Wednesday, November 05, 2008

New Blog

If you'd like to continue reading my blog, I've moved it to Marshall



Monday, June 05, 2006

Haditha Massacre

I just wanted to write a few thoughts on the Haditha massacre. I don’t want to simply assume the Marines committed this atrocity before a court martial finds them guilty or not guilty. However, the facts seem to point that way, and more importantly, the Iraqis seem to feel that way. To send a message that we are sincere in our investigations and punishment of war crimes I think we should turn the Marines in question over to the Iraqi courts. Let them investigate and prosecute the crime committed on their own soil. It only seems just.

I know this idea will offensive to many people. For one thing, it’s traditional that the U.S. tries to protect its citizens from prosecution in foreign countries. Still, when it comes to serious crimes such as murder, or mass murder, the U.S. is often obliged to let the host nation take charge of the investigation and come to its own conclusions. I see no reason why this case should be any different. It would show the new Iraqi government that we have faith in them and that we’re willing to punish all war crimes, not just the ones that Saddam committed.

As reasonable as this seems to me, I know that it’s not likely to happen. What is happening, however, is one of the silliest things I’ve heard of in a long time. The top brass announced a few days ago that all military members in Iraq would go through “ethics training” in the next 30 days. Ethics training? This is there answer to a massacre?

Everyone soldier I’ve talked to is offended, incensed even. We are just as disgusted as anyone with what the handful of Marines might have done in Haditha. The Pentagon’s response seems to blame every military member in Iraq for what happened. As if the massacre was the result of a general moral decay among the troops that could be remedied by ethics training.

And what would this training be exactly? A multiple-choice quiz: Should you shoot a three-year-old girl? A. yes B. no C. Yes, but not with a .50-caliber machine gun because it’s against the Geneva Convention.

Yup, when you get down to thinking about it, the “ethics training” response is ridiculous. The reason it’s being given any credence is that it ignores a particularly uncomfortable truth. The so-called heroes, who are supposedly spreading freedom and democracy, are not always good people. Sometimes they’re murderers. And, a morally ambiguous war, such as this one, almost encourages your men and women to become such.

It’s also interesting to note that this massacre is not the first of its kind. Let’s say, for instance, that the Marines killed the insurgent who set of the bomb and then in their psychopathic rage killed the twenty plus other people. The twenty people are collateral damage for getting the one insurgent. How is this different from the bombing we’ve been doing since the start of the war? How many families has the U.S. massacred because they lived to close to an insurgent target? These Marines, if they committed the crime, are perhaps more culpable because their act was more malicious at heart. However, to the people of Iraq, the result is the same.

All this is all the more tragic because I still believe that Americans, by and large, have good intentions over here. The vast majority of military members I talk to want nothing more than to help the people of Iraq. It’s a tragedy in every sense.

Road Trip Iraq 2006 - Day Four

Camp Diamond -back is one of the only U.S. bases in Iraq to be inside a city. From the edge of the base you can see the houses and streets of Mosul. The ancient city of Nineveh is on the northern outskirts of Mosul as well as what might be Jonah’s grave. I think Jonah, the reluctant mouthpiece of God, might be one of my favorite prophets of the Old Testament. I laugh every time I look up at the hills east of Nineveh and think of how Old Jonah went up there to watch the Lord destroy the people Nineveh and how disappointed he was when the Lord forgave them instead.

But Jonah’s tale isn’t the only funny story about Mosul. Today there are much more interesting ones. For instance, rumor has it that a Turkish restaurant on the base closed down because it was the center of a prostitution ring. This was hard to imagine since the only ladies I ever saw there were old Turkish grandmas. Nevertheless, the restaurant was gone.

But the best story I heard in Mosul was about two soldiers who decided to beat the snot out of each other with fire extinguishers. They thought that if they could break a bone or two, they could go back to the States. Unfortunately, the MPs didn’t buy the story that they were randomly attacked by fire-extinguisher-wielding insurgents. Whatever happens to them, I’m sure their punishment will be less painful then their crime.

Camp Diamondback is one of my favorite bases in Iraq and Sgt. Powell and I didn’t want to leave. We were exhausted and wanted at least a day to recover. Capt. Andrews, however, tempted us once again with stories of snow capped mountains and friendly locals. We hooked up with another convoy and soon found ourselves driving down the nocturnally deserted streets of Mosul. It was beautiful. Because of the curfew, we rode quickly and quietly through all the intersections and bypasses without seeing a soul.

We passed a few hours without any problems and then, just before we reached the mountain pass to go into Zakho, a convoy coming in the opposite direction had an accident. A third country national truck driver rolled an oil tanker. We pulled security and waited for the medical evacuation to arrive. I wasn’t able to find out if the driver was OK. Oil was all over the road. A few days later, I would find out just how precious oil really is in Iraq, but I’ll tell you more about that later.

Finally we drove into Zakho, the northern most major city in Iraq. Capt. Andrews was right. It was already more than I expected. We passed two travel plazas, the kind of luxury truck stops you see on the highways in Nebraska and Iowa. We even saw a Toyota dealership that looked every bit as modern and clean as a car dealership in the U.S.

The streets were empty, not because of a curfew, but because it was early in the morning and it was still raining hard. We passed a Kurdish soldier guarding a gate to a four-storey marble building that the local government had loaned to the Army. We ran in from the rain and put our bags on bunk beds set up for the soldiers who run the convoys. Then we climbed the stairs to find what looked like a nice little restaurant with small tables and red tablecloths. The cooks had stayed up for us and dinner was still hot.

It took us four days of grueling and dangerous night convoys to get there, but I could already tell that it was worth it. It was, as Capt. Andrews promised, a different world. Unfortunately, I would soon find out that it was a different world complete with its own wars and its own hate. Peaceful Zakho isn’t peaceful for all.

Photo: Sgt. Powell peaks around the corner on the roof of one of Saddam's former palaces during an earlier trip to Mosul. The Army now uses these palaces for their offices in Mosul. Somehow, I think that using these decadent buildings, which are inextricably tied with oppression, might have been a bad move for the U.S. We wanted them to see us as liberators, but now were just he new guys in the castles.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Road Trip Iraq 2006 - Day Three

I woke up to the sound of explosions. I could hear the rounds going off in the distance like a door slamming, and then an instant after, I could feel the air compress in my trailer. I rolled over and went back to sleep. It didn’t bother for a few reasons: One, I’m stationed at Camp Anaconda, AKA Mortar-itaville, so I know that once you hear the explosion and you’re still there, then there’s nothing to be worried about; and two, it sounded like outgoing rounds, not incoming.

About an hour later, I had to get up because if I didn’t, my bladder was going to explode. The rounds kept hitting off in the distance, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were targeting. The Q-West Base Complex is in the middle of nowhere without a building for miles in all directions. I imagined a mud hut erupting into the air and a little boy with a goat shaking his hand at the sky, or America, or both.

I learned quickly that the local command had received some intelligence about a possible attack. I can’t go into details, but the security levels were raised to the highest level I’ve ever seen them. It was incredibly inconvenient and annoying to the point that I absent mindedly stated the following truism: “Gees, it’s like were living under martial law here.”

Eventually we hooked up with our next convoy and headed toward Camp Diamondback. I was driving this time and I couldn’t help but remember the last time I drove the stretch of road, about three months ago. At the time, I wanted to be alert so I downed a Diet Coke right before we left, but about five minutes out of the gate, I realized that I had to pee in a bad way. The body armor pushed down on my bladder like a large woman stomping grapes. One hour later, I did something that was embarrassing at first, but of which I’m now quite proud. I filled up a 1.5-liter water bottle while driving 60 miles per hour on the most dangerous roads in the world and I didn’t spill a drop.

This time, however, I barely drank a thing the whole day to ensure I would not have to do a repeat of my amazing feat. I knew we had made it half way when I could smell the raw sewage at a spot near the road where we think a line broke. A lime green pools sits next to the road and cooks in the hot sun. You can smell it a mile away. I was glad when we passed it.

The trip went well with no major incidents. However, we were starting to notice some problems with our rebuilt humvee. Our radio wasn’t amplifying like it should have so we had a mechanic look at it at Camp Speicher. He removed the antenna mount and showed us two nickel-sized holes in the base. He shook it and the shrapnel rattled inside it like a maraca.

“I’m guessin’ that’s not good,” Sgt. Powell said.

“Nope, that ain’t good,” the mechanic replied.

Next, Sgt. Powell’s door stopped latching. It even opened while we were on the road and she had to hold it shut and drive for about a half hour. We replaced the antenna mount and found a way to get the heavy armored door to shut, but our confidence in Paparazzi was seriously waning. Plus, we realized that Paparazzi is the plural of paparazzo and that maybe we shouldn’t have given a plural name to a single vehicle. Oh well, it got us to Camp Diamondback. We picked up Capt. Andrews at the airport and went to sleep in trailers that smelled like a smoking room in a cheap motel.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Border Line Crazy

Before I post the events of Day Three of Road Trip Iraq 2006, I need to take a moment to comment on current events. Bush just announced that he was going to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to secure the Mexican border.

The biggest problem is that illegal immigrants come to the U.S., not to spite conservatives, but because there are jobs. It’s simply a free market functioning in a global economy. If there weren’t jobs for them, they wouldn’t come. Those who spend their nights worrying about Mexicans and other nationalities crossing the border are not thinking logically. Such a sense of immediacy on this issue seems to be spawned from xenophobia, racism and ignorance.

Free markets and globalization are like the laws of physics, it’s better to work with them than to try to stop them. In that sense, sending the National Guard to stop the natural flow of a labor force to an overabundant job market, would be like calling in the Marines to stop gravity. But wait, someone might think, don’t we need gravity? Yes, of course. But wait, someone might also think, don’t we also need an essential workforce that has been functioning in our economy for decades? The answer again, yes, of course.

Besides being futile, this answer to the supposed problem of illegal immigration is a bit hackneyed. Send in the troops and as the border patrol increases, the amount of troops will decrease. That sounds familiar. I’ve finally figured out what the neocon vision is: the military will solve all the problems. I’m just glad they caught the killer alligator today. If that had gone on a few more weeks we would have been deployed for Operation Jogger Shield.

Finally, does any one care about the poor suckers that have to leave their jobs and families to go stop illegal immigrants? Bush said that it was important for everyone to understand that the U.S. military was strong enough to fight a war in Iraq, handle natural disasters at home, and still secure the southern border. What? I guess he thinks that two out of every three years home is good enough. This makes sense if you consider that he spends almost two out of every three months at his ranch. His statement sounds a bit too much like “let them eat cake” for my taste.

In the end, America shouldn’t look to the military to take care of all its problems. We have celebrities for that.

Road Trip Iraq 2006 - Day Two

Rain hitting the yellow canvas of the massive tent woke me up at about 11 a.m. the next morning. I took a shower, packed my things and then Powell and I went to Taco Bell, the only one I’ve seen in Iraq. A soft taco and burrito hit the spot.

After lunch, we stopped by a maintenance company to do a story on their recovery missions. When a vehicle breaks down or is hit by an IED, a recovery team will respond within an hour to get the vehicle and any people left behind. They’re also experts at getting vehicles out of mud.

Sgt. Powell simply mentioned that she’d like some footage of them doing their jobs and they immediately offered to do a demonstration. For the next two hours, the recovery guys stuck different vehicles in the deep mud behind their unit building. They even got their Gator, a four-wheel drive golf cart, stuck. That’s just how bored they were.

I don’t know how they could be bored when one of the most novel pieces of war memorabilia was sitting right in front of their company area, a WWII, Italian made, mini-tank. It’s a two-seater vehicle that answers the age-old question: What do Shriners drive when they go to war?

When Powell and I finished laughing at the little tank, we caught a convoy and headed up to the Q-West Base complex. This trip wasn’t anything like the last one, a third country national (what the Army calls someone not from Iraq or the U.S.) rolled his semi truck right in front of us.

He broke his leg, but he was OK otherwise and was even able to sit and wait for a medical evacuation. The truck would have to wait for a recovery team, maybe even the one from Speicher. Rolling semi trucks is a rare site on an American highway, but in Iraq, it’s a regular occurrence. Most of the guys who run the convoys with third country nationals say there is a rampant drinking problem. This rollover was most like alcohol related. But don’t be too quick to judge. If you had to drive an un-armored truck on the Iraqi highways all day, you might hit the sauce a bit too.

With the driver evacuated and the truck recovered, we made it up to Q-West with no problems. Instead of sleeping in a circus tent, like the night before, we were lucky enough to get our own trailers. I felt like a movie star.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Road Trip Iraq 2006

I waited for the last minute to pack for the two-week road trip to the Turkish boarder and back. Part of me wanted to play it safe and waste away the last 75 days of my deployment in the comparative luxury and safety of Camp Anaconda. But Capt. Andrews, the brains behind the expedition to Kurdistan, kept tempting me.

“It’s like nothing you’ve seen in Iraq, Thompson,” he said speaking of the Kurdish controlled area in northern Iraq. “It’s like a different world.”

Of course, I had to go. But getting there wasn't easy.

Day 1: Camp Anaconda to Camp Speicher

Sgt. Powell, my broadcast counterpart for the trip, found a convoy that would let us tag along for the first leg of the trip. We loaded up our new armored humvee, which Powell christened “Paparazzi,” and left for Camp Speicher. When I say the humvee is new, I mean new to us. The Army rebuilt it in Kuwait after and IED blew the right side to pieces. It’s one of the first rebuilds in the war zone and has a new engine and all the other bells and whistles that only the best armored vehicles have. Old Paparazzi’s a pretty sweet ride as far as rebuilt armored humvees go.

Just outside the gate of Camp Anaconda, we saw small arms fire and I knew it was going to be a long night. The red dashes of tracer rounds cut across the night sky. As far as fireworks go, this is fairly unimpressive. But when you remember the little flying lead things that the dashes represent, it becomes more significant. The insurgents hid in the tress and tall grass that grows prodigiously after the rainy season around Camp Anaconda, but they weren’t firing directly at us. Instead, they were signaling someone down the road to get the IEDs ready.
“Here we go,” I thought as we turned on to the main road.

In the next half hour, we safely passed about three IEDs. (Unless they go off, it’s hard to be sure if something is definitely an IED). The third IED we passed was the funniest.
I saw American vehicles in the median of the highway.

“What are they doing just sitting there in the median?” I asked Powell.

“Oh they’re probably just doing a presence patrol,” she replied to my satisfaction.

Later, I saw some water bottles with chemical lights in them sitting in the road and commented on how pretty they looked glowing on the highway at night.

Then Powell noticed that no one from the convoy was behind us.

Apparently, a patrol found an IED, marked it with chemical lights, and then decided to set up a roadblock. Unfortunately they didn’t get the roadblock going until half our convoy went through.

Well, a lot of stuff happened after that, but I can’t really give you any details because it involves our tactics and techniques. I can say, however, that for the next three hours I had my M-16 aimed at a civilian vehicle. I won’t lie, the possibility of death is scary and the thought of trying to stop a possible vehicle-borne IED with an M-16 is scary as well. I found myself wishing I had a larger caliber weapon and at the same time wishing I didn’t have any weapon at all. For me, the thought of having to shoot someone is scarier than being shot. And if I thought I might be shooting an innocent person, I’d rather he shot me.

Still, I had to think of the other people in the other vehicles that I was protecting. I couldn’t make a decision like that for them. So I kept my weapon aimed just above the right headlight.

Luckily, after waiting it out, the car thought better of it, and turned around. Soon we reunited with our convoy and we made it up to Speicher.

A soldier at the convoy support center directed us to two big tents, about 100 meters long. Powell went in the female tent and I went into the male tent. I had the whole thing to myself. Half the tent was falling in and the center poles were all askew. I grabbed one of hundreds of cots and put it next to the light switch in the middle of the cavernous shelter. I went to sleep wondering what else could be in the tent without me ever knowing.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

One Down, Way Too Many To Go

I have a list of things I hope to accomplish while I’m in Iraq:

1. Stop all the bad guys.
2. Save all the good guys.
3. Develop some reliable way to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
4. Find WMDs so I can stop feeling used by the Bush administration.
5. Discover a new oil field that the U.S. can secretly tap. I figure the sooner G.W. gets what he wants, the sooner I can go home.
6. Catch Osama Bin Laden. I've heard some rumors about this and I might actually have to leave Iraq for that one.
7. Run a satellite version of the Boston Marathon in the ancient city of Ur.

I’m happy to report that I was able to cross one off the list. Last week I finished the Iraq Boston Marathon in an Army base in southern Iraq. The Boston Athletic Association set it up in conjunction with the Army and it was a lot of fun. The route ran up to the famous Ziggurat of Ur, a massive terraced pyramid in Abraham’s old hometown.

Note that I said I “finished” the marathon, instead of saying I “ran” the marathon. Somewhere between mile 14 and mile 16 my body crapped out on me in the 107-degree heat. This was my first marathon and I only had a month to train. It wasn’t an ideal situation but it was probably the only one of my goals that I, or anybody else, would be able to accomplish while in Iraq.

Marathons are cliché to use as analogies for life, and as I limped the last few miles to the finish line it was all I could do not to think of comparisons. Oh please tell me that our stay in Iraq will not be like a marathon. If it is, I’m about ready to wave for the first aid car to pick me up, stick an IV in my arm and drive me home.

In the mean time, I’ll keep my mind off the analogy by concentrating on my other goals. I think Bin Laden might be hanging out in the movie theater on Camp Anaconda, it’s always the last place you check.

photos: (top) The Ziggurat of Ur. (bottom) I'm standing on the steps of the ziggurat. Photos by Traci Varrasso, international recording artist (who, by the way, is not brainwashed)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Following Orders

I know the Army isn’t good at a lot of things, like building nations, winning hearts and minds, and sticking to a budget. But I always thought the Army was good in one area: following orders. Sure, we soldiers are a crass bunch of salty mongrels, but when we get a direct order, we follow it right? Not really.

For years now, every person in the Army has had it drilled into him that sexual harassment is absolutely unacceptable. So why is it still so prevalent?

A few weeks ago, I traveled to a remote base in western Iraq. There were only a handful of females and they ran the shower and dining facilities. I asked one female if she had any problems out in the desert among all the rough men. She emphatically replied that no one treated her any differently. Good, I thought.

I was doing a story on the shower facility and all the soldiers I interviewed kept saying how competent their commander was. I’m used to hearing soldiers complain about their commanders so I was impressed and set out to find her.

“Do you know where Capt. L is?” I asked a passing soldier.
“Oh, yeah, she’s the hot one,” he said.
“Do you where she is?”
“Just walk that way until you see a hot captain.”

I laughed a bit because I figured these guys were probably starved for the female form. Out in the middle of the desert surrounded by a bunch of ugly grunts, they had probably built this captain up to be an Aphrodite in carnate. And so I found the comment understandable and not particularly malicious.

When I found Capt. L, she was pretty and, more importantly, very competent. I was impressed with the efficiency in which she ran the logistics for the base. I thought to myself, here is one of the best and brightest of the military. I decided I might do a sidebar personality feature on her because an officer who knows her job is definitely newsworthy these days.

I asked her if she felt she was treated any differently being a female in the remote base. She said definitely not.

I finished up the interview and was about to ask if I could follow her around and gets some photos when a male master sergeant butted in.

“Hey, sergeant T., you should get some photos of her with her top off.”

She blushed and played it off as if it were just part of being in the Army. But I could hear her voice crackle ever so slightly with emotion. All the guys laughed as if it were some clever repartee. I didn’t laugh, she didn’t laugh, and I didn’t dare ask her right after that comment if I could take pictures of her.

The foul minds and untamed tongues of undisciplined soldiers took something innocent and good and made it seem vulgar.

No wonder both females I interviewed denied any different treatment. They probably felt, in a sad and strange way, that they were responsible for the comments and would rather deny the existence of the problem than to talk with some stranger about it.

It’s not OK and it should not be tolerated any more. I’ve assumed that the females are fine with or they would speak up. But that’s not true. I’ve also assumed that I could get in trouble if I call out someone of higher rank than I. This may be true, but I don’t care anymore. The next person I hear sexually harassing a female is going to get a double helping of the wrath of Marshall, which anyone will tell you is not that impressive but it’s the thought that counts.

I will never again tolerate anyone disobeying this order.