Friday, July 27, 2007

Paradise: Baghdad...

I am not sure if I should be excited about this but; recently, I have found myself waking each morning most anticipating two daily events: time spent in the gym or running and the authoring of this Blog.

In anticipation of writing tonight’s post, I had developed two separate topic pieces. The first was to be a post concerning the appropriate steps that need to be taken, in my estimation, for Fred Thompson to successfully secure the Republican Party nomination for President. This would have been written with a focus on what Senator Thompson needs to do to garner the votes of military and veterans in particular.

The second idea was to run with last night’s theme and incorporate experiences from Ramadi into a response to the recent news of The New Republic / Private Beauchamp fiasco. I wrestled throughout the day with which story I would present tonight.

And then, while walking to my residency in the fraternity house, an issue totally separate came to mind. And it is that issue that I am going to discuss tonight.

The Baghdad Anomaly

There was a particular period of time during my days in Iraq that saw the country undergo a dramatic change of direction. For many reasons, this period should be studied in depth. One of the notable reasons is to detect what went wrong and prevent it from happening again should we ever face a similar situation. There’s also another, and maybe more currently pertinent, reason to study this transitional period. Better understanding of it may give us a clearer picture of the enemy we are facing today.

So, tonight, I want to relate some events that I partook around the summer of 2003 in and around the area of Baghdad, Iraq.

As it is vital to the comprehensible understanding of tonight’s accounts, one must be aware of my own role during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was in the Third Infantry Division and just a young private. Upon completing my Advanced Individualized Training in 2002, I was assigned to Fort Stewart where it was quickly made clear that my unit would be deploying to Kuwait in a short time. This was well before any of the winds of war in Iraq were present.

That September, on my Mother’s birthday no less, my unit shipped to Kuwait. I was a member of the Second Brigade’s Reconnaissance Team, a unit composed of cavalry scouts and forward observers, of which I was the latter. Our mission in Kuwait was not out of the ordinary. The Third Infantry Division had been rotating brigades through Kuwait for some time now as part of what was then deemed “intrinsic actions.” Our purpose was to train with other international forces in the country, including the Kuwaitis themselves, to better prepare all sides should Saddam Hussein again become aggressive towards his neighbors to the south. Our presence in Kuwait was also a great deterrent against such aggression. This had been such a long standing mission for Fort Stewart units that we were the only division in the army, at the time, that maintained desert-tan painted equipment as opposed to the Army’s accepted O.D. Green camouflage. This was scheduled to be a six month deployment.

Because of our availability in the region, along with our continued training for just such a mission, we were utilized heavily during the invasion of Iraq. The story of the invasion and the Third Infantry Division’s actions during it are well documented. Less accurately depicted is what occurred after we occupied Baghdad.

Upon the successful toppling of the Hussein-led government in Baghdad, my unit was assigned with the authority to maintain security at the capital city’s main train station. I recall nights spent at that train station absolutely vividly. In many ways, time spent at the train station was the most surreal and interesting period in my life. Our security was always augmented by three older Iraqi gentlemen. They were very highly educated engineers and had vested financial interests in seeing the train station maintain safety. I was involved in countless memorable conversations with these gentlemen. Their knowledge was their most remarkable quality; one of them, in fact, had completed extensive advanced academic work in Europe. Had they been Americans, they would no doubt have held positions as Chief Officers in some capacity and would have been deep in financial luxuries. But, here they were in Baghdad, content to sit in folding chairs day-in and day-out and support the Americans in assisting them.

Many of the events that occurred during those nights in the train station will remain personally held tales. Unfortunately, the revelation of those events might incriminate some of my buddies still on active duty. Not because we performed any outlandish acts, but because we were often guilty of breaking General Order #1 while in the presence of these gentlemen. Let it be said that our Iraqi engineer friends were very welcoming home-makers who often treated us to extended-course meals at their homes and always ensured that we had plenty along the ways of entertainment during long nights positioned at their rail hub.

The level of calm that immediately followed the downfall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad was remarkable. It now seems asinine to suggest that the following events occurred, but they did. My unit used to travel to city center Baghdad, abandon our Humvees but to a couple rotating guards, drop all of our protective gear, enter restaurants and eat full-service meals. Imagine this: I used to travel to this same area of the city and receive a haircut from an Iraqi barber who would wield a straight-edged blade without so much of a raised eyebrow from my compatriots. There was even an instance that our Humvee, by its lonesome, left the Baghdad International Airport after escorting an official and traversed the streets of Baghdad in search of pirated DVDs. Occasionally, I will tell stories of complacency, of soldiers asleep while behind the gun atop a Humvee, that occurred during this period and then wonder how I ever let one partake in such lazy and dangerous activity. And then it occurs to me that this sort of activity was a product of the environment that we then knew.

Of course, this fun wouldn’t last. After being promised a return home during a celebration on July 4th, we were quickly informed that such guidance was misinformed and that we would be, instead, augmenting units in a then unknown city called “Fallujah.” Upon settling in our camp outside of the city proper, we began to travel back to Baghdad during our “off” days to return to the luxuries that were once common fare for us. About once a week, we could look forward to one of these trips to city center Baghdad. And then, one week, peculiarly, these much anticipated journeys ceased.

We were informed that the unit that had replaced us in Baghdad, the First Armored Division, had let the city fall into chaos. I remember all the fun ending with the report of the death of a soldier in the same city center that I had once loved. He had apparently been waiting in line for some sort of comfort object, perhaps ice cream at a stand or a coke- objects that I, too, had once waited in line for- when he was approached from behind and murdered. I believe that the instrument of death was a gun, but it could have been a knife. The story, in its full accuracy, escapes me now. The accuracy of the story is less important than the nuances that surround it. It was at this point that Baghdad began its quick fall into violence.

At the time, the violence in Baghdad seemed quite isolated apart from the limited fighting we were doing during our patrols on the outskirts of Fallujah. We attributed the conflict in Baghdad to the lesser abilities of our Armored Division counterparts. Of course, in retrospect, that was not the case. The First Armored Division is certainly as capable as any in the world and the up-rise in insurgent activity, ultimately, manifested itself in areas far outside of their jurisdiction.

So this raises many questions that I have yet to hear quality answers. The answers lack, in part, because this is now a forgotten part of Iraq history. But this soldier, nonetheless, wonders, “What happened?” There was a notable period of time in Iraq between the fall of the government in Baghdad and the beginning of the greater insurgency conflict as we now understand it, which was void of violence. Why was this? Did the “bag guys” really need a month to two to regroup and retaliate? Or was it the case that, during this two month gap, combatants from outside the country were being filtered in?

I have no good answers. I hope, however, that by continuing to spread the experiences that I remember, some may come to pass. And, hopefully, these answers can go a long way in helping us understand the enemy that we currently face.