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Investigation of a Disaster

The death knells sound. Tears flow down the face of General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division. The man who commands one of the most prestigious divisions of the most powerful army on the planet seems to be all alone in the world. All the officers stand at a distance from him, respectful of his grief. For a long time, the General watches the stream of his men come to pay their final respects to the soldiers who died in the collision of two helicopters above Mosul after one was hit by an anti-aircraft missile. Seventeen dead, five wounded; it?s the most deadly attack against American soldiers since the official end of hostilities in Iraq, May 1. One soldier calls out the names of the living and the dead: ?Sergeant Acklin. Sergeant Michael Acklin. Sergeant Michael D. Acklin.? The name of each of those gone is called out three times. Silence answers the call and the 101st?s parachutists sob.

It was the 101st?s Apache combat helicopters that struck the first blows during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. They also who gave battle in Nadjaf and Nassiriya before returning too Baghdad. They came to take up quarters in this city in Iraq?s north, surprised like everyone else at the speed of the victory. During the war, they knew no losses. It?s afterwards that things started to go wrong. Day after day, 101st soldiers fall under the blows of Iraqi guerillas. Hyper-armed, hyper-trained, they remain at the mercy of their faceless opponents? explosives. Like all the men present at these obsequies, the soldiers who came to say the funeral oration have been there since the first days of this war. Seven long months in which to become intimate with death and boredom. ?Some ask themselves: why are we still in Iraq?? declares one of them during his speech. ?They forget that since September 11 there?s been no terrorist attack in the United States. These men who have died had faith in the most tremendous nation on earth?You are heroes?fallen for the sake of the world?I love you my friends and I?ll see you again in heaven.?

Originally from Mexico, Sergeant John Paul Garcia leaves a little cross by the boots of his comrade, Michael Acklin, 25 years old, killed in battle. He sobs quietly in the arms of another soldier. ?My friend is dead for what?? he asks himself after the ceremony. ?These people don?t want to be free. Everyone hates us. I don?t understand.? Every day, Garcia prays for himself and for America?s enemies. In his kit, he hides a little rosary that never leaves him. In his left pocket, close to his heart, a photo of his mother, no longer living. ?She?s my guardian angel. She, God, and the angels.? Why does he think the American army is in Iraq? ?Acklin thought that God entrusted us with a mission. The rest is just goddamn politics,? he explains. The sergeant is sick of mourning for his comrades. A few days ago one of his men had his leg blown off by a bomb while he was driving a Humvee. ?I was supposed to be driving it, but I had been called somewhere else. When I saw this 21-year-old with his leg amputated up to the thigh, I said to him: ?Oh Leo, if only I could have been in your place!? And you know what he said to me? ?No, John, you?ve got a wife and kids, it?s better that it happened to me.??

It?s five o?clock in the morning and a dozen soldiers patrolling on foot at night are getting ready to return to camp. The little team progresses in the open across the platform that separates the two directions of the Mosul highway. For an hour the soldiers have been examining suspect mounds, stopped cars, and threatening shapes. The soldiers, numb with fear and with cold, count the steps that separate them from the Mosul Hotel, their Headquarters. On the entrance one can read a sign: ?The men of our country sleep quietly in their beds at night only because warriors are prepared to use violence for them. Do, so they sleep.? In the camp, Sergeant Harris pets a little black and white puppy. A few moments of stolen tenderness. One feels he is at the very limit. He has unstitched his name from his uniform jacket so the bad guys don?t find him. He?s afraid of chemical weapons. He dreads that the enemy send anthrax letters to his family. His only consolation in Iraq is his friend, his brother, Sergeant Mario Bievre of Chicago. ?Our goal? Survive one day after another. I watch out for him. He watches out for me. I know everything about him, his faults, his habits. The lack of intimacy, maybe that?s the hardest.? ?And the repetition,? adds Bievre, 31 years old. ?Day after day, it?s the same old song. They fire on us in the middle of the night. We take up our positions. We?re not even afraid any more. We just want to sleep.?

At 7:30 the breakfast canteen finally arrives. Blackish scrambled eggs and stale bread the men swallow standing up. Captain Steve Cunningham, 28 years old, presides over the destinies of his 130 men. He makes sure that the rules are followed. During war time, no rest days. Not a drop of beer. And no pornographic images. Anyone in breach of the rules runs a big risk: supplementary duties that will prolong an exhausting day. For serious cases, the tariff is forty-five days of extra service. ?But that?s unusual because the soldiers don?t have time to break the rules,? explains Cunningham. On the wall, there?s a small poster warning the soldiers against the effects of Valium. ?Some soldiers ask the army translators to get them for them. But we haven?t seen a lot of that here,? assures the captain.

The rules are no less restrictive for the ambitious West Point graduate. He hasn?t seen his wife in eight months even though she also serves in the 101st in Mosul at the other end of the city. ?Two ships that cross in the night,? he sighs. So as soon as he has a free moment, he sends her mail. At some point, the bonds between couples become distended. And soldiers finish by fighting with their wives who forlornly manage the day to day during the long months.

?But that?s not true, we won?t do that!? However, yes, all the same. ?We?re tough and we?re going!? They give themselves courage by shouting or singing nursery rhymes. In the truck, they are eight, cramped in their bullet-proof vests, their pockets stuffed with soldiers? small equipment, their hands on their M-16s. The ride in the truck is one of the most exposed patrols. Seated on a bench fixed to the middle of the vehicle, the soldiers are at the mercy of grenades and explosives. Since the renewal of attacks, they?ve nailed planks on the sides of the vehicle to absorb fragments. Piled on top of one another, they threatened to fall over at every bump in the road. Sergeant Joseph yells at his neighbor who puts his flask in his eye. The long munitions ribbon from the machine gun falls down his shoulder. ?Of course, I?m afraid of bombs. Soon, you know, we?ll leave. We can?t spend our lives being living targets.? Joseph misses the war. They were the most difficult weeks of his life. ?I had to march for whole days with an enormous pack on my back and then fight, but at least we knew why we were there,? explains the blue-eyed sergeant. ?But it?s here in Mosul that the violence started. Since they regrouped.? Joseph continues to tell elite corps? frustration in the face of guerilla warfare. ?Attacks can come from hundreds of places and we can?t do a thing about it.? And he assesses general staff orders mercilessly: ?Frankly, I can?t see where we?re going. This guerilla war, you can compare it to gang warfare in the United States. To fight it, you need a sophisticated police. Which we don?t have.? The soldier doesn?t think much of the Iraqi police: ?When we take them on patrol, we have to tell them everything. And then they?re ignorant. There was one the other day who didn?t even know Israel was a state. I had to show it to him on the map. And these are the ones we?re supposed to be handing the keys to the country to soon??

Today the men on the patrol have to pass a fine tooth comb through the area where the Blackhawk was downed. A poor neighborhood where the majority of the residents work for a Pepsi Cola factory that belonged to Ouday, the dictator?s hated son. Since Operation Iron Hammer, sporadic house searches have started up again. A little column of soldiers advances. One of the men knocks violently on an iron door that buckles under the soldier?s fist. Six American soldiers and as many Iraqi policemen rush into the hallway pointing their weapons. They invade the patio of the little house, search the rooms, climb the staircases. A little three-year-old girl, awakened with a start by an armed soldier?s entry, sobs. Surprised in the intimacy of her home, one woman throws a bath towel over her head. ?I have only a single weapon to protect myself,? she protests, brandishing the barrel of her Kalashnikov. ?That?s O.K. Don?t let your children play with it,? counsels the soldier, a good chap.

At the end of the street, the patrol takes aim at some wretched children who are playing on a rusted merry-go-round. ?Terrorists give them a few dinars to throw grenades at us,? explains Captain Cunningham. While the commandos burst into houses shouting, the captain converses with the neighborhood mayor and questions residents. He writes their grievances down in a little notebook, finds out about the father of an imprisoned resident. Or about the price of propane. Asks after the health of a Sheikh, shakes the hands of children who greet him, listens politely to the ?inform-ations? about the terrorists given by a brave, apparently deranged, woman who sticks a noisy kiss on his cheek by way of conclusion. Suddenly a Humvee comes to enlarge the column of American army vehicles that blocks the neighborhood. Colonel Joseph Anderson, who commands the 2nd brigade, comes to check on his men?s work.

Shaved head, steel blue gaze, he seems to have come straight out of Hollywood. Moreover, in the United States, he is a small screen star ever since he coordinated the raid on Saddam?s sons? house. The colonel shakes a few hands, jokes with Iraqi policemen. He?s proud of the 101st?s methods in Mosul. ?We?re pragmatic. Here money is our principal weapon. Of course, sometimes the coalition tightens up a little on the leash. No one will ever know this place like the 101st.? After almost five hours of searching the houses in the neighborhood, the squad gets back to the Second Brigade?s Headquarters. The soldiers go back to their dormitories or play an American football video game, ?the only thing that keeps us from going crazy here,? jokes Sergeant Joseph Krammer. When he?s not watching ?Blackhawk Down?- the brigade?s soldiers? favorite film- on his portable DVD player, the soldier likes to read. On his canteen, on the table by his cot, his favorite book: ?Why People Hate Americans?, published by disinformation editions. Two weeks ago, he stopped reading ?The New York Times? and started consulting the ?Washington Post? web pages. ?I?ve read enough negative stuff about the army. Nobody talks about what we do well. Like the time this schoolteacher started to cry when we gave her fifty dollars?? Sergeant Krammer calls himself a liberal. The kind of soldier who asks himself more questions than he has answers. He thinks Americans have faults, but they?re a thousand times better than Saddam. ?Sometimes I say to myself: Let?s leave the way some people demand and very quickly we?ll see Iraqis begging us to come back. But I think that now that we?ve come to this country, we have a responsibility, even towards those who don?t share our ideas.? Krammer, who says he?s not a big fan of unilateralism, had many doubts about the necessity of the war: ?I don?t understand what Iraq was doing in the Axis of Evil.? But it was Powell?s speech that convinced him of the necessity of preventive war. ?As a soldier, I was prepared to obey orders I didn?t necessarily agree with. And then, as a democrat, I think it?s important to serve your country. That lets me ignore the ones who think we?re not patriots. When I get back to the United States, I?ll be able to explain to these good souls how complicated this part of the world is.?

As for his mission in Iraq, he?s only anxious about one thing: that it gets completed. ?Let?s be clear, this job is difficult,? he fears. ?We are sacrificing ourselves for a mission we don?t understand. Our only hope is that our leaders know what they?re doing.?

Night falls on the camp. The soldiers who aren?t on duty can take advantage of a few hours of sleep. Corporal Harris chose to occupy a former hotel room. An insalubrious little room open to all the winds, but where he can be alone. Tonight he has a premonition the enemy will attack the camp. He prepares his weapons. Asks where he wants to be at the moment of the attack. In fact, that night, only a few Kalashnikov bursts and a far away mortar will disturb the silence. But the soldier dreams of a straightforward battle where the adversary faces him. Far from the video games, email, and faceless enemies of this Iraqi quagmire where only death is not virtual.

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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