Thursday, February 15, 2007

Taji, Part II: Eden

Like much of eastern Iraq, Taji is beautiful, but also dangerous.

The path to get there lies along a stretch of road that soldiers here call "IED Alley." It's a thirty-mile stretch of flat pavement, which passes through several towns and serves as a massive shooting gallery for Coalition forces attempting to traverse it. We can't drive it during the day; we have to move at night.

Coming down to Taji at the beginning of our last mission, we ran across a makeshift checkpoint. The T-barriers and guard towers had once been ours, but now they were staffed by lazy Iraqis in civilian clothes and ski masks. They brandished Kalashnikovs and RPKs, and some laughed as we passed through. I didn't like them from the start; not a stitch of clothing that looked government issue. Simple truth is, most U.S. soldiers have learned never to trust the average Iraqi--it's too hard to tell where the loyalties lie. The situation here is all a simmering brew of shifting political alliances, religious hatreds, and family grudges, with the spoon of money stirring the pot. As some rapper once wisely said, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."

Not five minutes after we passed through the checkpoint, a convoy a few kilometers ahead of us ran into an ambush. We had to come to a halt, where we stayed for damn near an hour. Up the road, we heard small-arms fire and multiple IED explosions, and when it was all over I heard our captain on the radio with the LT, checking with Higher about the last checkpoint we had passed. LT said it didn't exist on any BlueForce map.

My shotgun, Sergeant Burroughs, glanced at me knowingly. I glanced back. The bastards had been forward observers. They'd been laying a trap, and would have sprung it upon us, had the convoy ahead not beaten us to the punch. We passed that same convoy not long afterward, but I couldn't see any damage, nor any signs of casualties. I hoped my eyes didn't deceive. At the same time, however, I couldn't ignore the arrogant pragmatism of my inner voice:

Better them than us.

I hated the inner voice for that statement, that self-interest, but I couldn't deny that he was right.

That being said, the rest of the Taji mission was less eventful, discounting of course The SAW Incident. We arrived early in the morning hours, and found ourselves crashed out in a warehouse lined with cots--transient housing. I had a great deal more spare time to deal with than I would have initially expected, and by the second day I'd actually wished that I'd packed a couple of books. Most of the other soldiers frittered away their time playing Spades, or going to the local PX or DFAC, but I was content to lay on my cot, clean my rifle, and listen to music. I'd tear into an MRE when I got hungry, and fight off boredom by paging through a borrowed newspaper or magazine.

I actually had fun, for the most part. I worked hard when we were on-duty, but I got to see some pretty cool things. I saw a few tank graveyards, worked a bit with local Iraqi soldiers--this time in proper uniform. I even got to see and photograph what I suspect had once been a Saddam-era gallows. It lay in a clearing amidst the dense groves of cyprus and fig, and part of its concrete support structure had ripped completely free of it's moorings. At first I thought it was a playground, but when I saw the two sets of stairs and that elevated platform, some part of me already knew that no matter how people stepped up, at least one of those people would have been intended never to step down.

Taji is dangerous, but also beautiful. To the west of the Iraqi Compound, we traveled along the snaking banks of the Tigris River--the very waters that gave our civilization life. When the sun rose, it shone in amber hues across the canopies of palm jungle. At one point, while sitting at a checkpoint, my ground-guide, Ahote, leaned up against the door of my truck. His stout Hopi figures split in a broad grin, and he pointed east.

"Look at that," I remember him saying. "Bet you never thought a place with sunrises like this would have people in it so eager to shoot at you."

I didn't answer right away, just took it in and shook my head. "Nope."

"Man, I never seen anything like this. Not even in the desert."

"You should see them on the Lakes," I told him. "Water to the East, North, and West. Turn your head one way at dawn, turn it the other at dusk." I felt a sly grin creep across my face. "Like Paradise."

Ahote nodded wistfully. "Yeah."

He had a good point--how can a place so beautiful be home to so much violence? Traveling down the roads here, I saw nothing but beautiful stone houses, centuries-old things with iron balconies and rooftop patios in the Arabic tradition. Far from being owned by the wealthy, these homes were dwellings for large families, inherited and passed down through generations. They sat nestled deep in the palms, and outside children played in the dirt. Out back, adults of all ages roasted lamb and laughed over roaring fires, much as they might have before war ever even came to this place. I got a feeling, driving down these roads, of timelessness; of peace. War comes, cities fall, but these places remain; sheltered and sustained by the healing waters of the Tigris.

What, I asked myself at one point, could make a people forget all of this? This is Eden. What sane person could possiby ignore the writing on This Wall? It's so clear: Stay. Breed. Live. Laugh. Be Happy.

There is no flaming sword here. There is no locked gate. Eden never cast us out, I realize, we just forgot it. Give us thumbs, we forge a blade, as Maynard said. The worst thing God did for us was bring us down from the trees. Had we just stayed there, we might not have suffered so.

But would that really have been the best thing for us?

Every time I stared out at those trees, the Voice asked this same question. Even now, I can't say I know.

I digress.


Blogger iamcoyote said...

So glad to see you posting again, Milo. Thanks for the vivid pictures of your experiences.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous soul pumpkin said...

...your digressions are poetry, Milo...while reading this post, something that our Commander-in-Thief said yesterday kept reverberating through my skull...perhaps you heard this, perhaps not...he said that "Money trumps Peace...sometimes"...and then followed by that creepy little giggle he has...i was sick to my stomach the rest of the afternoon...
...take care...

5:57 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

"Bet you never thought a place with sunrises like this would have people in it so eager to shoot at you."

Because it's theirs.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every time I hear that (Right In Two) song...I think of Iraq.

Hope all is well.

1:27 AM  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

Edens seem to be prone to bloodletting.

Even the past history of the Lakes is a bloody one.

Kelleys Island in Lake Erie hosts a big rock called "Inscription Rock." On that rock are the carved histories of several peoples, one wiped out right after the other one by other tribes-and then the carvings turned into Latin letters. Nobody really knows what happened to most of the earlier carvers, but a reasonable assumption given the known history of the region is that they were killed off by others, who were then killed off themselves.

Human beings go out of their way to figure out reasons to fight in places that ought to inspire some awesome tranquility. It is a crying shame and a curse upon us.

6:09 PM  
Blogger courtney said...

I am really enjoying your blog. Beautiful writing. Thanks so much for sharing all this with us!

4:59 AM  

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