Day Two of Living with the Iraqi Army (Iraqi Army Diaries)

Day Two (or waking the second day at 2nd Battalion):

This is a military installation, after all. These people are accustomed to waking at six or seven in the morning. I’m told the Battalion Commander, Colonel Wasim, goes to bed at two o’clock in the morning (I saw him up, before turning in last night at one a.m.)– he gets up at six in the morning. As I said then, that ain’t human. The anecdote brings to mind the words of my Spanish brother-in-law, a man who works 60 -80 hours a week and just made partner in his law firm (but who, like all lawyers I know, doesn’t start working before 10 a.m). Gonzalo once told me that anything before 9 a.m. is poor man’s hours.

The Iraqi Army carries some of its own traditions and customs, distinctly different from the U.S. Army, and I was hoping the waking hour was one of them. Last night, for instance, I was supposed to go on a mission with a Lieutenant. The evening wore on and about 11 p.m. I started looking for him but couldn’t find him. Eventually, I walked into Colonel Wasim’s office—the Colonel was talking with Ahmed, a bright young Lieutenant who speaks decent English—and asked after the man who was supposed to carry me on the mission. I was told he’d gotten tired and gone to bed. I was flabbergasted. That would be inconceivable in the U.S. Army. (Looking back over this entry, I now realize Lt. Hamid’s schedule varies erratically depending on the intelligence he gets everyday … missions material– and fall apart– at the last minute).

I figure there’s some piece of information I wasn’t privy to—something that was lost in the translation. The Iraqi Army is lax in ways the Americans aren’t, but the idea of a Mission Commander canceling an operation because he’s tired … that’s beyond the pale. I figure maybe the target they were after (it was a snatch and grab op) failed to materialize or something. Even there, U.S. officers would have held a meeting to discuss having another meeting to set up a meeting about canceling the operation. There would have been copious paperwork, a long series of calls to higher up in places where you didn’t even know there were places, and eventually a debriefing of everyone who’d ever heard of the mission. In the Iraqi Army, they just go to bed.

The fact they’ve allowed me to sleep in (it’s almost 10 a.m. and nobody’s come knocking) is a propitious omen. I have few requests on assignment, but a human sleeping schedule is one of them. With the right sleep (and with access to coffee) I can do about anything. And I’ve just solved the coffee problem (in the knick of time). Two days before embedding with the Iraqis, I made a trip with the Mortar Platoon of the 1-63’s (U.S. Army) Delta Company to Camp Falcon, near Baghdad. It was at the PX there I bought a water boiler for nine dollars (something I should have done the first day I arrived in country). This piece of extremely hazardous technology (it’s German engineered, but so fraudulently unsafe I think it’s actually a sneak attack on U.S. forces) has changed my life—and it’s almost killed me three times already. The thing is, it’s so effective it’s almost lethal.

It’s just a one-liter white water pitcher—all plastic—which houses a stainless steel (and highly effective) heating unit. The thing brings water to a boil in less than a minute. The problem is that about two minutes after that, the water’s evaporated and it would be mere minutes after that (I almost discovered the exact time) that the heating unit melted through the plastic housing and ignited whatever surface it was on (and the thing was so hot it could have ignited tempered steel). We are in a war zone, after all. Ironically, this maliciously effective piece of German subterfuge is about the most danger I’ve faced.

Last night, my second night at the Battalion, felt like a breakthrough experience—and so early in the trip. It almost gives me a bad vibe—like things could only get fucked up from here. But last night was so good, I don’t think that will happen. I was hanging out upstairs with the officer Corps from the Battalion (this building has wide halls and bare plaster walls – I would call it Soviet-style, before the fall—and it used to be a Baath Party headquarters). In the Iraqi Army, the second lieutenants have a single star (as opposed to the bronze bar of their American counterparts). First lieutenants have two stars and Captain’s have three (as opposed to the two bars of the Americans). Now I’m fucked up. I had it all figured out last night.

Colonel Wasim has a full-bird (Colonel’s marking in the U.S. Army) with a star underneath it. The Lieutenant Colonel I saw yesterday had a full-bird. The Major in the Battalion has three stars and the Captain’s have two. So, by process of deduction, I suppose that all lieutenants (First and Second class) have one star. They’ve mentioned First and Second grade to me, among the Lieutenants rank, so I suppose they have some way of differentiating. I’ll have to find out. Anyway, last night I dined with the officers upstairs and we traded stories and vocabulary. About three of them speak sputtering English—enough that we could communicate in a pinch. Then there’s Ahmed, whose father was a high school teacher and whose brother is a doctor and whose life ambition was to go to the military academy and become an officer (his second life’s ambition is to be an American).

Ahmed translated between me and two other insatiably curious officers—Captain Zaiad and Major Sallah. Major Sallah is the Executive Officer of the base. He’s a proudly fat man (he continually grabs his belly with both hands, like a pregnant woman, and says, Fat man, with a heavy Arabic accent … other times, Captain Zaiad—himself the bearer of a more than modestly-sized paunch—points at the Major and says, Fat man). In fact, the majority of the officers here are fat—which has me ruminating. Certainly the ideas of exercise that we entertain in the West don’t translate here (I wonder how much of that has to do with our obsession with media and mass communications and the derivative fixation with looking like the people on television), and I wonder how much that has to do with the fact that for the last thirty years the people of Iraq had only two TV channels (the Saddam channel and the children’s channel … run by Saddam’s boys).

The fit officers are the anomaly here—an inversion of the U.S. Army model. Perhaps it has something to do with the image of Saddam and its interspersion with notions of success. Maybe it has to do with the idea (which was entertained in the West at one point) that a person able to pack on the extra pounds has to have the leisure time and access to food of the wealthy (and therefore successful). Whatever the case, the fulsome bellied officers (the Major, with his quick smile and propensity for laughter, reminds me of Jackie Gleason) sat back—we were seated around a conference table next to the operations room—and regaled me with questions. We also traded views and questions on my own insatiable curiosities regarding contemporary Iraq.

We’re sorry for asking so many questions, they kept saying, are we bothering you? We’re just so damned curious.

The conversation was typically cross-cultural. At some points I was struck by how similar all societies are. We hit on the point, for instance, that there are a lot of good people in Iraq—and there are some bad people. That’s true all over the world, I told Ahmed (the vast majority of Iraqis I’ve met have never been outside the country … and until six years ago, they weren’t allowed to know what was happening outside Iraqi borders), there are good people and bad people everywhere. But there are also great differences in our societies (aside from dress codes, religion and the number of wives one takes). The Major and the Captain, for instance, were befuddled by the fact I was working in journalism but my degree is in Comparative Literature.

If you go to school to be a doctor in Iraq, they said, you become a doctor. The same with an engineer or a school teacher.

I explained that for the specialties, it’s the same in the U.S.—but that for people with a Bachelor’s degree, something like 80-percent of them work outside the area of their studies. They just seemed tickled by that. When they comprehended the concept—and the reasons behind it—they smiled and sat back satisfied, and told me again how insatiably curious they were. Are we bothering you with so many questions? they said.

[and here, a periodic power outage robbed the final thoughts of the entry]

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