Tuesday, December 23, 2008

That's All Folks!

Well, I'm back in the good old U S of A.

We handed over the mission to the new team, and they managed to burn down the mess hall within 3 hours of taking over. The quality of our food acutally improved after that. We trucked in meals instead of eating what our chemically mellowed cook would have made. Even Emeril can't cook on Prozac.

I left my unit, and am now en route to my new assignment; learning French. I'm not kidding.

I don't know what to make of this Iraq tour. Not yet, anyway.

One thing I will tell you, our days in Iraq are numbered. Yes, there's the SOFA status agreement through 2011. But, in July the Iraqi public will vote on the SOFA agreement. After 30 months in Iraq, I predict that Iraqis will NOT act in their own rational self interest, and vote against the SOFA. It is a matter of pride. The Iraqis are ashamed of the fact that Americans kicked the snot out of their army, occupied the country, and dictated everything for almost two years. Now they have the chance to kick us out! They couldn't do it militarily, but if they vote us out, their warped sense of perception will registered the event as an incredible victory over America. If that happens, all Soldiers should be home by the end of 2009. I never have to go back. Everyone wins!

Take Care!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sons of Iraq

The most important issue of my fifteen month deployment was the Sons of Iraq. The Sons of Iraq had many names, to include Concerned Citizen Groups, Sahawa, Concerned Local Citizens and Citizens on Patrol (my personal favorite). Some Colonel somewhere earned himself a gold star when he decided to force everyone to call them the Sons of Iraq.

The Iraqi Army hates the name “Sons of Iraq.” Our local Iraqi Army Major General likes to say, “If those guys are sons of Iraq, then what are we [the Iraqi Army]? Sons of bitches?” Whenever I talk to the Iraqi Army about the Sons of Iraq, I refer to them as the “volunteers.”

To make it even more complicated, the Sons of Iraq will refer to themselves as “Sahawa,” which is Arabic for “awakening.” Any of the names are interchangeable in everyday Iraqi conversation.

I first heard about the Sons of Iraq while researching the unit I was supposed to replace. The area we were heading to was bad. Very bad. Bad enough that the terrorists could kidnap three Soldiers, send a dump trucks full of explosives to blow up a patrol base (it didn’t work), and kill over fifty Soldiers over the course of a year. The area was called The Triangle of Death, I am not making that up. So, I was a bit nervous about the deployment.

Then I started reading reports about the ‘Sahawa’ and their fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Apparently, some Sunni insurgents decided to turn on AQI, and there was a great deal of fighting between the two groups. The American Army decided to go along with this, and supported the Sahawa by paying them to man check points, giving them road guard vests (so the helicopters wouldn’t shoot them while they stood on check points with their weapons) and working closely with the Sahawa leaders to hunt down AQI.

The level of enemy activity….plumeted, for the most part. No more IEDs, mortar attacks, small arms attacks, just caches of enemy munitions turned over to the Coalition and enemy fighters captured or found floating in a canal.

Why did this happen? AQI’s brutality turned the Sunni tribes against AQI. If AQI had a problem with a Sheik (tribal leader), they would kill him and dump his body in the street, then forbid anyone from touching the body for three days (I major no-no in Islam). AQI extorted money and fighters from the tribes and proved to be a very poor guest. AQI leaders were often non-Iraqis, and liked to boss around the Iraqis. The Iraqis hate this. They hate all foreigners. Even worse, they forbade smoking. I know one Sahawa leader who killed an AQI guy who threatened him for smoking.

The final straw for all the Sunni tribes was AQI’s version of “prima nocte” (watch Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”) AQI would spot a young girl of marriage age (12-14 in rural Iraq), kidnap and rape her. This dishonored the entire tribe, and is the ultimate insult to an Iraqi man. To add insult to injury, the AQI guy wrote her a letter saying that while she wasn’t a virgin, she gave her virginity to a prince of AQI and is still worth marrying. After this happened a few times, the tribes revolted against AQI, and the fighting began.

Sahawa guys were rather adept at fighting AQI. Members of insurgent groups like the 1920’s Revolutionary Brigade, Islamic Army, etc worked hand in hand with AQI for a number of years as they fought the Coalition and Iraqi Army. Sahawa knew exactly who was AQI, where they slept, where they hid their weapons. So, once Sahawa decided to Order 66 AQI, it was over quickly.

The United States Government had to get a handle on this, so we offered to pay the Sahawa ten dollars a day to behave and guard a check point. We gave them reflective vests so we wouldn’t have a “He’s coming right for us!” moment and shoot up friendly people holding AK-47s.

The first time I met the Sahawa was my second or third day in Iraq. AQI tried to kill a critical Sahawa leader named Abu Maruf, and we were going out to check up on him. We were pleased with the attack. If AQI tried to kill him, then he definitely wasn’t working for AQI. Plus, they messed up the attack which just upset the Sahawa even more, like whacking a beehive.

We drove out to the club house where Abu Maruf lived and worked. The Sahawa were out in force after the attack, and there were plenty of Sahawa guards along the roads, around the house and on the roof. One of the guards had a machete on his belt. A machete! Why does anyone outside of jungle need a machete? Did I mention the guns? Everyone had a gun, not a single reflective vest anywhere.

Abu Maruf was rattled, and his hand was bandaged up. We had a nice conversation with this guy, who was the former number 3 AQI guy for most of Al Anbar province. During the conversation, I noticed a Sahawa guy walking around with a funny looking hat. I thought it was some sort of yamaka with a thick edge. Yamaka…probably not. I eventually got a good look at the ‘hat,’ turns out it was a rolled up ski mask. He must have just returned from a whacking. The guy’s name was Theeb, which is Arabic for wolf, neat guy.

As the day wore on, I took the time to look around and saw that we were surrounded by the Sahawa. Dozens and dozens of former insurgents who would have killed me six months ago. I would have dropped a bomb on that house six months ago. Now, we were enjoying tea and joking about nonsense.

Since this meeting, I’ve walked past the spot where the three Soldiers were kidnapped. I wasn’t wearing my helmet or flack vest, just waltzing along on our way to a Sheik’s house for a goat feast. Six months earlier and I would’ve been on the AQI YouTube channel.

Let’s go back to an important part. Most of the Sahawa fighters WERE FORMER INSURGENTS. They attacked American Soldiers. They killed American Soldiers. Now, we had the choice of rejecting them for their past, or incorporating them into the security plan for the area. Refusing to let them reconcile was a mistake. We had to bring them into the fold and use them against AQI. Sitting down and talking to these guys made me feel…dirty. There’s a quote, which I’m about to butcher, that goes “The only thing worse than defeat is to compromise with evil.” In order to win the fight, we had to work with these former insurgents.

But, it is was all worth it. In fifteen months, our Brigade lost only one Soldier to enemy action. Very few wounded. The last averaged losing one Soldier every single week, and many more wounded, until the Sahawa came on the scene. All the money paid to the Sahawa barely amounted to the cost of a single Apache helicopter. By not taking casualties or losing humvees to IEDs, the United States Government saved a great deal of money by paying the Sahawa. What a bargain! A bit heartless, but true.

With all the security, the Iraqi Army isn’t fighting for its life anymore, and has time to grow and become more professional. The Iraqi Government can repair infrastructure (no insurgents to blow it up) and provide essential services to the population. City markets are open, and the people aren’t afraid of being kidnapped and murdered. Great success! All we had to do was set aside our anger with these former terrorists, and be their friends.

In the end, we can say we’ve won this war because of our cooperation with the Sahawa. But it feels like a victory won by cheating.

There’s a great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that encapsulates the Sons of Iraq problem. A little back ground, the Federation is losing a war against the Dominion, and the main character thinks up a plan to bring another ally into the war with the help of a former spy. If they can recruit the new ally, the Federation could win and it will preserve their way of life. How to recruit the new ally gets into a very moral dark area.

We can live with the Sons of Iraq.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Movies with the Iraqis

Building rapport with the Iraqis is always a good thing. Arabs value relationships, and will go to great lengths to build and support the friendships that come from good relationships. As an American in Iraq, I like building rapport as someday my Iraqi friends will tell me if I’m about to drive over an IED, or convince them to eat me last. Similar interests are great way to build rapport, and I try to work that angle through movies.

You’d think with Hollywood’s domination of global markets that Iraqis would have a working knowledge of classic movies like Star Wars, the Godfather and Ernest Goes to Camp. In all reality…not so much. Iraqis watch a lot of Egyptian movies, which I as an American can’t find at Blockbuster. I think Egypt stopped making movies after 1980, as nothing new looking is on the air.

A fellow officer polled some of our Sons of Iraq check points to see what the average Iraqi man’s favorite American movie was. Everyone he asked said they’d never seen an American movie. The area he polled was kind of a problem, as the area consisted of subsistence farmers with no electricity. After a few days and several hundred questions, the officer found an Iraqi answer.

He had to coax the answer out of the Iraqi, who was visibly nervous. The Iraqi said his favorite American movie of all time…Titanic! The officer started laughing, as this was hardly an answer that would make someone nervous. The Iraqi got upset, and said “What? Do you think that just because we’re Arabs we don’t have feelings and emotions that run deep?” The officer laughed even more, and all rapport was ruined.

That the highest grossing movie in human history is popular doesn’t surprise me. One Iraqi officer said it was “The most perfect movie” he’d ever seen. I, for the record, saw it once in the theaters. My girlfriend at the time drug me to see it (I think this was her fifth viewing, and she still cried at the end), and I admit it was an excellent movie. If I ever run into James Cameron, I’ll thank him for a conversation topic with the Iraqis.

Whenever I visit with my Iraqi counterpart, he usually has his TV tuned to an Arab satellite action movie station. Unfortunately, these aren’t good action movies. The movies are definitely in the “B” quality range and all star Dean Cain, oddly enough. Action movies and some dramas make their way to Arab satellite TV, never comedy.

I don’t think many comedies can transcend the culture barrier. I recently saw “So I Married An Axe Murderer” in French. The angry Scottish father did not come across well in l’Francais. The best jokes depended on the inflection and word play of the English language, which I don’t think the French could appreciate or translate.

Movies are not the best way to get to know the Iraqis, so I went a different route:

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Ramadan! Once a year Muslims around the world spend a month fasting, reading the Koran and acting in a more pious manner.

The first time I encountered Ramadan was during my first Iraq tour, back in 2003. My chain of command put out a little pamphlet explaining Ramadan to all us infidels. The only thing that stood out was the section on killing. This isn’t verbatim, but it went something like this: “During Ramadan, Muslims are prohibited from killing other people. Now, were always supposed to avoid killing people, but during Ramadan we really mean it.” That was an early Iraq …what? moment.

For Ramadan, Muslims won’t eat, drink, smoke or partake in nookie during daylight hours. In an effort to respect Ramadan, Coalition Forces won’t do any of the above in front of practicing Muslims. It isn’t so much about respect, as it is an effort to not make them angry. Iraqis are rather high strung after five years of murder, VBIEDs, random explosions, etc. Especially the smokers. Ever been around someone who’s trying to quit the death sticks? They’ll blow up at someone for breathing too much. I don’t want to be the guy that lights up a cigarette and pops open a soda mid-afternoon.

A few weeks ago, our Iraqi Army brethren swore up and down that operations would be unaffected by Ramadan. Once Ramadan began…not so much. Nothing happens during the day. Ramadan means nap time every single afternoon. I can relate, whenever I’ve gone without food and water for any length of time I have no energy either. It is a little frustrating. If I want to go after a bad guy in the afternoon, my IA are a bunch of zombies.

I respect anyone who can stick to Ramadan for a whole month, it doesn’t sound easy.

At the end of the day, it’s time for chow. The meals are large and the family is supposed to spend it with their family, like a month worth of Thanksgiving, minus the football.

As a Soldier in Iraq, I must go without some things as well. It stems from General Order #1. General Order # 1 states military personnel will not drink, attempt to change anyone’s religion, or partake in nookie (amended if your spouse is stationed with you). Legend has it that General Swartzkopf (sp) issued General Order #1 during the Gulf War in an effort to appease the strict Islamic rules of Saudi Arabia. No one has rescinded the order since 1991.

Yes, I see the wisdom to General Order #1. Alcohol and firearms don’t mix, as YouTube redneck videos have taught us. If a Muslim renounces Islam, they could be killed.

But nookie…come on! I’m a patrol base with nothing but dudes, so the decision is made for me. I wonder if anyone would buy a “Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, sexually deprived for YOUR freedom” bumper sticker. I doubt it.

I will allow your imagination to explore the difficulties of romantic relationships on small patrol bases, in units where people work together 12-18 hours a day or what an average guy’s chances are with the 5% female population. It’s like High School divided by Days of Our Lives times Rambo II.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Detainee Release

One of my many extra duties is to supervise detainee release. For whatever reason, we release individuals from Coalition custody after they’re deemed “no longer a threat to the Coalition or Iraqi people.”

So, I get the call that around 50 detainees will land in my little slice of Iraqi heaven, and I need to be out there at fricking midnight to meet the helicopters. Why midnight? Because it’s inconvenient, nothing is ever easy in Iraq…and I hate helicopters.

My Iraqi Army partner, and a dozen of his soldiers, sat out by the helicopter landing zone and waited for the detainees. A little after midnight (of course they’re late) we hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopters, and we jump back into our vehicles. Helicopters kick up an absurd amount of dirt when they land, often accompanied by giggles from the pilots as they brown-out yet another unsuspecting group of spectators. We’d renovated the landing zone with giant steel mats to keep the dust down. The first helicopter landed and kicked up a fair amount of dirt, but nothing too bad.

I ran out to the helicopter, met the Soldier in charge of the detainees, waved the detainees towards the waiting and friendly Iraqi Army. As I counted detainee noses, it became blatantly obvious that I was standing behind one of the giant engines. Ladies and Gentlemen, the world’s largest hair dryer. The air was actually painful, and I wish I’d picked another spot, but then the detainees would run around all willy-nilly. A few more minutes and I would have turned into beef jerky.

The IA policed up the detainees, and they squatted in close quarters. Imagine a giant box off Peeps, but these Peeps are all in identical shirts, shoes, pants and smell terrible.

And then all common sense failed. The first helicopter could have taken off and made room for the second, instead the first stayed put, and the second landed in a dirt soccer field. I waited a minute for the dust to settle, but it didn’t. The second helicopter was surrounded by a THIS IS CETI ALPHA FIVE intensity sand storm.

I stumbled towards the helicopter, but could keep my eyes open for a moment or two. Yes, stumbling blindly towards the giant spinning blades of helicopter death. Once I got close enough that I could see the helicopter ramp, there went a long line of detainees off into the sand storm. They were definitely going the wrong way. What the hell…

I took off after the line, and found a Soldier at the head. Before I could tell him he was an artard and that he’s going the wrong way, he waved at me and took off for the helicopter. There I was, standing in the midst of nuclear winter with twenty-ish detainees who looked scared to death. It was essential that we head back to the waiting Iraqi Army, or I’d have a bunch of detainees running around an Iraqi Army base, at midnight, surrounded by armed guard towers. CNN would love that.

Thankfully, my interpreter is smarter than the average bear, and he waved a lit flash light at us, which we could make out through the haze of flying sand and very small rocks. I utilized my rudimentary Arabic and screamed “Yala!” as I waved towards the light. ‘Yala’ means “run great speed and courageous emotion’ or something like that.

I got the detainees to the Iraqi Army, who had quite the laugh at my expense. Can’t blame them, just look at me:

I look like ancient!

Then we had to screen all the detainees, make sure their name matches their picture, the names on the list, etc. No AQI/JAM would ever try to sneak out of prison by flubbing up his paperwork, never ever!

My Iraqi partner and I quizzed each detainee about why they were arrested (every single one was innocent, they don’t know why they were picked up in the first place) and how long they’d been in jail. One guy said he’d been in jail for a few days short of two years, we asked him if he wanted to stay in the IA jail a bit longer, but he would have none of that.

I get to do detainee release once a month. I’m so excited.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Every so often I have these “…what?” moments with the Iraqi Army.

Case in point, I went to find an Iraqi officer who was supposed to meet me for dinner. I sat down in his office and used my rudimentary Arabic on one of his brother officers. Then an Iraqi lieutenant colonel walks in and they talk amongst themselves. The first officer proceeds to whip out a tazer, and turn it on for his boss. It sparked and made a series of unfriendly cracking noises. I’ve never had a normal conversation that ended with someone whipping out a tazer. So there’s my first “…what?” moment of the day.

I don’t speak that much Arabic, but I’m pretty sure the LTC said “Dude, that totally reeks of awesomeness, let me try.” The LTC grabs the tazer, turns it on and jokingly jabs the active tazer at his buddy. Ha ha! What fun.

Finally, the guy I’m waiting for shows up…and then he grabs the tazer and waves it around. There I am, a lone American officer in a room full of Iraqi officers who are PLAYING WITH A TAZER. The third officer took the tazer into the hallway…and chased some of the Iraqi Army soldiers up and down the hallway with the tazer “…what?”

I suppose I should have admonished the IA for playing with something that is definetly not a toy, but when a bunch of Iraqis are jabbing at each other with a tazer designed to incapacitate cattle, discretion is the better part of valor.

It would be easy to scoff at the Iraqi Army for this incident, but Coalition Forces aren’t any smarter.

A few weeks ago, some of the Soldiers assigned to my little slice of heaven decided to buy themselves a tazer. A big one, one that meant business. Thankfully, one of the senior non-commissioned officers heard the device crackling, investigated and confiscated the Mother of All Tazers. Why did they buy the tazer? One of the Soldiers wanted to zap his buddy with it, and his buddy was OK with the plan, so long as the zapping was filmed for YouTube…what?!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Coalition and Iraqi Army forces are winning the war. I leave you with that fact.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Donut of Misery

Soldiers speculate on their redeployment date. The day we get back to our families, flushing toilettes and beer is a happy one, so we want to know when it is! But, the date fluctuates (shifts to the left or right), much to our consternation. When will the new unit arrive? How long must we wait for a flight to Kuwait, then to the States? Will there be an…extension?

Extensions are bad. Very bad. Back in 2004, we’d handed over our mission to the new unit, sent an advanced team to Kuwait, had the vehicles packed and lined up ready to go. Then the phone rang. The redeployment stopped, and we went south to fight Muqtada al Sadr and his merry band of jerk offs throughout central Iraq. After the 365th day came and went, we lost hope of ever going home. We just drove from city to city, stomping Jaysh Al Mahdi into paste and waiting for the next phone call. We stomped them a little too hard, as JAM turned to Iran for training and equipment, but that’s a different matter.

After the 15th month of a 12 month tour, the phone rang and told us to head to Kuwait. Sheeah, right. We’ll get to Kuwait and promptly turn around for Mosul. But, we went to Kuwait, turned over our equipment and remained skeptical about ever going home. Then we got on the aircraft, still no guarantee! Folks made it to the US of A before the extension, and were called back to Iraq. Landed in Germany, marveled at the green grass but still didn’t think we were home free. Once the plane took off and we were sure it was heading West, we relaxed a bit more.

We landed in Maine. If they told us to get back on the plane and head for Iraq, we could make a break for the door. Canada was close by. Then we got home, and after a week or two we were sure we wouldn’t be called back to Iraq, and we finally relaxed.

Where was I…tracking the day we head home, yes. Now Soldiers have their very own “Donut of Misery.” A simple excel spreadsheet that computes the number of days, hours, minutes past and left in the tour. A pie graph of sorts monitors progress through the deployment as a percentage, and resembles a steadily shrinking donut.

This gave way to Happy Percentage Day! Every 3.65 days (assuming a 12 month tour) another percentage point ticks by, one percentage point closer to going home. So I wish people Happy Percentage Day to my fellow office drones once or twice a week. Don’t tell Hallmark, I might patent the idea.

Math is never that exciting, so Soldiers embellish their Donuts of Misery with photos of scantily clad, yet tasteful, photos of their favorite model/actress/women-of-thankfully-low-morals. There is some debate over who has the best Donut flair, but it is a personal choice.

My Donut transitioned from ‘depressing’ to ‘uplifting’ around the 33% mark. Soon it will be zero.