EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.
Late in the summer, I was almost killed.
After our air assault earlier in the summer, we just kept moving south, clearing villages all the way. The plan never changed. We never just left the villagers to fend for themselves. We stayed for days, weeks, and sometimes even months. All the while we trained Iraqi Army soldiers to take our place when we left and raised local chapters of the Sons of Iraq, citizen militias to guard their own streets.
And so it would go. We assaulted a group of villages, cleaned out the bad guys, built small outposts, patrolled the streets, trained our replacements, then moved again. And it worked. IED attacks began to taper off. Suddenly, only enemy fighters were dying. That didn’t mean that our region had become safe — by no means. Simply, the enemy had lost the upper hand, and the locals were growing much, much bolder. We were on the offensive, they were on the defensive, and we could all tell the difference. The tide was turning.
One evening, a small team of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fighters tried to infiltrate back into our zone of control. To get through, they had to get past a series of newly built security checkpoints. Some are manned by our troopers, some by Iraqi security forces (Iraqi Army or police), and some by the Sons of Iraq. Naturally, the AQI fighters picked the checkpoint manned by the Sons of Iraq as the weak point and launched a surprise attack in the middle of the night. They were able to kill one of the guards almost immediately, but the rest of the tiny band of Sons held their ground. In a short firefight, they not only fought off the attackers, they killed a local AQI leader. The villagers stood firm, and the terrorists fled. One week later, we gave a very well-deserving and humble villager an Army Achievement Medal for his bravery.
Days later, an al-Qaeda terrorist tried to return to his home in a village now controlled by a large group of Sons. Keep in mind, this was a village he used to rule with an iron fist. When he snuck into his house to sleep, his own wife alerted the local men, and they armed themselves, walked to his house, and killed him when he refused to surrender. The lesson?
Hell hath no fury like a woman sick of sharia.
To be sure, there were still armed bands lurking out there. The stillness of the night was occasionally shattered by small-arms fire, but these incidents didn’t alter the fundamental reality: The Iraqi government owns the ground, and the local citizens never want to see al-Qaeda return.
Across the country, the improvement was staggering. At one point in the “bad old days” of 2006 and early 2007, attacks against coalition forces could hit close to 200 per day. Yet there was a day in July when there were only 13 attacks against the coalition (probably half those were in our area, but that’s a different story). The rate of attacks against supply convoys went down dramatically. Sectarian murders all but stopped, even in Baghdad.
I could go on and on. While we all held our breath, knocked on wood, pinched ourselves, and prayed fervently that these trends would continue, there was now an open debate as to whether Iraq was moving from a state of war to something much closer to the baseline level of violence in the country and culture.
Iraq is a violent place. It just is. And anyone who spends time there (especially if you are a member of a foreign army engaged in counterinsurgency operations) will experience that violence. One of the most eye-opening revelations of my entire tour of duty has been the discovery that not even a Stalinist genocidal maniac like Saddam Hussein had full control of this place. This was no North Korea.
While he was as brutal as he could be in pursuit of total control, he never managed to achieve it.
A combination of civil uprisings, tribal disputes, external conflict, garden-variety crime, political violence, and lively smuggling rings kept Iraq in a constant state of low-or medium-grade turmoil. In fact, any “peace” that existed in Saddam’s Iraq was the product of either actual violence or the threat of it.
I have come to believe that the following statement is true, has been true, and will be true for the foreseeable future (and perhaps forever): Iraq will be far more violent than we would ever tolerate in the United States. My concern is that while we are justifiably grateful for the dramatic improvements since 2007, we don’t make a major mistake in our perceptions of Iraq.
In the view of this low-ranking reservist — take what I say with a grain of salt — I fully expect that we’ll see a leveling off, and as part of that leveling off, we’ll still see suicide bombings, IEDs, and firefights.
But in July 2008, in Diyala, we were still a long way from hitting that “baseline” level. Fighting still raged, and our missions never seemed to end. During these high-tempo operations, one of the signature command missions was the “battlefield circulation,” where a commander visited the guys in the field, talked to the locals, and generally got a firsthand look at the fight. On occasion, I would go with the commander. We had launched Operation Sabre Pursuit II, the latest attack south, and our executive officer, Major Cantlon, was in command while the squadron commander was on leave. I was deployed forward at a patrol base during the first few days of the operation, and on day two he asked me to come with him as we took a look around.
We drove down the roads to link up with Fox Troop, past villages we’d already secured and into the new sector. As we drove, the villages around us all showed signs of life. Children were playing outside, small markets were functioning, and there were Iraqi Army and police checkpoints everywhere. After a few kilometers, however, that all changed. The villages went from alive to dead — literally.
These areas had been held by al-Qaeda for a very long time. The people had slowly left or been killed, buildings were booby-trapped, and the countryside was littered with munitions. It was like crossing over a border from a functioning (though poor) society to the land of Mad Max, the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior.
It was against this background that we approached a small village that we called “Objective Rhode Island.” I don’t know what the locals called it. As we walked forward, we had already heard the intelligence reports. The place was deserted.
Apparently, al-Qaeda had killed every living person in the village many months ago, leaving behind only bullet-scarred walls and blood-covered floors.
From my vantage point, the place looked like any other, but with smoke curling up from small fires set in the underbrush to burn out any hidden weapons caches. I was near the back of the group, because I was one of the last out of the vehicles and because, frankly, I was struggling a bit in the heat. We’d been out all day, and the temperature was approaching 130 degrees.
We approached the village in silence, crossed through a burning canal (taking advantage of a small break in the flames) and around a corner. Most of the rest of our small group was already deep into the village.
Then . . .
The canal behind me exploded. Well, the whole canal didn’t explode, but a small, hidden weapons cache did. The sound was loud enough to cause my ears to ring, and I could literally feel the sound in my chest. I thought, If I’d only passed through the canal a few seconds later . . .
Then my mind immediately shifted to something else. The heat. The thought process went something like this: Wow, did I almost get blown up? Where’s some shade? In fact, the reaction of the entire group was almost casual. Guys’ heads jerked up, they glanced around quickly to make sure no one was hurt, then they continued the search for shade. For the guys out there every day, an explosion was just another day at the office. For me — at the time — it was just a startling interruption in my quest for shade and a place to sit.
In fact, the heat kept dominating my thoughts even as I moved back to the FOB and talked to Nancy via instant messenger. I signed on first.
She responded. “Hey! How r u?”
“So hot.” (She had no sense of perspective on this response.)
“I mean, you have no idea.”
“I know. I’m sorry. How was your day?”
“Kind of interesting. I think I almost got blown up today.”
I had to be under the influence of the heat when I typed those words. Nancy’s reaction seemed a bit bland on my end (she said something like, “Oh my,” and we went on with our conversation), but I later found out she was at our neighbor’s house and burst into tears after our conversation. After months in Iraq, with vehicles getting hit by IEDs on a near-constant basis, my minor little brush with a canal explosion seemed like no big deal — just one of those things. Not so to her. To her, the incident was huge, a reminder of my mortality, that the person on the other end of the daily instant-messaging session was in a war zone. But she didn’t say anything. She never told me until months later that she wept the rest of that night and was shaken for days.
Me? I just went on with my life, which at that point was thoroughly, completely, and totally dominated by an overpowering desire to escape the vast oven that was eastern Diyala.
“By the way, the A/C isn’t very reliable. Let’s hope it works.” With those words, a Sabre troop commander who shall remain nameless stepped into the vehicle, signaled the driver to start moving, and began the mission. I was in the back-left seat, thunderstruck.
Keep in mind, I was already warm. The mission began in the late morning, and I’d been waiting in my body armor for 30 minutes. The temperature was at least 110 degrees — and climbing. I was soaked with sweat and clinging to my cold bottle of water with all the ferocity that a drowning man clings to his life preserver.
“It seems fine to me now.” I was holding my hand over the vent, and cold air was pouring out. “When you say ‘unreliable,’ do you mean that it normally works or that it normally doesn’t work?”
The Commander Who Shall Remain Nameless laughed. “It never works.”
As if on cue, the air conditioner stopped. Well, it didn’t stop entirely. It just stopped actually blowing air. I could tell that cold air was in there somewhere, it just wasn’t blowing out of the tube. And so we began to bake.
As I sat there, I determined that the body goes through five stages of temperature grief. The emotional process of melting goes something like this:
Denial. This first stage was characterized by an irrational desire to mentally minimize the severity of the situation. It’s not so bad, I said to myself. I mean, I can still breathe. Then, as the heat worsened, I marveled at my own toughness. Wow, I’m a bigger man than I thought. Bring on 150 degrees!
A sweat puddle formed under the arches of my feet, which brought me to . . .
Anger. Rage built. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t build a working air conditioner? Doesn’t General Motors or whoever built this horrific pile of junk support the troops? Do they even care about us? Eventually, the fury became indescribable. I wanted to hit something.
Then I realized anger made me hotter, the last thing I wanted. So I started . . .
Bargaining. First with God: Please, God, if You make the A/C work, I will never miss chapel. Then with the driver: I will put your children through college if you find a way to get this A/C to blow cold air. Lastly, with the troop commander who put me in the seat: I will let you live if you ease my suffering.
But nothing worked because the broken air conditioner couldn’t be bargained with. So then I moved to . . .
Depression. I plunged into deep despair. All that existed was heat, sweat, and the annoying crackling of the radio. All that will ever exist is heat, sweat, and the annoying crackling of the radio. The rage turned into an indescribable sadness at the injustice of the world. Nothing will ever be good again.
Finally, with a gigantic sigh (which caused rivers of sweat to roll down my back), I reached . . .
Acceptance. It’s okay. Really, it is. I can handle it. After all, I could be hotter. I could be inside an oven. I could be roasting on a spit like a rotisserie chicken. I could be sunbathing on the surface of Mercury. And with this acceptance, an indescribable peace rolled over me.
Just then, the vehicle lurched to a stop. The door swung open and I stepped into the 125-degree heat of early afternoon in South Balad Ruz.
It felt like I had just stepped into an air-conditioned building. It was all good. I was fine.
— David French is co-author, with his wife, Nancy, of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, from which this is excerpted.