Baghdad-"The roads in Iraq," writes a young soldier, "are the front lines in this war, which has no rear." United States forces in Iraq, for the most part, have retreated inside heavily fortified bases. The only time they have contact with the violent world outside is when convoys venture to pick up or deliver supplies, personnel, fuel, ammunition, or VIPs.
The author of that brilliant one-line assessment of the battlefield here, Sgt. Breeze Hennes, is herself a convoy driver-arguably the most dangerous job in Iraq. Insurgents focus their wrath on convoys. They revel in the casualties they inflict.
Last summer, I spent a week on convoy patrols with a Baghdad-based artillery unit, to see what kind of abuse men and machines take over there. It wasn't pretty.
A few dozen of us gather in the Kuwait Hilton's lobby, headed for our flight to Iraq. We're glad to leave Kuwait; today, it will be hazy, hot, and 131 degrees.
Ali Hassan, an Iraqi merchant who is flying with us, is asked to explain what Iraq is like. He says, "It is a rich country. The date crop, if it can ever get going again, is worth more than the oil reserves. We also have minerals, every kind of fruit and vegetable, animals, you name it. It is a very rich country. But the people are idiots."
We take off in an ancient C130 transporter during the height of the searing heat. We're well on our way to our destination when hot hydraulic fluid starts spraying from the roof. It's unlikely we'll make it to Baghdad, so we have to turn around. After an emergency landing, we're assigned a backup. It won't fire up. Finally, about sunset, one plane is determined airworthy enough to wheeze its way to Baghdad. It's about 10 p.m. when we finally pancake hard on a pitch-black runway, and are escorted by armored cars to the Baghdad "terminal." We sit for another three hours before we get an escort into town.
The unit I'm going to embed with is actually the one assigned to escort us from the airport, along notorious "Route Irish," which had been attacked, and overrun briefly, by insurgents three days before. While others in our group have to ride ugly "Rhino buses" (armored personnel carriers), I get to ride in the tail-end Humvee, in full armor and helmet. All very interesting-and I am probably quite wide-eyed during it all.
Car bomb wrecks everywhere ... on the roof ... in the street ... too many to clean up.
It's only about a 10-minute ride under normal circumstances. Passing three still-smoking car-bomb hulks reminds me there is no such thing as "normal circumstances" in Baghdad. Now it's a gauntlet of barricades, checkpoints, detours, and unannounced route variations.
Our convoy consists of our four HMMWV model M1114s, complete with roof turret-mounted machine guns and a crew of three, a semi hauling two SeaLand-type shipping containers full of luggage, and three armored Rhino buses full of personnel bound for the Green Zone.
We pass through a checkpoint that's just been rebuilt from a recent attack that injured 22.
On this evening, however, all is quiet. We roll into the heavily fortified Green Zone a few minutes later and leave off our escorted parties. I notice 13 Bangladeshis-contract laborers derided as "Sherpas"-piling into an unarmored minibus. They'd flown with us, wearing no armor whatsoever, while we had been ordered to do so. I later hear that the same kind of minibus was ambushed the next day by insurgents, who machine-gunned all aboard. I wonder if it was the same bus.
Our unit-the 1st Battalion, 76th Field Artillery, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Army Infantry Division, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia-is headquartered in a former palace and government office complex used by Saddam Hussein. It doesn't look very palatial these days. "Tomahawk Palace"-so-called because it took 16 to 18 direct Tomahawk missile hits during our invasion-is still standing ... barely. Its next-door neighbor, "The Pyramid," is an eight-story Aztec-style building that took even more hits. The facade is barely hanging on it. The inside is gutted. Some of our guys have their tents pitched inside.
The guys have thoughtfully built me a "VIP suite" by putting up a plywood wall at the end of a hall. The adjacent room has a washing machine, a small shower, and a private indoor toilet-almost unheard-of luxuries in Iraq.
After about two hours of sleep, I force myself to go to breakfast. The mess hall is a couple of double-wide trailers slammed together. It has several cafeteria-style food lines. In the morning, it also has an omelet station and a waffle stand. At lunch, it has a custom sandwich bar, and at night, there's a sundae bar. It costs the U.S. taxpayers about $60 a day to feed a soldier. Televisions blare in here 24 hours a day, on ESPN, except when anything even remotely related to NASCAR is showing on any other channel.