by David Enders –
Overheard on New Year’s Eve, standing around a blown-up Humvee
BAGHDAD, Iraq (December 31, 2003) — “They always kill more Iraqis than soldiers,” sighed a soldier from the US Army’s First Armored division as he held back journalists trying to reach the site of a Humvee overturned by a roadside bomb. “That was probably supposed to be me. I was supposed to be on that patrol.”
The area, near Mustansiriya University on the north side of the city, remained closed for hours after the blast while troops searched houses, detained suspects and cleaned up the destroyed vehicles. The area, filled with two-story residential houses, is unremarkable save for the nearby American base.
Such situations give journalists a chance to talk with troops in an off-the-cuff manner. The encounters range from hostile — Iraqi police warned journalists arriving at the scene that troops had already smashed the camera of one journalist who ignored warnings not to take pictures — to laid back.
In these cases, lots of cigarette smoking, tobacco chewing and candid observations are the norm. Sometimes cultural misconceptions are even corrected.
“Look at all these ladies with their shoes,” said a soldier from Ohio, motioning to women waiting to go back to their home. “They all got these fancy shoes now that they’re allowed to show their ankles.”
“Actually, they were always allowed to show their ankles. Now it’s worse. In some places, people have been forcing women to cover up,” a journalist replied.
Cordons and Detentions
Outside the cordon, Iraqis waited to return to their houses.
“Those are the people who were stupid enough to be standing around and watching,” the soldier said, pointing to a group of Iraqis. “Now they’re all going to be questioned and detained.”
Angry journalists pointed to a man who was filming inside the cordon.
“That’s probably one of our guys,” the soldier said. “For future intel. There’s nothing you could film here right now that you’d be allowed to show on TV anyway.”
“Is CNN here yet?” he asked. “Those guys are usually the first ones here.
“Journalists,” he continued. “I’ve had to here. I was at the Red Cross after the explosion there. That’s the worst stuff I’ve seen out here. And there’s that girl who works for FoxNews — you know the one? She’s filming on the roof of the building and I had to go up and get her — ‘Can’t I just get a little bit more footage?’ she says, and I tell her ‘You can stand fast if you want, but this thing’s going to collapse. An I-beam just fell out.’”
Nearby, other soldiers held back Iraqis trying to reach their homes, some of whom complained that they wanted to retrieve some personal belongings before taking the lightly injured to the hospital.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” one of them asked a man who had slipped past the razor wire.
“My home,” he replied.
“Can’t. We’re having a party,” the soldier said.
The Black Humor of Occupation Duty
Despite the seriousness of the situation, the troops engage in a bit of clowning.
“Hey man, you like to smoke pot?” one of the soldiers asked a journalist with long hair. “You look like you like to smoke pot.”
“Yeah, that’s the reason I didn’t join up like you guys,” the journalist replied.
“Is it New Year’s? I forgot,” one of the soldiers asked a journalist. “I’ve been going to a gas station for the last seven days to stand guard while people fill up their cars.”
Another journalist approaches, asking for the commanding officer.
“Is that the guy from Stars and Stripes?” a soldier from South Carolina muttered. “Does he think he’s getting through here? My family doesn’t read that paper. Actually, they don’t read any papers.”
As is normally the case, the destroyed Humvee was cleared away before the area was reopened. One Iraqi child was killed and the soldiers involved were expected to recover and “return to duty,” according to Spc. Nicci Trent, an army spokeswoman.
Journalists leaving the scene were frustrated at the inability to get footage, but with a caveat.
“Any army in the world would act the same way,” said one as he walked away.
Another offered a salutation to the troops.
“Happy new year,” he said.
“Is it New Year’s?,” was the sole reply. “And I’m going to spend it at a gas station when I get off this street.”
That’s the news. I’m headed to a New Year’s Eve party at an Italian NGO. The standard celebratory shooting has already begun here (any excuse will do.) My resolutions include drinking some wine and being more sympathetic toward troops. Hope everyone’s having a good time tonight.