Embedded Journal: Leaving Iraq
Crittenden left Baghdad Monday for Kuwait City and the ride home. Just before leaving Iraq, he filed this report.
A couple of weeks back, when we had returned to the safety of the Najaf desert after the raid on the Euphrates bridgehead, my wife told me over the satphone the people back home were wondering if I'd ever be the same again, what I'd be like when I got back home.
I had already sent back reports of the tank company's first combat, within artillery range of the ruins of Babylon; of angry, weeping women and frightened children on the road by their burning farmhouse; Iraqi prisoners with trembling hands and the young soldier in the ditch staring at nothing,
a neat hole just below his temple. I had written of the exhausting two-day-long rapid road march that brought us into Iraq; of our camp life in the desert, the filth, the boredom and the waiting.
Since then, I have sent back dispatches about heavier contact; the tragic deaths of civilians who panicked and died when they failed to heed the tankers' warning fire; the wounded Iraqi who kissed the American medic who patched him up. I've written about the RPG-peppered ride into Baghdad
viewed through an open crew hatch of an M113; the sight of hardcore Iraqi Special Republican Guard soldiers being chewed up by heavy machine gun fire around us, and the smell day after day of their slumped and twisted bodies rotting amid the palaces they defended.
There was the clanking ride through Saddam's rose gardens; the gleeful looting by Baghdadis as their city descended into anarchy and the souvenir-scrounging by soldiers; the cheering of Iraqis who showed every sign that they welcomed this violent change and the disgust of others appalled by it. There was the obscenity of Saddam's vanity and greed, evident everywhere in a place where money bubbles out of the ground in the form of oil, but where peasants lacked glass windows in their mud-brick huts while their illustrious leader honored himself with heroic statues of himself and crammed his lavish palaces full of expensive liquor and gold-plated guns.
The combat was rarely more than moderate for us. It offered us the thrill of close brushes with death, but it was the Iraqis who did all the dying when A Company, "The Assassins," rolled up in their tanks flying the Jolly Roger flag. On those recent mornings when it looked like it might all be over, a mild funk would settle in at the prospect that there might be no more action, no reason to stay in this heat amid these swarms of flies and this destruction, eating monotonous meals from foil pouches and accumulating layers of grime upon grime, far from my wife and children. But chaos would prevail, and by the afternoon, we would find ourselves amid some turmoil.
I found out several years ago that action is an attractive flame, though sometimes approached with some trepidation and respect until you are committed, then treated with surprising disregard, as soldiers and reporters alike walked too carelessly through intersections plagued by AK and RPG fire, only ducking when it looked too close, with faith in our body armor and the thought that
The world is very large, and bullets, very small." On those dull mornings, any prospect of action or forward movement held the promise of offering some meaning to this life in the field.
Peace is the ironic goal of war. The old saying is that soldiers want peace more than anyone else, but soldiers are war professionals who are also eager to practice their craft, until they tire of slaughter and the loss of comrades. In this conflict, I suspect most on the American side did not reach that point. Many told me they wanted more action, but barring that, they wanted to go home. Others were grateful it had been what it was and no more. This may have been America's hottest war since Vietnam, but Baghdad was not Hue, Mogadishu, Iwo Jima or Shiloh.
As for us, the reporters, action is why we came.As for us, the reporters, action is why we came. No news is no news. There are some earnest souls here with a sense of indignation, but a lot of those I've met are what my network affiliate pal called the "war tourists." Ours is a business that takes us where intense things are happening, and calls on us to try to convey that intensity. The execution of that task is a drug that can become a meaning unto itself. Here, in other foreign assignments and back in the States, I have been privileged to enter the intimate places of people's lives, when they are stripped bare by adversity. Most of what we write ends up in the recycling bin, to be pulped for another news cycle, but I'll be content to exit life knowing that I was able to see something of what this world can be like and share a little of it with
I finally had my cold-water shower this morning in one of Saddam's guesthouses. Three weeks of dirt I had been carrying since my last frigid dousing in the Kuwaiti desert is gone. I've been walking around these palace grounds all morning with a silly grin on my face. My cleanliness was a little treasure, like getting an MRE with a fruit packet in it.
"Look at Critter. Critter's clean," said LBD, "Little Brown Dude," aka Sgt. Manuel Castillo, sitting with a group of mechanics and tankers.
"I've stripped off my protective layer of dirt," I said, unable to wipe the grin off my face. I'm still here, will still heft myself up on top of the 113 to sleep under the stars and swat at mosquitoes tonight, still eating from foil pouches without appetite. The bodies have mostly been picked up, though that blackened half a human is still lying up a side street and you get a whiff from the hedges now and then. The hardships and the hazards of the past weeks are fast becoming flashes of memory.
The GIs are trading rumors. The 101st is coming to relieve them. The 4th Infantry Division is on its way. One soldier heard they'll be out of here in two weeks, on buses back to Doha, the big base in Kuwait. Another says its three weeks. Another says, forget it, we've got two more months here. They talk about what they want to do back home. Coleman, the Georgia country boy who leapt over the irrigation ditch and filled the Iraqi holdouts in it with lead, is looking forward to hunting season. He talks about "The Legend," the wily old stag in his county that no one ever manages to bag. Smitty is out of the Army in July and intends to lounge around on unemployment for six months before he launches into a career as an x-ray technician. Pasto, the Psyops guy who likes talking with the locals, has a wanderer's heart and wants to go to Indonesia. He talks about retiring in Southeast Asia or maybe Kosovo, though he's only 21 and also loves action. Castillo has been inspired by Saddam's palaces and has big plans for the house he wants to build on his 12 acres on the San Felipe Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico. I suggested he plant four massive bronze busts on top of it of Sgt. Jake, the maintenance chief and Castillo's personal Saddam, with his wild tuft of hair and a screwed-up angry look on his face because Stubby misplaced a socket wrench or Fitz took that favorite MRE Jake was saving for himself. Jake, he wants a beer on his back deck. Those with wives and women back home want to be with them. The fathers want to be with their kids.
The hazards are not gone here. There is no ceasefire, and yesterday two attempts by suspected Syrian mujahideen to attack military roadblocks with suicide bombs failed. Sporadic shooting sounds around the city. We listen to try to detect what kind of weapon is being fired, whether it's the cook-off of a weapons cache being burned, exuberant Arabs firing into the air, or tankers warning off a fast-approaching vehicle or engaging a holdout.
I have just been here doing a job, a little different this time, but in this business, everything is about tomorrow.But it is beginning to look like A Company is almost out of the action, with others due to step in. My job here recording the lives of these soldiers at war is nearly done, and it will be time to say goodbye. There is the question of whether I can hop a ride with whoever gets sent to finish the regime in Tikrit. There is the question of going there independently. God bless those reporters who will, but that is expected to be very hostile territory where the chances of being killed will be high. Receiving fire is one thing, but depending on the good will of bandits and mujahideen, at the risk of ending up like one of those crumpled bodies by the side of the road is unappealing. Several independent reporters I've spoken to say they won't do it. I'm sure others will.
The Joes know I might be gone soon. They are envious but don't begrudge me this privilege. We are edging into disengagement. Castillo and Jake and Baxter tell me I'm welcome in their homes anytime. Pasto and Kauffeld say they think they may pass through Boston sometime.
I received my best war souvenir yesterday, down at the "Big Head" palace where the command tracks are parked between the fountain and the pillars, under the noses of Saddam's four oversized bronze tributes to himself.
"You gotta love this. This is like Patton in that German palace at the end of World War II," said Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, commander of the 4/64 Armor battalion, with a big toothy grin. He was sitting in one of Saddam's chairs, with one of Saddam's gold-plated AK 47s in front of him on one of Saddam's big conference tables strewn with American military maps and other articles of a warfighting battalion's business.
DeCamp handed me one of the battalion's battle coins, with the "Tuskers" elephant head emblem on it and the motto "We Pierce."
"You earned it," deCamp said.
I'll walk away with other souvenirs. The rare privilege of becoming close to a good group of soldiers and riding with them into battle. The names and faces of all those soldiers and everything we shared in a little more than a month. The experience of riding with a conquering army into the capital of my nation's enemy, into that enemy's own yard. The memory of this strange tour of Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization. Too bad civilization grew up and left home. We missed all the old ruins but saw a lot of new ones.
We'll see if these experiences have changed me. For now they have just made me tired. I committed myself to this life 18 years ago and in truth it began years before that thanks to the accident of birth that placed me in a wandering family. I've learned a couple of things about myself, that I can accept the hard truth that sometimes others must die so that I can live; that I can continue to work and function under more trying conditions than I might have thought. I'm still mulling some of these things. Other lessons may emerge.
For now, I want to go home, kiss my wife and kids. I want to play catch with Ian out in the backyard, curl up with little Devon and a children's book, take Alex on a special outing with Dad, and take Buddy, our yellow Lab, down to Coast Guard Hill with the kids for a run. I want to spend one of those long evenings talking with my wife when the kids are asleep. I want a big frosty mug with a black-and-tan of Bass Ale and Guinness, with a steak on the grill, on the deck behind our little 1950s ranch in the woods near Cape Cod Bay, surveying all I own, in that place that hasn't seen war for two centuries. I'll fall back into the routine of covering whatever local news comes across the city desk at the Boston Herald. In a few months, I might get restless, thinking about the dusty, goat-eating regions of the world. My wife is already telling me I can't leave them like this again.
Those who are changed are the families, American and Iraqi, who will never see their sons, daughters, mothers and fathers again, and may not ever know what happened to them. Those who will be changed are those who saw much more intense combat than I did, who saw friends die, who killed at close range and are troubled by it, who narrowly avoided being killed themselves. I have just been here doing a job, a little different this time, but in this business, everything is about tomorrow.
Jules Crittenden has covered crime, politics, science, maritime matters, and foreign affairs for the Boston Herald for 10 years, including ethnic conflicts and other issues in Kashmir, Kosovo, Israel, Armenia, and Nagorno Karabagh. He has been in Kuwait covering the buildup to war since Feb. 2 and is now embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Crittenden was raised in Indonesia, Australia, East Pakistan, and Thailand, and lives south of Boston with his wife and three children.