In Country
by William Thomas
August 21, 2003

They told you, you would be welcomed by a grateful people. They said you would be protecting your homeland from weapons of mass terror. Your superiors offered payback, a chance to smash al Qaeda and get the bastard responsible for September 11, before he could carry out even more fiendish biological or radiological attacks against Americans. Most of all, they promised that the quickest way home was through Baghdad.

All lies.

In a country awash in Kalashnikovs and blunderbuss-like rocket-grenades, you cannot see or anticipate the enemy. A flame-spewing RPG or crude roadside bomb can explode your life anywhere, anytime. The heat can be just as deadly. Temperatures to 140 degrees, a water ration of two 1.5-liter bottles a day, plus the 30 pounds of combat gear required to protect your life from the people you've liberated is killing your buddies just as dead as an automatic fired into a shopping soldier's ear.The whole thing is like some nightmare out of the Wild West.

Except this time the Indians are winning.

You wanted to belong. You wanted direction in your life, and the Army seemed to offer it. A paid-for university degree seemed a fair trade for a few years of your young life.

Until this.

Told not to expect contact until the outskirts of Baghdad, you crossed the line of departure from Kuwait without any rounds in your weapons — so that no one would get hurt. "You won't see the enemy for quite sometime," your C.O. said.

The fadeyeen must not have gotten the word. Springing ambushes as soon as you crossed into Iraq, fierce desert fighters kept up withering crossfires on a supply column that eventually stretched more than 400 miles along a two-lane highway bordered by sand that clutched at boots and tires like hands. Pretending to run away, the attackers led pursuing GI's into prepared killing zones, where more waiting guerillas cut those squads to pieces. In one incident outside Maseriah, a film crew from al-Minar TV stumbled across the bodies of about 40 U.S. soldiers strewn across the desert. When the Lebanon TV network reported their find to American forces, a crew from a responding U.S. chopper smashed their camera and recording equipment, and told them to leave the area and say nothing of their finding.

What had happened was that as soon as Saddam started torching oil wells in southern Iraq, Rumsfeld ordered an immediate attack before completing preparatory air and artillery bombardments that have been standard military assault doctrine since Guadalcanal and the Somme.

Thanks to the SECDEF's outstanding incompetence, the whole grand adventure flipped into instant FUBAR. Except for hearing spooky sporadic transmissions of ambushes and close-contact firefights, no one on that highway could communicate with anyone beyond their own unit. Supply stiffs in thin-skinned trucks, who weren't supposed to see any fighting, found themselves under recurring attack with no heavy weapons to defend themselves.

The road march up "Ambush Alley" was pure chaos. Iraq's talcum-like dust — the "finest" in the Middle East — billowed up in "brown outs" that hid tanks and Bradleys that did not stop for anything. Not even the hapless Humvees and transport trucks squashed like bloody bugs in the "Go! Go! Go!" race for Baghdad.

Wanna-be warrior Rumsfeld and the chickenhawks around him — who never wore a uniform and never went to war — should be fired. Or fragged.The White House remfs thought they could run a war and an occupation on the cheap by contracting out crucial Army logistics to their former corporate employers — vultures like Halliburton's Brown and Root, and Bechtel.

But many contractors and their insurers turned out to be allergic to war zones! Combat units constantly running short of water and ammunition also had to break into their five days' emergency rations.You haven't heard of any unit receiving a single spare part during the entire battle.

Your own company had to abandon a dozen disabled vehicles and cram into whatever still ran. It's hard to shoot straight from an overcrowded truck cab, where a single RPG round could make a real mess.

Your unit made it to your objective. Others did not.

Allah be praised, Saddam's generals sold out Baghdad without making a stand that could have rivaled Stalingrad. But four months later, you're still in country, still eating MREs. Which is to say, you're still eating shit while crammed with 50 other smelly bodies in two frame tents near a pond full of dead fish and mosquitoes.

Your colonel has his own room inside an air-conditioned trailer. Just like a movie star, he sleeps on a king-size bed, flushes his own toilet, raids his private refrigerator, and spends more time field-stripping his cappuccino machine than his Colt. Preoccupied with promotion and similarly pressing matters, it was two weeks before he came down to see how his troops were living. But only after you went to the Corps Surgeon over sanitation concerns.

Baghdad is fucked. Slightly smaller than New York, the world's first major city has few tall buildings. Instead, the resulting sprawl is half-buried in rubble from buildings bombed or burned by looters — block-long edifices blackened and broken everywhere.

Desert heat, smoke from burning trash and smoldering ruins adds to the chaos. Traffic lights are still not working as horse carts, motorcycles, SUVs, tanks, Humvees and diesel-belching taxis and 1950s-era trucks all careen both ways on one-way streets. Masses of sullen, angry or desperate unemployed men part like the sea Mao mentioned, through which bandits, insurgents and jihadists swim like sharks armed with handguns, grenades and rage.

Hundreds, maybe thousands queue every day in crushing heat to apply for jobs in the new Iraqi army. Whatever that is. Despite recent crackdowns on open arms bazaars, just about every male in Iraq over the age of five already seems to own an AK-47 or RPG.

It's strictly bring your own gun. But sending American troops to bust into people's homes in the dead of night, scaring the children, dishonoring Muslim women in their nightclothes, and often stealing their jewelry and savings before taking their men away for interrogation is producing more enmity than hidden arms.

The July 27 raid was typical. A prominent tribal leader named Sheikh Rabia Mohamed Habib was not even home when Task Force 20 stormed inside, killing a guard. But the poorly trained and badly led troopers neglected to cordon off every side street.

The first car to enter the neighborhood held at least two men. The second contained two children around 10, their mother, and their father — crippled in the eight-year U.S. proxy war with Iran. A hail of American automatic weapons fire killed everyone in the second car.

Two more civilians were shot in a third car, which caught fire, cremating its occupants. One American climbed into his Humvee, threw his helmet on the floor, and shouted: "Shit! Shit!"

You later learned that two civilians in the first car were brought to the Yarmouk Hospital — one gutshot, the other with "his brain outside of his head" according to a doctor there. After receiving the grisly remains of four of the dead, another physician started shouting at a reporter: "If an American came to my emergency room, maybe I would kill him."

So what are you supposed to do, turn the other cheek to a mortar round? When you can't distinguish who's trying to kill you from who's not, the only way to get through shit like this is to kill as many people as you can, people you know are trying to kill you. Just keep pulling the trigger and get home.

No wonder that even though they themselves are mostly black or Latino, most GI's call everyone here, "sand niggers". Was Mandela right? Is this a race war?

If only the nightmares would go away. Every time you collapse sweating into your rack, another slide-show starts: maggots munching tongues, infants' heads on the ground, men with eyes and mouths wide open in heads cut halfway off. You can still smell the torsos burning. From March 20 to April 7, nothing but burned bodies, all the way to Baghdad. With up to five KIA every day, many more Americans are getting shot and blown up than the media back home is reporting. On July 15, someone fired a shoulder-launched missile at a Herc coming into Baghdad airport. And three more Americans were killed in a mortar attack and a roadside ambush.

You need to get out of here. You can't win against people who don't want you in their country. And you cannot defend yourself against "weakened, demoralized" attackers who wear civilian clothes, fire from crowds, and seem to get stronger every day.

Instead, in what has become the ultimate Army betrayal, your entire division's scheduled deros home has been cancelled! Traumatized troopers planning reunions with their spouses and families are being told they will be in this hellhole for a year assisting their "replacements" in repelling rising attacks — while your Commander-In-Chief puts down his golf clubs long enough to taunt your suicidal assailants to "bring 'em on".

Crotch shots on that carrier notwithstanding, the only thing that stands out in the President's military career is the fact that he never went near Vietnam, but was AWOL for most of his final 18 months of Stateside military service in '72,'73.

The great warrior was still nowhere in sight on August 7, when a Humvee filled with grunts looking to buy porno DVDs pulled up in front of their usual shop on al-Karada street. They were expected. When the remote-controlled bomb buried in the median was detonated, the Humvee's gunner was cut in half. The driver was vaporized.

Angry over the American's insult to Islam, their women and children and Muslim shopkeepers too impoverished to refuse such immorality — locals danced in the ashen hole that used to be the Hummer. Its burning flattened frame sent a column of thick black smoke rising like an exclamation mark beside even heavier smoke billowing from the Jordanian embassy, which had also just been blown to hell, killing at least 11. Shouting enthusiastically in Arabic, many people on Al-Karada Street kept repeating the word, "Saddam".

Three days later, more spooked soldiers opened fire on the Adel al-Kerim family, killing the father and three of the children. Only the pregnant mother and a 13-year-old daughter survived to tell how bullets riddled the windshield, and how they screamed for the Americans to stop. "We were calling out to them, 'Stop, stop, we are a family'" Mrs. al-Kerim told a British newsman. "But they kept on shooting."

"It was complete anarchy," says Ali al-Issawi. "The Americans were firing at each other."

Sa'ad al-Azawi, the driver of a second car, was killed. His two passengers were dragged from the wreck and beaten by American forces, while down the street, Mrs. al-Kerim struggled from her own bullet-riddled sedan clutching her wounded eight-year-old daughter, Mervet.

Seeking help from her brother, who lived nearby, the pregnant mother was forced to leave her injured daughters — 16-year-old Ia and 13-year-old Haded — along with her groaning and badly bleeding husband in the car, and the corpse of her 18-year-old son, Haider who had taken a round between his eyes.

"I saw my sister running towards me with her daughter in her arms and blood pouring from her," recounts Mrs. al-Kerim's brother. "She was crying out, 'Help, help, go and help Adel'. I put them in my car and tried to drive to the hospital. But the American soldiers pointed their guns at me and the people shouted out to me 'Stop! Stop!They will shoot!' They would not let us go to the hospital."

That same day, America's first unelected President declared in a radio address back home: "All Americans can be proud of what our military and provisional authorities have achieved in Iraq."

Throughout the Middle East, it's a summer custom for families to sleep on their slightly cooler rooftops, which are built flat for that purpose. One recent sweltering night, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Kubaisi climbed the steps to his family's rooftop, carrying an extra blanket for his twin brother, Moustafa. At the top, Mohammed turned to watch American soldiers patrolling the street below. One GI looked up, spotted a figure on the roofline — and fired.

Mohammed's mother dragged her son inside, screaming as his blood gushed over the floor. The Americans shoved her aside as they slammed through the house looking for the ghosts that bedeviled them.

Says Ali Hatem, a 23 year-old computer science student, "It has increased our hate against Americans. It also increases the violence against them. In Iraq, we are tribal people. When someone loses their son, they want revenge."

Monetary compensation is an Islamic custom when a killing occurs. If an acceptable apology and recompense are not forthcoming, the Koran demands retribution. But as an exasperated Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US forces in Iraq, explained: "Apologies are not something that we have as a normal procedure in the military processes."

"No Americans have visited us to speak about what happened," says Moustafa Ahmed, 28, after his 24-year-old brother Uday was shot by a soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division while walking home carrying a car part on July 9.

Moustafa watched in horror as his brother doubled over bleeding, then looked up. A second shot rang out. "It hit him, and he dropped," says Moustafa. "There was blood everywhere."

"I tried to rush him to the hospital in my car," explained 17-year-old Yaser Ala. But the Americans — who are modeling their occupation after Israeli Defence Forces tactics in the West Bank — stopped Moustafa at a checkpoint. Mohammed bled to death in his car. "They asked us what compensation we wanted," Mohammed's mother said. "My husband was incensed. He said he wanted 10 of their men to die in exchange."

Three days later, three synchronized bombs in Ramadi killed a 3rd Armored Division soldier and wounded two others. A blast near Taji killed a 4th Infantry grunt and wounded another two GIs as America's chief civilian honcho in Baghdad assured reporters, "Most of this country is at peace."

But many GI's are not. Almost every night a C-141 inbound from Landstuhl, Germany touches down at Andrews Air Force Base, where two "ready-alert" fighters were held on the ground all day during September 11 just 12 miles from the White House.

The huge transport is crammed with wounded. But nearby Walter Reed has been maxed out since Operation Enduring Bloodshed began in Afghanistan in 2001. The army's biggest hospital is still so full, patients are being sent to convalesce in nearby hotels.

That's just the army. At the nearby national naval medical centre in Bethesda, marine casualties are also delivered almost daily by a medical plane known as the Nightingale.

Lt. Col. Allen DeLane is in charge of the agonizing airlift into Andrews. Explaining that the exact number of wounded is classified, DeLane told National Public Radio that 8,000 wounded GI's have been in-processed so far.

Upstairs in Walter Reed's orthopedics ward, a 20-year-old private who camped in a bathroom in one of Saddam's palaces, stacking his Chips Ahoy cookies on a shelf above gold faucets, now moans on a gurney with shrapnel in his belly beneath a balloon inscribed, "You're the Best!"

For 1st Lt. John Fernandez' and his new wife, Walter Reed is their first home. They'd been married less than a month when John shipped out. Now he's back, minus a foot and ankle, and most of his other lower leg after stepping on a land mine near Baghdad. Despite a dozen operations, his absent feet throb and his lost toes burn. Kristi hasn't left his side since he arrived in this casualty ward six weeks ago.

This wasn't in the newlywed's five-year plan: Kristi would finish school, enter public health administration. He would finish his Army tour in 2006, then go to work as a civilian with his degree in systems engineering. They'd start a family. John's pitiless pain makes sharing a bed impossible for now.

When Garth Stewart was in Iraq, he'd lie under camo netting listening to the plastic leaves rattling in the wind. Closing his eyes, he would imagine he was home in the Minnesota woods. The explosion that killed three men beside him is being investigated as yet another friendly fire incident.

Now that he's back in CONUS, all Stewart can think about is Iraq. People still think the Iraqis just surrendered. The TV didn't show shit! He saw skulls, melted bodies, bodies with the skin peeling off. At Karbala the Republican Guard didn't want to take no for an answer.

Danny Roberts sits alone in his new ground-floor rental outside Green Bay, waiting for a new foot. They pushed his wheelchair in the Memorial Day parade. He wants the world to be a better place. "We got to focus on homelessness, on education," he says now. "We spend more money on guns and tobacco than we do on education."

Almost as if time is running out, he hurries to record a new message on his answering machine. "Peace," he says.

Three weeks after the invasion began, the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Jazeera quoted "reliable sources" inside the Kuwait hospital morgue, confirming 800 corpses of American GI's. By August 4 the official U.S. military death toll was 248. It's over 260 now. Admitted American deaths include 23 fatal vehicle and aircraft accidents, another 12 killed by their own weapons and explosives, and at least three dead from fever, itching, scars and dark brown spots on their skin that UN observers say resemble Depleted Uranium victims in Bosnia and Afghanistan. (The Pentagon says that U.S. and U.K. forces detonated 2,000 tons of Depleted Uranium munitions into deadly heavy metals and radioactive dust during Gulf War II.)

But no one is putting a number on the growing number of suicides among guilt-stricken soldiers, who thought they were enlisting for a different kind of education.

Now you know. War is all about destruction and violence and death. It is young men fighting old men's fantasies. It is not the answer to anything, except maybe intruders attacking your own neighborhood.

Now you're the invader. You know it's wrong. But the Big Green Machine is as sophisticated as any cult in programming frightened, flag-waving robots into believing that wasting poor countries is A-OK.

Or at least somehow justified. As if millions of shattered families not unlike your own, in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were guilty of anything except wanting a better life for their kids.

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, had it right back in 1933, when he said, "War is just a racket conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses." Apologizing for putting his mental faculties in "suspended animation" while obeying the self-serving orders of higher-ups, the formerly gung-ho gyrene general said he'd spent his entire career making places like Mexico, Haiti, Cuba and Central America "safe" for American oil and banking interests.

Gen. Butler came to believe that the only two things Americans should fight for "are the defense of our homes and Bill of Rights." But destroying the families and neighborhoods of people who have never done us harm only endangers the lives of Americans, who have surrendered their rights and freedoms without firing a shot.

You didn't come to Iraq to gun down women and children. You came here to bring freedom, liberty, free-market capitalism and democracy to people who lived at the whim of a madman for more than three decades. It's not your fault your own government helped put Saddam in power. Or supported him with cash and chemical-biological and nuclear weapons know-how before and after Desert Storm, while imposing 12 years of strangling sanctions that account for so much of the destruction and anti-American resentment here.

Maybe it would have been better for Americans, Iraqis and Afghanis if successive White House administrations hadn't been such big Saddam supporters. Or given millions of dollars to the Taliban, while ignoring the mullah's murderous misogyny. Or used Manuel Noriega to bring drugs into America, where they were sold to illegally arm the Contras. Or trained and funded Osama bin Laden, and 10,000 other America-hating mujahideen just like him.

But you're not a politician.

Or a cop.

You simply did your job and did it well. You fulfilled your obligation to this mission. But your unit is still in country, still being mistreated and misled. When does it end? You have been in theater since September, and the only light at the end of this Islamic tunnel is an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.

How many more innocents need to die, before those neocon fantasists back in Washington realize that we have hit a wall?

Sources (2003):

New York Times Aug. 12
UPI Apr. 10
MSNBC Aug. 13
The Independent July 28
The Guardian Aug 4, 10
Washington Times Aug. 4
Al Minar TV Mar 26
Saudi Al-Jazeera Apr 11
Washington Post July 21
The Globe July 4
Scott Fleming in Baghdad Aug 14
Evening Standard June 19
Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 8
The Observer Apr. 23
BBC Apr. 14


Camo — camouflage
CONUS — Continental United States; home.
Deros — relieved from active duty and sent home
FUBAR — Fucked Up Beyond All Repair
Herc -four-engine C-130 Hercules troop transport plane. The rocket missed.
grunt — enlisted ground soldier
gyrene — U.S. Marine
KIA — Killed In Action
Remfs — Rear echelon motherfuckers
RPG — Rocket Propelled Grenade
SECDEF — Secretary of Defense

A former member of the U.S. military who resigned his commission in protest at civilian killing during the Vietnam War, William Thomas served as a member of a three-man Environmental Emergency Response Team in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during and immediately following the last Gulf War. He is the author of All Fall Down: The Politics of Terror and Mass Persuasion and Bringing The War Home. See also his award-winning documentary, Eco War.

William Thomas is Senior Correspondent for  His website is

Published on Serendipity 2003-08-24 CE

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