Fear and Loathing in Iraq: October 17, 2004

Africa and Iraq

Hello everyone, long time no write! I have been away for about a month on R&R in Kenya, and now that I have returned to the Babylon desert of Hell I figured it was time to get back to letting everyone know how I am doing and what is going on.

But before I get to writing about this failed war and the misery of the desert, I wanted to write a bit about my wonderful vacation in Nairobi, Kenya visiting my step-aunt and uncle.


I left Speicher on a helicopter with my 1SGT and a few other folks and we flew to Balad, then the next day caught a C-130 to Kuwait. While in Kuwait we were given a briefing about going on leave, had to drop off our equipment, sign up for tickets, change clothes, come back to the briefing area at midnight to get our manifests and tickets and get ready to leave the next day. It was a hellacious day, but when I got my itinerary I found out that the Army had paid $2200 to fly me to Kenya! SUCKERS! I was to fly from the Kuwait City International Airport to Dubai, and then on to Nairobi. I was shuttled to KCIA and told not to linger around the shopping area and go right to my gate. If we were caught looking around we would be hauled back to Camp Doha and lose our leave. I practically ran to my gate and sat for four hours waiting for my flight. While there I saw American soldiers walking around the airport wearing khaki pants and Hawaiian shirts. These were the “undercover” MP’s making sure I was not shopping at the airport mall or trying to sell information to the Kuwaitis.

It was Ironic that the Army is always preaching about security, not standing out in a crowd, not looking American when you travel, etc., and here I was, six-foot three, short hair, chewing gum, in an airport filled to the rafters with dark-skinned Muslims with black beards, flowing white robes and carrying Islamic prayer beads. I couldn’t have stood out more if I was wearing fucking lederhosen!
When I got onto the plane I was seated next to a woman in a burqa on my right and a Saudi gentleman on my left. The woman in the burqa smelled nice, and it reminded me that many Saudi women who wear the burqa actually wear outfits underneath that are the latest fashion styles and cost thousands of dollars, and many wear perfume that cost more per fluid ounce than 1787 Chateau d'Yquem wine.

During the flight I desperately wanted to lean over and ask the woman how she felt about wearing the ninja suit, but I held my tongue and remembered that I was the only — and I mean the only — non-Muslim on the flight; and an American soldier I might add. So I sat quietly and read my book: A Fist in the Hornet’s Nest, about a reporter during the Iraq war. When a snack was served I was offered a choice of lamb or vegetables. I was contemplating asking for some pork chops, but I remembered… well, see above. Interestingly enough, when my vegetables did arrive, I was handed a knife and fork — I mean a metal knife and fork! It was around this time I began to feel just a bit nervous.

But in all truthfulness, the entire flight I felt at ease, relaxed. I mean here I was, clearly an outsider on a plane full of Muslims and yet I felt very safe and calm. Why was that? Am I not constantly told to watch out for Muslims, folks from the Middle East? Are they not the ones that are attacking my fellow Americans and calling us imperialist dogs and cutting our heads off? Shouldn’t I have been afraid one of them was going to grab a knife, yell “Allah Akbar” go for my jugular? But I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t nervous. I was curious and I also was desperate to ask questions. This was my chance to talk to folks from the Middle East and get their opinion of this whole situation. But I didn’t, I just sat there.

When I got to Dubai I was excited to see the airport. I read about how luxurious Dubai and the airport was and how all the world’s rich eventually came through there. And I was not disappointed. In the airport shopping mall there were Porches and Mercedes and BMWs for sale, gold and diamond kiosks all over and electronics stores selling everything from digital cameras to entire THX home surround sound theatres. It was crazy! People were buying crap at the duty free by the forklift and little kids were dragging bags of goodies out of the toy stores.

After I took photos of the cheap money sloshing knee deep in the shopping mall, I headed to the Irish pub for my first real pint in a looooong time. Inside were folks from all over the world (except for the U.S.), all sitting and drinking and having a great time. I struck up a chat with a guy from a Denmark and a lady from Ireland. They were both taking trips to exotic locations and stopping in Dubai for layovers. I asked them if they had seen any Americans and they looked up the ceiling in thought, and then replied, “I think I saw one yesterday, but he may have been from England. But he was chewing gum, so he must have been American.” I laughed because this is not the first time I had heard this. I was once told by a girl in Germany that Americans are easy to spot because they usually chew gum and wear nothing but sneakers. I sheepishly swallowed my gum and said, “really?”

It was so nice having a normal conversation and the three us had a few pints and talked of the world; it was great. When it came time to check-in I bid farewell to my new friends and we clinked glasses and wished each other luck. My first beer was in an Irish Pub in Dubai, how cool is that?

My flight to Nairobi was just over 5 hours long and it was filled with about 25% Muslims, 25% Kenyans and the other 50% was made up of 49.9% Indians and .1% me. I was not sure why, but I felt just a bit out of place. The flight was comfortable as a flight could get and again I given a metal utensils to eat with. My first taste of Kenyan hospitality was the stewards and stewardesses. They were so friendly, but not in a fake-smile-curse-you-on-the-inside way, but in a genuine way that only comes from people who truly enjoy their jobs. They were all smiles and their accents made for soft tones and clear enunciations that soothed me and made me smile. I liked Kenyans immediately.

When I arrived in Nairobi I waited in a long queue to get my Visa. When I finally got to the window the guys issuing the Visas (who looked plenty bored) I was told that I did not fill out the proper form. I gave a him a confused look, he looked at his buddy, they both shrugged, and gave me a Visa. They must have been reeaally bored.

After I got my bag I saw Tom standing there and it was the first family I had seen since Christmas ’03. It was nice, and I was very excited to be in Africa. I was fairly quiet, busy looking around and taking everything in, and I didn’t become the chatterbox I can get sometimes when I get on a subject. As we drove out of the airport I was rubber necking everything and taking in the grass, the colors, the people, the buildings, everything. I was in Africa! I have been to many parts of the world but none excited me more than being in Africa.

One thing I did notice right off the bat was the poverty. When I got to Iraq, I said, “Jesus these people are poor,” but if the folks in Iraq were poor, Kenyans were christalmighty Po’. They couldn’t even afford the “o-r”. There was trash everywhere, no sidewalks; pot holes the size of beach balls and traffic that makes Piccadilly Circus look like a backcountry road in Kansas. The pollution was awful and most of cars belched out black smoke. Interspersed with the poverty I would see folks wearing business suits and carrying briefcases, Mercedes cars alongside guys pulling carts full of coal, buildings made of glass and steel next to crumbling concrete hovels. There was a dichotomy and it was interesting to watch.

As Tom drove us through the traffic I was amazed at how you had to drive in Nairobi! I have seen less distance between vehicles in a NASCAR pile up, and less nimble maneuvering in the Indy 500. I was sure we had hit at least six cars and twice that many people by the time we made it to the house, but when I checked there wasn’t a scratch on the truck. There was quite a bit of noise as well and I eventually figured out that there are two kinds of cars in Nairobi: those who consistently honk their horns (or as I call them, Kenyan Brake Pedals), and those whose horns don’t work. Along most of the roads there were dozens of guys selling newspapers, cigarette lighter adapters, radio antennas, paintings, toys, sunglasses and just about anything you can imagine. And my bet is, if you asked for it and they didn’t have it, they would have ran and got it and met you by the next traffic light. These guys were in between cars, in front of cars, behind cars and I think I even saw a guy under a car, all trying to sell you — everything. When I got back to Iraq I looked up the word “Chaos” in my dictionary and it displayed a photograph of a Nairobi traffic jam.

When we finally got to Tom and Linda’s house I was in what I guess you call the suburbs, and it was beautiful - tall trees, thick green grass and flowers of all colors. The homes were large and the yards landscaped. As we drove around the back roads there were small kiosks selling flowers and what you call convenience stores, but were nothing more than little wooden huts. There were artisans selling woodworking and lots of pottery. It was interesting to see people wearing office attire and walking dirt roads to get to work.
Tom’s house was very nice and very large. I met the gardener and their housekeeper Bernadette, who was a smiling, happy woman and quite friendly. I also was acquainted with the family dog Keysha. Keysha, an all black lab, looked just like my old dog Kenya I had in college, but just a bit wider. I missed petting and playing with a dog so much and I think I gave the dog more attention than anyone else during my visit.

To cut things short, a couple of days later I went on my first safari to Masai Mara, deep in the Great Rift Valley on the border of Tanzania. At the company headquarters I met Kate and Lindsy, both from jolly ‘ol England, who were on the first leg of an around the world journey. We drove into the Valley in a large, old Land Cruiser that had a suspension system more primitive than an old horse drawn carriage. The ride was bumpy and I kept thinking the vehicle was going to tip over from being top heavy. I still have a fear of rolling over ever since my rollover accident in Poland back in ’02. As we headed into the great valley the view was fantastic and we pulled over so we could take pictures and be pestered by salesmen. I was amazed at how big the Valley was and how high up we were. They valley is about 6000 ft. above sea level, and we were looking down into it.

Down in the valley we stopped for lunch at a roadside shop and café and there we met the rest of our expedition. It turned out we were to switch vehicles and all nine of us were to cram into the larger Land Cruiser for the remainder of the journey. There was an Indian family of four from New Zealand, an insurance salesman from Holland, Mauricio from Spain (who actually freelances for the National Geographic as a painter), Lindsy and Kate and myself, plus there was the driver and cook (I forget their names, sorry), but they were great.

After we had lunch and did the switch, and after I was done buying everything in the shop, we headed on our way. This Land Cruiser was taller and longer than the other one and we were pulling a small trailer. As we headed deeper into the valley the roads gradually downgraded from poor to bad, to unpleasant, to awful, then to terrible, to dreadful, to frightful, to painful, and eventually got so fucking bad that we ended up having to drive off the road because the asphalt was so god awful horrendous that it was actually better to drive on the rock strewn grasslands.

We ended up taking turns driving switchbacks from the boulders and dirt track back onto the asphalt and back to the dirt on the other side, and then back all over again. We had to avoid semis and other vehicles who were also busy playing cavernous pothole slalom, and none of us were able to drive more than 5 mph for more than a few minutes before we had to slow down to negotiate a 3 foot deep section of missing road or a pothole the size of a bathtub. We were being bounced and slammed about and at times the truck would go half off the road and lean at a 45 degree angle, just a hair’s breadth from tipping over, making us all hang on for dear life and lean in the opposite direction to shift weight. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse—the asphalt ended.

If the road was bad with asphalt, it was unimaginably insane without it. Imagine driving a Matchbox car over a washboard for 2 hours and you will not even comes close to the spine-crunching, liver-vibrating, kidney-shaking, spleen-pounding, ass-blasting excursion we undertook. If you want to want to mimic the drive we suffered on the way to Masai Mara, put yourself in a trash can and get rolled along the entire Appalachian Trail, and then maybe you will begin to understand what we went through.

When we finally made it to the entrance gate we were approached by some Masai women selling beads and statues and blankets and I would have looked at some of their wares but my neck was so stiff I couldn’t turn my head. We passed the gates and drove along the dirt trails looking for animals. There not too many animals too see, beyond the hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, and we ended up going to the campsite to settle in. When we finally got to our campsite, about 20 minutes outside of the opposite gate entrance, I had trouble getting out of the vehicle and standing erect. My spine felt like a stack of broken china and my knees were scraped up from banging into metal parts of the truck. I was physically exhausted and couldn’t wait to lay down and let my spine decompress back into some semblance of its former shape. We stayed in military type canvas pup tents, with foam mattresses on top of wooden bases, and I lucked out and had a tent all to myself.

After we settled in we all migrated to the large wooden covering and had beers and sodas and chatted until dinner. Dinner was cooked in aluminum pots over coals and I was curious what was going to be served. When dinner was finally served it was just about the best food I have ever eaten. We started with leek soup and bread and moved into vegetables and rice dishes. It was just amazing how competent and imaginative the cook was cooking with such simple methods. And it was not just because I was starving—having burned about 3,000 calories supporting my body during that roller coaster drive there — but the food was just so amazing that I had to stop myself from holding my plate up and licking the entire surface. It was just perfect.

There were a couple of Masai gentleman who stayed at the campsite to help protect the site at night and shoo away animals and guide people to the toilets and keep them from getting mauled by baboons and leopards. There were also a couple of Masai dogs that hung around the campsite and fed off the trash barrel, and I was later told they were the favorite snack for leopards, who prowled the campsite at night looking for tasty dog meat. By the time we were there, seven dogs had been eaten by leopards that year. I kept thinking of Keysha.

After dinner we stayed up late drinking Tusker beer and sodas and talking politics and life, and it was a grand old time. I really enjoyed talking and dominated most of the conversation because I have been unable to converse with people who really knew and care about the world. All I get a chance to talk to are young soldiers who don’t care, or older soldiers who are either ignorant and/or don’t care. So it was a real breath of fresh air to talk to people and talk about everything. They asked me many questions about America and the war, and I asked about the same things as well. The conversation was rich, and full and deep and just about everyone was well-read, educated, had strong opinions and backed up their stance by citing articles and books and TV and radio. It was very cathartic to get many of my thoughts out in the open and talk about what I thought the war, and luckily, every single person there agreed with me about the war, the current administration and the state of the world.

So since we all agreed about the topics, we all just dove deeper into the meat of it and ranted and raved about the failed war, the current administration and its shameless failures, the way we lost standing around the world and the way the U.S. flipped 180 degrees from being the most loved country to the most hated all across the world in just two years. And it is interesting to note here, that during my entire trip to Kenya, over 2 weeks, I never once — once — met an American traveler. I met Americans that live in Kenya and work for various government and non-government organizations, but Americans are still paralyzed with unrational fear and paranoia and are not traveling like they used to. I met people from France, Germany, England, Denmark, Japan, Finland, Spain, and many other places, but no one from the U.S. I guess they still fear…well…everything. Sigh.

PART II will appear next week.

Now back to Iraq:
For the week or so that I have been back things here have been crazy! The build up to Ramadan has the entire county going berserk and it is felt very much right here at Speicher. The day I came back we got word that one of our ambulances was hit with an IED and SGT Leer and SPC Moist took some shrapnel to the face, and the ambulance is a complete loss. Our base has now been attacked every single day, and just yesterday an IED blew up in front of the base! The hospital is now full, MI has reported that attacks have been up 25% and will increase up to 40% during Ramadan (which started on the 15th).

And get this — this is amazing — some Iraqis, I don’t know how, stole 4,000 lbs (Yes! 2 tons!) of C-4 explosives from an Army post here, and then had the gall to Email the military and tell us they are going to use this goldmine to kill American soldiers! Two tons of fucking C-4! You have any idea how many IEDs you can make with C-4? C-4 is like molding clay, very stable (you can hold a lighter under it), and can be used to make multitudes of different creative bombs. This Ramadan is gonna suck!

We were told stories about how bad it was last year, but that was before the insurgents controlled the country and learned all our weaknesses and got reinforcements from across all the borders. We are now being attacked over 100 times a day, 6 died today, 6 died a couple of days ago, and some convoys are being canceled because it is just too dangerous. You know as of this moment there 11 parts of the country that are no-go zones for our military? That means they are too dangerous for us to even go in there! And even the 343rd Quartermaster BN from SC had a platoon actually refused a mission because their trucks are breaking down, drive too slowly, are not armored, and were being sent into one of the most dangerous parts of the country. And did you know that almost all projects that were being undertaken to fix the country have been put on hold for months because it is just too dangerous. And it is getting worse. I think the term “colossal failure” needs a stronger word than colossal.

We have 14,000 soldiers on my base. Guess how many are involved in making the country safer? Zero. Not one person here is on a mission for the Iraqi people, we are all support for other troops and bases across country. And the same goes for Mosul, Balad, McKenzie, Taji, Bayji, etc. Our only mission is to support all the other troops that have no mission. The entire military’s single purpose here now is to support keeping an entire military here!

We had a request from a group that wanted us to go to Tikrit to give immunization shots to Iraqi kids, but we had to refuse the mission because we could not get enough protection to do the mission. Our one chance to help the Iraqi people, and we can’t because it is too dangerous.

Did you know in Samarra, not far from here, the Army was getting attacked so much they left and decided to let the “American Trained Iraqi Police” take control? Well the insurgents killed many of the police, took control of the city, flew their flag above the Iraqi flag, checked cars coming into the city as the “police” watched helpless, stole all the money we gave the city to fix their mosque, forced kids to destroy the hundreds of radios we donated to the Iraq people there, and increased attacks along the route we drive past Samarra over 300%. So what did we do? We finally went back into Samarra, killed a bunch of people, took control of the city again, and are now engaged in combat day and night; right back where we were.

No one can work there; there is little power, little water, just chaos. The Army even came here to our base and took hundreds of our concrete barriers to Samarra to use them for roadblocks and cover. Food at the DFAC has been rationed because the convoys are being attacked so much shortages are slowly coming back. (I wonder if Bush Jr. even read his Dad’s book where he wrote that any war with Iraq would be a failure because after the war there is no way to provide security in a religiously fundamental Muslim country in the desert, and that nation building would be complete folly?)

I think the American troops are doing a great job, and I am proud of each and every single one. We are doing the best we can in such a screwed up situation, we are patriotic, and loyal, and we work hard to ensure we protect and watch out for each other, but at the same time we are angry. We are not blind, and we are not dumb, we know what is going on, why we were sent here, and as we watch the country get worse, and watch as more truth gets exposed about the current administration, you cannot tell me we don’t have a right to complain, or feel used and lied to, and angry about this whole situation. We are the ones who have to stand up out here, on the roads, doing no good for the country whatsoever, making things worse in fact, and may even die because of it, and have to swallow bullshit like “The country will get better as soon as we get them jobs, and things are getting better in Iraq, and we are making progress in Iraq, etc., etc., etc.”

If you look at the rate at which civilian casualties are piling up, Iraqi civilians have a million times greater chance of dying now than they did under Saddam. I would be willing to bet that more civilian deaths have occurred during our 1¾ years here than during the ENTIRE regime under Saddam. If you ask any Iraqi today (and many reporters have), they would rather have Saddam back because at least then you could work, take care of your family, drive on the roads, and generally have a better life than they do now. And as long as we are here, there is no end in sight.

I voted today. The first time I have ever voted. And let me tell you, I am an American, I am an American soldier, I am loyal to my country, but I will not let the deaths of all my fellow soldiers go in vain, I will not let them die without dignity, and I will not stand still and let my president and his administration get away with what he has done to me, my soldiers, my country, my democracy, and to our standing in this world. He may win, he may lose, but either way, he does not have my vote, nor my respect, and I will never forgive him or his administration for the rest of my life.

--Christopher J. Sachs