CHESTER HAS MOVED!: A War Story for you . . .

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

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 . . .


Blogger Brian H said...

Yes, I've thought of Ozymanius often during the past few years. But Iraq will not be reduced to level sands, rather it will blossom in a way not seen in recorded history. I strongly hope.

December 1, 2004 at 8:39 PM  
Blogger M said...

The Great Gatsby? Reading that book must have had them thinking we were all living in mansion on Long island Sound. Maybe a copy of The Outsiders would have been nice.

As a Police Officer, it always facinates me to go into other peopole houses. We get a peek into the heart of people priavet lives on every call. Sometimes it is fascinating, sometimes it is disheartening. You were fortunate enough as to get a look into the heart of a whole country.

December 2, 2004 at 6:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ozymandius is perfectly appropriate. Saddam wanted himeself remembered like a heroic king, but in the end he was hiding in a hole eating Mars bars. I'm sure the students who read that poem understood what it meant.

About the looting: during the First World War when the British fought the Turks in Iraq, the Turkish officers deserted during the battle for Baghdad. The Iraqi conscipts who had fought bravely up to that point, then fled the battlefield and sacked the city. The British were stunned to see every government office looted. Looting and sacking during war have a long tradition in Iraq, as it is endorsed in the Koran, and even predates Islam.

Nobody should have been surprised by what happened, but it cannot be blamed upon the US military's lack of response. The Iraqi people had so much robbed from them by Saddam, and it was payback time.

December 2, 2004 at 7:58 AM  
Blogger RED-2 said...

Dear Sir,

I see from the web site you were at Camp Edson. I remember Hwy 8 very well.I must protest your war story however. I can see you have quite the groupie "hanger ons". None of which made any comments that did any kind of justice to your piece. It wasn't the war story that I was hoping.
Also, you mentioned in a previous post -something about reservist being usually used for some kind of "rear guard",(protecting FOBs or some trash) which really pissed me off. I didnt say anything based on others who had thought so highly of your site including my father. However,just letting you know, there were some "reserve" Marines killing assholes left and right when guys like you were reading fiction ,watching movies and making sure they get to chow on time.If thats not accurate to your experience, then I apoligieze,but as far as war stories goes- like I said,thats not a real war story. And when others like me come to this site and read... Think of this as the edited version to what they really want to say.

Real Reconnaissance go to:

December 2, 2004 at 7:09 PM  

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