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Back to Iraq

By Michael Fumento

I'm b-a-a-a-ck! I'm in Kuwait waiting -- and waiting and waiting -- for transportation into Iraq. First by C-130 to the International Zone in Baghdad, then Chinook or Blackhawk to Camp Ramadi, then by the "dagger run" in Ramadi proper and First Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division at Camp Corregidor. That's the delightful place where I ended up my last Iraq trip.

You may have heard that things have not gone well in the area since my last visit, including the report saying essentially that Anbar Province is lost politically if not militarily, whatever that means exactly. I can say that Ramadi specifically has apparently worsened since my last visit in April. Last month, one of the 19 SEALs I first saw combat with received the dubious honor of becoming the first SEAL to die in the war. His team leader was shot shortly thereafter, but went back to work three days later with a bullet still in his shoulder. Last week 13 police recruits were blown up there. The next day's papers quoted John Abizaid saying "It's very, very clear that Anbar province is a problem that will have to be dealt with over time. It's a violent area; it's a tribal area; it's a tough area." But he then added that "over time" means no new troops in the foreseeable future. Not that that always helps.

Shortly after I left, First Brigade of the First Armored Division was brought in from Kuwait as an emergency measure to help stabilize the situation. They set up five forward operating bases and they've taken a steady stream of casualties since then. I'm not entirely sure why, but the readiest explanation is that since they are a whole brigade (seemingly an oversized one at that), they have far more people to kill than a battalion-plus unit like that at Corregidor. I've also heard some of their FOBS are -- or at least originally were -- so small that George Washington could throw a silver grenade across them. Another guess, though, might be that that armor has a limited role in guerrilla war and the infantry in an armored unit is trained to work with armor. Guerrilla wars are best fought with light infantry and special counterinsurgency forces. Be that as it may, First Brigade had the only spare troops so the job became theirs by default.

More ominously, the enemy has also obviously brought in crack snipers from other countries. The last death in 1/506th was from sniper fire. Closer to home (in a personal sense), last month an embed with 1/506th took what was presumably a sniper round in the ribcage that tumbled a bit and popped out his chest. I think he got out of the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany just last week. The photographer embedded with 1/506th who was shot right before I got there in April was definitely sniped, suffering two broken legs. Incidentals like machine gun fire, rifle fire, IEDs and mortar barrages just add a bit of spice. My efforts in returning, therefore, have revolved around snipers.

First, since the snipers like journalist meat because killing a journalist brings a better chance of media attention, I've bought the new ACU uniform so I won't stand out. In a quick scan of the field, the difference between a camera bag and a carbine may not be readily noticeable. (And no, I'm not allowed to carry a weapon -- even to throw off snipers.)

The newest Army combat uniforms
ACU, which stands for "Army Camouflage Universal," or "Army Combat Uniform" comprises tiny green and khaki squares in a "digital" pattern. Currently it's only issued to overseas soldiers but will eventually become the standard uniform for all soldiers. The Marines also have a digital pattern, but with brown and khaki squares. The only thing I don't like about the new uniforms is that they are a 50/50 cotton-nylon blend as opposed to the cotton uniforms our soldiers have worn probably going back to before World War II. This makes them "breathe" less well and thus they are less comfortable when it's hot. Also, if you get set on fire the nylon can melt to the skin causing terrible burns. It is plastic, after all. Other than that, the ACUs are vastly superior. They get rid of the lower jacket pockets, since they're useless with body armor. Velcro has replaced all the buttons except those for the fly. They have two sets of pockets on the trousers to make up for the ones no longer on the jacket. Plus, and here's my favorite, one arm has slits for three pens. The designers definitely had journalists in mind. Another nifty feature is a sheath that holds a thin Styrofoam pad that protects the knees and shins if you have to suddenly drop onto them, whether to aim a weapon or a camera. You'll still see guys wearing outside knee guards like rollerbladers do, but I find them somewhat restrictive when you have to sprint and in any case don't be fooled into thinking they provide ballistic protection. They're not Kevlar; just plain old hard plastic.

My second line of defense against snipers is the loan of improved armor with side ceramic plate protection. It's probably no coincidence that last reporter was hit where he was.

Third, my physical training this time comprised jogging with full armor and all the gear I'll be wearing on patrol plus a bit extra. Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, a sniper cannot put a scope on a rapidly-moving target. The men of the 101st know that and whenever they aren't under cover, they jog or go at a dead run. Nothing can provide perfect protection; sometimes you have to expose yourself to get a good shot whether with a rifle or a camera. But I can cut the odds. Perhaps my best defense is that I am most certainly spooked, just not quite spooked enough to stay home. With the bad guys usually going overboard to impress Allah and collect on those 72 virgins during Ramadan, which just started and will continue past when I leave, I expect to see combat and probably lots of it.

Finally, my reasons are the same as before -- and as confirmed by the literally hundreds of letters I have received since my last trip. Almost nobody has both the guts and the ability to do this sort of thing, so it falls to those of us who can to do so. Earlier this year when I was in Ramadi, there were only three other embeds in all of Al Anbar. Another vet who just set out on his own odyssey to both Afghanistan and Iraq, John Newberry, put it thus:


Why again am I going? Short answer. Because the media do a lousy job of reporting the stories of U.S. service members and what they do. For the most part, the wars being fought by OUR people in Afghanistan and Iraq -- their successes, heroism, and valor -- is reported by some overpaid, makeup-wearing talking heads, sitting on their fat rear-ends in an air-conditioned hotel. They rely on Iraqi stringers to bring the stuff to them and then call it reporting. And what we end up with is a short scroll across the bottom of the TV screen. What we get is crap. And it seems that as a consequence Americans don't get it.

Myself, I'm not entirely sure how many Americans want to get it. We have become fat, lazy, and decadent and willing to let a tiny handful of our people like those brave and battered souls in Ramadi make all the sacrifices in what should be a national struggle against those who insist we convert or die. Whatever it was in the beginning, Iraq is now part of the war on terror. My own job has become victim to a populace that would rather be entertained than informed, rather be immobile than mobilized, rather be told what they'd like to hear than what they need to know. For lack of funding to my account my 7-year tenure with Hudson Institute ends the day I'm scheduled to come home. My life as a journalist may be ending. Here's to what promises to be a hell of a last fling!


Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, hotels in Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.


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September 29, 2006 12:07 PM  ·  Iraq