The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

A CLOSER LOOK |

November 01, 2006

A CLOSER LOOK
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 11/1/06
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

We recently returned to a tiny village we'd visited briefly, to take a closer look. Intel suggested it was a stopping-over place for insurgents infiltrating into Baghdad from Iran. We stopped off on the way and picked up a couple of IP trucks full of policemen and machine guns for the "joint patrol". SSG C. had one of the IPs ride in my HMMWV, which is the first time we've done that. A young guy, he seemed pretty cool, but a bit freaked out to be so close to Americans. In Arabic, I asked him how he was doing, "Khaif al-hal?", handed him a bottle of cold water, and tucked him into the seat behind me. He seemed to settle down a bit. Off we went.

We roared into the little village as quickly as the overladen HMMWVs would go. Sure enough, some little Kia vans tried to exit the opposite side of town as we came in, possibly insurgents trying to escape. We split up, and my team backed up SSG C.'s on one of the vans. We got it stopped in a field a couple of hundred meters outside of town, and pulled out five young guys and one AK with seven full magazines of ammo, including two customized 45-round mags.

Believe or not, AK-47s are legal here, but only in the house -- one rifle, and one 30-round magazine. So we had a bunch of guys illegally carrying the rifle in the van, and waaaay too much ammo. Through our translator, we asked why they had the Kalashnikov. "For the wolves that eat our sheep." Must be some pretty hardcore wolves out there.

As SSG C. was talking to our possible hillbilly insurgents, three of the village elders walked out to our position. Probably 50-60 years old, dressed in the traditional Iraqi man-dresses, complete with kaffiyahs, the old men approached, one of them, clad in black, hobbling with a cane. I greeted them with "As-salaam alaikum", placing my hand on my chest in the traditional mark of respect to an elder. They smiled at this, probably a little surprised that an infidel would know to do it.

The elders were obviously concerned with what we would do with the guys in the van. One of them, wearing a white burkha and kaffiyah, little silver wired glasses, the youngest of the three, made hand gestures of us shooting them in the head, and I did my best to assure him that we didn't do that.

I broke out one of my little Arabic phrase books and attempted to tell them that we were searching for terrorists, which they got after my fourth or fifth attempt. Lots of protestations that these were not terrorists; lots of hand gestures toward the sky and then to themselves and then to the lanky teenagers kneeling in the dust before us.

Arabs really like hand gestures.

Ali, the IP that was riding with me, started to talk to them, and the conversation really started taking off. Since Gunny, our translator, was up with SSG C., about 100 meters away, I was left to make the most out of the conversation with my phrase book and my mother's legacy of Charades skills. The funny thing about being in the foreign countries with a gun, is that if you speak a couple of phrases fairly well, then most people seem to assume that you are completely fluent in their language and will talk to you at full speed. The other funny thing is that if you pay attention, and think of what you would say in the same situation,you can figure out what they are saying a good 50-75% of the time.

So I'm standing in the middle of the desert with Ali, the IP; Mohammed, the oldest elder, with the cane; Khalid, the elder in white, and they are all earnestly jabbering away among one another and at me, with lots and lots of animated gesturing and hand waving at the sky, the ground, the teenagers, me, the van, the sheep, the village behind us, etc etc. I'm  paging back and forth in the phrase book as fast as I can, and coming up with the best Charades skits I can think of to get the messages across. It seems to be working.

What we get is that the guys in the van are Mohammed's sons and cousins. There are no terrorists in the village, and they haven't seen any terrorists. What they have seen is the occasional militia group roll through, as well as Iraqi Army, who occasionally threaten them. What they are really concerned about is sectarian violence. The village is Sunni, and they are way too close to Shia towns. Hence the AK and all the rounds. It is Ramadan, and they have been fasting for 28 days, so they cannot lie, thanks be to Allah, the great and merciful.

SSG C. eventually comes over, but he isn't buying it. He tells them, through Gunny, that they are lying. The elders are okay with this accusation, but I am embarrassed by its bluntness, although it may be accurate. He wants to search the young guys' houses, so we take everybody back into the village. There, the rest of our squad has stopped and searched other of the fleeing vehicles and picked up another Kalashnikov.

Those teams and SSG C. search some of the other houses first. I am left to guard Mohammed and his sons, and so the Arabic language lesson continues. Mohammed wants to have us over for dinner, which I thank him for, but I'm sorry that we can't accept the invitation right now. He explains to me that his sons are all married, and their families live in his home, right in front of the dusty square that we are standing in. Periodically the conversation dies down, and we all stand there in an awkward silence. The sons stand in front of their blue Kia van, Mohammid squats in the dirt, and a horde of wide eyed kids slowly creep up out of his complex to sit next to him.

I look at everything, and offer a quiet observation on the situation.  "Mahd-joon." Crazy. Everyone gets a big kick out of that.

Eventually SSG C. and SGT E. come back to our position, fresh from searching the other houses. They have found a WWII era bolt-action Mauser rifle in absolutely pristine condition -- complete with Wehrmacht stampings. The breech is spotless, well oiled. Obviously someone has taken great care of it. Maybe it's just for hunting, or maybe it is a sniper rifle, which it is perfectly suited for. In any case, they confiscate it.

Now it is time to tear apart Mohammed's house. The house is made out of a combination of two types of bricks, one sunbaked, something like adobe, the other clay, no doubt from the brick factory we passed back up the road. The roof is made of thatched reeds. The complex is fairly large, with a good-sized front yard and two buildings laid out in an 'L' shape. The whole thing is surrounded by a high brick wall. In the back is a walled-in vegetable field, with palm trees along the back. It reminds me of the better haciendas I saw in Honduras.

I feel bad searching the poor guy's home. Most of the rooms are absolutely bare, no lights, no carpet, nothing on the walls. An ancient sewing machine. A battered wooden cabinet, piled full of handmade sleeping mats. A room with brightly painted children's murals on the walls, and a solitary stand where they are making goat cheese.

I check everything, and sniff the walls for motor oil. We know that the insurgents like to put weapons caches in the walls, coated with motor oil, which they believe foils metal detectors. I check the thatched roof for hidden weapons. Nothing.

What's really surprising are the bedrooms. The rest of the house is barren and dirt poor, but the bedrooms are almost opulent. Beautiful Afghan rugs cover on the floor, and Bedouin-style tent fabric hangs from the ceilings. The beds are covered with silk comforters, and one of the rooms actually has a crystal chandelier hanging from bare log rafters.  Each room has a small TV, even though the house has no electricity. I feel like a thief as I peer under the beds and open the dresser drawers, revealing brightly woven women's dresses.

Coming out, I stop by Mohammed, who's standing now in his front yard, leaning on his cane, along with his extended family. All of the wives are standing behind him, leaning on a low wall, quietly commenting to each other on the whole situation. We ignore the women, don't even look at them, act as if they are not even there. It is the respectful thing to do in Arab culture. 

"Ah-na afwaan,"  I say. I'm sorry.

Mohammed grins, gestures to the sky, then to me, and reaches out to squeeze my cheek with his rough, leather hand. I don't know what it means, but it is touching.

The rest of the infantry guys are checking the back field, rooting through dead palm leaves along the back fence. They don't find anything. They eventually trudge back over to us, and SSG C. has a talk with Mohammed, through Joey, our other translator. I take Gunny -- an older guy, ex-Iraqi Army -- off to the side, and ask him what he thinks. Gunny thinks that they probably have more weapons hidden somewhere close, probably buried, but does not think that they are insurgents, or supporting the insurgency. He thinks that they are probably more worried about being attacked by one of the local Shia militias. 

One of Mohammid's comments, relayed through Joey, another of our translators, underscores this. "We need security. We can survive without food, we can survive without even water, but without security -- we will die." SSG C. tells him that we will come back every so often, and that we will check on him and his family, and that we will do our best to provide security for the village. As for our brothers in Vietnam, or in any counter-insurgency war, the truth is never very clear. Maybe some of the villagers are insurgents, maybe not. Maybe -- probably -- they are just trying to survive in the insanity that has descended on their country.

It's dark now, and time for us to start the long drive back to Baghdad and the FOB. I bow slightly and tell Mohammed, "Ma-sahlam-ah," again placing my hand on my chest. Goodbye. He smiles, and the whole family comes out to see us off. I hope that they will understand the intention behind the whole situation, and maybe remember the big, goofy infidel in something like a positive way. And I hope we see them again.

Comments

I'm proud of you for learning Arabic, and I do hope that remaining 25-50% comes along real soon, for obvious reasons. I liked the story, too. Cheers!

I agree with zelma. It's inspiring that our soldiers are learning the language and respecting the culture of Iraqis.

Sgt Batty,

Great interaction with the civilian pop! More stories like this need to make the news, however it never will. I know they will appreciate any US soldier that treats them with the respect that we all crave in just such a situation. I can only hope/pray that you all have the wisdom to accurately judge who is civilian and who is the enemy. Take care of your brothers in arms!

Here in the UK the image of the US military is commonly that none of you have any appreciation of local sensitivities, wherever you are. It's good to see that we are wrong about that in a least one case. Keep beating the stereotypes!

It's really interesting to read about your experiences there. Thankyou for sharing them.

Encouraging to see that our troops have some diplomacy skills. I would imagine that your family is very proud of your conduct. I know that I am.

I know exactly what you mean about people thinking you are fluent. I lived in Mongolia for 2 years and it drove me crazy when I would use my few mongolian phrases and people would jabber back, way to fast, and usually using lots of slang. But you are right, it you listen, look, and think, you can often get the big idea of what they are trying to say. Keep up the good work, and I hope you get back to that village again also.

Sgt. Batty,

In addition to appreciating your sensitive manner with the locals, I am struck by what a good - and especially colorful - writer you are! Hope you keep it up and that you'll thank your genes as well as your English teachers for me. :)

Teda

Dear Sgt. Roy Batty,
This is my first ever e-mail to a service member and I am proud to be able to do so. Please tell your fellow troop members that the average American loves the men and women of our Service members and are proud and grateful to them. When I speak to my friends about the war, some support policy some don't; but we all support our troops. Please believe that.
I know I sound like a gushing emotional goof-ball but I am grateful to say these things to you.
Stay safe, come back.

claree

Sgt Batty, This is an incredible account and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate what you are all doing for us under such difficult circumstances. Whoever invented the word "multitask" must surely have had your situation in mind. So many considerations! I am so proud of you all for multitasking so effectiviely in language, sensitivities to culture, and your actual military duties. I have been so touched by your story that the fate of this family too lingers in my mind - a proof positive to the ultimate in story telling/writing ability. Do keep us posted. God bless you and keep you all safe.

Hi Sgt Batty

I'm an Australian teaching English in China and I was hunting for something I could give my classes so we can have a discussion about Iraq. Your blog entry is perfect: it's well written, descriptive and you have managed to raise some good, meaty topics while being concise.

On behalf of my students, thank you.

It is surprising how quickly your blog is batting down my impressions of the US at war. In Australia, most of us were reluctant to send troops, and we have a virtual blackout on their activities. We don't know what our diggers are doing, or how they interact with the locals. I can only hope they deal with them with the same sensitivity and compassion that you do. Thank you for your remarkable perspective.

Sgt Batty,

FYI, not to bust your balls, but AK47s are legal in the USA too dude.....

Except of course in places like the Peoples Socialist Republic of California.

Anyway, cool to read about your interesting experiences.


You're the kind who make me proud to be an American at a time I feel there isn't a lot to be proud of. Thank you.

I am sitting here at my desk, lunchtime, reading yet another "Blatty" post. I am really grateful to you, since your writing tends to stick with me for days after I read your posts. While I am a softy liberal type, I am really proud of Americans serving the way you do. I wish you were all home, and hope and pray you will be soon. Thank you and keep writing!

Sgt Batty
this is a wonderful account of human inter action inspite of the language/culture barriers and the grim circumstances. It offers a small ray of hope in what American politicians seem to view as a clash of civilizations.

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