Saturday, March 22, 2008

Back with Bravo Company

March 21, 2008

FOB (Forward Operating Base) Brassfield-Mora is a humble base near Samarra. Look closer, however, and you will see a base teaming with calendar-worthy hunks. Was that the Rock?!! No, just someone who looks like him. You are in Iraq, not on a Hollywood film set. You just happened to have stumbled onto a base with more than its share of ruggedly handsome soldiers.*
*†The above was the fulfillment of a contractual obligation to the soldiers of Bravo Company and does not necessarily reflect the views of this reporter, though no one was holding a gun to her head.
Bravo Company. During their last deployment, from 2005-2006, the 2nd Battalion’s Bravo Company filled the streets of Kirkuk with their particular brand of diplomacy and good humor, and is it any wonder there is a network named after them. Commanding Officer Captain Casey Welch knew there something special about his company, and graciously allowed this amateur reporter/librarian to go everywhere they went. Staff Sergeant Jeremy Stearns (think Cary Grant meets Clint Eastwood†) quickly dubbed the tagalong Miss Shelby, and all was right with the world, or as right as it can be in a land full of dust and insurgents.
Bravo Company is back in Iraq. Some of the faces have changed, but the approach is the same. This time the soldiers are working their charm on the people in the area outside of Samarra. And the charm is working.
Act Two of the Bravo Company Road Show introduces some new characters: the CLC (Concerned Local Citizens), also known as the Sons of Iraq. In Kirkuk, the soldiers spent a lot of time with the IPs (Iraqi Police), offering support and supervision while the IPs offered comic relief. Now it is the CLC’s turn to provide the laughs.
Sergeant John Paul Harper and other members of the Third Platoon headed out at 10:00 pm. Miss Shelby thought that seemed late, but she accepted the invitation to make the rounds with them and tried to look sharp.
One of the CLC’s primary responsibilities is to operate checkpoints, to monitor traffic coming and going through their community. It is a type of neighborhood watch, Iraqi-style, which means nosy old ladies have been replaced with military-age males carrying AK-47s.
A sheik is responsible for recruiting and directing CLC members, but the Americans do everything in their power to help these groups succeed. Sergeant Harper and the soldiers of Bravo Company spend almost as much time at the checkpoints as the CLC members themselves, making sure they are manned, and that the men have ammunition for their weapons.
There are two sheiks the Bravo Company soldiers have come to know quite well. Each is a leader of a CLC group. We’ll call them Sheik A and Sheik B. The road to sheikdom is not always easy to follow, but Sheik A calls himself a sheik, and he drives a Mercedes. He has the attitude of a gangster and wants the Americans to see him as important, someone they would do well to listen to. They listen to him, but they don’t trust him, and when he materializes out of the darkness, they roll their eyes because conversations with him are like quicksand.
Sheik B is better. He is not so high maintenance, and the soldiers take him more seriously. During another night patrol, members of the Second Platoon, led by Lieutenant Vinnie Annunziato and Staff Sergeant Jeremy Stearns, spoke with Sheik B about recent threats made against the CLC. His contacts had heard there were people planning to attack the CLC, possibly with one or more suicide bombers.
There have been attacks against CLC posts around the country, indicating this newly formed security force is an obstacle for some insurgents. And some CLC members are themselves former insurgents, so perhaps their old friends don’t like the new path they’ve chosen, if they have in fact changed.
In Iraq, “good” and “honest” are very relative terms. Good often means less bad. A good man may have many bad relatives, or vice versa, and all become guilty by association. Sheik A may be bad, but there are probably worse men driving fancy cars in Iraq, and just because he seems bad, doesn’t mean his men are too. Or maybe it does.
And Sheik B’s information turns out to be very difficult to verify, so it is hard to know if the threat is real, if he was being honest. Maybe the story was manufactured to get the American soldiers to spend even more time at the checkpoints. There is no denying the CLC members are much more vulnerable and exposed when the Americans are not there to help.
While Sheik B is conversing with the soldiers, his CLC crew takes advantage of the shift in his attention, and they reach for their cell phones, which are loaded up with music. Not for the first time, “Yeah,” by Usher, is pumped into the night air. It is nice to know the war does have a soundtrack and it includes some hip hop.
Some dancing follows.
When Sheik B realizes the checkpoint has turned into a series of outtakes from So You Think You Can Dance, he becomes disgusted and orders his men back to work.
Every layer of security in Iraq has some holes in it. Holes you could drive an MRAP through. The good news is we have plenty of MRAPs. As always, there are some hardworking Iraqis whom the American soldiers enjoy working with, and there are some who simply waste their time.
Working with the CLC means working alongside people who may until very recently have meant to do us or our Iraqi friends harm. Is it possible for bad guys to become good guys? The future of Iraq is contained in the answer to this question. For now, at least, some of the bad guys are pretending to be good guys, and this in itself is a full-time job. As long as we can keep them on the job, we can hope they will become so good at pretending to be good guys that they will actually be as good as the real good guys. And then our good guys will be able to ride off into the sunset, to the delight of their adoring fans.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Day Like Any Other

March 8, 2008
Ask any soldier which movie best represents his deployment (s) in Iraq and, more often than not, he will say Groundhog Day. This war is not about fiery battles nearly so much as it is about repetition. Once in a while a day will be filled with excitement, but most days are filled only with the strange sensation of having done all of this before.
On a recent dismounted patrol with Lieutenant John Vickery and the Scouts of the 2nd Battalion’s Charlie Company, one of many Groundhog Day moments occurred. We were in Samarra, and Lieutenant Vickery was talking with residents of the city, trying to determine what was on their minds, how they felt about the city, their safety. During his last deployment, in 2005-2006, Lieutenant Vickery and the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade were in a different city, Kirkuk, but he was walking the streets and talking to people then too.
The Scouts went outside the city for another patrol the following day. Again, they left the safety of the MRAPs so they could talk to the people. Here, out in the open country, where they could not hide in a crowd, the residents were less inclined to talk, slower to warm up to the soldiers, if they warmed up at all. Nothing the soldiers hadn’t experienced before.
A few days later, I was out with the 2nd Battalion’s Delta Company. Further away from Samarra, the soldiers of Delta Company live at JSS (Joint Support Station) Love, and they too spend a lot of time talking to people. Again, our patrol took us into a sparsely populated area, with a handful of small farms and little else. Similar to the population in the farm country of Charlie Company’s sector, the people of this area seemed difficult to reach, as if being pulled in many directions and unable to find their way.
What was different this time was the proof that lay scattered across the wasted ground. Proof of an earlier far less civilized encounter. Proof that the farmland wasn’t just for farming anymore. What had once been a mud and straw hut was now a pile of rubble.
Increasingly, abandoned huts in these rural areas are being used as hiding places for insurgents, their weapons, and bomb-making materials. Delta Company soldiers and Iraqi soldiers successfully battled the insurgents at this location, and destroyed some of their hiding places.
For the people who live in the area, this must have been more activity than they were used to. But did the increased activity alter their routine here? Fear appeared to be keeping some closer to home. With nothing to do but tend the land and hope for quiet, the locals were probably also struggling to distinguish one day from the next.
Lieutenant Robert Baird and the soldiers of his Delta Company platoon tried to get a sense of how the residents in this remote place were feeling in the aftermath of the deadly gun battle. Living off the land, especially when the land is packed dust, is difficult in the best of times. When outside forces strike like a bolt of lightning it must seem like a bad joke. Indeed, some of the people Lieutenant Baird spoke with were not laughing. But what seemed like a significant battle to the soldiers may have been nothing compared to the daily battles each of these families faces.
Though some of the residents were standoffish, giving stock replies to Lieutenant Baird’s questions, others were more approachable. Maybe they felt lightning could not strike twice in the same place. Maybe they appreciated the attention, the novelty of being treated with respect and concern for their wellbeing. There is a difference, though, between being approachable and being helpful.
Several of the men the soldiers encountered were military-age males, which is one characteristic many of the bad guys share. These men may not be bad guys themselves, but they have probably considered how slim the rewards are for being good. They have probably thought about their survival and safety and realized how little control they have over either.
A teenage boy left the women of his family working among the rows of their crops when he saw the soldiers approaching. He cautiously made his way to the edge of the cultivated area where the soldiers stood. Lieutenant Baird tried to begin a conversation, but the boy was very ill at ease. He seemed reluctant to say anything, to answer the most basic questions. Maybe he knew something. Or maybe he had figured out that he was entering the hard years of his life, and he wasn’t ready for them. No more hiding behind adults. More was expected of him suddenly, from his people, perhaps from the insurgents who swept through the area, kicking up the dust, and now the Americans had to be added to the list too, people who did not even speak his language.
Lieutenant Baird could have made the boy’s life even more difficult than it already was. He could have continued to ask questions until the boy broke, or he could have raised his voice and tried to intimidate him into cooperating. Maybe that was how the boy expected to be treated because he had been treated that way, or worse, by someone who was there before us. But Lieutenant Baird gave him an out, and he took it. He let the boy know he didn’t have to talk to us if he didn’t want to, so the boy returned to the women in the field.
The boy walked away from the soldiers. Just like that.
What happened to the part where we ask a question, and he pretends he doesn’t understand, so we repeat the question, and he answers a different question, so we rephrase the question, and he repeats his answer to the question we didn’t ask, and he stares at us and we stare at him, and instead of feeling like we’ve learned something, we actually feel tired and as though maybe we forgot something we once knew, but we’ve chewed up some time and somehow that carries us forward. Weren’t we doing that anymore?
But Lieutenant Baird remembered something I had forgotten. This whole day could be repeated. Maybe the boy did walk away today, but tomorrow he might answer a question. He will realize he was given a choice, maybe for the first time, and he might feel more inclined to cooperate the next time. He might not answer the question we ask, but he will be ready to start something resembling a conversation.
Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish one patrol from another; they look and sound so much alike. It is almost as though a script is being circulated throughout Iraq that tells people how to talk to the Americans. This is fair. The Americans have a script of their own. What keeps it interesting are the little departures from what is expected: letting the boy walk away, or finding that rare individual willing to answer the question put to him. The only way to make it possible for those moments to occur is to try again tomorrow. And if tomorrow is just like today, the soldiers will not be surprised; they will simply try again the day after tomorrow.

Thursday, March 06, 2008