Day Nine with the Officers of the Iraqi Army’s Second Battalion (17/25 Division)

It’s quarter-of-nine in the evening and the next mission isn’t till ten or twelve. I think I’m gonna watch a movie. I downloaded a half-a-dozen of them last time I was at the American base, at the Mortar Platoon’s tent (Delta Company of the 1-63 Combined Arms Battalion). There’s not a drop of booze to be found in Iraq, but every soldier has a computer and on that computer he’s sure to have three things: a shitload of movies, a larger cache of music, and porn (Americans aren’t supposed to have nudie flicks here, as it’s culturally insensitive, though all the porn I’ve seen here has come from Iraqis).

Tonight’s next mission is supposed to be action-packed. Iraqi Army (IA) Lieutenant Hamid is to be on shotgun—and that in itself is exciting (Hamid strikes me as the kind of good old boy who just don’t give a fuck). I’m told that on this mission, two full platoons will be kicking in doors on five different houses. The Americans were here at Second Battalion Headquarters for two hours today, planning something out (tonight’s activities, I presume) and they left with an excitement in the air that spoke of imminent activity.

We’ve only just returned from another mission—this one to uncover and confiscate a cache of weapons. A mortar tube, eight 60-mm mortars, a grenade launcher, and a few belts of 7.62 ammunition were unearthed in three different places around a residence. It was a strange event. I didn’t know exactly what we’d gone for, and when we showed up I began snapping pictures, and the soldiers—whom I thought were about to roll somebody up—began posing for shots; sometimes in groups of three and four. I was like, “Uh, hey friends … what about snipers? Bad guys? Shouldn’t you be doing something right now? Anything other than posing for glamour shots?”

It was another of the small details that tell me I’m indubitably not with the Americans anymore (the Americans ignore the camera—as mission security says they should—which is so much more photographically compelling). That first mission was the harbinger of weird times in Mahmudiya. Sitting next to me was kid who looked to be about 19. He was dressed Johnny Cash style in a black suit, and he was the source who was taking Lt. Hamid and Lt. Jaider to the cache. We were packed into a tiny Japanese pick-up, five of us (me, the kid and Jaider in the back seat) and they were chattering rapid-fire in Arabic. I’d no idea what they were talking about. Hamid alternately raised and lowered his voice and I wondered what the hell he was saying. I had the feeling the kid was nervous about me taking pictures. All I knew for sure was that he was affiliated with the Jaish Al Mahdi (JAM) militia that the IA has been fighting most intensely in this sector.

About midway through the ride, the kid started leaning on Jaider (we were all packed pretty tightly, to begin with), and at first I thought he was trying to get to the window—but what the hell was he gonna do, jump out? Then he had his arm around the officer and kissed him on the cheek (which wasn’t shocking as the men here are much more comfortable with male-on-male contact than we are in the West). Then he put his hands in Jaider’s lamp and started bending over, like he was gonna blow him, or something. I was like, WTF? Hamid yelled something at him from the front seat, looked disgusted and turned as if he was going to punch him. Jaider’s a phlegmatic dude and he just sat there, stone cold still, as usual. He wasn’t encouraging the kid, but he wasn’t pushing him away, either.

Then the kid leaned into the front of the cab and gave Hamid a kiss on the cheek, wrapping his arms around the officer’s neck. Hamid came over the seat, trying to punch him. We arrived at the cache-house about that time and Hamid yelled something and got out. I’ve seen Hamid beat up three detainees, one of them for getting caught buggering his buddy, and I thought to myself the kid didn’t know what he was getting into. The driver, meanwhile, a big dude who looked to be in his 30s or 40s, leaned back into the truck, shaking his head and talking real low to the kid, like he was saying “you dirty little prick.” He raised his fist as if to hit him, as I scrambled out so that I might not miss the door-kicking action I thought was coming. Instead, I found those knuckleheads lining up for the photo-op. My title for this mission: “WTF?”

So we’re driving down horrible, sewage-littered dirt roads in a pick-up half the size of my motorcycle, five of us packed in like sardines (a sergeant behind the wheel, two lieutenants—who could be described as Bad Ass and Mr. Cool—as well as Johnny Cash and me). I’m the only one in body armor (the Americans make me wear it and these guys are going to follow the American lead on anything), which further cramps the space, so I’m gripping the oh-shit strap above my head to keep myself out of Johnny Cash’s lap, and tripping out on the bizarrity of it all.

We’re in a place that reminds me of a fly-speck town on the far side of the Utah moon, with deserted earthen streets that could have come out of the hinterlands of Mexico, and I’m wondering what kind of insanity we’re about to get into. Are the guys I’m with going to be shooting, or are we going to get shot at? Is somebody going to die tonight? If I get killed, will these guys send my possessions back to my family—or will they end up spread out through military houses across Iraq? I turn and look at the young soldier standing in the bed of the pick-up—his automatic rifle hanging at his side and a twitchy smile on his face that says we might be ready to see the shit—and I decide I should have taken Major Ammar up on his offer to let me carry and AK-47.

Bad Ass is pontificating in his light, raspy voice from the front seat, addressing everybody and nobody at the same time, talking about god and Armageddon, for all I now. Mr. Cool looks silently out the window to his right, and the driver lets go with a chortled laugh every now and then. We pass yet another litter-strewn median strip in the half-life of revitalization (a process that’s apparently been stalled for months or years), and a dog begins chasing the Humvees in our convoy, barking menacingly and handing us off to a mongrel on the next block. I look back to my right and that’s when Johnny Cash starts trying to go down on Mr. Cool.

The convoy crosses to the other side of the road (the wrong side), facing down headlights and forcing people onto a shoulder that is merely an extension of dirt, a whole group of dogs accosts us, going after tires and barking truculently, and we pass a kid riding on a bike with two flat tires. “What the fuuuck,” I’m thinking. Where the hell am I? I must be caught on the other side of some kind of astral Parcineum Arch, because somehow this wantonly absurd bullshit doesn’t seem to raise eyebrows for anyone else in the pick-up. The others are annoyed at Johnny Cash’s amorous frivolity (I’m thinking the kid is sure lose some teeth instead of getting a cock in his mouth) but all in all, the strange events seem to appear about par for the course for these guys.

Hamid turns again and raises his fist, as if to punch Johnny Cash—who shies away but smiles and says something with the high-pitched voice of a tweener—and then he catches my eye. He smiles and raises his thumb in my direction and says the same thing he always says before we’re about to pile out of the trucks with AKs locked, loaded, pointed and at the ready … “Good mission? Good mission?”

And this is only the first one of the night—what’s been laid out as the quiet before the storm.

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