At 3 oclock in the morning in mid-August, 1st Platoon, Charlie Battery rolls through the gate of Forward Operating Base Gabe, headed for a patrol of Buritz, the most restive neighborhood in Baqubah. Here, American patrols and checkpoints routinely come under attack. Buritz was the site of a major battle back in June, which lasted several days and resulted in the death of a soldier from Charlie Co. The last attack was a week ago, and no ones been back since. Lt. Caleb Cage is leading the platoon. Were taking back-routes into town, traversing dirt roads through fields, many of which have large, freshly dug holes, perhaps designed to slow the Americans down. Cage is closely monitoring the computer screen attached to the humvees dashboard, which shows a GPS map with the vehicles exact location. Several times what looks like a road on the screen turns out to be impassable, or a dead end.
The town is quiet as we drive through the main streets, save for a few men peering out from alleys and rooftops. One man rounds a corner, spots us coming up the road, and almost trips, flinging himself back down the alley he came from.
Following the canal that traverses Buritz, we discover were on the wrong side, and our road narrows to a footpath. Were right next to a 12-foot drop into the canal, with a ditch on the other side, so all four vehicles have to back out carefully, the men waiting tensely as each humvee negotiates the path and the adjacent low-slung electric wires. It seems the perfect place for an ambush and the voices of Cage, his driver and the gunner trying to direct him show the strain. At one point Mayo, the driver, jokes, "I think were confusing them with our confusion! Theyre probably like, Oh, these guys are good!"
We manage to extricate ourselves, and head back through town, then to the base. The sky is starting to lighten.
"Not too impressive for my first patrol through Buritz," Cage comments sardonically. He knows the dangers of ambushes; he was in a major firefight on the outskirts of Buritz a couple of months ago. My impression is that the men did well, considering the warren of tiny streets that they faced, just grainy lines on their satellite imagery. If trouble returns to Baqubah, which everyone expects, itll likely be centered in Buritz.
* * *
Lt. Col. Bullimore, FOB Gabes commander, is meeting with the sheiks of Buritz. They talk about various projects that are planned but waiting for money, mostly health clinics and schools. The mayor of Buritz is there, too, Aouf Abd Rahman, a small, charismatic man who speaks English fluently. On FOB Gabe, his name is rarely brought up without the phrase "shady character" in the same sentence. He talks directly to the officers, ignoring the translator, who turns to the sheiks and translates for them what the mayor and the colonel are saying.
Later Aouf comes to visit Capt. Sidney Pennix, a civil affairs officer. Although many feel Aouf is playing both sides of the conflict, his office was attacked recently after he hosted a meeting with the Americans. He may be trying to strengthen his alliance with the army in order to bring home projects for Buritz.
Pennix needs a list from the mayor of all the projects requiring money in Buritz. Aouf then launches into a speech about how the Americans are wasting money, spending too much for shoddy work.
"I think the clinic is important -- but to pay $5,000 for it -- this money enough for all the projects for whole area! Not we need to put the big money in one project!"
Ive often had the impression that the army does a poor job when hiring local contractors. The officers seem to agree to absurdly high estimates, perhaps not realizing that this is a culture of bargaining, or perhaps simply being unaware of how cheap things really are here. The contractors take advantage of what they see as American naivet and install cheap floor tiles over sandy mortar, which crack within a week, or put in wiring that is inadequate to handle the load, so it burns out.
Pennix explains to me that theyve had a lot of problems getting projects off the ground due to lack of funds. Lt. Col. Bullimore is alloted regular installments of $100,000 for small projects. The money is generally spent before he receives it. Larger projects get revenue from Iraqi oil sales, but now this money is going to the government in Baghdad, and often doesnt find its way to Diyala Province.
The next week I go back to the TV station with Capt. Pennix to look over four large trucks bought in Kuwait. Theyre for hauling water for Buritz, and Mayor Rahman is here to present the trucks to Pennix. The battalion has agreed to pay $100,000 for them. At first glance, the trucks look pretty good, but a closer inspection reveals cracked windshields and dashboards, doors that dont close properly and well-worn floor covers. The odometer on one vehicle reads 400,000 kilometers. Theres no mechanic around to check the engines. Pennix wearily listens to the mayor explain what a good deal these trucks are; he adds that the seller has given a one-year warranty.
Pennix says, "All right, Mayor, if they look good to you then its OK with me, but I want at least a two-year warranty."
He says to me, "We were hoping for new trucks, but I guess the definition of new is different here in Iraq. I just hope they didnt get snookered by the Kuwaitis."
* * *
Theres excitement and tension in the air -- the Iraqi Olympic soccer team is playing Costa Rica tonight and no one knows what a win or a loss will provoke. Within an hour Iraq has scored a goal, and tracer fire starts up and quickly subsides in Tarire, a poor neighborhood of Baqubah. The small dirt streets are practically empty except for groups of men watching TV sets on the sidewalks as our four humvees rumble by. Many smile or wave as we pass. Im with Lt. Cage and his squad, Pfc. Clinton Mayo, the gunner, Doc, and Spc. Thomas Zaragoza driving.
At about 11:30 p.m., Iraq wins the match and people begin pouring out into the streets, while long bursts of automatic gunfire start up into the sky. Cage dismounts to question some of the Iraqis while several soldiers pull security around the humvees. A man approaches me. "Hello, mister! I am Iraqi police! You know Iraq won football match tonight. Iraqis very happy now. . . ." He gestures out at the night as if to say, "The Iraqis are happy, thats why they shoot their AKs into the air."
Cage returns to the vehicle. Zaragoza and Mayo are worried. "Sir, somebody starts to shoot at us, theres gonna be a lot of dead Iraqis." Im thinking, if one of these god-bullets, as the Iraqis call them, falls on a soldier or a humvee, someone could panic. Cage radios the battalion operations center and explains the situation. The battle captain agrees that hanging out isnt prudent and orders us back to base.
We pass an outgoing patrol as were pulling in; the gate. Moments later theres a thunderous explosion. The other patrol got hit with an IED on the same highway that we had just been on. Theyre shaken up and one soldier has a concussion, but their up-armor humvees saved their lives.
* * *
On the southern edge of FOB Gabe sit four Paladins, massive howitzers mounted on tracks, their guns pointed skyward. At any given time two crews sit ready to jump into the Paladins small cabins and launch a 100 pound round to a target as far as 13 miles away.
Ive been drawing these four-man crews in the late afternoon, when theyre whiling away the hours playing dominos and cards. One evening, just after the sun sets, the crew is roused from its reverie by the deep thump of a mortar round landing not far from the base. Everyone pauses, waiting. Then theres a second explosion, closer, and the men jump up, grabbing jackets and rifles. "This is it, lets go!"
"Get the gun ready, man!"
Even as the mortar rounds continue to land, the crew waits for an order from the battle captain. If the mortars are coming from town, they know they probably wont fire back, and indeed, within seconds the command to hold fire comes over the radio. Unexpectedly, the order is reversed moments later and the crew jumps for the Paladin. Staff Sgt. Diego Jimenez leaps into a perch surrounded by electronic gadgetry and adjusts the gun-barrel, while Sgts. Martinez and Sandoval haul a big round into the gun breach, push it in and load a charge behind it.
"Set that round! Ram it!"
They slam the canons rear door shut and Pfc. Vasquez shouts out, "Request permission to fire!" "Fire!" Vasquez yanks on a cord wrapped around the firing pin to protect his hand from the recoil of the barrel and theres a ground-shaking explosion as the round is hurled into the air. Two crews on two guns fire six rounds in quick succession.
On the horizon is a glowering radiance from the direction that the rounds were sent. The insurgents fired 20 mortars from Buritz, thinking that the Americans wouldnt return fire. In response, the artillery lit up a field nearby. Lt. Col. Bullimore is already on the phone with his higher-ups trying to change the order that he cant fire into residential areas in response to a prolonged attack like this one.
Jimenez, Martinez, Sandoval and Vasquez are well aware of the damage their rounds do.
"Hes the killer," says Jimenez ironically, pointing to Vasquez, the lowest-ranked, who pulls the firing pin. "Hes the one. Were just -- what would you call it? -- accessories to murder."
Like combat troops everywhere in Iraq, they joke about the reality of their work so as to be able to actually say it -- they kill people. But they believe in their mission, and that performing their jobs well will help to achieve a stable Iraq for the future. Both Jimenez and his platoon sergeant, Johnny Dotson, were in the Gulf War. Both say they were disappointed when they failed to march on Baghdad. They feel it was a necessary job left undone.
Though technically the whole battalion is field artillery, only this platoon is actually firing artillery rounds. The rest of the soldiers are tasked with patrolling Baqubah, escorting convoys and providing support. The artillery crews have been chosen because theyre good at what they do. On June 24th, the day of the coordinated attacks across Baqubah, they fired off 62 rounds, and soldiers whod been in combat that day came up to them afterwards to express their appreciation. They felt that the artillery strikes had saved their lives.
* * *
One day at noon, Joe Millionaire and the Miller Lite Catfight Girls fly in on Blackhawks to FOB Gabe to pose for photos and sign autographs. The Catfight Girls -- Tanya Ballinger and Kitana Parker -- are both dressed in white tank tops that strain to cover their ample bosoms (which according to their official website are surgically enhanced). Tanya has on Capri pants in a cammo print, while down-to-earth Kitana sports jeans and sneakers. Joe Millionaire -- or Evan Marriott as hes known when hes not on TV -- is a towering guy with a hipsters goatee and a thumb ring. In this almost all-male environment its not immediately clear what hes doing here, but he doesnt seem to mind that Tanya and Kitana are getting all the attention. I overhear that hes interested in seeing how things are going in Iraq. At Warhorse, the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) guys arranged for him to push the button, blowing up several tons of Iraqi ordinance.
After a brief lunch, during which the soldiers try not to stare at the Catfight Girls, the pair leaves to "freshen up" while more soldiers crowd into the cafeteria, toting digital cameras and videocams. Soon the girls are back, though still in the same outfits, and a line forms for the men to have their pictures taken with Tanya and Kitana. The two women pose with their arms around each guy like theyre all old buddies. The girls have some sort of minder along, a civilian who watches over them like a jealous husband.
The girls smiles are convincingly genuine, but their poses are deliberate and identical each time. I cant imagine how often theyve stood like this, going from base to base, the soldiers shouting out, "Just one more!" or "Can we take one with my buddy, now?" Their presence really seems to have a tonic effect, though. Even Lt. Jae Marquis, the public affairs officer, gets a picture, though earlier I had detected some irony, if not cynicism, in his voice when he told me that the girls were coming.
An hour later the group gets ready to depart from the artillery gun section of the FOB. The two fearsome Blackhawks are sitting on a dirt and gravel patch while Sgts. Jimenez, Martinez, Sandoval and Pfc. Vasquez chat with the pilots. The artillery crew cant leave their guns, so theyve been waiting for their chance to pose with the girls before they take off. I watch Tanyas face as the pilot tells her this, but I cant detect a trace of irritation or weariness. What good sports!
Later the artillery guys are sitting under their Paladin, chatting.
"They werent all that hot, man. The blonde, she had thick ankles," says Martinez.
"You fucking crazy, man? You havent seen a civilian girl in six months and youre criticizing her ankles?!" says Jimenez.
"Im telling you, man, Im picky. Now, my wifes got nice ankles."
"Youre fucking nuts, I didnt see no problems with her ankles," says Sandoval.
Martinez, whod taken a photo of the offending ankles, passes his camera around for the others to judge. "Youre just crazy, man, thats all I can say."
"Shes stuck up, too. I asked for her phone number and she said to call her agent!"
"You asked her for her number?" I say, incredulously.
"No, man, what do you think? Im looking for rejection in Iraq? Besides, shed be like, Aint you Mexican? What your bank account look like? Id be like, well, $6,000. . . thats probably what she spends on her fancy wine!"
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the 14th installation of his "Baghdad Journal."