A War Story for you . . .
From Chester's Adventures in Iraq in April, 2003: In mid-April my battalion was ordered to move from An-Numaniyah on the Tigris River, to the city of Diwaniyah in central Iraq. There we would set up a base camp for the 1st Force Service Support Group to provide services to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during the post-conflict phase of the campaign. Our base camp site in Diwaniyah was the grounds of Al-Qadisiyah State University. Since all former regime property had become the province of the US government, we seized this university. As the assistant to the operations officer, I was ordered to go ahead of the battalion with the communications officer and a handful of his Marines to scout out this site and act as a sort of quartering party. We already had one of our companies there, but since the battalion headquarters would move there, we wanted to be sure to get a good place. The city of Diwaniyah had seen a good deal of fighting as US forces moved north to Baghdad. It is located near the intersection of two major highways, Highway 1 and Highway 8, and was right on the boundary between Army and Marine forces. Part of the Fifth Marine Regiment had attacked Iraqi forces in the city and on its outskirts, where a training base for the Al-Quds Brigade, a paramilitary force, was sited. On another occasion, a large number of Fedayeen Saddam -- several hundred -- had massed in the Diwaniyah soccer stadium. US Special Forces observed this and called in airstrikes, killing them all. So Diwaniyah had seen its fair share of this campaign . . . . . . and Al-Qadisiyah University had been completely ransacked. It is on the edge of the city near an intersection of two main roads. At the intersection in the median was a 20'x 30' mural of Saddam and his glorious exploits. We had not been there three days before the residents had defaced it. I hope someone was able to collect some of those murals of Saddam -- it would make for quite a museum exhibition. When I arrived at the university with the communications Marines, I found our company there. They were busy cleaning the place out. Every single building had been burned on the inside. The chemistry building had broken glass beakers and a funny smell everywhere. All of the records in the administration building had been dumped into the hallways and trashed. Every poster of Saddam had finger holes punched through his face. The library had been burned inside and piles of books, some merely ashes, others in good shape, lay strewn about on the floor. I rummaged through them and found a biography of Hussein with photos in the middle of his benevolence to the Iraqi people and showing him in action poses with his generals. It seemed there had been two kinds of uprisings here at the university when the people felt the power of the regime slip away: the first must have been an orgiastic kind of event -- with the trashing of the buildings and the setting of fires. The second was more calculating: nearly everything of any kind of value in any building had been slowly picked over. Bathroom fixtures, windows, even the copper wiring in the HVAC system on the roof of the administration building -- all had been taken away as loot. What must it have been like to be there when the government's power was gone and the people reacted violently, with both happiness and dread, and perhaps wistfulness too? What must the scene have looked like? Bravo Company, cleaning out the buildings so our battalion could occupy them, had settled itself in the old English Department. Here was a real find: an entire room of English books had been spared. They were all classics. A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby. The Bravo Marines had put these in a separate room for safekeeping as they cleaned the buildings out. I looked through the books and noticed many had hand-written English notes in the margins, in the kind of script that is too correct to be that of anyone but a non-native English student. There were notes in Arabic as well. The Iraqi students had carefully read these books and made detailed observations. What did they learn from them? Many of the books had no covers, or improvised covers. Had they been smuggled in? Were they banned and read in private? Perhaps not. While Saddam certainly had a personality cult, he had no real ideology that required such detailed information control. But I'm sure that these books weren't discussed openly. I borrowed three from the stack. Over the next six weeks, while sitting in the headquarters, between crafting battalion orders, I re-read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and then read Graham Greene's Heart of the Matter. I thought them both appropriate to my circumstances. The third book was one without a cover, and every page was a photocopy. It had been pieced together from many different sources and was English poetry -- mainly the Romantics. I didn't read much of it, but one jumped out at me, given where I found myself:
Ozymandius by: Percy Bysshe Shelley I met a traveler from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandius, king of kings: Look on my words, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.Marines many times found themselves looking into the ruins of a civilization, but it was not a great one, and one which we had gladly broken. ------------------------------------------- Reading about Spirit of America's support of Iraqi universities reminded me of the 6 weeks I spent living in one. I hope you'll make a donation to the Friends of Iraq Blogger Challenge this holiday season. Until tomorrow . . .