Michael Totten

The Peace Corps with Muscles

RAMADI, IRAQ — Now that major combat operations are finished almost everywhere in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the United States Army and Marine Corps are more like a United Nations peacekeeping force with rules of engagement that allow them to kill if they have to. “We’re like the Peace Corps with muscles,” is how one soldier put it when I left with his unit at 4:00 in the morning to deliver food stuffs and toys to needy families in the countryside on the edge of the desert.
Actually, we did not leave at 4:00. We were supposed to leave at 4:00, when the weather outside wasn’t a blast furnace, but we were late leaving the base. I waited in front of my trailer to be picked up from 3:55 in the morning until 5:00 before a small convoy of Humvees finally showed up to get me.
“Good morning, sir,” said Lieutenant Evan Davies from Rochester, New York, as climbed out of his truck to shake my hand. “Let’s go roust the CAG out of bed.”
The CAG, Civil Affairs Group, was still in bed? We were supposed to leave an hour ago. Our humanitarian aid drop was scheduled before dawn for good reason. We were suffering a heat wave in Iraq — in August no less — and hoped to finish the mission before the molten sun finished us off. I grudgingly dragged my sorry ass out of bed at 3:30 like I was supposed to, but there I was, an hour and a half later, being told to go wake up the CAG.
We drove a few minutes and stopped next to a cluster of spartan trailers.
“I think the CAG is over here somewhere,” Lieutenant Davies said.
He and I poked around in the dark trying to figure out where the rest of the men were.
“Hmm,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure where they are.”
He knocked on the door of a darkened trailer.
An Asian man with long black hair opened the door and squinted at us.
“We’re looking for the CAG,” Lieutenant Davies said. “Aren’t they supposed to be around here somewhere?”
“Nah, man,” said the young man we had just rousted from bed. “We’re State Department here. The CAG is…I don’t know, they moved somewhere else a while ago.” He shut the door.
We walked to another bunch of trailers. Lieutenant Davies rapped on one of the doors.
A grizzled and bald 60 year old Arab man came to the door.
“Good morning, sir,” Lieutenant Davies said. “We’re looking for the CAG.”
“They aren’t here,” said the man kindly. “Come, come, I will show you.”
He was an Iraqi who worked as a cultural and political advisor for the United States military and didn’t seem to mind in the least being dragged out of bed before sunrise. The Civil Affairs Group was just around the corner and he showed us where to go.
“Sorry for waking you up,” I said.
“It is no problem,” he said and smiled as he put his hand on his heart.
The Civil Affairs guys woke up on command and were ready to leave almost instantly.
“We just need to load the food in the trucks and we’ll be ready to go,” said the lieutenant.
The shipping container that held the foodstuffs for needy Iraqis was locked. No one knew the combination needed to unlock it, so someone went to fetch bolt cutters and returned a few minutes later.
“Let’s hope this is the right container,” he said and busted open the padlock.
The container was empty.
“Somebody’s going to be pissed in the morning,” Lieutenant Davies said.
“Woo hoo!” one of the soldiers yelled in the dark. “Another fucked up adventure in the United States Army. I love it!”
The lieutenant introduced me to our Iraq interpreter.
“How do you like working with Americans?” I said.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said.
“Ah, come on,” I said. “There’s no wrong answer and I won’t quote you by name.”
“Well,” he said. “Sometimes I get really irritated.”
“Yeeeeaaaahhhhhh!” bellowed a young soldier in his best imitation of a frat boy yell as another shipping container was busted open with bolt cutters. “We got it now!”
Apparently they found the food.
“But I just keep reminding myself,” our interpreter said, “that they’re here to help our army and police.”
Iraqi police officers showed up in large pickup trucks given to them by the United States Army. They loaded up the trucks with food and toys as the first light of false dawn appeared in the east.
“The mission is a little bit FUBARed,” Lieutenant Davies said. “We were supposed to be back in time for breakfast, but it’s too late for that now. I sent some soldiers over to the D-FAC [military dining facility] to get some chow for us now so we can eat before we move out.”
A dust storm was beginning to blow in from the west. It looked like thin fog, only I could ever so slightly taste it. I grabbed a plastic water bottle from the backseat of a Humvee and felt a fine graininess that had built up on the outside. Severe dust storms will block out the sun and make the air cooler, as cloud cover will, but this dust felt as though it would only make the air hotter by making it heavier, which is what usually happens.
Several soldiers returned from the dining facility with servings of the Big Fat Heart Attack Special in Styrofoam boxes. Inside each container were biscuits and gravy, breakfast pizza, fifteen pieces of bacon, and plastic silverware wrapped in a napkin. I didn’t want to appear too hungry or greedy, so I waited until a few others had opened theirs first. The Americans stood around and ate while the Iraqis loaded the trucks. This was one of the (very) few times the Iraqis appeared more hard-working than the Americans.
Most of the Americans ate their breakfast off the hood of a Humvee while standing up. I sat down in the driver’s seat of a golf cart. A soldier sat down in the passenger seat.
“What are you doing here in August anyway?” he said.
“A fine question,” I said as I seriously wondered why I hadn’t waited for October or even November. The heat in Iraq during the summer is enough to make a religious man rail against God. I’m baffled, frankly, at how human civilization began in a place so inhospitable to human beings. Someone, I forget who, compared facing the afternoon breeze to sticking a hair dryer in your face while pouring sand on your head. That pretty much says it. It is much worse than in a place like Arizona, for instance, because you can hardly catch a break from it unless you stay on base in one of the buildings.
“It’s ridiculous here in the summer,” he said. “At Camp Ramadi you take one step outside and dust explodes.”
“It must be nice in the winter,” I said.
“Actually, it’s worse,” he said. “All this dust turns to mud.”
The dust was finely grained, almost like talcum powder. The soldiers call it moon dust, and it’s more than six inches deep in some places, like a soft inland beach.
“It has the consistency of chocolate pudding when it’s wet,” he continued. “Sometimes you think it’s okay to walk on because the ground looks all cracked and dried up. So you go ahead and step on it, and then….GLORK!…your foot breaks through and you’re more than boot-deep in the mud. You get that shit on you and it’s not coming off. Winter is miserable.”
We ate in silence for a few minutes while he, apparently, wondered whether or not he should say what he was thinking.
“Are you going to bash us or what?” he finally said.
“I didn’t come all the way out here in August just to bash you guys,” I said. I felt some sympathy for his complaint, but was at the same time tired of hearing it. “I write what I see and hear, good and bad. You won’t get bad press from me unless you act badly.”
Thank you,” he said. “You’ll be the first.”
I’m hardly the first. I know several journalists, political liberals as well as conservatives, who write it straight and don’t wallow in soldier-bashing. But the soldier-bashing that’s also out there sure does make an impression. Every journalist who embeds in Iraq must hear these complaints as often as I did, and I heard it daily.
We finished breakfast and loaded our gear and ourselves into the Humvees. The gunner in my Humvee made fun of our driver.
“We got guys like him in the Army,” he said to me and jerked his thumb toward the front seat. “Short. Skinny. All they’re good for is driving.”
“Hey!” our short and skinny driver said in mock outrage. “You need us. Without us, y’all can’t move out!”
Lieutenant Davies rode in the front passenger seat.
“What exactly are we delivering this morning?” I said.
“Rice, flour, cooking oil, baby formula, and Beanie Babies,” he said.
“No Beanie Babies,” said the gunner.
“No Beanie Babies,” said the lieutenant.
“We got Beanie Babies!” said the driver.
“Ok, Beanie Babies,” said the lieutenant. “We’re basically following the Iraqi Police at this point. They know who in the area needs help the most. Ever since the insurgency was beaten the economy has flourished. Shops have opened up everywhere. It’s definitely a good sign. But unemployment is still really high and lots of people are desperate.”
We drove through blowing dust as the white sun rose above the plains of Mesopotamia.
A few Iraqi women were already out in the fields.
“Women do all the agricultural work,” Lieutenant Davies said, “as well as run the household. Iraqi men are lazy. They don’t do shit.”
I heard something along the same lines from quite a few soldiers. I doubt I’ve ever been in such a masculine environment as I was during my time with the American military, but these guys sounded downright feminist when they talked about gender roles in Iraq, especially in Anbar Province which is noticeably more conservative and retro than Baghdad.
On the side of the road leading out of Ramadi two men wearing keffiyahs sat in wooden chairs in front of a butcher shop. They sipped from plastic tea cups next to a cow’s carcass, its detached head, and a bloody hand axe.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Lieutenant Davies said, “cutting up a cow on the side of the road like that.”
I tried to snap a quick picture, but was too slow.
We followed the road along the snaking Euphrates River through the desert. A mile-wide ribbon of green flanked each side of the river where hand-dug canals fanned out water for irrigation. After blowing through a few Iraqi Police checkpoints the convoy stopped in a dilapidated agricultural area.
It was only 7:00 in the morning, but already at least 90 degrees outside and getting noticeably hotter by the minute. I left my body armor and helmet on the seat in the Humvee. Farmland outside Ramadi feels safer than Kansas these days (at least when I’m with the Army) and my protective gear was an uncomfortable nuisance that made me feel paranoid and ridiculous. No one would let me go outside the wire unprotected in Baghdad, and I wouldn’t do it even if it were allowed. But many soldiers and Marines take off their helmets in and around Ramadi because it is no longer a war zone. No one said anything to me when I also took off my Kevlar.
An Iraqi Police officer screamed into the voice-garbling loudspeaker on one of the trucks and let the community know we were there to give them some food.
The police trucks and Humvees rolled along at perhaps one mile an hour as women, children, and a few men emerged groggily from their homes and walked up to the convoy.
Iraqi police officers handed heavy bags of flour and rice to adults and gave out smaller packages to the children..
I walked along and took pictures. Two Iraqi women cornered me and spoke to me in rapid-fire Anbar-accented Iraqi Arabic as though they expected me to understand everything perfectly.
“La etkellem Arabie katir,” I said. I don’t speak too much Arabic. I could only understand a few fragments. They were utterly bewildered by this, as though I must be stupid for not comprehending. So they repeated the same exact sentences, only more loudly.
I didn’t mind. They were simple people and they needed my help. I gestured toward the Iraqi police and suggested they follow me to one of the trucks where they could have a proper conversation with someone who lived there and really could help. All I could do was take pictures and notes. It was an awkward moment. I felt dumb and also like an intruder for seeing humble people in moments of weakness at dawn in front of their houses.
Children swarmed the roads and fought their way to the sides of the trucks. The Iraqi police yelled at them as they handed out items. The Americans quietly provided security for everyone while this was happening.
A traditionally dressed Iraqi men emerged from one of the houses and hugged some of the American soldiers. They seemed to know each other, and they exchanged a few words in Arabic.
Bundles of newspapers were pitched over the side of one of the trucks. Young Iraqi boys opened the bundles and handed them out to others one at a time.
Other young boys tugged on my shirt. “Mister, mister! Picture, picture!”
I did want pictures of children, but they were annoyed whenever I took pictures of anything else. “Mister, mister!”
“When I went home on leave someone called me mister at a restaurant,” Sergeant Shumiloff said. “I almost wigged out on him. What’s the matter? he said. Nothing, I said. I’m okay.”

Sergeant Shumiloff
The Humvees and police trucks drove more slowly than I walked. We covered a mile or so of road, depleting the stocks of goods in the trucks as we went. Some Iraqi kids followed me on foot the entire time and wouldn’t stop asking for pictures.
Make me famous! some seemed to be saying. Others, less fortunate, had different ideas in mind. Don’t forget me, their faces seemed to say. Don’t forget us. We’re hurting.
One of the Iraqi police officers was so young I could hardly believe he was even 18. He carried a bat with him wherever he went and sometimes looked like he was ready to crack heads if the needy got too unruly.
“How old is he anyway?” I said to Lieutenant Davies.
“He is really young,” he said. “But he’s one of the best they have on the force. We’re trying to get him promoted.”
The Iraqi Police busted open boxes of Beanie Babies. The kids went wild as though large stacks of money were handed out. They pushed, shoved, hit each other, and yelled as each scrambled to get the next toy.
The young Iraqi police officer, whom the lieutenant said was the best, kicked a young boy hard and sent him sprawling into the dust. The poor kid cried for his mother. Tears mixed with the dirt on his face and muddied his cheeks. Nobody said anything to the officer or offered to help the boy up. I wondered whether I should try to rein him in if he did it again.
Iraq is a painful country. It hurts those who live there, and it hurts those who go there. It isn’t the saddest place I’ve ever visited — Libya earns that dubious distinction. But it is the most distressing, not only because of the violence and horror almost everyone who lives there has experienced, and in many places still experiences, but because it’s hard to shake the dreadful feeling that terrible forces are gearing up to punish the place even more.
Anbar Province, while broken by war, is sort of okay.
But the long shadow of Baghdad — which is anything but okay, and which was my jump-off point for Ramadi — falls over the city from the east. Nowhere in Iraq can be truly stable and secure until every other place is also secured.
The Iraqi Police handed something in small bags to the locals.
“What’s in the green bags?” I said to Lieutenant Davies.
“Sand,” he said.
“No, not the sand bags,” I said and laughed. “I know what a sand bag is. I mean the green bags the police are handing out.”
“Ah,” he said and laughed. “Chai.” Tea. “What’s sad is that these people are so poor they probably would be happy with useless handouts of sand bags at this point.”
One of the kids ran up to him, pointed to the east, said something in Arabic, and laughed.
“He asked if we would go over to the next tribal area and kill everybody who lives there,” the lieutenant told me and rolled his eyes. “He’s only kidding, but you see how it is here.”
We walked together in silence for a few moments.
“They think we can do a lot more for them than we can,” he said. “Like we’re all-powerful.” I’ve heard that many Iraqis think the Americans are so powerful they can fix Iraq at will any time, which means there must be some sinister reason why they want Iraq to remain broken. Some Lebanese I’ve met think the same way.
“President Bush can fix Lebanon in ten minutes,” a Beirut taxi driver once told me. “So why doesn’t he?”
“Some of them call me Sheikh Daoud,” Lieutenant Davies said. Daoud is Arabic for David, which is not exactly his name, but it’s close. “They say hey, you’re a sheikh, you can make stuff happen. I say, well, that’s just a nickname you gave me. We’ll see.”
Lieutenant Evan Davies
Everything from the trucks was finally handed out. It was time to head back to the Blue Diamond base even though there wasn’t quite enough for everyone to get what they wanted.
As I climbed into my Humvee and prepared to close the door, several children ran up to me and said “Football!”
“La football,” I said. No football.
We did not have any footballs.
“Football! Football!” a boy said and pointed at my feet.
I looked down. Sure enough, there was an American football at my feet.
Our gunner had already climbed into his turret. I pulled on his pant leg.
“Can I give them this football?” I said.
“What football?” he said.
“There’s a football at my feet.”
“Football! Football!” the kids kept saying.
“Nah, man, that’s our football,” the gunner said.
“Mister, mister! Football, football!”
“Give me that football,” the gunner said. I handed him the football and half expected him to toss it to the kids. “It’s my football!”
“Football! Football!” the kids yelled.
“Laaaaaaaaaa!” the gunner yelled. Noooooooooo! “Sorry, kids. Wal-Mart’s closed.”
And we drove away.
This is what it’s like now in and just outside Ramadi. This mission is the kind of thing embedded journalists see, which is why most war correspondents embed somewhere else. Soldiers Hand Out Newspapers and Rice isn’t much of a headline, and it’s even less of a scoop. But this is the kind of work soldiers do now every day in what was recently the most violent place in Iraq.
That doesn’t mean reporters who go somewhere else aren’t doing their jobs, but it mostly explains why you rarely see coverage from Anbar.
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