Military history


A Hand in the Air

IN THE FIRST SUMMER of the American occupation, I found myself riding along the banks of the Euphrates River with Lieutenant Christopher Rauch, a twenty-two-year-old army reservist with a drawl nurtured on the chicken farm where he’d grown up in Lexington, South Carolina. Only four months before, Rauch had been working as a clerk for the state government, processing applications for unemployment insurance. Now he was overseeing the reconstruction of a half-dozen dams on the Euphrates.

Rauch wanted me to know right off that he didn’t know much about dams themselves. But as the holder of a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, he was, he said, the closest thing his unit had to an expert. So here Rauch was, driving along the wide green waters of one of history’s great rivers, doling out dollars and advice. And, in his own estimation, not doing half bad. The Iraqis were gobbling up whatever Rauch had for them. In the few months since Rauch had taken over, he’d developed a solid rapport with his Iraqi counterpart, Hussein Alawi, the provincial minister for dams. “When it comes to engineering,” Alawi said, “the Americans really know what they are doing.”

The Iraqi dams were in terrible shape. The gates were crumbling, the copper on the electric motors was worn away and the spillways no longer channeled the water flow. In just a few months, Lieutenant Rauch had given away tens of thousands of dollars to make them work again. He was pleased with the progress he’d made so far, not just in rebuilding dams but in winning the trust of the Iraqi people. “We’ve made friends here,” he said, his hands on the wheel of his Humvee. “They were wary at first, but when we started paying for things they started coming forward with requests.”

We pulled up to the Habbaniya Dam, got out of the Humvee and walked out along the top. Alawi, riding in his own car, came out to meet us. “We need two generators,” Alawi said, standing atop the dam and pointing down at the broken gates. The Euphrates ran below. “We don’t have spare parts.” Rauch rubbed his chin through the strap on his helmet. “What do you think that will cost?” Rauch asked. “I’m thinking $ 7,000 each.”

I knelt down and read the inscription on one of the copper plates, green from years of oxidation. “Royal Air Force Cantonment. June 1947.” A British-made dam. Rauch shook hands with Alawi and a couple of his assistants and walked back to the riverbank. I stayed behind and asked Alawi what he thought of the Americans in Iraq. He didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I take their money but I hate them,” Alawi said. “I am cooperating with the Americans for the sake of my country. The Americans are the occupiers. We are trying to evict them.”

Rauch was motioning to me from his Humvee.

“No one likes to be told what to do,” Alawi said. “You just saw that right now.”

There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us—that was positive and predictable and boring, and it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing, or because it bought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered, of course. That conversation was the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it.


THE MOST BASIC BARRIER was language itself. Very few of the Americans in Iraq, whether soldiers or diplomats or newspaper reporters, could speak more than a few words of Arabic. A remarkable number of them didn’t even have translators. That meant that for many Iraqis, the typical nineteen-year-old army corporal from South Dakota was not a youthful innocent carrying America’s goodwill; he was a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance.

In Diyala, east of Baghdad, in the early days of the war, I came upon a group of American marines standing next to a shot-up bus and a line of six Iraqi corpses. Omar, a fifteen-year-old boy, sat on the roadside weeping, drenched in the blood of his father, who had been shot dead by American marines when he ran a roadblock.

“What could we have done?” one of the marines muttered.

It had been dark, there were suicide bombers about and that same night the marines had found a cache of weapons stowed on a truck. They were under orders to stop every car. The minibus, they said, kept coming anyway. They fired four warning shots, tracer rounds, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding.

Omar’s family, ten in all, were driving together to get out of the fighting in Baghdad. They claimed they had stopped in time, just as the marines had asked them to. In the confusion, the truth was elusive, but it seemed possible that Omar’s family had not understood.

“We yelled at them to stop,” Corporal Eric Jewell told me. “Everybody knows the word ‘stop.’ It’s universal.”

In all, six members of Omar’s family were dead, covered by blankets on the roadside. Among them were Omar’s father, mother, brother and sister. A two-year-old boy, Ali, had been shot in the face.

“My whole family is dead,” muttered Aleya, one of the survivors, careening between hysteria and grief. “How can I grieve for so many people?”

The marines had been keeping up a strong front when I arrived, trying to stay business-like about the incident. “Better them than us,” one of them said. The marines volunteered to help lift the bodies onto a flatbed truck. One of the dead had already been partially buried, so the young marines helped dig up the corpse and lift it onto the vehicle. Then one of the marines began to cry.

IN THE BEGINNING, the Americans tried to compensate for their lack of Arabic with the usual high-tech gadgetry. Once during the invasion, I accompanied a group of marines into an open field where they had spotted some Iraqis. A group of farmers had walked in off the plains at sunrise with their camels. They were carrying a white flag.

The marines had no translator, but one of them carried a small box the size of a video camera. As the Iraqis approached, the American held up the box, dialed a knob and pressed a button.

A tinny voice crackled.

“We are here to help you,” the machine said in Arabic.

The marine pressed the button again.

“Put your weapons down.”

The American smiled. He turned the knob again.

“Do you speak English?” the machine said.

“I need to search your car.”

The Iraqis twisted up their heads and stared at the instrument. The two sides stood staring at each other with nothing to say. As it happened, I had brought a translator into Iraq, an Egyptian named Mandy Fahmi. She struck up a conversation with the Iraqis. One of them was named Khalid Juwad, and he turned out to be quite friendly.

“I have come to get water,” Juwad said, staring into the rifles of several young marines. “I am willing to cooperate.”

It turned out that Juwad had come in hopes of persuading the Americans to restore water to the canals that irrigated his farm. A large valve on the farm’s big pump was rusted in place.

“Sure, I think we can turn your pump on,” Major Mark Stainbrook, one of the marines, told him.

And, sure enough, Major Stainbrook did. Before noon, the water of the Euphrates was flowing into Juwad’s farm.


I DIDN’T SPEAK ARABIC myself. Once, while I went to interview a powerful Sunni sheikh of uncertain allegiance, he launched into a long conversation with my translator, Warzer Jaff, before he said a word to me. Jaff was Kurdish, a former guerrilla fighter, and his English and Arabic were perfect. He’d already saved my life many times, and I trusted him completely. The two talked in Arabic for many minutes as I sat quietly by, not two feet away. I had no idea what they were saying, though at one point the conversation grew tense. After a while they quieted down, and Jaff turned to me and said, “Okay, ask your question.” And so I did. The rest of the interview proceeded smoothly.

During the ride back in the car, still puzzled, I asked Jaff what he and the sheikh had been talking about before the interview got going.

“He wanted to kidnap you,” Jaff said, allowing, as he usually did, an unlit cigarette to dangle from his lips. “He was proposing that both of us kidnap you and hold you for ransom, and split the money. I told him I didn’t want to do that, and that my tribe was much bigger than his tribe, and if he tried anything I would hold him and his tribe responsible. He apologized after that and everything was fine.” Jaff laughed.

The Americans naturally gravitated toward Iraqis who could speak English. There were never enough of them. Sometimes, when I encountered a local who spoke English, no one else around him could. In that case I could have my own secret conversation, in a parallel world of my own, right in front of the Iraqis.

Once, in the spring of 2004, I ventured into the Al-Askari neighborhood in Falluja after a gun battle between the marines and some insurgents. Falluja was the most hostile city in Iraq from the beginning, and it was easy to assume that everyone hated the Americans. That same afternoon, I had gone to Falluja General Hospital to check on the civilians the Iraqis said the marines had killed and wounded. A man stood at the hospital door holding a pistol. “Any American that comes in here dies,” he said.

After that, I went to Al-Askari to see if I could figure out what had happened. As was often the case in Falluja, the locals were offering only partial accounts of what they’d seen—versions that seemed hedged and tentative, and unlikely to get them into trouble with either the insurgents or the marines.

The most talkative among them was a man named Qassim Ubaid, an electrician, whom I’d stopped in the street. In a calm way, and in precise English, Ubaid offered me a detailed description of how the fighting had unfolded. The marines had come into Al-Askari on foot, Ubaid said, and the insurgents had been waiting for them. The insurgents fired first, killing one of the marines, and the marines had fired back and then embarked on a series of door-to-door searches. Ubaid’s version matched that of the marines.

As Ubaid told his story, a number of Iraqis gathered around him. Back in the early days of the occupation, when American reporters could still go to cities like Falluja, we always drew big crowds. The Iraqis gathered behind Ubaid and strained to understand what he was saying; it was not clear that any of them did. Toward the end of the interview, Ubaid told me that a majority of Al-Askari’s residents opposed the insurgents but that they were too afraid to say so, fearing they would be killed. “Most of the people here, they support the Americans,” Ubaid told me.

It was a startling thing to say. It was quite possibly untrue. But I felt for a moment that Ubaid was offering an insight into how Iraqi public opinion actually functioned behind the backs of the Americans. Indeed, the crowd that had gathered around Ubaid seemed to suspect that he had told me something he should not have, even if they did not understand exactly what he had said. A man in the crowd said, “Come on, Ubaid, speak in Arabic so we can understand you.”

“No,” Ubaid said, glancing at them. “I prefer to speak in English. It’s safer.”

Then he looked at me.

LANGUAGE WAS NOT the only barrier; it was not even the biggest. From the beginning, any number of Iraqis realized that they could tell the Americans pretty much anything they wanted, and there was a good chance that the Americans would believe them, if only because they were too overworked, too lazy or just unable to check out the stories. By and large, the Iraqis were right. It was the two conversations: tell the Americans what they want to hear and they will go away, and we can carry on the way we want. And the money will keep flowing: to repair the dams, to paint the schools. It was a game the Iraqis rarely gave away. But sometimes they did.

In late 2005, when the first reports of Shiite death squads were beginning to circulate, I visited the home of General Bassem al-Gharrawi, the commander of an Iraqi police unit called the Volcano Brigade. The Volcano Brigade was one of the most feared armed groups in Iraq, especially in the predominantly Sunni neighborhoods of western Baghdad.

When the Americans began their crash effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces, they set up a constellation of armed groups: army divisions, police forces and a hybrid corps of gunmen known as “police commandos.” The commandos were heavily armed, mounted on trucks and almost entirely Shiite. It wasn’t long after the Americans set up these units that I started hearing reports that they were swooping into Sunni neighborhoods and killing civilians and kidnapping them. Every morning, more and more young Sunni men were turning up dead, in ditches and trash dumps, handcuffed, drilled with holes, burned with acid, shot in the back of the head. Among the police commandos, the Volcanos had one of the meanest reputations.

General Bassem, as he called himself, was a short and gregarious man, with an improbable Saddam-style handlebar mustache over his upper lip. His office was filled with distractions, among them a life-size Elvis Presley doll that sang Elvis songs and a wide flat-screen television tuned at high volume to an Arabic music channel. Bassem had an assistant with thin lips and a hard face, who was ordered to sit in the back of the room with my translator, Ahmad. General Bassem and I spoke English.

I got nowhere with the general. Each time I asked him about the allegations of torture and summary executions, he laughed and lit a cigarette. “I am so peaceful,” he said. “We have not killed a single person. Not a single person. We have not even fired our guns!” I laughed along with the general, jabbed and pressed, and he kept laughing and denying. And as we were laughing, my translator and the general’s thin assistant were laughing as well. Not with us, but between themselves.

Afterward, driving home, I asked Ahmad what he and the commander’s assistant had been joking about. And he laughed again. “Sir,” Ahmad said, “when General Bassem told you that the Volcano Brigade had never killed anyone, he whispered into my ear and said, ‘I personally have killed fifty people during our operations. And that’s just me.’ Ha ha ha, sir. It is very funny.”

FROM THE BEGINNING, Iraq was a con game, with the Iraqis moving and rearranging the shells, and the Americans trying to guess which one hid the stone. In April 2003, a couple of days after Baghdad fell, the American military prepared for a final battle. They would sweep north and capture Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, about a hundred miles north of Baghdad. If the Baathists were going to stand and fight anywhere, the military figured, it would be in Tikrit. So, with Baghdad still in flames, the Americans assembled a task force of several thousand marines and rushed north, only to find that most of the enemy fighters had disappeared.

“There wasn’t a lot of resistance,” Major Chris Snyder told me from a marine command post set up inside Saddam’s presidential palace. It was late morning on the first day of the attack, and the enemy had failed to materialize. The streets of Tikrit were empty. “We’re not sure where they all went.”

A clue of sorts appeared in the streets outside the palace. Three local men approached me and introduced themselves. They were dressed in street clothes. They had spent the last two nights in Tikrit and agreed that the fighting had been minimal. When I asked them what they did for a living, they answered in unison.

“We’re in the Republican Guard,” they said.

The men, who claimed to share tribal bonds with Saddam, said they had fought for many years in the Iraqi army, in Kuwait and elsewhere. When the American invasion began, they had been stationed in Radwaniya, near Baghdad. They’d found the American bombing so intense that they decided to go home to Tikrit. They were still soldiers, the men said, but when they heard that the Americans were also coming to Tikrit, they peeled off their uniforms and sat down on the curb.

“We’re not cowards,” Borhan Abdul Karim told me, within earshot of one of the American soldiers roaming the streets. “But there’s no point in fighting when the Americans have this aviation, and there is no way we can win. We would just be killed.”

The other two men nodded in agreement. Were there other Republican Guard soldiers wandering the streets of Tikrit?

“Oh yes,” Karim said. “Hundreds. They are all around us. Just look.”

The insurgency: it was everywhere and it was nowhere. The Americans would bring in the heavy artillery and the troops, they would roll into Iraqi towns ready for a fight, and they would discover, invariably, that the enemy had disappeared. Often, the people they were looking for were standing a few feet away.

Over the course of the long war, American officers often spoke in acronyms like “AQI” (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) and “AIF” (Anti-Iraqi Forces). We reporters did likewise, using terms like “insurgents” and “guerrillas” as if these were distinct groups, as if they were wearing uniforms and carrying flags. They almost never were. The insurgents were Iraqis; the Iraqis were insurgents. Sometimes they fought; the rest of the time they were standing around like everyone else.

It drove the Americans crazy. They would drive through a village and spot an Iraqi man standing on the roadside, marking the convoy’s time and speed as it passed. Working for the insurgency, no doubt, but how do you shoot a guy for looking at his watch? Then the Americans would spot a guy on a rooftop, fifty yards away, tracking the convoy’s route. It wasn’t just that the insurgents lurked in the shadows; they actually were the shadows, flitting and changing with the light.


And no one ever saw a thing. If you were ever lucky enough to get one of the Iraqis to answer, he’d tell you almost without exception that the guys who fired the missile or planted the bomb or fired from the rooftop had come from somewhere else: outside the village, outside the country. He rarely said, It was that guy, right over there, third house on the left.

It wasn’t just that the Iraqis lied. Of course they lied. It was that they had more to consider than the Americans were ever willing to give them credit for. The Iraqis had to live in their neighborhoods, after the American soldiers had gone home. The Iraqis had to survive. They had their children to consider. For the Iraqis, life among the Americans often meant living a double life, the one they thought the Americans wanted to see, and the real one they lived when the Americans went home.

IN AUGUST 2004, I stood outside the forty-foot-high gates of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf and watched the remnants of the Mahdi Army file out in tatters. The Mahdi Army was the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric with a huge following among the Shiites of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The militia had taken over the shrine, prompting the Americans to go in and flush them out. As the Americans moved in closer, blasting everything in their way, the country’s pro-American Shiite leaders cut a deal to let the Mahdi Army fighters vacate the mosque and go home. And so, at dawn on August 27, the fighting stopped. I watched the fighters walk out through the shrine’s high doors.

“In the name of Allah, my brothers in the Mahdi Army,” the voice intoned over the shrine’s loudspeaker, the one ordinarily used for prayer. It was a message from Sadr himself. “I beg you, if civilians are in the shrine, walk out with them, and leave your guns behind.”

And so they did, bloodied, bedraggled and starving, leaving behind their guns, wearing ordinary clothes and disappearing into Najaf’s teeming streets. By midmorning the shrine was empty, and the Mahdi Army had scattered.

“Who is the Mahdi Army?” a man named Arkan Rahim asked me with a quizzical look, as we witnessed the procession together. “It is the Iraqi people. Nobody can say the Mahdi Army is finished. It is the Iraqi nation!”

There was no way to know. You had to accept your ignorance; it was the beginning of whatever wisdom you could hope to muster. As the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the Americans unfolded in the days before the truce, the Iraqi residents of Najaf, caught in the grip of Muqtada’s militia, had professed in near unison their undying love for the young rebel. Every souvenir shop and every pilgrim hotel carried photos and posters of Muqtada on their walls. It was uncanny. And within hours of the Mahdi Army’s evacuation of the shrine, Muqtada suddenly became a pariah to every Iraqi I could find.

“Muqtada and those people around him, they know nothing,” said a cleric who had studied under Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. We were a block from the shrine. “Muqtada, he just sat on his father’s computer. He is not an educated man.”

With that, the cleric began to tell me how Mahdi Army fighters had threatened him during the tense times of the previous three months. The cleric produced a small handwritten letter. “Some clerics sell their consciences to Jews and foreigners,” the letter said. “If you are not careful, you will be killed.”

“Tell the truth about Muqtada,” the cleric said to me, and then he walked away.

MAJOR LARRY KAIFESH listened patiently as the mayor outlined his desires.

“I just want to inform you that five hundred families are without drinking water,” Majid Mahmood, the mayor of Garma, told him.

Kaifesh nodded, but without conviction. A thirty-six-year-old civil affairs officer from Chicago, Kaifesh had come to Garma to inspect one of the many projects the Americans were paying for.

Before the war started, Kaifesh had been an investment adviser for Morgan Stanley in Costa Mesa, California, and he brought a shrewdness to his job that made him a hard man to deceive. In Garma, as in every village in Anbar Province, Kaifesh faced the same paradox: the Iraqis wanted more money, and they were more violent than ever.

“We are all drinking from a ditch,” Mayor Mahmood said.

Kaifesh shook hands with Mahmood, waved goodbye and climbed into his Humvee.

“They are all playing us,” Kaifesh said, arching his eyebrows.

We drove fast out of Garma, barreling up the road to foil any insurgents who might be trying to set off roadside bombs. The night before, four marines had been killed when their fifty-seven-ton armored personnel carrier had been thrown across the road. The marines had been killed by what the military called an IED, jargon for “improvised explosive device.” Kaifesh and I rode together, we spied every pile of trash, every old tire, every dead dog. The temperature was perhaps 120 in the shade. The air was so hot we had to cover our noses and mouths to breathe.

We pulled into Al-Kandari, the next town on our route. There was a group of Iraqi men standing on a street corner. I wondered what they were up to in the heat; usually only the Americans were out in the sun. And insurgents. Kaifesh gave them a wave. No one waved back.

Kaifesh and his convoy of four vehicles were cutting a wide semicircle around eastern Anbar Province. At the center of the arc was Falluja, which at the time was out of American control. In another bit of military jargon, Falluja was being called a “no-go zone.” A group of jihadis had seized control and set up their own emirate, replete with religious courts. The Americans had not yet decided to retake Falluja, but they wanted to make a show of their goodwill in the little towns outside of it.

We pulled into the Al-Kandari Women’s Center, another American project, where we were greeted by a man named Namir. Kaifesh had come to inspect the job site; he’d forked over more than $ 25,000 in American money for the new center, which was supposed to provide vocational training for women. But as he examined the half-painted yellow walls and exposed rebar, his face showed frustration.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars—I could have built a house with that,” Kaifesh said.

“We will build a place you can be proud of,” Namir replied.

Another man, who identified himself as Adel, approached Kaifesh. He was angry. He wanted Kaifesh to get tougher on the contractors. Namir had already disappeared.

“You give them a lot of money and they never do anything,” Adel said. “We don’t like when you give money to people who don’t do any work.”

“Neither do we,” Kaifesh said.

After a time, we returned to the Humvee. Kaifesh collapsed in the seat and sighed.

“We know everyone takes a cut,” Kaifesh said. “It’s a gimme mentality. The more you give them, the more they want.”

We drove off into the fields. A shell exploded in the dust about a hundred yards away. Kaifesh’s men asked over the radio if they could turn around to hunt the perpetrators, but Kaifesh waved them off. He had hardly raised an eyebrow. “Until we get into a fight, we won’t worry about it,” he said. We drove on through the heat.

“These people know everything,” Kaifesh said as the Humvee bounced along. “They know the minute we leave our compound and the minute we come back. They know when there’s going to be a bomb.”

The convoy approached Zaydon, east of Falluja. Kaifesh stared straight ahead as we rumbled into town. The streets were empty.

“They really hate us here,” Kaifesh said.

We pulled into the parking lot of a squat government building. Inside sat a half-dozen Iraqis. They had been waiting for Kaifesh.

The first of them, Nafir Karim, age thirty-five, stepped forward.

“America killed my brother,” he said.

Kaifesh shook his head. “I know you, Karim. You’ve already filed a claim. And we paid you for it.”

Karim did not protest. Deflated, he left the room hanging his head. A second man stepped forward, Nasir Salam. He claimed the Americans had killed a relative of his without justification.

“You need to file your claim with the Zaydon city council,” Kaifesh said. “There is an Iraqi government now. You’re going to have to stop thinking about the Americans.”

Kaifesh was reminding the Iraqis who had waited for him at the Zaydon government center that the American occupation had formally ended in June 2004. There was an Iraqi government now, and Kaifesh wanted the Iraqis to start taking their problems there. But the Iraqis in Zaydon were not thrilled about this idea.

“The city council is a bunch of thieves,” Salam said. “They will put everything in their own pockets.”

As we were leaving, another man approached Kaifesh and started whispering. “I need to speak to you alone,” the man said. “I have an idea for an economic project.”

As we drove off, I asked Kaifesh whether he had considered the possibility that he was giving money to the same people who were mounting attacks against him and his men. Or at least to people who knew the people who were.

“No question,” Kaifesh said. “We are giving money to people who do bad things.”

I was a little stunned by his frankness.

“The areas we are dealing with are very tight. Everybody is in everyone else’s tribe. The people I am giving money to may not be attacking us, but they know who is.”

In Kaifesh’s mind, the American money he was doling out might not be putting an end to the attacks. But the alternative was even worse.

“Think about it,” Kaifesh said. “Can you imagine if we weren’t doing this, how bad it would be? This money is buying goodwill.”

As we rode out of Zaydon, our convoy prepared to take a left onto a road flanked by rice paddies. As the first Humvee began to turn, I looked ahead and saw a young man standing in the middle of the street with his hands in his pockets. Just standing, watching us. I knew immediately that we were in danger.

The Humvees continued making their lefts, and I fixated on the kid in the middle of the street. Some of the marines noticed him, too. As our Humvee, the last in the convoy, completed its turn, I twisted my head around and saw the kid take his right hand out of his pocket and hold it up in the air over his head. For five seconds the kid stood there with his hand in the air.

“Incoming!” one of the marines yelled. Mortar shells were exploding all around us. The convoy swung around to capture the kid. He was already gone.

IT WAS DRIZZLING in Mosul when I arrived. Broken glass was splayed across the pavement. The truck had been towed away.

Two American soldiers with the 101st Airborne had climbed into a regular SUV, no armor, and driven off the base and into Mosul at rush hour. They were supposed to have known better than to go out alone. One of the soldiers was Jerry Wilson, forty-five, of Thomson, Georgia, the brigade’s command sergeant major, meaning he was the unit’s senior enlisted man. The other was Corporal Rel Ravago IV, twenty-one, from Glendale, California.

The insurgents started following Wilson and Ravago the minute they drove off the base. They were in a car just in front of the Americans, and in the heavy traffic they suddenly stopped. Another car trailing just behind the Americans pulled up to their rear bumper. The soldiers couldn’t move. The insurgents got out of their cars and, with their Kalashnikovs, shot them in the head.

A crowd of Iraqis had gathered around the executed Americans, dragged the bodies out of the car and stripped them of their watches, jackets and boots. The Americans said initially that the soldiers’ throats had been cut, too, which caused a sensation in the United States, because it revived memories of Somalia in 1993. The next day, the military took back the statement.

After checking out the scene of the attack, I walked up the street to the Ras al-Jada fire station, one of the new ones built by the Americans. It was a big brick building, with three wide garage doors and three brand-new, bright red fire engines inside. It was very American. I performed a quick mental calculation and figured the renovation and the new trucks had cost about a million dollars. Milling around the front of the fire station were the firemen themselves, dressed in brand-new flame-retardant suits and boots. They looked very sharp and well-groomed, like firemen in the United States. I asked the Iraqis about their salaries, of which they were especially proud. These had risen tenfold since the Americans had toppled Saddam, they said. And they’d completed a six-week training course to learn how to operate the fire engines.

I asked the fireman what had happened down the street. The firemen had seen the whole thing, they said. Oh, yes, absolutely. All of them had walked down the street to watch with everyone else.

“I was happy, everyone was happy,” Wa’adallah Muhammad, one of the firefighters, told me. “The Americans, yes, they do good things, but only to enhance their reputation. They are occupiers. We want them to leave.”

The rest of the firefighters chimed in. There were six of them. Not the least bit hostile. Yes, yes, they said, we were cheering when we saw the dead Americans. Who did it? I asked them. The men shrugged. “The Americans are not popular in Mosul,” one of the firemen said.

From the fire station I drove to the American base in downtown Mosul, the same base from which Command Sergeant Major Wilson had departed. I wanted to ask the commander about Mosul, since, until then, it had been something of an American success story. The 101st Airborne, under the command of Major General David Petraeus, had spent more money on public works projects than any other unit. The streets were calm. Mosul was the model of how a successful counterinsurgency campaign, with its emphasis on political and economic factors, could be carried off.

“I reject the idea that things have gone bad here,” Colonel Joe Anderson told me. He was in command of about five thousand soldiers in the heart of the city. “Most of the Iraqis are glad we are here, and they are cooperating with us.”

The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed them because it was convenient—and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.

I WENT IN to see the chief, Colonel David Teeples, at his base in Ramadi. It was the summer of 2003. In just three months in Anbar Province, Teeples told me, the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment had remade the city: reopened schools, refurbished the main bridge that spanned the Euphrates, “stood up” a new police department and even, most remarkably, started an Iraqi highway patrol. It was this last achievement that stuck in my mind. A highway patrol in Iraq? It seemed to me that a highway patrol was the sort of thing a country put together when all of its big problems had been taken care of. Adding a highway patrol to a government was like adding a swimming pool to a house. Wow, I thought, they must be very far along here.

“We have a good thing going here,” Colonel Teeples said. “We don’t need combat forces. We need civil affairs officers and MPs. That’s how we are going to win this.”

When I finished talking to Colonel Teeples I climbed into the passenger seat of the 1990 Chevy Caprice my Iraqi driver, Mohammed, had bought a couple of weeks before, and we headed toward Highway 10. That was the east–west highway that would take us to Baghdad. We got off the army base but Mohammed couldn’t find an on-ramp to the highway, so he took the Caprice across a sandy field that separated us from the road. The Caprice made it to the lip of Highway 10 but fell back into sand. Mohammed gunned the engine, which dug the car into a hole. We were stuck.

I stood on the edge of Highway 10, far enough away from the cars whizzing past, and looked east and west. And lo, a few hundred yards up the road were a group of Iraqi men standing underneath an overpass and leaning against a car. They wore gleaming white shirts. I was a little surprised they had not come over to help us, so, along with my translator, a Jordanian woman named Nadia Huraimi, I started in their direction.

As I got closer to the underpass I could just make out the insignias on their shirts: Iraqi Highway Patrol. They were smoking cigarettes and sitting in the shade, yes, but still, I thought, what a stroke of luck. There were six of them. They looked up as I approached.

“Are you an American?” one of the officers said. “We’re looking to kill an American.”

I assured him I was not. The rest of them joined in.

“I hate the Americans,” Majid, another officer, said. “It’s an occupation.”

Having just spoken to Colonel Teeples, I mentioned to the Iraqis that they were being paid by American dollars, that those uniforms they were wearing were being paid for by the Americans, too. I felt like a Boy Scout.

“No, it’s our oil that is paying,” the first officer said. “We are being paid for by the oil the Americans are stealing.”

He looked at me again. His stomach was hanging over his belt.

“Are you sure you are not American?”

I looked down the road toward Baghdad. Mohammed had somehow managed to dig the Caprice out of the ditch. He was waving in the distance. Nadia and I said goodbye and walked quickly to the car.

Perhaps a minute later, as we climbed onto the highway, my satellite phone rang. I stuck the antenna out the window and heard the voice of Qais Mizher, another translator I worked with. Qais was saying in a breathless voice that I needed to come quickly to Habbaniya, a town just east of Ramadi, as fast as I could.

On the approach to Habbaniya, the traffic was backed up for more than a mile in each direction. I got out and walked to the front. And there, smoldering in the road, lay the remains of an American supply truck, one of the big ones called a seven-ton. A crowd of Iraqis had gathered, and they were shouting and waving in great excitement. One of them was holding up the bloody shreds of an American uniform. The body of the American from whom it came lay on top of a stretcher next to the burning truck, a heap of flesh mangled but still moving. The Iraqis began to cheer, quietly at first, almost a hum, then rising to a shriek each time the bloody shirt came up.

Then an American tank appeared, a massive M-1, and it opened fire with the .50 -caliber machine gun mounted on its turret. Not at the crowd, but into the field off to the side of the road. Perhaps the crew had seen some insurgents there. The tank, firing, swiveled its turret from side to side, sweeping the tall green grass with its gunfire. A .50 -cal. is a horrifying instrument. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom.

“Look at what the Americans are doing to the Iraqi people!” an Iraqi man yelled at me. “Look at what they are doing!”

I was angry for the bleeding man in the road and for some reason I felt no fear. “That’s because they blew up an American soldier, you dumb fuck,” I shouted. Nadia told me to shut up, noting that everyone in the Arab world knows that word.

“Death to America!” the Iraqis started cheering, turning to face me. “God is great! The American army will collapse in Iraq!”

After a few minutes, the tank came rumbling our way, a huge, monstrous thing, clanking and smoking, towing the smoldering truck behind it. The crowd grew quiet. As the tank passed, a young American crewman, his helmeted head peering out of the turret, trained his machine gun on the crowd. He looked angry and afraid, clenching his teeth, hands on his gun.

The cheers went up again.

I walked back toward our car, passing the Iraqis who were still stopped in traffic. As I did, I came to an Iraqi police car. Brand-new, white and blue. Four Iraqi officers sat inside, with their car doors open, relaxing and smoking cigarettes.


IN THE MORNING, the captain and I had walked down a road lined with craters. We’d walked slowly, checking for wires, animal carcasses, loose dirt. Bomb stuff. It was a sweltering morning in Ramadi, with the mist of the Euphrates infiltrating our lungs.

Later on, sitting in a walkway of one of Saddam’s palaces, the captain started telling stories. We hadn’t spent much time together but we’d walked this road and survived, so the air around us for the moment was light and full of trust. We were both from Florida.

“So we came up with this great way to search villages,” the captain told me. He pushed his knife into an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat).

“We’ve got this girl here in the company—blonde, she’s hot,” the captain said. “This is when we were up in Mosul. We had to search all these villages for guns. Those villages are awful up there. So we went into this village and put the blonde girl we had on top of one of the Bradleys. We just rolled in and put her up there and took off her helmet and let her hair spill out.

“So she’s standing there on top of the Bradley, blond hair and everything, and we called out on the loudspeaker, ‘This woman is for sale. Blonde woman for sale!’ And I’ll be damned if every Iraqi male in that village wasn’t gathered around the Bradley in about two minutes. You know the Iraqis are crazy for blondes. Crazy for them. They don’t have any here.”

The captain started eating a strawberry Pop-Tart.

“So she’s standing up there on the Bradley, and we’d have an auction. Highest bid gets the blonde! They’re going crazy, the Iraqis, offering their goats, trucks, all their money. Children. Everything. I’m standing up there, saying, ‘Nope, not enough! Not enough!’ And they’re bidding more. One of the guys had his hands on the big machine gun just in case it got out of control. The Iraqis were wild. Just staring at her.

“So we’re up there having the auction, and during the auction I sent our guys around back into the houses to look for guns. We’re having the auction and all the Iraqis are at the auction yelling for the blonde while our guys are collecting the guns from the houses. It was totally quiet in the houses, just the women in there. We got a huge pile of guns. Searched the whole village. No problem.”

What happened with the auction? I asked him.

“We just shut it down. Told them the bids weren’t high enough.” The captain laughed. “The Iraqis were pissed off but it was okay.”

I was laughing and the captain got quiet for a second.

“We did that in three villages. Worked every time. We got reprimanded. Somebody found out about it. They didn’t like it,” he said, chewing on his Pop-Tart. “I thought it was brilliant myself. Smartest thing we ever did.”

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