Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 in Iraq

On this day six years ago, I was in Baghdad--buzz-cut, flak-jacketed, and toting an M-16 rifle everywhere I went.  I obediently carried out the orders which filtered down from on high, starting in the Oval Office.  I was unflinching in my actions even when I knew those orders might be misguided or a waste of time.  This was, I thought, important work.  Necessary work.  The attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crash in rural Pennsylvania were still four years fresh.  We were all soldiers carrying out our assigned duties, but we did so with a mixture of patriotism and vengeance.

As a sergeant first class on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division ("Rock of the Marne"), I was part of the public affairs team working out of a task-force headquarters at Camp Liberty on Saddam Hussein's former palatial compound.  I was near the end of my tour of duty in Iraq and the days were starting to drag as the countdown clock ticked away.  Each 12-hour shift at headquarters was a blur, blending together until I couldn't tell Wednesday from Saturday.

There was something different about September 11, however.  It felt sacrosanct (at least to me it did).  It was, at its core, the reason we were here.  More than 3,000 soldiers from Fort Stewart, Georgia had been carried to Iraq on clouds of smoke from a city block in Manhattan, propelled forward by the debris from a Pentagon wall, launched upward from a crater in a Pennsylvania farmer's field.  At that time, we thought we were doing the right thing, convinced of the need for international justice by our slippery-lipped leaders.

Some of that perspective has changed in the past six years; but looking back, I can see how we were caught up in the red, white, and blue tide which buoyed us through that year in Iraq.  We were doing the right thing and with every weapons cache discovered in a Baghdad neighborhood, with every would-be terrorist we caught, zip-tied, and blindfolded, we were one step closer to erasing the threat of another 9/11.

I'm not sure how many steps forward we've taken since then.  Despite the best efforts of our military, diplomats, and two U.S. presidents, it seems like we've done a lot of side-stepping and/or marching in place.  At the root of Iraq and Afghanistan is the debate on how we got stuck to the tar baby.  As George Packer writes in his excellent narrative history of the early part of the Iraq War, The Assassins' Gate:
Why did the United States invade Iraq? It still isn't possible to be sure....It was something that some people wanted to do. Before the invasion, Americans argued not just about whether a war should happen, but for what reasons it should happen—what the real motives of the Bush administration were and should be. Since the invasion, we have continued to argue, and we will go on arguing for years to come. Iraq is the Rashomon of wars.

In every headline out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we feel the cold shadow of September 11, 2001.  It is the one event of the past decade seared in the memory of everyone who was alive on that day.  Whether or not it's the reason we should be sending our men and women to the Middle East is up for debate.  What's undeniable, however, is the shuddering impact we all felt on that crisp, blue autumn morning ten years ago.

Which brings us back to the question: "Where were you on September 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m.?"  Blogger Susannah Breslin asked me to contribute some of my thoughts about America's darkest day for a special online observance she was putting together.  You can read what I and several others had to say about our 9/11 experiences at her Forbes blog.

My contribution mentions the journal I kept during my year in Iraq.  Here's the complete entry from this day six years ago:

September 11, 2005:  In a small, grim echo of the events from four years ago, my day starts off with the news of a soldier who has been killed in action.  I can’t even remember the circumstances now—this death has melted and blended in with the rest of the KIAs which flow through our office nearly every day.  Yet, somehow it hurts more to be starting my Sept. 11th with a death.

At one point, I need to go in to the CIC, the command and control center of the headquarters, to get more information on an incident.  I mount the stairs and walk across the middle level of the amphitheater-like room to talk to the battle major who sits at his triptych of computer screens, monitoring calls and logging in sig acts (this is where they’re written and posted to the secret web server).   As I wait for him to get off the phone, I look around the room at all the other desks.  Officers are sitting around reading paperback novels, playing computer solitaire, or watching streaming video of the latest college football game.  On the three large screens at the front of the room, the camera feeds from the blimps over Baghdad zoom in on the traffic moving through the narrow streets.  The eye-in-the-sky cameras restlessly zoom and pan back and forth, watching for “suspicious behavior” while, at their desks, the officers turn another page in their Tom Clancy novels.

When I go to lunch at the dining facility, I stop at the dessert table.  The cooks have baked a large sheet cake in commemoration of Sept. 11th.  Over top of the chocolate-and-yellow cake layers, the frosting is thick and runny.  A fireman with “FDNY” on his helmet looks out at me earnestly from the frosting—his lips are a garish red and his eyes bulge, as if he’d been drawn by an amateur who took too much pride in his talents.  The cake is more than half gone when the cheery Filipino baker cuts my slice.  I imagine the other half of the cake had the World Trade Center towers with little blossoms of smoke curling from their mid-sections.  When I take the cake back to my room and start to eat it, I have to put it down after only two or three bites.  It’s too sweet and cloying—not at all what a 9/11 cake should be.  At the very least, there should be dark, bitter chocolate on this cake.

At the end of my shift, there’s a little bit of comic relief when I read this sig act:  “An Iraqi Army Soldier hit in the helmet by one round of sniper fire.  Wasn’t hurt.  Only has a headache.”

1 comment:

  1. You're a wonderful writer. The way you described how 3000 soldiers ended up in Iraq was both powerful and touching. I get your feelings about the cake at the end, especially as I saw the documentary last night - 9/11 ten years after, about a rookie fireman from FDNY. Though, as Canadians, we watched from across the border, we too felt an overwhelming grief at what happened. Thanks for the thoughts.