The Security Is Better, Seriously

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq—Two days after my visit to the incinerator, I strap on my body armor and head over to the headquarters of the 724th Battalion. I’m scheduled to ride up to Mosul, in northern Iraq, with the battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. David O’Donahue, and his personal security detail. These soldiers are from the Wisconsin National Guard, and they greet me warmly in the same hooting, cheese-head accent. Still, I’m nervous. In 2006, I’d ridden with a different lieutenant colonel and gotten to know members of his security detail. Not long after my visit, two of those soldiers were killed by snipers. By the end of their deployment, the battalion had lost 19 men, mostly to IEDs.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, and a dip of tobacco, we file inside for a briefing. The mood of the soldiers is surprisingly loose. We sit in a small, long room with two risers of seats behind built-in desks. The sergeant in charge sports a mustache in honor of deer-hunting season back home.

“Our highest risk,” he says, “is probably wet roads. They’re slimy and slippery. The beginning of the rainy season is like the first snowfall in Wisconsin. Drivers aren’t used to it, so we’ll be allowing traffic to pass.”

Then he flashes a PowerPoint slide that reads:

Route Analysis:

Past 14 days, 6 IEDs on routes targeting U.S. forces.

Stunned, I wander outside into the muddy parking lot, strap on my helmet, and climb in through the high back hatch of a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle known as an MRAP. The gunner, Spc. Travis Greenwold, is on his first tour in Iraq. So is Spc. Casey Olson, who sits beside me holding a bulky black control box and staring at a video monitor.

“Let’s go,” Olson says, as we roll out the gate of Joint Base Balad, “I want to make somebody a widow.”

“Don’t say that,” Greenwold responds. “I don’t want to have to shoot somebody.”

“Either your wife or his, Greenwold.”

“All right, fine—fuck it. I’ll light up anything.”

The talk sounds tough, but what I’m thinking about is the briefing. Back in 2006, a trip outside the wire felt like a visit to an alien planet. Soldiers and reporters were being killed every day by IEDs. A single overpass on a major highway like Route Tampa, which is the road we’ll be driving, might be targeted twice in a single day, half a dozen times in a week. But only six IEDs? In 14 days? On nearly 200 miles of road? That’s a milk run, or at least that’s how it seems to me. If Olson and Greenwold were really expecting to shoot somebody, they wouldn’t be talking about it so easily.

As it turns out, the trip is, in fact, a milk run in every way. We drive northward for six hours through an intermittent rain. We pass herds of sheep, vast muddy fields, grape arbors. We pass open markets, gas stations, and desolate mud-brick shacks. We slow down to pull through what seem like a hundred Iraqi checkpoints, the soldiers hunched in the highway median or cooking food in small concrete block enclosures.

It’s the longest distance I’ve ever traveled in Iraq. There are no IEDs. In eight months, the soldiers in my vehicle have never seen one.

We spend the night at Forward Operating Base Marez, another red giant of a base outside Mosul. As a guest of Lt. Col. O’Donahue, I am set up in my first ever “wet CHU“—meaning that there’s an impossibly luxurious shower, head, and sink attached to my room, which is also supplied with a queen-sized bed, leather couch, a desk, cable television, wi-fi, and a year’s back issues of FHM, all courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The sergeant who drives us to our digs says, “Hell, if I could bring my family out here, I would.”

After our gear is stowed, I eat dinner with Lt. Col. O’Donahue and his interpreter, Huda Fredrick, at a dining facility, or DFAC, that’s the size of a suburban roller rink. Like many of his soldiers, O’Donahue hails from rural Wisconsin. He has a genially tough, Kojak-type face with a prizefighter’s crooked nose and a liver spot on the top of his bald head.

I ask him what he thinks about Obama’s drawdown of forces.

“The good news is that security hasn’t spiraled out of control as we’ve dropped from 146,000 to 50,000,” he says. “And the average soldier is saying he’s on track with it. They see the upside—fewer deployments.”

But does he think the Army should leave Iraq completely?

“You gotta force the issue at some point,” he says. “The military here will never want us to leave. So it’s like kicking your 18-year-old out of the house. It’s a great world out there, you’ve got to take some steps of your own.”

O’Donahue is here in northern Iraq to visit one of his far-flung platoons and so, in the morning, we drive another three hours to a combined checkpoint, or CCP, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are living together and monitoring traffic on a nearby highway. There he dismounts for a tour, followed by Sgt. Maj. Scott Genz and Capt. Erin Kennedy, who is the immediate superior of the soldiers stationed here. They are greeted by a 24-year-old lieutenant named Claude Barron. Hazel-eyed and lean, not more than 5’8”, Barron looks more like a Balanchine dancer than an operator of heavy machinery. But it has been 15 days since his platoon has done laundry, more than 40 since they’ve had a hot shower or seen the inside of a U.S. base.

Thanks to the long commute from Joint Base Balad, where Capt. Kennedy is based, it has also been 40 days since she and Lt. Barron have seen each other face-to-face. Now, with the handshakes over, they’re uncertain how to begin. “So, how was Thanksgiving?” Kennedy asks, even though that particular holiday is 19 days past.

“My mom sent me bags of fall leaves from home,” Barron says. “It was just random chance, but we happened to get them on Thanksgiving Day, so we scattered them all over the tables for decoration. Then we ate some MREs.”

“So can we take off our vests?” the colonel asks.

“Sure,” the lieutenant says, shrugging. “If you want to, I guess.”

The checkpoint is a muddy patch of gravel surrounded by Hesco barriers, which are basically glorified paper bags filled with sand. No black ops here, no Hurt Locker dread, nothing that would provide fodder for the mournful, deep-voiced narrator on Frontline. Instead, the work that Lt. Barron has done at the checkpoint is mundane in the extreme. He leads us down into the lower corner of the camp where he’s installed a PVC culvert to drain the water pooling there. He points out two guard towers that he’s repaired, an opening that he’d closed in the front wall, and a row of 4-foot Hescos that he has set on top of a row of 7-foot Hescos in order to give the camp more protection from snipers.

“Lots of direct fire opportunities,” O’Donahue says, squinting up at several new houses, higher up on the hill that have a clear view into the camp.

“I can’t figure out why the Iraqis decided to put [the checkpoint] here,” Barron says. “They definitely didn’t give it much thought.”

And yet Lt. Barron and his men had been working out in the countryside, improving Iraqi checkpoints like this one, for 40 days without incident. They drive their unarmored road graders and steamrollers from checkpoint to checkpoint without being attacked. They sleep in plain canvas tents. They eat in an unreinforced wooden shed. By way of contrast, when Capt. Kennedy was deployed to Iraq in 2006, her platoon spent much of their time doing “rapid crater repair.” At night, they would drive out to an IED crater and fill it up as quickly as possible with concrete. Then they would wait, protected by four gun trucks, until the concrete set.

The other, more difficult to interpret, feature of the checkpoint is the constant, milling presence of Iraqis inside its gate. Just the night before, O’Donahue and I had visited a memorial to the U.S. soldiers and other personnel killed when a man disguised as an Iraqi soldier detonated a suicide vest inside the Marez DFAC back in 2004. That action, and others like it. led to the general segregation of U.S. and Iraqi forces until the surge, in 2007, when soldiers began to be stationed side by side with Iraqis at Joint Security Stations.

Given this fraught history, the fairly routine presence of Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga soldiers inside the checkpoint is clearly a plus, with bonus points thrown in for the fact that Kurds in this area have a history of conflict with the Iraqi army. (Barron later tells me that, while the peshmerga and Iraqi army soldiers don’t fight, they do argue over things like trash collection.) And yet, despite the fairly sincere lip service—”The folks you’re building this for will live better because of your work,” O’Donahue tells Barron’s platoon, as they stand silently eating canned spaghetti in their mess tent—most U.S. soldiers I talk to believe the Iraqi military still isn’t quite up to snuff.

Again, this is different from being afraid of the Iraqis or worrying that, at any minute, one of them might walk in the gates wearing a suicide vest. Instead, the critiques are more operational. For instance, as Barron explains to me, the Iraqi army lacks the money to buy enough gravel, and what gravel they do have is “misallocated”—too much stockpiled at one checkpoint, while others slowly turn into soup. This means that his platoon spends a good deal of its time simply carting gravel from one place to the next.

By now, we’ve wandered back out into the chilly sunlight to watch one of Barron’s men grade a patch of gravel at the bottom of the camp.

“You having much interaction with the Iraqis?” Kennedy asks as an Iraqi soldier mugs on the steps of a nearby latrine, his face slathered from forehead to chin in shaving cream.

“Not so much,” Barron admits. “I ate with some at Checkpoint 3, but that didn’t agree with my stomach. I think the water they used to make the rice was bad.”

There are a number of reasons why security for U.S. troops has so greatly improved in Iraq. At the Iraqis’ request, U.S. forces have almost entirely pulled out of the cities and now only patrol the main highways and supply routes. The hours that our vehicles can use the roads are also restricted. (Our own convoy, for instance, charts a much longer, but probably safer route when local officials deny us permission to drive through Mosul during the day.) This creates fewer opportunities for U.S. forces to be attacked, while at the same time offering proof of our deference to Iraqi authority.

Also the Humvee—the war’s archetypal mode of transport—has almost completely disappeared from Iraq. Now convoys are composed of MRAPs. They’re larger and better armored than Humvees. Their 10-foot height allows their passengers to ride much higher above the ground and thus farther away from any IED blast. Their V-shaped hulls, unlike the Humvee’s flat, carlike bottoms, deflect explosions away from the occupants in the cab. In 2006, MRAPs were assigned primarily to combat engineers whose job was to hunt for IEDs. Now they’re in use theater-wide, and their gadgetry has been greatly improved. As we head back to Marez, our MRAP’s side windows are almost completely covered in mud from the recent rain. Spc. Olson uses the large black box on his lap to swing a roof-mounted “gyrocam” from side to side while watching the resulting picture on a video monitor mounted in front of his seat. Other gadgets detect and locate gunfire, enhance the driver’s vision, and collect data that can later be given to an electronic warfare officer for analysis.

Even if all these measures fail, there’s a sense among the soldiers that MRAPs are generally capable of surviving the blast of an IED.

“I had a buddy who got hit up near Kirkuk,” the driver tells me over the truck’s internal radio. “The windows were cracked, both axles fucked up. It blew the side mirror off. Nobody was hurt, though. The vehicle did its job.”

“I’ve been on 50 combat patrols,” Olson adds. “And I haven’t been blown up.”

What’s more difficult to answer is how long this relative lull in security will last. Is it a product of the drawdown and our tangible efforts to defer to the Iraqis? Or are insurgents simply waiting for U.S. forces to leave before they renew their attacks? The answer will largely depend on the stability of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army.

At dinner that night, O’Donahue reiterates his support for Obama’s troop withdrawal and points out the improvements the Iraqi army has made. His battalion operates two training programs for Iraqi soldiers and engineers—one to teach them how to maintain floating bridges, another to pass on techniques for clearing IEDs. Still, he has his critiques. “Our attitude is, we’ve got these trucks, and we’re going to train,” he says. “But you talk to the Iraqi leadership, their regiment commander, he likes his equipment. If he goes to use it and he breaks down, then it will be required maintenance, and there’s a chance it will never get maintained. And then also they get fuel stipends based on how many vehicles you have. If he has fewer vehicles up and running, then he will get less of a fuel stipend.”

Then he turns to his interpreter, Huda Fredrick. She was born in Iraq, though she has spent most of her life in Kuwait and the United States. “What do you think, Huda? Are the Iraqis ready for us to leave?”

“I talked to an Iraqi officer who told me, ‘It’s as if you’re holding our hand, taking us to the middle of the river, and then you’re letting go,’ ” she says.

After dinner, O’Donahue and I take a walk. It’s a muddy, misty night, and we tromp through glistening gravel lots and along the sides of puddled streets. We pass the lighted windows of what the Army refers to as a “third country national” store— meaning it’s operated by someone who isn’t Iraqi or American. Other than the proprietor, there’s nobody in the place. I pick up a shirt that has a picture of the Statue of Liberty giving the viewer the finger, along with the words, “We’re coming Motherfuckers!” and underneath, “Mosul, Iraq.” O’Donahue just looks at it and shakes his head.

After spending three days talking to O’Donahue and his team about how they want to help the Iraqis—and their concerns that we haven’t done enough—the shirt’s jingoism and aggression feels all wrong. I’m embarrassed when I show it to him.

Later that night, paging through my notebook, I find some notes I jotted down about a Fox News broadcast that I’d watched a few days earlier. Bill O’Reilly, the station’s star commentator, had been out visiting wounded veterans somewhere in the States, and he was explaining to a hot blond anchor back in the studio how excellent his trip has been. “We’ve seen young men and women whose lives have been altered forever,” he said. “We can see them and lift their spirits up … [I saw] a special forces guy who lost two legs and one arm. One who was completely blind.”

“They love Fox News in the military!” the hot blond exclaimed.

“It meant a lot to these guys that we have a connection to them and that we’re not going to forget them,” O’Reilly continued.

“I applaud everything you’re doing!” the hot blond assured him, before moving on to talk about how much she loved her new Bill O’Reilly Christmas fleece.

Then up swung the banner for the show’s next topic: “Is Mr. Obama Desperate for Help?”

I’m all for helping out wounded warriors (though I’m less in favor of using them to increase TV ratings). But the segment’s “us against them” tone, like the “we’re coming, motherfuckers” T-shirt, had seemed weirdly out of touch, as if I was watching a broadcast from 2006 rather than 2010.

Now, after my trip up north, I feel like I can put my finger on why. Even setting aside the praise I’ve been hearing for Obama’s troop withdrawal, the facts on the ground don’t fit the conservative agenda so easily. In fact, the most revealing part of the clip is what O’Reilly doesn’t discuss. He doesn’t talk about the progress being made in training the Iraqi army. He doesn’t discuss the fact that injuries to soldiers have been drastically reduced in part because of the commitment the U.S. Army has made to leave the cities and genuinely defer to the Iraqi government. He certainly doesn’t profile U.S. soldiers whose lives had been altered by peaceful interactions with Iraqis. It’s hard to imagine him getting excited about paying for the culverts that Lt. Barron is installing at the request of the Iraqi military, nor the orderly efforts being made to hand off U.S. bases and equipment to the Iraqis. These are nation-building activities rather than acts of war or counterterrorism. They’re the kinds of things Democrats ought to feel comfortable talking about. Which leaves Bill O’Reilly in the interesting position of emphasizing the admittedly horrible consequences of violence and war.

The next morning, I ask Capt. Kennedy how she feels about leaving Iraq. “I think it’s a good decision,” she says, “though I think it’s going to be tough to meet the timeline. We’re asking the Iraqis to help oversee [security]. But if we don’t provide the assets to do it with, we leave them in the lurch.”

How well did she think the media was covering the drawdown here?

“[My soldiers] see stuff in the media that makes them feel no one knows we’re even in Iraq now,” she said. “They feel underappreciated. What we’re doing is trying to set the Iraqis up so we don’t have to come back here in five years. It’s not the glamorous stuff like hunting down insurgents. Now it’s handing over, training, and assisting.”

Click here to launch the slide show Breaking Up With Iraq.