A lot of articles will be written this week about our experience in the Iraq War from primarily a U.S.-centric point of view. My goal is different: to help convey the stories of ordinary Iraqis and how our voluntary war affected them, and still does, even as Washington and the American public have largely moved on. These vignettes, which will run across consecutive days this week, include: The Teamster (Bassam), The English Teacher (Abbas), The Highway Patrolman (Waleed), and The Last Grand Mufti (Hamza). I also describe my interaction outside Fallujah with former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a primary architect of our “shock and awe” war.
The final piece in the series is forward-looking. I interview an Iraqi, Ameer, from Baghdad, who worked at the American Embassy and now lives in the U.S. He supported the invasion and continues to believe it was the right decision, with some caveats.
One day let's hope Iraqis will write their own books about the Iraq War. When they do, their stories in their words should be required reading for all.
"My God, My Glock, and my Gallant"
Above hardpan deserts, red dawns chased away Orion, the Hunter, day after night. U.S. Marines, no longer in Kansas or Montana or Texas, were strangers in a strange, faraway land and in the business of killing Arabs—if some Arabs did not kill them first. We were in the midst of a duel.
By the fall of 2004, Fallujah was the most dangerous city in Iraq. U.S. tanks parked at the edge of its main street, providing ironclad overwatch. Marine snipers, many still twitchy teenagers, positioned themselves nearby, chewing rainbow-colored MRE skittles in between cleaning their rifles. Massive, dirt-filled, wire-mesh containers stamped HESCO (sold by the Dubai-based conglomerate Hercules Engineering Solutions Consortium) comprised our frontline berms. Rudimentary drones—unarmed in those days—flew overhead, with one particular model buzzing like a flying lawnmower.
Before the invasion, mosques and kebabs made Fallujah famous. Afterward, it was the violence. Fallujah’s forest of minarets, radiating outward from the largest mosque’s turquoise dome, broadcast calls to prayer morning, noon, night—stereolike from all angles, it was beautiful and eerie. Insurgents had become unforgiving choirmasters. They intimidated and exiled moderate religious leaders and issued different messages. The American infidels occupied Iraq and had to be resisted, fought, and killed.
They taunted us with other sounds too—thudding mortars and screeching rockets. One sailed over my head and through the window of a Marine regimental commander, Larry Nicholson, on his first day in command. He barely survived, losing a chunk of his shoulder, saved only by an immediate tracheotomy. Another officer, Maj. Kevin Shea, seated behind the colonel’s desk, did not. We responded in kind with our own clamorous military hardware, destroying Fallujans’ favorite kebab shop, Haji Hussein, with a laser-guided missile. We told ourselves we killed bad guys in the strike ... or was it just the cooks?
Of all of the Fallujans I met early on, one stood out—a charismatic lieutenant named Waleed, an officer in the local highway patrol. The blue of his uniform matched the Anbar sky. He could make a joke as quick and cutting as his political analysis. We spent hours discussing Iraq, the region, what was ahead. I asked him bluntly, “How do you survive Fallujah?” He smiled and replied, “My God, my Glock, and my Gallant.” Almighty Allah, a German-made pistol, and a Japanese-model car (speedy and reliable, if rusty) helped him stay ahead of the odds. His response became the title of a diplomatic cable I drafted. The top generals in Baghdad invited Waleed for an unfiltered Q&A session and sent a Blackhawk helicopter to pick him up, the only passenger.
The opinionated lieutenant would became one of our closest contacts between 2004 and March 3, 2009, the day the last American—Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Mangio—left the city as the United States Marine Corps decamped Iraq. I marked the day in another official report to Washington titled “Leaving Fallujah” (later WikiLeaked). It felt good to write ... overdue, words as witness to the mistakes and record of the sacrifices. The city had already begun to revert back to its historic and real masters: sheiks and imams, the white-robed religious clerics. The call of the muezzins reminded Fallujah’s faithful where ultimate loyalties rested, before the U.S. invasion and after. All occupations eventually end, they surely whispered.
The British had brought their fans in the 19th century; we had General Electric along with us.
In 2007, I left Iraq for Khost in eastern Afghanistan—the real 9/11 geography, where hijacker Mohamed Atta spent time. Before departing, Waleed provided me with his new email account: woundedheartXX@yahoo.com. I didn’t need to write it down, all too easy to remember.
Upon my return to the U.S., we remained in touch. He got married (“one wife enough”), had kids, left his job, survived a few more attacks, went gray, and no longer drove a Gallant. But he kept a Glock close.
Lieutenant Waleed’s good fortune ran out last summer. Two brothers, while on a trip to Baghdad, had “sticky bombs” magnetically attached beneath their vehicles. Both lost parts of their legs after the detonations. This prompted proud Waleed to make his one and only request to me as a friend—that I try to get a discarded generator transferred to him. In an August 2012 email, he wrote:
im welly need for these generators or some of them or at least one,few days ago mr. [--] gave a generator to Ramadi city council according to orders of the USAID in baghdad . i know you are doing your best.
thank you for everything
He wanted to sell the generator to help buy prosthetic legs for his brothers. We had imported thousands with us into Mesopotamia in order to keep the air a comfortable 68 or so degrees in our offices and command centers—desert warfare made temperate. The British had brought their fans in the 19th century; we had General Electric along with us. From the high mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, I emailed our embassy in Baghdad, asking for a favor. Radio silence. He never got a generator.
Later this year I will visit Waleed in Iraq. I plan to see if he can pick me up in a Gallant—for good luck. And we will find him a generator or two.