Fear and Loathing in Iraq: June 13, 2004


Hello all, and welcome to another week of sun and fun in Iraq. I wanted to start off this week’s newsletter with a story.

In the hospital here (the 67th CSH—Combat Support Hospital) there are interpreters who work for the Army and translate to Iraqis who come to check on the status of their friends and family who have been injured. I have been to the hospital many times and the sights are definitely sights you cannot unsee. One of the interpreters is a man named Salam.

Salam is a large, jovial man who is always friendly and curious. He speaks perfect English and graduated from Tikrit University. (He wanted to go to Baghdad U. but the cost was too great.) He now wants to try again for Baghdad U. but would love to go to graduate school in the States or some other exotic locale. He wants to continue studying English and American studies, possibly international relations. Salam is a great guy, interesting to talk to and will tell you anything about Iraq. He is happy the troops are here and is glad to have Saddam’s regime out.

Salam makes extra money on the side by getting the soldiers’ goods through his brother. If you want a bike or a satellite dish or bootleg DVDs or booze or pot, or whatever, Salam is your guy. Needless to say the soldiers keep Salam busy. I once asked Salam what others think when they see he has a good job working with the U.S. on the base when unemployment is so high? Are they proud or angry, jealous? Salam says that many people are angry at the interpreters because they don’t like Iraqis helping the Americans. Some go so far as to threaten Iraqis who work on the base or help out in some way.

You can see most windshields of the trucks are broken because the Iraqis throw rocks at them while they deliver goods to the bases, like union guys against scabs. But Salam says you have to make a living and this is the one thing he is good at since he speaks English and he needs to feed his family. His wife is pregnant and his mother is very old. His brother is untrustworthy and is too involved in shady deals to make an honest living. But Salam drives on, he is always in a good mood and loves to smoke and talk.

About a week and a half ago Salam did not report for work. Nobody knew where he was and the hospital went about searching for him. He was not on the base and he should have been back from his week off days earlier. This went on for a week and we had no idea what became of Salam. Rumors had it that he was scared off, or the family moved or maybe worse. But a few days ago Salam appeared out of nowhere and was back at work. I found out that Salam was not kidnapped or anything — his sister was.

Salam’s sister was taken from the family home, gang raped, beaten and finally killed by having her head cut off which was delivered to the mother with a note. Salam’s wife is to be next and “the baby will be cut out of her dying body” if he does not quit working with the Americans. Salam didn’t know what to do and was using that week to hide his family and hide himself. He came back to the base because he has no choice, he has no money. He plans to continue working one week on one off and keep moving his family around to safety. Money is tight and you could tell because he keeps asking people if they want to buy a bike or cases of soda or something.

I felt so bad for Salam I bought a mountain bike and so did Sgt Kling. We rode together yesterday for the first time and thought about what life must be like for people here. Hundreds of Iraqis work for this bases, and thousands work for the U.S. overall. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place: no employment because of the war and you can get killed if you work for the U.S. There is not much we can do, but we tell Salam to let us know if there is anything neat to buy. And we promised to do like we did with the bikes—we paid double the price.

The historian Will Durant once calculated that there have been only 29 days in all of human history where there has not been a war going on somewhere. When we fight wars we tend to dehumanize the other side, we think of them as VC, or Japs, Skinnies, or Haji’s, or whatever because it takes the human side away and we can kill more indiscriminately, but when you meet people like Salam you think of the Iraqis as people. And that sucks when you are in the hospital and you see little Iraqi kids with arms blown off or women with burns all over them and their burkas are fused into the melted flesh and have to be cut out. You feel bad when you see an Iraqi man crying because he was just told that his son was killed or a friend was just maimed. I feel bad for the medics we have who work at the hospital every other day, they see a hundred times the shit that I see.

My soldier is going on his two week leave next week and I had to take him to the Chaplin to get a briefing. The Chaplin talked about not doing drugs and drinking too much and so on. But I heard a lot of interesting things I never thought about. Many soldiers are coming home and getting severely depressed, because we may not notice it, but we are at a heightened state of stress all the time. Even when we feel calm we are still at a high level of stress compared to someone back home. So when people come home they drop to a new level of stress and they feel depressed, like coming down off a sugar high.

And he talked about soldiers driving like maniacs when they get home because here we own the roads. We push people off the road, bump cars in front of us, point our weapons at cars and make them slow down or speed up—we completely own the road and we do what we want. Well, soldiers get home and drive fast and crazy because they are so used to it. People gorge on booze, fast food and drugs because there is none of that around here and then they get depressed. Many younger soldiers don’t want to come back because, well, who would want to? Most are coming back, but when asked why, it was not because of this bullshit war or their feelings of duty, honor, country—they say they came back because they will go to jail if they don’t.

I went on a convoy to Samarra this week and, as usual, I enjoyed the trip. I need to get off the base every now and again and so I volunteer to go on convoys when I get cabin fever. No matter how dangerous it is out there, I need to go sometimes. I have to see the countryside and see something else beside this damn base. One of the parts we drive by is one of the most dangerous in Iraq, but yet curiosity is always stronger than fear for me here. One of things I found that was interesting is the fact we say we are rebuilding the country, building schools and buildings, but at the same time we are destroying them.

Samarra had a nasty battle (again) and the tanks blew holes all over the city. Now what is the point of building infrastructure if we are going to blow it up again? Samarra is a hot spot and there is a lot of fighting going on over there, but it seems that for every one step forwards we then take two back. In Beiji, not 20 minutes from here, we did road work and oil pipeline repairs. Well, as you may seen on the news, the fucking Iraqis blew up the oil pumping station and there is now a huge black cloud that pours from the flames 24 hrs a day. Millions of their (and our) dollars going up in smoke.

When are we ever going to learn that this is a never ending war, it will go on for centuries. Let’s call it a victory and get the Hell out. Don’t we learn from wars like Bosnia, Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan-Russia/(U.S), India-Pakistan, Turkey-Greece, that when you get involved in wars based on religion there is no end, ever, not until every last one is dead. Religious wars are not winnable because there is not a tangible person, or place you can conquer. You have to fight an ethos, people’s hearts and minds, and that will never happen. You cannot fight god with a tank. I truly believe that Americans think what he have done here will last, or made a difference. I don’t think they see the long term, or look at the past. We are another link in the historical chain of bad ideas and just because we are modern or rich makes no difference at all. When we leave this place, it will crumble. Always has, always will.

OK, enough ranting. Things here are quiet; we have not been attacked all week. 1st I.D. has beefed up the patrols around the base and that has kept the Iraqis heads down. A couple of days ago they found two rockets all set up and ready to fire. They blew them up and never got the chance to get off the ground. I hope 1st I.D. keeps it up, I don’t like getting attacked.

My four day pass has been approved and I will be going to Qatar on the 21st. I am very excited and I need to the break very much. As you can tell from the slant my weekly writings are taking I am stressed and I need a break, no matter how short. I plan to walk a lot (there is very little hard ground to walk on here, it’s all rocks and dirt), eat at Chili’s, shop for gifts, hang out at the bookstore, drink our allotted 3 beers, and sleep. I will let you all know what it was like when I get back.

I finished my second MBA class and got an “A.” The professor loved me because I was very open minded, spoke my mind and wrote twice as much as all the other students. In truth, this online program is a joke and compared to grad school in chemistry at UT, this class is Romper Room material. But, another degree for the wall, it looks better on my resume and I was getting tired of becoming debt free, I needed more student loans.

Well all, thanks for reading my weekly rantings, it was fun to write. I hope you all are doing well.

See you next week.

--Chris Sachs