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Bay Area Reports from Iraq: How the Other Half Lives
Bay Area reporter, David Martinez, gives another update from the ground in Iraq. Continue to check out www.indybay.org/ for continuing reports and look for a compilation of all of his reports so far coming soon.
How The Other Half Lives
Right now, the Coalition Provisional Authority, or C.P.A., has its hands full trying to run Iraq. There are resistance forces to track down, elections to inhibit, and a multitude of infrastructure problems and social ills to get abreast of. They don’t have the time or personnel to officially certify
journalists, and so for the moment we are more-or-less free to do as we choose, and the C.P.A. actually helps us as best they can, when we ask them for
interviews or information.
The only exception, so far, has been a friend who writes for a free paper in New
York, who was told he could not ‘embed’ with the 1st Armored Division in
Baghdad, because reporters from that journal have been ‘banned’. We are still
trying to figure out exactly why.
For these reasons, myself and another journalist from the United States decide
one day to go ahead and arrange ourselves a visit with the Occupation forces,
while we still can, to provide the ‘other side of the story’. We have yet to
move amongst ordinary American soldiers, and so we set up to be ‘embedded’ at a
place called Logistical Staging Area Anaconda, and hire a driver to take us
L.S.A. Anaconda is situated sixty kilometers north of Baghdad, on the site of
what was formerly an Iraqi airbase under Saddam. It has been appropriated by
the US Army, and they have moved into the old hangars, mess halls, and offices
as if it were their own construction.
In fact, it feels almost exactly like being inside a massive military facility
in the middle of the Arizona desert. There is an internal bus system to
transport the 13,000 personnel about the 32-square mile environs, and at every
junction are the usual signs one sees at an army base: unintelligible acronyms
and numbers of units and battalions.
The base, and the people who live on it, are completely sealed off from the
small villages around the area by earthen berms, machine-gun posts, and piles
of razor wire.
We have come here specifically to report about the Combat Army Surgical
Hospital, or C.A.S.H, that is set up at Camp Anaconda. It is a complex of
heated tents connected by round plastic tunnels, right next to the sprawling
airfield, where hulking C-130 transport planes land and take off constantly.
The staff are nurses, doctors, medics, and surgeons from all parts of the USA.
Most are about to return home, as the Occupation Forces are in the process of a
massive changeover, with those who have been here for a year now being replaced
by new units. They are proud of their work at the hospital, proud to serve in
the military, and ready to see their families again. They are glad that the
nightly mortar attacks have grown fewer since the blazing, miserable summer,
and they are sad about all the people that they have seen die after being
We have been with them only a few hours when the loudspeaker calls for an Iraqi
translator to go to the Emergency Room. We follow him through the canvas
curtain into a long tent arranged with gurneys, tables, and medical supplies.
A doctor explains to us what has happened. The crew of a Black Hawk helicopter
had witnessed a man waving a rifle at them. They claim to have fired warning
shots, and when he did not desist, opened fire with a 50-caliber machine gun.
The man is shortly thereafter wheeled into the E.R., gasping in pain.
He looks to be in his seventies. The lower half of his left arm has been almost
totally blown apart from the rest of the limb, and it hangs by bloody sinews
from his elbow. The doctors set to work with an organized, energetic calm,
calling out what they are doing as they work. A tall, dark-haired doctor is in
charge, and he never loses his cool.
“Get an I.V. in his leg.”
“I need another dose of anaesthetic. ”
“Is he allergic to anything?”
The man howls as the I.V. goes in. He turns his head to one side, and I meet his
gaze for a brief second, his eyes glazed with agony. A mixture of empathy and
shame washes over me. What the hell am I doing in here?
“Tell him he’s going to lose his arm.” A portable X-ray machine is wheeled in
and placed over the victim. Everyone steps back as they turn it on.
“Do we have a blood type?”
“It’s on the way, sir.”
At that moment a colonel comes in and immediately tells me to stop filming.
“This is an E.P.W., an Enemy Prisoner of War. It’s against the Geneva
Convention to photograph an E.P.W.”
I don’t bother telling him that the U.S. is in almost daily violation of the
Geneva Convention here in Iraq, its latest audacity being to arrest the entire
family of a suspected resistance leader who is still at large, and to hold them
until he surrenders. This is a flagrantly illegal move, the sort of tactic
employed by 12th century Crusaders, and it was dutifully reported on the news
wires without a peep of criticism.
But I stop filming the operation.
The tank crew that brought the man in are at the other end of the tent,
clustered around a television, watching American programming. They seem
unconcerned by the cries of pain twenty feet away.
Occasionally local Iraqis will bring injured people to the front gate of the
base, asking for help. The policy, explains a medic, is to save Life, Limb, or
Eyesight. If any of these are in danger of being lost, the patient is admitted.
There was a girl that was burned on her back when she fell into her family’s
oven. She was admitted, received surgery and skin grafts, and is apparently
There are also three children staying at the C.A.S.H. who were injured in an
“accident”. A Bradley opened up with its 25mm heavy machine gun on a house that
contained civilians. They claim to have been counterattacking after receiving
fire, and hit the wrong location. Seven people were killed, and two of the
three survivors will probably never walk again.
The children have been recovering for a month now, and they are wheeled out to
the mess hall to eat along with everyone else. Their uncle and father have
come to visit them, and the two men stand calmly beside the table in their
colored robes and headscarves, amongst a sea of khaki-clad U.S. military.
I try and speak with the father when we both step outside to smoke. He is,
understandably, the least polite Iraqi that I have met.He seems barely able to
He describes in detail what happened, how the Americans shot up his house and
family. He has a very composed and noble bearing, that of a respected village
elder, with a deep, sullen rage beneath his calm. All he wants to talk about is
the attack, and I don’t know if he has forgiven the killers or not. Probably
The children seem in good spirits, however. They know all the hospital staff,
and wave to everyone. They eat a lot, which is a good sign. After the meal they
are returned to their quarters in the Moderate Care Unit, and their relatives
leave the base.
Not much happens for several hours. The atmosphere, to us visitors, is stifling
and slightly uncomfortable. Not that anyone there is unpleasant, it’s just that
they are all career soldiers, conservative politically and somewhat narrow in
world-view. We are also trying to watch what we say, as we don’t want anyone to
overhear our real opinions about what’s going on in Iraq, which we absolutely
have a better understanding of than these folks, the majority of whom have
spent an entire year on this one patch of ground without going “outside the
wire”, as leaving the base is called.
One woman tells us about all the media that have already visited. “The Guardian
from England was here,” she says, “that’s why we don’t always trust
journalists. They wrote about ‘Iraqi resistance fighters’ ”. She rolls her
eyes, incredulous that they would use such language to describe people that she
believes are all “Saddam Loyalists”.
In fact, everyone we talk to at the base thinks of the resistance in Iraq as
being monolithic, an army of lunatics bent on returning Iraq to Saddam Hussein.
This runs counter to everything we hear on the street in Baghdad, where it is
common knowledge that there are religious groups, straight-up nationalists, and
generally angry people that all take part in attacking American troops, in
addition to the former Baathists. L.S.A. Anaconda is indeed a different world
from the one that we have been living in.
The only person we encounter who expresses any criticism of the American
occupation is a forklift mechanic from Wyoming that we meet during dinner. We
try and give him an idea of the daily difficulty of life in Baghdad, and he
shakes his head angrily. He says he was very disappointed that the U.S. had
entered the war so hastily, without the backing of the U.N., and now, he feels,
they are paying the price with a chaotic country on their hands.
Later that night, back at the C.A.S.H., we watch a piece of video on a laptop
with a group of soldiers. It has been filmed by a Blackhawk’s crew several
weeks past, when they had spied some Iraqis setting up an R.P.G. near the base
in the middle of the night. The screen shows grainy, black-and-white images of
three men getting out of trucks and preparing to attack. The helicopter is so
far away that the men can’t even hear the engines, but they themselves are
easily visible to the long-distance night lenses of the gunner. “Watch right
here,” says a man next to me, ”this part is beautiful.” The image shakes as the
helicopter’s M60 fires, and one of the grainy images of a man bursts into
fragments of flesh as the bullets hit him. The next two would-be attackers are
finished off with the same ease, as they try to escape in trucks, their
vehicles exploding into flames immediately upon being hit. The assembled
viewers duly murmur cheers of approval.
It hardly seemed like a fair fight, and reminds me of a conversation I had with
a Shi’a sheikh the week before. “When the Americans first arrived,” he said,
”We expected to see Rambo. You know, big, brave, fearsome men. But now we see
that the American soldiers are not any braver than Iraqis. They just have very,
very good weapons.”
At about midnight, an American G.I. is brought in who has been hit with a mortar
while on patrol in Bacuba. The metal has gone right through his leg, and I film
the operation, wherein the surgeons flush out the cavity, make several X-rays,
and pack the limb with cotton swabbing. Later that night the soldier is
returned to the O.R. and his leg amputated.
We spend the night on cots in the Minimum Care Facility, along with a few
soldiers recovering from minor illnesses and superficial injuries.
The next day we spend tracking down two people: the Public Affairs Officer of
Camp Anaconda, who is in charge of helping journalists, and the Army doctor in
charge of C.S.C., or Combat Stress Counseling.
We are looking for the P.A.O. because we want to arrange a ride back down to
Baghdad with a convoy that evening or the next morning. We find him in his
office and he promises to try and arrange it.
The woman in charge of C.S.C. is easily found as well. We are interested in her
work, which is helping soldiers who are having psychological problems. She is
by trade an Occupational Therapist, and she tells us about the difficulties
experienced by soldiers in the field, and the process of evaluating and
treating them. The majority are treated and resume their duties, she explains,
and her office has a 98% return rate. A surprising number are experiencing
stress that has little to do with Iraq and is more due to problems back at
home: their partners are becoming distant, they are missing house payments,
their children are doing poorly in school, etc.
There was a “spike” in stress-cases during the summer, when it was announced
that the tours of duty would be extended to a full year, instead of the six
months previously stated. People began to fall apart at the thought of spending
another half year in the heat, dust, and nightly mortar attacks of Camp
We ask about the suicide rates among the soldiers in Iraq. “That’s a sensitive
topic,” she says, but she responds candidly. The suicides have risen during the
war, and realistically speaking, they will continue to happen. It is a
stressful, difficult business, and some will not be able to cope. It is a part
of war. Her job is to train the commanders how to spot a person who is a
possible suicide, and get them to her staff for help.
She tells us that during the Vietnam War, the C.S.C. units were rendered
inactive. Could that have
something to do with how many veterans of that conflict came home profoundly
she responds. In fact, her office also employs “Preventative Teams”, that live
among the front-line
infantry troops, trying to determine if any of the combat-fatigued soldiers is
in danger of “losing
it”. The Preventative Team’s job sounds fascinating, and we both express
interest in writing a story
about these field- psychologists.
Like everyone else we meet at L.S.A. Anaconda, the therapist is amazed that we
move about in Iraq so
freely, without weapons or security. She has been “in country” a whole year,
without leaving the base.
When we tell her that if a military convoy can’t take us back to Baghdad, that
we may return by taxi,
she almost falls out of her chair. “You can do that?” she exclaims. “Sure,”
replies my associate. “I once
took a bus all the way to Mosul.”
However, no taxi will be needed, as the P.A.O. later informs us that he has
succeeded in securing us a ride down to Baghdad at 0600 the next morning with a
supply convoy. So we return to the C.A.S.H. to retrieve our bags, as we will
sleep that night in special quarters reserved for journalists, closer to the
convoy vehicles, and easier to get to early the next day. We are just saying
our goodbyes to the doctors and nurses when a mortar round thuds, somewhere
nearby. The hospital staff usher us into a store-room along with them, and
everyone puts on flak-jackets. Most barely seem concerned at all, they are so
used to it. We wait for half an hour, while a few more explosions are heard
outside. And then it is over. Everyone says that during the summer, this
happened three times a night sometimes.
It is raining when we leave the hospital, and I can’t help but think: what job I
would want to be doing
if I had to be in the military? At least as a doctor, you would actually be
helping people. But being
stuck on this base, trapped like a rat when the mortars come in…I know it sounds
crazy, but I would
almost rather be in the field, in the infantry or the Special Forces or
something. At least then you would
get to move around and see the country. But you also might get killed or lose
an arm or a leg.
Basically, life at the base seems like what every one of my friends who joined
the Army after high-
school described to me: an oppressive, thankless life, overworked and underpaid,
the only thing
holding you together being the people around you, with whom you develop
incredibly strong bonds.
Other than that it totally sucks, and war makes it even worse.
Fuck this. We’re going back to Baghdad, back to the real world, back to Iraq.
NEXT: The Tigers of Northern California