of building a full-size "mock police station," complete with every conceivable bell and whistle for use in teaching recruits, while also training police recruits of various stripes and enthusiasms -- some had been rejected when portraits of Saddam Hussein were discovered in their shirt pockets.
The whole setup reeked of some idle Midwestern retired police officer's ultimate leisure fantasy: a tit job, a nice fat income, an endlessly replicating budget kept thousands of miles and a war zone away from any scrutiny by Washington, a huge staff of mute, mustachioed subordinates to build cabinets and sweep floors, a pool table, a satellite TV and a big yard full of rocks and desert plants to pump a few rounds into when things get slow. Yes, they lived in grim, modular trailers, but that seemed like a fair trade-off for a honey life. I could barely contain my jealousy.
Bob and Ray clearly had a plan in place for Currier's visit: to beg shamelessly for $4 million more to expand the facility. They had already gotten $4.8 million, but who knows what the final cost would end up being. Private contractors play an intimate role in almost every aspect of the Iraq War operation, performing a whole range of tasks traditionally handled by the military -- driving convoy trucks, providing security for government officials and other important personages, even "sucking shit," as the soldiers call cleaning out sewage. The profits can be astronomical, and there is plenty of evidence that costs to the taxpayer are ballooning due to the prevalence of cost-plus contracts, a system under which the more the contractor spends, the more he makes. In cost-plus, every company in a chain of subcontractors simply adds its own percentage profit charge to whatever moneys have been spent -- as high as thirty or forty percent in some cases -- so that a $150,000-per-year security guard may end up costing the government $600,000 or more. Henry Bunting, a former Halliburton purchasing officer, recently said that he often heard officials at Halliburton subsidiary KBR say, "Don't worry about price. It's cost-plus."
It's clear that there is a lot of money to be made in Iraq -- soldiers who are miserable will come back for a few years to get themselves a house or a boat or two. A lot of the contractors seem to be guys like Bob and Ray -- Southern or Western ex-cops or ex-military personnel (according to one report, thirty-two percent come from a few Southern states) who come to the Middle East with halos over their heads "to help," and go home a few years later with that big score tucked away.
Americans are a missionary people; we cannot resist wanting to help other nations. Of course, the Iraqis know, instinctively, that nothing on Earth is more dangerous than an American who visits your land and suddenly gets that goofy-ass Tim Allen Home Improvement-fixer-upper look in his eyes. And it's comical to see how powerful that philanthropic urge becomes when it is attached to 4 million potential dollars. Pleading their case to Currier in the air-conditioned quiet of their trailer offices (plywood furniture, beat-up couch, bookshelf full of Christian hymnals and Michael Crichton novels), the pair began their pitch by comparing their plight to that of a similar training facility the Army apparently had in Jordan, where some $12 million had apparently been spent just on a staff recreation center.
"I mean, if you're going to do that," said Bob, an older man with silver hair, "you might as well just take the money and go light a match to it."
"And here we ask for just $4 million!" complained Ray, a younger type with a slight potbelly stretching out from a striped artificial-fabric polo shirt. "And the money is just very hard to get our hands on."
Diplomatically, Currier said nothing, and the conversation shifted to a discussion of widespread problems with recruits across the province. Seeing Currier's despair at the long list of obstacles, Bob smelled an opening and pounced like an animal.
"I think the thing to do is invest another $10 to $15 million right here and do it right," he said bluntly.
A bold move, but it fell flat. Nothing from the colonel. Bob and Ray were physically leaning forward in their chairs by this point.
Currier: "Do we have training for NCOs, commissars, etc.?"
Bob: "It would be wonderful to run a class for these guys. We'd do some training for them, sure."
Bob smiled. It was the smile of a vacuum-cleaner salesman face-to-face with a housewife. Training? We can do training. Heck, this little baby cleans carpets of all types, from shag to Persian.... Let me show you what I mean, ma'am....
Bob smiled again. It was time for him to bring out his ace in the hole, Maj. Gen. Sabah Jalal Gharib, head of local law enforcement. I would see a number of these inspection-budgetary meetings, and the playbook was almost always the same. The local official, a toothy personage with a lit cigarette, a gray suit and a mustache, was usually introduced by the American bureaucrat-privateer, propped up as the second coming of Fiorello LaGuardia or Augusto Pinochet or both, and praised to the heavens for his hatred of Saddam and his devotion to the cause. He is invited to speak briefly. When he finishes, he is applauded, called a "good guy" and then shuffled to the side. Finally, a request for funding is made. It's the same every time.
In this case Gharib asked Currier for money to build more police stations, at a cost of just a half-million bucks or so per station. Then he sat smoking a cigarette, leaving the rest of the meeting to Bob and Ray.
"We only received 1,000 rounds of ammo in the last shipment," said Bob. "You yourself know what 1,000 rounds is good for."
"Every time we ask supply for new cars," said Ray. "And every time it's the same refusal. Look at us. We have old, beat-up cars!"
The memory of having just paid a monstrous tax bill burned in my skull as the sound of Ray complaining about having to drive an old car in Iraq bounced around in my ear. It dawned on me that this was how the appropriation process works in Iraq -- your Bob and your Ray just have to ask for the money, and it arrives!
I would later be told that this particular training academy had been funded out of a nonmilitary appropriation called the International Narcotics League. More than a month after that, I would visit Congress and learn from several congressional aides that there was no way for even a U.S. congressman to find a budget where these programs exist -- they're simply not in the public record. Unless you fall onto the info by parachute, there is no way to find out what is being built in Iraq, and for how much.
When the meeting ended, Gharib suddenly decided to take his important guest on a long, winding tour of the natural wonders of Sulimaniyah, which included a twisting skyline roadway that climbed beehive-style up a small mountain overlooking the city. The trip involved a large convoy of vehicles, and I was wedged into an SUV with an eclectic group that included Ray (who was driving) and a few other soldiers.
The talk in the car turned to the local population. The general theme of the conversation was that the Kurds were great folks, just like us, except when they weren't and were still a backward bunch of primitives.
"They're so advanced here," said Ray. "They're always looking to the future. All schooling here is free, even the university. They even pay the students, so that..."
"So that they can concentrate on their studies," said one passenger, Sgt. Arne Eastlund, approvingly. He laughed. "That's great. I wonder where they got that idea?"
"They dress more in the Western fashion here," noted Ray.
"That's good," said Eastlund.
Suddenly, a sergeant named Pistone chimed in. "You don't see many joggers or Rollerbladers here," Pistone said, looking out the window at the flow of Kurdish pedestrians trudging through their markets. "Or mountain bikers. Weird."
"Yeah, you're right," said Eastlund.
At the top of the hill, we drove through a recreation area full of picnickers. The Kurds sat on the hillside on carpets and sheets, drinking, smoking and eating homemade meals.
"You don't see many concession stands or salesmen here," said Pistone. "In America, in a place like this, there would be salesmen and concession stands everywhere." There was a tinge of empathetic regret in his voice.
"Hmm," said Eastlund.
Just then we drove past a young Kurd who, upon seeing the convoy of Americans, stood up from his picnic and very deliberately pulled out his middle finger to show to each and every one of us.
"Jesus Christ," said Pistone. "Did he just flip us off?"
"We should tell the Peshmerga," said Ray. "They'll take care of him. They'll send us his fingers in the mail."
"Yeah, we should," said Eastlund.
"Motherfucker," snarled Pistone.
We drove higher and came across a bunch of Kurdish children playing on a swing set that had been constructed high up on the mountainside.
"Oh, that's good," chuckled Pistone. "Just let your kids fall off the mountain. I mean, who's gonna herd the sheep tomorrow?"
"I wonder if they even have DUI laws in this country," mused Eastlund, watching the traffic come down the hill.
"Yeah, I doubt it," said Pistone. We drove further and he looked over at a bunch of teenagers dancing and snorted, "Yeah. Drinking and dancing on the side of a mountain -- a real good idea." Near the top of the hill Pistone raised an eyebrow as he looked out the car window. "They got trash baskets up here. Surprising."
For those of us who still wonder why it is that we actually invaded this country in the first place -- and this is a question that even the most creative conspiracy theorist will still have trouble answering convincingly -- all it takes is a few scenes like this to understand that this isn't just about oil.
There is a certain psychologically inevitable quality to our blundering overseas, a kind of burning, insane desire to fuck with people we don't like or respect in the slightest, to cure the disease of their cultures, as it were, by drying them out in the sun of our creepy suburban enlightenment. What kind of madmen come to the ancient territory of mountainous Kurdistan and search expectantly for Rollerbladers out the window of an armored vehicle? This kind of weirdness comes far too naturally to us for this to be an accidental consequence of the invasion; it has to be part of the reason we're here, too.
It was a long twenty minutes down the hill and back into the city downtown, where we arrived just in time to see a small crowd of bubbly college-age girls walking home from one of the local institutes.
"Hey, how about that?" said Eastlund.
"Yup," said Ray cheerfully. "They dress almost like American girls here!"
III. LOST IN BAGHDAD
A Bet on the Wrong Horse
Back to Baghdad, which they say is one of the largest cities in the world. I wouldn't know. For most Americans in the capital, life in Baghdad just means a bigger FOB -- one with walls twice as high, twice the number of guards, bigger cafeterias with twice as many varieties of pie. Beyond the barricades is a complex city of ten million, in whose streets a subterranean civil war is played out in daily assassinations between religious sects; one soldier, whose responsibilities included visiting a city morgue, told me that there were dozens of bodies to pick up every morning, many missing heads or kneecaps. But all of this is theoretical to most Americans, for whom the biggest difference life in the capital offers is the much higher number of nitpicking officers who never leave the FOB -- called "fobbits" in Army parlance. In the rougher regions, you will not find many officers who patrol the grounds looking for soldiers who forget to salute or commit the crime of bringing a book into the cafeterias (there might be an IED inside).
Upon returning to Baghdad from my trip north, I had a vision. The vision coincided with my transfer out of the unit of charmed Okies in the vast Camp Liberty suburb and into a far more miserable and serious situation in a smaller FOB across town.
The whole vibe of my embed changed the moment that transfer went through. It was almost as if some spell had been cast around me. With the fun-loving Oklahoma crew, I never felt in danger for a second; even driving through some of the more notorious stretches of Iraqi highway, I felt as safe as a pixie in the Rose Bowl parade. But when my transfer came through, the skies darkened and I found myself standing in a carport in the marbled luxury of Camp Victory (with its absurd artificial lake and Saddam's ornate pink Alexandrian palaces, now commandeered by no-nonsense officers of the Middle American managerial type), and suddenly I could hear a tense and serious-sounding Bostonian lieutenant colonel named Alfred Bazzinotti yelling questions over the Humvee engines about my blood type, asking if I had signed the proper release forms indemnifying the Army in case of whatever, and then finally telling me to get the hell in the truck because we were moving out.
Before long, though, our convoy got lost. In an attempt to stay one step ahead of the insurgents, soldiers took strange roads and byways, trying as often as possible to take advantage of the Humvee's off-road capabilities, and in this case the convoy tried to sneak across southern Baghdad at night by crossing what appeared to be an old dried-up lake bed, along a "road" that looked to me like the top edge of an ancient dam that rose steeply twenty feet off the ground on both sides. It was slow, dangerous going along this semi-cliff without streetlights, and it was no surprise to anyone when the "road" suddenly came to an end and the convoy was left looking at a precipice that stared back at us in the darkness like a bad joke. We doubled back and made it to the Baghdad city streets, where we moved through an abandoned marketplace full of cats and other feral animals that were feeding on garbage and whose eyes glowed yellow in the headlights as we drove past. Packs of wild dogs chased us, barking at every turn.
It was just then that I saw it, off in the distance, far in front of the trucks. It was a horse -- a bright white horse, so horribly emaciated that you could see all of its ribs sticking out. It was wobbling, as though using every ounce of energy in its bones to stay standing. Sick as it looked, its white coat shone through the night, arrestingly pure, like the belly of a fish. It was also blocking the road, which pissed off the soldiers. American soldiers understandably do not like to stop their trucks for any reason, much less some raggedy-ass old horse. Our driver reached down and blasted the Humvee siren -- WOOO-EEEEEEEE! -- which startled the animal, causing it to lope off to the left shoulder of the road.
"Watch out for the...what the fuck is that?" shouted a sergeant named Vasquez.
"It's a horse," said the driver.
"Jesus. Somebody call the ASPCA," Vasquez said, looking at the miserable creature with pity.
"Or the glue factory," cracked the driver.
I looked out the Humvee window. For the first time I noticed that the horse's hind legs were blood-streaked. It appeared to be bleeding out of its ass. As we drove past it, it lumbered to the edge of the median strip, stopped and fell over.
"Hey," I said. "That horse just fucking died."
Nobody up front in the truck heard me. We drove on.
IV. DON'T ASK WHY
The How Is Hard Enough
Lower the big black dick?" asked Sgt. Cavanaugh.
"Yeah," said Sgt. Hennes. "Lower the Big Black Dick."
The Big Black Dick was a long black iron prod with a big square head at the end that the Army had devised as a method of preventing vehicle-borne suicide bombers from ramming Army convoys head-on. Technically it was called the RINO, but in this group of the 519th MP, a police transition squad on the eastern side of Baghdad, they called it the Big Black Dick.
Everyone hated the Big Black Dick. It turned urban driving into an unpleasantly approximate experience, like steering a yacht with a wedding cake balanced on the foredeck. Moreover, if something came up and you had to make a sudden turn down an alley, there was always the possibility that you'd have to stop the truck and send one or even two people out into the open air to put the thing back in the up position, which sort of defeated the purpose of traveling under armor in the first place.
Sgt. Jeremy Cavanaugh, a laconic young MP with a wry smile, jumped out of the Hummer, ran to the front of the truck and lowered the unwieldy thing.
"Dick in place," he said sarcastically, returning to his seat.
"Must be uncomfortable, driving with that thing," I said.
"Sgt. Cavanaugh has it down to a science," noted Sgt. Jonathan Hennes.
"This dick is getting a lot of action," cracked Cavanaugh.
He hit the accelerator and we rolled out. This was early on the afternoon of Friday, May 5th; the FOB we were leaving was called Rustimayah, a dank shithole that I'd been transferred to some two weeks into my embed. Not far from the vicious, chaotic ghetto known as Sadr City, Rustimayah is the smelliest, foulest, most vermin-infested base in the whole American military archipelago. A converted Republican Guard compound, the smallish FOB is sandwiched between a trash-burning facility and a sewage-treatment plant, and when you breathe the air here, it feels like drinking a dog-shit milkshake.
Unlike the gleaming, futuristic prefab trailer camp at Liberty, which with its extensive creature comforts and vast white uniformity recalled a Holiday Inn version of Auschwitz, Rustimayah is just a jumble of old converted Iraqi buildings, filled to the cracks with crud and shit and larvae. An old bookshelf in one of the soldiers' dorms here discharged thousands of tiny fruit flies every time I tried to pull a book out; another time, I exited a latrine and stepped in what I thought was black topsoil, only to have the "soil" explode into a cloud of tiny tsetse flies. Even the half-assed attempts to make the place cheery -- like the Internet cafe-store-hangout called "Baghdaddy's!" not far from the company headquarters -- just made this stinky, edge-of-the-city outpost feel that much sadder.
Hennes, the squad's team leader, sighed as he glanced out the front passenger-side window of the truck. We were on our way to yet another police-station inspection and the road we were taking out of the FOB was not a particularly safe one -- but then a lot of things about Rustimayah were not particularly safe. There were no gangs that never got hit in Rustimayah. Guys here got hit and they looked bummed out about it. Unlike the rah-rah atmosphere in sprawling Camp Liberty, there was an aura of depressed fatalism that stuck to everyone and everything on this base.
That was even true of Hennes, a smallish, sharp-witted, clean-cut young man from Florida. I liked him right away, mainly because he made no attempt to be my friend. When we first met and I gave him my usual goofy handshake and smile -- Hey, guys, I'm just here to check out this war thing you've got going over here! -- he'd recoiled slightly, his face crinkling as though a refrigerator full of rotted cheese had just been thrown open in front of him. At work Hennes had the mildly pissed-off, perpetually put-upon look of a man who has been asked to run a McDonald's in an insane asylum. "I don't do this for the glory," he cracked. "I do it to pay the bills."
He looked out the window now, saying nothing. The road we were on was a stretch with a bad recent record for small arms and IED incidents. There was all the usual potentially troublesome shit on both sides of the road, along with lots of Iraqi pedestrian traffic -- young men in cheap slacks with mustaches and missing teeth, women in various states of religiously mandated cover, Pigpen-faced children running back and forth and belonging, hopefully, to someone.
We roared through it and I wondered what Hennes was thinking. Here he was, thousands of miles from home, riding in a truck with a preposterous fifteen-foot black phallus pointed provocatively straight out in a street full of unsmilingly dirty people who might or might not be trying to kill him at that very minute. And all of this in order to go...
To go where? Did that question cross his mind? Loosely speaking, the mandate of this and other police transition teams was construction and training, in other words seeing that police stations got built, and teaching the Iraqi police whatever it is that we teach the Iraqi police. But I was beginning to wonder even about that. There is a thing that happens in bureaucracies -- and the Iraq War is nothing if not a great and monstrous bureaucratic endeavor -- in which things cease to happen for reasons and begin to happen just for the sake of happening. The nature of the colossal industrial apparatus that is the American military is that it fixes problems; upon encountering difficulties, it is not designed to give up, retreat or rethink -- it must conquer every obstacle in its path; it's a reflexive drive toward triumph hard-wired in the very spine of the bureaucracy.
The primitive, single-plated Humvee that was first used for these patrols originally proved too vulnerable to IEDs and especially EFPs (explosively formed projectiles, copper-coated charges that are proficient at penetrating armor and were rumored to come from Chechnya). So the vehicle has been modified, and modified again, and then the modifications have been modified; it has been sent to the shop and affixed first with a Big Black Dick, then a Bigger Black Dick, and then extra armor and then extra armor on top of that. When the new triple-armored, Dick-bearing Humvee proved so heavy that the doors fell off their hinges, the Army was forced back to the drawing board again, and doubtless a new kind of Humvee door will soon roll off the line.
Like the endless, inconclusive wars in Orwell's 1984, this interminable technological back-and-forth assumes its own logic after a while, and it may be that nine or ten versions of the Humvee down the road, no one will even remember anymore why we needed to go to the police stations in the first place. So now Hennes and his convoy are driving to the police stations with big iron dicks in their grilles, avoiding alleys and keeping their doors shut so that they don't fall off, while all the time trying not to get killed. That's a complicated and hazardous enough mission for a bunch of twenty-year-olds, and it is not surprising that most of them don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about the what or the why of the mission. When the how is as difficult and problematic as it is for most soldiers in Iraq, why becomes a luxury that almost no one, not even the people in charge, can afford.
We rolled through a section of eastern Baghdad that was a logistical nightmare -- narrow, congested streets, high buildings lining both sides, debris and disabled vehicles everywhere -- and finally reached the Bab-Al-Moudam police station and its garbage-strewn courtyard. Hennes excused himself and jumped out of the truck, indicating that I should wait.
"You should have been here last time we were here," said Cavanaugh, who as a Buffalo native appeared not to be shocked by Iraq.
"Oh, yeah?" I said.
"Yeah," he said. "Last time we were here, the IPs were shooting pigeons off the wall. This one guy shot a pigeon, it fell to the ground, and he went over and ripped its head off, squeezed its guts out, and fed it to a motherfucking cat."
"No shit," I said.
Hennes came back. "Let's go," he said.
We inspected the station and things seemed in order except for one thing -- a gigantic pile of canned sodas tossed haphazardly in one corner of the weapons room, amid a row of neatly stacked automatic weapons. The police had probably, I thought, just been thirsty and confiscated someone's soda stash. Hennes sighed, like he'd seen this before, and asked the IP on duty what the deal was with the cans. Our translator, a masked Iraqi we called Johnny Bravo, who dreamed of being a Hollywood actor like Mel Gibson, explained.
"Expired merchandise," Johnny Bravo said. "You know, it's the poison, man."
"Poisoned," Hennes snorted. "Right. Whatever." He shook his head and we went back to the precinct offices to meet with the bigwigs.
Anyway, mask on -- many of the translators do not trust even Iraqi police to know their identity -- Johnny Bravo and I followed Hennes upstairs, where he was to meet with a pair of local police chiefs named Col. Adnan and Lt. Col. Qazoen.
It was the by-now-familiar scene -- a pair of mustachioed officials sitting with lit cigarettes and glasses of hot chai ready for their visitors, smiling and folding their hands. At first the meeting went well, as the two chiefs seemed to have the right answers for every question, punctuating their responses with occasional plaintive requests for equipment and money, but Hennes was noncommittal. Then he moved on to the subject of the "expired" cans in the pantry.
"Johnny," Hennes said, "ask him if he knows that there's a whole bunch of cans of soda in the armory."
Johnny translated and Qazoen frowned, thought for a moment, then answered, his eyes looking sad and earnest.
"He says yes, he knows," Johnny said. "The cans are expired. They're poisonous."
"Poison, right," Hennes said.
"He doesn't want the people poisoned by expired soda," Johnny said.
"Right," Hennes said.
Banal as this scene was, it got right to the heart of the peculiar dysfunctionality of the occupation. After observing many interactions like this, I had taken to asking both sides exactly what the Americans' authority was, legally, to tell the Iraqis to do anything. In this situation, for instance, could Sgt. Hennes order Col. Adnan to throw out the soda? Or could he just suggest it? Given the fact that the whole ostensible thrust of our nation-building effort here is to impart historically despotic Iraq with a tradition of rule of law, this was a conundrum underlying our occupation that, to me anyway, seemed to threaten to reduce the entire exercise to an absurd paradox.
One of the first Americans I'd asked this question of was Col. Currier, the mellow intellectual CO/roving inspector those Oklahoma boys had been driving around the country. Currier is a model commander, attentive to even the smallest concerns of the lowest-ranking soldiers in his unit; he habitually manipulated his schedule, for instance, to make sure the soldiers he traveled with never missed hot meals.
The colonel had worked out a coherent, logical case for every aspect of the mission. But even he was a little stumped by the legality question. Once, after he had given instructions and suggestions to some police officials in Tal Afar, I asked what his legal authority was to do so. "Well," he said, shrugging. "It's not an easy question to answer. I guess ultimately it's like Mao said: Power comes from the barrel of a gun. I mean, we're here, we've got the authority. It's implicit."
When I suggested that America seemingly had stepped into the exact role of the Ba'ath party, the colonel naturally did not like that comparison. "Let's just say it's kind of a gray area," he said finally.
For most of the officers and NCOs who deal with Iraqi officials on the micro level, that uncertainty is a daily reality. "Yeah, it's kind of a gray area," conceded Hennes, after the soda-can exchange with the two chiefs was over. "You ask what my authority is in these situations, and the answer is, technically not much," he said.
Almost everything about the Iraq War is a gray area, beginning with the question of whether the soldiers are at war or not in the first place. Can they shoot or can't they? When driving through the city, is the show of force intended to intimidate, or reassure? Soldiers regaled me with stories of units that had been asked to remove their shoulder armor so as not to look "too scary" to the population. In other units, M-4 rifles were taken away from the Humvee gunners, to prevent an excess of warning shots -- leaving soldiers with only the massive and lethal .50-caliber machine gun to defend themselves.
To the soldiers, all of these contradictory initiatives testified to a confusion up on high about what the Army is doing in Iraq. Is this mission political, or military? "Either don't waste our time coming here, or if we are here, let us put the heat down," one soldier told me. "There's just too much gray area."
On a practical level, watching soldiers like Hennes and petty Iraqi officials like Col. Adnan stumble over the political elephant in the room -- the illusion of Iraqi sovereignty -- is at times a painfully uncomfortable spectacle. Complicating matters is the strange disconnect between the two cultures. As ubiquitous as our presence in the country is, the actual commerce between Americans and Iraqis is far rarer than one might expect. Soldiers still characterize locations using the old slang terms "inside" or "outside the wire," but the ironic thing is that by "outside the wire" what everyone really means is "Iraq." "Inside the wire," of course, generally means "inside the FOB," and the FOB, with its high walls and stringent security, is a hermetically sealed universe that aims for the sanitary purity of one of those oxygenated, boy-in-a-bubble biospheres. Except in rare cases, Iraqis are not really welcome on the FOBs, and even in those instances -- like the case of the "host-country nationals" whom the Army hires to clean up garbage inside the walls of Abu Ghraib -- they're likely to be kept under constant surveillance by Cool Hand Luke-style walking bosses who can have them changed into yellow jumpsuits at the snap of a finger.
There are exceptions, obviously -- the translators, the local politicos, the guests of the occupation -- but for the most part, the suburban American purity of the FOB, with its volleyball courts, cookouts and Burger Kings, is kept closely guarded, meaning that Iraq is no longer a whole country but a pool of water marred by a rapidly expanding archipelago of oil slicks. According to the Army, there are some eighty-two coalition FOBs spread across Iraq. As a result of all this, communication in those few instances where our culture meets theirs tends to be dysfunctional and sad -- like a pair of Down-syndrome kids rolling a ball back and forth across a shag rug.
"OK," said Hennes. "Last time we were here, there were some IPs shooting BB guns...."
He recounted the whole story of the pigeon massacre. Johnny Bravo translated. The Iraqi colonel listened, then frowned.
"He says," said Johnny Bravo, "that this was my hobby, but that if you don't want me to, I won't do it anymore."
"Well," said Hennes graciously, "I like to shoot BB guns, too, I just don't like to do it at work. Let's try to keep it professional."
Johnny Bravo translated. Upon hearing the admonition about professionalism, the colonel seemed to sour; his face changed and he began gesticulating forcefully as he answered.
"He says," said Johnny, "that his men work long hours, and you have to give them a chance to breathe."
Hennes sighed. "Well, of course..."
"He says," continued Johnny, "that nowadays they're always getting hit by IEDs, and it used to be rarely. So the men, they need to have a little fun and you don't want us to have any fun."
Hennes looked momentarily perplexed by this answer. "Well, I understand needing a release," he said. "But I just didn't think that was very professional."
The next day I was due to fly out of Rustimayah by helicopter, but something came up and so instead I spent the entire day at the helipad, waiting for a flight out. It was late in the long, hot afternoon when Hennes showed up, along with some of the other NCOs in the unit, including his friend Sgt. Brian Stake and another of the unit's translators, a slightly older man named Salim. Hennes was wide-eyed and in a state of highly agitated sarcasm; I could see right away that something had happened.
"Gee, too bad you missed us today," he said. "We got in a firefight."
We went to the cafeteria for dinner. Listening to the conversation between Stake and Hennes, fresh from an afternoon of combat, made me powerfully aware of the gulf that separates soldiers and civilians. Whatever our reasons for doing so -- whether it's academics anxious to test beloved theories, or politicians making gambits out of self-interest, or even patriotic civilians voting for sacrifices that others have to make -- whenever society makes life-or-death decisions, the burden always ends up with these guys, right here.
"Why did they attack us?" Hennes asked sarcastically. "They attacked us because they didn't get their morning paper."
"Yeah," said Stake. "They didn't find out who won the Sabres-Flyers game."
I bit my lip, the thought involuntarily popping into my head: Who did win that game?
"Wait, I don't understand," said Salim. "They attack because of a paper?"
Hennes shook his head, resisting the urge to laugh. "No," he said. "It's just..."
"Actually," deadpanned Sgt. Stake, "when it was over, we just ordered some chai and talked things over."
"Yeah," said Hennes. "Let's be peaceful."
Salim looked up helplessly. Were they being serious? No one bothered to straighten him out.
As often as the soldiers get attacked, there is surprisingly little discussion among the troops about who is actually doing the shooting. Is it Al-Qaeda? The Mahdi Army? Foreign Shia fighters from Iran? Sunni extremists? There are literally hundreds of possibilities; one intelligence operative told me that each and every day, fighters came in claiming to belong to groups with new names. "You might get five young guys in a town, just playing at being bad guys," he said. "They'll call themselves the Grandmother's Brigade or something. But they're basically just gangbangers." The distinctions interest the intelligence guys, but to most soldiers, it doesn't really matter who's doing the shooting. They all go by one name -- Hajii, a name we use the same way we used Charlie a few decades ago.
I left Rustimayah that night, but I was back a week later. For a memorial service. Two soldiers from that same battalion had been killed when a bomb hit them en route to a police station. I was told that it was an EFP that tore straight through the Humvee armor and that there was nothing left of the men but ash.
V. YOU CAN STEAL WI-FI ANYWHERE
Three Days in Abu Ghraib
Early one Sunday morning I met up with a man I'll call the Commando. He had his own Humvee, but he was driving in a military convoy. As far as I knew, no Westerner drives in Iraq without the military anymore -- not even an intrepid ex-military international black-operations expert who claims to be a close personal friend of Alice Cooper's, like the Commando. The convoy rolled out of a Baghdad FOB and moved slowly into the city, taking a serpentine route around an IED location reported just an hour earlier.
In the car, the Commando explained something to me. "There is no offensive operation in the regular Army here," he said. "The intelligence guys, the special ops, they are the force here. It's all on us."
The Commando is the kind of guy who would stand out in a crowd of civilians, like a lion tamer wandering the aisles of a Circle K. Tall, deeply tanned, with a silver Fu Manchu mustache and the build of a heavyweight karate champion (which he probably was, for all I know), he has a booming voice and a garrulous character, unnervingly intense and almost too quick to make intimate friendships; he'd found me in a military cafeteria, where I guess I'd looked scruffy and pathetic amid all the armed soldiers, and had decided to adopt me. "You should disembed, come with me," he said, patting my back violently. "I'll take you somewhere that'll blow your fucking mind."
Now that I'd actually come to meet him, I was regretting it. The Commando looked like he just might be crazy. He was moving his lips as he whispered some song to himself. His huge sunglasses betrayed nothing in his eyes, which I suspected were darting back and forth. The convoy moved out of the city limits; I sank in the Humvee seat.
"Hey, Commando," I said finally. "They're going to hang me by my balls for this."
He leaned over and smiled. "You're going to be looking bad guys right in the eye," he said. "Trust me."
After about a half-hour drive, we came to a large walled facility, marked on each corner with lookout towers. FOB Abu Ghraib. My asshole puckered violently. "I could spend the next year standing on a box with a hood over my head and wires coming out of my ass," I thought. But my entrance into the facility was smooth and uneventful. Abu Ghraib's closing had been announced long ago. When I arrived it was about a month away from what personnel there expected would be its last days as a functioning military prison.
The place looked like a ghost town -- like one of those abandoned factory sites in Rust Belt cities, where giant industrial structures once teeming with people now sit mute on the lakeshores. It was home, seemingly, to more birds than people; the old prison blocks were now populated every ten feet or so with buzzing nests of beautiful barn swallows, lending the facility, with its portraits of a bereted Saddam crumbling away piece by piece from the concrete walls, a strangely peaceful and beneficent air.
The FOB itself is a large, squarish, walled camp with an odd layout. On the right side as you enter is another walled-off section within the prison grounds that used to contain political cells in Saddam's time. The main "hard site" where terror suspects were still being held was in a complex of buildings that included a rec center, a chapel, a restaurant (the "Mortar Cafe"), a first-class field hospital, even a Green Bean, which is sort of like an Army version of Starbucks. (Before I left I would indulge in the perverse thrill of ordering a double cappuccino with a vanilla shot at Abu Ghraib.) Years of American occupation have left this place in a relatively clean state, although remnants of the horrific squalor still exist, most notably in the form of sweeping piles of trash and junk along the walls of the facility.
There is not much I can tell about my Abu Ghraib experience, except to say that I was there for three of the very weirdest days of my entire life. The Commando dumped me in an abandoned cell block and shut the door behind me almost immediately upon arrival. Three times a day he would bring me food -- ribs and chicken and other delights from the typically well-stocked FOB cafeteria -- and then leave me alone for fifteen hours or more to devour the piles of trashy books he left for me as entertainment (how the Erica Jong novel Sappho's Leapmade it to Abu Ghraib, I'll never figure out). I was to avoid all people, keep quiet and when he took me out of my cell for tours of the FOB -- once a day or so -- I was to watch my mouth and look like some mysteriously high-ranking spook. Who would know in a place like this?
"You go where I go," he said on the first day. "And don't ask any fucking questions. In the meantime, stay here and don't move."
He shut the cell door. I stood for a moment in the middle of my cell, staring at the white concrete walls; it took exactly ten seconds for me to burst out laughing. The next hours were taken up with a variety of absurd activities: push-ups, line drawings of dogs, experimentation with a mime routine. Late in the evening I turned on my laptop and discovered, to my absolute amazement, that there was a functioning wireless hub in the building. I got online and promptly spent most of that night filling out sunny customer-survey responses for various Stateside corporations.
Dear Krispy Kreme Corporation...Thank you for being YOU
Outside my room, behind the boarded-up barred window, I could hear residents of the village just beyond the prison walls chanting their evening prayers. Later at night I would hear something else entirely -- the sounds of mortar shells crashing close by, two biggish blasts shaking the room.
Abu Ghraib is the symbol of American mistakes in Iraq, the place where the weird criminal perversions of bored, porn-surfing American teenagers clashed spectacularly with fastidious, sexually inviolate Islamic culture. It was also a most powerful symbol of our misguided perception of ourselves and our place in the world.
We came into this war expecting to be treated like the GIs who went into France a half-century ago -- worshipped, instantly excused for the occasional excess or foible and handed the keys to both the castle wine cellar and the nurses' dormitory. Instead we were treated like unclean monsters by the people we liberated, and around the world our every move was viciously scrutinized not only by those same Europeans we rescued ages ago, but by our own press.
The failure of Abu Ghraib was the failure to accept the role we had created for ourselves as new masters of subject peoples. We wanted to rule absolutely and also to be liked, which was why our first reaction after the scandal broke was to issue profuse apologies, call for a self-flagellating round of investigations and demand the prison's closure. A hegemonic power more comfortable with ruling would have just shot the reporter who broke the story and moved on.
But America has never been able to stomach that kind of thing, which is why, incidentally, this occupation of Iraq is probably not going to work. We are too civilized to make ourselves truly feared in public, but not civilized enough to properly restrain our power in private.
On my second day in the facility, the Commando roused me out of my bunk and dragged me out for a tour. Beyond one wall of the facility there stood a clearly visible row of residential apartments, a neighborhood called Khandari, which the Commando explained was a hotbed of activity. "Hajiis looking right over the wall," he said. "They have gunfire there two or three times a week."
We drove around. The Commando pointed out a small hole through which a group of prisoners had made a daring escape some months back. "Now, no American male could ever have made it through that hole," he said. "But three of those stinky little bastards slid through here." He laughed as he recounted the story. One of the escapees, he said, made it over the wall. The other two, however, stayed behind and tried to blend in by putting on some civilian clothes. When a squad of soldiers confronted them, they tried to talk their way out of trouble by claiming to be employees of KBR. "They were like, 'KBR! KBR!' " he laughed. "They still had on their jumpsuits under their civilian clothes. Yeah, right, KBR."
We made our way around. A helicopter was landing in the middle of the compound, and a small group of American soldiers led out a group of six dark-skinned men in FlexiCuffs. A female soldier arranged them in lock step, then marched them off toward the hard site. We followed them and along one wall were boxes of prefab halal food. At least proper care was taken to meet the prisoners' dietary restrictions.
"They'll be given a number, then interviewed," the Commando said. "As for these influxes...on a good day, we'll have that helicopter full of guys land ten to twelve times."
He threw me back in my cell. This time I read The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. If there is a worse way to spend a day than being locked in Abu Ghraib prison reading Jonathan Franzen, I'm not aware of it. In the early evening the Commando came back. "Sandstorm," he said. "Come on out."
I climbed up a flight of stairs to the rooftop. I looked around in all directions. The place looked like Mars -- a sea of red sand, impenetrable beyond fifty yards or so. "Wow," I said.
"It gets much redder than this," he said admiringly. "It gets fucking beet red. I got pictures."
He took me back to my cell. The next day it was more of the same. The Commando spoke much and often about the bravery of the men who were out risking their lives to bring terror suspects to this facility. He explained to me that many men like him were moved to pitch in after 9/11. They live outside the public view, their accomplishments never noted by anyone, much of what they do for a living a secret even from their own families. I never did find out exactly what he did at the facility, although I had a few ideas. But I was struck suddenly that what I was looking at here wasn't a portrait of American iniquity in Iraq, but the offensive side of our war. What is public about Iraq is the pounding our soldiers take, the day-in, day-out IED attacks against teenagers in Humvees. Most of the men our reporters know in embeds are on the defensive from sunup to sundown.
There is an impression that we are not fighting back, but we are: Here in Abu Ghraib and places like it, away from public view, we swoop down in the night and snatch people out of their homes by the half-dozen. I would imagine that rules are bent. But what rules can there be in a place like this? (The Commando's take on the Geneva Convention: "While you're beating his ass, don't take his picture.") I asked the Commando at one point what the goal was: "Is the idea that we'll keep capturing these guys, until there won't be any more of them?"
"Who knows?" he said. "I guess."
One last long night in the hooch. I read a military-equipment magazine with an article about the psychological importance of leaving a big hole in the enemy when you shoot him. "A big hole is more devastating than a little pucker," it noted. I wrote that down, for future reference. In the morning the Commando dragged me out for the last time and tossed me in the Hummer. We picked up coffee from the Green Bean and settled into the convoy line. On the way back the Commando regaled me with stories of his personal exploits. He hinted at access to the kind of information that would keep all of America awake if it knew, even blurting out one threat he'd heard about that made me very uncomfortable being a New Yorker. Americans are a sheltered people, but our secret warriors are not -- even if it's only as an adversary, they've at least looked the world in the eye. But they never get to share their experience. In Iraq, half of our fight is always going to be in the shadows.
The convoy rolled on until we reached another FOB, where we stopped for one last lunch. He told me stories of comrades he'd lost in Afghanistan, and the lengths he'd gone to for one man's family. I was not sure I agreed with the Commando's take on the Iraq War or what the possibilities were for its success; I got the feeling, in fact, that he was only dimly interested in who the other side or sides even were -- the most important thing being who was giving the orders to fight. But his devotion to his friends and allies was powerful and unmistakable. "It's like a little community," he said, "where people do things for each other."
"Good luck," I said, shaking his hand.
He left the cafeteria and I never saw him again. I left Iraq a week and a half later. Just in time. It took exactly four weeks to get tired of the sounds of IED blasts outside the wall. Against that backdrop, the appeal of getting in a truck every morning is extremely limited. I felt for the guys who have to stick it out a year or more.
VI. DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
No Way Out as a Way of Life
The Iraq war, the central political event of this generation, this crazy flash point that will find a way to touch the lives of almost everyone in the world before it's over, is here to stay. We must come to grips with the reality of this monstrous, rapidly expanding thing that is fast taking on far greater dimensions and meaning than a mere foreign-policy blunder.
This is the place where two existential dead ends have come around in a circle to meet in an irreconcilable explosion of violence -- the bureaucratic ennui and intellectual confusion of modern civilized man vs. the recalcitrant, prehistoric fanaticism of Al-Qaeda's literally cave-dwelling despotic mob. Human history has traveled in two exactly opposite directions for the last thousand years, and the supreme irony is that both paths led straight here, to this insane stalemate in the Mesopotamian desert.
Beyond the walls of the FOB the chaos of Iraq is just a fresh take on the same old totalitarian double-think from the last century that sent Nazis and Communists on crazed quests for paradise by sanctioning the violence buried in their dumb hearts. All bloody revolutions rely for their success on ideologies that dehumanize the nonbeliever, and these Islamic fanatics roaming the streets of Baghdad, piously chanting "Allahu Akbar!" as they watch the bodies of ice salesmen or infidel teenagers cook, are no different. On top of everything else, they're not even original.
Nothing like that abject savagery is evident on the American side. But there is something very unsettling in the way that the war effort has re-created the cozy isolationism of the American suburbs in its giant military outposts. It's a concentrated dose of our culture, where Mom, her tennis lesson awaiting, sends the kids off to school and Dad, the sweetest guy you'll ever meet, brings home a paycheck earned on the backs of industrial slaves from China.
Walking the peaceful streets of Anytown, you'd never guess this -- although at night the family purges unconscious guilt by watching morality plays like The O.C. and Desperate Housewives, in which Middle America ritualistically confesses to a sizzling sex life it's never come close to having. Our defining characteristic is that despite a creeping fear, we know ourselves very poorly, and have willfully turned a blind eye to the world outside our easy, cocoonlike consumer lives.
In the same way, our soldiers on the FOB may be forgiven for not understanding the discontent over the wall, because the "Iraq" of their experience is not much different from the cable-ready communities, with the Burger King just down the street, that many of them came from in the first place.
Life is good and happy down the rabbit hole, but outside it, something is going terribly wrong. What's horrifying about Iraq is that none of our people, not even the ones running things, seem to understand why that might be. It's a terrible thing to be blind. Terrible -- and frightening.
Not long after I got home, I got an e-mail from Wilkerson in the 158th, the good-luck Oklahoma boys:
hey man, how ya doin? we are doin good. we got hit the other day and it wasnt good at all. i cant give you details or anything but just know all our boys are good...but im gonna go get for now, so you be good and drink a beer for me. Hahaha later steve-o
The gang that never gets hit had been on its way home to Baghdad from Baqubah on the evening of June 5th when the third truck in the convoy was rocked by an explosion. Spicer and Wilkerson, in the second truck, accelerated through the cloud and made it to safety. But SFC Issac Lawson, a Californian I hadn't met in my time with the squad, was hit badly. He died on arrival after an airlift to a nearby field hospital.
In war, good luck always runs out. The only thing no one runs out of is more people. And when one of the sides is America, not even the money is exhaustible. The thing just keeps spinning, spitting out more bodies, and you find yourself ashamed of being glad it isn't someone you know.