by Nathan S. Webster
View of the Bayji Refinery from the U.S. JSS, pre-2010. Photo by Nathan Webster.
Short moments from my embedded reporting in Iraq now seem like foreshadowing. Throwaway comments in 2007 and 2009, significant only in hindsight.
In 2007, I embedded in Bayji, Iraq, spending about a month at a Joint Security Station with an unobstructed view of the now-contested refinery’s methane flares, an orange glow on the night’s horizon.
Captain Tim Peterman commanded Charlie Company, 1st/505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at the beginning of 2007’s “Sons of Iraq” security program – the Americans would pay local men $300 a month to maintain local security against the Al Qaeda insurgents that brought indiscriminate violence to the region.
Captain Peterman arranged meetings with cynical Iraqi sheikhs, to locate someone in Bayji’s all-Sunni community with enough credibility to take charge, and with whom the US forces could work. Peterman didn’t trust the Iraqis and the Iraqis didn’t trust him.
But the Iraqis understood one thing: “Better Bush than Persia,” one sheikh said, “Persia” meaning Iran. With an adversarial Shiite government to the south, and Al Qaeda’s violence all around them, the Iraqis were willing to listen to what Peterman had to say.
Captain Peterman deliberately played to the meeting’s Sunni constituency.
“If Izzat Al-Douri wants to stand beside me and fight Al Qaeda, I’ll work with him,” Peterman had told his audience, which was still sympathetic to Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist regime.
The Iraqis had laughed appreciatively at Izzat Al-Douri’s name, the King of Clubs in the 2003 deck of cards that denoted Hussein’s top commanders. Peterman mentioned this long-forgotten name to prove a point that the US soldiers were ready for reconciliation with former enemies. Al-Douri was on the run at the time, rumored even to be dead. He was as good a ghost story as any.
The Iraqis laughter seemed ironic at the time, like they were in on Captain Peterman’s joke. By 2014, Izzat Al-Douri seems to be back on his own terms. In retrospect, the sheiks’ laughter was informed by a clear-eyed appreciation for what was bound to happen. They were patient.
* * * *
In 2009, many of Charlie Company’s men had returned to Iraq again, this time to Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Local “Sons of Iraq” groups had been in force in the region for a couple years, and it was fairly quiet.
New rules mandated that Iraqi and US forces have equal numbers on joint patrols. US soldiers were meant to accompany, not lead.
First Lieutenant Michael Telford’s men accompanied a night patrol of Iraqi soldiers, stopping at a patrol base in the quiet marshland north of the city. Telford and his Iraqi counterpart asked the base’s commander a few questions, but the dialogue quickly trailed away. Lt. Telford was restless, ready to hit the road to make the next stop.
Lt. Telford, on his first deployment, was equally cynical and professional. As US forces prepared to withdraw, handing over more and more responsibility to Iraqi units, he felt it would be a rough transition.
“How I’ll judge success,” Lt. Telford said at one point, “is that we leave them with enough training and stability so they don’t get slaughtered 72 hours after we leave the country.”
Through the interpreter at the Iraqi patrol base, the Iraqis explained they wanted to stay at the base for about an hour – the night’s patrol was scheduled for three hours, and to ensure it lasted that long they wanted to sit for a little while and kill some time.
Lt. Telford wasn’t having it. “You gotta do the job,” he implored them. “You can’t just sit around. You gotta do the job.”
He rallied the Iraqi soldiers, who begrudgingly continued their nighttime drive. Vehicles crawled at five miles an hour, chewing up the clock.
“A time standard. The Iraqis have a time standard now,” Lt. Telford had scoffed. “That’s what we’ve given them – a time standard.”
Telford didn’t say “after six years of war and all this work, this all we’ve given them,” I knew what he meant.
* * * *
Kent Dell was awarded a Purple Heart in Bayji, wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2006. By 2009, he was a squad leader. By 2014, he is married with a daughter and is now a Masters of Public Policy student at Michigan State, intending to be a legislative analyst for Michigan government.
Like all the men of Charlie Company who made repeated deployments to Iraq – who saw the violence of 2007 replaced with the quiet near-peace of 2009, it’s impossible to not be frustrated.
“You would think when a militant group is running rampant across their country they could put aside their differences for a moment to deal with the issue,” Dell said. “What’s worse is the Iraqi people are no better off under a representative democracy than they were under a dictatorship. The only difference is their lives are now miserable due to the apathy of many, rather than the megalomania of one.”
One of Mr. Dell’s former squadmates feels equally bitter about the current Iraq situation, if not surprised. Alex Busch is now a nursing student at Georgia Southern University, scheduled to graduate in December moving toward a career as a nurse practitioner. Mr. Busch likes that nursing is a service job, like the military but “helping other people in a different way.”
“I learned as a noncommissioned officer how to talk to people,” he said. It helps with difficult patients in stressful situations. “It’s my job. Don’t take it personally, don’t internalize it.”
It’s difficult to feel the same about Iraq, which he says makes him frustrated “nearly to the point where the news makes my brain want to bleed.”
“We accomplished our mission – at heavy cost,” he said. “We handed the Iraqi people their nation on a silver platter.”
“Any of us who were actually interacting with the Iraqi security forces saw this coming. I am frustrated by our disjointed response. Overnight we went from ‘no boots on the on the ground,’ to 300 advisers. Before we throw more American lives into the fire, the American people deserve a solid plan.”
* * * *
I think back to previous plans we tried to put into action. Trying to apply small-business approaches and democratic ideals to a country that had never seen them before.
Microgrant financing seemed like a good idea, providing start-up capital to tiny businesses. A woman running a sewing shop might receive a few hundred dollars, enabling the purchase of more machines or fabric, or salaries.
Others were less concrete. In June 2009, a mission led by Second Lieutenant Will Freakley looked over a storage shed filled with broken shelves and a dusty glass case. A 20-something Iraqi man filled out paperwork, posed for the mandatory biometric eye scan. He intended to turn this empty shell into a pharmacy.
The idea alone didn’t guarantee money. The woman with the sewing business was the widow of a Sons of Iraq leader. She was all set. This man was just somebody’s cousin.
Lt. Freakley seemed a little skeptical, but he was not paid to judge.
“I don’t know if this is going to work,” he said. “But we’ll fill everything out and see how it goes.”
Lt. Freakley’s last words, a throwaway comment, I look back on now and I can’t help but apply our naiveté and wishful thinking to Iraq, since 1991, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2014 and going forward, remembering all the enthusiastic cynicism and gleeful bitterness, the biting fears and star-crossed hopes.
“We’ll give it the old college try.”
Nathan Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist embedded with U.S. soldiers. His work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide, most recently The Rumpus, Daily Beast, and The New York Times. He is a Lecturer of English at the University of New Hampshire.