Dispatches from the front – May 2004

Month Overview

All operations in Iraq and even the great good of Coalition reconstruction efforts in Iraq are totally overshadowed in May by a tragic example of the ‘strategic’ soldier – where the most junior of military personnel can have an overwhelming effect on an operation. Sadly, it was the efforts of half a dozen individuals whose treatment of Iraqi detainees became an enduring and haunting image of operations in Iraq.

At the same time, there was a great deal of focus on the West and South of the country, the former as a result of operations in Fallujah and in the south as a result of the rising of Moqtada Al Sadr’s followers. May also saw the split in headquarters between the Multi-National Force Iraq providing strategic military oversight of operations and the Multi-National Corps Iraq who continued to take the fight to the enemy, reconstruct public infrastructure and suffer the effects of Abu Ghurayb.

10 May 04

Well, two weeks have flown since my last session of creative writing, and indeed tonight is a momentous occasion as this time tomorrow, I will be walking onto a plane in Kuwait on my way back to Australia for a short sojourn. Indeed it is high time to return to civilisation – my supplies of fountain pen ink and war-deployable fountain pens have been seriously degraded.

This evening I saw the sun set whilst a haze was across the land, some low-set pollution, or perhaps I am referring to some metaphorical expression about the problems that plague the road to nation building here, one paved with much good intention, but perhaps being rather poorly constructed. As indicated in the previous paragraph, it is indeed two weeks since I spoke of our departure from the home that has nurtured my brother officers and I for many months. We are now situated in a ball room on the second floor of the big palace – instead of dainty dances or serenading symphonies, we have become a centre of excellence focused on childish pursuits, such as throwing footballs from one side of the palace to the other. It has been difficult to think of the precise word with which to describe the group, but perhaps joyous may be close to the mark. While we might be daily assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous generals, we maintain the ability to be focused on the important things in life, such as getting the next fake beer supply, writing silly jokes on each other’s whiteboards and trying to teach me how to throw a football in the American style.

I must report that since our move, and the inevitable clean up that associates such an activity, I have been able to actually see my desk. This is quite a significant achievement for me – for years I have maintained a messy desk policy, personifying the eccentric academic whose belief in the presence of his desk rests upon faith, rather than actually seeing it. I must indeed say that the move to the palace has had its benefits and problems. When being told that the office was on the third floor, I decided to do a bit of exploring, like great adventurers of old, in search of a place to which I can transplant a bit of culture (and proper spelling). Unfortunately, upon getting to the second floor, I searched in vain for stairs leading to a third floor. I finally found a ladder, which was rather curious and upon climbing, I found myself upon the roof, staring into the distance and seeing the metropolis of Baghdad spread out before me. Yet again, I had found myself confused by another diabolical plan to subvert the beloved tongue. The Americans call the ground floor the first floor – it causes me to weep sometimes.

Unfortunately, my life over the last two weeks has not been overly exciting, full of work of course, but not accompanied by constant little excursions to far-flung parts of Iraq. However, I must confess, dear mother, that I have driven around Baghdad a little, even up around Sadr City, which has been the site of slightly unhappy fellows who support Muqtada Al-Sadr. When faced with pictures of this individual, one thinks of an offspring of Satan whose lack of intellect caused his removal from trusteeship of the family business, and in the spirit of familial loyalty, was given a little plot of land in Iraq that has accidentally become more prominent than initially expected. As a side note, it is a source of considerable sadness that the Coalition’s reconstruction efforts barely rate a mention in the press. One key bit of the visit with one of the senior generals in Iraq was to one of the 25 schools that the US soldiers helped fix up in that small part of Baghdad – really great to see, but unfortunate that is a rather thankless task. One of the two Iraqis arranging this project had been recently killed by our delightful enemy striking a blow for whatever illegitimate cuase they have.

The above writing is rather mundane – I must apologise. Being slightly philosophical, Act One of the Iraq endeavour now comes to a close. It is with some pride and happiness that I look upon the last three months, that despite the tragic circumstances that exist, many people are trying to do the right thing. Of course, I have also had the opportunity to develop some marvellous friendships, with whom I have had many great, and sometimes not so great, experiences.

11 May 04

As I come to the end of this first half of my tour of duty it is interesting to reflect on how I have changed as a result of my experiences here. I truly look forward to a stint home in Australia and while somewhat desperate to have a good stiff drink, I think that I have become rather emotionally attached to the situation here. My final return to Australia in a few months time is going to be a bit of a culture shock for me I feel. Being here means that I am involved in something big and unique, an opportunity that is hardly likely to come again.

The Australian military psyche is something I don’t feel attached to anymore – it seems so distant from the nature of operations being conducted here. Planning things in which we recognise that death will be a component is a new sensation. In East Timor, no Australian soldiers were killed by the pro-Indonesian militia, although a number were wounded. Here the death of the soldiers in our command is a part of life. There was a helicopter that was shot down by the enemy nearby – while saddened, the guys in the office were relieved that it was an Apache because it meant that only two soldiers had died. If it had been a Blackhawk, at least four would have died. For me the most moving picture of this battleground was that of some Marines praying around the body of one of their slain comrades out west. When travelling around the country, there are always a couple of young soldiers, now battle-hardened veterans, who protect me and my fellow travellers. There is little that one can say to thank these fine men and women for this service, particularly when you come back to the relative safety of a large base and you know that they will be out on the streets watching out for where the enemy might next strike. Australia has been very lucky here – a stray mortar round is rather oblivious to the nationality of those that it kills. As a nation, our sensitivities to the death of soldiers on operations have not been blunted in recent years by the wars that afflict our world. 

12 May 04

I am now sitting in the Qantas club at Changi airport, Singapore, sipping gin and tonics and enjoying the festive board on offer. Perhaps the time between leaving the war zone and getting home is a little dose of purgatory. I am certainly relieved that I can perhaps have a week or so of decent sleep, undisturbed by the sounds of helicopters whizzing by or explosions going off in the distance. Of course, being able to spend time with family and friends back in Australia is also a good thing that I am very much looking forward to. There is also an element of sadness and guilt however – many of my friends will be in Iraq for a year and may not even get leave. And, unlike them, I have no need to worry about suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and of course really flimsy forks in the dining facility – at least not for the next week or two.

The last month has been rather crazy. There is a highly flawed saying that the deployment is a marathon, not a sprint. The last month (and indeed the whole deployment to date) has had the distance required for a marathon, but also required the speed of a sprint. In the very first entry that I made to my little war story, I indicated that perhaps most of the shooting in this war was over … perhaps I was a bit premature in making that comment.

I doubt I will write any more for this letter. The curtain has fallen, I have left Iraq, Act One is over, and so it is time for intermission.

18 May 04

Dear all,

A week ago, I was tidying up a few things prior to my return to Australia (some might suggest that I have never tidied up my desk). Forty hours later, I had left the rather uncivilised world of a war zone and was in the home land. It is a rather peculiar transformation where we worry about ambushes from over-enthusiastic traffic police in Australia instead of roadside bombs in Iraq.

The transformation has not been a totally smooth process however. For some sad and utterly tragic reason, I am unable to sleep past 6am in the morning here (midnight back in Iraq) – this is normally the time I go to bed if I am having an early night. I am sure my dear boss in Iraq would be utterly delighted to see me at work at an early hour. It is terribly ungentlemanly to be up at such a ridiculous hour though, and I will need to take some severe steps to rectify this great problem.

The joyous part of the transformation process lay in the realm of epicurean delights. Last Friday, I ambled into a gentlemans’ outfitters in Brisbane and was greeted with a range of finery that would not be out of place in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. Of course I willingly obliged the proprietor with my credit card. To be perfectly honest, everything bar the final tie was selected for me by enthusiastic onlookers (my sister and a business partner). That evening saw an epic feast, and indeed the second course of pheasant’s liver pate with a side helping of the offspring of the red grape was really quite moving. Being able to dine with silver and crystal should be normal in my life, but unfortunately life in a war zone does not necessarily lend itself to such simple pleasures. A small shadow remains in this radiance of holidays, but hopefully that will be removed when I bound into the club on Friday night, relive old memories and, importantly, foster an unhealthy club account yet again. It has been underused in the last couple of months (for obvious reasons), and needs to be bashed around a bit.

It would of course be remiss of me to not mention the special opportunity to spend time with family and friends – it would also be a source of trouble from the dear parents if I didn’t make a special mention of them. The dear aged ones occasionally worry about my current address, so hopefully two weeks in their charge provided a short respite from their concerned state.

And yes, I did my best to partake in a few gin and ton-tons when the opportunity presented itself on the way home and while home – a glorious drink.

23 May 04

I am fairly certain that the notion of a mid-tour break should incorporate days of idyllic rest and the enjoyment of various delights not readily available in a war zone. The later was something that I aimed to do, and I would hope that succeeded in some small measure. The gin and ton-tons supply of Brisbane somewhat lessened, lambs everywhere wondering where their shanks have gone, a few less salmon are swimming around, and my humble wine supply reduced – all the product of a week and a half of fasting (well not really). I presume that this will hurt me when I finally return to Baghdad – the ability to get a cheeky cabernet and medium eye fillet (the combination of which brings upon a truly emotional experience for me) has perhaps passed beyond my grasp for several months.

In terms of getting a good rest, my performance has been less that admirable. Admittedly, I spend the first couple of days in hibernation mode, although involuntary awakening at dawn everyday was somewhat unsettling. I am more than happy to read “stretched metre” about the beauty of the sun’s rays first appearing in the east, shedding a salmon light across a sleepy world. This little phrasing was of course made up entirely – the dawn is something I have seen in movies, and have little personal experience of except after large and expansive evenings. The “stretched metre” of course is a quaint little term taken out of my favourite Shakespeare sonnet – not the one about darling buds of May and the like, but the one right next to it. Whilst I can recite it a million times, I always forget whether it is the 17th or 18th one. Anyway I commend it to you anyway. Of course, for any American readers, it is probably “stretched meter”…

Actually, whilst I am on the theme of my beloved language and literature, I can happily report that I have finished my first novel since getting to Iraq back in January. While I have read 170 out of 189 pages in the last couple of hours is perhaps testament to the heavy work pace that I was under in Iraq (and spending the last week embroiled in various business matters probably didn’t help either). The book is Uneasy Money by P.G. Wodehouse, whose use of the English language is so utterly delightful and somewhat ethereal. The ability for a writer to turn a getting honey from a beehive thing into a gorgeous little romantic interlude is probably rather unique. His gift for writing is rarely surpassed in the annals of literature, so I am sure that you shall all venture forth in the desperate hope and desire for as many of his books as possible.

Whilst I certainly aimed to do the good rest thing and so on, a lack of sufficient willpower ensued which was possibly naughty to some degree. In true workaholic style, I managed to spend a week concentrated on various business ventures, here, there and everywhere. To offset my guilt about being on holidays, I also saw the need to get a head cold which shall accompany my back to the war.

Given the rather close bonds that have been forged in the heart of darkness (I really should stop borrowing phrases from literary greats), it is perhaps unsurprising that I have really missed my dear friends back in Iraq. I have emailed them constantly so that they can suffer from my poor attempts at wit and charm. Hopefully, the 25kg of “health” food that is currently accompanying me back should lift their flagging spirits (they probably aren’t actually flagging but it just sounds good anyway).

Many years ago, the world of the law school existed in the third person (as presumably did the world of law in general). Those who attended university with me at that time (it would be misleading to say that I actually attended lectures) might recall this. A good friend in Iraq has suggested that I should perchance consider the use of the first person as a more appropriate writing style with some work assessments. While this is rather foreign to me, it certainly sounds like an interesting proposition. The mention of this has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the compilation of these small notes back to Australia, except to say that it has caused me to read over them to see whether I have erred. Sadly, I must report that had I submitted these missives to law lecturers for whom three spelling or grammatical mistakes were somewhat akin to Satan worship, I fear that I have failed you, as well as the rich linguistic traditional that we have inherited in the English speaking world. I shall have to beg your indulgence for my occasional lapses and can but offer my arduous life in a war zone as my sole excuse.

By the time you read this, I will have re-entered the fray for Part Two of this adventure. For those whom I was able to spend time with in Australia, please accept my thanks. It was certainly a nice intermission, and I look forward to a time in a number of months where I can regale you with more stories, accompanied by the dulcet tones of claret splashing its way into rather large glasses.

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