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 Five in an ongoing series.
We parked the Strykers next to a deep, wide canal, whose bright blue water rushed under a narrow bridge blocked by two concrete traffic barriers. Lieutenant Max Pappas went through the plan again: we would cross the bridge on foot, run a few hundred meters along a dirt road bordering a reed line, plunge through the canal at a narrow point and converge on the farmhouse where we had found the weapons cache the day before.
There had been reports that a few military-age males had been seen at the house after 1st platoon arrested the young man suspected of planting the weapons cache the day before, and Captain Higgins wanted to see if he could catch anyone poking around the house.
Once everyone had jumped over the yard-high concrete barriers on the bridge and started running down the narrow dirt road, I realized how weighed down American soldiers are by their heavy ballistic vests, M-4 rifles, extra ammunition clips, first aid pouches, and the other burdens of an infantryman at war. This is to say nothing of the soldiers carrying M-249 SAW rifles, which clock in at about fifteen pounds each, or the platoon’s radio officer, who lugs around cumbersome communications equipment. I moved much more lightly—my ballistic vest was smaller, and the only things I carried were a notebook, some pens, a voice recorder, a camera, and a few Power Bars I shoved in my pocket in case we found ourselves out all day.
As we huffed down the road, a few of the guys carrying heavier loads started to lag behind, but it didn’t take long for others to drop back and take up some of their load, making sure everyone kept the tight formation. We reached the spot in the reed line where the lieutenant wanted to cross, and the platoon plunged, single file, into the frigid, knee-deep water, scrambling across the canal and up the few feet of muddy bank on the far side. After the first few soldiers made it across, the splashing of the water made the canal banks even more slick, and footing became difficult. I was set to go across somewhere in the middle of the pack, and as the lone civilian, I was concentrating on not slowing up the process. I jumped in, waded across, and on the other side found that a soldier was struggling on the bank. I grabbed the bottom of his ballistic vest and pushed up, just as the soldier behind me began pushing me up in front of him, and suddenly, I was out of the reeds and standing, exposed, on a dirt road directly next to the farmhouse.
“Go, go!” Sergeant Flick bellowed as a squad with a SAW flopped down in the muddy bank of the canal to cover the rest of the platoon’s dash up to the house. I briefly wondered if I should run to the house, too, or hang back, but since I found myself running, figured that my legs had made the decision for me.
“Get the fuck outta my way!” one of the soldiers shouted from the canal. A few of us were in his line of fire, but there was nowhere else to go, as we were running straight at the house trying to cover the distance of a few dozen yards in the shortest possible time. A few of the soldiers had already made it up to the house’s concrete porch, taking positions to the right of the door, out of sight of the large front window.
With Sergeant Flick on one side of the door and the interpreter on the other side, the sergeant yelled “Coalition forces! If there’s anyone inside, we’re coming in. Identify yourselves!” The terp translated, but there was no response from inside. Flick repeated his demand. Still nothing.
A few seconds later, the soldiers charged through the open door with all the grace that a well-trained military unit can muster, shouting “Clear!” with each room checked. I walked in, thinking of the improvised explosive devices that are rigged to bring buildings down on top of American troops, one of which recently claimed the lives of six soldiers in a sister Stryker unit just a few weeks before. While scanning the bottom of the walls for the tell-tale holes that signify a house wired with explosives, I flashed back to a conversation I had with my fiancé, Ilana, just before I left, when she asked me not to do exactly what I was doing now—walking into a house before it had been fully cleared. But there were no explosives to be found, nor was there any sign of life in the house.
It looked like the women from the day before had fled the house without bothering to pack. Not that there was much to take with them. A few cooking pans in the front room, some crockery and metal tins littered the stairs to the second floor, and the only room with furniture—the bedroom—was a mess of blankets and pillows.
“Looks like they left in a hurry,” Flick said, as the soldiers fanned out through the house. The base was radioed and told that the place was empty, but Captain Higgins wanted to make sure no one was hiding in a hollowed-out wall or hole in the floor, so he told the platoon to take its time searching the place. This meant lifting up the bed, knocking on the brick walls for hollow spots, and checking the foundations of the house for spider holes. Out back, a couple of soldiers walked through the chicken coup and the cinderblock stall that housed the donkey that we had seen yesterday, but which was now gone.
Making one last sweep, Lieutenant Pappas, standing in the donkey’s stall, called a few soldiers over. “You guys searched in here, right?”
“That’s funny. What’s this look like?” he asked, brandishing a hand grenade. “I found it sitting right here,” he said, pointing to a cinderblock column that didn’t reach the top of the stall. “Do it again, and pay attention this time.”
Some of the soldiers started jokingly suggesting that Pappas pull the pin on the grenade and throw it—or at least let one of them snipe it from a distance—but the decision on what to do with it had already been made. One of Pappas’ squad leaders had radioed back to combat outpost IBA to inform them of the find, and the order had been given not to blow it. So the only thing to do was to throw it—with the pin in place—into a canal. “It’s probably a good thing,” Pappas said, as we walked back to the Strykers. “The thing would probably go off in my hand before I got the chance to throw it.”
The sweep complete, we trudged back down the dirt road we had run up just a little while earlier, and as we crossed the small footbridge—amid the groans of his men who wanted to see the grenade in action—Lieutenant Pappas wound up and hurled it into the rushing water. With a heavy “plunk” it sunk out of sight, and with it, the last remaining piece of the weapons cache was gone.
Part One, “The Rejected,” is here.
Part Two, “Men With Guns,” is here.
Part Three: “Night Patrol,” is here.
Part Four: “The Suicide Bomber” is here.