One Veteran's Voice

20 January 2006

Bad Karma

Damage to former Iraqi government building from a US airstrike. The complex of buildings was turned into a US military camp, located near Route Predators.
Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म from the root kri, "to do", meaning deed) or Kamma (Pali: meaning action, effect, destiny) is a term in several eastern religions that comprises the entire cycle of cause and effect. Karma is a sum of all that an individual has done and is currently doing. The effects of those deeds actively create present and future experiences, thus making one responsible for one's own life. In religions that incorporate reincarnation, karma extends through one's present life and all past and future lives as well.

One of the closer calls I ever had in Iraq was with bullets fired by US soldiers. This incident happened on an early morning IED sweep. Blue platoon was traveling south on Route Predators, looking for IEDs. As we approached a traffic circle, my platoon sergeant's vehicle suddenly swerved and sped up. They radioed to us that they had seen an IED on the side of the road, buried in the rubble on the side of the traffic circle‘s curb. Since the vehicle was already in the kill zone, they stepped on the gas and pulled ahead of the bomb, while the other two vehicles, mine included, stopped short, on the northern side of the traffic circle.

“Charger Mike, this is Apache Blue 1.“ Blue 1 was my platoon leader.
“This is Charger Mike.“
“This is Apache Blue 1, we have a possible IED at Charlie Poppa 3.”
“Roger Apache Blue 1. Secure the area, and send the IED report.”
“This is Blue 1, Roger. Stand by for that report.”
Damn, where’s the TACSOP?
“Blue 4, this is Blue 1.” This time on platoon internal radio net.
“This is Blue 4.” The nasal voice of Blue 4, my platoon sergeant, already sounded irritated, like he knew what was coming.
“Can you send up that IED report to Battalion?”

Roger is a word that can mean almost anything and can be used in almost any way, kind of like ’fuck’. Obstensibly, “Roger” means, “I understand.” It can also mean, “I understand, but I don’t care; I understand, and I agree; I understand, but fuck you anyway; I understand, but you’re still a dumbass“-- all dependent on context and intonation. In this particular case, my platoon sergeant was saying “I understand, but you’re a dumbass.”

My LT, Apache Blue 1, god bless his soul, was (and probably still is) a kind human being, a loyal soldier, and most definitely not a cynic, like I am. He was also not the most competent combat leader I have served under. We all have our faults. One of his was an inability to communicate verbally over the radio. He’d rather outsource the work to his platoon sergeant. Platoon Sergeants hate this type of shit, and generally aren’t too excited about Lieutenants in general.

Blue 4 sent the IED report to headquarters, and they ordered us to block traffic on the four lane divided highway in both directions until EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) could get on the scene and diffuse the bomb. My vehicle was tasked with blocking the southbound lanes of traffic. We turned around so our headlights faced north, and I threw some chemical light sticks out in the road about 50 meters in front of our truck. I had a three million candlepower spotlight with me on the truck, and if a driver didn’t get the message to stop by seeing the headlights facing the wrong way, the light sticks, or the armed men standing around in front of the headlights, I shined the extremely bright spotlight in his eyes and flashed it on and off, and that did the trick. Luckily, it was very late/early, and there was not much traffic at all.

The worst part of finding an IED, other than the possibility that you might die, is waiting around for EOD to show up and diffuse the thing. They were notoriously slow to respond, and being one of a few teams for our entire AO (we didn‘t have a fully equipped EOD team on our camp), very overworked.

After thirty minutes or so of shining the light, standing around nervously smoking and joking, I saw a car approaching us from the north, traveling fast. I started shining the spotlight at him, flashing it on and off. He didn’t slow down. I waved my arms in front of the headlights, showing him my rifle. He still didn’t stop. By this time he was only about a hundred meters from us. During the first part of June 2004, there was a string of car bombings in Baghdad. I vowed to myself that if he drove past the light sticks, I would shoot. He did, and I did.

I fired two shots at the windshield where I believed the driver to be. The car rolled to a stop. Unsure of whether I had hit him, and what I would find, I approached the car with my rifle up. I found a bewildered and unharmed cab driver, reeking of alcohol. My adrenaline was pumping, and I jerked him out of the car and threw him on the ground. My platoon sergeant, who ran over when he heard the shots fired, roughed him up a little and handcuffed him. The man was wailing in arabic, crying and mumbling “Taxi, taxi.” I quickly searched the car and found nothing. Apparently the guy was just drunk and either didn‘t see me or didn‘t feel like stopping. On the windshield was a star in the glass right about where the driver’s head would be. Bullets occasionally ricochet off glass rather than penetrating it, especially if they hit at just the right angle, as this one apparently did. This guy was the luckiest cab driver in Baghdad that night, as he very well could have wound up with a hole in the head instead of a cracked windshield. I have no idea where my second shot went.

Being alive didn’t seem to console the cabbie; he was fairly terrified and would not stop crying. The crying bothered me, so I yelled at him in Arabic to shut the fuck up, and he did. Immediately after we had gotten the situation with the cab driver under control, another car ran the blockade from the opposite direction. The platoon sergeant opened fire on it, and the car slowed to a stop. Blue 4 kept firing, and the driver threw it in reverse and hauled ass backwards, away from the guy shooting at him. One of the tracer rounds imbedded itself in the right front tire, catching it on fire. Realizing his car was on fire, the driver finally stopped, and was promptly yanked out and beat down in the street, just feet away from his car, which had, by this time, become engulfed in flames. This guy was also drunk as hell, and happened to be an Iraqi police officer (although at this point, nobody knew that).

We stood around, smoking and joking, watching the car burn in the street. The two Iraqis sat on the curb next to me, handcuffed with zip ties, also watching the car burn. It was pretty impressive; I had never seen a car burn, besides in the movies.

Before the car had stopped smoldering, yet another car traveling the wrong way in the northbound lane sped by our position. My team leader joined the party and took a few shots at it as it passed. It continued south down the road towards the EOD vehicles (who had, by this time, arrived on the scene and begun to assess the situation with the IED by using a camera equipped, remote controlled robot). EOD promptly opened fire on this new interloper. The major problem with their action was that my humvee was located directly downrange of their fires. At first I did not realize what was happening; I believed that we were being ambushed. Gunshots sound different when the muzzle is pointed in your general direction, they sound like a cue ball hitting the eight at high speed. I stood amazed for a second, and then my brain started working again and I ducked in front of the humvee. I could hear the sound of bullets cutting through the air, and sparks flew on the cement near me as bullets impacted and bounced off. A tracer passed a couple feet to my right, making a zinging noise exactly like the movies. At least they get a few things about war right.

When they stopped shooting, I got on the radio and told EOD where they could shove it. All told, we destroyed two vehicles (EOD blew up the third car because they found a suspicious package in it, which turned out to be nothing), beat up two drunken Iraqis, and generally caused chaos and mayhem in the street. It is a miracle no one got killed. If Iraqi police with their flashing lights had been on the scene, the probability of any shots being fired would have greatly decreased.

Once I had ‘broken the ice’ by firing the first shots that night, everyone else joined in, even when the situation might not have called for it. Then again, any car that ran the roadblock could have been laden with explosives, so our actions were justified under the rules of engagement. Taking a shot at another human being when one is unsure if he’s actually hostile is hard to do. Unfortunately, it gets easier with time and repetition.


Gordon said...

The only time I got shot at was by the U.S. Navy. They couldn't have hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle that day. Good thing, too. They were using the main batteries on a cruiser.

1/20/2006 04:22:00 PM  
Sara said...

Following the trail of absurdities and screw-ups is pretty difficult - it starts with going to Iraq in the first place - but I think you've managed to get it right. I never got over the "let's go find an IED!" and movement to contact ("let's get ambushed on purpose!") missions. "Wait, WHAT are we doing? We're going to TRY to get blown up and shot at? WHAT??? That doesn't make any sense!!!! GARRRRRRRR!!!"

You might want to check out George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. He went to Spain to help fight the fascists and found out how ridiculous actual war is.

1/22/2006 01:11:00 PM  
Guts said...

Your shit just gets tighter and tighter, my man. Can't wait for the next installment.

1/23/2006 03:31:00 PM  

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