Embedded in the Real World, Back in Iraq

Right now, the Coalition Provisional Authority, or C.P.A., has its hands full trying to run Iraq. There are resistance forces to track down, elections to inhibit, and a multitude of infrastructure problems and social ills to get abreast of. They don’t have the time or personnel to officially certify journalists, and so for the moment we are more-or-less free to do as we choose, and the C.P.A. actually helps us as best they can, when we ask them for interviews or information.

The only exception, so far, has been a friend who writes for a free paper in New York, who was told he could not ’embed’ with the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, because reporters from that journal have been ‘banned’. We are still trying to figure out exactly why.

For these reasons, myself and another journalist from the United States decide one day to go ahead and arrange ourselves a visit with the Occupation forces, while we still can, to provide the ‘other side of the story’. We have yet to move amongst ordinary American soldiers, and so we set up to be ’embedded’ at a place called Logistical Staging Area Anaconda.

L.S.A. Anaconda is situated sixty kilometers north of Baghdad, on the site of what was formerly an Iraqi airbase under Saddam. It has been appropriated by the US Army, and they have moved into the old hangars, mess halls, and offices as if it were their own construction.

In fact, it feels almost exactly like being inside a massive military facility in the middle of the Arizona desert. There is an internal bus system to transport the 13,000 personnel about the 32-square mile environs, and at every junction are the usual signs one sees at an army base: unintelligible acronyms and numbers of units and battalions.

The base, and the people who live on it, are completely sealed off from the small villages around the area by earthen berms, machine-gun posts, and piles of razor wire.

We have come here specifically to report about the Combat Army Surgical Hospital, or C.A.S.H, that is set up at Camp Anaconda. It is a complex of heated tents connected by round plastic tunnels, right next to the sprawling airfield, where hulking C-130 transport planes land and take off constantly. The staff are nurses, doctors, medics, and surgeons from all parts of the USA.

Most are about to return home, as the Occupation Forces are in the process of a massive changeover, with those who have been here for a year now being replaced by new units. They are proud of their work at the hospital, proud to serve in the military, and ready to see their families again. They are glad that the nightly mortar attacks have grown fewer since the blazing, miserable summer, and they are sad about all the people that they have seen die after being wounded.

We have been with them only a few hours when the loudspeaker calls for an Iraqi translator to go to the Emergency Room. We follow him through the canvas curtain into a long tent arranged with gurneys, tables, and medical supplies.

A doctor explains to us what has happened. The crew of a Black Hawk helicopter had witnessed a man waving a rifle at them. They claim to have fired warning shots, and when he did not desist, opened fire with a 50-caliber machine gun. The man is shortly thereafter wheeled into the E.R., gasping in pain.

He looks to be in his seventies. The lower half of his left arm has been almost totally blown apart from the rest of the limb, and it hangs by bloody sinews from his elbow. The doctors set to work with an organized, energetic calm, calling out what they are doing as they work. A tall, dark-haired doctor is in charge, and he never loses his cool. “Get an I.V. in his leg.” “Yes, sir.” “I need another dose of anaesthetic. ” “Is he allergic to anything?” The man howls as the I.V. goes in. He turns his head to one side, and I meet his gaze for a brief second, his eyes glazed with agony. A mixture of empathy and shame washes over me. What the hell am I doing in here? “Tell him he’s going to lose his arm.” A portable X-ray machine is wheeled in and placed over the victim. Everyone steps back as they turn it on. “Do we have a blood type?” “It’s on the way, sir.” At that moment a colonel comes in and immediately tells me to stop filming. “This is an E.P.W., an Enemy Prisoner of War. It’s against the Geneva Convention to photograph an E.P.W.” I don’t bother telling him that the U.S. is in almost daily violation of the Geneva Convention here in Iraq, its latest audacity being to arrest the entire family of a suspected resistance leader who is still at large, and to hold them until he surrenders. This is a flagrantly illegal move, the sort of tactic employed by 12th century Crusaders, and it was dutifully reported on the news wires without a peep of criticism. But I stop filming the operation.

The tank crew that brought the man in are at the other end of the tent, clustered around a television, watching American programming. They seem unconcerned by the cries of pain twenty feet away.

Occasionally local Iraqis will bring injured people to the front gate of the base, asking for help. The policy, explains a medic, is to save Life, Limb, or Eyesight. If any of these are in danger of being lost, the patient is admitted. There was a girl that was burned on her back when she fell into her family’s oven. She was admitted, received surgery and skin grafts, and is apparently doing fine.

There are also three children staying at the C.A.S.H. who were injured in an “accident”. A Bradley opened up with its 25mm heavy machine gun on a house that contained civilians. They claim to have been counterattacking after receiving fire, and hit the wrong location. Seven people were killed, and two of the three survivors will probably never walk again.

The children have been recovering for a month now, and they are wheeled out to the mess hall to eat along with everyone else. Their uncle and father have come to visit them, and the two men stand calmly beside the table in their colored robes and headscarves, amongst a sea of khaki-clad U.S. military.

I try and speak with the father when we both step outside to smoke. He is, understandably, the least polite Iraqi that I have met.He seems barely able to He describes in detail what happened, how the Americans shot up his house and family. He has a very composed and noble bearing, that of a respected village elder, with a deep, sullen rage beneath his calm. All he wants to talk about is the attack, and I don’t know if he has forgiven the killers or not. Probably not.

The children seem in good spirits, however. They know all the hospital staff, and wave to everyone. They eat a lot, which is a good sign. After the meal they are returned to their quarters in the Moderate Care Unit, and their relatives leave the base.

Not much happens for several hours. The atmosphere, to us visitors, is stifling and slightly uncomfortable. Not that anyone there is unpleasant, it’s just that they are all career soldiers, conservative politically and somewhat narrow in world-view. We are also trying to watch what we say, as we don’t want anyone to overhear our real opinions about what’s going on in Iraq, which we absolutely have a better understanding of than these folks, the majority of whom have spent an entire year on this one patch of ground without going “outside the wire”, as leaving the base is called.

One woman tells us about all the media that have already visited. “The Guardian from England was here,” she says, “that’s why we don’t always trust journalists. They wrote about ‘Iraqi resistance fighters’ “. She rolls her eyes, incredulous that they would use such language to describe people that she believes are all “Saddam Loyalists”.

In fact, everyone we talk to at the base thinks of the resistance in Iraq as being monolithic, an army of lunatics bent on returning Iraq to Saddam Hussein. This runs counter to everything we hear on the street in Baghdad, where it is common knowledge that there are religious groups, straight-up nationalists, and generally angry people that all take part in attacking American troops, in addition to the former Baathists. L.S.A. Anaconda is indeed a different world from the one that we have been living in.

The only person we encounter who expresses any criticism of the American occupation is a forklift mechanic from Wyoming that we meet during dinner. We try and give him an idea of the daily difficulty of life in Baghdad, and he shakes his head angrily. He says he was very disappointed that the U.S. had entered the war so hastily, without the backing of the U.N., and now, he feels, they are paying the price with a chaotic country on their hands.

Later that night, back at the C.A.S.H., we watch a piece of video on a laptop with a group of soldiers. It has been filmed by a Blackhawk’s crew several weeks past, when they had spied some Iraqis setting up an R.P.G. near the base in the middle of the night. The screen shows grainy, black-and-white images of three men getting out of trucks and preparing to attack. The helicopter is so far away that the men can’t even hear the engines, but they themselves are easily visible to the long-distance night lenses of the gunner. “Watch right here,” says a man next to me, “this part is beautiful.” The image shakes as the helicopter’s M60 fires, and one of the grainy figures of a man bursts into fragments of flesh as the bullets hit him. The next two would-be attackers are finished off with the same ease, as they try to escape in trucks, their vehicles exploding into flames immediately upon being hit. The assembled viewers duly murmur cheers of approval.

It hardly seemed like a fair fight, and reminds me of a conversation I had with a Shi’a sheikh the week before. “When the Americans first arrived,” he said, “We expected to see Rambo. You know, big, brave, fearsome men. But now we see that the American soldiers are not any braver than Iraqis. They just have very, very good weapons.”

At about midnight, an American G.I. is brought in who has been hit with a mortar while on patrol in Bacuba. The metal has gone right through his leg, and I film the operation, wherein the surgeons flush out the cavity, make several X-rays, and pack the limb with cotton swabbing. Later that night the soldier is returned to the O.R. and his leg amputated.

We spend the night on cots in the Minimum Care Facility, along with a few soldiers recovering from minor illnesses and superficial injuries.

The next day we spend tracking down two people: the Public Affairs Officer of Camp Anaconda, who is in charge of helping journalists, and the Army doctor in charge of C.S.C., or Combat Stress Counseling.

We are looking for the P.A.O. because we want to arrange a ride back down to Baghdad with a convoy that evening or the next morning. We find him in his office and he promises to try and arrange it.

The woman in charge of C.S.C. is easily found as well. We are interested in her work, which is helping soldiers who are having psychological problems. She is by trade an Occupational Therapist, and she tells us about the difficulties experienced by soldiers in the field, and the process of evaluating and treating them. The majority are treated and resume their duties, she explains, and her office has a 98% return rate. A surprising number are experiencing stress that has little to do with Iraq and is more due to problems back at home: their partners are becoming distant, they are missing house payments, their children are doing poorly in school, etc.

There was a “spike” in stress-cases during the summer, when it was announced that the tours of duty would be extended to a full year, instead of the six months previously stated. People began to fall apart at the thought of spending another half year in the heat, dust, and nightly mortar attacks of Camp Anaconda.

We ask about the suicide rates among the soldiers in Iraq. “That’s a sensitive topic,” she says, but she responds candidly. The suicides have risen during the war, and realistically speaking, they will continue to happen. It is a stressful, difficult business, and some will not be able to cope. It is a part of war. Her job is to train the commanders how to spot a person who is a possible suicide, and get them to her staff for help.

She tells us that during the Vietnam War, the C.S.C. units were rendered inactive. Could that have something to do with how many veterans of that conflict came home profoundly damaged? Absolutely, she responds. In fact, her office also employs “Preventative Teams”, that live among the front-line infantry troops, trying to determine if any of the combat-fatigued soldiers is in danger of “losing it”. The Preventative Team’s job sounds fascinating, and we both express interest in writing a story about these field- psychologists.

Like everyone else we meet at L.S.A. Anaconda, the therapist is amazed that we move about in Iraq so freely, without weapons or security. She has been “in country” a whole year, without leaving the base. When we tell her that if a military convoy can’t take us back to Baghdad, that we may return by taxi, she almost falls out of her chair. “You can do that?” she exclaims. “Sure,” replies my associate. “I once took a bus all the way to Mosul.”

However, no taxi will be needed, as the P.A.O. later informs us that he has succeeded in securing us a ride down to Baghdad at 0600 the next morning with a supply convoy. So we return to the C.A.S.H. to retrieve our bags, as we will sleep that night in special quarters reserved for journalists, closer to the convoy vehicles, and easier to get to early the next day. We are just saying our goodbyes to the doctors and nurses when a mortar round thuds, somewhere nearby. The hospital staff usher us into a store-room along with them, and everyone puts on flak-jackets. Most barely seem concerned at all, they are so used to it. We wait for half an hour, while a few more explosions are heard outside. And then it is over. Everyone says that during the summer, this happened three times a night sometimes.

It is raining when we leave the hospital, and I can’t help but think: what job I would want to be doing if I had to be in the military? At least as a doctor, you would actually be helping people. But being stuck on this base, trapped like a rat when the mortars come in…I know it sounds crazy, but I would almost rather be in the field, in the infantry or the Special Forces or something. At least then you would get to move around and see the country. But you also might get killed or lose an arm or a leg.

Basically, life at the base seems like what every one of my friends who joined the Army after high- school described to me: an oppressive, thankless life, overworked and underpaid, the only thing holding you together being the people around you, with whom you develop incredibly strong bonds. Other than that it totally sucks, and war makes it even worse.

Fuck this. We’re going back to Baghdad, back to the real world, back to Iraq.

NICK HALFINGER is the pen name of a freelance filmmaker working in Iraq.