On the Ground: Night Patrol

In Iraq, Sometimes a carrot farmer is just a carrot farmer

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.

al Qaeda used to practically run the area, but Higgins said that with the recent downturn in violence and the rise of the Sons of Iraq movement, the group has been mostly pushed out to the north and to the west. But Higgins knows that at least some of the Sons of Iraq he is placing his trust in are the very same men who were attacking U.S. forces just a few months ago. It’s something he has learned to accept. Many of the Iraqis, he says, “were really just acting out of a sense of survival, and there’s got to be some level of forgiveness for the greater good.”

In this area, as in many others in which al Qaeda has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the local Iraqis, one can blame al Qaeda just as much as one can praise any great strategic shift in American policy. In conversation with Iraqis, I heard time and again stories of torture, public beheadings, children of uncooperative Iraqis being tortured or killed, men having their fingers cut off or hands broken for smoking, and al Qaeda forcing local women to marry their fighters, among other atrocities and insults to local honor. It brings to mind Mao’s warning that “because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist or flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.” Once the Sunnis saw the life al Qaeda wanted to impose, they rejected it and switched sides.

My first night with B company, I rode along on a night patrol with 1st Lieutenant Max Pappas’ 1st Platoon. Rolling down one of the many unlit country roads in the area, which are still pockmarked by the ghostly holes left from exploded IEDs, we came upon a man and an adolescent boy digging a hole in the loose dirt near the side of the road. Thinking that they had possibly stumbled on an IED emplacement team, the Strykers screeched to a halt and the platoon piled from the back of the trucks, quickly surrounding the two. They told Pappas—a lanky, sarcastic, 2006 West Point grad on his first tour—that they were simply digging for carrots in their field, but this seemed an odd thing to be doing so late on such a frigid night. The Lieutenant led a squad down a dirt path to check the area near where they were digging to check out the guy’s story. Since I was the only one not wearing night vision equipment, and couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of my face, I stuck close to the soldier in front of me.

To our right lay a canal and a reed line seven or eight feet tall. To our left was open farmland. A nearby group of dogs barked wildly, leading Pappas to observe that it’s impossible to sneak up on a house in Iraq, since every farmhouse has a group of mangy dogs that live outside to serve as an early warning system. Suddenly, a single gunshot pierced the night about ten meters in front of me. I couldn’t see a thing in the darkness, and didn’t know who had fired, or why. A few seconds later, the soldier who fired the shot yelled out that a dog had charged him, and he shot it. Lt. Pappas wasn’t thrilled at the shooting, but everyone agreed that given the choice of shooting a dog or being attacked by the possibly rabid animal, the soldier did the right thing. Pappas apologized to the man for shooting what was probably his dog, but the farmer replied that he was glad the Americans had killed it, since it was his uncle’s and he hated it, anyway.

Stepping over the dog on the narrow path, we came on a large mound covered with a tarp. Poking around, we found that sometimes a carrot framer really is just a carrot farmer, regardless of the odd hours he does business. We had uncovered a cache of carrots. Walking back out, again stepping over the dog, the platoon gave the farmer’s family some bottles of water, offered a few more apologies, mounted up and headed out to check in on some Sons of Iraq checkpoints.

There was an alert out, meanwhile, for a Bongo truck that intelligence said was rigged with explosives, (Bongos are small, open cab trucks used by most of the farmers in the region, making the search for one almost futile, unless you stop each one and search it), so Lt. Pappas and his squad leaders asked at each checkpoint if any of the Iraqis had any information on suspicious trucks. At practically every stop, we could hear the chatter of brief, scattered gunfire off in the distance, and the thud of muffled explosions rippled across the landscape from time to time. Each time, the soldiers would stop, half turn their heads and, when the noises didn’t seem to come any closer, would turn back to whatever it was they were doing, as if the sounds of war were nothing more than the peals of distant thunder.

These brief check-ins brought to us the usual complaints: the Iraqis needed more ammunition, heavier weapons, more food, better shelter, boots, heavy jackets, and night-vision equipment. The American Army already pays them $300 a month each, and occasionally drops off water and some rations, but other than that, American commanders won’t give in to the requests. Still, there are moments of mentoring. At one checkpoint a line of Bongo trucks had been pulled over and lined up by the Iraqis, who were checking the IDs of the drivers. The trucks, spread out over a couple hundred yards of roadway, were hauling fifty-five gallon drums of gasoline and diesel fuel to Ramadi, and in lieu of caps on the drums, had rags stuffed in the spouts. We carefully walked the line of trucks while Sgt. Bobby Fuchs observed how the Iraqis were checking (or not checking) the interiors of the trucks. Walking the few dozen meters between trucks was an exercise in expectation, knowing that each of the half-dozen vehicles fit the description of the supposed bomb-rigged truck. Any one could explode as you got closer.

Watching the Iraqis work, Sgt. Fuchs spotted one who was doing a particularly good job checking the interior of the truck, and told the interpreter to tell the other Iraqis—who didn’t seem to be paying too much attention to what they were doing—to follow his lead. The other Iraqis watched for a minute, and started to follow suit in the same methodical manner as the guy Fuchs had pointed out. In the end, the trucks were clean, the drivers’ IDs checked out, and we walked back to the waiting Strykers to head back into the night along the IED-gutted roads.

This is Part Three of an ongoing series.

Part One, “The Rejected,” is here.

Part Two, “Men With Guns,” is here.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.