BAGHDAD — The war in Iraq is the first American conflict in which a GI on patrol can risk evisceration from artillery shells rigged to a cellphone, then return to base in time for ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” a T-bone steak, a mocha cappuccino, a gym workout, an Internet surf session, a hot shower and a cold, if nonalcoholic, beer.
In Iraq, there is the “fob” — the forward operating base — and there is life outside the fob. A soldier’s existence in Iraq is defined by the fob, and by the concertina wire that marks its boundaries.
The war beyond the wire is so draining that the more than 100 fobs in Iraq are fortified refuges for the nearly 150,000 U.S. troops here. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, a 3rd Infantry Division commander based at the Baghdad airport’s FOB Liberty, calls them “little oases in the middle of a dangerous and confusing world.”
This is a war with no front but plenty of rear. Many soldiers spend a year in Iraq without ever leaving their bases. Others may never even meet an Iraqi. A soldier may patrol for months without ever seeing the enemy, yet risk death or disfigurement at any moment.
Almost each day in Iraq will end with an American on patrol losing an arm, a leg, an eye or a life to an earth-shattering detonation of high explosives. That these bombs are embedded in the most prosaic emblems of Iraqi life — a car, a donkey cart, a trash pile, a pothole — only intensifies the dread that attends every journey outside the wire.
Inside each fob lies an ersatz America, a manifestation of the urge to create a version of home in a hostile land.
The three vast airport fobs, home to the 3rd Infantry Division and 18th Airborne Corps, have the ambience of a trailer park set inside a maximum-security prison. Soldiers live in white metal mobile homes piled high with sandbags. They have beds, televisions, air conditioning, charcoal grills and volleyball courts.
At the flat, dusty airport fob called Liberty, there is a Burger King, a Subway sandwich shop and an Internet cafe. TV sets in mess halls and gyms blare basketball games or Fox News, the unofficial news channel of the U.S. military. A sprawling PX sells CDs, DVDs, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” caps and T-shirts that read: “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?”
Every need — food, laundry, maid service — is attended to by a legion of workers from non-Muslim nations, mostly Indians, Filipinos and Nepalese.
They are a chipper, efficient lot who, combined with soldiers from places like El Salvador and Estonia, give the fob the breezy, cosmopolitan feel of a misplaced Olympic Village.
The mess halls are like shopping mall food courts, with salad bars, taco bars and ice cream stations. Cheeseburgers and cheese steaks hiss and pop on short-order grills. The aisles are clogged with M-16 automatic rifles and flak vests set aside by soldiers. Fit young men and women in combat fatigues mingle with civilian contractors, some of them beer-bellied, bearded and well into middle age.
Administrative specialists who never leave the fob are known, with some condescension, as fobbits. Like every soldier here, a fobbit could be killed at any time by a random rocket or mortar round. But on most days the greatest danger to a fobbit’s health are the three heaping, deep-fried daily portions of mess hall food.
From the relative safety of fobs, U.S. commanders deliver calm, reassuring accounts of progress — insurgents captured, weapons seized and Iraqi soldiers trained to one day fight the insurgency on their own. Some commanders plot strategy in marble-walled offices inside Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, beneath massive chandeliers and tiled ceilings.
For staff officers billeted at fobs, the war sometimes has all the glamour and drama of a doctoral dissertation. Maj. Tom Perison, the future operations chief for the 42nd Infantry Division at FOB Danger in Tikrit, likes to joke that he is “at the pit of the spear” — a play on the “tip of the spear” analogy used by combat commanders. Perison spends much of his time in one of Hussein’s palaces analyzing local political currents and worrying about the state of the regional oil industry.
The measure of military success in Iraq lies not in cities taken or enemies killed.
“The key is learning who has control of the local population — the imams, tribal sheiks, local council leaders — and turning that to your advantage,” said Maj. Doug Winton, a planner with the 3rd Infantry Division.
This is a war in which soldiers must also be politicians, diplomats, engineers and city planners, as familiar with municipal budgets and sewage capacity as M-16s and Abrams tanks.
Their daily schedules are consumed by initials.
The typical BUB — daily battle update brief — lists attacks by roadside bombs and raids on insurgent hide-outs. But the briefings devote far more time to trash pickups, mosque sermons, road paving, school attendance and repairs to electrical substations. Many officers spend more time with Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations than in armored Humvees.
They preside along with local officials at DACs and NACs (district advisory councils and neighborhood advisory councils). They work with civil affairs officers in CMOCs (civil military operations centers) and with Iraqi police and municipal workers at JCCs (joint coordination centers). Each meeting requires a perilous round-trip patrol.
Not even an armored U.S. patrol equipped with 21st century weaponry is guaranteed safe passage on Iraq’s roads. To leave the blast walls and sandbags is to virtually guarantee American casualties — without forcing the face-to-face firefights that U.S. troops are certain to win.
If the defining mission of the Vietnam War was the jungle foot patrol, the defining mission of Iraq is the vehicle patrol. There are hundreds a day involving thousands of GIs. There is no such thing as a “routine patrol” in Iraq. Every patrol, whether to raid an insurgent hide-out or deliver the mail or attend a meeting, is a combat patrol.
“We’re fighting the hardest war this country has ever had to fight,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, who finished an exhausting year in Iraq late last month.
Each journey begins with a pre-combat review, a weapons check, a map session and a grave discussion of how casualties are to be handled. There are medics on every trip. Soldiers scrawl their blood types on their helmets and boots. Aspirin is banned — it promotes bleeding.
In this war, face-to-face combat is rare. It is a war of stealth and cunning and brutally effective means of shredding human tissue. The signature weapon is the IED, the improvised explosive device, a lethal fusion of ordinary combat munitions and the electronic signal of the ubiquitous cellphone. It is the single biggest killer of U.S. troops, 1,524 of whom have died so far.
Every trip outside the wire is also, by necessity, a mission to search for IEDs. Soldiers on patrol are constantly scanning the roadside. Their radio chatter focuses on the endless places to hide an IED, and on divining the intentions of approaching drivers, vegetable-cart owners and grinning little boys. Every car is a potential bomb, every pedestrian a possible suicide bomber.
For soldiers on patrol, every Iraqi is the enemy until proven otherwise. All Iraqis are known as hajjis, which actually means someone who has made the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Often the terms “hajji” and “the enemy” are used interchangeably.
Some children smile and wave and try to cadge candy or coins from passing convoys. Most soldiers wave back but keep one hand on their weapons. Most Iraqi men, particularly the young ones, offer only baleful stares. Women are distant, spectral figures in black.
There is a delicate ballet on roadways when convoys pass. U.S. forces have learned to hog the middle of the road to reduce the effects of IEDs from either side. Iraqi drivers have learned to pull off the road entirely and stop, flashing emergency blinkers to signal an absence of malice. Scores of Iraqi civilians have been shot dead by U.S. soldiers and Marines at checkpoints and on roadways.
Many U.S. vehicles display huge signs, in Arabic and English, warning drivers to stay 50 meters away to avoid possible “lethal force.” Some soldiers joke that the signs should say, “If you can read this, you’re just about to get shot.”
It is the job of civil affairs officers to somehow mitigate the poisonous relationship between many Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. In Baghdad’s Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City recently, Capt. Raul Gamble, a civil affairs officer, made a point of stopping a patrol to pass out candy, pencils and paper Iraqi flags to a group of children and teenagers.
Predictably, the handouts attracted a rowdy throng of grasping youths. Other soldiers on the patrol, fearing the crowd would draw an insurgent attack, were eager to leave. But Gamble patiently threaded his way through upraised arms to deliver a small stuffed bear to a 2-year-old boy in his grandfather’s arms.
“It’s the little things that add up to big things,” he said.
Other encounters are less congenial. A day after a soldier in their unit was killed by an IED outside Muqdadiya, north of Baghdad, soldiers in an IED search team discovered and detonated a roadside bomb nearby. A crowd of young men gathered to watch, smirking and snickering over the American’s death a day earlier. On a concrete wall behind them was a drawing of a donkey and the word “Bush.”
The risk of IEDs is notoriously unpredictable. Surviving 100 patrols is no guarantee of surviving the 101st; the first trip is as dangerous as the last.
On Feb. 4, two 3rd Infantry Division soldiers who had just arrived in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Steven G. Bayow and Sgt. Daniel Torres, rode in a patrol with members of the unit they were replacing. It was a “right seat” ride, designed to familiarize new arrivals with conditions outside the fob. Both soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb.
Soldiers on patrol say they find themselves bracing every few moments, anticipating an explosion. The stress saps their concentration, and only grows when they realize they’ve lost their focus.
Some say they try to think of anything except the jury-rigged “hillbilly armor” some have added to their Humvees for protection, or the military-issue “up-armor” kits that can leave gaps in the armor plating. Soldiers say they try not to imagine shrapnel or super-heated shards of the vehicle blasting through the gaps.
On his first convoy since he saw a good friend killed by a roadside bomb, Sgt. Travis Hall drove past the site of the explosion. It was a tense, taxing journey, made almost unbearable when Hall’s Humvee was stalled in rush-hour traffic for half an hour.
Three hours later, Hall pulled his Humvee safely past the berms and blast walls of FOB Warhorse. He was one month into a one-year tour in which he expected to take several patrols a week.
“Made it,” Hall said, stepping out to clear his rifle. “Only 200-some more to go.”
Like any war, the one in Iraq is defined by long periods of excruciating boredom punctuated by intervals of sheer terror.
After hauling weapons and anti-American propaganda from an insurgent hide-out on the shore of Lake Hamrin near the Iranian border recently, a patrol from Task Force 1-30 of the 3rd Infantry Division spent a listless afternoon on futile searches of surrounding hillsides.
Then, in rapid succession, they watched another unit chase suspected insurgents through a village across the lake; listened to U.S.-fired 155-millimeter artillery shells whistle over their heads toward an insurgent redoubt a few miles away; and stumbled across the ingredients of a powerful roadside bomb on their way back to base.
A soldier in Lt. Brian Deaton’s platoon noticed a pile of rocks at the edge of the roadway, halting the convoy. Insurgents often leave markings to warn civilians about IEDs. A search of a culvert revealed a pair of 9-foot-long, 122-millimeter rockets tucked under a riverside roadway.
As the patrol radioed for an ordnance-disposal team, Deaton noticed several men standing on a far ridge. Fearing they were spotters preparing to detonate the rockets by remote control, he ordered a gunner in a Bradley fighting vehicle to fire a burst from his 25-millimeter main gun. The rounds thudded against the ridge, scattering the men.
Fearing a detonation or ambush, soldiers took cover in the hills as two bomb-disposal experts, Staff Sgt. Dustin Flowers and Pfc. Forrest Malone, sent out a remote-controlled robot on wheels to investigate the rockets. Malone steered the robot, a Mars rover look-alike the size of a child’s wagon, from a computer screen set up on the hood of his armor-plated vehicle.
As he guided the device toward the rockets, the robot’s batteries suddenly died and it rolled to a stop. Flowers, who had taken cover behind a boulder several hundred yards away, cursed at Malone over a two-way radio. He thought the private, who was just six months out of military explosives school, had botched the remote-control operation. Flowers is a veteran of 50 ordnance disposal missions in Iraq.
He stomped over to Malone. When the private explained that the battery had died, Flowers muttered, “That robot is gonna be the death of me,” and began climbing into a 70-pound bomb-protection suit. He would inspect the rockets himself.
Even wearing the suit, Flowers said, he wouldn’t survive if the rockets exploded in his face. “The suit just gives them something to bury me in,” he said.
Struggling to walk in the clumsy clothing, Flowers lumbered toward the rockets, but he couldn’t safely get close enough to see whether they had been wired to a detonator.
He asked Deaton to have a Bradley gunner fire machine-gun rounds into the rockets. The bullets would detonate the rockets if they had been wired to explode. The gunner fired several bursts, but couldn’t manage to hit the rockets. Finally, Flowers decided to take matters into his own hands. Sweating profusely inside the suit, he made his way down into the culvert. He maneuvered close enough to see that the rockets had not been wired.
He and Malone hauled the heavy rockets, one at a time, down an embankment. They wired several blocks of C-4 plastic explosive to them, set a fuse, then hurried back to their armored vehicle and sped to safety.
The rockets exploded with a thump that echoed off the hillsides. A black mushroom cloud rose over the river valley.
The smoke spread as the patrol raced down the roadway, still scanning both sides of the curving mountain road for more IEDs. At dusk, the soldiers eased back into FOB Warhorse, safely home in time for evening chow, DVDs and a hot shower.