This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Three in an ongoing series
After a few days at combat outpost Courage embedded with C company, I was able to hitch a ride a little bit further north and west to another company-sized combat outpost, named Warrior (it has since been renamed combat outpost Ibrahim Bin Ali—IBA for short—which is the name of a town a few kilometers south of the base.) Manned by the men of company B of the of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, in many respects Courage and IBA are similar in setup and in the spartan lives the soldiers live. They’re each ringed by high blast walls that enclose a large farmhouse converted into a headquarters; the soldiers live in large communal tents, and each outpost has a mobile mess unit for hot meals, a couple of shower and toilet trailers, and a handful of computers for Internet use and phones to call home. In total, it’s maybe two city blocks large, if that. Also like Courage, IBA is situated out in the flat farmlands of rural Iraq, where farms are cut into squares by irrigation canals overgrown with high reeds, which make excellent hiding places for insurgents to hide weapons and explosives.
Unlike Courage’s area of operations however, which boasted a sizeable Shia minority, IBA’s area of operations is almost completely Sunni, owing to its proximity to the almost wholly Sunni Anbar province.
Company B, like C company, is part of the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, meaning they drive Stryker vehicles, sixteen-ton infantry carriers that are fast (reaching speeds of up to 60 mph), can travel 330 miles in one sprint, and boast the latest communications technology. One particularly useful technology is the FBCB2 (Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below) system, which allows each vehicle commander—and the commander back at the base—to monitor all friendly forces in the area on a screen that shows exactly where the forces are arrayed. Other items of interest, such as suspected IED locations, are represented by red symbols on the digital map. Much else, communications-wise, is classified. Stryker vehicles also come equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun operated by a gunner seated inside the vehicle, who views the outside world via flat screen monitor, and is armed with a joystick that allows him to manipulate both his weapon and his screen view. Most importantly, the vehicle seats eleven soldiers, including nine infantrymen who can jump out of the back door in a matter of seconds. In other words, a couple of Strykers can put a lot of boots on the ground, very quickly.
B company is commanded by Captain Jeffrey Higgins, a tall, thin, rather thoughtful-looking 29 year-old on his second tour of Iraq, having previously served as a platoon leader in Mosul in 2003-2004. Like many officers I met in Iraq, Higgins grew up an Army brat, and told me that among the many differences between his two tours is that his wife had just days before given birth to twins.
Things had been relatively quiet for Higgins’ men since they began their tour around Christmas, 2007. There had been a few potshots, a few caches rolled up, and an incident in which a patrol at a checkpoint was forced to open fire on a car that refused to stop, wounding the driver who apparently told the soldiers that he had been trying to commit suicide, (or, as the joke later went, “suicide by coalition forces”). It had been tough, methodical work, but not the run-and-gun some soldiers thought they might find. “Things are a lot different than I expected,” Higgins told me one evening in a cramped office that doubled as his bedroom—his cot and desk were jammed into a room that looked like it used to be a large closet—saying that he thought he would find a much more “kinetic” environment prior to deployment.