If you have just arrived at The Library in Purgatory, the first chapter is here.

"I never found the girl, I never got rich. Follow me."

~Leonard Cohen

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chapter V.4

Groundhog Day

What the Hell Changed…

After Bermuda I flew back to the states and visited my sister. We were sitting in the food court of a mall (I fucking hate malls, the modern day, crass equivalents of the pyramids…everything you need for your journey through the afterlife) waiting for my film to be developed having just bought a pair of shoes as all I had were my desert boots. I’m sipping a coffee and watching all the people working minimum wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, and slaving away so they can buy what the television tells them they need to be it, or in, or to fill the hole in their soul that just can’t seem to be filled. I know these people. I used to be one of them, just like them in my own way.

I have just spent the last six months though; have just come from a place that is so different, so alien that it might as well be another planet. I have seen deprivation and poverty and violence like you cannot imagine and while the “real world” that I have come back to may largely be the same, I am not nor will I ever be. And it is so stark and striking, just how much, how insanely much of what we believe to be important, what I believed was important just doesn’t matter at all, doesn’t begin to add up to a hill of beans or anything remotely of value. I am struck by it; and not so much them but me. None of it matters. I could tell them and they might even agree with me but they would not understand.

They could die tomorrow, hell, today and what they are living for wouldn’t matter; not the latest phone, IPod, suit, gadget, car, whatever. It wouldn’t matter and it doesn’t make their lives any better. Spending your life producing so you can consume, it’s not a life, not one worth living anyway.

How the hell did this happen to me, when did this happen? Did I see too many Iraqi kids sitting in the bombed out ruins of their homes, too much, too many…something? I don’t know. I just know that much of what I thought was important all these years suddenly isn’t and that I don’t much like the word “consumer” now. Boy, this is just great, as if my demographic wasn’t already small enough.


In a world fool

of fucking commodities

I am


06FEB04 (Journal)

0028 local

About 2040 local tonight the first news hit on the internet that there had been an assassination attempt v. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf. Other reporting indicated that there had not been at attempt. But as of 0000, CNN Intl was live, stating that there had indeed been an attack.

In the strategic assessment I released 26DEC03, I stated that al-Sistani was the most “at-risk” individual in Iraq. In the nightly intel on 01FEB04 (after the twin bombings in Irbil) I predicted that there would likely be an attempt v. al-Sistani’s life on 02FEB04, if the Irbil attack were carried out by Islamic extremists (Sunnis of one flavor or another). Only off by three days. Not too shabby for an edumacated hunch/guess.

On one hand, I’m feeling pretty proud, means I know what I’m talking about. Those fuckers in CTJF-7 refuse to share any info and have numerous analysts; none of whom forecast this, or much of anything. It is hard not to gloat— the level zero without a uniform.

On the other hand though, I don’t think I have made one positive assessment since I have been here. Every time an assessment I make pans out, something bad happens and usually people die, sometimes in large numbers. However, I will add, it’s because the assessments were not acted on, not taken seriously, and of course, some can’t be…and there you go. There’s no joy in being right…but god I love showing those CJTF fuckers up.



Sadr has made bad decisions in the past. At this point, I would hardly attempt to reconstruct the chain of thoughts/events that may have led him to this course of action. Of more pressing concern is, did the attack take place? If it did, why the attempt to deny it? And lastly, who carried out the attack and to what ends?

I believe the attack did take place as too many people with access stated that it did before recanting their stories. Reasons to deny it all fall into the political reasons category:

-The Shi'ites have nothing to gain, at this point, from a civil war, which the assassination of al-Sistani would likely precipitate. It is therefore in their interest to deny that this took place as it is easier to control the 'masses' while they are still listening and not a frenzied mob.

-This could not have come at a worse time for the Shi’ites with the UN's imminent arrival to determine if elections are even feasible, given the time frame and security.

-If this were inter-Shi'ite maneuvering, it is very much in the interest of Shi'ites, from al-Sistani's perspective, to present a unified front, not a fractured mass; again, keeping in mind that the long-term goal here is a ruling Shi'ite majority. Al-Sistani is determined to not let the events of 1920 repeat themselves.

If the attack was indeed conducted, who carried it out? The number one thing, in my mind, pointing to the attack being carried out by Shi'ites is that al-Sistani hardly, if ever leaves his residence/quarters. That coupled with the attack being carried out in a predominantly Shi'ite area in which foreigners would be easily picked out would imply that the surveillance at least, if not the attack, was conducted by Shi'ite personnel. It then becomes a matter of which Shi'ites have the will, the capability and the history to conduct an operation of this magnitude? Sadr tops the list.

I would not put it beyond SCIRI to top al-Sistani, but I think it is too soon in the process. It would make more sense in a couple of months if tensions have built to a critical impasse and SCIRI figures that they will not get what they are looking for through diplomatic means and need that "spark" to mobilize the Shi'ite majority to arms and revolution.

I would not rule out Islamic extremists, particularly Wahhabis, but again, they tend to stand out wherever they are and would be easily recognized by any Shi’ite Iraqis. However, AQ, or some offshoot, fits in nicely with the Irbil bombing and an attempt to instigate a civil war. However, I just don't see that at this time with the facts available.

I don't know if that is an answer or not and as always, your mileage may vary.

From Intel Log:

1810 Secure for night- Gurkha curry

2332 A CPA-SC convoy returned to this loc from Baghdad today after driving through an ambush on MSR TAMPA; approx 5 km before interchange to Karbala/Najaf/Musyiab. They were traveling at approx 140 km an hour and where ambushed with automatic gunfire from stationary vehicles and approx six men on the side of the road. Both vehicles have numerous bullet holes, one person (Ukrainian, on his second last day) was hit in the shoulder and one person (US) received facial injuries from broken glass. Both are stable and will make a recovery.

09FEB04 (Journal)

2134 local

Khanzad Hotel, Irbil

Drove up to Sulaymaniyah today, left the Khanzad just before 0800; low, overcast clouds with scattered rain. Beautiful, low wisps of clouds clinging to the low peaks like blowing strands of cotton. They actually have mountains in Iraq, who would have thunk it?

The drive from Irbil to Suly is beautiful— the mountains, the valleys. The whole thing was magical and made it hard to remember that I was in Iraq. I know it sounds stupid, but it is just so different from seeing so much damned flat, sand, and brown. It had cleared up by the time we got to Suly and we spent and hour and a half in the bazaar. It was crazy— the Iraqi equivalent to a shopping mall.

On the way back, we stopped to take some pics of the reservoir and a Kurdish family had also stopped. They wanted to get their pictures take with all of us. We were heroes today, first time that’s happened since I’ve been in Iraq. It’s hard to compare to with being in Mosul the day before where everyone looks like they want to kill you…such a dichotomy. Was it all worth it? How many lives is worth it?

The Kurds are definitely better off than the rest of Iraq, at least in the near-term, but will we do right by them? Our history isn’t so glowing.

I can see revolution/civil war coming— I think that is a correct assessment, but I am not sure, quite, how we will get from here to there. I think the answer may lie in the north. I don’t know what, the piece I am looking for, but I know I will know it when I see it/hear it.

From Intel Log:

xxxx Iraqi parties refuse to disband militias Several of the biggest political parties in Iraq say they are determined to keep their well-armed militias despite American opposition to the idea. They contend that the militias remain necessary in light of the lack of security throughout the country. Having had scant success so far in persuading the militias to disband, occupation officials are searching for a new policy that will help disarm the groups, whose members total in the tens of thousands, a senior military official said.

xxxx Gunmen, including a major in the new Iraqi police force, attacked a group of American soldiers, sparking a gunbattle in which the officer was killed and two other attackers wounded, the U.S. military said Sunday.

xxxx Cell phone service connects in Baghdad Iraqna began distributing cell phones to consumers Saturday. Many had put their names on the company's waiting list two months ago after the U.S.-led coalition gave the Egyptian-backed company a two-year contract to run a cell phone network in central Iraq. But consumers overwhelmed the supply of phones here over the weekend. NOTE- this changes things dramatically as cell phones have previously been fairly limited. Insurgents will now have access to cheap, portable real-time comms.

Mortar Magnet…not Monster Magnet, Mortar Magnet

A couple of days after the 18FEB04 VBIED attack against the MNF-I/Polish log base in Al Hillah Chuzu and I were making a run down to check out the site, see what we could find out and swap gear/personnel with our CPA-SC det. The initial reporting had been:

This morning at approx 0715, there was two very loud explosions approx 2 km due south from CPA-SC. This is the location of a Polish Logistic base and residential area. Prelim reports from the scene indicate 20 killed or injured, 9 houses destroyed. A number of Polish soldiers are amongst the dead or injured. The explosion was enough to blow in 7 windows of the main building here at CPA-SC. It is unsure if the attack was rocket or IED/VBIED however the secondary fireball and smoke would indicate the latter. Further to my last, the explosions where VBIED, the crater of the large one is 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep, it’s massive. There are numerous residential buildings destroyed in the area and we keep finding windows blown out here and we are 2 km away. It appears as if one vehicle tried to breach the wall and then a tanker (water or fuel) attempted to breach and that was the big explosion. It has flattened part of the perimeter wall and approx 12 houses.

We hadn’t gone more than 200 yards past an IP checkpoint on HWY 1 about halfway down when we had to pull over as the lead vehicle, mine, was overheating. Chuzu pulls in behind us and sets up an overwatch. I’m helping pour water as fast as we can into the radiator fill when I look up at Chuzu,

“Did I just hear what I think I heard?”

He nods at me with a grin and grimace and as if to punctuate his words a mortar slams into the field about a quarter mile from our position and another launch is immediately heard. I couldn’t believe it, of all the fucking road between the dream zone and CPA-SC we had stopped along the one stretch where there happened to be a bored dude with a likely 62mm mortar, a poor attitude, and some time on his hands to kill. Unbelievable.

We hurried and dumped as much water as we could, watching the rounds march our way one by one. Since we were probably only at about the halfway point and had no idea what the hell was wrong with the Suburban, going on was out of the question. We loaded up and turned around, stopping just north of the IP checkpoint, who did nothing the whole time, to finish topping off the coolant. The mortars stopped and it wasn’t the first time that it seemed that the insurgents or IP, take you pick, didn’t feel like shelling their own position.

We got back okay and headed back down again the next day. I still laugh about it to this day. It was just one of those things that was so improbable as to be ludicrous/surreal.

Outsourcing Force Protection

The military was hit or miss. I remember in the early days passing convoys pulled over on the side of the road with no one pulling perimeter security and guys ambling about without bullet bouncers, brain buckets, or rifles. I was shocked. I guess when enough of them had been shot or shot at they changed up their ways. Still, it’s not the way to do business, not if you want to go home…alive.

The Air Force, still having the Khobar Tower attack fresh in their memory, was heads and shoulders above the other branches when it came to force protection; however, as time passed even that slipped.

Typically, when entering a base or facility, you pull up to a checkpoint where your IDs were inspected and your vehicle searched, either by dog and/or a physical inspection, for bombs. While there and before proceeding, depending on who you are, you may have to unload your weapons, providing a chance to fam-fire the clearing barrels— always a good time. I’ll never forget pulling into Kirkuk Airfield one night, pulling up to the checkpoint and having some airman ask us if we’d searched our vehicles.

“For what,” I asked?


Oh, well, we didn’t bring any of those with us this time.”

I was in shock; they actually expected us to search our own vehicles. It’s not that I minded doing it necessarily, but the honor system in war zones kinda defeats the fucking purpose of security in the first place while making some rather large and potentially fatal assumptions; like the guy doing the searching gives a fuck, has been trained or even knows what he’s looking for.

I didn’t get it then, I still don’t. If anyone can explain this to me, please contact me and do so because I am still utterly baffled by it. Good god.

23FEB04 (Journal)

2230 local

Sitting here listening to Pancho and Lefty while reading through the thirty-three page UN release on the elections in Iraq and drinking Wild Turkey— thank god for Christians. There is an Iraqi gentleman who lives here in the dream zone. He goes out and buys booze, lots of it, and brings it back here where he sells it out of his carport, the flats of piss stacked up against he wall and the liquor and wine in boxes in his mini-van. His prices aren’t very competitive, but then again, you are paying a little extra for not having to risk your neck driving out to the duty-free at BIAP or one of the few liquor stores in town.

We were out at BIAP one day and the fucking morons with Custer Battles weren’t going to let anyone in to the terminal and duty-free unless they had tickets…since only ticketed passengers could be in the terminal and avail themselves of the duty-free. All good and well except there were no ticketed passengers since NO commercial flights were flying out of there and as far as I knew, there were no taxes in the whole county since there wasn’t a government. They say that the devil is in the details but sometimes I wonder. This was the same company that got in a firefight with themselves at their hotel down in Baghdad. I have yet to meet a client of theirs that has been satisfied with them. Some in fact, had threatened to pay off the contract and take the loss just to be rid of them.

Custer Battles security guards have also been accused of firing at unarmed civilians. They have been accused of crushing a car filled with Iraqi children and adults. They have been accused of unleashing a hail of bullets in a Baghdad hotel, only to discover, when the dust literally settled, that they had been shooting at each other.

"Probably as gunslingers," a retired lieutenant colonel working for the firm told Chicago public radio last year. For security reasons, he gave his name only as Hank.

He described a Baghdad hotel gunfight that erupted not long after Custer Battles security agents landed. It was started by a rocket-propelled grenade attack, or that's what the men thought they heard. When the smoke cleared, the guards - who'd leaned out windows and fired more than 3,000 rounds in the middle of a residential neighborhood - realized they had been shooting at each other.

"Opening-day jitters," said Hank.””

Other reporting on the alleged 18DEC03 attack:

The Hyat next to the Marble hotel in downtown Baghdad – Karada-- is under attack. I got a call from an RTI employee in the Marble hotel. It is still going on as of 11:11pm. According to their chief of security there was/is an attack on the al-Hayat and Sinbad hotels in downtown Baghdad. One Amcit may have been nipped by a bullet. The engagement took approximately 7-10 minutes. Initial engagement was at the checkpoint and then there was a serious gun battle -- according to XXXXX there "was a lot of lead put down". Welcome to another night in Baghdad.

Anyway, the nights are about my favorite time of day I guess. The office clears out and it is generally just me and Tim, drinking and talking about stuff as we work; or it will just be me listening to music.

Alas, the UN, at least in Iraq, has gone the way of Harry Belafonte’s Colin Powell and has joined the UK as America’s bitch. I suspect that there will be a number of demonstrations tomorrow against the UN, only they’ll be at CPA locations as the UN is no longer in country. Go figure. Likely some ad hoc violence as well, but if the Shi’ites are good and pissed, we likely won’t see any big action for several days as plans and preparations are made. Bremer is 0 for a lot and his ERA isn’t going to be going down any time soon. How long can we keep getting it wrong? I expect we’ll see some bombings even sooner though.

From Intel Log:

0906 Deo reports that NOC personnel report a large explosion about 5k to the NE from their pos at 0805.

0920 CNN (TV) reports a bombing v an IP station in Kirkuk.

1030 CNN reports that the VBIED was a white Oldsmobile.

1122 The Department of Defense is continuing to pay millions of dollars for information from the former Iraqi opposition group that produced some of the exaggerated and fabricated intelligence President Bush used to argue his case for war. The Pentagon has set aside between $3 million and $4 million this year for the Information Collection Program of the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, led by Ahmed Chalabi, said two senior U.S. officials and a U.S. defense official.

1550 Chuzu passes that the reason Apache’s were flying was that a bomb was detonated in Karadah (no detonations heard) or that a suspected VBIED or IED was found.

2345 Shiite cleric warns of civil war if Iraqis don't get to choose- Shiite Muslim leaders in Iraq say the U-S is stalling on the issue of elections. Now, one of the nation's four grand ayatollahs says any further delay in national elections could lead to civil war between ethnic and religious groups. The religious leader's comments echo those of another grand ayatollah who also wants national elections as soon as possible. He says without elections, the country will "remain shaken, unrecognized and distrusted by the people." He says putting off a vote could be a "time bomb" set to go off at any time.

24FEB04 (Journal)

0042 local

I can feel the end of the beginning tonight and I don’t know if it’s Iraq or the company I work for, which at times seem irrevocably linked. Maybe it’s listening to Merle Haggard and drinking Wild Turkey. Whatever the case, there is definitely a feeling that, “...the good times are really over for good.”

My honor and respect are beginning to feel trod upon by the company’s profit margins. The only reason to stay on, in the face of such overwhelming urge to move would be to cover the six of a few people who are still here on contract. I have had a number of great friends, but known only a few in which it would be an honor to go down fighting with.

From Intel Log:

0128 Twenty minutes. That must have felt like an eternity for those on the receiving end of the barrage of 33 mortar rounds and five rockets that struck the U.S. camp on the edge of Baghdad on February 18.

0205 Secure for the night.

1038 Chuzu reports that his IP stated they saw some people park a vehicle ivo where the IGC members bodyguard’s park. The people then ran the hell away from the car. Mike is now liaisoning with the military to have it checked out. Vehicle is a silver late 80s Impala with a red roof rack.

1555 Civil War Expected In Iraq A civil war situation is expected in Iraq and this will complicate the activities of the Bulgarian contingent, said colonel Valeri Rajchev, deputy Chief of the Military Academy “G.S.Rakovski”.

2204 Jack reports an IED and small arms ambush as one of their teams was pulling into the Gardenia Hotel. 1 car was damaged, no serious injuries.

02MAR04 (Journal)

2158 local

I am sure that many of the kids in the military here will go home with a new sense of what is important. Most will forget. It’s not the same for me. I have been involved in the other half of this little war, the other side where life is cheap and contract is king. It is a dirty place with few men of honor and fewer who make a difference.


I am losing my mind— bored to tears, bored to fucking tears. This job has tied me to this desk too much. I am partially to blame, maybe most. But it has been hard for me to make demands/requests when we have been so shorthanded. And now, getting pissed is the only escape from waiting for the next big blast, when something finally happens. I am not excited by what I am doing anymore; don’t know that it is making a difference. And yet, the loss of inertia, initiative is at least half my fault and maybe more.

From Intel Log:


0845 Chuzu reports an explosion at approx 0837 ivo Babylon Hotel. Also states that none of the Iraqi contractors have shown up for work today.

0937 on duty

1000 Bombings and attacks in Karbala and Baghdad.

1025 Explosion heard- pretty good sized. Dean reports b/w CP12 and north gate.

1045 Beth calls and reports that CNN is reporting multiple bombings in Karbala, Baghdad and poss Basrah also.

2303 Two Canadian journalists were in the immediate vicinity of the Baghdad bombing and were set upon by an angry mob shortly after the explosion. One managed to escape relatively uninjured but the other was surrounded and beaten. A sheikh intervened and managed to get him to safety, sheltering him for several hours. His injuries were not serious and he was graciously seen to by the CSH.

2315 Dude, The entire company staff resigned tonight. I think the reasons why have been more than evident over the last few months. In any event there it is. We will still be in Baghdad and will be in comms with you all as well. I tried to send an email earlier expressing my thanks, pride, and personal satisfaction for having been fortunate enough to work with a group of operators as capable as you all are. You guys have set a standard that few would be/will be able to rise to. Everyone’s determination and intestinal fortitude is a testament to their professionalism. That email never came through as my company email is down so far as I can tell. Didn't take long. Talk soon and my best to everyone. Regards, CIK



Eighteen inches from a purple heart/headache or why the hell couldn’t they celebratory fire at someone else?

Attached is a new pic, not much to look at really: my rack, the nightstand, the AK-47 round sitting next to the hole it made in the nightstand (approx. eighteen inches from my head) after punching through the roof of my hooch. This sucks! After I finish up my bourbon and Islamic Coke I’m going to steal me some sandbags and other assorted steel-plated sundries and hook this brother up, up-armor my hooch. It’s a fine line though. You want it to be strong enough to protect you from some things but not others. For example, I would like my trailer to stop ALL small arms fire; in fact I’d like it to stop ALL fire, direct or indirect. However, I can’t get enough crap on top to do so without exceeding the structural load bearing limits of the thing. This is where the ‘fine line’ thing comes in; I’d like to live through as many kinds of attacks as possible, but not those I should have died in. Do you follow? Would I rather live through an attack, maimed for life, because I stacked enough sandbags on the overhead to keep me alive but not protect me (being a structural impossibility)? No? You disagree? Do you know? Have you seen? The term “basket case” originated in Europe in WWI as a description of the men who were quadruple amputees and were often carried in baskets. Take a look at the video, if you can weather the Metallica and you might begin to understand.

At the risk of sounding fatalistic, I have become a firm believer that when it is your time to punch out it is your time and there is nothing you can do about it; no point in worrying about it. A soldier, a kid, was walking within the confines of his FOB and a round fell out of the sky and hit him in the head, killed him. If he had been standing a quarter inch in any direction, he likely would have lived. Another soldier was sitting in the DFAC when a round punched through the side of the tent and hit him in the arm. It had been fired from so far away that it bounced off his arm without even breaking the skin. He picked the round up and kept it as a souvenir. Go figure. That is just part of the life in Iraq where millimeters and 1/1000th’s of a second actually mean something.

Going back to my hooch, from a strictly artillery point of view, the range was good, but the windage was off.

Then there’s this:

An American passenger fatally wounded aboard an Australian RAAF C-130 Hercules in Baghdad was hit by the only bullet to penetrate the aircraft, the Australian Defence Force said today. Defence spokesman Brigadier Mike Hannan said the aircraft was struck by ground fire soon after it took off from Baghdad airport yesterday. Brigadier Hannan said the aircraft usually carried a crew of four or five Australians comprising two pilots, an engineer and two loadmasters. Three US passengers were being flown out of Baghdad as part of normal aircraft operations when the attack happened. An unnamed American civilian contractor was injured in the attack and the Hercules returned to the airport where it was met by medical personnel. The plane was subsequently deemed airworthy and later flew from Baghdad to its base at an unnamed country in the Persian Gulf. "The information we have at the moment is that the person was in the cargo area. There were only three passengers on board the aircraft at the time so the probability of this individual being hit was extremely remote," Brigadier Hannan said. "Only one fragment or projectile came through the hull and hit the individual. “This was just an opportunity move for these three individuals and unfortunately one with tragic consequences.”

06MAR04 (Journal)

2230 local

The unspoken bad news— at least among those who chose to come here and have been here long enough to know what it was like— is that this war will end.

Sitting by the pool drinking tonight. Five months ago— with a fool moon through the palms, a balmy breeze, that particular Baghdad smell of cordite and burning shit mixed with rose petals, helicopters thudding overhead, and a firefight off in the distance— it would have seemed surreal. Now, it is just another night— the magic gone.

The suits and new arrivals have swarmed in and know nothing— they dilute, pollute the experience. Whatever reasons brought the first and second waves of people here, subconsciously, they are drawn to what is real, now, intense. Those that followed seek to impose where they came from on where they are at— missionaries and the worst kind of ideologically driven, they cannot live with ambiguity, they are certain, they have a US cookie-cutter solution to every problem; the square peg will fit through the round hole. Iraq is going to be an eye-opener for them, the rock upon which their foolish dreams crash and break apart. For those that preceded the politicians here, those who will always precede the career diplomats anywhere, something sacred has been sullied

From Intel Log:

1327 Iraq's transitional council can only be a 'puppet regime' Any transitional council assuming control of Iraq would be fronting a "puppet regime" under US control, a former UK high ranking military officer has warned. General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia and a SAS commander who is one of the world's most respected military voices, has harshly criticised US plans for handing back political power to the Iraqis

1421 Chuzu reports that CP 2 is shut down again with positive hits for explosives.

1616 UN suppresses Iraq HQ bomb report The United Nations yesterday announced it would suppress a report examining what went wrong in the run-up to the August 2003 bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad. The report was called for after an independent study identified systematic UN mismanagement over its security policy in Iraq. The UN yesterday said Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, was to receive the report and would consider its findings over the coming days. But it would remain a confidential internal document, in order to protect individuals interviewed during the investigation.

1835 President Bush said on Saturday that this week's deadly attacks on Iraqis filled him with "grief and anger" and vowed to crush those responsible. He singled out fugitive militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the chief U.S. suspect, by name. Bush offered his first personal response to Tuesday's bomb attacks on Shi'ite worshipers, in which at least 180 people were killed on Iraq's bloodiest day since Saddam Hussein's fall. "Laura and I and the American people were filled with grief and anger at these terrible attacks of murder," Bush said. "We will defeat the terrorists who seek to plunge Iraq into chaos and violence, and we will stand with the people of Iraq for as long as necessary to build a stable, peaceful and successful democracy," he said in his weekly radio address.

Here Come Cowboys

“Scott Custer, whose Fairfax-based Custer Battles LLC has about 400 foreign employees providing armed security in Iraq, said, "There are a lot of cowboys."”

While I was hardly in the first group of contractors/security specialists that arrived in Baghdad I was definitely there fairly early on and in the early days there were not that many and things were fairly low-key. As time progressed though, they began to trickle and then pour in, each successive wave seemingly more dodgy and incompetent than the last as the bottom of the barrel was scraped for the myriad of failed military, police, and security guards responding to adds in the back of soldier of fortune and gung-ho rags— it’s all part of my I-rock and roll fantasy.

Send in the Clowns

I was having lunch one day at the Al Rasheed and was walking out the lobby with Chuzu when this guy I had never seen before in my life walked up to me and said,

“Hey, I know you don’t I?”

I looked at him for a moment and shook my head, “Nope.”

“Naah, I’m sure I do; you were in Afghanistan weren’t you?”

“Nope,” looking over at Chuzu now, shrugging my shoulders like, who the hell is this guy?

“Are you sure?”

“Yep, never been in Afghanistan.”

“Ahh, I see…”

“No. I have never been to Afghanistan.”

“Right,” a knowing wink, “I gotcha.” A slap on the shoulder and they guy was walking off.

How the hell did this happen? Without even trying to I’d just become a secret squirrel. I hadn’t been to Afghanistan and I sure as hell didn’t know that guy. However, I’d seemingly joined the ranks of the high-speed, something that most wished would happen to them without having to try so hard to look like they weren’t. I guess I’ve always been an ungrateful bastard. One guy refused to believe that I wasn’t an 18D because I happened to have a LBT NSW medical pack on my back, kept asking me about units and guys that I didn’t know, didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.


Down on the mess deck of the palace was what was termed “the walk of shame” where all the mercs/heroes/or however they referred to themselves would come to walk by all those eating in as much kit as they could carry. Every meal, except for breakfast as many were nursing hangovers from posing down by the pool all night, they’d start trickling in in ones or twos for everyone to admire while they choked down their KBR chow, which was actually fairly decent considering.

Of course there was kit/belt attachment envy and everyone attempted to outdo each other. One guy, who had no pistol, had a leather pouch with three throwing knives in it. Another had a WWII OSS dagger in a forearm sheath. Even the military wasn’t immune and a Major who looked like he was in the Reserves and had “come up from supply” carried two Beretta M-9s; one in a shoulder holster and one in a thigh-rig, both set up for right-hand draw. Hey, there’s nothing faster than a New York reload. Of course he had magazines in neither as that wasn’t allowed for the military within the confines of the Palace grounds and given the number of times the clearing barrels were fam-fired it was a fine rule. A Colonel had an M-9 in a shoulder rig, all the rage, with the lanyard (rope or other small line to make sure that when said Colonel dropped his pistol and was running away that the pistol would come along with him, bringing up the rear) so short that there was no way the pistol could actually be drawn. Again, not a bad idea.

The number of guys I saw carrying their spare pistol mags on their thigh-holster were legion. Apparently they had never tried to effect a combat reload with the spare mags in that configuration, especially with body armor on, which is damn near impossible. However, it sure looked high-speed/tactical.

The military, whose travails with the pistol I have already covered, were also notorious “hammer-gazers”. I carried a Belgian-made FN Browning Hi-Power, the sweetest little pistol you ever had the pleasure to shoot; gobbled up everything from Hydra Shock’s to POF Ball with no complaint. I carried it cocked and safed, which you could not do with military’s M-9s and the number of people who stopped me to inform me that my “hammer was up” were legion and became a running joke. It got to the point that I could usually tell when someone was looking and upset but wouldn’t say anything. Some were really bothered by it and you would have though I was pointing the pistol at them, or pissing on their shoes. Crazy.

You came across some strange stuff that’d just surface out of the blue. Somewhere in our travels we’d wound up with an M-79 (Vietnam era 40mm grenade launcher) and a Webley Schermuly 37mm grenade launcher. I had never even heard of the latter and we didn’t have any ammo for the thing anyway, though I never got tired of telling people we had one and watching the expressions of confusion cross their faces, “…you know, a Webley Schermuly… a Webley Schermuly man, you know, like an M-79 only different, a Webley Schermuly.” No one ever got it. Call-Sign Clown was working on an 8-point sling for the thing but I don’t know that anything ever came of it, which was probably a good thing.

I had always meant to throw a single-point sling on the M-79 and walk into the Palace with it, just to see the look on people’s faces as I unloaded it at the clearing barrel; and then make a couple of slow passes down the walk of shame, the thing carried at the low ready and some spare 40mm rounds on a thigh-rig. I’m sure I could’ve felt the envy radiating out from every swinging dick secretly watching and now wondering what he was gonna do to keep up, an M-79 in a single point-sling is hard to top. It was just ridiculous how serious the guys were about their image; kit whores all of them. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, at least in jest, allegedly, “does this holster/rig make my ass look big?”

BW had a midget. No shit. The guy had worked for FEDEX and been let go for one reason or another and BW picked him up as a logistics guy. He had a thigh-rig that hung about to his ankles and an MP-5 that in his hands looked like a G3. He couldn’t even sling it or the muzzle would drag. He must have been living the dream.

There was a guy, not sure who he worked for, that we called “The Coat”. I never actually saw him in the Palace but ran into him a couple of times in the parking lot across from LZ Washington. This guy was ALL clown. He would be wearing a full length, black, leather duster, some kind of crazy AK chest rig, a cowboy hat, the mandatory Oakley, or local rip-off, sunglasses, a big handlebar mustache, mesh, fingerless weightlifting gloves, some kind of boom microphone that looked like something Britney Spears used, and the mandatory AK- safety off. He was definitely living the dream

As the number of contractors grew, it wasn’t uncommon for them to draw down on each other as their motorcades vied for the right of way, their client more important. It was fucking ridiculous. A Dyn guy, a company already with a reputation that long predates Iraq, drunk and function checking his AK-47, with a loaded magazine in it, let loose a three round burst in his hooch that pretty much tore the leg of his client (protectee) off at the knee. And TC guys shot the hotel pet dog up in Erbil, in the back. The stories, sadly, are legion.

Except for a few Americans, I mainly worked with Brits and Aussies who were much more low key and down to earth and generally not afflicted with “Black Water-itus”. And even then, that was no guarantee.

We got a big, bald-headed guy in, former SAS 2-2, allegedly, and he was sent up north. Weeks later, J would tell me how they were driving between Kirkuk and Erbil and the guys is in the back seat fucking around with his M-16; seems he can’t figure out to load/unload, make ready/safe; 2-2 is starting to seem a stretch. J, understandably, isn’t too pleased with the guy fucking around like he is while he’s sitting in front of the fool with only some padding in the seat to slow any forthcoming accidentally fired projectiles. He turns around to see what exactly the problem is and proceeds to watch the guy strip the magazine out of the mag well with his fucking meat-hooks without ever hitting the mag release button. That ain’t easy, try it sometime. He then can’t understand why they magazine won’t seat and catch in the well; the magazine is shot, will never be the same after he stripped it out.

So word of this, along with other character shortcomings, gets back to HQ and it is decided to sack the guy. James, making a resupply run will pick him up in Kirkuk, drop off some supplies and replacement Gurkhas, and then bring dude back. At the CPA house in Kirkuk, which had a narrow drive barely wide enough for one Suburban, the guy manages, somehow, to lock the keys of the front Suburban in the vehicle, effectively blocking the drive so they can’t take the second Suburban to go find a local locksmith.

As luck would have it, a couple of KBR bubbas happen by in their Yukon or whatever and offer to give James a ride to find a locksmith. Driving into Kirkuk, James the only one with a weapon, one of the tires on the SUV goes flat. They pull over to switch it out with the spare and James opens the compartment where the jack, tire iron, etc. should all be and finds instead three cans of warm Heineken. No shit, days like this were not uncommon.

Long story short, they sat there, three westerners and one AK, by the side of the road while the others attempted to organize a recovery. However, since said Suburban was still blocking all other vehicles in the drive it was taking longer than James or the KBR guys felt was acceptable, which was probably all of about thirty seconds. They finally just drove back to the CPA house on the flat, James smashed a side window on the Suburban to get the keys and made it back down to Baghdad without further incident, aside from finding that he could no longer stand the sight or taste of Heineken. Pre-employment screening, can’t say enough good things about it.

One of the few cowboys that I had to work with was almost in tears when SOE Gear delivered a thigh-rig that didn’t match the color of his chest rig. I kindly offered to swap him mine, which was used but the right color and he accepted, gratefully, happy that his chest and thigh-rigs were no color coordinated.

Same guy: was always in a hurry, for no good reason, and ran over the dragon’s teeth several times, puncturing the tires of his vehicle and rendering it OOC. He was bummed that his GPS didn’t work until several months into his tour when he realized that he had the batteries in backwards. And lastly, one day on the way to the nightly Ops meeting he somehow managed to set off his lone CS grenade in the car. He walked into the office just reeking of CS gas but acting like nothing was out of the ordinary. People are tearing up and trying to nonchalantly sidle away from him and finally when all eyes are fixed on him with that “what the fuck” look he takes a test whiff of his RR 9.11 vest and asks, “Oh, is that me?” He wasn’t living the dream but he was damn sure trying to. It would later come to light, after he totaled one of the company vehicles in town around midnight, that he’d been sneaking out at night to screw some seventeen-year-old Iraqi girl…and not even taking his long-gun with him.

A lot of guys went crazy over there, living out their soldier of fortune fantasies. It was heady stuff; there was very little accountability and one could realistically get away with murder, easily. The number of Iraqis who have been killed or wounded simply for sport will probably never be known

Participants in a contentious Baghdad security operation this month have told American investigators that during the operation at least one guard continued firing on civilians while colleagues urgently called for a cease-fire. At least one guard apparently also drew a weapon on a fellow guard who did not stop shooting, an American official said.

The rules did not apply to Americans and you could do just about anything and get away with it. Many fell victim to this incredible power trip and went “native” in a very non-native, American cowboy sort of way, taking it out on the Iraqi population which they did not care about nor respect. It was sheer, unbridled power and the self-discipline it required was not possessed by many.

Most of the guys had never worked security before, in the states or anywhere else and had no sound grounding in the fundamentals of protection, namely that it is proactive, preparation-intense and customer-orientated. Most of these guys walked around with their minds floating in a circle some 10’ above and behind their bodies, like a camera view in some video game, enamored with how cool they looked. In any other country, their actions would have immediately landed in them in jail in that country likely to be followed up by charges once they returned to the States but in Iraq it was just ignored, boys being boys.

“I was with my Iraqi translator one day in Baghdad, trying to enter the office of the Governing Council. The American private security guard at the door ordered me to shut my mouth until I was told to speak. Then he told my translator to sit in the 130-degree heat while he escorted me - the American - inside to see if the Iraqi leader we were seeing was available. Both of us felt like punching that guard in the face.”

There were a lot of good operators out there, guys that understood their jobs, the discipline it required, and the larger effect of their actions within the overall counterinsurgency and how their actions would likely impact military personnel— the most likely target of Iraqi reciprocal hostilities created by contractors. Operating with such freedom and latitude, particularly with other professionals was an incredible experience and differences were made but as the bar was repeatedly lowered and dumbed-down by the horde of the unprofessional, it became unenjoyable and lost much of its allure.

“It's not as funny as the guy who showed up at the FBI office in Peshawar with a duffel bag full of heads that he dumped out on the AIC's desk saying "I THINK I have Zarqawi in here somewhere".........a lot of madness in the world.”


Many people don’t understand why, why I, we do what we do. I can’t say that I do either. Somehow saying that it’s what I do, while true, just doesn’t convey the crux of it. Anymore, people ask me and I say, “I’m an idealist…I do it for the money.” Usually they smile, and then they frown as it sinks in. And I laugh at their discomfort, as if I’m any different than them. Oh, they don’t risk their lives to protect those of others, they don’t consider dying or killing when they get up in the morning; and if anything, what we do is in some ways more pure, more honest. I love what I do; I get up in the morning because I want to, not because I have to. How many people whore there time and lives away for something they don’t believe in, don’t care about, something that provided them little satisfaction or fulfillment?

There is something honest, if primal, about getting up and knowing that your job is to possibly lay down your life to protect someone else’s, that someone may try to kill you or your client, and that, if necessary, you are prepared to kill them for trying. Reduced to its most basic, it is a game, albeit with far higher stakes for failing.

The quote below, from Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diaries, probably describes exactly, far better than I ever could, at least in regards to Iraq.

“They were professionally deviant, but they had a few things in common…their lives were geared to long chances and sudden movement; and they claimed no allegiance to any flag and valued no currency but luck and good contacts. They moved erratically, on the winds of rumor and opportunity; all over Europe, Latin America, and the Far East…always looking for the next big break, the crucial assignment, the rich heiress, or the fat job at the far end of the next plane ticket.

In a sense, I was one of them— more competent than some and more stable than others—and in the years that I carried that ragged banner I was seldom unemployed. It was a greedy life and I was good at it. I made some interesting friends, had enough money to get around, and learned a lot about the world that I could never have learned in any other way.

Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top.

At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles— a restless idealism on one hand and sense of impending doom on the other— that kept me going.”

23MAR04 (Journal)

2148 local

“At best they were unreliable, and at worst, they were drunk, dirty, and no more dependable than goats.” –Hunter S. Thompson

'AAYO BIR GORKHALI’— the Gurkhas are upon you!

With XX, ZZ and the savages reaching an accord this afternoon, the end of an era has come to pass. Things will never be the same for those who were involved and the entity known as OP XXXXXX will be forever tarnished and changed. In the big picture, nothing much changed and the world went on about its business of living and dying. A hundred small worlds though were irrevocably changed— for the better or worse remains to be seen.

How we got there, at this point, is largely irrelevant. Due to GLO major Damn’s unwillingness or inability to retrieve the CPA passes of five Gurkhas Tim, Darryl, Greg and myself met Chuzu, Sean, John, and Rich at Gurkha barracks with the aim of grabbing, flex-cuffing, and removing the five gits who had been threatening other Gurkhas with having the Maoists back in Nepal kill their families, making trouble in Baghdad, and were refusing to leave even though they had flights out the next day. Needless to say, they weren’t going to be asked back and they knew it.

We had grabbed four of them, easily, and had them cuffed and sitting off to the side of the camp. This would prove to be the fatal mistake of the evening, for in hindsight, the whole catastrophe could have been averted if we’d have immediately removed them from the camp. We were looking for the fifth Gurkha, Mohan, and other Gurkhas were starting to filter out, curious to see what was going on. Even then, things were cool. Then one of the fuckers we had grabbed, who may have been mentally unstable, jumped up and began screaming in Nepalese that we were going to drag them all off and kill them. The other three joined in chant.

There was an immediate shift in the mood of the Gurkhas who had been, until then, noncommittally watching and they became instantly agitated, charging forward towards the guys guarding the four we had grabbed, screaming, posturing aggressively and throwing water bottles and beer cans, though only empty ones, of beer at least.

The other expats start moving the four prisoners north towards the vehicles to get them out of the camp. Darryl, Tim and I are tying to get the other Gurkhas not involved to settle down.

Tim was to my right as we were walking roughly north towards the front gate. Further to my right Darryl, Greg, and Rich were jamming two of the assholes into a Yukon which was facing east. Rich was over by the driver’s door and Daryl and Greg were towards the rear.

For some reason, I seem to have turned around to check Tim’s and my six, looking south and turning back around to my left. I see a Gurkha (Mohan) dart out of the shadows and hit Greg in the back of the head with what looks like a stick (later determined to be a four-foot piece of rebar). Greg drops like a sack of potatoes, unconscious. I don’t know where Tim is and yell that Greg is down. Next thing I know, I’m kneeling by Greg, having sprinted there, and fumbling with a compression bandage in my vest. The back of his head was gashed open and blood was pooling in the dust at a furious rate. Greg started moving, and talking, I suppose, though I don’t remember anything he said at that point or even if he was coherent. About that time Tim was moving past me towards the front gate and I told him that I had Greg and he told me to get him out of there as we were basically being overrun by drunk and crazed Gurkhas.

I didn’t move him immediately, wanting to get the bandage on his head and secured to control the bleeding. There were two Gurkhas kneeling next to me, one trying to help me with the bandage and Greg and the other almost in tears, crying something like, “What is going on? Why is this happening?” I couldn’t get the fucking bandage on without slipping off the top of Greg’s head and I didn’t want to run the thing over his eyes, nose or mouth. The whole time this is going on, a part of me keeps noticing that the barrel of my slung MP-5 is in the dirt and it is pissing the hell out of me because I don’t have time to fuck with it and Greg. Tim is yelling at me again to get Greg outta there and I give up on the fucking bandage and get Greg to his feet, telling him he has to hold the bandage to his head and keeps some pressure on the wound.

I remember him telling me, probably twice, that he couldn’t see before it sank in that there was blood in his eyes and I grabbed an end of the bandage for him to wipe them clear. Before we had left our offices to come down here I had been thinking about throwing a bottle of water in a pocket in my vest. I reached around, fishing for it, thinking that maybe I had put the damned thing back there and could rinse the blood out of Greg’s eyes but I hadn’t ever grabbed one.

To Greg’s credit, he never let go of his weapon.

I had Greg on my left side, by the arm, and we began walking towards the gate, which the camp guards had bolted closed and the other Gurkhas were attempting to keep closed, thereby trapping everyone inside. Rich’s Yukon was in front and John and other unknowns were scuffling to get the gate open which they did right about the time I got to the back of the Yukon. I was yelling for people to get the fuck out of the way as we passed through the middle of the crazed Gurkhas. Now, it doesn’t seem like the best course of action, but for some reason, nobody fucked with us at all. I don’t know why.

We cleared the gate to the left, last ones out, and they were slammed shut just as we did. At that point, I looked back to make sure our six was clear and saw a beer can come flying out, followed by a brick which hit Daryl, who ran forward, pistol out, screaming, “I’m gonna shoot him!” Safeties were off and fingers were on triggers; someone was lasing the guy who I thought had thrown the brick and I remember thinking, that is cool shit. Tim was screaming, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!”

And that was it. I got the two fuckers out of Rich’s Yukon and Greg in and we drove off to the 31 CSH. Turns out Greg’s skull was fractured and it was initially though that he might have to be med-evac’d to Germany. Daryl got three staples in his head. It’s lucky that no one got shot because if we’d of shot one Gurkha, we’d of had to have shot about eighty or so, there would have just been no way around it. Madness.

The whole time I was never afraid. I don’t know why. It wasn’t bravery, just an absence of fear— possibly due to stupidity. From the time I saw Greg hit, “I” didn’t do anything. There was no conscious thought on my part, I just did. It was almost as if I was just along for the ride in my body. I wish I could say that I was clear-headed, that I chose to do everything I did, but it just doesn’t feel that way. However, I did the right things, without hesitation or freezing up. On my behalf I guess, you can probably chalk it up to quality training (train like you fight or die like you train). I did not feel threatened when I was walking Greg out, or did it occur to me to be so and this disappoints me, that maybe I wasn’t as aware of the situation as I should have been. Either of us could have been attacked again and I don’t know that I would have seen it coming or been able to stop it. For this I am deeply disappointed in myself— feeling that we just got lucky. But again, I didn’t feel a threat, I had this sense, idea that the fuckers would see Greg and the sight of him would give them pause and push them back and away, which is pretty much what happened.

The rest of the evening isn’t really worth talking about— five futile hours spent trying to negotiate with the drunken little savages which was utterly hampered by the complete cowardice of the Gurkha leadership. The mob was alternately going to burn the barracks down, run amuck through the dream zone, and I don’t even remember what else they threatened. In one of those surreal moments of complete hilarity, Tim is considering the phone call he may have to make to a buddy in CJTF-7 asking if they have a containment plan on the books for WITHIN the dream zone and the idea of Bradleys parked at either end of Gurkha barracks and these guys fighting the army is enough to almost drop us to our knees in laughter.

Many of the expats feel deeply betrayed by the Gurkhas. It’s not black or white. Those we respected disappeared, staying out of sight and not getting involved. On one hand I understand, they didn’t want to get in the middle of it, yet I can’t forgive them for it either. Nobody ever asks for those moments when you find out what you are made out of, but when they’re over, you don’t get them back and things are the way they stand.

It was so small but could’ve been so much bigger. In a way that pales to what these kids in the military go through everyday, I feel like I have survived something. Major Damn wasn’t happy when the company brought in Fijians for the currency transfer op, pointing out that they were known to actually eat people from time to time. The counterpoint was made that the same was true of the Gurkhas, including more than a few brit Gurkha Regiment officers. Ah yes, he agreed, but the Gurkhas had stopped eating people a longer time ago than the Fijians (I think it was only 80 years ago for the Fijians, who are also notorious thieves). That’s the mentality, not whether you eat people or not, but who has been doing it most recently.

I had a buddy who was down at the CPA HQ in Al Hillah after BW took it over from us. They employed Chileans I believe, all SF of course, very high-speed, very low-drag. My buddy said they used to assemble on the roof of the hotel nightly with beers in hand to watch the shift change where, inevitably, at least one of the Chileans would FAM-fire the clearing barrel. TCN's rock!

From Intel Log:

1508 Two explosions in the southern Iraqi city of Basra wounded 13 British soldiers on Monday, in an attack that followed a demonstration by unemployed youths, the British military said. "We can confirm reports of two explosions in central Basra which appear to have been targeted against coalition forces," a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense in London said. "None of the injuries is thought to be life-threatening." A military spokesman in Basra said the blasts followed a demonstration by unemployed men, during which stones and petrol bombs were hurled at British soldiers.

1610 Gunmen have killed four Iraqi police officers and five police trainees in a drive-by shooting, firing from their car as their victims headed to work south of Baghdad, police said. Reuters footage showed a yellow minibus riddled with bullet holes, the seats splattered with blood. Mussayab police chief Major Kadhim Ajmi confirmed that the nine were killed. "They were shot by unknown attackers driving a red Opel," he said

2103 Iraq's Interior Ministry will not be ready to handle internal security on June 30, the day U.S. authorities plan to hand sovereignty over to an Iraqi government, the interior minister said Tuesday. "We are not ready to be in charge of security in two or three months' time," minister Nori Badran told Reuters. "There are many requirements that must be fulfilled before then, like equipment, security plans, the security apparatus to execute those plans, border controls. Some of those requirements are partially fulfilled, others are not at all." He said it was also still not determined exactly what role U.S.-led forces would play after the power transfer and whether they would share intelligence with Iraqi authorities.

2126 Analysis: Iraq Charges Against Bush Begin to Mount Criticism of President Bush's motives and decision-making in attacking Iraq last year may be acquiring critical mass with voters following criticism by former top counterterrorism official Richard Clarke. Political consultants and analysts said Clarke's allegation that Bush ignored the al Qaeda threat before the Sept. 11 attacks and was obsessed by a desire to invade Iraq were especially damaging because they confirmed other previous revelations from policy insiders.

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