Friday, December 16, 2005

Words from the Front Line

A couple of nights ago, I had a few drinks with a working friend who happened to be in town. Not too different from many other occasions, except this friend just got back from a tour in Iraq. He's not a very political person; he's just a guy who wants to provide for his family, and for a year and a half, he did that by being a driver in military convoys, through some of the most dangerous streets in Iraq.

About a month before his tour was over, he wrote an e-mail that brilliantly summed up the entire situation. It got forwarded around to a large circle of friends and coworkers, and regardless of people's political slants, it was well-received to say the very least. After one of us in the drinking party mentioned the e-mail, and complimented him on it, someone mentioned this blog, and that it would be a good read for anyone here. He told me that I could post it, so I thought I'd share it with all of you. It puts a personal touch on what the media has portrayed to be a very impersonal war.


It has been an incredibly long time since this whole thing started and email is a very poor medium to discuss what I have seen, done and feel but oh well.

I am about 34-37 days from getting on a plane and going home. I am currently on what I hope is my last trip into Iraq. I went home for R and R in early June and since I arrived back in theater around the 27th of June, I have been on the road nearly non-stop.

This place does strange things to the mind. I have become a superstitious person, I wear the same 2 uniforms and the same boots over and over again I guess I figure that since I haven't died wearing them yet, they must work.

Most other facets of life also have the same stamp of ritual which is both mundane and bizarre at the same time. I wonder if part of my reluctance to email updates is related to my superstition about not discussing anything bad or good here so I dont 'jinx' myself? I guess I will find out now.

I am constantly reminded that the conventional wisdom here is that most soldiers die in the first few weeks or the last few weeks they are here. This is attributed to inexperience in the beginning and distractions in the final few weeks. This is reinforced by the recent death of 7 soldiers in our battalion (all recent arrivals) in the last month in three separate incidences. Three of these soldiers burned to death in a horrible accident - may God give them the peace that escaped them in their final moments. The only (only?) 2 deaths on missions for our platoon involved third parties and both casualties ironically were individuals on their last trip in Iraq before going home. How incredibly tragic to go through all of this and then not make it home.

Personally, I laughed loudly the first time I was shot at - on Valentines Day. However, the humor of that day has escaped me the past few months and has been replace by a low grade fear I would most compare to the sensation of a bruise. Not a sharp pain but constant and subtle, one of the reliable reminders that bad things happen here.

This fear typically reaches a crescendo during our safety brief before we leave Scania, the last stop before Baghdad each mission. Recently, a typical briefing on activity the previous 24 hours sounds something like this; "Small arms fire at 3Alpha, 5 Alpha, 7 Alpha, 8 Alpha, 11 Alpha, 20 Alpha, 21 Alpha, 24 Alpha, 25 Alpha, 28 Alpha, 30 Alpha, and 35 Alpha. IEDs at 7 Alpha, 11 Alpha, 18 Alpha, 19 Alpha, 20 Alpha, 21 Alpha, 28 Alpha, 30 Alpha, 32 Alpha and 39 Alpha. A blocked ambush at 20 Alpha. Be alert, any questions?". Each numeric location corresponds to a landmark which is typically an overpass or bridge. My fantasy response is "Cocktails anyone?" It is strange but when we are actually driving the fear gives way to excitement and boredom depending on the night.

We generally carry new soldiers' equipment into Iraq and because of our vehicle design we are usually the soldiers responsible for taking battle damaged vehicles back to Kuwait for destruction or refurbishing. I have seen enough M1 Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles cracked open like eggs to know that the light armor on our trucks would do very little to save us in the wrong circumstance. In fact, a month after the cab of our truck was armored, we hauled back a HET identical to our own with the identical armored cab that had been destroyed by an IED. I understand neither occupant survived.

I carry the strange guilt with me everyday that I have yet to actually fire a single round at the enemy although we have taken fire many times. The rules of engagement are such that it hasn't made sense for return fire and when we are attacked using IEDs there is almost never a target identified to shoot at anyway. I dont have a burning desire to kill a person but I definitely want to shoot at someone. I wonder what that means?

I have essentially given up trying to find IEDs as we drive. This country is a trashpit and who is to say what box or brush or hole hides explosives until you see the blinding flash. I have also given up finding answers to the hundreds of questions that pass through my mind during the dull and boring drives day after day. But this doesnt keep me from continuing to run them through my mind.

I have lost the ability to identify anything in life in terms of black and white, it seems like only shades of grey are visible anymore. The irony of a National Guard full of patriots but led by incompetents is a daily frustration. I hate AAFES - the closest thing to the company store of the past that remains in contemporary America. I miss using my brain.

My E7 Platoon Sargeant (leads a platoon of 60 soldiers) is a janitor in the civilian world but in this alternate realityof the military he is qualified to be responsible for 60 lives? Who is he talking to when he walks by himself (not kidding)?

We ridicule the 1/3 of our unit that has never been to Iraq and we are in turn ridiculed by the combat arms soldiers for only driving trucks. We drive $500,000 vehicles designed for anything but yet they break down regularly on modern highways.

The people here are the same as in America - they want a good life for their families. In my opinion, Muslims are generally more pious and genuine about their religion than Americans of any faith.

MREs are the biggest enemy in Iraq and the most hated. Are the lives of the 2,000 Americans lost in this war worth the stopping a despot who has killed over 500,000 of his own citizens. If not, would those 2,000 be worth 750,000? What is the current exchange rate of American lives for those in a third world country? Will I have a different answer when my own sons are over 18 years old?

If Iraqis want to have a tribal government system - is that OK? Who decides?

If a parent doesnt plan for their childs education and that child joins the military to pay for college - is the parent responsible if they die in war or is the government? Is it imperative to assign blame?

Why are we giving out so damn many medals and ribbons to soldiers who come over here? Are they more deserving than veterans of Vietnam or any other previous conflict?

Are we here for oil and if we are does it really matter - after all oil is the center of our energy and economic requirements? If we fail to secure enough oil as a country - is it morally acceptable to go to war to fill our SUVs (driven by liberal and conservative alike)? Would Americans be willing to live in smaller houses and drive compact cars to save the 2,000 lives lost in Iraq if this is truly a war about oil?

After a rambling long-winded email, I guess at the end of the day the big question is what does being here mean to me? A lot and nothing.

What does it mean to Americans that we are here on their behalf? A lot and nothing.

Sorry, no hoorah ending. War sucks."

No comments: