November 19, 2004

Baghdad Dispatch--"Friendly Fire"

One of my best friends, an American national, sends in this descriptive dispatch from a chaotic Iraq where, it appears, identification of friend and foe can prove a rapid-fire judgement indeed--with life pretty cheap--especially if someone gets a tad trigger-happy. We've still got a long road ahead folks...

Friendly Fire

“Do you think if they’d have killed you, that would technically be murder?” Pete asked with a genuine and child-like curiosity that helped soothe the silent shivers that had suddenly gripped us all. “No,” I answered without pondering too long over the force majeure jurisprudential peculiarities of a friendly fire fatality, “but it would be pretty fucking embarrassing.”

Pete is one of four stocky, British Close Protection Officers who was
crammed in together with me in a late-model Ford Taurus that had skidded to a stop about 100 yards short of a U.S. checkpoint. The skid began when Bruce yelled “Stop!” and continued through several bursts of an M-60 until the trusty American car actually did stop, moments before the aerated barrel atop a distant, sand-bagged Hummer made the fatefully second engine-block, windshield sweep which, of course, would have made the Taurus a defunct convertible and robbed my faithful readers of this dispatch. After Pete’s question, there was—as one might imagine—a fair amount of swearing. Then
the Fijian popped out to go have a word with the Yanks, both arms as high in the air as his squat frame could manage. Crumpled in one hand was the mimeographed Union Jack, in the other his Department of Defense ID.

What was actually embarrassing was the amount of time one of the young,American reservists guarding this forlorn checkpoint, twenty or so kilometers west of Baghdad spent staring at the British flag. I’m not completely sure he knew what it was. It was all very strange: my bodyguards were—for perfectly understandable reasons—expressing various anti-American sentiments and, like them, I had nearly been shot dead by Americans, but I refused to allow myself to join in this chorus of criticism. To do so would be self-denial, after all. The best I could muster was a scowl at the repentant sentries (one had been gesturing us forward as the other was signaling to stop—their second day in Iraq, we later learned) as we eventually drove through the checkpoint, though even this was disingenuous as I actually felt badly for the boys, who themselves I knew felt badly as well.

600 yards further, we came into view of another checkpoint. A good ten yards ahead of the bi-lingual STOP sign, they too opened fire, though this time only a single warning shot. This time Pete, who had been driving, hopped out. They would have likely killed the Fijian. This sentry wouldn’t come any closer than 50 yards and the yelling back and forth was scarcely audible. We asked Pete what had been said as he returned to the driver’s seat. “Iraqi, go away!”

Stuck between two checkpoints, we figured our chances were best at the first where a few minutes before we’d had the opportunity to explain ourselves and I’d only scowled (as opposed to whipping the bird—sometimes restraint pays off). There, under the afternoon sun, we spent a good hour as the reservists struggled to get a signal on their radios and summon up an escort that could take us through the impassable checkpoint and to the designated meeting point with our back-up team a few kilometers beyond. Few things that day had gone according to plan.

As the disconnect between the checkpoints amply illustrates, radio
communications—like hand signals—are sometimes imperfect. The repentant soldiers at the first checkpoint were unable to summon an escort and eventually another Hummer came through and we flagged it down. Together with one of the sentries, we recounted the recent events and as we did the sergeant in the passenger seat did his best to suppress laughter. It was admittedly a ridiculous situation. Grudgingly, they invited us to tail along as they headed back down the road to pick up two track vehicles at the second checkpoint who were themselves awaiting an escort to proceed further. As we re-approached, this time nose to rear of the Hummer, the roof-gunner
of the Humvee desperately waved his arms in a gesture that said “NO” to the heavy gunners on the bridge above, and we made it through, stopping under the bridge to pick up the new members of the entourage. There, under the bridge, we got some incredulous looks indeed. With the Fallujah offensive still underway a hundred or so kilometers to the West, everyone seemed to be on edge. Twenty minutes later, we were in a safehouse waiting for our security firm’s escort to arrive and take us back into Baghdad. Sipping my
coffee, I stared at a wall-map tracing back the day’s route. “You’re
remarkably calm, all considering,” Bruce noted. “What do you expect me todo?” I responded. “I don’t know, maybe write your Congressman.”

Hours before, on the journey North, we lost our back-up car when its
radiator started acting up and it became clear it could no longer keep the only sort of pace that would be judicious under these circumstances. Accordingly, we packed sent the Iraqis back to the trip’s origin and the remaining British CPOs piled into the Taurus, with Pete taking the wheel. This may strike my distant readers as an impossible stretch of the “low-profile” posture which I maintain is the safest here these days, but when you’re stuck in the desert what else are you going to do. You need to understand the context—not only of Iraq, but of the Brits who, themselves one-hundred years short of an empire, tend to find their best successes traveling light and close to the earth. I maintain that there is, despite the comedy of errors described above, a very positive lesson exists here on
how to comport oneself in today’s world. The lesson, or perhaps question, concerns the manner of approach. American military—or
political-military—planners have taken a good deal of heat for going into Iraq “light,” yet that is precisely how those who have twice before made the Umm Qasr-northward drive did it. These days, the Brits know they cannot always rely on massive backup, and that’s what makes their soldiers necessarily resourceful. Fans of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” may join me in remembering the scene when O’Toole, fresh out of the desert, strides, in full dishdasha and kefiya, into the officers’ mess hall and demands a glass of water. Slowly, but eventually, it dawns on the assembled company what is going on.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I remember clearly the day a line was drawn over Fallujah more than seven months ago. I was exercising in the MWR “tent” in the Green Zone where one generally has to wrangle for limited weight machines amongst Army grunts burning off steam. Walkman blaring, I was struck by the sudden availability of most weight sets and relished in this for a few minutes before turning around to see where everyone went. When I did, I saw the rest of the gym clustered around a television set. On it, a satellite station was broadcasting footage of an angry Fallujah mob kicking and tearing at the charred remains of four American corpses. To a far more exaggerated sense than I have ever experienced in a male-dominated gym before, the prevalence of rising testosterone was palpable, and it
spelled revenge.

This might otherwise foretell that the recent operation in Fallujah was about revenge. Despite my little anecdote, I am here to testify—and justify as I did in my previous dispatch—that it wasn’t. It was about something bigger. But speaking of big, there is the old adage about elephants dancing. Best to get out of the way, say the African bushmen, who are of course the most likely to ever witness such a thing.

But don’t get out of the bush entirely. Don’t crawl into an armored bunker somewhere in the sand, or behind concrete walls, and try to imagine what other things might be causing the earth to tremble. What do the earth-dwellers do when the ground beneath their feet trembles? Watching them, and shaking with them, can be enlightening.

This afternoon, I found myself sitting in an imperially-appointed office, with gold-freized ceilings and Louis XV sidetables, overlooking the Tigris. The palace, previously belonging to Mrs. Saddam, had been renovated by a returned Iraqi expatriate who had a dream of turning it into the Hollywood of Mesopotania. With family and tribal ties to some of the folks running about Al Anbar province with red kafiyah-covered faces and RPGs, I have to say this guy was pretty close to reaching his dream. Out the window, I had the best view I’ve seen yet of the Al Dora Bridge, from which insurgents launch mortars over my roof and into the Green Zone every night. A variance of their aim would be an end to the dreams of my afternoon host. But that doesn’t seem to stop him, and the existence of such bizarre anomalies in this admittedly surreal environment maintains one’s fragile sense of hope. Hope, that is, that is there is some way—not just out—but to a better place.

Posted by Gregory at November 19, 2004 05:32 AM

Wonderful account.

Posted by: FredJHarris at November 19, 2004 03:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

That sounds about like a war zone. If you're too stupid to understand that the men with the heavy weapons might be a bit trigger happy, you might not live to see tomorrow. If you take precautions, you might live. Nothing works normally in a war zone.

And if you pretend you're not in a war zone, like NGOs and UN people often do, you pay for your mistake.

Posted by: Conrad at November 19, 2004 03:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If the enemy was a country with laws and a will to enforce proper conduct on its forces or the enemy at a minimum had some sense of uniformed identity and compliance with the rules of war as regards respect for civilians and other non-combatants then things might be different. As it is, they are animals and that is making life difficult for everyone.

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American military is badly trained and filled with morons. They are trigger-happy and have a "shoot first ask questions later" philosophy.

The difference between British SAS and American Seals and Delta forces is their philosophy. The Americans view civilian casualties as expendable, just as long as the American soldiers don't get shot.
The British only view the terrorist's lives as expendable and rely upon their superior skills to make sure they don't get shot - not on superior firepower.

The fact that Americans have killed more British soldiers in both Iraqi conflicts than Iraqis have is a huge issue for me. I am a firm believer that unless Britain is properly compensated for helping American in her wars, we shouldn't partake.

The US should cover the entire cost of our military being there.

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