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 8 January 2004
Finally get my embed with the 82nd Airborne. They’re the meanest motherfuckers around, the hottest ticket in town. Last time a journalist went out with them, they drove a tank through a wall because they didn’t like the look of the graffiti on it. These guys love to have fun in Fallujah. An hour after I arrived at their base, the news came through. Another Black Hawk helicopter had just gone down in Fallujah, and all nine men on board had been killed. But no one spoke about it much. They just shrugged, and kept their thoughts to themselves. I settled down on my allotted bunk in a small hut with five other guys, flicked through a porn magazine and then went for a dump. I was used to the routine of base life: eat, shit and sleep.
It’s boring, even in Fallujah. But you expend so much energy out on patrol, so much adrenaline gets pumped, that when you get back to camp you just flop. I was given a patrol for the next day, so I relaxed into the routine and got ready like the rest of them: I switched off. Thinking about what could go wrong, or talking about the Black Hawk down would only make it far worse. We all knew the plan. Tomorrow’s operation was set. We were going to rip down the “Welcome to Fallujah” sign on the main road into town. We were also going to tear up the central barriers between the two traffic lanes, because both objects had been planted with IEDs. In other words, we were going to fuck off the locals.
The convoy pulled out the next morning. There were more than 20 vehicles, including Humvees, Bradleys and bulldozers. A couple ofhelicopters would soon join us overhead. I asked one of the soldiers if he thought the local insurgents would know we were coming. “Oh yeah, they’ll know all right,” he said, as the engines roared. We got into town at midday on Friday, the holy day. Families were out walking, the streets were busy, and the roads were full of cars. Well, they were until we arrived. Two Bradleys cut off the main road at either end, and a bulldozer started to chew up the metal barriers in the middle. The noise was incredible, and the locals just stopped in their tracks and stared. “Wait till we take down the ‘Welcome’ sign,” smiled one of the soldiers. “That will really piss ’em off.”
I was with a convoy of eight or nine Humvees and an armoured personnel vehicle. We had parked up by a row of workshops, and other patrols had taken up positions on the other side of the street. Helicopters were now flying overhead, and I couldn’t really hear, or believe, what the guy next to me was saying. “I said we should just demolish all the mosques. Just blow ’em all up. I know they’re churches and all, and it’s kind of a sensitive issue. But that’s where they shoot us from.” He pointed to a mosque which was later bombed by the Marines. He offered me some chewing tobacco, which I chewed for two seconds before spitting out. “How often do you come under attack?” I asked another soldier. “Oh, all the time,” he said, before spitting out another wad of Copenhagen tobacco. “Sometimes the guys in the mosque get on the speakers and warn all the locals to leave the area. You know, it’s hard to believe that this area was once considered the cradle of civilisation. Because you look at it now, and it sure doesn’t look that way.” He spat, paused and then BOOM! BOOM! Two RPGs landed with almost comic timing just a few yards away from us.
“Holy shit,” he shouted, before swinging his machine gun into action. I ducked behind his Humvee, as more rounds came in from across the road. There was another big boom, and then returning volleys ofheavy machine gun fire. The Bradleys opened up with a sound straight out of the basement. The deep repetitive thuds shook my bones, which were now jolting furiously as I ran for cover. In fact, I ran into the open as machine-gun fire clattered all around me. I hit the deck. All hell had broken loose and I wasn’t wearing my body armour. “Having enough fun yet?” laughed one of the soldiers.
Things returned to normal after a few minutes. But I had changed forever. It’s easy being a liberal when you’re back home watching the news. But that was before I came under fire on patrol. Now I eyed every local with suspicion, especially when a few minutes later we found an lED. It had failed to detonate, but the insurgents could still be out there, watching and waiting. Now I wanted the guys- my guys- to shoot anyone who came too close. Insurgency tactics had turned me against the locals in no time at all. Fuck me, I thought, the US policy is doomed.
We remained out there in the open for more than three hours, clearing the road and finding more IEDs, which were later detonated. I had a headache, and was beginning to regret coming to Fallujah. Then we came under attack a second time. By the end of the day I’d seen enough of Fallujah to last me a lifetime. “Sucks, doesn’t it?” one of the guys said. “I fucking hate the place.”
I went on patrol again a month later, in February, with the 1st Infantry Division in Ramadi. A night raid on a suspect’s house. I’d heard the stories from the locals about how US forces break down doors and beat innocent people. But once again I was able to see things from the US side. Well, I couldn’t actually see anything as it was pitch black. But the minute we pulled into the remote hamlet, I heard the machine guns. Four locals, perhaps insurgents but no one was sure, had been spotted out in the open with guns so the soldiers fired warning shots. When we arrived at the house, the translator ordered the people inside to open up but they refused. After three minutes the door was kicked down. It made sense. There were men out there with guns.
When we returned to base, the soldiers opened up. “I fucking hate the locals,” one said. “After five months of getting shot at, you gotta hate ’em. The only way to be sure is to treat every one of them like the enemy.” The 1st Infantry in Ramadi had got things under some kind of control by then. But they could never be sure. At any moment the town could flare up, and as one major told me: “You can win every battle and still lose the war. We’re doing our job. But it’s the politicians who will decide this war. Personally, I’m extremely pessimistic. We’re going to be stuck here for years.”
Before leaving Iraq I returned to Khaldiyah to say goodbye to lieutenant Brown and the guys from the bridge. On 24 January a car bomb on the bridge killed three of them and wounded six more. The following Tuesday, as the men were holding a memorial for their fallen comrades, an lED hit one of their other units and killed three more. Six of the soldiers manning that little bridge had died in less than a week. They greeted me like an old friend. I could see all the guys were completely downcast and devastated. lieutenant Brown chewed his tobacco impassively as his sergeant filled me in on the last two attacks. One of the men listening turned away and said: “It’s all so fucking futile.” The Superbowl had taken place around the same time, but they hadn’t watched it. They hadn’t heard about the scandal over Janet Jackson bearing her breast during half-time. They were too busy manning the bridge and burying their dead.
The real scandal was that hardly anyone in the USA had heard about the deaths under the bridge. Lieutenant Brown looked at me and said, “I’m about ready to go home.” He had been wounded once, and his tour of duty was about to end. But I saw him on television a couple of months later when I got back to London. He was in Fallujah, fighting in support of the Marines as they entered the town. I went back to Fallujah for one last time mysel£, it was on the day so insurgents carried out a spectacular daylight assault on the town’s police station. But when someone I knew saw me, they begged me to leave. “If you don’t, you will die.” I left Iraq the next day. My wife forgave me, but a little part of me stayed behind. I don’t know if any more of the people I met there have died. But I do know that many more people on both sides will suffer and die before this war ends. And the war has only just begun.
Note – This article was first published in GQ/UK in July 2004.