Dispatches from the front – July 2004

Month Overview

Saddam was brought before court this month, starting what will be a long process of prosecuting him for the crimes he committed against the people of Iraq. This month saw the Coalition transition from being the occupying power to enabling the embryonic but sovereign Interim Iraqi Government to take over the organs of the state with good governance as a key component. This necessarily required a cultural shift of many in the Coalition headquarters from being in control to where some freedoms of action were curtailed. One nice part of this occurred during the ceremony whereby the new Commanding General took over the Coalition forces in Iraq where the Iraqi flag was given the place of honour and precedence.

03 July 04

I really must apologise for my rather slack adherence to sending out a dispatch every two weeks. It is all rather embarrassing that the war effort over here is interrupting my ability to enthrall and regale all of you with stories of amazement, fascination and a good dose of wit and humour. Some may prefer to suggest rather boring anecdotes about my rather unhealthy relationship with Tim Tams and Minties instead.

It has indeed been a rather large week, replete with the establishment of a sovereign Iraq, and the start of the trial process of Saddam Hussein. I have not recorded it in the detail that I would have liked, but it is certainly a momentous occasion. Now that Iraq has its first reasonable chance to become a great state of fertile plains, overflowing oil reserves, a smart workforce and of course amazing tourist spots, perhaps even with some good governance thrown in, it is perhaps worth considering the lasting merits of this campaign. Need I remind you that Pol Pot’s regime was only destroyed through an illegal Vietnamese-led campaign???

I think that with thirty or so days left, I have started to have a bit of a perspective shift, and my mind is somewhat wandering towards being back in Australia. It is with some embarrassment that I confess to having looked at some of those women’s magazines that are more opportunities to read advertisements rather than anything else. While I am certain that some chaps read these magazines to gain a bit of intelligence about the fairer sex (or should I say gender), any time I have looked at such magazines, my eyes have become rather firmly focused on the food pages.

This is an environment of plastic cutlery and crockery, as well as mass-produced food (that, while not quite boarding house food, would hardly reach any common conception of a culinary or even epicurean fantasy). It is thus easy for one’s mind to wander towards tasty morsels of food etc. so in my weakened emotional state, I will have to beg your collective forgiveness.

05 July 04

It is now the early morning of 5 Jul – Independence Day was yesterday. Luckily all the baddies either forgot to mark it off on their calendars as a day of target practice, or they were all watching a movie or something. Another dear friend has now departed from us and indeed, within ten days, I will lose most of my closest friends from here.

Unfortunately the Mintie and Anzac biscuit supply has now been dissipated much to my chagrin. The loss of some key components of my diet has been quite a blow to my morale. And I have to say that my dear mother attacked my morale the other night by informing me that there was a month-long food festival in Brisbane, full of culinary fantasies and the like … and that it would only finish several milliseconds before I get home. One of the lesser themes over these last few months has been the suggestion from dear mother that I have been consuming too much food and that I should do something to alleviate the supposed obese nature of yours truly (although the Minties and so on keep on coming). For a couple of months, I thought that there was perhaps an evil twist to this whole story and indeed I have now found it. Indeed my parents wish me to be fat – dad owns lots of shares in a pharmaceutical company that produces drugs for people who have been oversupplied with food from the parent department. Very disappointing.

However, I can happily state that some good young Australian patriots from Western New South Wales have bolstered the Tim Tam and Mintie supply, which I am very appreciative of. The supply was accompanied by a set of unique questions that I am trying to answer in an appropriate manner – it is rather difficult to answer a question about how many people I have killed or captured, and luckily I will be able to confirm the lack of active volcanoes in Iraq.

Anyway, I have resolved to send this off, so in a completely abrupt manner, I shall sign off here. To all, I bid you a fond farewell until next time.

James

PS. I can’t find any remotely interesting pictures to send anyone. Sorry.

06 July 04

It was such a nice thing to get something from some Australian school kids this week and indeed the ability to somewhat reciprocate for all the support we have got from US families has been important. There is a tremendously generous spirit among American communities particularly towards their service personnel and even though I enjoy ridiculing the quality of thin mints vis a vis Tim Tams, there is a semi-Christmas thing about getting these huge boxes from the US.

10 July 04

Well, with a brief spot of respite underway, I thought I should pop out a few words – I have a funny feeling that this will be the last dispatch from Iraq, bar one, hence the need to try and cover all the intrigues of life here.

I actually wrote the above lines on the sixth and unfortunately, I have missed the opportunity to write anything since. For posterity’s sake, I am rather concerned that I have not recorded my own personal history as much as I had hoped. There is a constant mass of activity here and being a participant has rather undermined my ability to observe from afar and make comment.

In direct contravention of mother’s orders, I have been traveling around a bit, predominantly via helicopters. However, as a form of punishment from the gods for transgressing the wishes of my mother, I found myself on a windswept base yesterday with a thoroughly charming temperature of fifty degrees celsius (somewhere just above 120 degrees fahrenheit). My flight to that base was quite interesting seeing how some subsistence agriculture and livestock farming was going on to the north of Baghdad. I really don’t think being a sheep in Iraq would be overly amusing – rather hot life, minimal grass, all followed by death at a roadside butcher (it is relatively easy to see instances of this last feature all over Iraq). In some respects, it feels like one is being blasted by an over-sized hair dryer. You may recall from a previous letter that I mentioned that the soap at the hand washing facility outside the mess halls was rather warm – at present, it is sometimes like one risks getting third degree burns when washing hands.

Work continues on unabated, although my replacement arrives in about one week’s time so it will be good to hand some work over to him. I am about to embark upon a final and rather large project which will be rather time consuming, so it will be handy to have my replacement around to take up a bit of the burden.

With months of rude comments from the dearly beloved parents about my current eating habits, I have to announce that I am attempting to do some fitness stuff… Merely uttering those words causes a shiver up my spine. It pains me too much to go on discussing this subject, so I might stop now.

15 July 04

Everyone has different experiences and views on being here and one of the most visible examples of this is by going from a big base (such as where I am based at) to a small tactical unit in the middle of wherever. The austere and Spartan nature of tactical bases is a fascinating thing as is the completely different perspective of the guys who are manning guard posts all over the country. They are often without the relative creature comforts of Camp Victory, are focused on the real tactical fight and often coming to terms with terrible experiences that they have suffered. One particular trip I was on was haunting in that respect as I spent quite a bit of time in an operations room with a couple of young soldiers who had just lost a friend in horrible circumstances. Being an Australian has been somewhat fortuitous as here is a novelty value for American soldiers to meet Australians it seems. Not only do I carry a strange looking weapon, but I come from the same place that Steve Urwin comes from. I can’t quite envisage what it must be like to be in the situation that some of these guys are in, an existence that seems to be a little brutish and certainly dehumanizing in nature.

16 July 04

I must say that I am finding it a little difficult to not only find the time to write, but to also find the subject matter to write about to enthrall all of the benevolent readers of my emails home.

My replacement arrives today – quite a significant moment. It seems but yesterday that I was the replacement, stepping into a torrent of war, violence and ridiculous staff work. It has actually been a rather sad week for me as four of my closest friends have departed from Iraq. If nothing else, my time here has allowed me to form some wonderful friendships with many fine and upstanding people which will, of course, force me to wander around parts of Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States reliving tales of war: the hardship of only having three kinds of donuts at breakfast; the breakneck speed with which we would act on an ill-conceived word of someone from on high and create an even more ill-conceived plan; and the many hours that many of us dedicated to ensure that we were serving the people of Iraq and our forces to the best of our ability. When planning an operation involves the death of our soldiers and Iraqi civilians, a burden does exist.

It is interesting to consider how different people experience and perceive war, and perhaps how we all seek to validate our worth to the cause, and then sometimes look down on those who we perceive as having done less. The reality in a modern war, and particularly a modern insurgent war, is that all are in harm’s way, whether by direct attack or the enemy just firing off in the general direction of something resembling us (or the Iraqi government these days).

Indeed watching the international reaction to the war has been fascinating and rather saddening at the same time. It is a bit demoralizing to see the political rubbish that is going on over Iraq – just like most interventions, the true failing seems to be that the international community is unwilling to expend the time and resources to make the lives of ordinary and often oppressed people better. To focus on WMD (although a mess) to the detriment of admitting that Saddam Hussein had to be removed is a tragic thing. There is no valid excuse for suggesting that he should have remained in power – one who is here sees and experiences enough to understand that. Of course, there are a range of other nations that need significant intervention, but perhaps one must recognise that it is not possible or practical to achieve this throughout the world’s trouble spots all at once.

I might stop ranting there. I have started to determine the range of papers that I wish to write over the next few years, and perhaps get published in a journal or two. My good author friend has suggested that I need to write a bit about food and vocabulary, which are critical components of any Coalition campaign.

Actually, I must say that I had my first milkshake in six months yesterday – it was absolutely lovely. There are ten or twelve thousand soldiers living on the base that I am at so the range of dining facilities has somewhat expanded (as has the quality and so on). It is certainly nice to be able to have some nice meals – even when I am quaffing some ten year old Cabernet with a lovely eye fillet for sustenance, I think that I will not entirely view my dining experiences over here as somewhat akin to pig swill. In my last letter, I think that I may have mentioned that I have been looking lustfully at the cooking section of a number of magazines – unfortunately I must admit that this recent craze has not subsided. I think that I shall have to compile a veritable list of things I wish to consume within fifteen milliseconds of getting home.

It has been amusing and a cultural experience to watch people warming up for election season over here (the US election that is). One is quite flabbergasted by the amount of energy, effort and money that is being poured out as oblations to some god of elections (if there is such a beast). I think that I would feel infinitely sorry for a Democrat supporter around most of my friends. Some may despise George Bush and/or his underlings, but all completely loathe the opposition. The political discussions are endless and whilst I care for my friends’ opinions on many things, discovering that the Democratic candidate for president in 1922 publicly admitted that he was a hermaphrodite in a small park in downtown Denver, Colorado is not high on my list of life’s mysteries that I am interested in learning about.

Actually there is apparently one incredibly amusing advertisement from the Bush camp that I haven’t actually seen myself. My understanding is that during the Democratic process for selecting the presidential candidate, John Kerry ran an advertisement or something against John Edwards, then his adversary and now his running mate. This advertisement stated that Edwards was absolutely hopeless and would be a complete nincompoop as President of the United States. Well, without saying much in the advertisement themselves, the Republicans have made up a rather damning ad (which is also rather funny).

As I have written this, I feel that it is perhaps necessary to invite the usual audience over to the family residence for the normal BBQ etc – perhaps the first or second weekend of August. I am sure that the parents would be more than delighted and that I have their imprimatur to put out such an invitation, isn’t that correct, my dear parents? I shall come up with a cunning plan and send out the relevant information, although many of you know that I am absolutely terrible with sending out invitations with any real degree of notice or relevant information.

On a totally different matter: in concert with my requirement to purchase a second alarm clock a while ago, I have now discovered the best way to wake up – be so tired that you don’t hear your alarm clock going off ten centimeters away from your ear, wait twenty minutes for someone else to get really sick of hearing your alarm clock (or should I say clocks), and then get woken up by an irate person. It has now worked on numerous occasions, which has been good. Although, there might be a hidden message somewhere in all that suggesting that I need more sleep or something to that effect.

At this point, I might be incredibly slack and sign off. This is without a doubt, my shortest email in quite a long time, for which I offer my most sincere apalogies (no – I have not misspelled apologies: for information, watch the second series of Blackadder, the showing of which has been a resounding success many of my American colleagues).

Yours,

James

17 July 04

To follow on from an earlier comment about international involvement in Iraq, there is another aspect to this that needs to be taken seriously. While I recognise that many have deep reservations about the war, it is a rather inescapable fact that the conflict has had consequences, intended and unintended. It is not useful for the opponents of the war to sit back and watch what they might see as the implosion of Iraq and offer no assistance. That would perhaps be like the fire brigade sitting outside a burning house and doing nothing aside from criticising whoever started it. The international community is consistently good at this and certainly has been in Iraq. I sincerely hope that history is more critical of those who stood by for years and allowed the Iraqi regime to survive than those that did something despite some aspects being ill-conceived or poorly undertaken.

21 July 04

I think the time has now come to go home. While happy to stay longer as requested by my boss, a lot of my closest friends have now departed for home. In many respects, the intimate bonds of friendship formed here become the key emotional crutch that supports throughout the stressful experiences. I think that this really came home to me one night walking home. Normally two of my strategic assessment group hang around for me to email the assessment to the four corners of the globe and then we wander home after the obligatory discussion of life, the universe and everything to the accompaniment of cigars, fake beer and fireworks. These have always been special discussions where the normal frustrations of junior officers get vented and debated. Each night now for a long time we would wander off towards our beds; my two friends would take their helmets and end up in their tents, sometimes with some complementary shrapnel perforating the roof of their tent provided by our hosts, and I would wander off to my hardened building. This was also a source of guilt and perhaps shame having all my friends sleeping hours completely exposed while I had the relative comfort and safety of a mini-palace. But now my mates have left and I must make the lonely trip home without friends to chat about high and mighty intellectual things.

EPILOGUE – EARLY 2005

I never finished a final letter – life was too busy up until my departure from Iraq. It is perhaps important to admit that I did enjoy a couple of trips to Basra in southern Iraq with some of my British mates.

My last few days in Iraq hardly brought my time there to an end. Almost to the moment that I left for Baghdad International Airport on my final day, I was tied up in various events and operations. There was no ability to sit back and relax for the last couple of days, decompress or indeed reflect on what I had done during my time in Iraq. Within about ten hours of leaving my office in Camp Victory, I was in the international airport in Kuwait somewhat at a loss. It was time to rest and certainly have a drink upon reaching Dubai, but that was something that was not available to my mates back in Iraq. It was so strange to be back in civilised society without facing an imminent return to Iraq. Trying to transition from war to peace suddenly is not easy, nor is the transition from a life and death environment to an office environment. Complete exhaustion temporarily solved this by preventing me from thinking of anything other than sleep.

The family was certainly happy for me to be home. Thankfully there were at least no overly embarrassing emotions displayed at the airport. There is continued suspicion by family and friends that my experiences in Iraq have forever changed me and that I might be haunted by particular events. Perhaps being involved in a war reduces the amount of humanity and compassion that an individual has. Perhaps seeing continued media reports of human tragedy has the same effect, although less personal.

Vivid images of being in Iraq remain despite having left there over six months ago. I am not completely certain that I have truly left Iraq. I am no longer working there, but my thoughts and emotions continue to wander in that direction. I wish that I had served out my time with my brothers until early 2005. Now that some of my friends are returning there again for their second, third or fourth tour, I would desperately like to be there with them. It is somewhat morbid to admit, but I often look at the CNN web pages detailing casualty figures in Iraq, seeing what units have been in action and lost soldiers, hoping to God that none of my friends are mentioned, and forever seeing the number of young men and women whose lives have been snuffed out far too early.

Comparing my thoughts and experiences to some who have written of war has been an important thing to do. I do not dare suggest that my own experiences bare any resemblance to the intensity of battle. However, there is perhaps still a common theme in which war takes away some component of what makes us human and yet still creates an environment where achievement, dedication and sacrifice hail some of the most noble attributes of humanity.

In Iraq, as in any conflict, one can see how those in the tactical environment bare the brunt of politics, however illogical from a military perspective. Soldiers, as apolitical servants of their governments (or at least should be), are often called on to undertake action on behalf of those that they serve that requires a degree of commitment that often gets missed in political machinations. One of my favourite Australian military heroes, Ralph Honner once wrote “that glory is not of the exultation of war but of the exaltation of man, the nobility of man sublimated in the fiery crucible of war, shinning faithfulness and fortitude and gentleness and compassion elevated from all dross.”  Despite some tragic examples to the contrary, the men and women serving in Iraq (Coalition and Iraqi) continually demonstrated this. War is tragic and often carried out in an imperfect manner, but one must hope that the sacrifices are not in vain.

It is my fervent hope that Iraq fulfils its potential of being a vibrant country, given the amount that it can offer culturally, economically and even politically. In all three, it has the ability to excel and possibly even demonstrate leadership in these issues in a troubled region. Conflict in the Middle East has often overshadowed the rich cultures and diverse societies present and past that have inhabited that part of the world. This optimism is of course tempered by the reality of the difficult path ahead. An immediate transformation to democracy is not realistic, nor is the end to the ethnic of religious friction that has existed for centuries. Sadly the international community’s unwillingness to commit to establishing responsible governments in place of despots and failed states has also been amply displayed. I remain truly delighted that an evil despot has been brought to account and that an opportunity exists to create something better – indeed a difficult challenge, but worth it given the sacrifice of ordinary people whether from a small town in the US or in Iraq.

One thought on “Dispatches from the front – July 2004

  1. I didn’t realise these epistles were extended and to come to them now after you have returned from Afghanistan is cause for reflection by me. Not just as your father but as a person who is interested in what is written.
    I read of Fort Hood in the US where 75 service personnel have committed suicide as a result of being in Iraq and Afghanistan and the thousands who have been injured. Can Justice and Beauty be restored to them? Governments do make decisions and the ordinary pay such a high price.
    As for you, I trust your sense of Justice and Beauty in the society to which you have returned are there for you to experience and enjoy.
    Bishop Tom Wright makes the point that these two plus the proclamation of the Gospel are essential for the wellbeing of society. By the Gospel he does note Jesus and not Caesar is Lord and so the invitation to come Home can truly be offered. To come Home – physically, existentially, to One’s self is the fundamental invitation from the Gospel.

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