This morning the sun bled into the sky in slow motion, the acetylene light scattering off the broad sheet of dust that shrouds the Baghdad skyline. As the sun clawed ever higher the gathering rays started to knife through the dirty haze, the light slowly shifting through the spectrum. And then it broke through its dirty chains, flaring in a brilliant second sunrise. The light show almost took my mind off the upcoming mission. Almost. The mission wasn’t anything special, just a jog to the IZ to pick up some supplies. But the everyday missions can be every bit as lethal as a combat patrol, so when I arrived at the motorpool the vehicles were already abuzz with troops performing pre mission checks on their armored HMMWVs. The vehicles were lined in neat rows like rough desert crops, and the troops moving among their green and tan hulls looked like farm hands tending their fields. Every Soldier performed their part in the process with practiced ease, their deliberate motions devoid of any wasted effort. The duties were parsed to each subject matter expert. Drivers ducked under open hoods to inspect the engine’s vital signs. Gunners lofted their oil bright machine guns into their turreted mounts. TCs (vehicle commanders) dove into the vehicles to perform radio checks and ensure the electronic suites were snapped to life. All while the extra passengers shuttled between the barracks and the vehicles, bringing with them coolers full of frozen water and Gatorade they loaded into the cavernous trunks. Everything happened simultaneously, the individual motions lost in an ocean of clicking, whirring motion. Once all the checks were complete troops congregated in small groups, snapping on body armor as they laughed and talked about brighter days.
The groups all coalesced for a mission brief, and once that was complete everyone scattered to their waiting vehicles. The drive to the IZ wasn’t any different from any other mission outside the wire, the broken landscape slipped by the armored windows to the throaty roar of the turbo diesel engine. It is amazing how quickly your mind can adapt to the strange carnival of sights along Baghdad’s roadways. Herds of dust laden sheep grazing on fields of dirt and trash along the road. Ancient tractors pulling dismembered pickup beds filled with ripe melons. Plastic scooters zipping along with three riders – the last passenger hovering over the tailpipe on a flimsy board. And long frustrated lines of vehicles being pushed to rusted gas stations.
One of the peculiar ironies of Baghdad life is the endless lines of vehicles waiting for fuel – the smallest line I have ever seen outside a gas station stretched more then a city block. The lines are so long many of the drivers just shut off their engines and push their wretched vehicles forward to avoid wasting the fuel they would spend idling. It’s the last thing I would have expected to see in Iraq, but the sight is so commonplace I’d be worried if we didn’t see a line of cars.
Our final destination was a FOB carved out of one of Saddam’s bombed out palaces. The entire area is a lesson in contrasts – the graceful lines of reflective ponds are flanked by row after row of sheet metal trailer homes. I am sure they are great places to live, but compared to the artful lines of the deep pools they look like a metallic pox dotting the landscape. The centerpiece is the palace itself, a soaring complex riddled with wide empty gashes clotted with wreckage. The Air Force’s precision bombs gouged cavernous holes in this place, their enormous energies wrapping each puncture in a halo of tortured steel. The graceful spire that once capped the building took the brunt of the damage, all that is left is the skeletal fingers of naked steel girders jutting skyward. We parked in one of the graveled motorpools and set about our mission, by time the line for lunch was forming outside the DFAC we were loaded and ready to move out. The troops providing security had been ready to return for hours, it only took them a minute to mount their vehicles and roll back out of the palace grounds.
That was about it, the ride back slid by without any problems. As we started to reenter the FOB my driver said “In a way this looks a lot like Mexico”. I thought about it a moment and had to agree with him. This place does resemble Mexico; it just has a lot more explosions.