Fear and Loathing in Iraq: July 4, 2004


Hello all and happy Fourth of July!

There is a lot happening here on the base for the Fourth, but I am on shift so I will miss most of it. There is a 5K fun run, barbecues, scavenger hunts, and tonight there is a band and a comedian I never heard of. We kind of celebrated early and had a barbecue yesterday just for the battalion. The food was quite good and the company had a scavenger hunt where day off passes were hidden and you had to find them with clues. So it is rather festive around here right now and that leads me to the topics of this week’s writing. I know I usually complain and grumble about everything, and I have every reason to do so, but it has been consuming me lately and so I decided to write this message about all the good things I have seen. I also wanted to write about the thoughts and feeling that go through me while out here that can be seen as positive. I wanted to first talk about Nature.

When I walked from the TOC last night after doing some homework I stopped to take in the colors of the sky. The sun sets fairly late right now and when it does you can see the most wonderful colors. Well, beautiful sunsets are nothing more than light bouncing off dust and other particulates in the air. And with Iraq having so much dust and pollution it makes for great sunsets. Plus the horizon is so flat with no mountains or hills or tall buildings to obstruct the view. So when you see a sunset here you see a widescreen version of it and it can be rather striking.

The only time I saw sunsets so glorious was when I took the cargo ship cruise to Turkey last year. Nothing makes for a better sunset than when there is nothing else around to interfere with it. I have taken many pictures of sunrises and sunsets and after a while you need clouds around to make a difference, because whenever the sun rises and falls it is beautiful and sometimes you need clouds to added new colors and provide rays of light to punch through. The heat here is so intense and many times you won’t see a cloud for days on end. But clouds or not, the sun is a big part of life here and I can see why the Muslims pray in the direction that the sun rises from. For no matter how hot it gets during the day, when the sun sets and you see the waves of heat vibrate the colors in the distance, you almost think it’s worth it.

Other natural phenomena I see a lot are dust devils, or sand tornados. Out of the blue you will see a tall tornado of dust spinning around the landscape, bringing up papers and garbage and bits of detritus. But they are fleeting, only lasting a few minutes. They are not dangerous, not too large and are quite fun to watch. They seem to arise out of nowhere and just show up uninvited but welcomed all the same. The spiral columns are so tight, so concentrated and they wobble in the air and dance around like a kid dangling string for a kitten. They happen all over the country and you see them on convoys, on the base, everywhere. They can be short or reach way up into the sky. They can be fat columns or thin ones. They can undulate and wobble or stay still and fairly straight. You just stand there and watch them do their thing and then fade away. They make me smile.

The sand storms here are very intense and when the sky gets pink, watch out. Sand storms here are no joke, they literally knock you on your ass. But when they are forming the sky gets so pink, and then they eventually become the color roan. Kind of a red/pink/brown color you see on horses with roan coats; just amazing to see. It is like the desert version of the Aurora Borealis. You see the sky get darker and darker and the wind get stronger and stronger. Eventually tumbleweeds start rolling around and sand starts sweeping the grounds like mist. It is interesting to watch swaths of fine dirt flowing across the ground in thin waves barely an inch off the ground, like a film of water across glass. And when the wind eventually becomes a storm it howls and whistles across any sharp edge around. Chairs fall over; flags whip and snap, plastic bags fly by. Your windows make noise - they are pulled from the vacuum and then pushed from the force. You stay in your hut or somewhere safe and just listen to the desert get an air bath. The next day everything has a fine covering of dust. The air conditioners spit dirt mist for a while; you see fine dust peek out between door and window frames. The clean up is easy and although you have to snap out your clothes and wipe off your TV, it was a fun event to watch and gives us something to talk about.

Camel spiders are common here and so are scorpions. Camel spiders are creepy, large and show up in the dark places you never expect. You will reach for a book and out will pop a spider the size of a hand. The body will be the size of a bar of soap with legs as long as pencils. Your first instinct is to climb up on chairs and scream, and then you remember you are a man and kill that fucker. But they are fun to watch and we have caught a few. Sometimes we will pour water in holes in the ground and force out scorpions. We catch them have scorpion-spider fights. The scorpions usually win because they have venom and Camel spiders don’t. Camel spiders have a numbing toxin, an anesthetic that animals don’t feel, and they use it to get to a warm area, bite and sit there and drink the blood and juices. They do this to camels’ underbellies and that is where their name came from. They are actually not a full fledged spider; they are a cross between a scorpion and a spider, which is why they look so god awful ugly. Not even the Greek gods ever came up with a creature as hideous as a Camel spider. Yuck! But they are cool to watch.

Now, besides Nature, the country of Iraq is very interesting and so are the people. Now soldiers are trained (and so are many ignorant people) that all Arabs are heathens, Huns, dirt people and savages. But that is not true, not by a long shot. I was watching the news a while ago and they showed recent graduates of Baghdad University. The students were excited, happy and spoke very good English. They had high hopes and couldn’t wait to work and start families. They wanted to work in the States, in England, in Europe. There were engineers, chemists, English majors, and teachers. All glad that Saddam was gone, glad to be part of a new country where a new beginning is emerging. Just like people in Russia are happy to watch a new economy grow and spread among the country, so too are the Iraqi graduates. Many don’t want to leave the country and I can see why. Is it better to come to the U.S. and be some random link in the chain of our economy, or stay in Iraq and be an integral part in shaping a nation?

Iraqis want to work, they want to rebuild their country and earn a living. Everyday they sit in towns and at the entrance to our base and wait for contractors to come and offer them work. Once a week or so Sergeant Garcia and I go to the entrance of the base, where all the Iraqi businessmen and day laborers hang out, to buy goods we previously ordered. We buy refrigerators, Internet electronics, TVs, office chairs, whatever. We go and check out the goods and load them onto the truck. We then take the contractor and his partner onto the base (after many searches and pat downs) and take them to the TOC here. We unload the goods and I take the cashbox out of the safe and Sgt G. pays the man in good ‘ol American cash.

We are given $15,000 a month to spend on just about whatever we want (it’s called FOO money) and that is how we get most of our goodies here. Our Iraqi businessman (I will call him Asad) is very friendly and tells us of all the competition there is when trying to sell goods to the Americans. When Sgt G. and I go to the transfer site, the Iraqi businessmen swarm us with business cards and cover letters about their companies. They are very funny and have horrible grammar, but they are so eager for your business. They read:

“Hallo. Me name is Yousef and I am thanking you for our business at Yousef and Sons. We offer concrete foundations, electrical work of all kinds, computer systems, plumbing, office equipment or anything you would like. It is pleasure to serve you and your business is welcome to thank you for your business. You can call this number or Internet us at…”

Teenagers hang around the yard and try and sell us fake Rolexes and jewelry. Day in and day out Army soldiers drive in and out with goods purchased locally with FOO money. The Iraqis want to work so badly you can feel the desperation. I feel bad for them because we hire Philippinos and Halliburton and such, but due to security issues we don’t have much of a choice. But under Saddam they had jobs, and now they don’t, and many don’t care who was leading the country or what was going on, they just wanted to work and take care of their families. But I admire their resolve and watch as they thank us profusely for whatever work we give them. Once we had a crane come in and place concrete barriers around the TOC and the Iraqis were so anxious to do a good job. They asked questions to the point of annoyance and double and triple checked everything.

Recently on a purchase run we bought screening for a porch on the MWR hut and the Asad’s son was putting it up. We gave them tools and I offered them water. They were very thankful and I gave them two cups and showed them where the ice was and told them to take all the sodas and water they wanted. I then showed them the shelves of muffins and snacks we have and told them to help themselves. They did and were all smiles and thank you’s. I felt good and I hope others treat them as nicely. These two are good people and they get threats all the time not to deal with the Americans or else. In fact, the guy who did the job before Asad was killed for doing what Asad is doing now. It is only a matter of time before Asad will be gone and a new guy will take his place.

But the Iraqi people are a strong people are they always will be. They have been through so much and bad leaders have come and gone time and again. Saddam will not be the last bad guy in Iraq, but the people are not bad, they are just poor, and ignorant and trapped in a culture with warring factions of religious zealots. Most don’t want to have anything to do with all the religious mess, they just want to be good Muslims, work, have fun and have strong healthy families. So I like to talk to them when I can and hear their stories. I understand why they want us out of here and want to rebuild the country themselves. With us here there is no work for them; with us gone there is work. We are causing their unemployment and frustration and I feel bad for them. Our very act of helping them is making them suffer. But the Iraqis smile all the time. I see it.

Now, there are a lot of things you learn when you are deployed in a war zone. Being in a foreign land, especially a third world country, gives you different perspective on life, but being in one that has been ravaged by war is a totally different matter. Looking around and seeing the suffering makes you thankful for what you have back home and how good your life is in comparison. But it also angers you to an extent on the waste and ego that comes with being the only superpower. It is a learning experience, one that can’t be taught in school or read in a book to get the real feel for the chasm of difference you see.

My uncle Jon wrote to me once about how I am in the midst of a historical time for our nation, and for the world. This is the Vietnam for my generation, and I am involved in it. I am not watching it on the news or reading it in some book. I am here. I see the sights, smell the smells, hear the noise and feel the effects. Bad or good, for the war or against, this is a historical event that will be written about and remembered for centuries and I am here, watching it unfold before me. It is a character building experience to say the least and it changes who you are. So many here are young, there are 17, 18, 19, 20 year olds all over the place. They are experiencing this as well and growing up quickly. They are young, full of vigor, and not so in tune with their feelings or the big picture of what’s going on around them. They want action, they miss the dance clubs and hanging out with friends downtown. Not many think of the long term or how the war is changing them.

Not that I am brooding or deeper than they are, but I am older and I think of things differently. Most of the kids here think about what they are going buy with all the money they saved out here, or how much beer they are going to drink or where they are going to go when vacation time comes. But I think of two things, the past and the future. Being out here is very cathartic, it makes you think of your life and all the bad decisions you made. You think of the what-ifs and how they will haunt you. If hind sight is 20/20, then this place is the fucking Mecca of hind sight. All you do is think about family, friends, experiences good or bad. You look at the past and think of all the things you should have done or said and you make pacts with yourself all the time. You say “If I survive this I will….” And then you think of mistakes you made or even witnessed and you vow to not make the same mistakes again. You think of past loves and why the relationships didn’t work, what you will do better next time. How when you meet someone you will be the best boyfriend ever. When you get married you will be the best husband you can be and treat your wife so well. You will grab life by the horns and ride it for all it’s worth. All these thoughts go through your mind because you know you may die out here and never get a second chance at anything.

So you make pacts with yourself, like New Years Resolutions, that if you survive you will take nothing for granted ever again. You will be a better person; you will suck the marrow of life and make the rest of what you have the best it can be because it could have been taken away long before. I have discovered this here and in some cases it is liberating, in other cases it is disturbing because there is nothing I can do about it here. But I count down the days until I get home and I think the war will have changed me for the better. I will be like a flower that blooms when the sun finally gets through. I am unhappy, full of thoughts I want to get rid of and I am just waiting for my time to emerge from this cocoon. It will happen when I am safe and sound and out of the military.

Being here I look at the Army side of character. I look at the shitty details, the paperwork, the stupid orders and bad decisions and it makes me think of what I want to do when I get out of the Army; and the truth is I still have no idea. But so far anything outside the military will be fine. But when I think of life, how short it really is, I want to make sure I do something I enjoy, because once again, being here you see how precious life is and you want to make the most of it. So I vow to make sure whatever job I end up doing I want to it to be something I enjoy. I am so tired of coming into work dragging my feet and hanging my head because I don’t like what I do, and have not for almost three years. (No wonder smoking, drinking, drug use and infidelity are so high in the military, this life really sucks!)

I have searched for meaning in life out here, and to much more of a degree than ever before. They say there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. Well that is untrue, there is at least one - me. And if there are no atheists in foxholes, then why is the number one thing soldiers yell when they get wounded is “Mom”, and not God? Well being out here is also a challenge to my beliefs because at times you get so scared you want to hold on to something, some idea. You want the comfort religious people have. They believe they will go to heaven or wherever when they die and they have comfort in that. They pray to God, they thank Jesus, they have a spiritual center. I do not have such luxuries. Now at times I am so jealous, so wanting of that comfort. But I am unable to believe in God or heaven or anything of the sort because that is just not me, it is not who I am. It is not a decision I made, not a choice I decided on, it’s me, my being. I cannot all of a sudden believe just because I am scared, but I will admit that I want comfort. It is a tough place to be. I am a logical person by nature and I see the logic around me. And I understand randomness and chance and if I die by a rocket it was chance that it hit where it did. It was not a divine event, it was not destined to be, but that does nothing to allay the fear of it. I am not sure of what is worse, the sounds of rockets coming in or not coming in. When they don’t come in you know they will but you don’t know when. You get used to being attacked every other day or so and when they don’t you wonder why. You want them to come in so you know you have a couple of days before the next ones and you can relax. But when they are not on schedule, like they have not been for the past three weeks, you then begin to think all the time they will come any second now. You dwell on it and want them to fall so you can get the anticipation out of the way. I know it sounds weird, but this place institutionalizes you to routines and any altering of the routine causes major anxiety. So I don’t have God, but I have routine. Little comfort, but it is something.

Now, I thought about the God question a lot out here and my commander and I have talked about it a few times. He is a religious man and I am not. He says I should just believe, like all of a sudden just accept it. Well I can’t believe in something unless it makes sense, or you have an epiphany or some monumental event you cannot explain to open your eyes to a new belief. I cannot just turn on a switch and believe; it goes against my very being. It is like telling someone to all of a sudden hate your child. Just hate them forever. You cannot do it because… well… you just can’t. That is the same for me and religious beliefs. No I am not close minded, not by a long shot. I have read about religions, read about the Bible and many beliefs and religious ideas. I enjoy it. I find the ideas and stories interesting and I stand in awe at the number of people who believe and the power religion has. I love to visit beautiful cathedrals and admire the art inspired by religion all over the world. I have seen the Sistine chapel and the Vatican and dozens of other religious places all over Europe and I loved every minute of it. But some people say that if you don’t believe then you are close-minded. Well the same goes the other way and they don’t even realize it. Believe in science. No? Then you are close-minded. Religion and science are at opposite ends of a teeter totter. No one side is heavier than the other, no one side is more right than the other. They are just different and you can’t just jump from one side to the other. You need something to change who you are, and to do that, for me, takes more than words. It may never happen, it might, but until it does I cannot believe in a higher power.

I can see why many scientists are eccentric, or depressed or frustrated though, because they don’t have the comfort that religious people have. They accept their beliefs and know what happens to a body when it dies and all the chemical reactions. They know that when you die that is it. They understand it, they accept it, but you cannot tell me it doesn’t cause some uneasiness or fear. It has to. It does for me and I am trained as a scientist. I want to live forever. Science doesn’t answer the big questions, whatever answers are found lead to new questions, but for religious people religion does answer the big questions. Science is always looking for the answer, religious people already have it.

I want to go on and on after I die. I want that so badly, but I know it will not happen and that scares me. I think that is why religion works for so many because it is comfortable and you don’t have to dwell on life after death and try and reduce things to logical arguments in order to get through your day. In a sense, ignorance is bliss. Right now I would be thankful to be ignorant (not that religious people are ignorant, you know what I mean). And let me tell you: nothing makes you think of the debate between religion and science more than being a scientist in war.

So there are positive things that can be found here in Iraq. There is self introspection at levels you cannot attain unless you paid a shrink to explore them with you. You have character building moments that make you rethink life. You see images and experience things the majority of the populous never get to experience. You learn how important and wonderful life is just by the threat of having it taken away from you. You find out who you are (or more about who you are) and what you want out of life. You learn to not take things for granted. You visit places most will never get the chance to see. You think of the past more than ever before. You learn to watch the sunsets and slow down. You get to take part in history. You learn to be grateful for all you have, because you see so many of those who have less.

Yes, I know this was about as existential as one can get, but being out here does have good things that happen on the grand scheme of things, and has positive things that happen to you on a personal level. I hope this gave you new insights to war, the other side. Politics aside, the military aside, all the crap aside, look at the deeper ethos of war and see what it can do to a person. This was enjoyable to write and I hope you all took something from it.

See you next week.

-Chris Sachs