THE TERMITE MOUND
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 4/23/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, OH
A month and a half ago I introduced The Sandbox to the newest Combat Outpost in Baghdad -- the formidable hostel that I called "the Keep". Full of overinflated prose, I described it as "a rose-colored ruin forgotten in the desert, a relic full of whispered secrets," prattled on about its supposed glorious past, and then promptly...disappeared.
I was pleasantly surprised when a number of good folks wrote me directly to ask what had happened to the tardy Nexus 6. Had he finally joined the hallowed ranks of fallen heroes in some neocon version of Valhalla; a red-white-and-blue sacrifice to the Boy Scout aspirations of the almighty Dubya? Had the nefarious hordes of post-nuclear Persia cut down the good Sergeant with a well aimed EFP? Turned him into a punk-haired Leonidas with a copper-lined hole smoking in the middle of his slightly potbellied torso? Or had the combination of Spartan living conditions, boredom and inane military restrictions finally forced him over the edge, and driven him to strangle his First Sergeant for one too many "on the spot corrections"?
Nope. (Although the last one sounds pretty good.)
No, nothing that interesting. I've simply been trapped in a cycle of working, eating, smoking, sleeping, and then working some more, if you can call checking ID cards at the gate of a trash-strewn IP station a block away from Sadr City actually "working". The powers that be seem to want us to stay longer and longer at said IP station, as if somehow our mere presence at this structure will bring safety and security to the beleaguered denizens of Eastern Baghdad. Personally, I would have thought it more effective if we actually went out and patrolled the neighborhoods, and, y'know, like, found bad guys and either threw them in jail or filled them full of little high-velocity pieces of metal, but what do I know? Apparently I can have the same effect by looking at fake IDs and frisking people for the occasional weapon. I guess that two years at Ohio State, working in campus bars as a bouncer, really was useful after all.
The Termite Mound, as I call it now, is as dark and gloomy as ever, although they have added electrical power and a few bare bulbs to the place. The lights hang in great loops of black cord from the ragged ceiling, but bring little cheer. It still looks like an upscale salt mine, with all the concrete glamour of the Reichstag in the last throes of 1945 Berlin. Naked plywood walls separate the various platoons and units, which helps to keep the noise level down to approximately that of a Boeing 747 on takeoff. We have a semblance of wireless Internet, and occasionally it actually works. Somehow it's oddly appropriate for this mess of a war that the 21st Century Army would have WiFi before it has working showers.
Anyway, I thought I would let you know what my daily routine is like; how the heroic struggle of the Great Surge plays out day to day. Here goes:
I feel a hand on my sleeping-bag-encased foot, shaking it. Time to get up. The exact time varies according to when we have to load-up for mission. Sometimes you get to sleep in a little, sometimes you don't. I really can't complain about the amount of sleep we get, it's just that the quality of the sleep is sometimes lacking. Remember the scene in Enemy at the Gates, where Vasily Zietsev and his Red Army girlfriend get it on in a tunnel, amid hordes of sleeping soldiers? That's what our plywood squadbay looks like. Probably smells about the same, too. It would be considerably more amenable if Rachel Weisz was in the cot next to mine, but instead I got a kid from Missouri who looks and sounds like Gomer Pyle. Life is so unfair...
This is what I call the thirty minutes or so that I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, or at the dimly lit figures around me. It's that wonderful time of the morning, right after waking up, when one's brain is still full of the velvet fumblings of dreamtime, the afterglow where life is comfortably numb and yet somehow also prophetically clear. I imagine it must be something like the first few seconds after birth; at least until the completely-uncalled-for slap of the doctor's hand on your three-minute-old butt. It's that precious time before your personality and day-to-day worries come online, a moment of clarity to watch the sunlight streaming down from the bullet-riddled skylight above you, and reflect on exactly how it is that you fucked up so badly as to have your life bring you to this special place...
That's what the military calls it. Here, it is the same five-minute ritual, every morning, and is probably a far less thorough exercise than originally imagined in FM 22-11. Pull out the electric razor, that little square of German engineering, and mow down the grizzled whiskers which assault my grubby neck. There's no hot water in the Termite Mound, and you only get a shower every six to ten days. Which means that next, it's time for that other marvel of modern technology -- Baby Wipes. And the ritual I have dubbed "Schwabin' die Nutzen", a critical task in an environment in which you spend at least ten hours a day in full body armor in desert heat, with only passing acquaintance with running water. It's a procedure best completed quickly, yet thoroughly, beneath the covering graces of one's sleeping bag, and accompanied with a wide grin and a hearty, "Hey, good morning! Howyadoin'?" to any and all female soldiers that happen to march by your cot mid-swab.
Slip on a clean set of Underarmor underwear, carefully select my boot socks (shall we go with the compressing yet strangely thin fabric of Underarmor socks, or the cushy yet sweat-inducing embrace of a pair of Thorlos, or something in-between, like an In Genius pair of foot warmers?), and put on the same ACU uniform that I've been wearing for the past week.
There is a simple yet undeniable curse to putting on a clean pair of ACUs. Within thirty minutes you will spill coffee, splash in mud, drip ketchup, or somehow otherwise stain the virgin glories of said pristine uniform. Iraq is a filthy place, so you might as well wear the same set for a good period of time, which is fine, since you only get to send out your laundry twice a month or so anyway.
Then I slide on my pair of outrageously expensive Oakley combat boots, which are the only boots that I will wear from now on (at least until some dickhead First Sergeant or Command Sergeant Major tells me that they're not authorized). And then it's time for the dreaded body armor -- sixty-five pounds of cobbled-together pieces of Kevlar and Spectra-shield, festooned with pockets and pouches filled with bullets and magazines and 40mm grenades and hand grenades and infra-red strobe lights and Lord-only-knows-what-else. I have to stick my left arm through one side, and then swing the whole heavy mess around my back and up onto my shoulders, slipping the other arm in at just the right moment, and then hop up and down in a carefully choreographed dance in order to get it on just right, which it has to be, because I am going to be wearing the damn thing for the next ten hours straight. At least the high today is only in the 80s, as opposed to 125 degrees, which it will be within the next two months. God help us if we get extended through another summer...
Grab my combination rifle and grenade launcher, and moldy helmet, and trudge down the line of half-seen cots, through the green camouflage plastic poncho that serves as our squadbay door, and join the line of trudging automatons, bent low beneath their burdens of black machineguns and body armor, and file down the cracked cement stairs to the dirt and dust and hidden coils of concertina wire that choke the ground floor. At virtually all times of the day and night, these ordered lines of soldiers crowd the stairways; one line going up, carrying cases of water, MREs, ammunition, plywood sheets, and all of the myriad sundry items needed to keep 600 people alive day-to-day; and another line coming down -- soldiers heading out on mission. These everpresent, sullen rows of shuffling creatures, winding through the exposed exoskeleton of the building, is why I have come to refer to the place as "the Termite Mound".
Trudge out past the shielding veils of black curtains (so the snipers can't see in) and the sand-filled containers of the Hesco barriers (so the mortar rounds don't spread their deadly metal trinkets inside the fortress), and walk down the wide dais of the entrance ramp. On a good day I like to greet the morning, and our Iraqi neighbors across the motor pool, with a Klingon Death Cry, M4 rifle held aloft in a clenched first, commando knife in my other hand, screaming:
Most mornings, though, I just stumble across the rubble and suck on a Camel, and try to make it to the truck and its precious cargo of DoubleShots without twisting an ankle. The cobblestone sidewalk around the castle has been pushed into bizarre waves of crushed paving bricks, like tectonic plates, tiny continents squashed together by the motion of the M1A1 tanks maneuvering in the tight confines of the parking lot.
By the time I make it out to my HMMWV, Nix, my driver, has usually set up most of our equipment. Coop, my gunner, is adjusting the headspace and timing on his massive .50 caliber machine gun. I load my rifle and grenade launcher, and place it on the hood of the truck, along with my knee pads. I brush my teeth with the aid of another tepid water bottle, grab a DoubleShot and another cigarette, and then it's time for the PCI -- Pre Combat Inspection. This only takes a few minutes, but it's critical. We have a ton of equipment, pretty much all of which breaks down into two categories. First, shit that helps us kill people. Second, shit that is useful when someone tries to kill us. Making sure that each piece is where it's supposed to be and is working correctly is pretty important. It would suck to be on fire and beset by madly cracking bullets only to find out that that fire extinguisher and extraction tool aren't in the place you left 'em a week ago.
MISSION BRIEF AND DEPARTURE
The mission brief only takes a few minutes, and it rarely changes, at least not since we arrived at the Termite Mound six weeks ago. Where we are going, how we are getting there, and what are we doing when we get there. The most entertaining part is the INTSUM, or INTelligence SUMmary, which starts the brief. This is the part where our squad leader tells us what has happened in our AO, or Area of Operations, in the past 24 hours. He used to summarize everything that had happened in the entire city, and it would sound like this: "Within the Baghdad Area of Operations, in the past 24 hours, there have been 34 SIGACTS, or Significant Acts. There have been 12 IEDs, 14 Indirect Fires (mortars or rocket attacks), 3 Sniper attacks, and 3 VBIEDS (car bombs), all against Coalition forces. On the civilian side, there were 12 murders, 65 recovered bodies, and three kidnappings." After a bit, it was all just too depressing, so now we just talk about what happens in our own patrol area -- all six square kilometers of it. Hell, it's usually depressing enough talking about what happened there. Oh, and by the way, the numbers I just mentioned are pretty typical for a day's work in Baghdad.
We pay pretty close attention to the SIGACTs in our patrol area, since it gives us an idea of the places that the local militias are focusing on -- places we want to avoid, particularly when it comes to IED placement.
After the brief, we conduct rehearsals; practicing what to do in specific emergencies. I usually run these, since I am a strong believer in being prepared, and I like to throw in wrinkles to keep the soldiers awake and thinking. Otherwise, they'll just go through the motions, and then forget the drills at the first bone-jarring explosion.
Then it's time to squeeze into the tight confines of our HMMWVs, conduct radio checks, line up the trucks, and head out into the madness of Baghdad traffic.
This is one of the most dangerous part of the day; simply driving the five or six blocks to our assigned IP station. When we first arrived at the Combat Outpost, it was right at the beginning of "the Surge". The Shia-led Iraqi government had convinced Moqtadr Al-Sadr to go into hiding in Iran, and most of his Mehdi Army followers were laying low.
Now, all bets are off, and Al-Sadr has released letters calling for increased attacks on Coalition forces. We've seen a sudden increase in IEDs in our area, particularly of the most lethal kind -- the Explosively Formed Projectile. Along with those Iranian-manufactured IEDs, there has been a rash of RPG and sniper attacks, along with Sunni contributions, mostly consisting of car bombs in local markets.
Bouncing over the gravel of the Entry Control Point and out into the mad traffic of a Baghdad morning is like crossing an invisible boundary marker -- on one side is relative quiet and orderliness, and on the other, a post-apocalyptic urban wilderness where literally anything can happen. Sidewalks erupt in a geyser of flame and smoke, bullets crack and echo from the buildings -- and most of the time it is the police shooting, which is how they direct traffic. Sirens blare, horns blow, and dilapidated busses, vans and trucks jostle for position. Kids sell gasoline by the side of the road, old men in kaffiyahs walk amidst the stalled traffic selling everything from breakfast pastries to hand towels. Through it all is the very conscious thought that, at any given moment, there could be a blinding flash and you would wake up minus a pair of legs, or worse, not wake up at all.
We pay a lot of attention to crowd densities and traffic patterns. When we first got here, we liked it when the streets were empty and no one was around; it felt safe and clear. Now we know that things are the safest when a certain amount of people are out and about. There is definitely a "normal" number. Not too many, mind you, because then the target itself could be the people around you. And if there is a sudden quiet disappearance of locals, it's time to watch out.
We did a lot of training on how to spot an IED before we came here, in Germany and Kuwait, but one minute in Baghdad and you realize it is essentially worthless. There is just so much trash and wreckage strewn everywhere, and all of it looks suspicious. You end up having endless discussions with yourself, analyzing, rationalizing, making little deals with Fate. "Well, that car looks out of place, but there is an old guy leaning against it, and there are those five kids just ten feet away from it, so it's probably okay." A lot of the time you just sort of hold your breath a little bit and hope for the best. And this happens every ten feet or so. And then again. And again. It gets a bit tiring after a while.
THE IP STATION
If all goes well, we get to our IP station without anything blowing up beside us. We pull inside, close up the gate, and settle in for another fun-filled day. For me, this consists almost solely of standing behind a metal gate and assessing everyone that comes through it. Are they an IP? Do I know them? Are they a civilian? Do they have a hidden weapon?
If I don't know them, or don't trust them, or sense that something is out of place, I search them. In five months at this station, I have only found hidden weapons on Iraqi Police, usually guys from the Ministry of the Interior who I don't know, and who don't know (or want) to identify themselves and the fact that they are armed before I check.
We recently found out that a Mehdi Army sniper team was targeting me at the gate, so now we keep out of sight and behind closed doors. This is fine from a Force Protection angle, but it means that I now spend six to eight hours a day standing in the sun, in full gear, about five feet behind said gate, waiting and watching it for someone to open it and spray me with an AK from close range. Think about that for a second. Imagine spending every single day for five months, eight hours a day, sweating your ass off in 65 pounds of gear, in the sun, watching a faded blue door. Being bored to tears, yet having to remain vigilant at the same time. You can't open the door, or look outside, because someone within the surrounding 300 meters, hidden behind a window curtain, might put your eye out with a big freakin' bullet.
I never thought you would be able to put the words "boring" and "lethally dangerous" together, but I was wrong. Last week, the 82nd infantry unit that shares our patrol area was attacked right in front of this gate, with a RPG. Two soldiers were wounded, one severely. One of our own sergeants was winged by a sniper two months ago, in the guard tower of this station. He's okay, although he will be shitting into a colostomy bag for a while.
Anyway, the threat is real.
We'd like to go out and do more combat patrols, but the powers that be want us to do it with the Iraqi Police. Problem is, they don't have any gas. Yep, somehow the country that is sitting on about 20% of the world's oil supply does not have enough gasoline to provide to their cops so they can go out and patrol a five block neighborhood. Gee, I wonder if those rumours about corruption in the Iraqi government are true?
So we sit. I practice my Arabic. We buy local food for lunch, and enjoy the delicacies of falafel, mutton kebab, lamb tikka, and dysentery. Drink chai, and smoke cigarettes. Talk about how much we miss home, or who in the platoon is getting on our last nerve today. Wave at the Apaches when they fly low overhead. Wait for something to blow up.
Every couple of days, something does. Blow up, I mean. It's usually one of our patrols in the area. When that happens, we reluctantly load up in our HMMWVs, and drive a block or two, and then sit and watch while a HMMWV crackles and burns and rips itself apart with self-destructing ordnance -- all the grenades and anti-tank rockets and stuff "cooking off" from the flames. Fortunately, so far at least, no one has been killed in these attacks, and usually no one is even there when we pull up, so we just "secure the area" and let the truck burn.
The other day's Big Boom was an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) attack on a passing convoy, less than 100 meters from my gate. That was fun. This was the same unit that got attacked, also with an RPG, in front of the station a few nights ago. They're newly arrived here, and are a bit too aggressive. They've had a number of "Escalation of Force" incidents where they have lit up civilian cars that have approached them a little too quickly. In all of the cases, it has turned out merely to be innocent civilians. No weapons, no nothing. Just families trying to get home before curfew. Sounds like the locals may be trying to get payback on them.
Most of the time, though, it's just hot and sweaty and pointless and really, really boring.
Finally, my squad leader and/or platoon leader comes out of the police station, nudges the drooling SGT who is about to lose it from the heat and tedium, and announces that it's time to go "home". Load the trucks. Drive out into the insanity. Watch the garbage by the side of the road. Eye passing fuel trucks and buses and big semi trucks with suspicion. Joke on the radio about lines of dialogue from obscure movies.
Sometimes we do a little bit of patrolling before we go back to the Outpost, checking up on the static IP patrols. Most of the time they aren't where they are supposed to be. Funny how they don't have enough gas to conduct joint patrols, but they do have enough to disappear on personal errands. I would give anything to be able to stick GPS transmitters and electronic bugs in their trucks, and see what they're really up to.
On most FOBs, there are a couple of things that folks can do in their spare time. The larger FOBs, like Anaconda, or Liberty, or the IZ, have MWR centers with Internet cafes, game rooms, libraries, phone centers, etc. They have coffee shops, and hookah shops, sometimes restaurants, the occasional movie theater. Hell, Balad has an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Places to chill out and feel a little more human.
In the Termite Mound, I have my cot. The cot is everything. It is my living room, my dining room, my den, the computer room, and, oh yeah, a place to sleep. My forearm fits nicely in the space between my cot and the one next to mine. We eat our evening meals sitting on our cots. Play our PSPs. Listen to our Ipods. We had to box up all TVs and Xboxs and such when we left Shield, but almost everyone has some sort of small gadget to pass the time.
We file back in from the motorpool, lugging our dusty weapons. Strip out of the greaseslicked bodyarmor. I stick the Ipod headphones in immediately. Clean my rifle for the five-gazzilionth time. Trudge downstairs, and pick up the single cooked meal of the day. Trust me, I'm not complaining, it's a hell of a lot better than eating MREs for every meal, which is what we did for the first month in this blasted building.
The rest of the evening is split between watching a pirated DVD on my laptop, playing my PSP, and waiting for the evening mortar attack. Their mortar teams must not be too good, since they always miss the building itself, but they are pretty good at hitting the parking lot. In any case, the thick CRUUMP always gets your attention, if only for the split second until you realize that it is more than 50 meters away, and therefore not important. It does tend to cut short outdoor smoke breaks, however.
If you are really lucky, this evening will be your platoon's allotted time to take a shower. There are four shower stalls downstairs. Four individual shower stalls. For 600 people. Sooooooo, Shower Night is carefully scheduled, and it comes around about every six to twelve days. I say six to twelve, because if you should be so unlucky as to be out on patrol when the shower room is opened, or if the compressor pump goes down that night, well, sucks to be you. You'll have to wait until the schedule rotates around to your platoon again.
Think about that one, too. Desert heat. Body armor. Combat zone exertions. Dirty, gutted building. Six hundred folks in elbow-rubbing proximity to each other. One shower every 1-2 weeks. I won't be able to smell a damn thing for six months after I get out of here.
About midnight or so, the lights turn off and the noise dies down enough that you can go to sleep. Unless you are one of those folks driven by stress and frustration to the point of furtively masturbating within the clammy confines of your sleeping bag, which seems to be de rigueur for stress relief here. Oh well, gotta do what you do. After almost eleven months in Iraq, no one seems to give much of a shit about social morays anymore. Except some of our female IPLO cops. One was walking along the Puptent Gauntlet the other night, and stopped to stare at someone who was particularly "involved in the moment". She half gasped, half laughed, and turned to say something to the guy next to him -- only to discover that he was similarly engaged.
She left last week.
So, there you have it. This has pretty much been my experience, every day, for the past seven weeks.
Tomorrow it will be the same, as will the day after it.
And the next.
And the next.
It gets so that, at the end of the day, I don't even want to write about it. Hell, I don't even want to think about it. I just want to put the Ipod on and pretend that I'm somewhere tropical, with white gypsum beaches and cool off-shore breezes. Somewhere with my wife and an unlimited supply of Mezcal margaritas...
Last night, the dreaded Word came down -- not through normal military channels, but through Yahoo, of all things. The Secretary of Defense has unilaterally decided that every single active duty Army unit will spend 15 months in Iraq, instead of the usual 12. Effective immediately.
Period. End of discussion.
We had 59 days until we were home in Germany, safe and sound. We were literally gritting our teeth to gut out the time until we were relieved by our replacements. We don't even have to get home for morale to improve dramatically. Just to pull back to the comfort of a real FOB; one with real food and the unbelievable luxury of a shower every night would be an incredible boon. Now we have an unimaginable five months ahead of us, and, worst of all, the prospect of 125 degree summer heat in this bombed-out shopping mall surrounded by increasingly pissed-off Shia militias.
More sobering is the fact that, for some of the people in this building, this extension is a very real death warrant. People are going to die because of it, torn apart by an EFP in some shithole alleyway, or with a neat and surgical sniper's bullet punctuating their forehead, when they could have been at home raising a glass and telling war stories, their year in Iraq honorably completed.
But wait, there's more. The insurgents are getting bolder. Today, at two in the afternoon (i.e. broad fucking daylight), a couple of them attacked our building. They sprayed magazines of AK fire, and shot an RPG at the roof. It blew up on the plastic and metal cover over the central skylight. It didn't do much more than rain a bit of plexiglass down on us, and woke up yours truly from a very nice and only slightly pornographic nap, but the timing seems a harbinger of things to come. Along with the increasing mortar attacks, and the IEDs that seem to be getting closer and closer to the main gate every day.