• E-mail Harrigan
February 1, 2006 1:58 p.m.
The warmth of the midday sun brought a fly into my "chew" (CHU, or Container Housing Unit). My nostrils may have flared. I turned to my right, wide-eyed. In previous visits to Baghdad, I had at my disposal Iraqi-made fly swatters — round ends with happy faces etched out of the air holes, not only frivolous but ineffective. The bend, the whip was too great and the faces themselves often shattered after a few strokes. Flypaper, also purchased locally, proved a farce — the flies munching happily on the glue before taking to the air again, sated. Despite the winter season, when campaigning is ordinarily at a stop, I still went ahead with the purchase of an American-made Laidlaw flyswatter in the Baghdad PX. The head was blood red, rectangular, with overlapping strips of plastic weaved together for durability. The whip in the plastic shaft was firm. This was a no-frills fly killing instrument. When the insect made its first pass, my eyes darted and I had one thought, "my Laidlaw." Had it made the trip from Baghdad, and was it, as a flyswatter always should be, ready at hand? I looked back right from my plastic table, where I was screening tapes of Iraqi soldiers. There it was, unblemished by contact, maroon head menacing on top of a pure white shaft, the fly-killer, untouched in battle.
I reached back and took it in hand. On the first pass I gave it a waggle. It would almost be too easy. As the fly alit on my Powerbook G4 I struck, and the hunt was over all too soon. It seemed dazed, but not dead. I decided not to soil the Powerbook, and strike again. I scooped the maroon head under the trophy and carried it into the next chew. I laid the fly down on the white sheet next to Rudden's pillow, where it stood out handsomely in relief. I raised the Laidlaw for a final strike, to lock it into position. Of course such an action was bound to inspire revenge, perhaps revenge out of all proportion.
Jan. 31, 2006 2:48 p.m.
We live in a "chew." Like many words around here, it is an acronym whose origins are debated. "CHU," container-housing unit, makes the most sense. If you took the back of a 16-wheel truck and put two windows on, two fluorescent lights and two bunks, you'd have a chew. Chews are way better than tents. Good ones have heat and electricity. If you have a broom you can keep it clean. The square lines of a clean chew are calming.
We live out in a place called "the dog pound." It's where they train sniffer dogs. A handler told me if a dog gets out and charges, to stand still. It is counterintuitive, but I'm ready to try it. At night you can step out in front of your chew and look up at the stars. A handler came out and told us that his dog had uncovered a bomb-making device the night before — a phone handset that was rigged to an explosive. The suspect had tried to toss the phone in the woods, but the dog found it from the scent he left on it. The handler told me if he gave me a 15-minute head start, the dog would find me in no time. I asked if there was any way to deceive the dog. I was thinking of movies where they crossed a river to hide the scent. He said there was no way. Each footstep disturbs the ground, releasing a scent, he said, so the dogs follow that disturbance even more than any human scent. I watched the two at work. There was a deep understanding between them.
We followed a U.S. officer around all afternoon. He was looking in on the new Iraqi quarters. He walked around with an Iraqi colonel and looked in all the rooms. He asked the colonel to see the worst rooms. He spoke softly without hand gestures. He greeted the Iraqi soldiers with a handshake. He walked into bathrooms and turned on the water to make sure it worked. He asked the Iraqi soldiers if their heaters worked. Most of the complaints were about the food. There was some trouble with Iraqi contractors. He was almost, in the best sense of the word, like a politician, talking to four Iraqi soldiers at one time who were sitting in the dirt.
"I'm asking for your patience," he said. It was a strange constituency for a U.S. officer, four Iraqi privates sitting on the ground, but he asked, he listened, he saw stuff with his own eyes.
Jan. 30, 2005 8:21 p.m.
I sat around a table in a courtyard with the S1 and his Iraqi counterpart. 750 Iraqi soldiers were part of the unit when it was in Tikrit. Here, 350 made the trip. If the others don't show after five days, the Iraqi colonel said they would be fired. They were trying to figure out exactly how many were here.
I asked him why the missing soldiers didn't show. Rudden handed me a wireless mic and I handed it to the translator. He pinned it on himself. He was used to microphones. The colonel had a big star on his shoulder. He said the men did not show up, not because they are cowards, but because the job will be different here. The job they signed up for in Kirkuk was close to home, and all they had to do was man checkpoints. Now they are being asked to leave home and to come into a potentially hostile place — Kurds from Kirkuk coming into Sunni Bayji. Plus, they will now have to go out on raids. He said 14 of his men have been killed in the past year and the Iraqi Defense Ministry has not compensated the families. These guys had real security concerns about going forth between Kirkuk and Bayji. He wanted assurances from the U.S. that they would provide security for his troops.
"Isn't it strange," I asked him, "that an Army needs to be protected?"
He breathed out, his two hands rested on his stomach. That was a bigger question, he said, about how the Army was initially structured.
Payday was coming up. I asked him if more would leave after payday.
"Yes," he said.
Jan. 29, 2005 7:30 p.m.
I sat down on a wooden frame of a bed. We were waiting for the Iraqi Army to show up. They were scheduled to arrive at 2 p.m., but no one thought that was going to happen. A U.S. soldier sat on the frame over from me. He tapped out a green Marlboro. Menthol. I sucked it in my nose. I could go for a smoke.
"My wife and I were driving in Nashville," he said. "A Marvin Gaye song was on the radio. I was singing along. My wife was driving. She had pulled out into an intersection a little too far, so the guy over here was having trouble making a left turn."
Here the soldier used two hands, flat, thumbs up. One was his car, the other was the guy at the intersection. The right hand was trying to make a left turn around the left hand.
"So, he started swearing at my wife. It took me a second to hear it, then I got out of the car and grabbed the guy."
He showed two hands now, grabbing an imaginary driver by the collars.
"I was going to whup his ass. My wife got out of the car and started yelling. The guy turned three shades of blue. I let him go and got back in."
The hands went down.
"I just got back in the car and started singing the Marvin Gaye song again. My wife was like, 'What is wrong with you.'"
"That's not me. I'm not that guy."
"I started to smoke when I got to Baghdad. We took four casualties in the first three days, three KIA. So I thought why not smoke."
• E-mail Harrigan
Please give my thanks to those you have contact with.
Nobody ever tells returning soldiers that staying alive while doing their duty out at the "point of the spear" was the most important thing they ever did in their life. Almost nothing will ever be so important. Nothing will come close to the intensity of living they had every second of every minute of every day at the point. Very few civilians ever get to know this feeling.
It's important for returning soldiers to realize this and understand what is driving their emotions when they feel lost and uninspired and depressed and frustrated and angered by the ordinary lives to which they return. Once they were warriors now they are mail-clerks. But being a mail-clerk is a pretty good thing if it pays the rent and puts the kids through college.
When one sees the reason for the negative feelings they are 10 times easier to deal with.
On their return from combat everyone tries hard to hammer the "wildness" out of the Warrior. Everyone wants the Warrior to "be just like everybody else." That is a bad thing. Warriors should resist. What the Warrior needs to do is to channel that great and wonderful power he (or she) has learned about out there on the point, into a powerful creative force that no one who hasn't been out on the point will ever have or understand. It makes you special for the rest of your life.
I, being a military wife, am enamored with any and all information I can get about conditions in Iraq. I want to know what the soldiers are thinking and how they deal emotionally and mentally with losing a comrade. My husband has only been deployed since Thanksgiving, but eventually I'm sure, he too, will have to deal with the loss of a soldier. With him also being in a leadership position I wonder, if something happens to one of his soldiers will he ever be able to let it go? Will he ever be able to say, "There was nothing I could do," and move on with his life? We have been together for almost 7 years now and we have had our ups and downs, but we know how to work things out and communicate. I'm terrified that he will come back a completely different person that I don't know how to relate to or connect with. Are we going to end up another statistic?
Thanks for such an insight into the every day lives of our soldiers....
The thing we had to remember in Vietnam is that we would have lives after the war. The danger is not that you will die in Iraq, but that you will live. He should quit the smokes.
As for "not being that guy," most of us had similar incidents.
San Bernardino, CA