Returning to Baghdad, where he was embedded in 2003, the author finds the “Hellraisers” of the Third Infantry facing the challenge of training Iraq’s new army
I first saw Baghdad on April 8, 2003, two days before the city fell, while embedded with the army’s Third Infantry Division. What is now the Green Zone was recently a battleground, a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A wrecked Russian-made armored vehicle rusted silently under a clump of trees. Here and there were the remains of Iraqi soldiers, semi-preserved by the dry heat. The G.I.’s gave some of them nicknames: Headless Harry, Shoulder Sam, Puddle Pete. The only signs of life were the cats you would see gnawing on the corpses. The area included several palaces, all of them bombed except for the Presidential Palace, a ziggurat belonging to the Ministry of Defense, clusters of apartment blocks belonging to regime favorites, and the green residential area of Tashri. Its garish mansions, surrounded by flower gardens, ponds, and moats, had all been abandoned in the months leading up to the war — the dust, the lack of furniture, the doors left open, made that obvious. G.I.’s quickly moved in, installed VCRs and TVs, and wandered in wonder through the gardens. They toured in their Humvees past abandoned houses and offices, chased away looters, and occasionally brought in curious Iraqis who’d never seen the area that was reserved for Saddam and the Ba’thist elite.
Now the whole district is at least as off-limits to ordinary Iraqis as it was before. Its green loveliness hasvanished behind the concrete blast walls that surround everybuilding and every compound. And when I drove through the zonelate last spring, with soldiers who had liberated it more thantwo years ago, everyone in the Humvee went silent, shocked at the transformation. “I can’t even fucking find my way roundhere now, and I drove here every day,” one sergeant said.
Back in 2003, I spent my first nights in Baghdad on the floor of the Presidential Palace, the headquarters of the 4-64 Armor Battalion and now, shorn of the giant heads of Saddamthat once adorned its roof, the embassy of the United States. Saddam’s half-Olympic-size palace pool was then bone-dry. Thescouts took showers in the deep end using buckets. Their palsin the mortar platoon pissed in it. Today it is full, and youcan see its blue waters through the heat haze, like a mirage,as you land on the Green Zone helipad.
The 4-64 Armor returned to Baghdad with the rest of the Third Infantry Division just after the elections of January 2005, replacing the First Cavalry Division. The soldiers they relieved had seen some ofthe worst fighting since the invasion, battling the Mahdimilitia of renegade Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunniinsurgents from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Some of the battalion’s troops now provide security in the Green Zone, operating checkpoints alongside a legion of private security guards, allied soldiers (mostly Georgians), and Iraqi security forces. Others oversee infrastructure projects in their area of responsibility. Still others are engaged in training the new Iraqi Army and patrolling the streets adjacent to the Green Zone on both sides of the Tigris.
It’s all vital work, but the task of training an effective Iraqi security force is now a top priority of the U.S. military. Though the economy manages to function despite the bombs that go off almost daily—indeed, the new cars jammed onto the streets make that all too clear—Iraqi civil society, the country’s nascent democracy, and an eventual American departure without disgrace all depend on this. Though U.S. troops rarely find themselves in sustained combat (except where the Marines are fighting near the Syrian border), this past summer has been bloody, especially for the thousands of Iraqi civilians killed by the largely Sunni suicide bombers often referred to by Baghdadis as “Wahhabis.”
The company I was with in 2003, and now again, has escaped the tedium and danger of checkpoint duty, much to the soldiers’ delight. Nicknamed the “Hellraisers,” they arefinishing the training of one Iraqi Army unit that was begun by the departed First Cavalry and beginning the training of another. As a friend from my previous visit, Sergeant Richard MacDougal of the Hellraisers’ mortar platoon, said to me, “It’s the best gig going out here.”
But the price of that gig is living out at FOB Independence, on the Muthenna airfield, in North Baghdad, instead of in the comforts of the main battalion base at Prosperity Palace, in the Green Zone, with its gleaming shower and toilet trailers and luxurious chow-hall. (Almost all bases are now termed “FOBs,” or Forward Operating Bases, even if they are in the rear. The big FOBs are essentially officeparks, like camouflaged versions of a D.M.V. or postoffice.)
“Fobbit” has become the derogatory army slang for a soldier who lives in, works in, and rarely leaves the FOB. It is the rough equivalent of the epithet REMF (rear-echelonmotherfucker) of Vietnam War fame. At FOB Prosperity, ther eare many soldiers for whom a trip out of the base and to the nearby PX convenience store is a huge, rare deal.
FOB Independence is something else entirely. It’s a combat-and-training base out in “Indian” country. There’s a fence around the airfield and several high-walled compounds within it. Before you get to the American area, you have to go through an Iraqi National Guard camp. There are gates, and your vehicle has to wind through a “serpentine”— concrete obstacle course that denies a straight run to truck bombers—to get to each compound.
A few hundred American troops live there, and next door to them about a thousand troops from the 302nd Iraqi National Guard. With its castellated walls, FOB Independence feels a bit like a French Foreign Legion base from an old movie. At night when you hear gunfire in the distance, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if the natives fled, or turned on their foreign advisers.
Iraqi soldiers man the watchtowers on the outer perimeterof the base. The Americans check every night to make sure theyare not asleep. When the 4-64 moved in here, it found that theIraqi troops had actually put bunk beds in the towers.
Nevertheless, none of the U.S. troops there seem nervous.They were expecting much more contact with the enemy that they refer to simply as “the bad guys,” and that military publications refer to as “Anti-Iraqi Forces,” or A.I.F.
The Hellraiser company is now commanded by Captain Ed Ballanco. An air-force brat who grew up in Germany and Florida, he’s 30, married—as most officers are—and has a master’s in international relations. Ballanco was in a tank battalion during the thrust into Baghdad when I got to know him. Now he has a baby girl at home and is in charge of the American compound on the Muthenna airfield.
The Hellraisers’ shelter from the punishing heat and dust consists of three long, drab barracks that are kept at frigid temperatures by roaring air-conditioning units. Their world includes a cafeteria, a small garden, a makeshift gym in a hot and dusty tent, and a recreation area under a palm-frond roof that could have been transported from a Thai beach. Within the compound there are three little stores–a phone center and two Internet cafe—all Iraqi-owned.
The Muthenna airfield hasn’t been used as an airfield since it was bombed during the Gulf War, in 1991. A control tower sits south of the U.S. compound and is occupied by an Iraqi Army unit. Near it are two giant cranes and the foundation pillars of a huge unfinished mosque–one of several begun by Saddam as he shook off the Ba’th Party’s secular origins. The U.S. troops call it the MOAM, the Mother of All Mosques, and they use it for urban-warfare training.
The Iraqi Army recruits live in a giant airplane hangar. Apart from the MOAM, the dominant feature of this strange post-industrial landscape is a large mound of earth, a kind of artificial mountain. It is the core of Captain Ballanco’sachievement: a range and training area for American and Iraqi troops. Ballanco’s range is surrounded by HESCOs, big barrels filled with dirt and debris. They absorb bullets, shrapnel, mortar shells, and a huge amount of explosive force.
At the very edge of the airfield is another Iraqi Army compound, where recruiting is done. It is a frequent target of suicide bombers. Security is tight, though on my second-to-last day a bomber set off his charges as he was being searched in a concrete enclosure, reportedly killing at least 13 people.
Ed Ballanco is a soldier’s soldier. One gets the impression he will dread the staff jobs that await him once he’s done his tour and gets promoted. Like so many young officers in combat units, he’s something of a fitness freak, as well as a history buff and a movie fan who makes his men watch films about leadership. (On my first day at Camp Independence he had them watch Gregory Peck play a broken World War II air-forceofficer in Twelve O’Clock High.) Above all, Ballanco loves going out on patrol, itching for contact. But these days he spends most of his time battling with recalcitrant bureaucracies–Iraqi and American–on behalf of his mission.
On my first day at FOB Independence, Ballanco was dealing with an Iraqi contractor who, instead of trucking the base’s sewage to the main city sewer system, was merely dumping it in an abandoned yard in a nearby neighborhood. Ballanco was also yelling at the supply troops at his own battalion headquarters for their failure to truck up fresh food supplies and ice cream for his men. The Green Zone, where the supply troops are based, is only 10 minutes away. Ballanco and his men travel the route several times a day, and they despise the fearfulness of the Green Zone Fobbits, whose main exposure to the war is through the news, and who are terrified of going out into “the Red Zone”–military jargon for anywhere outside the Green Zone.
Every day a few Hellraisers go on patrol with the Iraqi National Guard, who have just completed a year of training by two different U.S. units here at Muthenna. The I.N.G.’s, as they are called, patrol several times a day, clambering up onto old pickups, some of which have desk chairs strapped on the truck bed for a machine-gunner to sit on.
Though the I.N.G. troops took some time to be cured of their instinct to use the guard towers on the base as sleeping quarters, the Americans who patrol with them now deem them as good as any U.S. support unit. “They search the shit out of things now. They’ll go down sewers if they have to. They leave on time every time. And they’ve got a lot of qualities you wouldn’t expect,” Captain Hunter Bowers, a 25-year-old Nashville native, told me. It’s true; every time I joined themfor a patrol, the I.N.G. soldiers were lined up, ready to hit the streets 10 minutes early. One day, when we were running a mere minute late, we found they had already left.
The I.N.G.’s weren’t always this solid. According to First Sergeant Rob Hixson, a 39-year-old St. Louis native and veteran of Haiti and Somalia, they had a transforming moment last year. One of their companies got into a firefight with insurgents, “and they got the shit kicked out of them. One dead and 17 wounded. Then they got serious.”
Hixson adds that it was easier to train the Iraqi National Guard troops well because when they were first formed the Americans were still in charge, not the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (M.O.D.). The Americans could hire, promote, and fire officers with impunity. Now it’s hard to move people around, because Iraqi officers have apparently paid a lot for their positions. “I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it costs $60 just to join the Iraqi Army,” he tells me.
The I.N.G.’s technically are part of the Iraqi Army now, but everyone still calls them I.N.G. troops. They stand out from ordinary I.A. units because they have slightly different uniforms and vests.
Though the 302nd is one of the best Iraqi units in the whole country, with a proven battlefield record, it is aCinderella unit unpopular at the M.O.D. and with the Saddam-era top brass who dominate the ministry.
For a long time the I.N.G. here at Independence suffered from inadequate and unclean food supplied by an M.O.D.contractor. Repeated complaints by the brigade’s general and by Captain Ballanco had no effect. Then one night, before my arrival, 60 men were taken violently ill after their dinner. A couple of days later the food supplier was kidnapped. He was released later upon payment of a $10,000 ransom. The food improved markedly. (The I.N.G. deny they were involved.)
Knowing that they are good, and feeling left out of the loop, the I.N.G. brigade operates in a maverick fashion. Its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alaa Talib Mohsine, an energetic and fearless man in early middle age who had enlisted in the I.N.G. as a private (though he’d been a colonel in Saddam’s army), takes his men on raids outside of the sector, snatching insurgent suspects and bringing them back to the crowded trailer at Camp Independence that doubles as a jail. One day while I was there, I.N.G. soldiers, upon hearing of a big fire in Sadr City, mounted their pickups and drove over to help put it out.
The I.N.G.’s know that one reason they are looked upon with such disfavor by the Iraqi Army’s new command is their more Western style of leadership—which gives responsibility to junior officers—here considered a subversive innovation. The regular Iraqi Army is heavy with colonels and generals, like a South American one, yet the Americans have found that in units like the one Captain Ballanco was training no one is willing to make even a minor decision.
The I.N.G. is kind of a platonic ideal of the new Iraqi Army. Not only does it include both Sunni and Shia (the battalion executive officer is a Sunni), it also contains men who had held positions in the Republican Guard and men who had been part of the Shia anti-Saddam underground.
It felt strange to walk down Haifa Street again. Since I had been there last, it had become known as “the Street of Death.” There were more than 400 attacks against American and Iraqi security forces on the road or in the area around it in 2004 alone. The narrow warrens behind the tall buildings that line Haifa Street were christened with nicknames such as “Grenade Alley” and “Purple Heart Lane.”
Yet it now seemed almost as unthreatening as it had been when the 4-64 and I were here two years ago. Walking through these medieval streets as they bustled with urban village life, I remembered how people streamed out of them in April 2003 to loot the apartment buildings and offices on Haifa Street. The apartment blocks where Saddam had housed members of his favored groups (party activists, Palestinians, Syrianexiles, et al.) had been a particular target.
The lanes look the same now, except that there are airconditioners in a lot of the windows, and everywhere there are satellite dishes, which were banned by Saddam’s regime. The three-foot disks cluster like fungus on rooftops and walls. Even the poorest hovels without running water or toilets seemto have satellite TV.
Some of the alleys in the mixed Shia-Sunni neighborhood are friendly; others feel distinctly hostile. In a friendly street, young women with scarves but uncovered faces giggled at the soldiers as they walked by.
The previous week, I.N.G. soldiers caught an insurgent when one of the “jundis”—the word used for a private—overheard him speaking with a Syrian accent. As Ed Ballanco pointed out, this is something that no American patrol would ever notice.
The patrol walked down both sides of the boulevard, each soldier keeping about 10 feet behind the man in front, staying about a foot from the wall, pointing weapons down sidestreets. But the general feeling was relaxed. The Hellraisers were attacked with grenades and by snipers here in February and March, but since then they have had minimal contacts.
The Hellraisers are particularly amazed when they’re personally recognized on the street. Back in spring 2003 the company’s mortar platoon was stationed outside the big looted bank on Haifa Street. Naturally they got to know some of theneighborhood kids. Specialist Chris Masters was there. “The other day we were staging behind Haifa Street for a patrol and this little kid runs up to me and says my name the way they always mispronounce it: ‘Chrace! Chrace!’ I couldn’t believe it. But I recognized him as one of the kids we used to let inside the bank compound to help clear it up. He pointed out another kid, and I realized it was the one we used to call Beaver because he looked like the “Leave It to Beaver” kid. We had nicknames for all of them because their names wereso hard to pronounce.”
I was here for the first day of U.S. training for a new Iraqi Army battalion. The Iraqi recruits had been on the airfield for almost three months, waiting for uniforms and weapons and learning how to march, with that slightly embarrassing goose step that the new Iraqi Army has inherited from the old, along with its venal, authoritarian officer corps.
To the gratified surprise of the Hellraiser G.I.’s, it turned out that the “jundis” can strip and re-assemble their weapons with impressive speed. But that was as far astheir soldierly skills went.
The Iraqi troops carried their Romanian and Bulgarian AK-47s by the barrel, by the trigger guard, upside down over their shoulders, or trailing in the dirt, and often pointed them at their buddies and instructors. It was as if they had no concept that guns are dangerous.
Some 30 trainees were asked to fire three single shots at Captain Ballanco’s makeshift targets. (Official army targets had been ordered months before but had yet to make it down the supply chain.) The instructions were given loudly and clearly—all the interpreters were experienced themselves, having spent the past months with the Iraqi National Guard.
The first line of I.A. soldiers stood on the firing line. “Ready!” “Ai…” brrrrrrap! Before the final consonant, all the soldiers emptied their magazines on full auto. Grinning in joy and fear, they seemed to be awakening from a trance when the noise died down and they heard their own officers, the interpreters, and the Americans yelling at them to cease fire. In 10 weeks of basic training, these soldiers had rarely fired their weapons. In the old Iraqi Army, there was almost no live-fire training.
So the rest of the morning was spent teaching the Iraqi battalion how to behave on the range. Sergeant First Class Michael Brown’s voice boomed out to the “jundis” sitting under camouflage nets to shelter them from the midday sun: “At no time will you point the weapon in the air, at your buddy, at your feet . A translator in a U.S. Army uniform repeated his words in Arabic. Oblivious, the Iraqi lieutenant next to me had his rifle pointed at the navel of the man beside him.”This is how you will carry your weapon in training so you can avoid shooting somebody accidentally; finger off trigger, on safe, pointing down,” shouted Sergeant Brown.
An Iraqi lieutenant’s cell phone rang and he wandered away for a chat. When he strolled back and over to the range where soldiers were learning to sight their weapons, he moved the feet of a soldier lying in prone firing position, as if to show that he knew his stuff. He did not.
A U.S. Army colonel who had just trained a similar Iraqi Army unit told me that much of the early training is designed to avoid what he and his colleagues call “the deathblossom”—when an untrained Iraqi unit makes contact and fires wildly in all directions. “It’s why before we take them out on the streets we do so much training with live fire. We have them clear rooms with live fire. If they don’t do it properly they’ll shoot each other,” he told me.
Another, rather different culture clash became apparent at the end of the day’s training. The Americans began to pick up the used brass cartridges on the range and asked the Iraqis they were training to join in. The recruits and their officers seemed utterly baffled by this. Farther up the range Captain Mark McClellan, a 2001 West Point graduate from Macon, Georgia, handed out plastic trash bags and began to pick up some of the water bottles that carpeted the area. It wasn’t clear which confused the Iraqi recruits more: the idea of cleaning up trash or that of an officer joining in such a demeaning task.
Hygiene was the main topic of discussion at that evening’s officers’ meeting. Ballanco was worried about flies and disease as a result of Iraqi Army soldiers relieving themselves in the scrub near the training range. He asked Sergeant First Class Leon “Pete” Peters to order more porta-johns for the back of the range. But as First Sergeant Rob Hixson pointed out, the new porta-johns installed near the I.A.’s hangar hadn’t been used. Apparently they were the Western type, with seats.
“Jesus, I got used to squatting in the desert during the war—why can’t they get used to shitting on a toilet?” one ofthe officers asked. New, Asian-style porta-johns were ordered.
A couple of days later I went on a patrol with a squad from the 302nd Iraqi National Guard battalion, this one through the poor Sunni neighborhood justsouth of Haifa Street.
Ed Ballanco noted how part of the 40-man platoon had gone forward to ensure security from rooftops and high windows;that they kept their rifles down, fingers off but near the triggers; that they kept the right distance from one another as they walked. “These guys are studs,” he said. Certainly, their discipline was in stark contrast to that of the rabble Ballanco and his men were trying to train that morning.
The I.N.G. men stopped to shoot the breeze with the local shopkeepers. One local man insisted on talking to Captain Ballanco as well as to the I.N.G. commander. A power line had broken nearby. It was obvious he believed that if the Americans knew about it it was more likely to get repaired. The truth is that all soldiers like Ballanco can do is pass the information up the chain of command. If the project is small enough the battalion may take it on. But if it involves something more substantial, the request gets passed to the relevant ministry, where it becomes subject to the mysterious and unedifying currents of Iraqi politics.
The I.N.G. troops are astonishingly good at spotting roadside bombs. Ballanco and his officers marvel at the way they can tell that a pile of trash or section of curb just looks wrong. One day, a soldier on an I.N.G. patrol found a bomb stuffed into the gutter. Ballanco’s men started to call a bomb squad, but one of the I.N.G. soldiers walked over to the bomb, casually pulled some wires out of it, and lifted it up in triumph. According to Ballanco, he’d been in the old Iraqi Army and had been trained to make bombs out of artillery shells.
At six the following morning, the Hellraisers took the new Iraqi Army recruits through physical training. The Iraqis did about a tenth of the workout expected of U.S. troops: a short run, some calisthenics. Yet, it was too much for some of the jundis. Three of them quit on the spot, taking off their uniforms and boots and walking off through the gates in their underwear and bare feet.
The I.A. battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Ubiasis Ridha, is a fit man in his 30s who kept up with the Americans–but many of the other officers couldn’t. As they explained to Captain Mark McClellan, in the Iraqi Army, officers are supposed to be fat. They said it was humiliating to have to exercise with their men. McClellan informed them that in the American army officers are supposed to be fitter than the men they command and better at using every weapon system. They looked at him as if he were insane. Apparently, much of the point of being an officer in the Iraqi Army is to not have to do uncomfortable or difficult things.
Physical training took place in a concrete parade ground near the hangar where the 1,500 Iraqi Army trainees live. First Sergeant Hixson showed me the unbelievable squalor of those living quarters. There was no running water. To wash themselves and their one uniform they had to walk up the airfield to some rusting tanks containing fetid rainwater. They relieved themselves in a room at the back of the hangar.They ate on the bunks. The flies were thick. Although he had seen it before, the scene filled the American sergeant with fury.
Ballanco and his own commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Roth, had asked for funds to pay for showers, an eating area, and other improvements to the barracks. The 4-64 has been doing what it can, with limited funds, to help the Iraqi trainees. They were allocated $10,000 a month for training purposes, but that amount was cut to $2,500 last April–official U.S. policy is to slowly shift power to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, which must fund such improvements itself. One colonel told me that the Ministry of Defense i is not yet up to the job of provisioning and equipping an army. While the Americans have had success at training soldiers at the tactical level, there are few training efforts at the senior bureaucratic level. The ministry is widely said to be a basket case of nepotism, corruption, and incompetence.
U.S. officers like Ballanco say that now is not the time to let the M.O.D. learn from its mistakes. “Let’s win the war first and then train the bureaucrats.”
The next day it was reported that, although the new, Asian-style porta-johns had been delivered, the Iraqi soldiers still weren’t using them. Sergeant Peters caught several soldiers relieving themselves in the scrub behind the range again. One of the jundis told him that he’d been told that the porta-johns were for officers only. Captain Ballanco said there must be an announcement that they are for everyone, and that soldiers who didn’t use them would be fined. “I can’t believe I’m even discussing this stuff,” he said.
The senior Iraqi Army officers had asked Captain Ballanconot to let the Iraqi National Guard soldiers assist in the training of their troops. Ballanco eventually agreed to this despite the fact that having top-quality Iraqi soldiers helping on the range speeded training enormously.
However, Captain Ballanco and his men refused to give in to the Iraqi officers’ requests that they be allowed to skip physical training and eat separately from their own men. In the U.S. Army, not only do officers eat with their men, they eat last. That means that if there isn’t enough food it’s the people in charge who go hungry.
During an officer-training session, one of the Iraqi officers interrupted Captain McClellan’s presentation about how to plan an operation to point out that “in the Iraqi Army we lead from the back, not the front.” The American officers didn’t know what to say. The interpreter, a former professor of English who came back to Iraq in 2003, said, “Yes, and that is why you lost twice to the Americans.” The room erupted. The Iraqi officers were furious. “That’s not true!” one of themshouted. “They only won because of their technology, becauseof their airplanes!”
Once the jundis had been taught basic marksmanship, the American trainers gave prizes to recruits who did best on the range. Ballanco and his men use high-status awards to motivate the Iraqis they are training, sometimes giving away watches and sunglasses. It works very well. (“What is it Napoleon said?” asked Sergeant Dan McDonald, one of the civil-affairs soldiers attached to the battalion. “I could conquer the world if I had enough ribbon?!”) The most valued prizes are equipment that American troops themselves favor, such as G-Shock watches and the two favorite brands of ballistic or protective sunglasses, Wiley Xand ESS.
One day Ballanco invited several of the Iraqi Army officersto have a go on the range with an M-4 carbine, the U.S.military’s short rifle that’s gradually replacing the M-16. He showed them how to use the red dot in the rifle’s telescopicsight. They all took a few shots at a water bottle he had placed on a wooden post about 60 feet away. They all missed. One of them handed the rifle back, saying he was sure the sight was broken. Ballanco picked up the rifle, which was not even his but his sergeant’s, knocked the bottle off the post with his first shot, and then bounced it up and down the range, hitting the bottle with every shot he fired. There was a thoughtful silence afterward. For the next few days, the Iraqi officers seemed less awkward about taking the advice of their trainers.
Sometimes the culture clashes on the range took on a comical tone. Captain McClellan was disconcerted when his Iraqi charges kept telling him he had a beautiful face. Some of them added their opinion that “women are for babies, men are for fun.” “I just say, ‘Thank you,’ and keep back,” McClellan said.
McClellan believes it’s important to set a reasonable bar for the level of training. “We are not trying to make an army like the 82nd Airborne that can parachute into Tehran. We’re trying to make an army that can support the government in what it needs. We will train them hard and we’ll at least have an army that can see what good is. Certain things stick: they still parade like the British after 50 years. Now there’s ageneration of jundis and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] that will have been trained by Americans. They’ll at least know what good soldiering looks like.”
Given how much the training effort depends on the determination and skill of the U.S. officers involved, it was disconcerting to me to find out how little some of the top U.S. brass seemed to understand the challenge.
The MNSTC-I (Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq, or “Minsticky,” as it’s called) is based in the greenest, most luxurious part of the Green Zone, near the mansions I stayed in with the 4-64 back in 2003.
Minsticky was, until September, led by Lieutenant General David Petraeus, one of the most highly regarded officers in the U.S. Army. (Petraeus is now in command of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.) His leadership in Mosul after its capture in 2003 by his 101st Airborne Division was wildly successful. Many people here believed that if only his methods had been duplicated elsewhere things would have gone very differently. Petraeus seduced and inspired otherwise intractable sheikhs with a combination of charm, money, and firepower.
But the Power Point briefing I was given by two colonels was a mere recitation of numbers: weapons distributed, training days completed, units fully trained. There was no sense of the vast variation in the quality of training among Iraqi units. I mentioned the terrible conditions on the air base, the failure of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense to supply its own troops with food and running water. The colonels told me that, according to their records, those problems had been dealt with.
When I got back to brigade headquarters I was questioned closely about the briefing. People were disappointed but not surprised by the cluelessness of the Minsticky staff. A colonel told me he wished there were still generals like Patton who came out to the field on unannounced visits, who knew that “you can’t rely on staff officers who just tell you what you want to hear.”
(In late September, General George Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, told Congress that the number of Iraqi Army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help had fallen from three to one. That means out of 86 battalions, only one is battle ready.)
Meanwhile, the toilet saga continued. At the evening meeting Sergeant Peters reported that the Iraqi soldiers had been defecating next to, behind, and even on the outer walls of the porta-johns, but not in them. Apparently, the problem was that most of the recruits were rural men from Hilla, farm boys who simply didn’t like to do their business in an enclosed space. Sergeant Steven Cotton, the medic, had reported two possible cases of typhoid, and Ballanco was at his wit’s end.
In front of me he called the battalion doctor about getting vaccinations for the I.A. trainees. But the voice at the other end was already irritated with the Hellraisers for pressuring him to perform an operation on a local child suffering from hydrocephalus. “Typhoid vaccinations cost $10 to 20 per shot. With 1,500 I.A. that would cost $30,000. So, no way.” Ballanco went red. “No way? What about the soldiers?” “I guess they’ll all get typhoid,” came the reply from the medical officer.”Goddammit!” Ballanco exploded. “Don’t you fucking get it? The quicker I get these men trained, the sooner they can get out on the fucking street and fucking win this war, and we can all go home.”
Back in 2003 the Hellraisers had no running water (they drew water to flush toilets from the Tigris), no PX, no freshly made food, no DVDs or computer games, no Internet access, and for the most part had not been able to speak with their loved ones at home unless a passing reporter had lent them a satellite phone.
Life was very different when I returned, even on a small, relatively uncomfortable base such as Independence, which lacks a big Halliburton chow-hall, a fancy, air-conditioned gym, and large-screen TVs. These days there’s relatively easy phone access on most bases, and Internet access ($2 an hour) provided by Iraqi entrepreneurs. At Independence, many of the soldiers had the Internet in their rooms. People I.M.’d their spouses back home and used Webcams to flirt with chat-room dates.
Though many of the FOBs still have sandbagged windows from the months when there were daily mortar attacks, there have been few significant attacks on any of the bases in Baghdad since 2004. That means many of the soldiers you see playing on their computers in dusty offices are really in serious danger only when they leave the confines of their brigade and battalion headquarters.
This time, everyone had a laptop. Digital cameras were everywhere. Several soldiers at Camp Independence made digital movies for their own amusement; many of them were quality documentaries. One soldier had spliced in footage from the unit’s Raven, a small video-surveillance drone.
Pornography is technically forbidden by a general order–thesame one that forbids alcohol. But the alcohol rule is strictly enforced. Ed Ballanco suspected that some of his men gave in to temptation when the Iraqi National Guard officers in the compound next door offered them beer. But you don’t see any booze in the barracks themselves. Drugs are even more forbidden and, as far as I could tell, astonishingly rare.
Another huge difference between this army and its drafted predecessors from previous wars is that more than half of its soldiers are married. Marital problems are common in thearmy–a casualty of one-year deployments. (The Marines and the British are usually sent abroad for shorter periods of time.) At least one soldier I knew from 2003 got divorced when he went home last time.
As their first week passes, the Iraqi Army recruits look more like soldiers and less like extras shambling around a movie set. I watch them as they practice searching cars, setting up checkpoints, and moving under fire between the columns of the MOAM. Not only has the awkwardness of their first few days vanished, the jundis exhibit genuine enthusiasm. Sometimes they point out to the American trainers the corners where “Wahhabis” would be hiding if this were the real street. When I look surprised at the trainees’ improvement, First Sergeant Hixson says to me, “You should see how bad American army recruits are at the beginning of basic training.” Already the American trainers are spotting jundis with a knack for marksmanship or leadership. Soon they will have to try to persuade the Iraqi general–noone else has the authority–that these are men worthpromoting.
In the chow-hall, Ballanco addressed his company: “I’ve never seen a group of guys workas hard as you have in the last week since I’ve been in the army. I’ve done basic training as an XO [executive officer], and what you are doing is harder than what drill sergeants do. You are teaching Arabs, not English speakers. You don’t have the regular training plans.
“I know that you enjoyed being on Haifa Street with the I.N.G., having grenades thrown at you, people shooting at you. But what you are doing now is winning the war and helping to make Iraq stable and a democracy. These I.A., they have been sitting here for three months. If someone had put some passion into them, they would be out there like the I.N.G. You are here and you are making it happen. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not one of these Fobbits who spend a year here and tell people at home, ‘Oh, I was in Iraq in all the danger,’ can say that.”
This sort of un-ironic gung-ho attitude is remarkably common in combat units here. One civil-affairs sergeant told me after a long day dealing with sewage problems in a desperate slum, “You’d hate to walk out of here and not have done all you can.” And Ballanco himself, despite frustrations battling Fobbits for supplies and money, the Iraqi M.O.D. for showers for the Iraqi Army recruits, or colleagues who don’t get the importance of the mission, remains, above all else, dedicated. “We are winning here,” he said, “but we are winning in spite of ourselves.”