The following synopsis began as an outline of the Iraq experience for this site’s “About Page,” but ran so long I’ve turned it into a blog entry.

By 2007, feeling claustrophobic in the small journalism pond that is San Diego, I told my editor at San Diego Magazine, Tom Blair, that the company needed to send a reporter to Iraq. San Diego County is home to Camp Pendleton, the West Coast’s Marine Corps headquarters (it’s also home to the largest naval base in the world). As a result, the military is heavily represented in the magazine’s readership. On a handshake, Tom agreed to sign a letter with the government, saying the magazine wanted me in Baghdad.
He promised to buy two articles from me—which I figured would just about cover my airfare and expenses (pecuniary sacrifice, of course, being one of the dirty compromises of a career freelancer). By the time I got to Iraq, in October 2008, my embed slot with Camp Pendleton Marines had evaporated and I was instead embedded with the 3/7 Marines out of Twentynine Palms, CA. I found myself in a flyspeck Anbar Province town called Haditha (which, I was told, had been the capital of the insurgency in 2005 and 2006).
I anticipated getting my teeth knocked out once a week, as I went into the project not believing in war as an answer to international conflict (my view, I suppose, is paralleled by Kurt Vonnegut’s: I’ve always identified with the segment in Slaughterhouse Five where the narrator tells a Hollywood producer he’s writing an anti-war book and the producer responds, “Why don’t you just write and anti-glacier book”). Quite to the contrary of the bellicose marauders I was looking for, I found a legion of young men who smiled a lot and liked to crack jokes.
Though they carried guns and had different faces, they were, for all intents and purposes, the same guys (no females on the base in Haditha) I’d grown up with in rural Maryland, gone to school with in Ohio and North Carolina, and shared beers with at the corner bar in Southern California. They were regular red-blooded American Joes, and none of them seemed hell-bent on confronting me with their politics. I joined them at a point when the conflict they were prosecuting had become largely non-kinetic. Bullets were replaced with dollars from rebuilding contracts and combat operations had given way to Key Leader Engagements (KLEs), the formal title for bullshit sessions American commanders took part in, on a daily basis—attended by copious amounts of chai tea and cigarettes—with Iraqi security counterparts, local leaders and sheiks.
Through three months in Haditha I was carried on scores of those KLEs, and watched as young American officers advised (often much older) Iraqi officials on governance, security and economics. The mythical sheik, Mohammed Hussein Shaffir, was one of the most important Iraqi figures in Haditha (he was also described to me by the Marine Corps’ top officer in Western Anbar as, “one deadly motherfucker”). A Colonel in the pseudo-Iraqi Army Provisional Security Force (PSF), Shaffir struck me as quiet and competent. He was also heavily armed, closely allied with the Americans, and impeccably hospitable (as, I found, is the Arabic way).
Investigative reporting is one part diligence and three parts luck—and I was fortunate to meet Shaffir so early in my tenure (the Marines, coo coo for acronym, called him MHS). I learned that the erstwhile soccer star had lost five houses and a brother to Al Quaeda. He’d personally killed 56 foreign insurgents. Through the months, and those scores of KLEs, I came to know him fairly well (as well as you can know such a guarded person). Eventually, he invited me to stay at his house. The Marines thought that proposition was absurd, but I felt unequivocally that men like Shaffir would determine the future of Iraq when U.S. troops pull out (which is slated for December, 2011).
The military said there was no way it was signing off on the deal, so I had to officially unembed (the military insisted I return to Baghdad to do it, setting me up for a hair-rising journey back to Anbar). Ultimately, through the dumb luck of an invitation made in passing, I was able to spend more than a week with Shaffir and his force of young (often fatherless … everybody in Anbar has been scarred by the insurgency), devilish and constantly laughing security force.
After that stint, I traveled to an even smaller burg called Bagdadi, where I was adopted by the Barzan family, an absurd outcropping in that absurd place. While under Barzan protection, I was re-christened with the name Josem Barzan Al Obaidi, and became attached at the hip to a 22-year old man named Qusay—a loyal friend who became like a brother (Qusay lost both his legs to a car bomb, in 2007 … though he’s still officially an Iraqi Policeman). In three weeks with the Barzan clan, I gave up using toilet paper, I ate prodigiously, and I came to know the crushing weight of repetition in a war zone (in a place where there is no work, basic services are interrupted—if they function at all—and leaving the neighborhood is vaguely suicidal). I also developed an immeasurable appreciation for Arab hospitality. Every person I met, even those who disdained the American presence, invited me into their homes—anything they had was as good as mine.
A month after unembedding, I finally managed safe transport back to Baghdad, where the military signed me up for a spell with the U.S. Army’s 1-63 Combined Arms Battalion (I wanted to compare Army and Marine protocol). If I thought the Marines were like the people I’d known throughout my life in the U.S., the soldiers I ran into in the Army were the most normal, slice-of-American-life guys I could have imagined (truth be known, the Marines are elite in the American military model—for the simple fact there are far fewer of them—and they know it … nobody is more convinced of Marine Corps superiority than one of its PFCs). I spent two months with the 1-63 and made a number of good friends; men who I came to understand were in Iraq because they genuinely wanted to help and do good.
After two months, I was able to line up another unembed. I went to live with an Iraqi Colonel named Wisam, the Second Battalion commander (25th Brigade, 17th Division) in the small town of Mahmudiya (20 kilometers south of Baghdad) which, as it turned out, was a cardinal point on the Triangle of Death (as a compliment to Wisam and a nod to his joint work with American forces, I can say the Triangle of Death is now the Triangle of Yawns). For two months, I lived with the Iraqi Army and made deep friendships with a series of young officers. They were bright eyed and capable, and almost across the board they were ingratiated to their American counterparts. With them I laughed endlessly, danced everyday (still no toilet paper) and came away with a deeper understanding of Arab customs and mores (some, like the divergent roles of men and women there, I’m still trying to wrap my head around).
From the Second Brigade’s base I was able to broker a stay with another sheik, Mizer Hamdani, whose family represents nearly a million Arabs across Iraq, Syria and Jordan. I was only there for two days before a firefight broke out on the property (one KIA) and the highly protective Colonel Wisam sent an extraction team to whisk me away (which was more flattering than I can explain). After another few weeks with Wisam’s battalion, I returned to the 1-63 (which had relocated to Camp Victory in Baghdad) before I was called away to Spain, ending what proved a mind-spinning and providential eight months in a war zone-cum-globalization/pacification-experiment the likes of which hasn’t been seen before.
Along the way I saw dozens of instances of unaccountably sloppy reporting—largely from left-minded independent journalists who went into the fray with the preconceived notion that whatever the U.S. was doing in Iraq, it was wrong (and who seemed intent on conforming their stories to that angle). I also realized, early on, that the war was voted out of the American consciousness when George Bush was voted out of office. Selling editors back in the states on the multitude of compelling stories I came across was about as easy as talking the high school prom queen into streaking the homecoming game.
The financial crisis, meanwhile, reached San Diego and my two-article deal was cut in half—when all’s said and done, I’m going to lose money on the venture. What’s more, I’ve already been assured by an agent that the book I’m writing about Iraq is not salable (the market’s saturated, he told me). But that’s okay. The experience was priceless. And the flame driving me to pull this work together hasn’t been dampened (pieces of the book and other anecdotes will appear on this site in the months to come).
I feel a deep responsibility to Qusay and Colonel Wisam, to Mohammed Shaffir and the other sheik Mohamed in Haditha; to Lieutenants Ahmed and Jaider (two 20-something natives of the south of Iraq that have lived through three wars in their short lives); as well as to the hundreds of bright-eyed American soldiers I met, who had volunteered for that hot and dusty outpost because there was no other choice when they awoke, confused and anxious, on September 12, 2001. America may have dropped the war from its consciousness, but there are still hundreds of thousands of its young men and women spread out across the Middle East (whether you agree with the fact they’re there or not, they are).
Mostly, I feel indebted and responsible to Qusay—and to all of the Iraqis that took a big risk in protecting me while bringing me into their houses and showing me their lives. I sat in dozens of diwans (central meeting rooms) throughout the country, in the midst of hundreds of sheiks and local leaders, and what they told me can be boiled down to two things: we don’t want our country occupied by foreign invaders, it’s an insult. And we want the Americans to leave—but not now. Not until our army is strong enough to defend us.
Many of those sheiks also told me they wanted the world to hear their stories: the tales of their unimaginable losses, as well as their hospitality, generosity, and will to move on. About their improving economy, long history, and ongoing weddings—as well as the fact that when they laugh they laugh well. A sheik in Haditha (a man with firmly anti-U.S. views who wouldn’t allow me to photograph him or record our conversation) told me his people will survive this event—they’ve done it 12 times before, throughout the long history of the region.
“If your people were knocked down once, as we’ve been knocked down so many times before, you would never get back up,” he told me.
The resilience of the Iraqi people is undeniable and it’s now my duty (despite all those godless, groveling editors and their adherence to the dumbed-down will of the people) to bring it to a larger audience. That starts here (ironically), on the very web that’s brought journalism to it knees. So please pass this post along. And stay tuned for more material.

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6 Responses to “”

  1. kym byrnes Says:

    Me likey. I still think that if you get this material in front of the right person, it’s a gold mine. You’ve had experiences that few others, if any, have had, and you have the ability to write about it in a compelling manner. Maybe I’ll just have to start a publication, I mean, John Kennedy, Jr. did it, why can’t I?! But I think you are offering more than just politics, I’m tired of hearing about politics, I can hear about that any time I turn on the tv or open the newspaper. What you’re offering is a real look at the people, the culture, the personalities of these elusive Iraqi’s that we’ve heard so much about. I know I’ve come to think of it as a place on the other side of the world as opposed to a group of people struggling to find the same security and happiness that we are seeking. So I will keep reading, and sending people to the site to get an idea of what we’re really talking about when it comes to Iraq.

  2. SPC Back Joshua Says:

    well it sucks that you lost your deal with the magazine and the book thing but you are a great writer and now friend just keep up the good work and things will turn around for you my wife and I read you blogs on your web site and look at the pictures I wish I was able to donate but with me getting ready to re deploy and going on leave I am saving money to get a place for when I get back to the states well we have go out tonight so hope to comment on more of your work. SPC Back Joshua 1/63 mortars

  3. Senor Liddick!
    Keep up the great work. There is a need for your writing and I admire you for wanting to share your experience. The friendships you made and the amazing Iraqi people you spent time with deserve their story to be told.
    MUCH RESPECT!

    Skinny

  4. Cameron Mays Says:

    When you are finished writing the book I’ll buy the first 5 copies. Even if i have to go to Kinko’s to copy the handwritten version.

  5. keep doing the good work, money and publishers be damned. you are one ballsy journalist and a great writer.

  6. Kevin Thomas Says:

    Shane,
    Love to read your work. Keep it up, listen to that fire burning in you. Eventually it will all come together. Look forward to reading more. I’m safe in Germany for the time being, will probably head back at it next year. So much work and so little time. Keep the faith!

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