Letters from IRAQ
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
This has been set up as a reports page because it is long; it is worth
Dear Dr. Pournelle;
A friend is an Army National Guard field officer serving in Iraq as a division staff officer. He occasionally e-mails his friends and his wife and kids about what's going on over there. He has given me permission to forward his e-mails to you. I have taken on the task of removing sensitive information from the messages.
Here is his first e-mail from back at the beginning of the year. The subject line refers to my query as to whether he was in Iraq yet. I am a Vietnam-Era vet, so in jargon from my time, an unfriendly area was called Indian Country.
Sent: Friday, February 2005 Subject: Re: In Indian Country yet?
I got here to Tikrit [at the beginning of the year -- PN]. Since I am a division staff puke I spend most of my days writing memorandums, drafting orders, reading e-mails, and going to more meetings than you can shake a stick at.
So far I've only been off the FOB once -- FOB is this war's shorthand for Forward Operating Base -- a trip some miles up the road to our logistics support base to help brief the assistant division commander for supply on his role in the monthly Sheik's Council meeting. We drove very fast so as to avoid any VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices -- Pete] and spent a lot of time getting through the Entry Control Point.
I am scheming to get out with the company attached to our brigade which does a run through here on a regular basis, or hoping a ride with the division engineer on a project visit. I've got to get out and see what I am making decisions about.
I spent the elections sitting with the very smart, very nice, very young, very female Department of State repo to Salah Ad Din province and the division Political Aid (POLAD). She did e-mails, and watched our TV in the division Election Operations Center which the G-5 section manned.
She kept sending me juicy e-mails about the election, but we were pretty much told to stay away from the polls. Still it was cool to see everything unfolding, even if on a TV screen.
In our AOR [Area Of Responsibility -- PN] there were some attacks. In one case an AIF sniper took out three kids with headshots. I wonder if these are the freedom fighters Michael Moore is talking about.
Anyway, it's late and I gott a run. I will write more later., Thanks for the e-mail
Your Pal [as I'll call him -- PN]
Sent: April 2005 Subject: E-Mail from Your Pal
Just another e-mail from me to check in.
I was up in Kirkuk again this past week and had a sudden case of déjà vu. I spent time walking around the Kirkuk Provincial Council building with a brother office, John [not his real name -- PN] from another state's National Guard combat team and it reminded me an awful lot of roaming around the state capitol back home.
I hopped a ride up to Kirkuk with our division engineers' PSD (Personal Security Detail) to spend a couple of days with the civil military guys working the AO (Area of Operations).
I spent the morning with another officer, Sam [not his real name -- PN], because he is in charge of what they call "Team Government." These are the three soldiers who work with the local Iraqi government folks and monitor what they do.
The Kirkuk Provincial Council exists pretty much in name only at this point. The Jan. 30th elections produced an ethnically unbalanced 41-member legislature in which the Kurds dominate and the Arabs and Turkomen -- the other ethnicities in the province and city -- have a minority role. The council we appointed was very carefully ethnically balanced.
They've been trying to get organized now for almost two months and it's like watching the political show back home.
All three sides dislike and distrust each other. The difference here is they all have guns.
So part of John's job essentially is being part lobbyist and part reporter. He goes around the building talking to various council members and asking them what is happening politically and what they think is going to happen. Then he also goes in to talk to council members and the governor and urges them to get their act together.
He's frustrated because we've got a "hands-off" policy when it comes to Iraqi governments. He's certain that if we just let him get these bozos organized, they would be much better off and further along.
The Iraqi's haven't had much experience in building democratic institutions. Hell, there is no Arab equivalent of Roberts Rules of Order.
As he sees it, some of these folks, for example the Turkman spokesman, understand the idea of democracy, while others are just out to feather their own nests. Doesn't that sound familiar?
So we roamed the halls of this relatively dilapidated building, saying hello to government folks while he gave me the tour. John is such a fixture in the place that he got a big sloppy "man kiss" from one of the Kurdish chiefs. Me, I avoided that.
Just like our state capitol, the place was teeming with people going from here to there. The difference is a lot of the council members had one or two AK-toting bodyguards following them around . Of course, you had to get past a bunch of concrete barriers and guards to get into the place . . . oh, wait, we have to do that at home now, too.
And, to get there we moved out from an FOB, in a six armored-vehicle convoy and drove like crazy through the streets. Once inside, I was able to park my body armor and M-4 [a stubby version of the M-16 -- PN] and just walked around with my pistol on my hip. It was almost normal.
Of course, you had to make sure to stay under cover that day. The Iraqi parliament had elected Jalil Talabani, a key Kurdish leader, president of Iraq and the "happy fire" started almost immediately. They never seem to accept the idea that a bullet that goes up, comes down. If we could teach these guys one thing it is that they need to do happy-fire into a clearing-barrel.
When we came back in the gates of the FOB the Iraqi cops (obviously Kurds) were doing the man-dance thing at the front gates because of the Talabani thing.
The trip up and back was slowed down both times by IED [improvised explosive devices -- PN] alerts. On the way up we had to stop and wait while EOD (Explosive Ordinance Detachment) soldiers used a robot to check out a suspicious location in the road. It turned out to be an IED in the process of getting emplaced. We waited for a while and then eventually joined the Iraqi civilian traffic in cutting off the road, and out onto a dirt trail to get around the block.
On the way back the same thing happened, but this time our convoy was asked to help block the traffic while EOD checked out a suspected IED so we had to wait for about an hour.
It wasn't too bad. I was in no hurry to get back. We got a kick out of watching eight or nine herds of sheep come by us from the other direction. That is certainly something that hasn't changed here for centuries. You've got about a hundred sheep and a couple of goats following a shepherd either walking or riding a donkey. They've also got some dogs moving the sheep along.
The shepherds waved and a couple of them asked for water, so we gave them some water bottles.
I spent Tuesday hanging with another unit's S-5.
[The S-5 is the principal staff officer for all matters concerning civil-military operations, such as the civilian impact on military operations and the impact of military operations on the civilian populace. The S-5 has responsibility to enhance the relationship between military forces and civilian authorities and personnel in the area of operations to ensure the success of the mission. -- PN]
He's a full-time guardsman from out west, a great guy who used to be the S-4 (supply officer) and now oversees their Civil Military Operations. I got to meet all their battalion S-5s also, and talk shop. All-in-all it was great to get away from my routine.
Besides, the chow hall at the FOB makes milkshakes! Life is good.
The ability to have a milkshake made his day. Sort of puts things into perspective.
-- Pete Nofel
Sent: April 2005 Subject: Re: From the land of the big PX
Actually, like most middle-class Americans, you have a stereotypical image of an infantryman that is far, far from the truth.
Most of the minority soldiers in the Army join the support services. They see the military as a job and they're joining to learn a skill. They wind up proportionally over-represented in personnel and supply functions. The average infantryman is a working-class / lower middle-class white kid who joins up for some adventure. He wants to be "Hooaaah!" Not to say there are no black soldiers in the Infantry. There are, and they are just as great. But this perception that poor blacks fight America's wars is crap.
In the case of this rotation, the bulk of the soldiers are National Guardsman and reservists (about 55 percent of the total troops in Iraq). In our AOR 60 percent of the soldiers are Guard or Reserve versus 40 percent AC. And, of course, it is my boss, a National Guard general, who runs the show for 23,000 troops here.
The Guard or Reserve soldier of any rank is pretty solidly middle class. Not upper middle-class country-club style, but solid, I've-got-a-job-and-I-go-to-work-everyday-and-I-have-a-home-and-I-pay-my- taxes, middle-class. That is who is fighting this war now.
Next rotation will be more heavily active Army, with all that implies.
I've attached a letter [included below -- PN] I wrote my wife about a recent trip I took. Nothing really personal. It's got some impressions and pictures.
[the letter is below -- PN]
Dear Jane [not her real name -- PN],
I've spent the last two days in one of the few places in Iraq where there is no war, the province of As Sulaymaniah.
As Sulaymaniah is a Kurdish stronghold and essentially has been free of Saddam Hussein since 1992. After the Gulf War, the no-fly zones in the north, the Kurds fighting ability, and the mountainous terrain kept the Iraqi Army out of the three northwestern provinces. So while the rest of the country rotted with a top-down dictatorship, the Kurds discovered free-enterprise and began their own parliamentary democracy after the two main factions, the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) agreed not to fight. As Sulaymaniah is PUK Territory.
The general had decided to have the next governor's conference in Sulaymaniah and the units responsible for the AOR found the perfect place: the Kurdish Army recruiting station right next to the PUK Pesh Merga HQ. Pesh Merga means "lovers of death" in Kurd and this is the name for the Kurds separate army.
We don't want them to have a separate army and the idea is they will join the Iraqi Army. But, the Kurds, as a whole, have no love for the Arabs and don't trust them. They have no reason to, the Arabs have been killing them for years. They want to keep their army.
So on Tuesday the local sergeant first class (the PAO), a local major (from the G-7), and I flew up to check out the facility and be there a day ahead of time so we could help get things set up. I was worried that there might be a room and some chairs and not much else.
I was foolish to have worried. The Iraqi major (read: former Pesh Merga major) who runs the facility and his English-speaking civilian deputy (I am sure he is a PUK party guy) and the deputy governor (whose name I forgot) had done an absolutely first-rate job. The room was wonderful. They had tables set up in a U. They had soft drinks, water, and glasses at each place. It was great. All we had to do was come in the morning of the conference and set up our projector and screen and put up some nameplates and we were ready to go.
Still, I was worried that the local US Army host unit wouldn't get the information from the G-8 on how to pay for the food. One of our people approved it and called them and talked them through it. But still it was a close-run thing. The night before, the battalion commander told me he still didn't know how he was going to pay for the stuff. I woke up at 4 a.m., and couldn't stop worrying about it. But I guess it all worked out.
The commanding general was happy. The governors were happy, in fact two kissed the commanding general. They all got to make speeches for the press, so they were happy. One governor said it was such a great idea we should do it every 15 days . You should have seen the look on the commanding general's face! Not to mention the look on mine (I was busy typing notes on what they were saying. Some of these governors, especially governor Mustafa of Kirkuk, talk a lot).
I did find out just one day before I headed up that the governor of Sulaymaniah was not who I thought it was. The governor had changed and no one had reported it to us.
Any way that went well.
The nice thing was after we checked out the venue there was not much to do. An couple of officers from Corps asked to come along, so after dinner in the FOB dining hall we stood out on the roof on top of the building and talked and watched to night fall.
Sulaymaniah is in a valley in the mountains. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains. The plain is covered with chicken farms. And in the distance there was a cement factory. The Kurds have also built a modern airport at Sulaymaniah.
The flight in was something else. The Blackhawk crew never closed the doors. It was kind of neat to be able to see the scenery, but I was in the right hand seat facing forward. That's known as the "suicide seat." For some reason the person sitting there gets the biggest rush or air, etc.
At some points I had trouble breathing and had to hold onto my Wiley's to make sure they didn't slip off [I have no idea what Wiley's are -- PN].
The view though was terrific. As we went up north of Kirkuk , and essentially left the wear behind, the pilots stopped hugging the ground and we went soaring up above the mountains. The terrain was remarkable. I am going to include some pictures in this e-mail [attached -- PN].
At some points you could see the layers of sediment turned on their side. Occasionally I was sure I was looking at old fighting positions, left over from the Kurds fight against Saddam.
We saw shepherds grazing flocks on plateaus and villages snug against the side of the mountains. It was breathtaking.
When we came over the last ridge and saw Sulaymaniah spread out before us, it was magnificent.
As we came into land at the FOB, I noticed the vehicle parks of the Pesh, Lots of BTRS and BMPs. These guys are taking no chances.
Today, the day of the conference, the place was ringed with Iraqi Army soldiers (former Pesh Merga) and Pesh Merga and local cops. They were remarkably disciplined. They kept scanning their sectors as assigned.
We also passed a platoon of female Pesh Merga falling in for morning formation. It is an interesting place.
The FOB is home to a battery of a National Guard group. They patrol the border and have a small Iraqi Army team training there. The US soldiers live in CHUS (container housing units) and have a central building which has a small chow hall, an operations center , a gym and shower facility. They have a local barber who comes in, and a local businessman plugs in two phones the soldiers can use to make long-distance calls home from. They also have a pool table and three MWR computers.
All in all, I figured the company commander, was one lucky guy, He has his own empire and his battalion commander is two hours away in Kirkuk.
We all enjoyed just kind of hanging out, enjoying the cool mountain air and not worrying about a mortar round.
One rocket recently hit the commanding general's palace. The warhead disconnected from the motor and grazed the building, coming to rest outside the portajohns. Fortunately for the staff sergeant who was inside, the warhead did not explode. He joked that fortunately he didn't need to change his underwear.
I joke about the attacks, but they are a threat. I am very worried about one of our officers. He got nervous about going to the chow hall after the mortar attack that he was near. Then after a VBEID that knocked glass onto him, he is really worried. He is not sleeping well. I have urged him to take some Tylenol PM or something, but he refuses.
He is losing sleep and he is very nervous about being outdoors.
On Tuesday he drove us to the LZ to wait for the chopper and instead of hanging around talking with us he hung around the concrete blast shelter just in case a mortar round came in.
I've urged him to talk to the combat-stress counselor but he is worried about his reputation. It doesn't help that back home his son was hurt playing sports.
Anyway, I digress, on the way back we hopped a ride in the commanding general's trail helicopters. The view back was also neat but I was tired and spent some time asleep. This time I sat in the middle of the chopper so I wasn't getting the air blast.
Jane, I love you.
The attached photos are aerial shots from the helicopter ride. I have retouched the photos to conceal identities and unit designations. Some of those in the photos may still be in harm's way and I do not want to offer the enemy any advantage in hurting them.
-- Pete Nofel
Dear Dr. Pournelle;
Another letter from my friend serving in Iraq. A personal note: Sometimes, IMO, Toby Keith's music steps over the line into jingoism, but he went outside the Green Zone to visit and perform for the troops. Something I doubt the Dixie Chicks [who have taken Keith to task for his overly-patriotic songs] did.
Sent: May 2005 Subject: Staying in touch
I figured I'd send out another mass e-mail just to stay in touch.
It's been just over a year since I was mobilized and we've got about another six months to go on the mission here. Hopefully the [civilian company he works for -- PN] will still be kicking around when I get home so I have another job.
The big news today is that Toby Keith came to visit our Forward Operating Base. He's here in Iraq on a tour and part of the deal to let him film a concert in Baghdad, to be turned into a TV special, was that he had to go visit some of the more remote operating bases. Still, I get the sense he probably would have come here anyway. The guy was supposed to just fly in and sing and then leave, but he did the visit to the mess hall thing and went to the MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation) building to shake hands too. In fact, because they didn't expect that, they had to shake up some troops for him to see.
In any case I wandered up to what we called the JDAM Palace where the stage was set up. It's an Iraqi Army HQ we don't use because it got the crap bombed out of it [thus the "JDAM" -- Joint Direct Attack Munition -- in its name -- PN]. The report was that Saddam's sons and some other bad guys were there.
The soldiers had a good time. They really appreciated it. He played a number of songs for a half hour. It was a good break in the day. I have to admit, I got a little choked-up hearing Toby Keith singing "American Soldier" while I was wearing the uniform, carrying a weapon, and surrounded by, to quote the lyrics "my brothers and my sisters."
I also have to admit that the opening lines, "I'm just trying to be a father, raise a daughter and a son, be a lover to their mother, everything to everyone," also get to me. It sounds a hell of a lot like the way I feel sometimes.
I know I had no other option but to step up to the plate and do my duty, if I wanted to keep my self respect, and the respect of my comrades, but some days I miss my wife and kids so much it hurts.
Usually, those are the days when I don't have much that's interesting to do. My normal day consists of rounds of staff work and other silly issues. Sometimes I do get a chance to get out, which is great. A week ago I hitched a ride down to Baqubah with the chief of staff and the command sergeant major. It gave me a chance to see another part of our Area of Responsibility and get a since for what the rest of the province was like. I also got the chance to talk to my staff counterpart. All-in-all a good day.
One of my friends has dubbed Baqubah the "place plastic bags go to die" because no matter where you go there are plastic bags flying around. He's right. Baqubah, like every other Iraqi city, sucks.
It got a little tense driving through Samarra when we heard a gunshot. Everybody tightened their grip on their weapon and began to go into fight-or-flight mode -- and in that location we would have been in fight-mode because we had nowhere easy to run -- but it turned out to be an Iraqi cop shooting at a guys feet to keep him in line. My boss, the chief of staff, satisfied all his infantry urges by jumping up into the turret of the M1114 ( an armored Humvee) and manning the M240B machinegun all the way down and back.
Tomorrow I'm planning to head up to Kirkuk for a reconstruction conference -- as long as the air movement request comes through and the Blackhawk doesn't break. It'll be good to get out again.
Otherwise I sit at my desk doing e-mails, reviewing and writing reports, reviewing award nominations, preparing my chunk of the division commander's conference call with his boss, etc. etc. etc.
Or, we spend our time briefing VIPS, visiting generals, the corps commander, Congress people etc., etc., etc. I have my five-to-10 minute chunk of the canned Operations and Intelligence Brief memorized, Occasionally, though, I get a fastball. The chief of staff of the Army wanted to talk, in excruciating detail, about agriculture. Fortunately my 14 months on an assignment in civilian life allowed me to bullshit my way through electricity questions when the Army's head Intelligence officer wanted to talk about the Iraqi power situation.
Despite our round of staff-puke stuff, there is a war on; a low intensity war, but still a war. We had one car bomb here in Tikrit (not a suicide bomber) who blew up a bunch of Shiite day laborers looking for work. Their crime? They weren't Sunnis.
Another SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) targeted the Iraqi Police shift change on the bridge near our HQ. The knucklehead driving killed himself and seven cops. It made a hell of a noise and two of my guys wound up running to the sound of the guns and overseeing the recovery operation.
We've taken a couple of KIA here over the past few days, which sucks. When our commanding general has to go to a memorial service he's always in a bad mood and I can't say I blame him.
He's always looking for something that we can change or do differently to make it harder on the enemy.
Still, sometimes you have to put it in perspective. We have 23,000 soldiers in this division Task Force and we've had less than a handful killed and of the soldiers injured the majority have been returned to duty.
I go on leave in 64 days (but who is counting?) and I'll have to try to stop by the capital one day during my two weeks back home.
Sent: May 2005 Subject: Re: Response to "Danger"
Attached is a letter. I got in a writing mood. It keeps me in the game.
Thanks for the e-mail I appreciate the correspondence from home.
No, that wasn't us in the background for Toby Keith's turn on TV you saw, that was the boys in Baghdad, probably at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) also known as Camp Victory.
His little gig here our FOB was pretty austere. Although the Air Force guys did drop a couple of F-16s in low to liven the performance. Toby got a kick out of it and I am sure it scared the crap out of the good burghers of Tikrit. It's good that they be reminded every now and then of just how big the big stick is. During the elections they flew jets over around the clock so the people down below could hear the roar.
[I had asked about the name of his FOB -- PN]
Our FOB got it's name from the division commander's call sign. I don't know why. Their division name dates back to WWI [a famous division name which I have removed -- PN].
[More on the unit and division's name that I excised -- PN]
Today we are up to National Guard, Army Reserve and Active Army units from 28 states and US territories.
One interesting thing about this war is that it is definitely put to rest the old wisdom that the Guard wasn't good for much.
In 1990-91 the Army didn't mobilize any Guard combat elements -- except for an MLRS battalion from Oklahoma -- for the first Gulf War. This time around the National Guard and Reserves comprises about 50 percent of the troops on the ground. Granted it's a lower-intensity war, but in many ways it is much harder than a conventional war.
One thing we're finding is the Guard brigades have an edge over the active Army units when it comes to Civil Military stuff and projects. The Guard brigades built their Unit Manning Rosters from the ground up and brought some extra officers, while the Active Duty Brigades, organized along the new Unit of Action manning and equipping tables, doesn't have the numbers of engineers and other specialty troops.
In addition, the civilian skill sets we have can't be replicated too easily. One brigade combat team commander personally intervened to keep our G-2 from reassigning one of our guys -- a DEA agent in civilian life -- from the mission of helping his brigade train Iraqi cops. He couldn't find anybody in his active duty unit with those kinds of skills.
Today hasn't been a bad day, as far as being stuck in staff hell.
I had a 1030 meeting with the commanding general, followed by two-hour long elections conference-call to plan for supporting the Iraqi referendum in October. Fortunately my elections guy is all over the issue and we're much further ahead than the rest of the theater it seems.
Then I found time to work out in the gym for an hour, which is good for both mental and physical health.
Yesterday I went up to the logistics support area and played on Beamhit for an hour. It's a marksmanship skills training system that employs a laser beam and a computer to help you work on your basic skills. It was great feeling like a soldier again. On Saturday I'm going to go to the range and pop some caps. I haven't fired my M-4 since Kuwait and it will be good to do some shooting. Hopefully it won't be too hard to zero and I can just start shooting right away.
Tomorrow we have a state department buddy of Condi's coming and I have to brief him on Iraqi governance. That will be fun. Hopefully I'll be able to baffle him with bullshit. Fortunately I have befriended our new Department of State Political Advisor (POLAD) so he will but in a good word for me.
Our old POLAD, who we inherited, was a 29 year old woman -- a Notre Dame graduate and former Army Air Defense Artillery officer -- who I really enjoyed working with. She was very smart and very pleasant and very cynical. We got along well.
The military is deadly serious about fooling around [fraternization -- PN]. Our original G-4, a very bright full colonel with a glowing future in the National Guard (he muscled his way into the deployment to get a combat patch) is no longer with us because he was screwing a captain, and not even a good looking one at that. As one friend of mine put it, if you're going to risk your career why do it over a troll?
Anyhow, I've gone on long enough.
Sent: May 2005 Subject: Memorial Day
We celebrated Memorial Day here to, although for the most part it was just another duty day.
The dining facility was decorated in red, white and blue, the menu was steak and lobster tails, and there was a massive sheet cake in a patriotic motif. (Prepared, of course by the Indian employees who do the cooking here) [so, even the military is outsourcing to India -- PN].
The US Army "Liberators" played soccer against the Iraqi Army training cadre "Islanders" -- so called because they work on what we call Iraq Army Island. The Americans brought in a lot of ringers -- former college soccer players -- and while I didn't go to the game, I had a report that at the third-quarter the score was 3-0 in the Americans' favor from a PFC who had attended and was heading back to his hooch.
And, of course, we had a Memorial Day observance.
I don't normally go to prayer breakfasts but this one was for Memorial Day. I have to admit I was glad I went, although it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. The chaplain gave a good sermon and the band and the vocalist, did a great job on the Battle Hymn of the Republic (I admit it, I know all four verses and I've always liked it).
The emotional part of the event, though was slide show presentation of pictures of the soldiers killed in our area since we were deployed. It was presented to the tune of "Over the Rainbow." It was incredibly moving.
We've had two women and 28 men killed in action or in accidents since we took over operations in this part of Iraqi. Seeing their pictures -- black, white, and Hispanic; Active Army, National Guard, and Army Reserve; infantrymen, tankers, engineers, aviators, and support soldiers -- was sobering.
By the time it came time to sing "America the Beautiful" I'll admit I was wiping my eyes and had hard time carrying a tune.
When the mind-numbing staff work begins to wear you down it's important to remember that you're doing all this crap to help the soldier out there where the rubber meets the road. If your order isn't right, your reading of the local situation is wrong, or your intel estimate is cockeyed, then he suffers.
I don't mean to get too maudlin. It wasn't a bad day. We had a two hour briefing for the four-star head of Army Material Command -- the guys who get us the gear we need -- and had a good discussion about armored Humvees and getting even better armored vests.
I did come across something interesting today in the Civil Military Operations reporting I review that I thought said something about our soldiers-never mind what it says about the Iraqi Army we're trying to train.
So, taking out the items that make it classified, here's the report:
[I have removed even more identifiers since the terrorists do such "brave" things as killing teachers too closely associated with the US or the wrong faction -- PN]
TYPE OF ENGAGEMENT: School supply visit
SUMMARY LINE: CAT ( Civil Affairs Team) A Team visited a school for a school supply handout
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: We issued approximately 200 school supply kits to the students of the school. The school had classrooms that ranged in age from 10 - 21 years of age both male and female students. CAT A Team leader talked to each class and answered questions. One question of significance was, "Why are American Soldiers very nice and IA (Iraqi Army) soldiers are mean, but you (U.S. Army) can still beat them?" Significance is how IA soldiers are viewed among Iraqis. This is not the first time the comparison has been mentioned, but the first time a child has made the comparison. Training with the IA soldiers on how to handle and work with the local populace.
ATTITUDE OF CONTACT: Good and cooperative
[end of report -- PN]
Despite the bad press they get as trigger-happy and over-aggressive in the foreign press, and sometimes in our press, the average American soldier -- National Guard, Active Army, or Reserve, is pretty much a decent human being who does the most professional job they can making split-second, life or death decisions.
Every time I see some story quoting an unidentified British officer, about how over-aggressive the Yanks are, I get madder than heck. The Sunni triangle is not Northern Ireland. No matter how bad the IRA was, they were not driving cars rigged with six 152mm shells into your convoy, or into the checkpoint, or into the local police station.
Our division artillery commander narrowly escaped a bad day a week ago because the machine-gunner on one of the vehicles in his convoy kept his head and did his job. They were heading towards [a town -- PN] when a truck jumped the median and headed towards the convoy. The guy manning the M240B in the target vehicle didn't flinch, he kept his head and walked the tracer rounds into the cab and then the truck blew up. It blew out the tires on one of the M1114s, but other than that, no harm done.
Of course, the risk is that the truck driver might have just been a poor schmuck who was confused and it would have been another story about trigger-happy Americans killing a poor innocent Iraqi man.
Anyway, I've gone on too long.
Sent: June 2005 Subject: A long day
I haven't written much lately because things have been busy here in division staff-land.
Mostly I've been busy with the daily round of reports, briefings, and meetings, along with working on plans and going through the relief-in-place of the old Civil Affairs battalion with a new unit. Very frankly, while the officers and NCOs assigned to that unit did great things individually, the battalion command structure just plan sucked. The battalion commander was an empty suit who let his newly minted captain / operations officer run the show, and she was a pain in the ass who everybody pretty much got sick of. It's nice to see the last of this crew. The new commander and his S-3 are a 180 degree difference.
I went down to a US army camp outside of Baghdad last week for a theater-wide civil-military operations conference. It was interesting to hear the other contingents brief what they were doing and compare it to what we're doing in the wonderful Multi-National Division -- North Central, sector.
The Poles are collecting stuff at home for distribution to the Iraqis, while the Brits are doing "jolly wonderful things" with regional planning committees in their zone. The Koreans, meanwhile, are teaching Tae-Kwon Do to the Kurds , which makes it only more likely that they'll kick Arab butt if fighting starts again, and teaching some of the Pesh Merga to be forest rangers.
The Marines are pretty much doing what we're doing, trying to do projects and build up local governments while people are shooting at you, and Baghdad is just one big wonderful fun land.
I had to brief about our efforts to get the Sunni Arabs involved in politics and government instead of low-level guerilla war. I guess I put on a pretty good show. My corps counterpart was pleased and I had five folks come up to me later and say, "good brief."
We got stranded in Baghdad, though. A sandstorm came in and shut down the helicopters. My three-person contingent of uniformed do-gooders had come down to the big city along with the G-3, the operations officer and my former battalion commander, and his crew of planners, Iraqi Security Forces staffers, and the G-3 Air. So we were all stranded together.
The LTC in charge (a helicopter pilot) kept insisting we'd get home. First it was a 2100 flight. Then he called back to the aviation brigade and told them to come for us at midnight. So we're up at 0130 waiting for the birds when we learn they've turned back because of weather in Balad. Finally we got out at 0830 the next morning.
One unexpected result of this delay was a chance to visit a company of soldiers composed of troops from the battalion I commanded before the mobilization. They're attached to another National Guard unit and they've been patrolling Baghdad neighborhoods for the most part. So far they've had only one soldier killed, in an accident early in the deployment. The day we were there, one of the soldiers had been burned on his hands in an SVBIED attack. He was in the turret and dropped down inside the 1114 [armored Humvee -- PN] when the car came at them, but the flash from the blast burned his hands. A piece of shrapnel had also gone into the receiver of the M240B, rendering that machinegun useless.
Still it was good to see old faces. The battalion commander before me, is now the G-3 for our division, so we went over together.
The acting commander, is a slightly chubby, funny guy, despite all the action he's seen. He told us a very funny story about the superman Iraqi who tried to escape from the IP by jumping from a building and landing on their police car. Then they threw him in the back of a truck and when they tried to put him on a helicopter the Americans holding the stretcher rushed for the chopper, but the Iraqi holding his IV stood there and the needle pulled out.
We also got to hang out at the chow hall, which was pretty nifty. The main DFAC has a smoothie bar, a milkshake machine, and a pastry counter with a guy behind it to hand you the kind of cake you want. They've also got a regular chow line, a short-order counter, and an international foods line. Plus there were all kinds of Air Force women running around. Its the small joys in life that make it worthwhile!
The camp is built around Saddam's old palace and zoo complex beyond the Baghdad International Airport. It circles a lake and since it is THE command post for the country there's a real mix of uniforms there. You've got Aussies, Poles, Koreans, Brits, Italians, Georgians, Iraqis (their national operations center is on the base) Japanese and others whose country of origin I couldn't figure out, running around.
The past weekend we held our governor's conference in Baqubah. This was a chance for the commanding general to try to get the governors to be more forceful in denouncing the insurgency and to get other people speaking out against the bad guys. It was a chance for the Diyala Governor, Gov. Ra'ad to show off as well.
His new executive offices were fixed up nice and there were event goodie bags for the visiting dignitaries. I scored an Iraqi desk flag and an engraved glass palm tree to bring home for my wife. Diyala is famous for its date palms and orange trees. Now it is famous for its car-bombs too, but that is another story.
The event was also a chance for the Iraqi Army and police to show their stuff. To prevent an attack, traffic on the road between the FOB and the CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) in downtown Baqubah was stopped when the convoy carrying the three visiting governors and the rest of us rolled in. The road in town was lined with Iraqi soldiers and cops, doing a lockdown operation.
Since the joke among my friends was that I was heading for "Ground Zero" for Saturday I guess it was necessary. Nobody wants a two star general and Iraqi provincial governors being killed.
It was a pleasant ride heading out in the morning and a hot one coming back over the desert in the afternoon. I got stuck in the set next to the suicide seat -- the right hand forward facing seat in a Blackhawk-- so it was a little windy. It's called the suicide seat because all the rotor wash comes in that side of the bird when the door is open.
Other than this there's not much else to say. I went up to the power plant in Bayji a couple of weeks ago with the Regional Reconstruction Operations Cell team and got a look at that part of the country, but I haven't been out much at all.
We've had a couple of mortar attacks here but nothing serious. Right now I'm counting down the days to leave.
I guess most of us are paying attention to the debate back home about pulling troops out. That's not much news here, of course. Everything we do is focused on getting the hell out. The key is when.
There will always be some Iraqis pissed off at the government. Hell, Saddam Hussein had his problems, which is why he had a 400,000-man Army and massive secret police operation. We can't beat the insurgency militarily, because you can never do that. But you can convince him that he can't win with his military force, which is where it is at now.
The bad guys are launching lots of suicide bombs and while the ones that work make all the headlines at home, most of them fizzle.
We had an incident today in Samarra in which two guys tried to attack a US convoy with a Vehicle Born IED , i.e. a car bomb along the road, but it went off early killing them. Then two of their buddies hopped out of a car and opened up on the patrol and quickly got to see Allah. And, when they tried to mass forces in a conventional attack they usually get wiped out.
So while they can win headlines, they can't win. So now the Sunni politicians need to convince some of their buddies that the best way to get ahead is to come into the system and cut a deal, a la El Salvador.
Meanwhile, we're watching the Iraqis trying to do the whole democratic government thing when they really never had any experience at it. It's slow and it's painful and many do-gooders would cringe at their "elections', mostly local bigwigs electing their councils, but it is kinda, sorta working.
Anyhow, not much more to say. Take care
I'm just taking a little time off to wish everybody happy Independence Day. The DFAC is all decorated up and they've got steak and crab legs for dinner, but other than that it's just another work day. A division put on a big fireworks display over the Tigris last year, but there isn't money to for that this year. Besides, we're socked in with thick dust today so you couldn't see it anyway.
The Iraqis may be disappointed. We had some local folks in here for a meeting last week and they were talking about last year's fireworks show. Well, the money pit has dried up a bit.
There's not to much to say here that would be of interest to anybody back home. We've swapped out Civil Affairs battalions, which is a good thing for me and the division as a whole. The old CA BN commander was pretty useless. This new command team has their head out of their fourth point of contact. We're busy planning away to support the Iraqi elections, but since most of the details fall into the secret category I can't talk about that. In fact, there's an awful lot I'm not supposed to talk about because it involves operational details and just generally how we do business.
One good news story is that the bulk of the soldiers injured in our division are returned to duty. That means 1) people aren't getting hurt too badly, and 2) if they are they get patched up quickly and put back into the fight.
Speaking of the fight, I have to get back into it -- even if my part is just reviewing e-mails from Corps. Have a good Fourth of July. Eat some burgers for me and have a good time.
Sent: July 2005 Subject: A rose by any other name
What we call the enemy is an interesting question. I have to admit, I don't know what the troops call them besides knuckleheads or sh*theads.
Generically American troops tend to call all Iraqi's Hajis. Now we shouldn't do that. Haji is an honorific that means somebody has gone on the Haj to Mecca. But it's one of those GI things that stick and I do it too, even though I know better. We talk about Haji trucks -- the ubiquitous white Toyota pickup truck found every place in this country -- and I go to the Haji Market, the room at MWR (Moral Welfare Recreation) where the locals can sell stuff to us.
The formal name for the bad guys, because there are many, is AIF, for anti-Iraqi Forces. Now many on the left have lumped us for using this word, saying that since they are Iraqis fighting us they can't be anti-Iraqi, but we still use it.
The AIF consists of the FRE (Former Regime Elements) -- ex Ba'athists -- who would like to be in charge again. Usually these guys are former security service or Republican Guard types. Then there is the SAR (Sunni Arab Rejectionists). These are guys who just can't get used to the idea of the Shiite on top, and fight us and the Iraqi government for that reason. In many ways it is similar to South Africa with a white minority running the black majority.
Then you have QJBR, which is the Arabic acronym for Al Qaudi in the land between the two Rivers. This is basically Al Zaqari and company; the guys who recruit the guys that blow themselves up. Most of the suicide bombers are schmucks from outside Iraq. The Iraqis point them at the target, but they -- the Iraqis -- seldom blow themselves up.
Finally there are just the criminal elements and the criminally-inclined tribes that prosper in chaos and can best be thought of as the criminal mobs at home. We've had a lot of gravel truck drivers killed down by Balad in the past few months and we think it's basically a couple of crime-related tribes fighting for turf. Think the Gambino family and garbage pickup in New York City.
Our commanding general just refers to "the insurgent".
The Iraqi government was us to call these guys Takfiri. That is a Muslim religious terms which implies a zealot willing to kill those that do not agree with them. We are now using that term in talking to Iraqis. So that is the rundown on the enemy.
Me I just prefer to call them sh*theads .
Sent: July 2005
Subject: Chugging Along
Just figured I'd throw out a quick e-mail to say hello.
Things here continue to chug along. It's a reliable 100+ degrees every day but the chow hall has been out of breakfast cereal for the last few days so I've been eating far too many eggs for breakfast.
G-5, the civil-military operations section, is gearing up big time for Iraqi elections. We're working on plans for supporting the Iraqis when they vote on a constitution in October (Inshallah) and then handing over the operation so [an airborne unit -- PN], can handle the election for the new government in December. We're supposed to do a RIP (Relief in
Place) in November. (Inshallah).
We had a bunch of Iraqi police chiefs in here the other day to talk planning, and they seem to be aware of what they have to do. The biggest concern is that the Independent Election Commission for Iraq, the group supposed to run the elections, doesn't have a good track record. Last time Coalition Forces stepped in at the last minute to do lots of mundane logistics support to make the Iraqi election work.
Sometimes even those of us who live and breath politics don't realize how much of a logistics effort holding an election is. We have people back home who spend all year getting ready for this. Take a country that's had only one election since 1958 and you can see the size of the challenge.
We're expecting to see a fairly good Sunni turnout this time around.
Basically the Sunni's all realize they screwed-up by boycotting the last election. They've been on top of the heap for so long I don't think they could visualize things moving on without them. Imagine their shock when they discovered that the other 70 percent of the country's population didn't really give a crap about what they thought.
Now if we can just keep things from blowing up over Kirkuk (Inshallah) life will be good.
It helps to keep your sense of humor. It comes out in weird ways. One of our units launched Operation Get the Bad Guys, the other day. That got a lot of laughs during the briefing. Almost as many as Operation Slippery Badger.
The other day the small group of us that sit-in on the corps commander's net calls with all his division commanders played briefing-bingo. Our Chief of Staff made a list of all the phrases the corps commander usually utters at the end of each division commanders report. We all had to pick what responses each division commander would get: "Thanks,"
"Great report," "Good Report," "I have a few comments," "Next." Whoever got the most right won. I forget who won, but it was kind a fun.
Like I said, you have to have a sense of humor. Even here at our FOB -- the ultimate in gated communities, where we're guarded by several hundred National Guardsmen armed to the teeth -- it can get dangerous. A 60mm mortar round landed in the third-country national housing area the other night and injured six folks.
We've had a large number of suicide car bombs, or SVBIEDS as we call them, here in the last few months. They usually don't hurt any Americans but they do hurt Iraqis when they blow up. I think the worst thing about them is that they make us nervous about any car coming at us, which makes our soldiers more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.
Everybody wants to come home to his or her family.
In Tikrit a provincial councilmember got killed during a botched kidnap attempt. His funeral was a big deal. The Iraqi's, as they always do when they are happy, or sad, or just bored, fired a lot of AK rounds into the air. Two of my NCOs were up at the motor pool when expended rounds started falling on the roof like rain. They both brought a slug back, although at the time they were busy finding cover. The Iraqis forget that what goes up, must come down too.
I've got to head back to Baghdad next week for an elections planning meeting. The only upside is the smoothie bar at the camp DFAC. I'm hoping to get back that night, providing the Great God of Helicopters allows it, because we're supposed to have USAID come down for a conference the next day and so I'm hoping to get back in time.
The good news for me is that the new civil affairs battalion commander is a good guy. It took me three or four months, but I finally decided that the commander of the unit that was here when I arrived was an empty suit. The guy hid in his office all day. Since he outranked me, he's a full colonel, it was a little awkward for me to tell him he was a screwup, although I cam close a few times.
The new commander and I have hit it off pretty well and we've both got the same attitude about what's got to be done here. The new unit has already accomplished more at the division level in two weeks than the old one did in months.
There's really not much more to say. I'm counting down the days until I head for the FOB to catch a flight Kuwait. From there you get on a chartered plane and head for Atlanta and from there it's a flight to the airport near home. If the stars align right I can be home in three days.
If all my flights hit wrong it takes about five. Then I've got two weeks at home and then hit the return trip. When I get back we should have 100 days until TOA (Transfer of Authority).
Sent: August 2005 Subject: Going to and from leave
Attached is a letter from me.
[attached photo is edited -- PN]
As we say In the Army: ALCON (That means All Concerned)
It's been a while since I wrote, but as some of you know I was back home for two glorious weeks, so I had better things to do for a while.
It was great to get home again. I spent "quality" time with my totally gorgeous wife, helped my son pack for Scout camp, and got to share my daughter's joy at getting the iPod she had been saving for. One thing being away for a long time does is make you aware of how great these kinds of little things are.
I also got a chance to stop by at my place of employment (yes I can still find the way). Mostly though, I spent time with my family. It was great to be back. The problem was the first week home I felt kind of out of place. The second week I felt like I fit in again and then it was time to leave.
I've been remiss in writing because I got swamped as soon as I got back: mostly in doing all the things my deputy forgot to get done in time -- like the major monthly civil military operations SITREP we owe each month-or the history report, and repairing damage done.
Apparently there was a disastrous economics briefing one night in which the chief of staff stormed out of his office and told his folks to "Find f----ing Your Pal's phone number. We're calling him back." Fortunately my leave had only two days to go and sanity prevailed.
Getting in and out of Iraq was an interesting experience. On the way out I flew to the nearest FOB with an airstrip on a Thursday. I had blithely hoped to get on an airplane on Friday heading for Kuwait. Unfortunately that Kuwait bird got scrubbed. So I parked my sorry but at the terminal for two days -- with occasional breaks to go into the main post and get chow and hit the PX for two days.
The terminal consists of a bunch of Quonset huts. There's huts for people coming in from Kuwait, huts for people heading out, and huts behind a wire for people leave the country for Germany who have cleared customs. Yes they actually do a customs check They do a massive baggage search when you leave the CENTOM (Central Command) area. You're not allowed to bring weapons, ammo, or fruit products or, shall we say, hallucinogenic materials with you. The one I particularly liked was the ban on pornography. Coming from Iraq to the United States that struck me like carrying coals to Newcastle.
In any case the time at the FOB dragged. I bought some DVDs to amuse my self on a computer and read some books, but the air-conditioned tents / Quonset huts (mine was 6 Alpha) were too hot during the day and too cold at night when the A/C kept blasting.
I was stuffed into tent / hut with 12 other US soldiers straight out of central casting or two nights and one-and-a-half full days. We had one female soldier, an intel specialist who told interesting stories of how Iraqis react to female soldiers, and another guy -- an E-6 from Texas -- who worked on the Iraqi Army brigade MiTT ( Military Transition Team). There were six of us National Guardsmen, five Active Duty Army types, and one Army reservists. There were two company grade officers, one warrant officer, five NCOs, and one field grade officer (me). We had black, white, and Hispanic, and we pretty much all got along and got to know one another by the time the plane came on Saturday.
Of course, we all got up at 0300 to manifest for a military bird that was supposed to arrive at 0730, only to find out the flight didn't come until 1335. That was a long day.
The flight down to Kuwait wasn't too bad, and it was made all the more bearable by the thought that we were going in the "right" direction.
Once the soldiers heading out for his or her R&R arrives at the air force base in Kuwait they are plugged into the giant R&R machine. You cool (or rather heat) your heals for a while in a waiting tent, while the next military transport arrives and then you pile onto buses heading for the processing area. When I went out and came back that was a camp in Kuwait.
Then you turn in your IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) and your helmet -- your weapon was already left with your unit, and I will tell you I felt pretty naked for a few days without my "nine mil". Then you shuffle into a bay to drop your bags and then into a briefing on how to fill out your leave form and get a plane. As an officer in the exulted grade of field grade, I was entitled to VIP treatment. That meant I got to sleep in a slightly smaller bay with other majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels.
The processing system flowed quickly. After filing your paperwork you waited for two hours and then got told what time your flight out was and picked up your ticket that brought you from Atlanta, where soldiers heading east of the Mississippi are dumped, to your final destination.
Our flight went out at in the early evening the next night. As a field grade officer, I didn't have to attend the 0930 formation with everybody else, just show up at the customs briefing at 1000. After getting the customs briefing and shakedown, it was into a holding area for five hours. Then back into some buses. We had to fall out once because the count was off, turns out that an 0-6 (a full colonel) decided to have his staff drive him right to the plane.
The flight back was long, but nobody minded. The first leg was from Kuwait to Germany. We filed off the plane at Rhein-Mine AFB (a place I first saw in 1981) and waited for the next leg to Atlanta. That one left a hour late because of engine trouble. There were several hundred people on that plane collectively willing the engine to work. When it did there were many happy campers.
The flight from Germany to Atlanta is about nine hours. When we touched down in Georgia there was a spontaneous cheer as the wheels hit ground. I managed to make it through the outprocessing quickly, catch a spare seat on a Delta flight and was at home by 2 p.m.
Going back was a bit different. I wound up killing time in the Atlanta airport until the plane left at 2000. The bulk of the folks on the plane were the same people you came out with. Of course, the atmosphere wasn't as happy as it had been outbound.
I scored a real honest to god first-class seat on the Atlanta-Germany leg, again because of my exalted status. I got the best sleep I ever had on an airplane there. In Germany I got bumped out of my seat by a full colonel who got on in Frankfurt. I didn't want to play the same game with somebody of lesser rank so I had a coach seat up front for the next four hours.
The system doesn't work quiet as smoothly in getting you back to Iraqi as it did getting out. Once in Kuwait you have to wait for a space on a military transport. They send R&R flights out in mass, but I passed one of my officers who had been waiting for Space A seating for three days. The Army is smart, they make being in Kuwait -- where nobody is shooting at you -- so miserable that you long to get back to Iraq where occasionally a mortar round comes in.
We made it out the very next day after arriving, which was pretty good. The plane before us, going the same place, got canceled when an engine caught on fire. These C-130s are being worked hard.
I had to spend another night at the FOB, but caught a Space A helicopter ride to my FOB the next day and got back on Wednesday morning after leaving Albany on Sunday.
I would like to note one other thing. Some museum should make it a point to collect one of the Port-a-Johns at the air terminal. This is truly a piece of Americana that should be saved in a museum. Then future generations could read that "Infantry Rocks," "F---k the Marine Corps," "USMC really means Uncle Sam's Misguided Children," "All Air Force pukes are p*ssies," "Second ID World Tour, Korea, Kuwait, Iraq," or that "Mary likes big d--ks." If that doesn't belong in a museum, I do not know what does. Hell, you could even replicate the smell of a Port-a-John in 125 degree heat.
My first week back was pretty tough because I had a tough time readjusting my sleep cycle. I was pretty short of sleep for a long while. But everybody seemed genuinely glad to have me back after two weeks of my deputy. One of my majors gave me a big bear hug and told me how happy he was to see me again. I heard horror story after horror story then. I was told nobody wanted to upset me so the agreement was nobody would tell me what was going on in my absence.
Apparently my deputy had a couple full course reamings by the chief of staff. I've had two of those since he came on board in August and mine were pretty mild compared to what she got. That night the G-3 announced at the staff standup meeting that everybody was truly happy to have me back. There was laughter all around.
So know I'm back in Iraq and back in the staff fight once again: writing reports, giving briefings, writing orders and answering e-mails.
The attached photo is one of the pictures I found while looking for something to illustrate a briefing for the Iraqi Governor's I have to do next week. It is on elections security and I was looking for a US and Iraqi soldier together. While doing that, I found this one. I like it. It's a soldier giving a little girl candy in a small town outside of Baqubah. Soldiers like doing this. American soldiers like kids.
Sent: August 2005 Subject: Reality versus The Press
Well I was embarrassed for [many of the journalism professionals on this e-mail list -- PN] this week. The Associated Press on Monday and Tuesday was reporting a 2,000 person pro-Saddam, anti-constitution demonstration held by Sunnis in beautiful downtown Tikrit. It was a great story. The Sunnis had turned out in force to protest the Shi'ite-imposed constitution and the BBC carried pictures of people waving signs and pictures of Saddam. Fox and CNN had scrolls on their stories.
The only problem is it never happened. There was a flyer circulated in Tirkrit calling for a demonstration and we had a report that the organizers wanted 2,000 people to turn out and were telling that to the folks in Baghdad. Instead, it turned out to be about 15 people with a banner standing at a street corner for 20 minutes, according to US infantry troops and one of our Iraqi employees who checked it out.
Our CG nearly sh*t when he saw the story running on Fox. Many people were mobilized to find out why we didn't know about this event.
I've been taking sh*t for the last day -- since most people here know [his association with news people -- PN] about how screwed up the press is.
Be that as it may, and we all know how and why that stuff happens, it's been low-key few days here at our FOB. I'm a "FOBbit" again because I am stuck every day doing a visiting VIP briefing and working on reports I have due to corps. I got up to Kirkuk last week as part of our on-going series of governor's conference's and got the trots from eating Iraqi style during the "goat grab" that's an integral part of these events. Next week I have to go to Baghdad for a two-day meeting. That will be a thrill (not!).
We're very busy right now with getting ready to support the constitutional referendum. We have a meeting in a couple of days with the brigade folks working elections and its the main topic of conversation when we entertain visitors from corps.
The building I am living in is going to be shut down in a couple of weeks as we make ready to evacuate the FOB and turn the complex here back over to the Iraqis. I will be a nomad again, but that's okay, it is moving in the right direction.
There's not much more to say. I'm still here and haven't been mortared in three days so life is good.
Sent: September 2005
Subject: Not all the heroes die in Iraq
It's a good thing I took my time a lunch today. If I ate any faster I might have had an unfortunate rendezvous with an airbursting 81mm mortar round.
I was heading down the hill that leads from the DFAC to the bridge over the Tigris when my eye registered a cloud in the air ahead. About a microsecond later that was followed by the sound of the explosion.
Since these guys normally hang two or three rounds when they take a shot at us I beat a hasty retreat to a nearby concrete wall and made myself small while I waited for numbers two and three to either hit or not hit. Today it was only number two and I didn't see where that one landed, probably in the river.
The office of the state-embedded team here -- a building that looks like it has a giant bra on top -- appears to have become the new Target Reference Point 1 for the local mortar crew. The rounds seem to hit down there with regularity. One of the guys I know -- in civilian life a teacher and coach at a high school -- was a bit more closer than I was when the round hit. He got hit with a piece of stone, but fortunately for him he didn't earn a Purple Heart today.
Last night when I was eating we heard two rounds come in. They hit over by the signal battalion building. These guys really don't stick around for very long when they shoot because they know if they do they'll get dead. We responded to last night's two 81 mm rounds with a 155. I wouldn't want to be any were near where they are landing either.
That's pretty much the excitement around here, unless you could a two sentence quote in Stars and Stripes in a thrilling story on the Provincial Reconstruction Development Committee concept. What a thrill.
Actually, yesterday I managed to escape from the FOB and see a little bit more of what we refer to as MND-NC (MultiNational Division-North Central).
I hitched a ride with the Command Sergeant Major and his personal security detail. The CSM asked me if I wanted to ride along and I said "sure." Turns out the chief of staff, my boss, was going too. I sent him an e-mail telling him my paperwork was caught up and asking permission to skip town. He said sure, as long as he could come along.
Anyway, we drove up to Bayji to visit the FOB there. Unfortunately we went there so the CSM and chief of staff could participate in a memorial service for a dead soldier.
The soldier in question was the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) in the Task Force engineer company TOC (Tactical Operations Center). He was the voice on the other end of the radio when the sh*t was hitting the fan. He was the guy who said the old man was on his way into the TOC, the QRF was rolling out the gate, and the Air Weapons Team was in route. He was known to everybody.
The irony was he didn't die here in Iraq. He was home on leave, trying to rescue a woman from a wrecked car when he was electrocuted. At least he was doing his job and trying to help somebody else.
As usual the ceremony was simple and moving. When they call the roll, and the missing soldier doesn't answer three times and the bugle sounds taps -- it always sends a chill down your spine.
The stop did give me a chance to talk some business with the deputy commander of the brigade; we were organizing some details of a trip the commanding general is making to the provincial governor's office in a few days.
Then it was back on the road and I got to go through Bayji for the first time. Bayji is not generally a great place to be. The guys I was riding with where not happy when the CSM decided to head through town. Still, it's good to get a look at these places. As with most Iraqi cities it's pretty depressing
It was a pretty steep road, and the M1114 chugged along pretty hard to make it up the grade. The view heading up the mountain was spectacular; all of the northern part of Salah Ah Din Province was laid out below us. At the top was a checkpoint with Iraqi cops hanging around in various stages of relaxation.
Then we were heading down the mountain. The road was a little nerve-wracking but the view was spectacular. We roared past some villages and kids playing in the Tigris; and then dodged a truck burning in the middle of the road. It didn't look like the product of an attack. It was a civilian truck carrying pipes. It may have been a tribal feud or simply an accident.
However, that route took us past a place the CSM's team had been VBIEDed before so they were a little nervous.
We drove along a pipeline to check on the members of an Iraqi infrastructure battalion to see if they were guarding the pipeline or tapping it for oil to sell on the black market another FOB.
This FOB is the home of an Army National Guard unit from out west. I had a chance to talk civil military operations stuff with their battalion S-5 for about 45 minutes. The town is the hotspot in the area so it was a good chance to get some ground truth.
My boss also enlisted his nephew, who happens to be stationed there. By re-enlisting in our National Guard unit, he could get promoted against a vacancy we had. What the heck, he may be from Maryland but we'll take anyway.
Then it was back through the plains of western Kirkuk Province, up over the Hamrin ridge at another crossing site and back to our FOB.
All-in-all it was a good, if long day. It's always good to get out with the real soldiers. It keeps you grounded when your up to your elbows in staff stuff.
Today, for example, was another meeting day: An hour-long session with the CG on our information operations effort and then a two hour meeting with the Iraqis who run the provincial joint coordination centers and local police and army units to talk about elections security plans. It was a good meeting.
And I don't mean to be racist, but when you sit in a room with a bunch of Iraqis there is a definite odor. Now I know it's us Americans who have the cleanliness fetish, but still it's always good to get some fresh air when you're done with one of these sessions. God bless the CG, he can hang in there for hours and then smile his way through the goat-grab afterwards.
Well, not much else to say. I'm sitting here on a cot in my bare room. The bed is gone, the locker's gone, and the chair is gone. The freezer down the hall is gone so no more frozen water bottles in the cooler. We're getting ready to vacate this building so the whole complex can be turned over to the Republic of Iraq.
So the living now is kind of Spartan. Be nice to have stuff, like the DVD player, but it's been packed in a locker and is sitting in the CONEX ready to take the slow boat home.
All of the above is a good sign. In less than 50 days I should be back freezing my butt off at a fort back home and waiting to be demobed. All I have to do is avoid the mortars for a while longer.
Sent: September 2005
WARNING: Moderately emotional tirade following
SUBJECT: Hurricane Katrina.
Once again I'm a little pissed about news people's uncritical acceptance of the repeated tirades from New Orleans officials about how the National Guard should have immediately "done something" to help the people in that city. It p*sses me off that no reporters seem to ask these experts about just how the National Guard was supposed to be there immediately.
As somebody who has been involved in dealing with a few natural and man-made disasters that resulted in a Guard call-up, and as somebody who has helped in planning for them, I wanted to point out a few salient points. We here, who have done this, think the Guard response has been pretty darn good.
1) National Guard soldiers do not miraculously appear.
It takes time to mobilize. They live in the states and cities effected.
If the city is trashed then the Guard armory is probably having a tough time and Guardsmen are trying to take care of their families and homes too. I remember a couple of snowstorms where Mario Cuomo waited until after the snow fell to mobilize the Guard. Then I had to dig my way out of my snowed-in house to get to the armory to help other people.
I've seen a lot in the press about the fact that Louisiana Guard soldiers are deployed here in Iraq and not at home to help. Well, even if the Guard unit was back home, they would not have been there magically. I read a quote from one captain in the unit who say his home underwater.
2) Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics.
You can't just pour thousands of soldiers into a city that already has no food / water / fuel / medical supplies without supporting them. If you're going to deploy 1,500 soldiers then you need about 300 to support them. That is a fact of life. You need trucks, Humvees, and open roads to move those men there and sustain them. If the highways are covered with downed trees etc., then you have to remove the obstacles. This takes time and the right equipment. Here in Iraq every one of our tactical ops is prefaced by a long discussion about how to supply people.
3) Guard soldiers have lives.
If they are not in the immediately effected area of a disaster they are not sitting around the armory waiting for the warning bell. In a case like this it takes time to call all our your soldiers and have them report it. It means tracking down people at work, at home, on vacation, etc. I have done this. It takes time. On 9/11 it took 12 hours to get all of my battalion's soldiers into the armory so we could deploy to NYC the next morning.
4) The military works because of its command structure.
Command is especially important when you have a situation where Guard forces from another state are now reporting for state active duty under the control of another governor. It takes a little time to work out those relationships. Again, you have to have the logistics in place.
Armies that cannot move, shoot or communicate are worthless.
5) The civil disaster structure in this country is a local one.
The city asks the state for help when they can't cope and then the state goes to Washington when it is maxed out. The system can be awkward. On
9/11 communications from NYC were sporadic. State emergency officials , though, were watching TV and launched the state reaction then. I think Louisiana was slow.
6) Finally: Everybody receiving this e-mail has covered politicians and knows their cardinal rule: When the she*t hits the fan on your watch, blame somebody else and pass the buck. I'd like to know why the New Orleans police force faded away instead of protecting and serving?
Okay: I'm done. "The lock and load" is now over. Since I can't be there to rant in person I figured I'd do it by e-mail.
Hello everyone [those of us back in the US - PN]:
Sorry I haven't written in a while but I've been in busy-work staff hell for the past few days. The Iraqi Constitutional Referendum is getting closer so the reports to read, briefings to give, and e-mails to plow through are coming thick and fast. Heck, I've even been asked to be a referendum interview expert for the CENTCOM public affairs office. Lucky me.
I turned into a "30 digit midget" a few days ago. Go-home fever is hard to fight but my boss, the Chief of Staff, keeps telling everybody that we can't begin to think about our RIP (Relief in Place) until after the election. I know he's right, but the replacement guys and gals keep showing up-in their distinctive new green/gray Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) [http://www.uniformmarket.com/magazine/070604/armyuniform.html -- PN] -- so it's hard not to forget that we'll be getting out of here fairly soon.
I had the chance to meet with the head of the Independent Elections Commission of Iraqi here a few days ago to discuss elections security and ballot distribution issues. He's got a good plan in place to make up for a lack of phone lines and he's thought through the security and logistics issues.
These elections directors have to be pretty gutsy, Mr. X comes from a town which is a Sunni-majority town with lots of former Saddam secret police officers living there. He was telling me and the POLAD (Political Advisor) that he can't go home any more. There are two many threats to his life.
Ad Duluyiah is not a good place to be if you've got any sympathy for the new government. A few weeks ago a logistics convoy wandered through there accidentally and got ambushed. Four civilian truck drivers were killed: two of them dragged away and shot execution-style. An infantry task force went back in to hit the bad guys' house (confirmed by excellent intel sources), got fired upon, returned fire, and killed a town councilman and police captain, and wounded a third guy.
These guys were vying for the "Darwin Award." They decided they'd take on a full US Army Infantry platoon with two 9mm Glocks. That was pretty freaking dumb.
In any case, Mr. X can't go back there again since he's committed the cardinal sin of working for the elections.
In Diyala province Mr. Y, a pretty intense guy I've met at a few meetings, has also been threatened. He's trying to get his family out of Baqubah to the safety of Sulaymaniyah until after the elections are over. I do not blame him. These guys don't care who they kill.
We're moving ahead with plans to shut down the FOB, in fact there was a story about the close-out effort in USA today a few weeks ago. So far we've shut down the MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation) building which means the end of $2 haircuts and $5 "hajii movie" DVDs of first-run movies still in theaters. They also shut down the PX. I mean, you can only browse through the same stuff only so many times, but at least going to the PX was a break from the day.
The worst blow, though, was the shutdown of the Green Beans coffee outlet in the DMAIN. It was great to be able to get a cappuccino or latte (Yes I know, War is Hell) and maybe a muffin and sit at a table and relax. When they baked brownies the smell wafted over to us. Except for the guys toting machine guns and wearing body armor, it felt like hanging out in a hotel lobby or airport back home. The Indian (Nepalese?) guys who worked there were always cheerful and hard-working. One of them told me he had been away from home for two years, working here in Iraq, and expected to be here in the country -- in Baghdad -- for another year, working for Green Beans. He was saving up a nest-egg for the future. I always made sure to leave a tip when I had something there.
They were also really hot for certificates from the military. My office made up nice certificates for them and I presented them ceremonially while they took pictures. Hey, it's the very least we could do (literally).
So now we're back in the Army. No PX, no MWR, no yuppie coffee in the morning, it's just work, work, work. All of us old men are feeling tired. You work a long day and go to bed tired and then you wake up in the morning tired. I'm ready to go home and DeMob and take some time off, before going back to work again.
Meanwhile, life goes on at home. My daughter is on the tennis team at her high school. My son is playing fall soccer and enjoying the Boy Scouts, and my wife has just been told by the her National Guard Division that a slight case of asthma makes her non-deployable and non-retainable after 22 years in the Army Reserve.
While I don't want her to get called up when I get home, I also understand how she feels. She intends to fight this. There are people in her unit with much worse health issue that have been allowed to stay. While her retiring would negate any chance she can be called up, I can't tell her to do that. She wants to stay as long as she can [she, too, is a lieutenant colonel, with more time-in-grade than her husband -- PN].
Not much more to say today. I'm attaching a series of "Drumbeats" to his e-mail to give you a sense of some of the stuff that's going on here that doesn't make it past the "12 Iraqis killed today in violence" headline from the AP.
10 October 2005
I've got a little time and I'm in the writing mode so here I go with another meandering letter from here.
It's five days to go before the Constitutional Referendum and it's starting to get a little nuts here. We've got nightly conference calls with the Corps Election Cell to discuss what's going on, we're updating e-mails on the latest every hour, and generally getting into the last-minute frenzy.
Today I attended the Independent Election Commission of Iraq national committee visit to Salah Ah Din province. The locals managed to fill 130 seats in the auditorium of sheiks, elected officials, and other local leaders. According to one of the State Department folks traveling with Mr. Adel Allami, the IECI national electoral Chairman, it was the largest turnout yet for a trip.
The meeting was held at the Salah Ah Din Rehabilitation Hospital, located just outside Tikrit. The hospital, which is in pretty rundown shape, was built during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 to treat soldiers injured in battle. It was Iraq's version of Walter Reed Army Hospital. It turns out one of the guys we hire to help us with local media and Iraqi relations -- Dr. Sa'ad Salih, a former Iraqi Army dentist -- was the commander of this place. He was a one-star general in the Iraqi Army and in charge of 470 staff. Pretty impressive, I think. He was about to make major general, but then the invasion came, he told me today.
Dr. Sa'ad is kind of an interesting guy. He's been working for the US Army as a contractor since 2003. He speaks excellent English and is an amateur archeologist. Of course, I'm also convinced he's probably ratting us out a bit as well since he's still alive.
In any case, the hospital was secured with Iraqi Police Service, the Facilities Protective Service -- think rent-a-cops with AK-47s -- and US infantry in the outer cordon and with a couple of snipers on the roof. We also had a couple of AH -64s in the area all day. Nothing says love like a helicopter gunship overhead.
Today I rode out with a squad from an MP company. It was the first time I'd ridden with these guys. They were pretty aggressive. When one civilian vehicle didn't move over fast enough they put two rounds in the road in front of the car. The car moved over. Of course one reason for the extra aggressiveness was the morning intel report that said there was a threat of an SVBIED connected with the conference today.
The TC of the vehicle today was Sgt. Jane [name changed -- PN]. She's the MP squad leader and was second in command of the three-vehicle section that was ferrying myself and other division types to this meeting. Her platoon leader, another woman, was in overall charge.
I got a kick out of Sgt. Jane. She obviously has her sh*t together but she was prepared for a day of sitting around waiting for us. She had copies of "Cosmo" and "Glamour" for her reading pleasure tucked underneath the radio, in between the spare machine gun ammo cans, and under the smoke grenade in case they have to call for a dust-off. She is also quite pretty, but when her gunner asked if he should shot anything that moved replied, " You know the drill, ROE mother****er." ROE stands for Rules of Engagement. Those tell us when we can and cannot shoot something.
The meeting was interesting, although I missed a lot of it. My designated translator today -- a Jordanian-American lady -- is a really poor spoken translator. She just missed a lot and would just generalize. I started off sharing her with an LA Times reporter the State Department brought in, but he wandered off to her colleague when he realized she wasn't very good. Still, Governor Hamad and the Provincial Council Chairman Sheik Rashid both encouraged everybody to vote and said there was a lot of good stuff in the constitution. They listed the usual Sunni litany of faults -- federalism, resource sharing, Arab identify -- and today and the day before I heard a new one: passing on citizenship through the mother. Somehow it is un-Islamic to pass along citizenship through the mother and this is in the constitution.
The audience asked lots of questions. Some was pretty basic -- When will the polls be open? Some questions were surprising to a westerner: a woman asked if her husband could go and vote for everybody in the family. Of course, the Sunnis boycotted last time so they are out of practice.
Since it's Ramadan -- which means no eating, no smoking, no sex, no drinking water between dawn and dusk -- there was no goat-grab at today's meeting. We brought along bottled water and MREs for the western press and Americans and during a break we huddled in one room while our media colleagues ate MREs.
One thing I did get a kick out of was when the school next door let out. Like many Iraqi facilities, the Rehab Hospital is a self-contained entity; there is housing for the employees on the grounds.
I was standing outside enjoying the day, when the kids started walking down the street. The little girls looked adorable in their matching school uniforms. I noted a lot of them had the Coalition-donated backpacks -- with the Iraqi map logo -- on their backs.
As soon as the kids saw the American Humvees parked outside the building they went nuts. They all went over and started talking to the GIs. Of course they wanted stuff, but it was fun to watch.
One little boy ran back, and grabbed his sister by the hand, and then he gestured and they both took off running to join the crowd. When it was time to leave, Sgt. Jane had acquired a fan club of four little Iraqi boys who were talking to her and hoping to get pens and candy and stuff. Female soldiers are still not an Arab thing so I think they enjoyed the curiosity value as well.
Be it World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, and now Iraq; US soldiers like kids and kids sure seem to like US soldiers. It may be that we do have "stuff" but the average GI is a pretty friendly guy, especially where children are involved.
Well this has been kind of a meandering letter. It was mostly just a chance to share some observations and get them down for myself before I forget.
In about 30 more days I should be a civilian again. I am looking forward to that. Oh yes, for all you New York residents, thanks, I intend to take full advantage of every property tax break I can get with my new "combat veterans status". You'll get to pick up the slack (grin).
19 October 2005
I sat down and wrote a lengthy e-mail the other day, ruminating on many things, and my computer ate it. So I'm going to try to do it again. I will probably leave something out, but then again, it probably wasn't important.
The big event here was the referendum. It was 36 hours of staff hell, not unlike covering election night for a newspaper, only it lasted longer.
On Friday, the day before, I left at noon to go brief the commander of an airborne division on some exciting new Civil Military Operations stuff, and everything was under control. The brigade liaison officers were going to report on the flow of ballots to polling centers and all was a well.
When I came back just before five, everything was in crisis mode. For some reason my elections guy had contracted a serious mind fart and dropped the ball, the LNOs were not reporting, and the G-3 script writer hadn't written the information correctly. Unfortunately I bore the brunt of the disaster. I eventually managed to track down the information, and stepped in to write the script and get it to the CG in time. But I still got to stand at parade rest and be dressed down by my boss. Not a fun way to begin the weekend.
The day was tense because it wasn't just me who incurred the wrath of the chief of staff. The brigade liaison officers didn't know enough about what their units were doing so it was a long, unhappy night.
In any case, the voting itself went well. There were very big turnouts in Salah Ah Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala provinces. The Salah Ah Din turnout was almost 74 percent of registered voters. Of course, most of those people were voting no, but that is still a good thing.
I had hoped to go out to the local Provincial Joint Coordination Center with my friend the Political Advisor -- and his personal security detail -- to watch the votes being tallied, but after Friday night's fiasco it was pretty clear I needed to keep my butt solidly fixed in the TOC. After we got through the first phone conference with the corps commander at 1000 in the morning things went better. By the end of the day I had gone from "dumb sonofabitch" to "good job."
I like the chief of staff, and I respect the chief of staff, but he goes from saying everything's okay to calling you a dumb mother****er in about 10 seconds flat. The regular Army is the only place you can still do this.
So in the end, the Iraqis voted and on Tuesday the voting tally sheets got put on an airplane and flown to Baghdad. Now they just have to announce the formal results.
Some of the Sunni's we deal with are very depressed that the constitution passed despite their "no" votes. Of course, they have only themselves to blame because they decided to boycott the vote in January.
I personally believe they are also being a little disingenuous when they talk about the constitution breaking up Iraq. It seems to me that for almost 35 years, Iraqi was a concern run by the Sunni's for themselves -- with the assistance of Saddam -- and the Shia and the Kurds didn't get a hell of a lot out of it. Maybe if the Sunnis hadn't spent so much time killing Kurds and keeping the Shi'ites down then there would be more loyalty to the idea of Iraq.
So now they're all upset. Hopefully that will translate into voting in December and not more bombs.
I also wanted to mention very briefly the famous -- or infamous -- interview that President Bush did with the folks from the 42nd ID. I know three of the people pretty well who were in that ten-person group, and I know that they weren't coached to give any particular answers. The soldiers did decide among themselves who would answer which kinds of questions and they thought hard about what they wanted to say.
We watched that interview in the DMAIN as it took place and I remember thinking: "God, that captain is smiling like a moron," and "Geeze these guys look like they are reading from cue cards." They were not, of course, but they were nervous as hell and the first few folks just said what they wanted to say without responding to the president's actual questions.
It got better when they went to the captain working with the Iraqi cops. He actually answered the question. Then it got better. The Public Affairs Officer came in to see how it looked. I told him the guys were looking like they were reading from cue cards. He hit me on the shoulder.
The bottom line with all this is I don't think there was any conspiracy. The soldiers actually said what they think. Those guys actually believe in their mission, especially the guys working with the Iraqi Army. They folks they had on TV, for the most part, belong to our MITTs (Military Transition Teams), they work with the Iraqis on a daily basis and they know their pluses and minuses. For the most part, the MITT guys I know say the Iraqis are coming along. They have problems, of course, and they are not the 82nd Airborne, but as somebody pointed out once, they do not have to be the 82nd Airborne. They just have to be better than the Sunni insurgents.
In our AO we've got some encouraging signs. Iraqi units are getting better and doing more and more of the fighting. They are definitely taking more of the casualties than we are. On Election Day three Iraqi Army soldiers escorting recovered ballots and tally sheets were killed in the line of duty.
Now the next event is to hand over the job to our replacements. Then we can go home. My counterpart was here for Referendum Day and is coming back over in two more days for another stint. When we did our Relief in Place we basically sat next to our counterparts for a week and then they sat next to us and watched us.
In our RIP will be harder because they are standing up a brand new FOB 12 miles up the road, while we are still running the FOB here. When we leave, our FOB will be shut down and turned over to the Iraqi Army to secure. Bottom line: It makes it tougher to do the battle handover.
All of this, though, is a good sign. In about three weeks I should be back at my US location. I am looking forward to seeing my family again and getting off active duty after a year and a half away from home.
Tonight the Iraqis are celebrating Ramadan. The loud speaker at the mosque is going full-bore and every now and then gunshots erupt. It's "happy fire." These folks haven't seemed to have figured out that a bullet that goes up happy can cause a problem when it comes down. It's cool outside and the moon is almost full and casting a lovely light over the Tigris. This place almost seems nice.
Today we had a couple of demonstrations of people protesting the Saddam trial. More power to them. As long as there's no shooting, its a good thing.
25 October 2005 Iraq
I figured I'd send one more e-mail while I had the chance. In a few days we'll be turning over the last of our TPE ( Theater Provided Equipment) computers to our replacement division's Civil Military Operations section and I will lose the ability to send unclassified e-mails.
I wanted to thank everybody for the e-mails over the past ten months. They've been appreciated more than you know. It's good to have a connection with home when you are away. The infantry division has to spend one more day in complete control of the area dubbed Multi-National Division - North Central and then we turn the responsibility for day-to-day operations over to the airborne division replacing us. Our final Transition of Authority occurs soon and then I don't have to care anymore.
Our challenge then will be to get back home and get demobilized. Soon after TOA we'll fly out of here in Chinook helicopters to the closest APOD (Arial Port of Debarkation) and catch a C-130 going south to Kuwait. In Kuwait we get our gear checked by customs during a 36-hour layover and then head back to our home base.
I just wanted to share a couple of observations as my time here trickles down to a week.
I've always been skeptical of the claims that the press distorts reality. In most cases, I think, people get upset because reporters do not automatically reflect their point of view. For the most part, I think the reporting on Iraq is accurate. I think the reporters here are doing the best they can to tell a complicated story. The problem, of course, is you're compelled to lead with the car bomb de jour or the latest US death. It tends to distort reality.
I think the real distortion of what is happening here occurs when the talking heads and the opinion mavens get involved. My take is that if you hate George W. Bush then nothing good can happen in Iraq, and it is all bad. I think that colors the perspective of most of the chattering classes. They've got to justify their opposition to George Bush and the decision to invade Iraq by finding disaster everywhere. Of course, the opposite can be true, but I think the truth is closer to the middle.
Take the issue of casualties, for example. We'll reach the 2,000 US deaths mark here before I get home I am sure. It is a dangerous place in some places.
The death of a soldier sucks. When you're sitting in the TOC and you find out there's been a KIA the whole place gets depressed. Everybody feels it. I've been to the memorial ceremonies; big tough guys cry. Heck, we feel it when Iraqi soldiers and cops get killed.
But it has to be put in perspective. I've read newspaper columns were they talk about high casualty rates in Iraq. That's nuts. In 2003 there were 1,403 deaths on New York State highways. The average death rate in Iraq is about 650 soldiers a year. Out of the 23,000 soldiers in Task Force Liberty, we have had 53 soldiers killed. That is a 0.23 percent death rate, that is very low, much lower than Vietnam. No soldier wants to die but it is part of the risk.
Hell one of our battalion commanders, five days short of turning over his command, got hit in an IED ambush on his way to a meeting and is now in Germany with a bad shoulder injury. He's a good guy and I hope he pulls through. A Navy guy assigned to our ACE (the All Source Collection Cell) was outside taking a smoke break when a mortar round landed and lost his legs. These things happen.
But I think you've got a statistically higher chance of getting killed driving down the New York State Thruway. It's just that driving on the Thruway is a risk people accept.
There was also the big stink about three-to-one trained Iraqi battalions. A lot of that had to do with the way we evaluate the Iraqi Army. As the IA has gotten better trained, the standards have gotten tougher. When we got here in January the best the Iraqi Army was able to do was company level ops. They are now taking over parts of the battle space and running brigade-level operations. Our challenge has been to take an army that was trained to do little more than check point operations and turn it into one that can conduct cordon and search ops and take on the insurgents on a one-to-one fight.
This is an army that fought for eight years against Iran and didn't get much of anywhere, and an army that got totally stomped in Kuwait. Their junior officers pretty much lacked initiative and their conscript troops didn't have a lot of will to fight.
We've had to teach them basic staff skills -- how to do strength accounting, how to order supplies, how to plan an attack -- that they really had a pretty poor grasp on, and teach them tactics above "stand here and shoot." It is working slowly. The new Iraqi Army is all volunteer (admittedly because there aren't many other jobs) but at least these guys chose to be there.
The Iraqis are getting better and I think that's illustrated by the way the insurgents attack them. Just as the bad guys don't take on US troops in a fire fight, the insurgents have stopped mounting force-on-force attacks on the IA. They're losing and they don't like it.
This continues to be a war of car bombs and inaccurate mortar rounds. The car bombs cause lots of casualties and they make it necessary to have a lot of safety precautions, but they can't defeat an army. And again, most of the casualties are Iraqi civilians. Our casualty rates have stayed low.
I spend most of my time looking at reports on Iraqi governance. We've seen a big change in the last ten months. Local councils that couldn't figure out how to hold a meeting are getting things done. Iraqi's are learning the art of politics and using TV and the media to lead and sway people. One of the things our division can take credit for is bringing together the local governors in our region -- two Kurds, a Sunni, and a Shia -- on a regular basis. These guys are learning to talk together and problem-solve together and even reach out to each other for help. When Kirkuk province needed Arabic copies of the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish governor called the Sunni governor of Salah Ah Din province and got extra copies in Arabic shipped to him.
Their government isn't as sophisticated as our government but they're slowly learning to do things for themselves on a local level. This is revolutionary in an Iraq which has always been dominated by a strong central government. The local governments had no power and the utilities are run by director generals answerable to a boss in Baghdad. This would be like having the local sewer department back home run by a guy who reports to somebody in Washington D.C. It makes it hard to get stuff done, but things are changing. It is going to take a while, though, to change a whole way of life and 35 years of people with initiative getting shot for showing it.
One of the things we've done here is create a satellite TV station that allows a moderate Sunni viewpoint to be broadcast across the Middle East by local entrepreneurs. Their news coverage is a counter to the Al Jazzera all-bombs all-the-time stuff that is shown throughout the region -- to the disgust of most Iraqis. During the referendum period the sat TV reports were picked up by Egyptian stations looking for something different. This is significant because it allows the Sunni Arabs who want to work things out peacefully a way to get their message out and compete with Zarqawi and the other mad bombers.
Of course there are a bunch of Sunni Arabs that just don't want to face the fact that they don't run this country anymore. They'll be fighting the majority of Iraq after we leave.
One thing I always find interesting in reading on-line are the persistent themes that if only the Coalition troops would go home, things would be peaceful. I've learned (both from experience and from reading about the culture) that it's a pretty consistent Arab trait to blame somebody else for your problems: It isn't Iraqis blowing up cars by mosques it's "foreigners." It's not Iraqi's killing each other, it's because of the Americans, etc.
We've heard these comments a lot and the polls of Iraqis find that is a pretty consistent theme with them. But the educated elites -- Sunni, Shiite, Turcoman, and the Kurds -- still want us around. They realize that, in many ways, the fact that the US and UK still have large troop presences around is what keeps the low-level civil war that is currently being waged from turning into an all-out one.
It's US eyes on them that often keeps Shi'ite soldiers from really roughing up Sunni Arabs who are hiding insurgents. The Turcoman and Arabs in Kirkuk are continually asking us to protect them from the Kurds, etc. I think if we did leave, the Sunni's would regret if bigtime because the Kurds would kick their butts.
The economy here still sucks. The oil infrastructure is so old, it breaks. When it doesn't break it's getting sabotaged; not by the insurgents but by guys who are siphoning off oil for their own use, or by oil security guards who figure if they don't blow up the pipeline every now and then , they'll be out of work.
In the same vein the power lines keep getting blown up by guys who want work rebuilding them.
It's a screwed-up situation, but that's because the top-down Stalinist economy here has sucked much of the life out of the ability of people to make money. We're doing what we can. We've opened business centers to provide loans for people who want to get into business, we're paying for OJT programs, and we've sunk a lot of money into infrastructure. But there's a lot to be done.
So overall, I don't think the situation in Iraqi is great, but I do think it is getting better. Yes the insurgents are making bigger bombs and they're more sophisticated than they were in May 2003, but the Iraqi government is further along and so is the Iraqi Army. This kind of stuff takes time. I think the concern of most military people (and I guess I am one for a little longer) is the civilians back home will lose their nerve and will to fight long before the soldiers do.
Most people here -- at least from what I can tell of the guys in the line units I've talked with -- believe in the mission. They think we're doing okay. They're not despairing as much as the cable TV talk show pundits are. Most of those folks, I think, have never worn a uniform in their life: their take comes down to US domestic politics and how much they hate or like George Bush.
Whether or not we should have gone into Iraqi is, I think, a moot point. We did. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
But the Kurds I talk to still thank us for liberating them. The Shi'ite Arabs still seem pretty happy to have Saddam gone. Sure the Iraqis want more electricity, and more security, etc. But they don't have electricity and they're getting blown up because about 20,000 Sunni Arabs, assisted by a bunch of passive supporters, is shutting down the power, and blowing up the oil, and setting off bombs.
In any case, enough rambling from my end. I hope to see a bunch of you within a few weeks. Thanks again for the e-mails. I've really appreciated them.