Saturday, March 8, 2008

An Iraqi War Oasis

Last night I flew into Balad from Ramadi. This place is the desert oasis. I feel like we're no longer in a war zone. It's Americanized civilization here: movie theaters, swimming pools, paved roads with curbs and American cars, trucks and SUVs. There are even buses here to transport us around the installation because it's so big. There are fast food restaurants and city lights. Some people have very different war experiences.

Desert mornings are cold. I've been used to shivering in my sleeping bag without a heater in my room. The last room I was in (this is my third move, and not my last) was poorly constructed and had gaping holes and cracks in it big enough for the mice that I'd see and hear in the evenings to fit through. (Note: I learned that mice like Craisins. One ate a hole through my Craisin bag.)

While Balad doesn't resemble the luxuries of any city in America, per se, it still has given me a bit of American culture shock with it's bizarres, pedicure booths, and massage tables. I'm not kidding. There are sidewalks and city lights too! It's no wonder I've seen so many Air Force personnel here.

Most soldiers and Marines joke that in luxurious living like this, one should have brought his swimming suit to Iraq where he could work on a sun tan by the pool.

Its hard to believe I'm still in Iraq.

I won't be here long though. Yesterday some soldiers from an Infantry unit were seriously injured and one was killed by a roadside bomb. Since ours is a counter-IED (improvised explosive device) mission, I may be moved closer to remote living spaces near Mosul, an al Qaeda bastion.

I often think of my dear friend and Army teammate, Johnny. He was killed a few months ago not far from here when a bomb exploded under his Humvee. Even now, the thought of him dying like that tears up my eyes. All the pundits and politicians, or the citizens in America living in their comfortable dwellings vice the squalor I've dwelt in, can have their opinions about staying the course in Iraq, or conversely, about getting out this instant. While their words, thoughts and feelings matter to me, they seem almost moot, for they have not suffered through THIS war.

Unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of mingling with local Iraqis. Some friends of mine from the embassy I ran into asked me to go with them to Sheikh Abu Risha's ranch, the leader of the Anbar Awakening sheikhs. (Note: I heard and felt the bomb that killed his brother and predecessor, Sheikh Sattar.) But I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not go. I was livid.

One of my special operations colleagues said those above me were perhaps feeling a bit of jealousy over my connections and subsequent opportunities. Perhaps I'll save the full story for my book, along with how happy I was to see Jeffrey Feldman become the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon and work though the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war while in that position. Ambassador Feldman is a genuine and good-hearted man who won my respect when I knew him before he became ambassador.

One last story. Last week some friends of mine from Civil Affairs invited me to go meet the mayor and deputy mayor of Ramadi, and go to the local business center. I would have loved it too, but for this abrupt and unplanned move...for me, at least.

Master Sergeant Jay Adams, a Vietnam veteran, who ironically knows my in-laws and remembers my wife when she still lived with them, told me of an Iraqi man who went to the business center to looking for work. He had his son wait outside while he entered the building. As his son waited in the crowd, a demonic despot drove a car laden with explosives into the courtyard and blew it up. The son was killed.

I think too often we trivialize or forget the great number of Iraqi deaths. The good people of Iraq have suffered more losses and more casualties than our military force. They want peace. They want to stop al Qaeda and the insurgents of their ilk as much or more so than you or I -- because al Qaeda is destroying their families, their neighbors and their way of life right in their own communities. They've heard and felt the explosions. They've suffered more pain and sorrow than most of us will ever realize -- and hopefully we will never have to endure.

The constant barrage of suicide attacks and IED attacks, kidnappings, extortion and torture they're experiencing is a constant daily threat.

This war is a conundrum. There's no simple solution. And, believe me, there's no one more anti-war than I am.

PS I recently went wandering around outside looking for a place to relieve myself when someone said I should go back in the building and use indoor plumbing. I can't believe it. Indoor plumbing! That's great. This base is terrific.

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