Steve Mumford originally went to Baghdad in 2003 to work as a war artist, embedded with the U.S. military, both writing a journal and making drawings and watercolors of what he saw there. He has been back several times; the text that follows is a report from his current visit. The archive for Mumford’s original "Baghdad Journal" can be found here.
I am back in Iraq for part of April and May to continue recording the war through drawing. I’m going to Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, to visit the U. S. military’s COPs, or Combat Outposts, which have been a key part of the tactics of the surge: platoon-sized units living within the cities, backing up and working closely with Iraqi army and police. The tedious part is getting there.
At Kuwaiti customs I get a disconcerting dose of Middle Eastern bureaucracy: what should be a 20-minute job of stamping passports with visas yawns into a chasm of several hours, while the half dozen young Kuwaiti officials stare distractedly at their cell phones, pretend to take notes, and occasionally break into random conversation with one another. The stack of passports sits, barely moving. Children whine while mothers attend to them, and men look hopelessly at nothing, waiting for an official to contemptuously announce a name in a barely audible voice.
At Camp Ali al-Salem in Kuwait I gather my equipment for a nighttime flight to Baghdad in one of the cavernous halls where soldiers wait for planes to Iraq and Afghanistan. Whole companies of soldiers are sprawled out on the ground surrounded by their gear, forming vast landscapes of packs and bodies, everything covered in digital gray-green cammo. Platoons form lines in front of signs with destinations printed in large letters; the eerie light casts dramatic shadows. Despite my tiredness I wish that I could draw these scenes, but I’ve been told unequivocally that it’s impossible. I read, suck on Halls cough drops, and wait.
When I finally arrive in the Green Zone, nothing looks much different. Over the last week rockets and mortars have been falling thick and fast, mostly from Sadr City, and everyone seems to have stories to tell. Several people died, including a colonel who was out jogging one morning. It’s quiet now, with only one air raid siren all day.
There’s a lot more graffiti in the bathrooms and port-a-johns than before, but it doesn’t differ much from graffiti in any public restroom. With one exception: generations of Chuck Norris jokes, counter-jokes and commentary. Some notable examples:
Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas.
Chuck Norris has a nightlight. Not because he’s afraid of the dark but because the dark is afraid of Chuck Norris.
Chuck Norris doesn’t read. He just stares at a book until it tells him what he wants to know.
When Chuck Norris pees he clogs the toilet.
The Peruvian guards manning the checkpoints are an enthusiastic audience while I’m drawing and I chat with them in my frayed Spanish. A young woman walks up speaking Spanish and I ask her if she’s from Peru.
"Oh no -- I’m Iraqi, from up North, near Mosul." I attempt to segue to the time of the Moors, when Spaniards mixed with Arabs but my Spanish isn’t nearly up to the task; she interrupts, "These Peruvian guys are too ugly -- only the women are good looking!" The guards hoot with delight.
I could mistake some of the Peruvians for Arabs, although others have distinctly Incan features. They have an easy rapport with the Iraqi translators, but one of the soldiers tells me they’re very racist towards the Nigerian soldiers stationed here. A Peruvian who has been here three years says none of his countrymen have been killed. "We say it’s because he’s [pointing towards the sky] a Latino!"
A siren announces an incoming strike and is followed by a distant crash as I duck for cover in a small concrete shelter. Inside I find myself with a diverse bunch of civilians and guards: the Peruvians, several Iraqi translators and searchers, including a woman in a hejab, and two Malayans, everyone chattering in pigeon Spanish or Arabic. I snapped a few photos, which an Iraqi security chief politely asked me to delete.
Now that I’ve been accredited at the media embed office, I have a reservation on a night helicopter flight to Camp Speicher, halfway to Mosul, were I’m scheduled to catch a morning flight the rest of the way.
My flight predictably doesn’t go off as planned. I arrive to find a group of soldiers and contractors of various nationalities waiting in the small office, snoozing to the tones of Happy Gilmore on the TV. Others smoke in the darkness outside. Helicopters dramatically come and go, including a couple of two-rotor Chinooks and two small observation helos that swoop in so fast they seem to be crash-landing. At one point an incoming Blackhawk releases flares but I don’t see any firing.
This landing zone was hit with multiple rockets last week; the manager says he suspects the insurgents know how to hit it.
A delay is announced, and an hour later the manager assembles a dozen of us on the dark runway. By 23:00 the helos still haven’t arrived and he goes to check with his coworker at the office.
"Jay can’t get through to anyone -- we don’t even know if the flights have left. Sorry guys -- we’ll just have to wait."
A Scottish contractor, who up to now has been talking to his companion in a thick brogue, shouts in a perfect Good Ole Boy accent, "Buuull-shit!"
There’s a stunned silence from everyone as the manager looks nonplussed, and then realizing it’s a joke, says, "Well, that was unexpected!"
The manager is a jovial middle-aged guy with a Texas drawl. After all the mounting tension of waiting he seems anxious to break the ice, and asks if anyone has heard any good stories. I think hard but came up blank; no one else has any, so the manager says, "Well, I heard a good joke the other day, but it’s a bit long." Evidently no one cares to dispute him on this, and he marches on undeterred.
"What the hell. So, it goes like this: There’s this elderly couple sitting on their porch one day, swattin’ flies. He looks at her, and says, ‘Remember how we used to have sex when we were teenagers, down in our neighbors’ field, against the ol’ fence? What would you say to the idea of doin’ that again?’
She thinks about it a spell, and says, ‘Alright, let’s.’
So they take a walk down to the neighbors’ field and find the fence and start undressin’.
Now who should come along but the town constable. He spies them and hides behind a tree to watch the action.
Well, those two old folks start to havin’ sex and the constable can hardly believe what he sees: the old lady is pushin’ her husband against the fence and he’s jumpin’ back at her like a crazy teenager, why they’re just poundin’ away like rabbits."
[Two helicopters are quickly approaching, and the manager raises his voice to be heard.] "After about an hour of this jumpin’ around they finish up and get dressed and start for home, and the constable, he just can’t resist, he comes out of the woods and falls in with the old man."
[The helos are coming in, the manager has to shout.] "The cop says, "Old Man, you must be 80 years old, but I saw you two goin’ at it like cats in heat. What’s your secret?" [Now the helos are on top of us and I can’t hear the manager.]
"Ol’ man says, ‘You try. . . [helicopters roar]. . . wife. . . [more roaring]. . . fence!’"
The manager chuckles at his joke, and the contractors nearby smile. I feel relieved that the noise kept me from having to force a reaction, but I’m still wanting the punch line. After the manager hurries back to the office I shout over the noise to a British security contractor next to me. "I didn’t hear the punch line!"
"’Lectric fence, mate! Leaned on it, they did!"
By 2:00 am no helicopters have arrived and my fellow passengers have given up. I resolve to call the embed office and get a ride back to the reporters’ barracks. Out in the parking lot of the Peruvian guards brings me a chair to sit in while I wait. Suddenly I hear a helo approaching. It’s probably for other waiting soldiers, but I jog across the street in my flak jacket, back to the office.
"Mumford, we were looking for you! It’s the flight to Speicher -- it’s about to leave!"
I dash back to grab my cumbersome luggage and tow it behind me at a trot back to the runway, fastening my chin-strap and jamming my earplugs in along the way. A pilot, in his Darth Vader-like helmet, bundles me in, fastens the four-piece seatbelt for me after I hopelessly bungle it, and we’re lifting off over Baghdad, two Blackhawks with four pilots, four gunners, and me as sole passenger. A dearly won cab ride at U.S. taxpayer expense.
The first thing that strikes me is how bright the city is beneath me. It’s past two in the morning, but the houses are lit over their front doors and yards in a huge grid for as far as I can see. If I didn’t know where I was I could mistake this for any small American city. These sometimes-surreal moments of normalcy are surprising and oddly reassuring. Then we’re over desert, as black as the ocean, interspersed with distant farmhouses, their lights and outdoor fires burning, looking like small boats at sea.
At Camp Speicher I’m directed to a cot in a large hanger. Amid the gently snoozing bodies I unfurl my sleeping bag and directly loose consciousness.
Speicher is spartan, a base devoted only to flights and their maintenance. After locating a small cafeteria in a huge repair hangar, I show up for my flight, which surprisingly arrives on time. After our second stop, the Blackhawk’s fully loaded, seven guys in the passenger section, luggage piled on our laps and between our knees up to the ceiling. I’m in the middle and I can hardly move.
"Hope you don’t get claustrophobia!" says the soldier next to me. I feel like I might if I was in here long enough. We make another stop, and then set out for the final leg. I can just see the landscape over the head of the man next to me: the desert below is huge, but dotted here and there with small farms scratching a little greenery from the dry soil, each with an adobe compound and a giant trench dug into the earth for water. I see a lone man on a horse plodding to some dusty destination.
We pass a highway, then power lines, and then a railroad partly silted over with sand. Shortly the desert changes to a low sandy hill country, and we join the broad sluggish Tigris river, following it past a gentle rise to Mosul. A city of 2,500,000 people, it looks large and cosmopolitan, its gleaming minarets rising into the sky.
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist.