Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From the Cutting Room Floor: Oopsie!

The skin of fiction covering the truth in Fobbit, my novel about the Iraq War, is very thin in some places.  Fact: I spent 10 months in Baghdad in 2005 with the 3rd Infantry Division, working 11-hour days in the Public Affairs cell.  Fact:  I was in charge of writing and releasing the majority of press releases from Task Force Baghdad headquarters during that period.  Fact:  I kept a rigorously-detailed journal.  Fiction:  I did not shower with lavendar-vanilla scented body wash every day, nor did I ever once weep while watching Mrs. Miniver on my laptop computer while sitting in my hooch at night, nor did I work for a man prone to chronic nosebleeds (at least not at the rate portrayed in my novel).

But this episode, which I recently trimmed from the novel during the latest round of revisions, hews pretty close to actual events.  I excised it from the manuscript because there are just too many reports of military actions like this and I needed to cut the least interesting ones of the bunch.  I reprint it here for posterity's sake (as much as the vaporous internet can provide posterity) and so you'll never forget this kind of crazy shit goes on all the time over there.  Most days, the Iraq War was a tragedy; other days, it was a tragi-comedy of errors.

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From the Diary of Chance Gooding Jr.

July 16: Another day, another attack.  When I get to the office this morning, I pull up the Significant Activities reports and find one where we engaged in a running gun battle with people we believed were terrorists.

Here’s what I know to be true at this point:  At 3:45 a.m., U.S. military police came under small-arms fire attack.  They called for backup and aviation responded with attack helicopters.  The pilots located the terrorists and saw them piling into a pickup truck.  The helicopters followed that truck as it fled the scene.  Eventually, more vehicles joined the pickup and traveled to another location where, in an alley, everyone got out of the vehicles and started unloading some items (which may or may not have been weapons).  There was a small flash and then the helicopters started taking some fire from an unknown direction.

(All this was taking place during what were supposed to be curfew hours, mind you, when no one but U.S. and Iraqi military were allowed to be out on the streets.)

Maj. Pepper, the Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Officer, tells me that the helicopter pilots looking through their night-vision scopes definitely identified weapons in some of the individuals’ hands and that those weapons were glowing under the night-vision, indicating they’d just been fired.  The pilots requested permission to fire before the group scattered.  Permission was granted by the brigade who owned that sector of the city.  Forty rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition were fired.  “Unknown BDA [battle damage assessment—i.e., body count],” according to the Sig Act.

I think at one point either the Iraqi Police or Iraqi Army showed up and eventually the wounded were taken to various local hospitals.  Division headquarters sent intel teams to the hospitals to determine who exactly these people were.

Meanwhile, CNN started calling us, saying they heard Fox News reporting that U.S. troops had “mistakenly fired on Iraqi civilians,” wounding or killing 26 innocent people.

(Okay, for one thing: there are NO INNOCENTS prowling around the streets at 4 Fucking A.M.  And for another, unless it was a wedding or a funeral, I don’t think 26 Iraqis would be gathered together in the same place at the same time at an hour like that. But that’s just me ranting and raving.)

After I check with the battle major in the Secure Military Operations Group (SMOG) and confirm the facts—which still indicate all the “BDA” were Anti-Iraqi Forces--we tell CNN that we have no reports of Division troops firing on civilians.  CNN thanks us and hangs up.  We go on about our merry ways.

Three hours later, CNN is on the phone again, asking if we’ve heard anything more about civilian casualties.  We say, no, still the same information as last time.

Then an hour later, doubts start to arise in the Sig Acts.  I notice that now it’s saying “LNs [Local Nationals]” instead of “AIF.”

I get an e-mail from Corps PAO saying that the BBC is asking them about an incident earlier that morning where some civilians were wounded by U.S. soldiers.  I suspect that the Iraqi Police are bad-mouthing us without having all the facts.  Still, I’m not comfortable with any of this.  There are too many unknowns and even as I type a draft press release for Lt. Col. Harkleroad to approve (I can already hear him sniffling back another nosebleed in his office), I have to fudge on my certainty of the facts.  Nobody, it seems, knows what really happened in that alley in the pre-dawn darkness.  There was suspicious movement, there was a flash, there were the pings off the helicopter’s metal skin, there was what appeared to be green-glowing weapons in the pilots’ night-vision scope, and then it gets fuzzy from there.

However, as Maj. Pepper said, “The fact of the matter is that AIF are civilians, if you want to get technical about it.  So, we wouldn’t be lying by saying we wounded ‘civilians.’”

This could either be all a big misunderstanding, or it could turn into a mini My Lai.  Guess I’ll find out when I come into work tomorrow.

July 17:  Once I get to the cubicle, I learn more details about our alleged “firefight with civilians” yesterday.

Workers in a fire station were attacked by terrorists in the dark of the morning.  The terrorists left, but the firefighters were able to get a description of their vehicle.  Around 4 a.m., one of our military police patrols shows up to investigate the reports of gunfire.  As they’re getting out of their vehicles and approaching the fire station, the firemen start shooting at them—about 150 rounds coming from the roof, second and ground floors of the station.

(Later, the red-faced Iraqi fire captain says, “It was dark.  We thought you were the terrorists come back to place a bomb at the fire station.”)

The MPs, not knowing who’s firing at them, start shooting back.  Gunfire is exchanged for about 10 minutes until eventually both sides realize they’re firing at “friendlies.”

When the MPs enter the fire station, they discover eight wounded local nationals—two of those later die of their wounds.

Meanwhile, the real bad guys have already gotten away in their red pickup truck.  They fire on another U.S. patrol along the way.

At this point, we send out attack helicopters to track the fleeing terrorists.  The pilots positively ID them as the same guys described by the workers at the fire station.  “Whoomp!  Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” runs through their heads.

At one point, the red truck stops and, like circus clowns in a Volkswagen, a dozen terrorists start piling out. They fire at the helicopter.

Big mistake.

Division gets the clearance to fire back.  The pilots cut them down.  The terrorists crumple and fall like they were suddenly robbed of bones.  The Iraqi Army comes in to clean up the mess.

So, the only “civilians” we might have killed were at the fire station—though, in our defense, they fired at us first.  In any case, it is only two who died there, not the “26 civilian workers” that were bandied about in the press.

I went to work on the keyboard and we sent up a third, hybrid version of both press releases to Corps PAO.  They shot back an e-mail saying it was "unacceptable" because it was so "vague" and didn’t mention anything about civilians being killed.

Lt. Col. Harkleroad and Corps PAO then engaged in their own skirmish over e-mail, with Harkleroad eventually sputtering, “Fine!  You want to put out your own release, go for it.”

About three hours later, a press release trickled out from Corps, saying, in part, “This fight resulted in an undetermined number of civilian casualties…Multi-National Force-Iraq regrets any loss of life or injuries sustained by the civilians in the area.”

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