A Tank Called “Hostile

(Baghdad, Iraq May 2, 2003) Like warriors of old, soldiers assigned to Tanks like to give their weapons names. When selected, the names are stencilled-in large black easy to read letters-on the right and left sides of the barrels of their vehicles’ powerful canon. The honor of actually choosing a name usually goes to the crew’s “gunner.”

There are probably as many reasons for each name as there are tanks in the U. S. arsenal. For instance, the meaning of “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue,” or “Camel Tow” seemed clear enough to me. But another name, which I saw on a Tank standing guard just inside the entrance to the Republican Palace, one of Sadaam Hussein’s former palatial places of rest and work, suggested that I not make any assumptions about it, even though it bore the potentially revelatory title of “Astonished.”

So I asked the gunner, if there was any special reason as to why he settled on that name.

“Not really,” he answered amiably. “I got me a dictionary. Started at the front and kept going until I found a word I liked.”

“Does it fit with what you are doing now?”

“I hadn’t really thought about that. I just liked the name.”

However, the soldier, who named the first U. S. Tank we encountered as we reentered Baghdad on April 18, clearly had an attitude, which was unambiguously expressed on the barrel of his gun: “Hostile.”

“O. K., so that’s an attitude,” I thought, “but does that also express an intention?”

Not long after that the intention issue popped up again when we encountered another Tank whose inscription asked the worrisome question, “Where’s The Bitches?” Not being able to question the author, I nevertheless believe that in his case, we were encountering an adolescent or barely post adolescent fantasy put stupidly into words-but not intention.

Bad enough, however, because such a message cannot be reassuring to Baghdad women, very few of whom are venturing from their homes these days, because of their fear of looting, robbery, and worse by their own men. “If the soldiers won’t protect them, a brother of one college age woman worried, “who will? My sister will not leave our house, unless I go with her.”

Another time we glimpsed the barrel of another Tank as it rumbled noisily down a main thoroughfare. It was providing protection for one of the ubiquitous convoys moving warily-guns at the ready-which one encounters round the clock everywhere every day: hodgepodges of solemn humvees, severe armored personnel carriers, unyielding trucks, determined tankers, and resourceful recovery vehicles that look as if they had been assembled by a committee, as well as the aforementioned don’t-tread-on-me tanks.

The Tank’s name was “Agamemnon.” Since there was no way I was going to be able to get the convoy to stop in order to ask Agamemnon’s gunner the reasoning behind his choice, I could only wonder about it: especially the extent and bent of his erudition.

Who in the gunner’s mind is/was Agamemnon? A good guy or a bad guy? What is his view of Agamemnon’s war/and this latest mother of all wars of liberation, and the rationale/incident used to fan the flames of assertive militancy and eventual aggression back not only in the days of Troy but right now as well? And does he recognize the screaming subtext to the Agamemnon story with respect to the futility of war and violence? In one way or another both war and violence can be counted on to change lives inevitably for the worse for both those who engineer war and violence or who are helplessly touched by it.

I would have felt best about his choice, if I could have thought that it was irony driven. But I’ll never know. So, I can only hope that was the case, because it is very possible that instead of thinking ironically he may well have thought about Agamemnon the way so many contemporary super patriots do about War of 1812 hero Stephan Decatur whose indelible words are said to be, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but our country right or wrong.” With that sort of ideological precedent as a prevalent superscription to U. S. history, the logic that followed inevitably almost two hundred years later was and remains, “If you are not with us, you are against us.”

The fall-out from that line of reasoning has been-not necessarily in order of significance-1) the emergence, I am told, of “liberty fries,” in fast food outlets all across America, and 2) an increasingly frustrated Iraqi population, many of whom are now feeling snookered by the propaganda campaign waged by the allies during the build up to the invasion. It seemed to promise much in the way of installing quickly a new normalcy in return for Iraqi civilians (and soldiers) sitting on the sidelines during the fighting. And for the most part, most Iraqis taking the propaganda promises as binding contracts did sit it out.

Apparently the allied propaganda-inspired Iraqi assumption was that the occupiers would deal with their needs not just with promised professional nation-rebuilding aplomb but-more important than that-with dispatch. But the occupiers, until now, have been proving that they have been much more professionally adept and efficient at the making of the war than quickly solving the problems created by it.

A characteristic of this failure is a detectable penchant for making excuses for the frustrating pace of repairing critical damage to Iraq’s vital institutions-as well as its national psyche-instead of providing, as required, the wherewithal needed for the people of Iraq to be able to pick up the ball of liberation and run with it.

In specific terms, the “wherewithal” that is lacking remains 1) security: Looting continues; and now a new problem is mushrooming out of control-unexploded explosives left over from the Iraqi arsenal lying dangerously out in the open in every part of the city. The occupation is barely coming to grips with both this terrifying issue and the rising toll of curious young people being wounded, maimed and worse when venturing into areas that the military still have not closed off or even marked as dangerous.

2) reliable electrical power: Vast sections of the city remain without it. As a result, in those places there is no running water.

3) water purification, garbage collection, and sewerage treatment facilities continue to be inoperable. As a result, dysentery and diarrhea stricken children are flooding already overcrowded, understaffed, and medicine-short hospitals.

4) education: Some school grounds have been occupied by slow to leave soldiers intent on uncovering abandoned or craftily stashed weapons left behind by Iraqi military and paramilitaries. Some Iraqi parents and educators claim this is hampering their efforts to get schools up and running again.

5) a health and nutrition infrastructure: Hospitals are still being attacked and looted of medicine and equipment while minimal food supplies remain out of reach of the city’s poor.

6) wage producing jobs for Iraq’s willing educated workers, especially in vital governmental ministries. What good jobs there are, so goes the complaint, are going mainly to former Bath Party workers, the party of Sadaam.

When trying to get to the bottom of these issues, it is becoming increasingly evident that with respect to all those urgent needs the occupiers are also proving professionally (or is it reflexively) adept at hiding out or passing the buck. For instance, for the better part of April, the military was not accessible to the voicing and/or inquiring into such urgent concerns as those listed above by the handful of frustrated hand wringing NGOs in Baghdad. Finally late in April the occupation did begin providing a daily forum-consisting of a gaggle of low to mid-level officers-to discuss problematic elements of the occupation with the NGOs.

However, the loudest and clearest message emerging from those meetings is that the occupiers do not recognize that fixing them is really their job. In fact, more than once, attendees have been told that it’s up to the NGOs to resolve the current crises.

Moreover, questions or statements concerning the intent or efficacy of occupation policy too often are met with suspicion bordering on paranoia, because the only officers accessible thus far to queries are at the stage in their careers where carrying out policy with as few waves as possible washing up the chain of command-for which they can be held accountable in a way that might cloud their performance evaluations-seems to be a daily be all and end all for them.

“The generals make policy. We are just doing our duty,” is the gist of an unspoken refrain.

In other words: Make war not love.

As one clearly beating-around-the bush officer said warily to me after I asked a simple hidden agenda-less “soft ball” question, “When I talk to you guys, I always worry whether my answer is going to come back to haunt me.”

Despite such discouraging responses, I often do encounter a more encouraging side to what might be termed a more positive operative ethos among allied military in Iraq. One was actually delivered to me confidentially by a subordinate of the officer mentioned directly above. “Look,” the not much younger man said sotto voce, while looking carefully over his shoulder, “if we can’t do better than this and soon, the honeymoon for us is going to be over quickly. And when it does end,” he continued-mixing his metaphors-”it will go off like a rocket!”

Another constructive example was related by Iraq Peace Team stalwart, Wade Hudson, who said that one veteran of the allies’ dash from Kuwait to Baghdad, told him that during the entire campaign he just couldn’t bring himself to fire a single shot. The soldier told Wade that although it may have looked like he was participating in the shooting, he was only pretending.

Also encouraging-kind of-was a conversation I had with a member of the crew of another Tank named “California Dreaming.” Here’s what I mean by “kind of.”

“We had a job to do,” the First Lieutenant said, “but I sure didn’t like a lot of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the wrong people die too often in these things. I’m stuck with the memory of the morning, when we first reached Baghdad and we were manning a checkpoint. An Iraqi family kept coming on to us. Maybe they did not understand that we were trying to get them to stop. But our rules of engagement were to shoot anyone who wouldn’t. But they kept coming.

“Despite our frantic efforts to try to get them to understand that they needed to stop, they just kept coming. So I gave the order to shoot, which we did; and an unarmed family-a woman and her kids-were killed. All of them were killed. This happened earlier at Un Qsr too: the exact same thing. I don’t like having to live with that.”

“So now what?” I asked.

“Well, I know one thing. When I get home, I’m quitting the army. I’m not going to volunteer to do this again.”

“What will you do?”

“I’m going to be a man of peace from now on.”

“Meaning?”

“I’m going to join the FBI.”

This is the eighteenth in a series of micro-reports, commentaries, and or analyses that I will be sending routinely from the Occupied Territories or, for an as yet undetermined time from Iraq or neighboring Jordan. If the information or ideas seems helpful, please feel free to forward them to others. It would be a privilege to add their names to this mailing list, if they so requested. As always I will be grateful for feedback-Jerry Levin.

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