Soldiers of the New Front

BAGHDAD – I didn’t get the soldier’s name, which I know is a serious breach of journalistic convention. But he was already in his own private hell, and to have pulled out the notepad and added “Your name, sir, for the record?” to his current state of misery would have been beyond brutal. Journalist or no journalist, there’s a measure of humanity that you just shouldn’t surrender.

Plus, I’m sure he would only have told me to go to hell under the circumstances anyway, so what would have been the point? He was already pissed off.

Mostly just for the fact of having to be here at all. The marines had pulled out the week before, and they had been cocky as anything about it. This wasn’t real fighting anymore; this was mere police work – dangerous and necessary, certainly, yet something of a stain for a man of war, and the marines had been all swelled up and swaggering over their political victory of having been allowed to pull out and leave the mess for the army boys to clean up.

No more standing around with their thumbs up their asses and their fingers on their triggers for them, examining passports at checkpoints and begging passing journalists for the favor of the use of a real bathroom for the first time in six weeks. No more teaching local kids the rudiments of American gutter slang just to pass the time. (“Fuck you, Joe!” shouted one kid after me when I wouldn’t pay his price for a bottle of scotch. Wonder where he learned that.)

Now the army has this job, and good luck, buddies. Have fun with it.

Which left my poor soldier of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division standing outside in the hot sun by the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad with nothing to do but get verbally berated from a distance by maybe a hundred irate Iraqis who had gathered outside the concertina wire, and also from two Western women who had somehow decided to single him out for special harassment. And all of this with a journalist standing by with his ear cocked. I truly pitied the man.

One of the women was a short, fat, loud grandmother-from-hell named Ruth. Ruth was a peace activist, but the label didn’t fit her as she had one of the most gratingly unpeaceful personalities I had encountered in Baghdad (which is saying something). She worked for a group calling itself Voices in the Wilderness (a label that did fit her), and when I sidled up she was giving the soldier hell for the fact that his compatriots had lately been out on the street beating people up.

It was true – I had seen what she was talking about myself. Probably every journalist had. Especially after dark, when the scene around most checkpoints in Baghdad brought to mind the parking lot of a Deep South Harley bar at closing time: a drunken fermenting brew of lawmen, outlaws, guns and alcohol, with the threat of violence always simmering just below the surface, and sometimes above it, too.

Just the night before, in fact, I had been returning to the hotel late and half-soused, and as I passed through a checkpoint I saw a beefy soldier shove a stick-thin Iraqi halfway across the Shari al-Saadoun. Just put his hand on the man’s chest and threw him across the road like a shotput, so that he skidded when he landed.

The Iraqi had been one of a crowd of about 20 standing there, half-soused themselves, clamoring to be allowed past the checkpoint, and the man picked himself up and, swaying a bit, made as if he was going after the soldier. The soldier put his gun down and his dukes up and shouted, “Come on, then!” But the Iraqi’s friends held him back.

Good thing none of them were armed. I’m sure they had guns at home, though, and I’m sure the thought of coming back for a drive-by at least crossed their minds. Scenes like this were being played out all over town, every night.

And Ruth didn’t like it one bit. So here she was arguing for all she was worth that the soldier was “required to follow the Geneva Convention” while citing chapter and verse the section governing occupying powers, and waving that section right under his nose, too, while she was at it, since she conveniently had a copy right here, in case he had misplaced his.

The soldier, meanwhile, was arguing right back that as far as he was concerned, Ruth and her dog-eared little copy of the Geneva Convention could both take a flying leap. “What do you want me to do?” he yelled. “You think I like being here? What do you know about it anyway? Have you ever seen combat? Some of those people would kill us without even thinking about it!”

I’m sure he was right. But it was still the wrong answer, since it just gave Lisa, the activist hemming the soldier in from the other side, an opening to twist the knife, which she immediately did.

Lisa was Ruth’s spiritual opposite. Affiliated with the Christian Peacemaking Team, a Mennonite organization based in Winnipeg that for some reason sees fit to send Canadian pacifists into the world’s most dangerous places, Lisa was one of the frailest, most unwarlike people imaginable. Just 25 years old, she had lately been stationed in the war-ravaged jungles of Colombia, and when she stepped in and gently reminded my soldier, with preternatural, infuriating, calculated calmness, that he must always remember “that you are a guest in this country, and you should behave like one”, I had a vision of a mob of angry coca farmers tying her up and tossing her aboard a northbound plane.

I thought the guy was going to draw and shoot her right there in front of me. But fortunately our attention was diverted by a hail of rocks that came sailing over the wire, landing on a huddle of cameraman and bruising them up pretty good.

This was the first time I’d seen rocks being thrown at journalists, and my immediate reaction – echoing the general consensus of other journalists I talked to later – was “Hey, not fair!” I saw one cameraman get hit three times, on the leg, hip and chest, as he went reeling out of stone’s throw with his face still glued to the eyepiece as if he was trying to find something to focus on, and finding only sky.

But every story has to have a hero, and this cameraman now proved himself this one’s. I couldn’t believe it – just as every journalist in sight – and every soldier, mind you – was scurrying for cover, this man, very deliberately, plunked his camera down in the shade of a tree, set his jaw and strode back out to the wire’s edge to explain the practical application of public relations to this screaming, sign-waving, rock-throwing crowd. He stood there for about 10 minutes, his arms flung wide, gesturing wildly and screaming in Arabic, and the crowd screamed and gestured and flung their arms wide right back at him, but for some reason they didn’t throw any more rocks, until finally – I still couldn’t believe it – the cameraman actually managed to shout them down and shut them up.

Then he went back to his camera, picked it up, set his jaw again and strode right back out to face down the loudest, most vociferous of the protesters – a middle-aged man in a dirty dishdasha (long tunic) standing right in front. The cameraman dialed in on this man’s face from a distance of about two yards. “All right, then, you got something to say? Say it.”

Later I learned that the cameraman was one Hali Abdel Illa, and that he worked for the Dubai Business Channel. “But I’m Iraqi myself,” he said, still glowering and rubbing his bruised leg. “I know how to deal with idiots like these.”

At the time, I was moved by his bravery, so I grabbed an interpreter and ran over to stand next to him and take notes. The crowd didn’t really have anything new to say. They were hungry and jobless and about to run out of food and not pleased. The angry vociferous rock thrower said his name was Salman, and that he was an electrical engineer. In fact, most of the men in the crowd (and they were all men) were professionals, he said, despite their unwashed state. “But there is no money! There is no job! We are poor people, and we are running out of food! We need a new government! We need a free government! Not [Ahmed] Chalabi, he is like Saddam Hussein!”

By this time, the army had arrived, too. Somebody had called in PsyOps, and they had sent a specialist over to see what if he could help talk the crowd down. But it wasn’t necessary; Abdel Illa had already done the job for them. I had enough notes, so I went back and found my original soldier, who was still being double-teamed by Ruth and Lisa.

They had really wound him up. “Look, I don’t want to kill anybody,” he said with a flash of anger. “I’m tired of killing.” But then, again, he pulled out his trump card: “What do you know about it anyway? Have you ever seen combat?”

He repeated this quite a few times. Ruth never answered. She just glared at him like she would a young barking pup, until she and Lisa finally gathered themselves and left.

I couldn’t let it stand, though. I knew Ruth, you see. In a quiet aside, I told the soldier that Ruth had come in before the war, and that she had stayed throughout the entire bombardment of Baghdad. Might not have been combat – but I’m sure it wasn’t very much fun, either. In fact, it was probably downright terrifying. It was something that every Iraqi man, woman and child had lived through.

He just shook his head and wiped the sweat off. “When are they going to let you guys go home, anyway?” I asked him.

“Shit, don’t ask me.” he said. “I’ll be the last to know.”