Dispatches from the Front – March 2004

Month Overview

March started and ended with notable violent events. At the start of March, the previously subjugated Shia had the opportunity to commemorate the Ashura (related to the martyrdom of a key Shia personality) which had been denied under the Saddam Hussein regime. Sadly these pilgrims became the targets of several suicide bombers resulting in several hundred deaths. The end of March saw the death of four US contractors in Fallujah which was the catalyst for some heavy fighting in April. This month also saw substantial transfers of units within Iraq including 1 Marine Expeditionary Force taking control of the Al Anbar Province in Western Iraq.

03 March 04

The cavalry arrived in the form of every conceivable type of Tim Tam which, with some well timed Anzac biscuits, finally subdued any final opposition from US biscuit manufacturers. After mentioning my recent visit to Babylon in my last email, I felt that it was important to check out the seat of power of the Assyrian Empire (which preceded the Persian Empire). As such, a visit to Nineveh was undertaken (actually it was a work trip to Mosul) which is the site of Nineveh. Thanks to my small library, I was able to read about its sacking in 612 BC (I think). It is really quite amazing to visit these ancient sites that are generally only referred to in the maps at the back of the family bible or some of the literature I like to read. As with Babylon, it is tragic that such a site is not given the proper protection and restoration support required to look after it. Iraq is amazing in terms of its tourist potential with a huge range of sites dating back thousands of years.

Sadly the visit to Mosul did not end up incorporating a visit to the site of where Jonah decided that the stomach of a whale was a better home than the crazy metropolis that was Nineveh. Some of the chaps there told me that the site was full of squatters and baddies, so it was probably best that I didn’t go there. Perhaps next time …

Yesterday was another tragic demonstration of the behaviour of some of the charming people we have to deal with. My understanding is that the multiple suicide attacks all over the place were widely reported in Australia, so perhaps you are aware of what I am talking about. Regardless of the gripe of the terrorists with those of us sporting rather ugly attire that was designed without taste, there is zero excuse for killing the innocents engaging in a holy occasion.

Anyway, with those unfortunate thoughts, I will dispatch this email to you all in the hope that all bodes well.

With fondest regards,

James

04 March 04

The Ashura attacks on 2 Mar were completely expected. Indeed the inability that we had to prevent this tragedy made it the more attractive for the enemy. As one of the lead planners involved in looking at this issue, I can at least know that there was nothing that we could have done to truly prevent it and that it was certainly a win-win situation for the enemy. Hence why it was such an attractive target for the enemy. Perhaps though, it will highlight to the world that the terrorists we are dealing with here have no place in society and for whom there is minimal scope for redemption. Then again seeing the way Western press seem to portray events in Iraq, it is highly unlikely. Fox is often criticised for claiming to be fair and balanced and I certainly am rather dismissive of their claim, but then all media outlets are fairly horrific.

06 March 04

And so the saga continues…

Even though it is less than a week since the death of 200 Shia pilgrims, life and work continue on unabated as there is perhaps little time to focus on yet another human tragedy in the tapestry of sadness that is Iraq. One of the chaps I work with (an Iraqi Shia) had to bury the arm of a friend as it was all that was left after one of the explosions in Karbala – it was only recognisable because the deceased had his daughter’s name tattooed on his arm…

The more I see of Iraq, the more convinced I am of the validity and good reasons for removing Saddam. There was nothing good, noble or legitimate about his regime and all it did was provide a good life for him and his mates, while causing the remainder of the country to suffer untold deprivation. Moving from one brand new palace compound to another via streets where children play in raw sewerage perhaps gives a brief insight into some of the different life conditions here.

It is rather unfortunate that in the west we are rather fixated by the manner in which Saddam’s removal occurred even though I admit that there are some issues with that. Perhaps it is more important and ultimately more beneficial to recognise that there are a range of countries and regimes that are completely unacceptable in a civilised world and then to try and find an appropriate and effective way for intervention (which the UN can’t really do even though it has the legal basis to do so). Anyway, I apologise for transgressing the rule I set in my first email about sticking to the flippant in my dispatches home, but perhaps it was important to take a moment to consider some of the unfortunate circumstances that exist here. There are a range of experiences here that I think will serve me well for some future study if I so desire. This is of course with the sole purpose in mind of gaining more degrees than my parents, which I think I have already done although they refuse to admit it.

06 March 04

Dad asked me this morning about a media report in Australia indicating that BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) had been hit by six rockets, and whether there was any danger to us. I suppose the unfortunate reality is that the whole military area of BIAP and Victory takes up to forty rockets and/or mortars each week on average. As has been indicated in previous instalments, I continue to be truly amazed that one of these things hasn’t killed any substantial number of guys (although someone was killed a couple of weeks back). Sometimes when rockets or mortars fly over head whilst on the phone home, I am surprised that no one hears – perhaps it is for the best.

11 March 04

I was actually going to add some more amusing comments on 6 Mar, but was too busy and now it is five days later. That is the way of life here though – time goes by at an amazing pace. Well, yesterday was my birthday and it bore some remarkable resemblance to my birthday last year – doing Iraq stuff for about sixteen hours and my birthday mail from the parents delayed by defence mail by a day…

However, it was an enjoyable day, with fake beer freely flowing and cigars abounding. Two of the lasses from the Australian contingent baked a lovely fruit loaf which was consumed with vigour by all. One of the fellows I work with had his farewell and my boss unofficially retired (he is still working because he is not allowed to retire) on the same day, so it was a nice combined thing. There weren’t too many explosions or gunfire last night, although any instance of this was of course celebratory fire in our honour. Actually, I share a birthday with Osama Bin Laden, which is a bit unfortunate. He really is not a decent fellow, so it is sad that 10 Mar is also the birthday of one of the biggest cads and bounders in the history of cads and bounders. As one of the chaps remarked though, he is probably commemorating his birthday in a damp cave hopefully getting pneumonia or something somewhere in Southern Uzbekistan, Upper Botswana or a similarly unfortunate portion of the earth’s surface.

15 March 04

Well, the tour in Iraq came rather close to being cut short today by a Coalition guard post. We learn in theoretical exercises that anti-aircraft artillery can be used in a ground role – this is definitely the case as I can attest to. As a result of suicide bombers in vehicles trying to run through Coalition check points, there is a policy that involves the use of pointy things that go bang. I suppose I must be grateful that the particular Coalition nation involved has a policy of warning shots and that I wasn’t in the lead vehicle of my convoy. I also am in complete agreement with anyone who says that friendly fire isn’t. I am not at all angry at the guys from the guard post. The way of life in Iraq means that sometimes you can’t afford to wait to ask questions and even if a mistake is made, you are still alive. People sometimes forget that a number of soldiers have been killed at checkpoints by suicide bombers, hence a proclivity to fire first and ask questions later.

There are some true idiots over here who believe that because of rank, heavenly protection or something, they are impervious to enemy attack. Just before I got over here a very senior soldier was killed driving around basically by himself. My little experience had some similarities to this although I suppose I can be glad to have been able to ride through some unique parts of southern Baghdad up close and personal to the Iraqi populace, something we are generally prevented from doing.

20 March 04

I am amazed that I am already in the middle of my third epistle from the land of Abraham and Jonah as it highlights how quickly time is going by. Unfortunately, some recent events have reduced my ability to think about and relate exuberant stories that are full of sweetness and light. Obviously the price of freedom has been my inability to regale you all with witty remarks about the critical part that Australian confectionery is playing for the war effort. I would be remiss in not mentioning the continued overwhelming power of the Tim Tam.

One of the critical points of the last two weeks has been to appoint my boss, Big Daddy, as the Mintie control officer (he also came up with my nickname Chops). There are two of us who are addicted to Minties which would serve to annihilate the scarce supply of the Mintie if left to our own devices. Luckily the good colonel has seen a gaping hole in the defence and plugged it by regulating the Minties supply. In response to his deed for the good of mankind (and more importantly me), I have attempted to do the same for him. He has become rather addicted to the Anzac biscuits that Mum supplies us with. In his words, it is “the biscuit that you just can’t have one of”. In addition to these Australian favourites, the festive board was graced by the presence of the Iced Vovo, which again was held in awe and reverence by my American brethren during its brief, but very meaningful life.

As one travels the world, it is imperative to fly the flag and highlight the innate superiority of the Australian confectionery item. It is with shock and horror that I could relate the story of the peanut butter and cheese biscuit, something truly gross and horrific (did Dante mention this in the Inferno??). The preoccupation of the American populace with peanut butter is disconcerting and in some regards inconceivable. My American brethren might point to the Australian love of Vegemite, but it is nowhere near as severe as the “peanut butter with everything” approach.

Indeed, I must announce that the global war on terror has now become an undeclared war on confectionary. The brothers of one of the chaps I work with was involved in the commission of a piece of psychological operations – a newspaper article back in the United States (www.journal-register.com/articles/2004/03/05/news/news2.txt). If I may relate the first sentence: “the Australian soldiers don’t think American junk food is as good as their food back home”. Sadly the remainder of the article does not highlight the true brilliance of the Australian confectionery. I can but try…

24 March 04

One is blessed with having an electronic organiser on one of my four computers, as one can discover that it is four days since the last contribution to the record of the war. The pace throughout March has been rather ungentlemanly. If there was one of those left wing, socialist monstrosities known as unions over here, they would be up in arms over the lack of time to sit down and have a soothing gin and tonic. I suppose the price of freedom is high.

As I related on the twentieth of this glorious month, a small piece of US media came to my attention. Unfortunately it seems as if the whole of the continental United States rallied round as we are now positively wading in food and coffee. I personally reached a personal best in the cumulative total of Minties, Tim Tams, nuts, biscuits and jelly beans consumed in a twenty four-hour period. The ten cups of coffee that each of us had made a mere dent in the fifteen or twenty kilograms of coffee that now adorns our kitchen.

The last couple of weeks has seen me spend a rather large amount of time in Babylon. Amidst numerous meetings, I have finally had the opportunity to wander through the ancient streets of Babylon. It is a funny thing to be able to gaze upon walls that have borne witness to Alexander the Great, Persian Emperors and, if I am not mistaken, Daniel (who had an extended stay in a Babylonian lion’s den as a result of a parking infringement or something similar). Of course, I would be remiss in failing to mention Herodotus, who described Babylon as “surpassing in splendour any city of the known world”, and who may have visited it himself. Of course this was back around 450BC, so he can be forgiven for not giving this tribute to Brisbane (of course I am unbiased). There is still some original bitumen on the processional way leading up to where the Ishtar gate once stood. While a lot of the Ishtar gate is currently enjoying a long holiday in a European museum, there is a large section still there which have the animal decorations on them (of two types of mythical beasts, one bull-like and the other dragon-like). Unfortunately I had only half an hour to tour, so hopefully I will get the opportunity to spend more time there.

My dearly beloved sibling sent over some reinforcements in the struggle against bad spelling and crass humour in the form of a Jeeves and Wooster DVD. It includes my favourite piece of PG Wodehouse literature which is Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech at the Market Snodsbury public school prize giving ceremony, with which I am sure you are all familiar.

The other day saw the opportunity to head west to see the official handover of a particular area to the 1st Marine Division. The Marine Corps band played Waltzing Matilda, which is their march. After being completely surprised when it started, the situation became surreal and touching hearing Australia’s unofficial national anthem played in the middle of Iraq by a US military band. There are lots of gum trees over here which also serve to remind me of a sunburnt country far away.

It is quite an experience to travel around the country and see what Iraq is like, albeit as an observer flying well over one hundred knots about fifty feet in the air (which is not the best after a big meal). It is nice to observe that most people are friendly when going about their daily business. I get the impression that all that the West sees is the continuous violence rather than the hustle and bustle of a country of over twenty million people. I drove past a school the other day, from which were coming hundreds of students – all the girls wearing their ninja outfits (very similar to when I went to school). However I was also able to see the local concept of an abattoir which would probably turn me into a vegetarian rather quickly. Perhaps the funniest and most incongruous thing to be found here is the overwhelming proliferation of satellite dishes. All over the country, one can find mud huts, obviously unchanged in the wake of home improvement shows, with cattle squashed together in small pens, no running water or conceivable source of electricity, a true lack of epicurean taste and a curious odour that one wishes to forget. And yet, in the midst of this ‘rustic’ country scene, a seething hotbed of modernity, one can find a satellite dish. It seems as logical as ordering a steak in a sushi bar (or voting for the Labour Party in a federal election), but it is a feature of the landscape that is rather inescapable.

Anyway, since it is three weeks since Katrina sent out my last attempt at literary brilliance, I might consider finishing this so that you can be tortured by the preceding pages. It is also late at night, so some beauty sleep is needed with the dulcet tones of the odd mortar round exploding in the distance (only joking). So as I finish off my final coffee for the day, I shall bid adieu to all of you with the continuing hope that life is well, bar the unfortunate circumstance of reading this.

Fondest regards,

James

24 March 04

Well the bad guys are finally putting some of their mortar rounds closer to the assembled masses here. A few evenings ago, someone’s living area (where all my mates live) was quickly transformed by a timely dose of high explosive. To top that off, a round landed about 150 metres from where I am currently writing this at five thirty this morning. Luckily, I am generally impervious to the slings and arrows of a ringing alarm clock, so the mortar rounds came and went, and I slept on. One feels that the bad guys might be getting a bit better – of course what they are doing is just not cricket. Luckily the shot landed in the rather large moat that surrounds the central palace here. Again, the luck of minimal casualties here to date is amazing, but it is an odds on bet that a round will land on some unlucky person at some point in the near future. I would of course be rather unimpressed if that just happened to me. I think I would have to jump 200 feet in the air and scatter myself over a wide area (again, a marvellous quote from Blackadder). Jesting aside though, it is sad to see the ever-mounting list of those killed or wounded in action. Sadly, it pales in comparison to the locals that are being killed by the enemy (particularly the police). It is quite disgusting.

I am always impressed by the men and women of the US Marine Corps who seem to almost emit a sense of professionalism and dedication. Although a USMC major greeted me in Polish when I was in Ar Ramadi thinking that I was wearing a Polish camouflage uniform, there is a degree of confidence that they seem to inspire in most of us. It was a sad thing to see that on the day that the 1st Marine Division took command of western Iraq, they had already lost a number of soldiers. The fine Marine officers I work with seem to exude many of those qualities that the modern battlefield requires – finely honed killing abilities intertwined with compassion and an understanding about the critical issue of winning the hearts and minds of the local populace. I should of course note that this does not mean that I have a similar respect for the other services, but perhaps the USMC stands apart somehow.

28 March 04

It is now two months since I departed the fair shores of Australia and arrived in the cradle of civilisation, unless you adopt the Tomb Raider 2 suggestion about some place in Africa being the cradle of civilisation (or was that Pandora’s box)? At two in the morning, my mind is not overly alert to the issues surrounding the source of life or the origins of civilisation. It is somewhat an acheivement that I have become relatively proficient in American although there are elements of the language to which I can offer no insight. In Asia it is normal for adult male friends to hold hands which of course raises one’s eyebrows. Public displays of affection are generally not the done thing, but when they occur with men holding hands, well… Anyway, I have digressed. Indeed, working with the Americans raises a similar affront to one’s sexuality (or should I say gender disposition or preference, or some other meaningless word that sounds terribly sophisticated). When a male officer first told me that I was a stud or it could have been studley/ studly (I don’t know what was said or even how to spell it as I was reeling with shock when given this apparent compliment), the stiff upper lip almost quivered. Luckily, one of my brother officers highlighted that rather than trying to fraternise (which I didn’t think was allowed in the US military), he was just saying that I was a good fellow.

It has confounded me at times when hearing utterly bizarre uses of words. For example, at the end of meetings it is common to see if there are any final issues, points or questions, for which these three nouns are appropriate things to ask for. For example: “Are there any final questions or comments?” – which seems perfectly logical for anyone who was brought up studying the Queen’s English. At the end of one of my first meetings, the call went around for “alibis”. For a split second, I wondered whether I had found myself in a den of fiends and scoundrels in desperate need of escaping somehow. However, looking around at a range of military personnel, I was fairly convinced that I was in a group of law abiding citizens and I was certain that I had not committed some heinous offence in recent weeks or even years, except perhaps the occasional proclivity to drive a little quickly on the odd occasion. However, the Oxford English Dictionary and indeed most English language classes obviously missed the boat with the noun alibi. Apparently, it means “a question at the end of a meeting” as opposed to “a valid excuse for not being at a crime scene” or something similar. At least I can now claim to have a few of the chaps say proper things such as “hello chaps”, ”cheers old man” and “jolly good”.

Today, I was in a brief where the term “off-ramp” was used. One has visions of boating activities and the like, and in the context of the brief, perhaps it related to people leaving the country. So for the entirety of the brief, I mulled and pondered what the term “off-ramp” actually meant and felt fairly content with my conclusion about people leaving Iraq. My hopes about my own brilliance in understanding this foreign tongue were dashed with little or no warning when I found out the “off-ramp” had nothing to do with ramps, boats, people going, or indeed anything that was off, becoming off, going off, off side or even off the planet. Apparently it is a new buzz word which I feel I need to incorporate into a speech at some point – it doesn’t matter what the speech would be about, it would just be important to use a buzz word that confounds friends and promotes stupidity. Yet again I have digressed – sorry. It means a decisive point, a term writ large in military doctrine that relates to a point at which a particular decision has to be made. The correlation between decisive point and off-ramps mystifies me, unless of course I think that a boat that has slid down an off ramp has made a decision to go into the water and at the point that it slides down the ramp, it has no choice but to go into the water. Anyway, that is probably enough of my semantic stupidity for the day.

My abilities in US culture have extended into the realm of culinary delights and an awareness of the key themes and trends in the US confectionary market. To be perfectly honest though, there is only one theme and trend in the US confectionary game and that is peanut butter. Just add peanut butter and the salivary glands of the American populace go into overdrive. “Yes, Tim Tams are good, but imagine if they had peanut butter” or “these cheese and peanut butter biscuits are delicious”. The range of foodstuffs incorporating peanut butter is truly astounding, fascinating and somewhat revolting all at once. Indeed the supply of food into our office is quite amazing. If we were around in New Testament Times when Jesus Christ was looking for the odd fish or loaf of bread for several thousand, he could have dropped by our office and found sufficient sugary products to make the populace of Judea diabetic and enough coffee to keep them awake for a week.

As you may recall from something I wrote a week or so ago, there was an article in a US paper about the deprived state of mail and goodies from home for the forlorn Coalition partners. This, plus the normal generosity of US communities, has resulted in an even bigger deluge than mentioned in the last email, which I am certain also happens to correspond with a Girl Guide cookie drive back in the continental US (I think the cool term is CONUS). It has also included numerous cards and letters for Australian soldiers (one kind lady from New York state even found a recipe for Anzac biscuits and sent some over). My fellow Australians that I work with and I have a bit of a task now to write and thank our US fan club – I might even try and send something to the newspaper that started off the flood. Actually the notion of flood is quite apt – a few years ago, some bloke called Noah had his boat stranded a little to the north so I suppose these things are expected in this area (whether water or chocolate biscuits).

I must say that my talk of food and the transmission of a picture or two have caused some unintended consequences. The threats from baddies (terrorists et al) has very much been relegated to the back row while cholesterol, rotting teeth, blood pressure, the too much sugar thing, and general unhealthy eating problems have assumed gargantuan significance for some people (and not just mother). However, I am happy to state that I have a salad for dinner every day – if I can get through it (which is a problem because I am generally stuffed from lots of cookies and junk food). My mother has reserved a special concern for yours truly – apparently my new found expansive knowledge of US culture has culminated in a newfound expanse centred somewhere around my waist. Of course my brother officers were concerned by this torrid remark sent in the direction of one of their own and I think that their comment, “pictures make you look fat”, suits me fine.

At some point in time, I should probably start offering vivid descriptions of life in Iraq – images of humanity in a strife-torn existence amongst the battle of good and evil against a backdrop of age-old culture, ancient lands and 21st century technology (depending on who reads that, it might be seen as corny or very expressive). It is highly likely that I will devolve back to the sordid tales of fake beers and the battle royal between Australian and US confectionary. Indeed, I have recognised that I have not yet mentioned the fine band of brothers with whom I serve. So perhaps I must start my descriptive portion of this story with a brief overview. I was thinking about this issue today actually. As time passes, the oral history of the adventures and witty moments of our world fade into the shadows, particularly in an environment that is all-consuming and that has little time or patience for the small rays of sunshine that make our lives enjoyable. Does that sound good? I don’t think that I can paint a clear description of events like perhaps a Henry James novel, but I can try.

The office in which I work is predominantly comprised of US officers from all services with a Pole, a Spaniard and three of us (and a part time British officer). There are about twenty five of us – it is a very jovial atmosphere, somewhat akin to a ‘collegiate’ atmosphere. As there are only chaps in the group, we are able to be ourselves a bit more so than if we were joined by members of the fairer sex. Of course, this does not mean that we have devolved into Philistines, as we are of course officers and gentlemen. It merely allows some more freedoms that we might otherwise be deprived of. I am actually the only single chap among the fellows, with the remainder being married (excluding some of our support staff guys). It is amazing how many of my friends here are married, and it seems that if you are 25 or older you are condemned/betrothed. The amount of time that some of these guys spend away from their better halves is also quite astounding – one of the chaps has been married for two years and has only spent six months of that time with his wife. Given the year long deployments that most US personnel have, one is not overly surprised when there are relationship difficulties all over the place. That being said, it seems that there is a much higher tolerance for long-distance marriages over here – I suppose they are fairly conditioned to this however. I think each of us brings a unique set of characteristics to the group which serves to enrich the group dynamic. With that ethereal comment, I will pause in my observation of our work until a later date when I have more time – sorry.

31 March 04

A number of us were at Fallujah today at the same time as the four US contractors were killed by a mob and five US soldiers were killed by a roadside Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It is a fairly bad place at the best of times and has been for centuries. A few nights ago two medical staff were killed by a mortar round – you could see the freshly laid concrete covering up the hole caused by the incoming round. Last night one of my closest friends and I were talking about the random nature of rounds landing as the base we were on gets hit every night. This evening, in almost the same place that we were talking about this issue, he was almost killed when a rocket landed about twenty metres away from him. Luckily a concrete wall shielded him from the blast, but he was still knocked over. Again it was only about 150 m from where the rest of us were eating dinner. Most people dived for the ground which I probably should have done, but I was chatting to a key crony of mine from back home and we both felt diving for cover was both undignified and pointless. It really is amazing that a large group of people still hasn’t died…

I sometimes think about how war time writers felt when going through their own horrific experiences. Of course, what any of us experience over here pales in comparison to the witness of attrition warfare in the world wars and to a lesser degree in other conflicts. It is curious to become totally conditioned to rocket and mortar rounds coming in and small arms fire going off all over the place, and realising that there is little point in concerning oneself with getting hit by incoming fire. One of the feelings around here is that if you hear the round land, then you are fine.

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