Our man in Baghdad, 2003
It took just five weeks to liberate Iraq from Saddam’s brutal dictatorship. Fourteen months on, the fragile peace has killed more Iraqis and Coalition troops than Operation Endurlng Freedom itself, while the battle for hearts and mind’s is being lost at home and abroad. For this exclusive GQ report, Sean Langan travels to US-controlled Iraq and witnesses the united Sunni and Shia resistanceto the Coalition Provisional Authority as it prepares the country for the handover of sovereignty on 30 June
Diary 24 December
Called my wife yesterday to say I won’t be coming home for Christmas or New Year. At the press briefing, Brig Gen Kimmitt stood up and said the siege of Samarra hadbeen a success, no people detained. “We have delivered a blow to the insurgents in Samarra. And let me say this: we will succeed.” It was a good sermon, one ofhis best. The same day, a US convoy was ambushed in Samarra. Three US soldiers were killed and four were injured. (I met one of the wounded soldiers a few days later in hospital. He had a bullet in his head and was going home.) The insurgents in Samarra were obviously far from subdued.
The next day I went back to Samarra to meet some of the locals who had promised to help me. I waited in a car on the edge of town. A US patrol cruised past my car, got to the end of the road and then turned back. I wrapped a scarf around my face and slumped right down in my seat. The patrol stopped beside me on the road. One of the Bradleys turned its turret towards my car, and six soldiers approached. I closed my eyes. What the fuck was I doing? It was Christmas Day. I should have been at home with my family.
A while later, one of the locals I’d met told me to head to a place in town. As we drove down one of the main roads, the children on the street comers alerted others to our progress. There weren’t the usual hundred-yard stares you get in small towns like Samarra. Everyone knew who I was and why I was there. A man was waiting for me, and directed me into a teahouse. I was then led out the back and introduced to two men wearing scarves around their faces. “We can’t go home,” one of them said. “The Americans have our photographs. We sleep in safe houses or visit other towns.” They offered tea, and when it arrived they removed their scarves. I couldn’t believe it. They were teenagers, young boys. But they had all been involved in attacks on US forces. It didn’t strike me as an idle boast, merely a statement of fact. These boys considered themselves to be at war, and yet by showing me their faces they wanted me to understand, to see them for what they really were.
Three of their friends had been killed in Baghdad a few days before, confirming reports that local insurgents travel to different towns and co-ordinate their activities. “One of them was my cousin,” the younger of the two said. “And my brother was killed last month. But we know the risks. And we are willing to die.” I asked him why. “For Islam. For our country,” he replied. “And our town is under siege.” They were about to go to their friends’ funeral, but agreed to set up another meeting for me with their commander. On the way out of town I waved to a US patrol and wished them Merry Christmas.
I’d been in Baghdad for quite a while by now, and was used to the sound of mortar rounds and gunfire. But it is only when you look a wounded man in the face, or see life ebb away before your eyes, that war stops being just another word. After weeks of negotiations I was granted an “embed” in January at a US hospital in Baghdad. I arrived at the 28th CSH (Combat Surgical Hospital) the day after three suicide bombs killed hundreds of civilians in Karbala, and stayed for two days I’ll never forget.
The sight of choppers descending conjures up cinematic memories. The blast and noise from their rotors literally blows you away. But as the wounded are gently lifted onto stretchers, a strange, almost muffled silence envelops everyone on the ground. The world around seems to slow down and fade away. Even the rotors fall silent. And for a few moments, the only thing you notice is the face on the stretcher. And then the moment passes, and your senses return. Medics rush by with the wounded, holding the saline drips above their heads, and the noise from the rotors is once again immense. I arrived just as the helicopters were landing. The first soldier brought in had been hit in the chest with a piece of shrapnel from a roadside bomb, and the place erupted as doctors, medics and nurses went into action. He was lifted onto a table in the emergency operating room, his clothes removed and the blood wiped from the small hole in his chest. He was conscious, quite calm, and aware of everything around him.
The wound looked almost innocuous. It was just a little round hole. Another one at the base of his neck was even smaller, no bigger than a 20p coin. The nurses held him by his arms, then lifted him. His eyes were bright blue and alert. The nurses smiled, and that’s when it hit him and he went into shock. He started to shake, and a nurse laid him back down and put a mask over his face. His eyes were now closed, and soon they moved him next door and opened his chest. The next soldier to be wheeled in had an injury to the back ofhis head. He was also completely alert when he came in, and also went into shock before my eyes. The doctors and nurses had seen it all before, though, and despite the apparent chaos there was an air of calm as they went about their tasks. It was all over very fast. And once everything had been done, the medics relaxed and went back to what they’d been doing before: watching videos, eating junk food and cracking jokes. But I couldn’t relax. I was in shock.
This pattern repeated itself all day long. Helicopters landed, the wounded arrived and the place erupted. Then everything went quiet, the cheese dips, salami and nachos came out and we all settled down to watch TV. But as the day wore on, the bodies began to pile up. I lost track of time, and my mind went numb as more and more wounded soldiers came in. Nearly all of them had been injured in roadside explosions. I remember one vividly. His eyes were bulging and black, his face puffed up and a greenish yellow. His buddies stood by his side, watching silently over him. He clutched a teddy bear tightly to his chest and was shaking uncontrollably. The blast from an improvised explosive device (lED) had caught him full in the face. The timer used in the device may have been something as simple as a child’s watch, but the shrapnel had ripped into flesh, shattered bones and shredded nerves.
The faces of the men standing vigil were smeared in dirt, their eyes glazed. One of them looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “What a sacrifice to make,” he whispered to no-one in particular. I could hear more helicopters flying overhead. “Yeah, two wounded coming in,” confirmed the doctor. “Gunshot wounds to the head.” And so it went on and on, into the night. I met wounded soldiers who had been stationed in Ramadi and Fallujah, who said they’d been shot at every single day for the last five months. I met pharmacists who told me about the increasing number of soldiers on anti-depressants. I met a nurse who broke down and cried when I asked her what she thought her friends back home would think. “If they’d seen what I’ve seen,” she said after a while, the tears streaming down her cheek, “they would be against the war. Every single one of them.”
The next day I was sitting with some soldiers in the canteen. One of them had a bullet lodged in his head. “How did that happen?” I asked. “Our convoy was ambushed on the road to Samarra,” he said. “The first car was hit by an lED and we were forced off the road. The insurgents were waiting for us in the ditch, and opened fire into our car. We lost three men in the attack and four of our guys were wounded.” I told him I’d heard about an attack on Christmas Eve. “Yep, that’s right. We’re the guys. I guess I’m lucky to be alive.” A few weeks later I met the man who had shot him. He was the commander of the insurgency group I’d met in Samarra. He had led the ambush on Christmas Eve, and had opened fire on the car when it went into the ditch. We met in a small farmhouse outside the town, and he had brought along an lED to show me how easy it was to make. It was made out of an old artillery shell. At a glance, the shell looked empty. But welded inside the bottom were two kilos of TNT. He was pleased with his handiwork, handling the shell with loving pride. But when he offered it to me, I declined. Having seen what happens to people when an lED explodes, I couldn’t bring myself to hold it. The commander was a big man, over six feet tall. Unlike the boys I’d met before in Samarra, he was deadly calm and chilling. He offered me wonderful food and talked with glee about killing. He claimed his group had killed many US soldiers in over 30 attacks. On one occasion, the insurgents hung the bloody uniforms of dead US soldiers on telegraph poles as a warning.
A month later, a car bomb exploded in the heart of Samarra, killing 40 locals. I stood in a pool of blood, chatting to Alexis Marks, a cute lieutenant with the most amazing blue eyes. We smiled and flirted. She didn’t like the press talking about Vietnam, but it took her more than two minutes to reel off all the times she had come under attack. I looked down at the blood. It was bright red. And I wondered whether this was a place the commander had planted one ofhis beloved bombs.
Note – This article was first published in GQ/UK in July 2004.