Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Gertrude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.


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Man and Machine

helicopter metal gear

This sequence terrifies me.

A hunk of metal, high above the ground, completely out of control.

The pilot’s dead and you know you’re going down.

You have to try to do something but at this point there’s really nothing to be done.

The way the world swirls through the windshield – spinning and spinning – is sickening.

The alert sounds. You don’t know what it means, but you know it isn’t good.

Pulling on the stick, trying to make it do something.

Rapidly changing gravity makes every movement a challenge.

When I first joined the Army, there was an older guy in my basic training course. He was 29 and I was 19. We got along well enough and he said he thought I should try to become a helicopter pilot. I don’t know why, but that stuck with me.

I’ve always been fascinated with helicopters. As a kid, I used to play ‘HIND‘ on an old Mac and loved trying to pilot the hulking mass low to the ground to a landing zone to drop off Soviet Spetznaz under fire.

I never seriously considered trying to fly.

Being in an aircraft as a military person is a special experience.

There is the thrill of the infil.

But there’s also the terror of the portal. Looking out the door of a Blackhawk into the night, down the ramp of a CASA at the hazy ground as it passes by slowly, or through the round porthole of a C-130 as it corkscrews for a landing under threat of attack, the world spinning and spinning.

It is a reminder of how out of control you are. You’re a passenger. You are completely at the mercy of the pilot, the crew, and the machine.

At least the pilot and the crew have something to do.

Rewatching the above clip reminded me of this horror story, about a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2005. The helicopter was carrying Blackwater contractors who all died after the helicopter was struck with a missile. Miraculously, the pilot somehow survived both the missile strike, the fall to Earth, and the subsequent crash.

The insurgents who shot down the helicopter found the pilot near the wreckage and shot him. The whole thing was captured on video and released.

It’s easy to forget that these kinds of things were happening on a regular basis in those days.

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Shaving in Baghdad

soldier shaving his face at a water buffalo
From “Old Spooks and Spies”

I’ve always hated shaving in the Army. Or rather, I’ve always hated shaving in the field. There are few things less motivating than waking up when it is 33 degrees out and pulling a cold razor over your face. One thing worse than that is having to follow up by applying thick, light green and loam camouflage to your exposed, raw skin. You thought you pushed out enough camo from the stick to start applying, but alas, you just scraped cold metal aggressively across your nose. Now you are bleeding. Time to ruck up.

Thankfully, we don’t seem to use facial camouflage on a regular basis anymore.

I’ve been shaving with a razor and shaving cream for the past couple of weeks to help get my face used to infantry life again. I normally use an electric razor for convenience. As my face has gotten used to the razor again, it reminded me of how much I can enjoy a good shave the old-fashioned way.

I wake up early. Weekdays or weekends, workday or not, I like to get up early to start my day. I’ve always been that way. During my first deployment, I was usually the first one in the platoon to wake up on any given day. Squads would run missions throughout the day and guys were always going to the towers to pull security, but we still managed to keep somewhat of a predictable schedule in terms of going to sleep and waking up. There was no set wake-up time unless you had a mission or duty. Given that freedom, most guys would roll out of bed between 0800-1000.

I couldn’t do it. I love to sleep, but I hate the idea of missing the beginning of the day. That time when few are awake and you have a complete blank slate.

I’d roll off of my cot around 0630. I’d put on my uniform and grab my hygiene kit and canteen cup and head over the company water buffalo. This was my favorite part of the day. The majority of the company was asleep. The air was warm but not yet Iraq-hot, and the city was only starting to come alive. From our compound, we could hear the passing traffic and the general buzz of the city.

I’d set my kit up on the water buffalo with a mirror and start to shave. My platoon leader was another early riser and he was usually there too. We’d nod and sometimes exchange a few words, but we mostly kept quiet and enjoyed the experience of enjoying a slow, uninterrupted shave.

After hygiene, I would walk over to the company CP and say good morning to the RTO (he always had the best rumors). Our company first sergeant was a coffee guy and had the XO do a run to the battalion compound every morning to get fresh (as can be) coffee from the cooks. Sometimes I would be lucky and get there just after the morning coffee run and the coffee would be fresh, but more often than not it was whatever was leftover from the day before. Tepid, but strong enough to give a caffeine kick before a workout in the makeshift gym.

Short, intense workouts with the same songs for a year on a generation one iPod.

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Turning 21 on deployment

Birthdays are good for reflection. Where am I coming from, where am I, and where am I going.

The last significant birthday I had was 21. People love to tell other people about the time they turned 21.

I turned 21 on Failaka Island, (جزيرة فيلكا) a small island off the coast of Kuwait. I was training there before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead of going out and drinking beer legally for the first time, some buddies gave me their Skittles from their MREs during lunch. Good friends, good friends.

Fast forward three or four months. I was sitting outside of our bay in our company firebase in Baghdad. My PL took a seat next to me and said with a grizzled voice for a young PL “SPC Gomez, you turned 21 in Kuwait, right?”

Me: “Yes, sir.”
PL: “Let me tell you what’s cool about turning 21.”
Me: “Ok.”
PL: “You know when you go to Texas Roadhouse with your boys and there’s a 30 minute wait because it’s payday, and you have to go sit in the waiting room with all those other joes, eating peanuts?”
Me: “Uh, yeah.”
PL: “Well now you just go to the bar and have a drink. The time goes by much faster.”

And you know what, he was right.

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The smell under the body armor

Recently, I was cast as an extra in a big budget Hollywood film. I played a marine (it couldn’t be helped). For a few hours, I had to wear fake, pillowy body armor, and a fake, plastic helmet. It looked like the real thing, but without SAPI plates and kevlar, it was only make believe.

Still, wearing the gear, I began to sweat. After a few hours of standing around and doing my best marine impression, I sat down, and as my body armor shifted slightly, it created a small pocket of space between my chest and the armor, forcing up a super-charged hot stream of air that quickly swooped into my nostrils.

The smell!

For an instant I was whisked away from the comfort of cool, cloudy London to bright and sunny Baghdad. Taking in that smell was like going 88 mph with July 2003 on the time circuits. The smell of body armor, uniform and human perspiration, compressed for hours and suddenly released is unlike anything else. It’s a small cloud of awesome. It’s not a bad smell. It’s hot and only lasts for a moment. It’s hard work. And then it’s gone.

Smells trigger memories.

For some, the deep and cutting whoop whoop whoop of a helicopter, or loud, sudden sounds usher in old memories of busy skies and tense moments. Others are reminded of the past by the things they see: garbage, crowds, stillness. Sights and sounds don’t do it for me. Smells, more than the other senses, makes me remember. And I’m grateful for it.

Grateful because it’s not just memory. It’s a small portion of the feeling associated with that time. The smell is familiar, and the brain does quick work, conjuring a host of feelings that have long sat dormant. Not deep, reflective feelings. But bio-chemical feelings. The ones you actually feel, not think. The memory that rests inside of bones, muscles, cells, and blood vessels.

For a moment, that stuff is activated. Not fully. But enough to make you pause to remind yourself where you are. For that instant, dull lightning throbs in the body and turns on things that stopped working, stopped paying attention, long ago.

Smell is primal and chemical. It’s not sound or light waves. You ingest it and it becomes a part of you.

Other smells that trigger memories for me:

Early Morning Urban. The smell of cool air mixed with overnight garbage. Sometimes on the way to the gym in the morning I’ll catch this.

Early Morning Desert. Still air and dust being slowly warmed up by a rising sun. I think it’s mostly the dust. Small particles. You can taste it.

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