A Woman in Iraq

From Washington Law & Politics, December/January 2005, A Woman In Iraq

by Erin Solaro

Born in 1966, I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television; from the first, I regarded the American troops as my people. From the first, I felt I should be there with them. When the Madrid subway was bombed, 2 1/2 years after 9/11, not being part of the war felt like consenting to the slaughter.

11 March, 2004 The Madrid subway is bombed. The cancer is spreading.

We oughtn’t to have invaded Iraq, but now that we’re there, should we stay or leave? More important: How do I get there?

I ask for accreditation from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has published my work, then contact the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team (BCT) for permission to embed with them near Baghdad. As a woman and a citizen, I refuse consent to the Islamist restrictions on women; and I specifically want to see how female soldiers are serving and how they are being treated by their male peers.

1 April Four contractors have been murdered in Fallujah, their mutilated bodies displayed for all to see. The left averts its eyes while the right demands Fallujah’s destruction, as if it were Carthage, but a closer parallel would be Rotterdam delenda est. I contact a philanthropist friend for funding, a wealthy Jewish man who enlisted in the infantry and volunteered to go to Vietnam.

12 May The 81st BCT public affairs officer, Capt. Anne-Marie Peacock, sends quite a lot of paperwork. I fill it out. She loses it. I resend it. Then she says she can’t accommodate my dates. But I didn’t specify any.

My fiancé, Philip Gold, a former Marines intelligence officer, suggests I call the Marines.

17 May The Marines say “yes”!

22 May The First Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s First Infantry Division, co-located with the Marines, invites me. Someone seems to have read my work on casualties and sexual assault; guess I’m not as persona non grata as I feared.

15 June Where I have dozed traveling from Kuwait to Ramadi, Iraq: Capt. Kristin Lasica’s spare rack at the Marine Corps’ First Force Service Support Group. In my body armor, my helmet as a pillow, in a hangar full of Marines at Al-Taqqadum Air Base, waiting for a CH-46 flight. At Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva’s desk here at Blue Diamond, First Marine Division headquarters. I hate being unarmed—I am comfortable around weapons; they are a neutral means to accomplish a morally significant end—but I feel very safe with these armed, violent Americans in a way no Iraqi woman could among her compatriots. We are free, and one of freedom’s greatest expressions is legitimate discipline.

At breakfast, Gunny Oliva talks about the bitterness of the Marines in Ramadi toward the Iraqis they see deliberately using noncombatants as shields, trying to get them killed so they can show how “barbaric” the Marines are. “It makes the Marines want to kill the insurgents all the more,” he said. “God bless them. They gear up every day and go out.”

16 June I have left Blue Diamond on the green banks of the blue Euphrates—on the banks of the Euphrates—for Camp Junction City, home to the Army’s First Brigade Combat Team. There are only a few palm trees and some green scrub. And the desert smells of flint.

The Army brigade commander is Col. Arthur W. “Buck” Connor Jr., and under his control is Lt. Col. Paul Kennedy, commander of Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, in Ramadi, capital of Al-Anbar province and a flashpoint of the Sunni Triangle. Both men are deeply thoughtful, impressive gentlemen, much like the average soldier or Marine under their commands. Violence is their profession, not their lifestyle.

23 June We wake to learn South Korean Christian missionary Kim Sun Il was forced to beg for his life before an Islamic terrorist group beheaded him. Men who have made peace with killing in combat are horrified. Islam requires that animals butchered for food be killed humanely, but Kim was not granted that decency.

Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, the vast majority of U.S. troops treat prisoners humanely. We know we will be granted no such mercy by the insurgents, nor warnings by those who smile and wave at us. There is a longing for reprisals, but they will not be taken, even against the guilty. Honorable conduct toward the conquered is one thing. Such mercy toward a loose coalition of jihadi, Ba’athist thugs, foreign adventurers, common criminals and the desperate poor, paid by those with a vested interest in instability, baffles the Iraqis who are not barbarians. The rest regard it as an invitation to attack us.

26 June I go out with a patrol from Lt. Col. Mike Cabrey’s 1-5 Field Artillery Battalion. It is my third mission with 1-5, the first without “Lionesses.” Women are excluded from the all-male combat units, but as noncombat soldiers they, along with their male peers, engage in whatever combat comes their way. Lionesses attach to all-male combat units to guard and reassure Iraqi women, who cannot understand why foreign soldiers treat them more respectfully than do Iraqi soldiers. We roam Five Kilo, a suburb of Ramadi, in Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns mounted, looking for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian insurgent leader, before setting up an observation post alongside a gas station.

Among the cars are two flatbed wreckers, on each a red fire truck purchased with U.S. money. I ask one of the soldiers to accompany me. “You only need an M-16 to deal with these people,” he responds.

“I don’t have one.” My only weapon is a knife in the webbing of my body armor.

“You got a point.” We walk up together to look at the fire trucks. Every tire has been slashed.

So much for Iraqi civil society. The vast majority of Iraqis seem to prefer to submit to those who, to borrow Milton’s phrase, would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

30 June I spend the day at the 2-4 Marines’ combat outpost inside Ramadi, mostly talking with Echo Company’s commander, Capt. Kelly Royer, an intense infantryman. His is one of the hardest hit companies in the Marine Corps: on 6 April, 10 of his Marines were killed in an ambush. The insurgents had told Iraqis to stay off the streets. Many had waved and smiled at the Marines, but none provided warning. Royer aches for payback, but he is as fiercely proud of how his Marines treated civilians and prisoners as of how they killed insurgents that day. “We did not murder them. We did not beat them. We did not humiliate or degrade them.” He is not boasting, merely stating a fact.

5 July I stop by brigade headquarters and talk to the contracting officer, Capt. Eric di Natale, about energetic Iraqi efforts to avoid well-paid honest work: driving about, pretending to fill water cisterns, rather than taking the time to fill them and refill their tankers. Slapping mortar on bricks and laying more bricks on top, without leveling the mortar. Refusing to pick up after themselves. The Iraqi contractor hired to build a steel-framed concrete building, who let the concrete subcontractor build the walls first, so the framing subcontractor had to stuff his steel beams into place.

These are habits of moral degradation produced by decades of Iraqi self-oppression and thuggish socialism, culminating in the provision of the most basic rations, as well as the Arab world’s failure to come to terms with modernity. The United Nations’ systematic looting of the country didn’t help. The economic basis of modern civil society does not exist in Iraq, and without civil society, political machinery is at best useless and at worst a means for the evil to acquire a country, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917 Russia.

That night I link up with some Army Scouts, funny, profane, genuinely sweet men who have the smooth feel of very good soldiers. We hear helos from Blue Diamond overhead while Ramadi’s bright lights glow in the dark, beneath the moon and the stars. “Why aren’t you flying out?” a staff sergeant asks me.

“I flew in, so I thought I should convoy out,” I reply.

We listen to the operations order, and afterward I tell Sgt. Clark, the vehicle commander, that if necessary I will take the machine gunner’s secondary weapon and use it at his direction. Sgt. Clark gives me the machine gunner’s M-16 on the spot. I run my hands over the weapon in the dark of Humvee: trigger, fire-selector switch, magazine release, mentally rehearse clearing a misfed round. It is a rough ride in the dark, and for most of it, the tension in the vehicle is very high, but when the Scouts relax, I let Sgt. Clark know I’m going to doze. About an hour later, I’m again sleeping in Captain Lasica’s spare rack.

8 July I have gone from sleeping easily, if lightly, among armed men I have never seen before to barricading the door of a luxury hotel in Kuwait. I will not leave the room unarmed, as if I were a barbarian, when bearing arms is part of what makes a woman a free citizen. I am among barbarians who believe women should be segregated and confined and protected. From bearing arms. From voting. “For their own good.”

Labor Day From the safety of my home, I have followed the fighting in Iraq, watched as Iraqi troops permitted their own shrine at Najaf to be defiled, watched as cities such as Baqouba, Fallujah, and Ramadi have been yielded to the insurgents in a flawed strategy everyone knows will cost more lives.

I watch as in the midst of a bitterly contested occupation, U.S. troops attempt not to impose American ethics on Iraqis but to show them what men and women can be when we live as citizens together. These possibilities are not something the Iraqis value enough to fight for.

Iraq is not worth the bones of an Arkansas grunt. Still less is it worth the destruction of a military whose troops understand the hell that Iraqis imposed on themselves, troops who freely subject themselves to the highest possible standards of discipline and restraint, that they not add to that hell. L&P

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