Dispatches from the front – June 2004

Month Overview

June was principally notable for one key thing – the occupation ended and a sovereign Iraqi government was instated. While not representative by democratic notions, it certainly represented a wide range of the various ethnic groups that comprise Iraqi society.

The violence of April seemed to have abated and was replaced by operations to support the peaceful transition to sovereignty and importantly the development of partnership between the Coalition and our Iraqi brethren. From a personal standpoint, it was interesting to see Lakhdar Brahimi in operation as the UN looked to become more involved in Iraq since their withdrawal in late 2003.

02 June 04

I found Australia and particularly the prevalent media attitudes about Iraq to be really demoralising. I think some people have been dismissive to the family when told that they have a son in Iraq – very different from when I was in East Timor. As I am so closely involved in a situation like Iraq, I have become very emotionally attached to it all and so perhaps I am rather defensive about the whole thing. I am completely sick of reading about how the war is illegal or whatever. The war happened and there are now consequences to deal with and there is not point complaining – there is a job to do whether we like it or not. I think the removal of Saddam Hussein is an extremely righteous thing to do and I don’t understand how the dialogue about the war misses this point.

There are some heartbreaking things about what has happened in Iraq – the prisoner abuse scandals and a few other things really hurt a lot of the good work that we do. I take the approach that some of my US friends do regarding this. They are disgusted as I am but they would point to the big picture and say: Saddam is gone; a system of good governance is being established; for the first time public utilities are being built without favouritism and to the benefit of the Iraqi people; Iraq has a bright future and the potential to really become an economic powerhouse (even without oil). I find it difficult to argue with this logic. I sometimes wonder whether some thought the same at the end of World War Two. Going further, did the Allies do the right thing in waiting for Hitler to invade Poland? I think not. The “peace in our time” from Neville Chamberlin showed a failed approach which I would perhaps liken to those who advocated a conciliatory approach to Saddam.

05 June 04

It is probably time for me to delve into the exercise of writing about my goings on in this rather forlorn part of the world. I must say that I am sort of happy to be back with my brother officers – I did miss them while I was back in Australia. Perhaps there was a degree of unfairness that they remained in a war zone, while I have had the luxury of time in Australia with family and friends.

Of course, having tasted the life of luxury back home, my first foray into the chow hall (the dining facility) ended with weeping and gnashing of teeth and the tearing of clothes. It would be remiss of me to not mention that I have had one or two reasonable bits of steak over here however. It is hard, but luckily the 25kg of “health food” that I brought back has assisted in this most difficult transition process. Indeed the majority of the aforesaid was basically inhaled, and mum’s Anzac biscuits were hailed as the best yet by my American brethren (i.e. Mum – we need more to maintain diplomatic relations). Even the Iced Vovos have now taken on a following, and as always, the Tim Tam remains a cornerstone of the vibrant world of Australian confectionary.

To indulge the masochistic streak that seems to run through my persona, I was able to walk straight back into my intense job, having ridiculously late nights and very busy days. It is currently only one in the morning – I finished my work early, and so I have this opportunity to write. As we move towards the impending date of 30 June – the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people – there is a lot of work that needs doing. I have now resigned myself to working ungentlemanly hours, and even come in before nine in the morning (really quite shocking, I know).

The time of my return has certainly been fascinating, not only as a front row spectator of events as they unfold, who has some involvement as to how events unfold, but also through being exposed to the whole spectrum of thoughts about the mission here. Trying to find a balanced perspective among this range of thoughts and emotions about Iraq is an interesting process, and I think that this reflection is important given some of the work that I have to do. The other day I had a great talk to someone working in one of the government ministries discussing the way Iraqis were treated by Coalition soldiers and then shortly after meeting two young Marines who had been wounded in action (one who had been wounded a number of times before). Another saddening comparison relates to the outcry over the treatment of some prisoners at Abu Ghurayb – while in itself a tragic action, it is somewhat overshadowed by having an exposure to some of the work being done about the tens and hundreds of thousands of people in mass graves that were murdered by Saddam and his minions…

Anyway, that is almost enough of seriousness. I was honoured to witness a Memorial Day service a couple of days ago. While it has some semblance of a US form of Anzac Day, it is perhaps not so prominent as our commemoration. As with Anzac Day, I think a day of commemoration such as this takes on new significance when one considers that our fellow servicemen and women are dying and being wounded around us. Lieutenant General Sanchez spoke well, as one would expect. He has quite an amazing intellect and his recollection ability is impressive – I would hate to brief him without knowing my subject matter as it would be rather deleterious to my ego. Our British Major General, General Graham played the bagpipes. He is an absolutely top chap, and has brought a unique set of experiences to Iraq, from spending some of his childhood here through to work in other counter-insurgency operations.

5 June 2004

There is a degree of guilt I feel that is associated with the easy Australian conditions of service as opposed to those of our US brethren. I am certainly personally grateful for the opportunity to spend some time visiting the family and so on, plus all the perks associated with being deployed. It does not seem to fit into our culture of semi-equality in Australia when our mates that we work with lack similar comforts.

As I start to look on this deployment from the perspective of being tangibly close to going home, it is good to think about some of the things that have sustained the deployment. The role of music in the lives of soldiers has been covered by a documentary (which I haven’t seen) and I think that music has certainly played a central part in the lives of many of us here. A number in the office have been quite involved with the church music scene here and it is nice to sometimes hear the dulcet tones of a banjo or mandolin late at night. I have certainly been able to use classical music to provide a degree of ethereal escapism and there is something that is very peaceful about wandering through some Bach preludes and the like.

To some degree, my musical tastes have been altered by my deployment here and perhaps it revolves around becoming a bit more American. I certainly feel more at home with my US brethren than with the Australians here on base, save only those that are also integrated into the US war effort. At the start of this deployment, I felt that it was a great thing for there to be Australian BBQs but these are not something I have been to or interested in going to for some months. Aside from not having the time, my work and life experiences here are so dramatically different from the people that attend these and any socialising that I wish to do is centred around my predominantly US friends. The degree of separation is going to be a strange thing to overcome when I get home to Australia and there will be a great deal of culture shock going back into the Australian military proper. I don’t think that this is something that I am interested in doing to be perfectly honest, and rather than fortify any desire to stay in the Australian army, I think this deployment will actually hasten my departure from it.

07 June 04

Well, the time has finally come. I was hoping to avert it but I have realized that I had little choice…

As I am sure that you can all guess, I have had the need to get a second alarm clock. One is no longer sufficient, and my subconscious ability to turn one ringing alarm clock off is not really assisting me in my endeavour to be up at the rather rude hour of eight am each day. Sadly I have discovered that my abilities have subconsciously extended themselves to turning the second alarm clock off as well. Perhaps it has something to do with working long hours every single day. Oh well – one must strive valiantly in the cause of peace and stability for the downtrodden people of Iraq.

Yesterday was a fairly sad day for me as one of my key mentors, Lieutenant Colonel George (who was also my American interpreter) left after a year in Iraq. He had an amazing intellect and was a great contributor to the war effort here, and also a thoroughly good chap. While I am certain that he will be happy to be reunited with his wife and young daughters, he will probably miss being kept up by me at ungodly hours doing work. And of course, he had been a member of the tea drinking fraternity, so I have lost a fellow devotee of tea (which sparked a little party several hundred years ago that led to a bit of a rebellion in the Americas).

I had the honour of reading out the citation for his Defence Meritorious Service Medal which was presented to him by one of the general officers from a Coalition country. He indicated that when someone is given a decoration it is traditionally to toast them. Due to our inability to consume alcohol, he toasted George on our behalf – with a second helping to make up for the similar restriction George was under. It was funny particularly given that it looked like the good general was going to choke on the scotch or whatever it was when doing the toast.

Indeed today is also sad as another good chap, Colonel W, is going (also after a year here). He has been bounced from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa to here over the last two and a half years so he too will be happy to get back to the US – although he will still be very busy. Unfortunately, there will be a large changeover in staff as we head towards the middle of the year. This means that the group dynamic that has served us so well, and made our time thoroughly enjoyable will be forever changed.

While I was back in Australia, there was a split in the headquarters, which was a bit like a divorce with the children being split between parents. There were a couple of custody disputes, the majority of which were resolved save the dispute over me, whereby both “parents” were granted custody rights. I now have two desks separately by sixty five steps, so I am becoming too familiar with the lost art of stair climbing (which I would be happy to forget). I spend half the day (until about five pm) doing tactical stuff and then up until one or two am doing the strategic stuff.

The other major thing that happened while I was away was that God thought it would be amusing to turn the heat up, which he has done to the detriment of my comfort levels. Yesterday it was around 110 degrees fahrenheit which is equal to 43 degrees centigrade (or obnoxiously hot to be simply put). Even though God may find it absolutely hilarious, I frankly do not. Indeed if pagan sacrifices would assuage the pain caused by this oversized oven, I am sure the price of speckled pigeons (or whatever is the current sacrificial animal of choice) would be raised considerably. Unless you went to school with Beelzebub and were invited for a sleep over in hell back in second grade, you would be totally unprepared for the charming climate. Prior to going into the dining facility, we are required to wash our hands, for which one can recognise some important health benefits. However, by evening the liquid soap can take on the adjective hot, so rather than solely cleansing the hands with soap, we are also offered the opportunity to burn ourselves (I suppose that heat kills germs as well though). If I am not mistaken, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego might have had this experience at some point (again those Sunday school classes come back to haunt me).

08 June 04

It is now approaching midnight with alarming speed. Unfortunately a fairly late night is in line for me. The new Iraq resolution is to be voted on well after midnight, so I get to stay up and ponder once the outcome is known. While I tried to get through to the UN Secretary General and suggest that he was being indecent about the scheduling of this event, I missed him and so the vote is at a truly inconvenient time for me. To be perfectly honest, I am almost completely and utterly asleep, although by some miracle, I am still writing relatively coherent sentences. At least, the opportunity presents itself to send this latest missive off.

I can happily say that I am back to my tired/semi-exhausted state, only two weeks into the second half of my wanderings in the desert. Over the next couple of weeks in the lead up to the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, things are liable to become rather hot (and not just the temperature). Some of the bad guys are getting restless, which isn’t too great for peace and quiet. One gets rather sick of them taking pot shots at convoys and so on, and the suicide bombings are not the done thing – all very ungentlemanly. It would be so much easier if we could have a duel at dawn, a chess game or a drinking competition or really anything that would take less effort. The enemy should just be leaving us to meander around historical sites or something more enjoyable.

At about one am this morning, I met a couple of the weather chaps and following my recent diatribe, they were both in complete agreement when I suggested that they could stay home in the US and just send emails to us alternating their assessments between hot, really hot and incredibly hot. We are getting far too close to the 50 degree centigrade mark…

09 June 04

It is now the morning of the 9th and I will finish up as the big UN vote is about to occur, so I must await it with baited breath. There was a rather large fireworks display this evening for us this evening as we sat on a balcony of the palace looking out over Baghdad. It is always surreal to be sitting with feet up and cigars and fake beer on hand and in the distance see death and destruction happening before our eyes.

Anyway, not to leave the letter at such a charming point, I think it would be valuable to see whether the palace I am in sets a world record for the most bathrooms and sinks. Of course I am not too sure whether the Guiness Book of Records has an entry for this. The bathroom that adjoins the ballroom that is now one of my offices has three sinks per toilet which is yet again a little reminiscent of living in Brunei.

So I hope that this letter finds all in good spirits and of course joyous acclamation that John W is back up in the polls.

Fondest regards,

James

14 June 04

The tragedy of moving from our kitchen aside, a really calming thing has been to sit on the balcony of the palace and talk through our lives with friends. I think that junior officers are often quite passionate about life, perhaps similar to the young men in Les Miserables or something. One of my mates has seen a couple of his classmates killed here – I am not sure how I would cope if I was in the same position. Many of us have frustrations with the way things are going here or with the way our respective militaries are headed – possibly a universal trait. However these discussions always make us feel better, whether we talk of home or what is going on in Iraq. I think I will miss this when I go home as bonds such as this are often only formed in such trying situations.

22 June 04

Well hello all (six out of the eleven letters are l – very impressive).

It is difficult to believe that it was but a month ago that I was supping in style, drinking with delight and rather enjoying myself in the beloved Brisbane, capital of the new Jerusalem. And indeed, given my incredulity over the vanished month, I imagine that in about six or so weeks when I am back in the motherland, I will also wonder where the remainder of June and the whole of July went.

Two weeks away from work equates to a tad over two hundred hours of work that I have had to catch up on since returning. Unfortunately, I have thus had the great opportunity to increase my hours in the office in a true workaholic binge (my performance report has even noted that I have worked an average of seventeen hours a day every single day that I have been here). Whilst not wishing to compete for a world record for ridiculous hours spent at work, I am surprised that I am not more tired. Of course the dulcet tones caused by the snoring of many people have allowed great sleep too, for which I will be eternally grateful. I have actually slept in my office a couple of times where time for sleep has been rather slim – while less comfortable, it is certainly more peaceful.

Work has changed direction a little for me since my return. I am still working each night on a key piece of assessment for some of the senior chaps over here discussing life, the universe and everything. This has allowed me a degree of freedom to be a free range Captain, which is what I like, and indeed given me a rather unique insight into the war and its curious machinations.

However the new addition to work has been to get involved in supporting the establishment of Iraq’s government structures that is incredibly rewarding. It is very interesting to see the genesis of a new government, particularly in such an extreme environment such as this. A lot of the Iraqis I have had the honour to meet have made great personal sacrifices to be involved in creating a new Iraq – almost all have lost loved ones thanks to the previous regime, many have been involved in tragic incidents with the enemy, and an increasing number are being killed by some terribly awful people (I am lucky in that none of my Iraqi friends have suffered this last fate yet). I have met a fantastic range of chaps that are involved in some of the government ministries. There is a young Iraqi military officer who studied law in Mosul, so we had a common educational bond (i.e. not turning up to lectures, finding particular subjects terribly boring and so on). One of my other friends was an aeronautical engineer in a previous existence so he and one of my brother officers seem to discuss sub-sonic defusers and other strange contraptions all the time (if anyone can enlighten me as to what a sub-sonic defuser is, I would be most grateful – was it something in Star Wars or Back to the Future by any chance)?

In my struggle to spread the “good word” (or at least how to speak or spell words), I acquired a copy of Blackadder Goes Forth (the World War One version). It has proved a hit with many of the chaps and indeed has hopefully provided a glimpse of a higher form of comedy than sitcom stuff. Watching such a thing in a war zone is indeed a unique experience – while we are not enveloped in some ridiculous form of trench war (as in the show), there are a number of similarities that one can draw…

In writing this little edition, it has been a bit of a struggle to thing of amusing things to discuss, as it is sometimes difficult to spot rays of hope and sunshine in a world plunged into darkness.

23 June 04

Perhaps the second great thing for me that has occurred since returning to Iraq has been the opportunity to interact with some groups of Iraqis. It is funny wandering into a building full of Iraqis brandishing AK-47s and so on, and feeling perfectly at ease. Unfortunately my ability to communicate has been hampered by minimal knowledge of Arabic. Luckily though, a good little ice breaker has been to chat about the similarities between Malay and Arabic and indeed attempt to learn a few words each day. A month or two ago, it was funny to show my first Arabic text book to our Shi’a compatriot who works with us. I had it in Brunei as a small chap and it was Malay-Arabic. Being able to break bread with Iraqis is a truly lovely experience. I have had a couple of meals in a mess all which is predominantly used by members of the Iraqi government and military. Certainly some of these have their own political agendas to push but one common thread is that many have horrific stories to tell, not about the evil Coalition, but some of the surrounding terror and thirty years of subjugation.

24 June 04

In forty three days, I will be on my journey home, and indeed this seems to be galloping up in leaps and bounds. I sat by the rivers of Babylon today contemplating some of the things that I felt that I needed to record in my record of the war and so have been able to chart a bit of a course through the intricacies of life here. Perhaps my biggest concern (that was also raised by a dear friend here) is that I have not sufficiently mentioned all the people that have had an impact on my time here. In my last month and a bit, I feel that I must dedicate some time to this (although not quite yet). I finished work early this evening so it is only one am, and thus the opportunity arises yet again to type a couple of words.

As indicated when I finished off two days ago, it is indeed difficult to write happy things all the time. With Iraqis and others being murdered by extremists and the enemy increasing their range practices with indirect fire weapons, one could perhaps feel somewhat perturbed by the state of affairs. I must pass on a little secret though. Anyone who has seen a picture of the palace in which I work may have noticed that we are surrounded by a lake. In an effort to protect ourselves from enemy frogmen, the Coalition stole all of the mutated sea bass from the Austin Powers movies and popped them in the lake (indeed a veritable moat). While lacking the laser beams, they still present a stiff defensive mechanism and their ability to rip a bird to shreds is utterly amazing (except perhaps for the unfortunate bird). I would hate to fall in as I think death would come, either from the poisoned water (it looks pretty awful, somewhat like boarding house soup) or from roaming fish death squads. Some people are now feeding them bread and other stuff, as one would feed geese at parks and so on. There may be an element of people just trying to keep on the good side of the fish as one never knows when an enemy submarine might hove into view.

The evenings continue as normal, sitting out on a balcony overlooking the tragedy of Baghdad. I am sometimes reminded of my readings of Suetonius and Tacitus discussing the behaviour of selected Roman emperors. I think the musical Nero overseeing the small bush fire in Rome comes to mind more than anything else. It is a very surreal experience to see things happen in the distance and know that there are a few good lads in harm’s way (and sometimes see the results of this) – seeing a medical helicopter make a fast, but lonely, pass overhead is always something that causes us to pause and consider how lucky we are to be in a more safe environment.

25 June 04

One enjoyable and rather non-warlike thing that occasionally happens at night is that we gaze up at satellites. Our space planner has a rather uncanny ability to point out satellites as they go along their merry way a million miles away from our location. In recent days, we have watched the Hubble space telescope thing go zooming by. As there isn’t a large degree of light around, probably more by terrorists blowing up power stations as opposed to a cunning plan on our behalf, the ability exists to look up towards the heavens and behold a vast array of constellations, and even satellites sometimes.

Today provided yet another example of violence and brutality – I have yet to hear a valid reason as to why the enemy thinks that it is alright to kill and maim Iraqis. Flying around southern Iraq yesterday, I was again struck by the potential for Iraq to develop into an amazing and vibrant country. Wandering into the Darius’ et al throne room in Babylon, I imagined what it might be like in a few years with lots of tourists lined up to visit such remarkable sites. From my earlier visit to Babylon, I may not have mentioned that Nebuchadnezzar had many bricks stamped in cuneiform script indicating that he was a rather important chap. In more recent times, Saddam did the same in portions of the ruins that he built over. I even saw the part of the ruins that must have held a museum and library in ancient times (and perhaps some of the cuneiform tablets used to translate the Epic of Gilgamesh came from there as well). I am quite convinced that Iraq would hardly require oil to do well financially with its tourist, agricultural and mining potential.

At this juncture in the year, a large changeover of staff is underway and so many of my cronies (along with me) will be popping off to less explosive parts of the world. It is obviously a sad occasion, although with this change has come a number of new personalities. I have been fairly fortunate that the team has been joined by Austin Bay, a US fellow who divides his time between being a Colonel in the army and a political commentator and professor back home. He and I have had some very enjoyable discussions about good solid intellectual matters such as reform in Islam and so on – while perhaps it is sometimes easy to think of the military as a monolithic morass of idiocy (particularly when watching films), there are indeed a wide variety of amazing and intelligent individuals all doing their best for Queen and country, or presumably President and country. I have met agricultural, banking, legal experts, all donned in uniform, trying to pick up the fragments of a destroyed country. By destroyed I refer to the fractured government run by the former regime whose sole aim and purpose was to uphold Saddam.

28 June 04

Sitting on the balcony of the palace with friends (and of course the obligatory cigars), we gazed out over a quiet Baghdad and indeed an independent, sovereign Iraq. It is quite an historic occasion, as Iraq has its first government that is moving towards a path of good governance in Iraq in a very long time. Indeed it is the first time ever that there is a Shi’a ruler in central Mesopotamia – the Ottoman Empire and the preceding Caliphates were Sunni as were the Hashimite rulers and more recently Saddam Hussein (whose life expectancy is not overly great I think).

30 June 04

What a momentous few days. The enemy got pipped at the post or whatever the saying is and now there is an Iraqi government that does a pretty good job at representing the multi-cultural Iraqi community. It is strange to consider that – a multi-cultural Iraq. Aside from all the amazing resources that Iraq has, it is somewhat of a cultural melting pot where Persian, Arab, Kurd, Turkoman and other cultures all intersect. Of course that has not ever really been a feature of Iraqi governance until now. One might even draw some similarities to apartheid in South Africa where a minority ruled to the utter detriment of all others unless they were surrogates of the regime. Yet again this is another issue conveniently forgotten. Some in the West point to some of the tragedies of our mission. The human rights abuses by some of our personnel are disgraceful, tragic and undermine our aims and objectives in Iraq, but does anyone yell loudly in support of the work of some people here to unearth mass graves of those who died under the former regime or criticise those who seem unmoved by involvement in blowing up groups of school children or guys trying to become police officers and provide for their families?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s