A Memorial Day Interview with a U.S. Soldier in Iraq

My oldest and best friend, who has elected to be anonymous, is 100 days away from ending his second U.S. Army tour of Iraq. To commemorate his survival and soon departure he honestly answered some questions for us about Army culture, the U.S. ‘mission’, and his contact with Iraqi culture.

Describe your two tours, what you do, and how the 2 tours have differed.

I do route clearance as a combat engineer in the army. Route clearance is just as it sounds, we are clearing the route for those who follow behind us. We are simply looking for IED’s to make sure the people behind us don’t have to deal with them. The first one year tour was a cake walk compared to this one. The first tour I was in Western Baghdad whereas now I’m in eastern Baghdad. It has nothing to do with the overall condition of Iraq, but rather the eastern Sadr City district is a bad region to be doing route clearance. We get blown up by IED’s on more than half our missions and two months into our tour we lost spc. Jose Torre to RPG fire. My unit got lucky on our first tour. We were seldom attacked and only suffered minor injuries when we were attacked. I feel we have been lucky this tour as well. Though we lost one of our most respected platoon members in Jose, there could have been more. My first tour I never dealt with incoming or rpg’s or half the shit we deal with on a weekly basis this go round. The two tours couldn’t be more starkly contrasted.

How have things changed?

The biggest change from 2008 to 2010-11 is the US military posture. Our rules of engagement are a huge topic of discussion but they haven’t really changed much. The biggest posture change from the two deployments would be a total hand over of obligation to the Iraqis. Their army and police are now in charge. The hand off took place during my last deployment, but has only recently taken effect. It means many things and of course there is the good with the bad. The Iraqi army has much better means of gathering intelligence within their own country than we can. The down side is that their army and police force is rife with corruption from foreign insurgents. As well, there is the fucked up position that route clearance platoons all throughout Iraq have been put into. We are no longer supposed to be doing combat patrols in Iraq but the Iraqis have no capability or desire to do route clearance. Our army still has to supply all our outposts so were forced to still do combat missions from base to base. We can’t go unescorted through the streets of Iraq so we are forced to inform our Iraqi army and police counter parts of our movements to and from our outposts. This is many times simply put an intelligence leak. The information finds it way to our enemies and everytime we get blown up it just so happens to be right next to police check points. In whatever way it is that the police are getting coerced whether it is by force or with buy-outs, we are the ones getting hung out to dry so to speak. It’s a bad situation that can’t be blamed on anything other than the fact that we are still in harms way. I see it as this is just the way that this whole shitty mess is playing itself out. Up until about March of 2011 route clearance platoons were doing daily clearance missions. Somebody realized at some level that there are still a bunch of engineers dying in unacceptable numbers in Iraq. Now we only roll out when a supply convoy is headed somewhere.

What do you think the US is attempting to do there?

I think the US is simply riding out the SOFA (Status of Force) agreement. In the fourth month of our deployment here we were finally told that our presence is needed to insure that the Iraqi army is doing its job. That was nice considering we were told before we left that our role would strictly be to Advice and Assist. We are all Advise and Assist Battalions rather than Special Troops Battalions. I think our overall occupation and role here in Iraq has been much too generous. I as well think it is all too suspicious that the reasoning and mission statement for our occupation has changed on a yearly basis since it started in 2003. I honestly don’t know what the army wants me to say let alone what I would say is my reason for being here? Am I helping the people of Iraq build a future democracy? I have never had the stomach for uttering the whole keeping America safe bullshit. Overall my guess would be we are here to make some contractors a couple trillion dollars under the guise of spreading freedom and keeping America safe. Perhaps there is some truth in the notion that America feared the Arab world and wanted to keep the fight over seas. Are we getting our hands on as much oil as possible? Saddam was so bad we had to do something. Fuck, take your pick, we’ll never really know.

What do you see as being the best resolution to this mess?

The answer is simple. If it can’t be done in eight years, nine is too fucking much sacrifice. Get the fuck out and give Iraqis their country back. It is there job now and they want it.

Have any experiences with private contractors, or human terrain project personnel, you know, those social scientists?

No experience with the Human Terrain dudes, at least that I know of. There are all sorts of contractors over here so I have extensive experience working with contractors. KBR does everything from register our helicopter flights, taxi rides, prepare our meals, and maintain our bases. Our linguists are Iraqis hired from contracting companies. The people who fix and work on our vehicles are all Mantec contractors. And I’ve talked to plenty of the guns for hire type of contractors as well. Most all of them are people simply looking to make ends meet. Some are getting much more lucrative compensation than others but really its just people making a living. It’s to bad with all the mad loot floating around that us grunts are left with our ‘benefits’ as our primary means of feeling compensated. Don’t complain that you get paid piss for your efforts in the army or you’ll have some 20 year ‘lifer’ telling you how much health insurance or school costs.

Do you get out into the Iraqi culture? Why or why not?

My primary immersion into the cultural is through the shop vendors on post and through our interpreters. We go out and about on every mission and see how the people live but don’t have much interaction. Mostly we don’t interact because the army doesn’t want us to, we’d have too much fun. I’d like to say that it’s not safe, but that is mostly bullshit. Sitting in my CHU (containerized housing unit…or some such shit) waiting for incoming isn’t safe. The army is full of all sorts of confusing messages. On entry to Iraq there are all sorts of briefings and training classes and they all hand out handy notes and flyers. Almost every single packet says to shop at local stores and let the locals know you support them. The times that we have done so we’ve been reprimanded and told never to do so. It makes sense to get out and about and talk with the locals, but i guess that is someone else’s job.

What aren’t we getting about Iraqi culture?

What are we not understanding about their culture that is different from our culture or what are we not hearing about their culture? I’ll address my first interpretation. I think Afghanistan is mostly the cultural nightmare. Iraq is very culturally diverse and the people here are very easy to interact with. I think perhaps what they don’t get is what democracy really means or what it means to have a democratic government. I think initially they thought that everything was going to be brilliant once Hussein was dealt with, but the reality that there are years and even decades of building a democracy to come with many hardships to endure is what the Iraqi’s didn’t see coming. I think that perhaps they are feeling mislead that we are leaving their country so many years later and they are not being left with what they thought they would have. Most locals are happy that there country’s future will be in the people’s hands, but perhaps a bit scared or concerned that things will go back to the way they were. I guess as simply as I can say it–the Iraqi culture saw themselves becoming a distorted view of America once we took over their country. Everything was going to be like the television version of American that they had watched on MTV or Friends. Every interpreter I’ve had which is about 8 or 9 learned to speak English watching American television.

 

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

2 thoughts on “A Memorial Day Interview with a U.S. Soldier in Iraq

  1. Thanks for the interview. Nice to be reminded that the infantry isn’t the whole of the Army and that it isn’t the only combat arm.

    Don’t complain that you get paid piss for your efforts in the army or you’ll have some 20 year ‘lifer’ telling you how much health insurance or school costs.

    The U.S. Military is a bastion of socialism, go ahead and own it!

    I think perhaps what they don’t get is what democracy really means or what it means to have a democratic government.

    There was a great This American Life in October that touched on this.

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