Mortar Sunsets

E-mailed SEP 04, FOB Freedom, Mosul

Mortar sunsets are like harvest moons: gold, orange and red competing in radiant firepower. On any day, there is dust. Mortars just add that last touch of kaleidoscopic finery.

A few minutes ago, someone—”Ali Baba,” or bad guy—dropped a mortar round square onto FOB Freedom’s washing facility. Wounded In Action were two KBR[i] laundrymen, Turkish civilians. Selfishly, I hope neither was the guy who was patient and friendly with me yesterday as I turned in three bags of laundry from three different guys, only having appropriate information for my own. I am disappointed to realize that I can’t picture his face, only remember his breath: at once sour, rotten and smoky. But he is a kind man, and I wish him the best.

It takes courage for Iraqis to work on this base. We Yanks know we’ll eventually go home to a place where Ali Baba rarely comes, and we can recognize him when he does. It’s so easy to be treacherous here, to sell out your neighbor. Our best translator was ripped through the torso with AK rounds about three weeks ago when he answered his door.

He was from far too prosperous a family to need work from you, O Taxpayer. Iraqis who work with coalition forces here go home to their Mosul neighborhoods and wonder which of their neighbors hate them enough to slip their name to self-styled mujihadeen (holy warriors), fighters from here and abroad who take Allah’s name in vain while they machine-gun collaborative citizens and hack, oh so slowly, the heads off translators and other key workers. These acts are filmed for distribution on VCDs,[ii] the quality of which is now suspiciously professional. One wonders where they get their training and their enviable technology, just as one wonders how al Jazeera and al Arabiya cameramen manage to be instantly on the scene of so many IED and small arms attacks. Maybe they’re just that good.

SGT Conrad and my driver, SPC Mandeville, had returned from that laundry 20 minutes prior to the attack. My laundry is sitting on my rack,[iii] and I think that I may have neglected to say, “Thank you.” Conrad is now sitting in the gunner’s turret of an Eleven-Fourteen[iv] on his way to FOB[v] Marez, while Mandeville and I are waiting on CA[vi] to run down “IED Alley” to Q West. Conrad‘s convoy is on a boondoggle for the outgoing Brigade LNO,[vii] to do some business at Marez.

My mission will accompany a CA element that’s going to pick up another team of theirs. I’m driving this time.

It’s nerve-wracking to run down the road around here. Ali B. has learned to daisy-chain 155mm howitzer shells together to blow a half-kilometer of road at a time. And they’re learning to shoot straight. Yesterday morning, five guys were wounded and one KIA[viii] by bad-guy shooters who tagged them carefully above the heavy SAPI[ix] plates in their body armor. One Cav guy took it straight through the neck, and is going home under a flag. He’ll skip the hassles of demobilization. Five other Stryker soldiers came whisker-close to his fate.

The alternative to getting outside the wire, however, is to sit in here and wait for the rounds to fall. The less we go out and patrol, the more opportunity there is for the holy warriors not only to set up their mortars and pop rounds without interference, but also to work their juju on local folks, convincing them that the American boot is on their necks.

We counter the head-cutting VCDs with newspapers, comic books, flyers and candy. It sounds frivolous, but it shows who we are—and they show who they are, not only by deeds but by their literature. Their brand is blood, and they are willing to fill a 20-liter bucket with it, straight from the oblative neck, on camera.

It’s a funny kind of schism that mainly tells you whom to kill. Seems clear that Mohammed had a somewhat broader agenda when he sat down and put pen to papyrus. Islam has a fine history of coexistence with Judaism and Christianity, lessons that apparently are not passed uniformly along. Somebody, in a madrasa[x] somewhere, is skipping the tolerance verses completely.

So you gotta go outside. You gotta meet the neighbors. You can’t show them who you really are without showing yourself. My magazine pouches are filled with bullets, but my grenadier’s pouch holds enough candy for fifty kids. Maybe some of them will think twice before pulling the trigger on some GI, some day.

Or maybe they won’t. It could depend on what admixture of admonitions comes over the closest mosque’s PA system during tonight’s Call To Prayer.

In the meantime, we are in for a beautiful sunset tonight.

[i] Kellogg, Brown and Root, a Texas-based company that serves as the major contractor for military support operations in Iraq.

[ii] Video Compact Disks, aka the poor man’s DVD.

[iii] Bed.

[iv] M1114 is an up-armor HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), pronounced “Humvee.” Only civilians and porn stars say “Hummer.”

[v] Forward Operating Base.

[vi] Civil Affairs, soldiers who help to rebuild civilian infrastructure.

[vii] Liaison Officer.

[viii] Killed In Action.

[ix] Small Arms Protective Insert, a ceramic plate that’s bulletproof … for awhile.

[x] Islamic school of religiously-based instruction.

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