The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

How did he drive? (7)

February 27, 2006

And then I suddenly realized, there was no way weren’t going to hit that car. It’s that moment in every traffic accident, that you know there is no avoiding the collision, and you brace yourself.

Mind you, I wasn’t actually all that worried, we were in a heavily armored humvee and the rickety white and orange taxi stuck in front of us didn’t look particularly impressive.

Our convoy had come barreling through the intersection the way most US military convoys do, sirens blaring for everyone to get out of the way, except that two cars tried to race across first and then somehow got into each other’s way.

The soldier in the gun turret yelled, worked the siren and then threw noisy stun grenades to get their attention. And then we slammed into the taxi.

I would have loved to see it from the street, as we barely felt the impact inside the humvee and knocked the taxi right out of the way, it must have looked all very Hollywood. Except something went wrong. Maybe our wheel got stuck or the driver went unconscious because we went horribly off course and--once again in slow motion--went careening into one of the many bullet-scarred ruined buildings that make up downtown Ramadi.

There was a second impact, bigger than the first because a building hurts more than a taxi cab and we were rattled around the humvee—I was very glad I was wearing my helmet since I hit the ceiling a few times.

Everyone seemed okay, except for the guy in front of me, who smashed his knee into something, at first he was quiet about it until his face turned grey with pain and sweat broke out across his face.

At the beginning of our trip he’d been telling me how he was up all night watching Nascar racing championships the night before. The soldiers love Nascar.

I wanted to leave the truck to see what was going on—the other humvees had taken up defensive positions around our ruined car. Soldiers deployed a cordon and the medic came over to check out our wounded man.

In the middle of the intersection was the shattered remnants of the taxi, with a driver sitting disconsolately next to it. He appeared to be missing a leg—much to the confusion of the soldiers—but apparently that was a pre-existing condition.

“Dude! The driver has no leg! What are we going to do about him?”

“Leave him, I checked him over, he’s fine,” said the medic as he treated the guy with the smashed up knee.

Then the explosion happened, just ten meters from us, one of those massive bangs that you feel in your chest and the debris and rubble rained down on the humvee, plinking on its hard outer shell.

My first thought was, I’m okay, I’ve heard the bang, but I’m still here. There was a burst of heavy machine gun fire as one of the gunners saw something on a roof top. Several soldiers were swearing, they’d been deafened by the blast, a few scratched by shrapnel.

I decided that I was very happy inside the stricken humvee and decided to observe events from behind the very thick window glass.

Soon enough another five humvees from the QRF (quick reaction force) showed up, and I was hustled into another humvee. As we got ready to leave there was another burst of gunfire, followed by a steady volley of shots.

I asked the TC (truck commander, I had to ask about it the fourth time I heard it) what that was all about. “Somebody shooting at someone else,” he said shortly as we sped off.

Talking with the soldiers later, they suggested the whole thing might have been a set up, with the one-legged cab driver pulling his car into the middle of the intersection to force the convoy to drive by the side of the road where the bomb was—followed by an attack of small arms fire.

Perhaps. One thing I’ve learned from the two embeds I’ve had this past few weeks is that US soldiers in Iraq are severely paranoid. Mind you, with good reason since there are a lot of people out there trying to blow them up.

I’ve also learned a lot about mud. For an arid, desert country, it sure rains a lot here, at least during January and February. A few weeks ago I spent four days out in the Abu Ghraib area, west of Baghdad with one army unit in an endless odyssey of mud.

At 5am, the patrol mounted up in the pitch black and pissing rain, where I promptly got my feet soaked and covered in the thick creamy, peanut butter-like mud in the first few minutes. And I was never dry again for the next 15 hours of that wet rainy day.

Humvees, for all their impressive armor and solidity have one major flaw in my mind. There is a big hole in the roof through which pours the rain thanks to the machine gun turret.

As cold and uncomfortable as I was that day, I can’t imagine how the gunner sitting in that turret as we patrolled the bleak countryside surrounding the prison must have felt sitting in the open air all day.

By the time I got home from that patrol at about 8pm—most of which was spent peering along the roadside for bombs—I had a severe case of the shivers, which was compounded by the need to wade across a shin-deep lake of icy water that had appeared in front of my trailer.

Few people were out on that rainy Friday and most of what we did was look for IEDs or improvised explosive devices. The US military has always been obsessed with its acronyms, but I think with the war in Iraq it’s reached new heights.

“A combined kinetic assault of VBIEDs, RPG and SAF (AK and RPK) hit the CP 41 on ASR Michigan,” is a typical communiqué from the army. I think total victory will be declared when they manage to replace verbs with acronyms as well.

That, by the way, translates as a “Checkpoint 41 on Michigan road (the military renamed all roads in Iraq to things they could pronounce) was attacked by a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (a car bomb), rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire, both from AK-47 assault rifles and RPK light machine guns.

So I spent the day with four guys inside a wet humvee with several inches of mud on the floor and it was straight out of a war movie, with the harsh sergeant with the heart of gold, the dumb kid from the south, the wise guy from the New York area and the quiet medic, who they called, predictably enough, “doc”.

They called the southern guy, who was driving, “deer meat”. I’m not really sure why, but decided it was better not to ask.

And we spent the day looking for bombs while the sergeant spun incredible stories for me about how sneaky the enemy was in laying these things that claim the vast majority of US soldier lives.

Through his eyes, every one in the country, the guy walking on the side of the road with the shovel, the guy with the oversize suitcase, the car turning at the road, were all potential IED makers. And after a while, it was hard not to subscribe to the paranoia.

The most common car used by insurgents is a black BMW and as far as I can tell these now-menacing cars are everywhere I look in this country.

A few days ago, I was in Ramadi, out in the west, and went on a dismounted (no cars) patrol through the countryside north of the city. It turned out to be a beautiful day with very little mud as 15 of us walked through fields (avoid the roads, IEDs) through what must have been the quietest part of what is supposed to be a war-torn province.

While the rest of the country teetered on the brink of civil war with death squads roaming the streets and burning mosques, Ramadi that day was quiet and we walked through orchards and handed out candy to smiling children.

They made me put on army fatigues so I wouldn’t stand out in the patrol and attract the attention of a sniper—but I was still the only guy not carrying a gun and most people we met automatically assumed I was the interpreter.

I talked with the medic who was assigned to stick by me and he talked about how he had joined the national guard to pay for college—and the next thing he knew his unit was mobilized and he was spending the year in Iraq.

We sat on the edge of an orchard just coming into blossom as the sun set through a line of palm trees, waiting for the rest of patrol to finish sweeping the area with a metal detector.

“Y’know something, it’s kinda pretty out here,” said one of the soldiers in the deepening dusk.

“Dude, what are you talking about?” came the reply. “It’s still Iraq.”

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