Continuation … Day Four at Battalion Headquarters (Iraqi Army Diaries)

I realized there was no use in further debating the merits of Saddam Hussein with my friend Ahmed, or the relative security Iraq enjoyed before the gringo arrived in 2003. We just weren’t going to see things the same. But though we disagree (to some extent) on the fundamentals underlying U.S. involvement in Iraq, I have a lot of respect for Ahmed. He’s a bright kid and great fun to hang out and laugh with. But he’s also an officer (2nd Lieutenant) in an army at war. Just two years into his commission, he’s seen more firefights than he cares to remember (the toughest were in Sadr City—where he was hit and knocked unconscious by a round from an RPG … he’s one of the very few worldwide survivors of such an event) and he’s kicked in the doors of a lot of insurgents during late night raids. He talked to me about the reality of those firefights and I knew that he wasn’t only brave enough to walk into hostility and live fire, but as a 22 year old kid he was leading other young men into the same parlous conditions. I have a lot of respect for him.

The other officers here are much the same. I wasn’t sure about them when I arrived, but after two nights of kicking in doors on the houses of putative insurgents—knowing that a fiery end to one’s own mortality could be curled up and breathing quietly, right around the next corner, just waiting for an unsuspecting protagonist to set it off—and watching the phlegm and selflessness with which they did it, my views have ameliorated. My first impression (one that still obtains) was of a frat house. Second Battalion’s headquarters is in an old Baath Party political building that’s been converted into martial barracks.

The arrangements are ad hoc, the windows are all sandbagged, and the long, wide and barren second-floor corridor is lined with dorm-like rooms housing one to three officers each (depending on rank). Apart from the fact everybody here is armed, the house dispensation and standard operating procedure reinforce the frat sensation (people sleeping as they need to, planning and running missions, restlessly lounging—bored and looking for something to do, watching TV, smoking cigarettes like crazy, commenting on the girls on the tube, and socializing). Aside from the lack of alcohol (almost all Muslims here), this place could have landed as spot as one of the competing Greek organizations in Animal House.

There’s a sense of entitlement found in the officers, as well, that translates in the frat house-Battalion Headquarters analogy; that ethereal feeling that the shit doesn’t stink here, somehow, that these guys are a little better than the rest. The difference is, these officers might actually have legitimate claim to their superiority complex. For starters, they’re educated, which separates them from much of Iraqi society (this country’s pedagogical system—at one time the pearl of the Middle East, has paid hell for Saddam’s wars and international sanctions). Their innate sense of pride, meanwhile, which passes for mild arrogance (or maybe it’s merely arrogance sublimated as pride) is a trait shared with U.S. officers—probably officers the world over; it’s a Tolstoyan attribute that could have spilled off the pages of War and Peace.

As with officers the world over, these men are among the best and brightest of their time and place (which is all relative … in a country where many have struggled to finish public school, most of the officers here have merely finished high school and capped it with a 10-month course at the military academy). A sizable percentage of them, however, have looked down the barrel of oblivion. Many of these men have seen combat and put their lives on the line. As with Ahmed, most of them have lived through three wars and to a man they’ve friends or relatives to the violence (in the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War or the insurgency). The emotional scarring of this country can’t be overplayed. I realized last night, talking with a young Lieutenant named Omar (the 23-year old Sunni product of a Baghdad neighborhood) that his entire generation knows someone—a cousin, friend, uncle, brother or father—who died violently during the insurgency. And that phenomenon is a mirror of the reality of their father’s generation (during the futile six-year Iran-Iraq war, this country of 20-million suffered a million casualties).

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