Monday, June 14, 2010

Celebrating the Army Birthday in Baghdad

Dipping back into the journal from my tour of duty in Iraq, I found this entry for that long-ago today:

June 14, 2005:  Today is the Army Birthday—230 years old.  We’ve come a long way from the barefoot, freezing soldiers at Valley Forge—to some degree.  In other ways, we’re still much the same—confused, disorganized, craving good equipment and hot meals.  We wear flak vests over here, but sniper bullets still find the vulnerabilities—that life-or-death gap where the armor plates meet.

Celebrating the Army’s heritage is a long-standing tradition at all Army posts back in the States.  We get the day off, flags flutter, picnics are organized, units compete in 5k runs, whole formations gather to sing The Army Song.

Over here, it’s only slightly different.  Commanders still make a fuss at each of our FOBs—every one of them rolling out door-sized birthday cakes which are cut by unit leaders and, by tradition, the oldest and youngest soldiers in the unit.  Troops take a break from the battle at Abu Ghraib, FOB Prosperity, and Camp Taji to sink their teeth into slabs of cake, frosting ringing their lips while they gab and laugh with the person standing next to them.

We cannot forget the bloody business of war for very long, however.  While Maj. Gen. William Webster and Command Sgt. Maj. William Grant are cutting a 3x4 cake with ceremonial swords in a hallway in the headquarters and Fobbits are licking the drips of melting ice cream from their fingers, a soldier is dying.

The Significant Activity reports tick across our computer screens:

0946hrs:  A patrol in south Baghdad takes small-arms fire.  No injuries or damage.  A Local National was observed fleeing south on foot.  Patrol didn’t pursue.  Continued mission.

1237hrs:  A Polish Army patrol, traveling south of Route Tampa struck an IED, damaging 5-ton truck.  No injuries.  Continued mission.

1306hrs:  An MP patrol takes RPG fire.  M1114 was struck.  Gunner killed, one other Soldier wounded.

At the end of the day, the chart I maintain at my desk (attacks categorized by type, bubbles filled in with unit designators, Sig Act number and time of day) is nearly filled.  The tally for the day includes 13 IEDs, one VBIED, three indirect fires, eight small-arms fires, one Rocket-Propelled Grenade and three complex attacks which involve one or more of the others.

Right on cue, the Associated Press calls to ask about the Soldier’s death.  Inevitably, they want to tie it into the Army Birthday.  The next day, I end up sounding trite and maudlin in the one quote they decide to use in the story which zips across the wire: “Today is a day when we reflect on the heritage of the Army and those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, and the latest death in Baghdad is obviously a sad event on our birthday.”

Death, bombs, birthday cake.  The whole day has worn me down.  There is not a day—nor will there be a day—that doesn’t go by without a death, be it American or Iraqi.  The Sig Act machine will never fall silent, will never stop tossing reports of IEDs or gunfire onto our computer screens.  After today, I don't have a lot of brain power left with which to philosophize about the war, but I am increasingly feeling like this is another Vietnam.  I guess I thought that before I came over, but it's only intensified since I've actually been here to see the parallels.  Of course, always having the helicopters flying overhead, dopplering from one side of the FOB to the other, constantly reminds me of Apocalypse Now.

The other thought that keeps scrolling through my brain is that we're training people who may someday turn around and kill us.  The world is so unstable that I can't trust anyone to be faithful and grateful to us today, and not whirl around to bite us a decade from now when their minds have turned to vengeance for all the Abu Ghraibs, Guantanamos, collateral damage killings and so forth we've inflicted on them today.

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