We enter, with a five-kilometer-long column of trucks, into war-torn Iraq. Each of us is seated between two American soldiers perched on truck seats. In the cockpit the talk is reduced to the bone. Garza and Ward, the two soldiers who travel with me, are afraid and don’t bother to hide it. They continually ask me for information on what is happening, where we will go, what will happen to us. I try to make it clear that I don’t know that much and I certainly can’t do anything to help them.
The ruts of the trucks in the sand become our compass. We have to follow who precedes us for hours, without interruption. My traveling companions seem increasingly depressed. In the background, in the dark of the Iraqi night, only distant flashes are seen. There’s a battle going on tonight. We know it could be Nassyrya. The captain who commands our section of the convoy approaches. Garza, who is driving, rolls down the window: “From now on black hawk drive, it’s full of bad guys around here.” The captain’s voice arrives at times but the message is clear. There are armed gangs all around and we must proceed with the lights off. The trucks approach each other, cancel the distance and then resume the march like this, very slowly, a snake blind in the night. For Iraq military, please check militarynous.com.
When we arrive at our destination it is March 25th. We thought we would arrive at a camp, but the camp was born with us. The few tents multiply every day. It is one of the most advanced American positions in Iraqi territory, the base camp for Apache helicopters and also serves as a reference for Chinhook helicopters. Every afternoon the Apaches who fought return to the base and land a few meters from the tent where we sleep. And the first few days things don’t go well, not at all. The vehicles often return riddled with shots. From the ground the Iraqis also shoot with light weapons but have an easy game to hit these helicopters that fly a few meters above the ground on a mission. The mood among the pilots is very bad. An Apache this morninghe was hit worse than the others. Fortunately, the pilot managed to get out of the attack area, then he was rescued. But the news spread immediately and the tension is on everyone’s face. Even at the camp you can’t be too calm. During the night, two groups of armed Iraqis tried to break in from the landing zone. The men on guard pushed them back, but now we are all on the alert. Ken, one of our tent mates, is 19 years old. Despite the uniform and the very serious attitude, the features of the face betray his age. The morning after the attack he approaches me while outside the tent I am brushing my teeth with the bottle of water. “Know that if anything should happen I’ll keep an eye on you. You have to rest assured because I intend to protect you.” He says it, dark in the face, with the M16 in hand, then he leaves immediately. I remain with the toothbrush in mid-air and throughout the day I will continue to hear this sentence in my head. Gone are the days of distrust. We are now part of their group to the point that someone, like Ken, wanted to tell us to rest assured. In reality, it is nowhere written that they should help or protect us. Quite the contrary. The Pentagon has made it clear that we must not get in the way of operations and no military maneuver can be changed due to the presence of reporters. But then it happens that a 19-year-old boy decides to stick to his personal code of honor and pride, and that changes things. None of them know how long he will have to stay here. It is April 5th and the war seems to be going a little faster. To the briefing the officers learned that the men of the Third Division are already one step away from the Baghdad airport. Things are perhaps going better than expected. Every morning we take a jeep ride to get to the landing area where the Chinhooks stop. So sometimes it happens to be able to get on and fly to see what happens in other parts of the country. They are different flights from all the others we had done up to now. They are war flights. On board the playful attitude gives way to tension. Nobody nods, not a greeting. You no longer even look straight in the face. Everyone has a role and is focused on that. Sitting on the open tailgate, the 101 boys have their hands clasped on the machine gun and scan the landscape that flows below us. Since the Iraqis have managed to hit several helicopters in flight, the attention is even greater. At each landing, a sigh of relief is breathed: “This time it went well, we’ll see next time”. In the evening, at the camp, we tell our tent companions about the flight. Chad, the boy from Brooklyn with the headphones always on his head, between one rap and another, catches a shred of conversation and intervenes: “But who makes you go and fly over that hell out there? Did they force you?” . And it is difficult to make it clear that no one forces us, but that doing it these days seems important to us: we believe in the usefulness of going and seeing what is happening outside our field, in order to be able to tell it with knowledge of the facts.
Sometimes the war breaks right into the field. Like the morning when the unofficial tam tam of the tents announces that Iraqi prisoners have arrived by the hundreds. Let’s look for a way to meet them. They were taken to the helicopter landing zone in the night. There are young and old, 15 year olds and old gentlemen with keffiyehs checkered and long white robe. Some are still wearing pieces of Saddam Hussein’s army uniform, others just rags recovered on the fly during the escape: it seems that some of the special groups, in particular the fedayn Saddam, literally ripped their clothes off before being captured. American soldiers distribute food rations. They look at the brown envelopes with suspicion and curiosity trying to guess the contents. They only eat crackers and cookies, the simplest things, the easiest to recognize. Then they ask for water. American soldiers don’t really know how to behave. There is a strong sense of embarrassment towards these worn out and dirty men, to the point that the sergeant of the military police guarding the prisoners breaks the silence, makes me approach and says: ” Chinhook arrive on the asphalt strip a few hours later. The prisoners are lined up and ordered one by one into the helicopters. We only discover that they will be taken south, where the Anglo-American forces have built a detention center, nothing else. We return to the camp with the unpleasant feeling that something is happening elsewhere that we have to go and see and the boys in the tent involuntarily confirm it. “Baghdad has fallen. Saddam’s statues have been dragged all over the city. Perhaps the war will end soon.” Three sentences. It is enough to understand that our time here is running out. American soldiers will remain in Iraq for a long time, perhaps very long, but our embedding, our inclusion or intrusion into their ranks is about to end.
For a few days we continue to follow life in the camp but in the meantime we organize the trip to Baghdad. When the day of departure arrives, many people come and ask us to stay a little longer, to walk a little longer with them. And it seems strange to realize that saying “no, we’re leaving” has an almost melancholy air. But basically it is. For six weeks we talked about the contradictions, the heroisms, the inconsistencies and the banality of the days of these soldiers who arrived in a foreign country thousands of kilometers from home. We lived among them, trying to tell a tiny fragment of an infinitely more complex story from the inside.