September 20, 2003

Stretched Thin, Lied to & Mistreated

Well, the vast reich-wing conspiracy's propaganda
machine has kicked into gear on the distortion of
Wesley Clark (D-NATO) and his STRONG stand AGAINST the
unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq, helped by
the shameless dis-assembling of the NYTwit hatchet
woman Katherine Stealy (who did in Al Gore with
similar distortions), with of course SeeNotNews and
for certain tomorrow's Sunday morning
propapunditgandists towing the line..,.Meanwhile, *at
least* 3 more US GIs have died in Iraq. For what?

Published in the October 6, 2003 issue of The Nation
Stretched Thin, Lied to & Mistreated
On the ground with US troops in Iraq

by Christian Parenti

An M-16 rifle hangs by a cramped military cot. On the
wall above is a message in thick black ink: "Ali Baba,
you owe me a strawberry milk!"

It's a private joke but could just as easily summarize
the worldview of American soldiers here in Baghdad,
the fetid basement of Donald Rumsfeld's house of
victory. Trapped in the polluted heat, poorly supplied
and cut off from regular news, the GIs are fighting a
guerrilla war that they neither wanted, expected nor
trained for. On the urban battlefields of central
Iraq, "shock and awe" and all the other "new way of
war" buzzwords are drowned out by the din of
diesel-powered generators, Islamic prayer calls and
the occasional pop of small-arms fire.

Here, the high-tech weaponry that so emboldens
Pentagon bureaucrats is largely useless, and the
grinding work of counterinsurgency is done the
old-fashioned way--by hand. Not surprisingly, most of
the American GIs stuck with the job are weary,
frustrated and ready to go home.

It is noon and the mercury is hanging steady at 115
Fahrenheit. The filmmaker Garrett Scott and I are
"embedded" with Alpha Company of the Third Battalion
of the 124th Infantry, a Florida National Guard unit
about half of whom did time in the regular Army, often
with elite groups like the Rangers. Like most
frontline troops in Iraq, the majority are white but
there is a sizable minority of African-American and
Latino soldiers among them. Unlike most combat units,
about 65 percent are college students--they've traded
six years with the Guard for tuition at Florida State.
Typically, that means occasional weekends in the
Everglades or directing traffic during hurricanes.
Instead, these guys got sent to Iraq, and as yet they
have no sure departure date.

Mobilized in December, they crossed over from Kuwait
on day one of the invasion and are now bivouacked in
the looted remains of a Republican Guard officers'
club, a modernist slab of polished marble and tinted
glass that the GIs have fortified with plywood,
sandbags and razor wire.

Behind "the club" is a three-story dormitory, a warren
of small one-bedroom apartments, each holding a
nine-man squad of soldiers and all their gear. Around
200 guys are packed in here. Their sweaty fatigues
drape the banisters of the exterior stairway, while
inside the cramped, dark rooms the floors are covered
with cots, heaps of flak vests, guns and, where
possible, big tin, water-based air-conditioners called
swamp coolers. Surrounding the base is a chaotic
working-class neighborhood of two- and three-story
cement homes and apartment buildings. Not far away is
the muddy Tigris River.

This company limits patrols to three or four hours a
day. For the many hours in between, the guys pull
guard duty, hang out in their cavelike rooms or work
out in a makeshift weight room.

"We're getting just a little bit stir-crazy," explains
the lanky Sergeant Sellers. His demeanor is typical of
the nine-man squad we have been assigned to, friendly
but serious, with a wry and angry sense of humor. On
the side of his helmet Sellers has, in violation of
regs, attached the unmistakable pin and ring of a hand
grenade. Next to it is written, "Pull Here."

Leaning back on a cot, he's drawing a large, intricate
pattern on a female mannequin leg. The wall above him
displays a photo collage of pictures retrieved from a
looted Iraqi women's college. Smiling young ladies
wearing the hijab sip sodas and stroll past buses.
They seem to be on some sort of field trip. Nearby are
photos clipped from Maxim, of coy young American girls
offering up their pert round bottoms. Dominating it
all is a large hand-drawn dragon and a photo of
Jessica Lynch with a bubble caption reading: "Hi, I am
a war hero. And I think that weapons maintenance is
totally unimportant."

The boys don't like Lynch and find the story of her
rescue ridiculous. They'd been down the same road a
day earlier and are unsympathetic. "We just feel that
it's unfair and kind of distorted the way the whole
Jessica, quote, 'rescue' thing got hyped," explains
Staff Sgt. Kreed Howell. He is in charge of the squad,
and at 31 a bit older than most of his men. Muscular
and clean-cut, Howell is a relaxed and natural leader,
with the gracious bearing of a proper Southern

"In other words, you'd have to be really fucking dumb
to get lost on the road," says another, less
diplomatic soldier.

Specialist John Crawford sits in a tiny, windowless
supply closet that is loaded with packs and gear. He
is two credits short of a BA in anthropology and wants
to go to graduate school. Howell, a Republican,
amicably describes Crawford as the squad's house

There's just enough extra room in the closet for
Crawford, a chair and a little shelf on which sits a
laptop. Hanging by this makeshift desk is a
handwritten sign from "the management" requesting that
soldiers masturbating in the supply closet "remove
their donations in a receptacle." Instead of watching
pornography DVDs, Crawford is here to finish a short
story. "Trying to start writing again," he says.

Crawford is a fan of Tim O'Brien, particularly The
Things They Carried. We chat, then he shows me his
short story. It's about a vet who is back home in
north Florida trying to deal with the memory of having
accidentally blown away a child while serving in Iraq.

Later in the cramped main room, Sellers and Sergeant
Brunelle, another one of the squad's more gregarious
and dominant personalities, are matter-of-factly
showing us digital photos of dead Iraqis.

"These guys shot at some of our guys, so we lit 'em
up. Put two .50-cal rounds in their vehicle. One went
through this dude's hip and into the other guy's
head," explains Brunelle. The third man in the car
lived. "His buddy was crying like a baby. Just sitting
there bawling with his friend's brains and skull
fragments all over his face. One of our guys came up
to him and is like: 'Hey! No crying in baseball!'"

"I know that probably sounds sick," says Sellers, "but
humor is the only way you can deal with this shit."

And just below the humor is volcanic rage. These guys
are proud to be soldiers and don't want to come across
as whiners, but they are furious about what they've
been through. They hate having their lives disrupted
and put at risk. They hate the military for its
stupidity, its feckless lieutenants and blowhard brass
living comfortably in Saddam's palaces. They hate
Iraqis--or, as they say, "hajis"--for trying to kill
them. They hate the country for its dust, heat and
sewage-clogged streets. They hate having killed
people. Some even hate the politics of the war. And
because most of them are, ultimately, just regular
well-intentioned guys, one senses the distinct fear
that someday a few may hate themselves for what they
have been forced to do here.

Added to such injury is insult: The military treats
these soldiers like unwanted stepchildren. This unit's
rifles are retooled hand-me-downs from Vietnam. They
have inadequate radio gear, so they buy their own
unencrypted Motorola walkie-talkies. The same goes for
flashlights, knives and some components for
night-vision sights. The low-performance Iraqi
air-conditioners and fans, as well as the one
satellite phone and payment cards shared by the whole
company for calling home, were also purchased out of
pocket from civilian suppliers.

Bottled water rations are kept to two liters a day.
After that the guys drink from "water buffaloes"--big,
hot chlorination tanks that turn the amoeba-infested
dreck from the local taps into something like
swimming-pool water. Mix this with powdered Gatorade
and you can wash down a famously bad MRE (Meal Ready
to Eat).

To top it all off they must endure the pathologically
uptight culture of the Army hierarchy. The Third of
the 124th is now attached to the newly arrived First
Armored Division, and when it is time to raid
suspected resistance cells it's the Guardsmen who have
to kick in the doors and clear the apartments.

QUOT-The First AD wants us to catch bullets for them
but won't give us enough water, doesn't let us wear
do-rags and makes us roll down our shirt sleeves so we
look proper! Can you believe that shit?" Sergeant
Sellers is pissed off.

The soldiers' improvisation extends to food as well.
After a month or so of occupying "the club," the
company commander, Captain Sanchez, allowed two Iraqi
entrepreneurs to open shop on his side of the
wire--one runs a slow Internet cafe, the other a kebab
stand where the "Joes" pay US dollars for grilled lamb
on flat bread.

"The haji stand is one of the only things we have to
look forward to, but the First AD keeps getting scared
and shutting it down." Sellers is on a roll, but he's
not alone.

Even the lighthearted Howell, who insists that the
squad has it better than most troops, chimes in. "The
one thing I will say is that we have been here
entirely too long. If I am not home by Christmas my
business will fail." Back "on earth" (in Panama City,
Florida), Howell is a building contractor, with a
wife, two small children, equipment, debts and

Perhaps the most shocking bit of military incompetence
is the unit's lack of formal training in what's called
"close-quarter combat." The urbanized mayhem of
Mogadishu may loom large in the discourse of the
military's academic journals like Parameters and the
Naval War College Review, but many US infantrymen are
trained only in large-scale, open-country
maneuvers--how to defend Germany from a wave of
Russian tanks.

So, since "the end of the war" these guys have had to
retrain themselves in the dark arts of urban combat.
"The houses here are small, too," says Brunelle. "Once
you're inside you can barely get your rifle up. You
got women screaming, people, furniture everywhere.
It's insane."

By now this company has conducted scores of raids,
taken fire on the street, taken casualties, taken
rocket-propelled grenade attacks to the club and are
defiantly proud of the fact that they have essentially
been abandoned, survived, retrained themselves and can
keep a lid on their little piece of Baghdad. But it's
not always the Joes who have the upper hand.
Increasingly, Haji seems to sets the agenda.

A thick black plume of smoke rises from Karrada
Street, a popular electronics district where US
patrols often buy air-conditioners and DVDs. An
American Humvee, making just such a stop, has been
blown to pieces by a remote-activated "improvised
explosive device," or IED, buried in the median
between two lanes of traffic. By chance two colleagues
and I are the first press on the scene. The street is
empty of traffic and quiet except for the local
shopkeepers, who occasionally call out to us in Arabic
and English: "Be careful."

Finally we get close enough to see clearly. About
twenty feet away is a military transport truck and a
Humvee, and beyond that are the flaming remains of a
third Humvee. A handful of American soldiers are
crouched behind the truck, totally still. There's no
firing, no yelling, no talking, no radio traffic. No
one is screaming, but two GIs are down. As yet there
are no reinforcements or helicopters overhead. All one
can hear is the burning of the Humvee.

Then it begins: The ammunition in the burning Humvee
starts to explode and the troops in the street start
firing. Armored personnel carriers arrive and disgorge
dozens of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne to join the
fight. The target is a three-story office building
just across from the engulfed Humvee. Occasionally we
hear a few rounds of return fire pass by like hot
razors slashing straight lines through the air. The
really close rounds just sound like loud cracks.

"That's Kalashnikov. I know the voice," says Ahmed,
our friend and translator. There is a distinct note of
national pride in his voice--his countrymen are
fighting back--never mind the fact that we are now
mixed in with the most forward US troops and getting
shot at.

The firefight goes on for about two hours, moving
slowly and methodically. It is in many ways an
encapsulation of the whole war--confusing and
labor-intensive. The GIs have more firepower than they
can use, and they don't even know exactly where or who
the enemy is. Civilians are hiding in every corner,
the ground floor of the target building is full of
merchants and shoppers, and undisciplined fire could
mean scores of dead civilians.

There are two GIs on the ground, one with his legs
gone and probably set to die. When a medevac
helicopter arrives just overhead, it, too, like much
other technology, is foiled. The street is
crisscrossed with electrical wires and there is no way
the chopper can land to extract the wounded. The
soldiers around us look grave and tired.

Eventually some Bradley fighting vehicles start
pounding the building with mean 250-millimeter cannon
shells. Whoever might have been shooting from upstairs
is either dead or gone.

The street is now littered with overturned
air-conditioners, fans and refrigerators. A cooler of
sodas sits forlorn on the sidewalk. Farther away two
civilians lie dead, caught in the crossfire. A soldier
peeks out from the hatch of a Bradley and calls over
to a journalist, "Hey, can you grab me one of those

After the shootout we promised ourselves we'd stay out
of Humvees and away from US soldiers. But that was
yesterday. Now Crawford is helping us put on body
armor and soon we'll be on patrol. As we move out with
the nine soldiers the mood is somewhere between tense
and bored. Crawford mockingly introduces himself to no
one in particular: "John Crawford, I work in
population reduction."

QUOT-Watch the garbage--if you see wires coming out of
a pile it's an IED," warns Howell. The patrol is
uneventful. We walk fast through back streets and
rubbish-strewn lots, pouring sweat in the late
afternoon heat. Local residents watch the small squad
with a mixture of civility, indifference and open
hostility. An Iraqi man shouts, "When? When? When?
Go!" The soldiers ignore him.

"Sometimes we sham," explains one of the guys. "We'll
just go out and kick it behind some wall. Watch what's
going on but skip the walking. And sometimes at night
we get sneaky-deaky. Creep up on Haji, so he knows
we're all around."

"I am just walking to be walking," says the laconic
Fredrick Pearson, a k a "Diddy," the only
African-American in Howell's squad. Back home he works
in the State Supreme Court bureaucracy and plans to go
to law school. "I just keep an eye on the rooftops,
look around and walk."

The patrols aren't always peaceful. One soldier
mentions that he recently "kicked the shit out of a
12-year-old kid" who menaced him with a toy gun.

Later we roll with the squad on another patrol, this
time at night and in two Humvees. Now there's more
evident hostility from the young Iraqi men loitering
in the dark. Most of these infantry soldiers don't
like being stuck in vehicles. At a blacked-out corner
where a particularly large group of youths are
clustered, the Humvees stop and Howell bails out into
the crowd. There is no interpreter along tonight.

"Hey, guys! What's up? How y'all doing? OK? Everything
OK? All right?" asks Howell in his jaunty, laid-back
north Florida accent. The sullen young men fade away
into the dark, except for two, who shake the
sergeant's hand. Howell's attempt to take the high
road, winning hearts and minds, doesn't seem to be for
show. He really believes in this war. But in the
torrid gloom of the Baghdad night, his efforts seem
tragically doomed.

Watching Howell I think about the civilian technocrats
working with Paul Bremer at the Coalition Provisional
Authority; the electricity is out half the time, and
these folks hold meetings on how best to privatize
state industries and end food rations. Meanwhile, the
city seethes. The Pentagon, likewise, seems to have no
clear plan; its troops are stretched thin, lied to and
mistreated. The whole charade feels increasingly
patched together, poorly improvised. Ultimately,
there's very little that Howell and his squad can do
about any of this. After all, it's not their war. They
just work here.

Christian Parenti is the author, most recently, of The
Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the
War on Terror (Basic) and a fellow at City University
of New York's Center for Place, Culture, and Politics.

Copyright 2003 The Nation

Posted by richard at September 20, 2003 03:18 PM