Backstage Pass to a War Zone, diary entries from Baghdad by Chris Elliott
A few months ago I fielded a phone call outlining the most interesting gig I've ever been offered in the thirty or so years that I've been a weekend warrior, part-time professional trumpet player. It paid a modest ($100) per diem, but the terms of the gig included transportation to and from the venue. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a big deal, but in this case, the gigs were taking place in Baghdad, Iraq.
I used to work with a fine cover band out of Manchester, New Hampshire called Groove Alliance. The band plays a wide variety of horn-oriented dance music including material by Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, James Brown, all of that, as well as some more modern pop and R&B.
The star of this show is a male vocalist named Mike Pacheco. Pacheco has a preternaturally clear, bell-tone tenor voice, one of the best I’ve ever worked with, maybe even one of the best I’ve ever heard. He is a very special music maker, and he has real star quality. I love him as a musician and I love him as a man.
If not for a career in the military, he easily could have been a professional entertainer. In addition to a great voice, Major Michael Pacheco possesses all of the extras that a lead singer needs: intelligence, high energy, good humor, and quick-wittedness.
About a year ago, he was deployed to Iraq as an economics coordinator in the Iraq reconstruction effort. Over the course of his stay there, Pacheco befriended an executive with the Taha-Kubba Group, a large holding company headquartered in Baghdad, as well as high-ranking executives from ECC, a construction company heavily invested in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. Major Mike showed them the Groove Alliance website, and they began scheming a way to get the band to Iraq to play a week of dates in the former Green Zone, now called the International Zone.
To make a really long story short, they pulled it off. I am now sitting in JFK Memorial Airport having successfully completed the first leg of the journey to Iraq, a forty-minute flight aboard a prop plane that flew on time out of the Manchester Airport. It was a smooth, turbulence-free flight whose propellers I swear were assisted in their powers of elevation by the anticipation of its cargo, a ten-piece American dance band bound for a week of dates in Baghdad.
Next up is a six-hour flight to Charles de Gaulle International in Paris. From there we go to Amman, Jordan, and on to the most dangerous city in the world, Baghdad, Iraq.
One of our faithful is already playing doctor, administering Ambien tablets to anyone who wants to tranquilize their flight. There are several takers and even one who was inclined but apprehensive because of recalling a television commercial in which the voiceover announcer said, “Make sure you have at least eight hours to dedicate to sleep before taking Ambien.”
I am thinking to myself, “You have got to be kidding,” and then it all came back to me. This band is really good, but they are not the slobbering pig dog hardcores I was accustomed to. I love this band, I always have. Groove Alliance. Oh yeah, I loves me some Groove Alliance. I love everyone who has ever been in Groove Alliance. I was the trumpet guy for three years with this band, and there was plenty of personnel change along the way, just as I had become personnel change. A fine player and nice fellow named Steve Price had this gig before I did, and he has it now.
Groove Alliance is the kind of band that attracts really positive, upbeat, outgoing people. That is not the kind of musician I’m used to working with. I’m used to some seasoned night trippers, some down low cats. And here my trombone player is nervous about having to shake off the last two hours of a dose of Ambien in a Paris airport?
When I was his age I was stepping onto a cruise ship out of San Francisco with a throat full of blow and a hip flask full of whiskey, wondering if I could sneak a joint on the poop deck before the first downbeat, which was twenty minutes away. I recall one gig where the bass player stepped to the side of the stage and delivered a hearty stream of heroin vomit into a potted palm without taking his bass off, or for that matter, missing a beat. Ambien concerns? Fucking Ambien?
We’re in the air now. I am writing in a beautiful vellum paper, string-bound journal that my best friend gave me for Christmas, along with a black roller pen I would have thought I’d have lost by now; but this bold, black script is proof that even my pronounced tendency toward invoking the worst proclivities of the absent-minded professor in me can be corralled if the wish to honor the vision of the giver is sufficiently strong. And it is.
So it’s Air France, flight 1173 out of JFK and the flight attendants are way too good-looking. They are perfectly bilingual, probably bisexual, and unspeakably gorgeous. I have let myself go lately, and being in the presence of intercontinental hospitality professionals has brought it all under a microscope. With a college fighting weight of 185, my strategy of adding another sixty pounds of fat since then has done nothing for my middle-aged and single marketing plan.
Adding to the shock effect of being presented with various samplings of human physical perfection is the fact that I come from New Hampshire, a place not known for its pulchritude. It’s cold up here and most of us slow down and cover up once the snow starts falling.
I haven’t seen many pretty people lately, and this close encounter with a dozen centuries of Western European female refinement is a bit of a choker right now. The flight attendant servicing the left aisle makes me want to beat my dick like it owes me money, and I am considering it. I have a little airplane blanket I could spread across my lap, and if she were within a few rows, I’m sure it would only take a couple of tugs.
The meal chez Air France was a choice of chicken fricassee or perch with bell pepper cream sauce. Fresh miniature baguettes were served with butter or Brie along with your choice of Evian, or miniature bottles of Merlot or Chardonnay. It was still airline food, prepared some time ago and put into cryosurgical time deepening like a severed Ted Williams head, but it was done about as well as airline food can be done.
We have also been outfitted with headsets and eyeshades, peculiar little eye muffs in baby blue. I’m going to try them. Last night’s mercy fuck “in case you get killed” with a great girl I will NEVER FORGET kept me short on sleep enough that in spite of my various sleep issues (general insomnia, tinnitus, hyperacusis), I was hoping I might doze off. Unlikely though, and I don’t think the Ambien would have helped. There is a consistent tailwind turbulence that has been making it physically hard to write and I can’t imagine for me its conduciveness to sleeping.
I tried Ambien once, and by tried I mean I ran through a bottle of it. I think my combined drug tolerances frisked the Ambien doses at the door, took away her mojo and turned her out, high-fiving over her back every attempt I made to invoke its purported narcoleptic prowess. I need something stronger than Ambien if I’m going to sleep unnaturally. Maybe chloroform. Or ether.
It looks like the Ambien has kicked in plane-wide. There, I just coined a word. Plane-wide. Definition: An experience or state of being that becomes or has become common among passengers on a particular flight. Plane-wide.
Most of the plane seems to be in some state of repose but I am not participating. As I have expressed, sleep and I have a tenuous relationship. In order to drop into the REM stage, I require darkness, silence, and a blowjob, none of which are available here.
Scribbling away high above the mighty Atlantic surrounded by people with baby blue blinders on in varying degrees of consciousness while hurtling through the air at a ground speed of 700 miles per hour is an inspiring and humbling experience. The fact of this technology existing to pull this off is wonderful. The combined imagination of so many great minds leaves me stupefied. It makes me decry the application of my unique imagination over the course of my own life. I’ve never made metal fly, though in a way of thinking, a good trumpet solo does precisely that.
There is about an hour left to this leg of the journey. Our lady singer Adriana is standing in the aisle, cooing over her husband Bill, and I can’t help thinking that he married well. I like Bill so far, which means she has married well as well. I bet he’s great if Adriana fell for him, because she is, as we say in New Hampshire, wicked cool.
I am recently single after the dissolution of a 15 year monogamous relationship that failed because of an ever burgeoning lack of shared values. She fit an MO that I have had since college: five-foot tall blondes with a dramatic figure, a blistering intellect, and a bit of a mean streak. I think next time I’ll aim for sweetness above all. Now I’m depressed. I think I’ll stop here.
Leaving Paris now, and that’s fine with me. The rudeness to efficiency quotient during our waiting period at Charles De Gaulle equals a perfect ten. That is to say ten over one. After an hour and a half of being snapped at by security personnel, shoved in line by other Frenchies, and issued constant disdainful body language, I say this place can take an accidental MOAB on the way to Iraq as far as I’m concerned. I am sure that if afforded a more detailed tour of this city renowned for its art and culture I’d be gushing with praise, but as far as getting in and out of Charles de Gaulle International Airport, this place sucks.
So it’s off to Amman, Jordan, and it’s looking more and more like I’ll be promoted from second trumpet to sound engineer! I am not steady with this band, having given the gig up two years ago due to an increasing problem with my hearing that was being exacerbated by regular exposure to high sound pressure levels. The band’s singer knows me as an interested and adventurous person, and offered to let me come along on this fantastic journey, and as he anticipated I would, I accepted.
The band’s steady trumpet player, Steve Price has great accuracy, a good sound, and better range than I do. The horn section is off book, that is, they have all of the music memorized, whereas I would have to set up a music stand and read the book, cluttering the stage and thereby marring the presentation somewhat.
The regular soundman for this gig elected not to go for work reasons and a general distaste for air travel. A substitute soundman volunteered to fill in, but fell sick shortly before it was time to go. Security clearance for this thing began months ago, so there was no way to bring a new body on board. We would go without a sound engineer.
In addition to being a trumpet player, I have good experience in sound reinforcement, having run sound for several bands and having run a pro audio department in a million dollar a month retail music store. I have no ego requirement to be on stage, though I anticipate I’ll be invited to sing a few tunes and join in on trumpet once in a while. Cool for me, I’m happy.
My main reason for going is to see firsthand US operations in Baghdad, rather than slog through filtered versions of the truth presented by the US media from left and right biased news agencies. I’m certain that I’ll mine numerous sources for stories, and I’ve always believed that best way to work on your art is to work on your life. If you know more, if you’ve experienced more, then you have a deeper reservoir of source material to filter through your chosen medium of expression.
On the plane, a smiley, rotund Jordanian that sat next to me pointed out the lands below. As we flew over a succession of gathered points of light, he identified first Israel, then Palestine.
From ten thousand feet above, I became moved and saddened for mankind as we swept across this most embattled and unstable part of the world. We flew over all of the oppression, over all of the persecution, the war, the death, the racism, the religious intolerance, and left it behind us, as we did clouds of burned jet fuel, forgotten and disregarded, to dissipate as it would, as it may. We are touching down in Amman right now, and I sign off here.
Apparently we have found a soundman in 23-year old petty officer and E5 Josh Blair. His father is the guitarist for King’s X, one of the best touring rock acts in the country, and he has been on the road assisting as a sound engineer for years. I guess I’m back to being a trumpeter. Rats! I was looking forward to driving the audio bus.
Groove Alliance has a very decent touring PA system. It is a 24-channel board with four sub mixes, six monitor mixes and four effects busses. Not super complicated, but very capable, and plenty good enough to make the stage and the front of house sound good. They use QSC PLX power amps and a biamped JBL system with nice beefy subs. I was looking forward to dialing up some tasty mixes, but all of that is now moot. We have a really experienced man twisting the knobs, so it looks like I’m a trumpet player. That’s fine. It’s something I’m used to.
Well, I jinxed myself and lost the roller pen my best friend gave me. Her name is Heather. I love her. She’s beautiful, but that’s not why I love her. I love her because she is a good soul, a good mother, and a good person. She’s also more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
I write now with a damnable ballpoint lifted from the lobby of the Hotel Royale in Amman, Jordan, a gorgeous hotel in a beautiful city. The room rates are posted on the wall and the cheapest room here is 400 Jordanian Dinars. With the dollar trading at 75 cents against a dinar, that’s about $525 a night. Nice place! I figure the pilfered pen won’t put them out of business, so no guilt here.
Stone mansions line the streets in this part of Amman, eerily dark out front, perhaps uninhabited in this elite section of the city, like most of the mansions on the New Hampshire seacoast, occupied two weeks out of the year. Disparity of wealth is rushing forward here as well as in the US, as it always has, as it ever shall. We were shuttled from the airport to the hotel by a helpful, professional organization called Amana Tourism Services. When we got there, sax player Carl and I torched a Cohiba robusto and hoisted a few steins of Amstel draft beer in the boom-boom room, and then it was off to bed after 29 hours of traveling and waiting. I am beat and should sleep soundly.
On the way to the airport this morning, we saw Amman in the light of day. It is a dry, arid area, very flat and populated with low brush, short and squat palms, and hearty pines, though short and thin with fierce bunches of long needles. There are no tall trees, and of course as a result, there are no wooden houses.
We passed through a checkpoint along the way, manned by a phalanx of uniformed guards, a gauntlet whose exclamation point was a Jeep equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun in case any motorist passing through had any objection to the scrutiny and had an inclination to accelerate on through.
After they dropped us off at the airport, we were led through a screening process by airport personnel who handled us as a group. I struck up a conversation with a baggage handler who eventually asked me where we were headed. When I answered, "Baghdad," he paused, shook his head, and said two words: "Very dangerous."
The boarding process in Amman was unlike the other airports along the route. They loaded the planes and ran the security check in a single process rather than processing everyone through security, and then allowing passengers to make their way to their respective boarding gates.
They did it destination by destination, first Damascus, next Beirut. I’m good at detecting patterns, and I thought that if indeed the processing methodology was predicated on reverse order in terms of relative devastation that Baghdad would be last to board.
The closer we got to the epicenter of the unrest, the more intense the security screening. Shoes, belts and coats came off and took a trip through the x-ray machine, and my fold-up music stand became a topic of uneasy conversation among the baggage screeners. They couldn’t tell what it was and given the language barrier I couldn’t explain it to them. They eventually let me through after I set it up and played air guitar in front of it.
We are officially delayed. So we wait.
The Beirut flight was processed, and for the first time in the journey we saw a large group of Muslims in traditional dress, about 50 men, women and children, many turbaned to indicate having completed the hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, some bearing the red and white turban indicating citizenship in a nation with a monarchy, most likely in this case, Jordan.
I cannot stop thinking about Jordan. How little I know about her, and how much I admire her. How I think that if Jordan has figured out how to remain at peace in the Middle East, she must know something the much of the Middle East doesn’t.
King Abdullah of Jordan is much beloved as a reformer who embraces the traditional with equal grace. Sandwiched between Israel, Lebanon and Iraq, and internally pinched by a growing modernist movement and a firmly entrenched Islamic fundamentalist core, King Abdullah performs a high wire balancing act unlike any other leader in the world. For the most part, Jordan seems to be a peaceful place in a raging hellfire, the eye of the Middle East hurricane.
We are now officially cancelled, perhaps due to weather. What? It’s raining? In the desert? It isn’t raining in Amman, but Baghdad is 500 miles away, so who knows? I suspect that there is a security problem at Baghdad International. That’s what I think.
Damn the luck. So, it’s Amana Tourism Services to the rescue. We’ve put in a call to the company sponsoring our trip letting them know they are looking at another several thousand dollars to put us all up in Amman. The wheels are in motion to find another hotel and to try again tomorrow.
This just in, scuttlebutt has it that apparently the cancellation was due to security concerns. From the reading I’ve done of reporters covering Baghdad International that usually means mortar fire from continuously changing launch locations around the airport. We are booked on a commercial flight, rather than a military one, a common means of getting into Baghdad apparently. I had read about the “death spiral” landings that flights were required to undergo in years past, but the perimeter of the airport had subsequently been under control enough that the dramatic altitude drop landing technique was no longer necessary.
There are two ways to look at this cancellation I guess; one, that this place is so dangerous that it’s crazy to even try to get in like this, or two, that the security apparatus is very much in tune with insurgency tactics, and knows exactly what can and cannot be managed safely. I tend to believe the latter. The professionals I have met thus far on the trip and over the course of obtaining security clearance stateside lead me to the assessment that I am in the care of the best trained, best-equipped fighting force in the world.
Tonight, Saturday. Where do I begin? At the Amman International Hotel bar, I guess. Amstel draft beer and Cuban cigars with tenor man Carl Benevedes seemed an innocent enough prologue, but the real magic began, as it always does, with meeting new people.
Carl and I were discussing music, humanity, multiculturalism in America and the world, and the relative values of education versus experience. Blah, blah, blah. A handsome fellow about my age pulled up next to us at the bar. We engaged him in conversation and discovered that he had just come from Baghdad where he had been a security consultant for CBS News, providing advice and assistance for a team of journalists who had been there for two months. He went by the charming nickname of Smudge and introduced himself to us as such. He was formerly with the English Army serving with Special Forces, and by his bearing and his standing, seemed to me to be an elite soldier.
Carl turned a bit ashen, as he was an honorably discharged soldier himself, and was familiar with the British military. He later explained to me that British Special Forces range in the several dozens, while American Special Forces number in the several thousands. Through the mention of his status as Special Forces within the English Army, our sax man understood that this fellow was in the James Bond category of special operative. He was a guy who might be asked to parachute into the ocean at night wearing a wet suit, swim a mile and attach an explosive charge to a docked ship, then swim a mile back to be picked up by a helicopter. A producer from CBS who had been in Baghdad for those same two months recognized him from across the room and came over.
They stayed with us for another Amstel, and then retreated to a table together, and Carl and I resumed our previous conversation. The band’s female vocalist, Adriana soon came into the bar with the exciting news that we had been invited to a traditional Jordanian feast by an operative from ECC, one of the corporate entities sponsoring our trip. ECC was founded 22 years ago, initially specializing in the location, gathering, and destruction of ordnance, and was so successful at it that it was offered contracts in other areas including reconstruction.
All ten band members were seated in the palatial dining room of the Amman Intercontinental Hotel along with Lonnie Belanger, a retired colonel and our conduit to ECC, where we were treated to an incredible meal. The first course was salads and appetizers—a partial list is as follows: lentils with fried onions, beef kibbeh with olive oil, marinated black and green olives, thin pita bread, roasted eggplant with tahini, parsley salad with citrus dressing, cucumber and red onion with cilantro, stuffed grape leaves, and fried cheese.
The second course was ground lamb with chickpea flour, and lamb with a yogurt mint sauce. The third course was lamb and chicken, braised and zatar seasoned along with lamb, beef and chicken kabob. Two regional desserts followed, a sweetbread with cheese. It was light and transparent, just delicious. The other one I can’t effectively describe right now and I didn’t like it so well. What a nice gesture on the part of ECC, and what fantastic food.
We’re back at the Amman Airport TRYING AGAIN. As Amana Tourism Services drove us to the airport, we passed by the usual uniformed armed guards stationed outside the various embassies and hotels and our driver mentioned that the city of Amman has virtually no crime. He said that there had been one murder in the city of Amman the previous year. “The police found out who did it,” he said. “He’s gone now.”
The vibe of the city is one of high achievement, dignity and Arab pride, but also one of “We don’t fuck around.”
We soon passed by a billboard that for me summarized Jordan’s national attitude, a communally arrived at sacred and secular disposition that has kept her from descending into the sectarian violence that plagues Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. It was the largest billboard I saw on the thirty-minute drive between the airport and the Abdu section of the city, where most of the better hotels are located. It was thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall, illustrated with five hands holding up a rippling Jordanian flag and the words in English and Arabic, “Jordan First.”
I am a great lover of succinct phraseology, of minimalist language that efficiently communicates large ideas. Readers of this tome will surely remark that I am also a fan of verbose expostulation as well, at least as far as my own writing is concerned. Still, from a reader’s viewpoint, I love a good slogan, a “Raid kills bugs dead,” or “Dawn cuts grease,” something that blazes an efficient path to the heart of the intended sense of the message.
What “Jordan First” says to me is that there is an ongoing outreach to all Jordanians to accept their fellow countrymen’s differences in religion, race, politics and social status, be they great or small, and to recognize nationhood and unity as the greatest source of strength for all of the people of Jordan. In an area of the world where sacred and secular divisiveness are tearing neighboring nations apart, there is a call to all Jordanians not to succumb to the temptations of entities that would oppress people with opposing viewpoints It is what we try with varying but generally prevailing success to do in America. I leave Jordan today for Iraq with a great love of Jordan and its people. I will miss this place.
Our flight has been cancelled AGAIN! The official word is bad weather, though all of us are skeptical.
After the last cancellation, due to seat availability, we arranged for half of the band to take a 7AM flight that indeed did take off and successfully land in Baghdad. Ray, our keyboard player suggested that it was a case of the Mujis wanting to sleep in after a long night of suicide bombing preparation and settling for shooting at the later plane. Very funny, Ray.
Our driver from the airport back to the hotel was really aggressive this time. It’s kind of like New Hampshire driving in that there are plenty of traffic circles and nobody yields. I did see one Yield sign that read Yield in Arabic, then in English, followed by the letters LOL. Just kidding of course. In Jordan, the horn appears to be more essential driving equipment than does a braking system.
The hotel is nice but the amenities are breaking my budget. We should be eating courtesy of the US taxpayer in the Green Zone mess hall by now, but instead we are being crushed by the dollar to dinar exchange rate, expensive food, begging waiters and bell boys, and ancillary costs of varying types that seem to pop up out of nowhere. It’s already been quite an experience, but apart from running out of money, I am anxious to play and anxious to see the war zone.
The band shipped all of its equipment and clothing ahead of time, so I am staying in a $500 a night hotel room for the third night in a row, and I am wearing the same clothes I arrived in. There is so much money all around us; presumed oil barons in thousand dollar suits with twenty-something arm candy in the little black dress that changes everything, alongside elegant older couples adorned in baubles and broaches. I brought clean socks and underwear thankfully, but at this point my pants could get up and walk away by themselves. I’m probably the stinkiest, ugliest motherfucker in this whole hotel. Except of course, maybe Ray.
We bought more Cohiba Cubans at the airport duty free shop and the plan is to fire them up after dinner tonight—looking forward to that. It sucks a bit not having the whole band to hobnob with.
The ones still here include Ray, a bidet-loving forty something keyboard player and singer. Ray is a super sharp IT guy who learned by doing twenty years ago and now has a kick-ass job. Also a 35 year old sax player named Carl who sounds like Lenny Pickett and works as a band director in the Amherst NH school system (at 6’2” and 250 pounds with a shaved head, he is a menacing presence). There is Steve, a fine trumpet player who has been selling cars ever since forever and seems to be in a process of figuring out what a good and soulful person he is after crawling from the wreckage of an asphyxiating marriage and subsequently finding a woman who accepts him for who he is. Jesse is a burning electric guitar player and co-leader of the band, likewise recently unencumbered from a bad marriage and currently enjoying a good one.
There is also me, a bright and talented guy approaching fifty who has been treading water a long time and who has decided that he wants more from life than he has been taking. Doing a trumpet gig in Baghdad seems a good way to start that change.
Tonight’s entertainment was four of the five of us hunkering down for beer and hookah smoking in the Lebanese room at the Intercontinental Hotel. Ray went to bed. The native term for the hookah in Jordan is “argila,” and the name of it on the menu and on the bill is “Hubbly Bubbly.”
An Egyptian named Jama was our waiter, and he brought each of us a three-foot tall water pipe and large almonds in a dish over ice. The hookah, also known as a shisa, consists of a glass cylinder where the tobacco is placed and a draw pipe that leads downward into the bottom of an ornate water pipe. There is a draw hose with a plastic tip that you smoke out of and an aluminum foil cover for the glass cylinder that is perforated with a series of tiny holes. Hot coals are placed on top of the foil cover, and when you draw on the hose the coals glow hot, vaporizing the tobacco in the glass cylinder. The smoke passes through the water in the base of the pipe and then out the draw hose.
What a lovely smoking experience. Cool and flavorful with a delightful buzz. As the coals died out, Jama would come by with a bucket of coals and replace the dying ones with fresh ones from the bucket.
All four of us were smoking but Jama spoke only to me. I had the sense that he was fond of me, as I was of him. I imagined that he had a manly love of me, a love that is common in the Middle East among men, where handholding, kissing, and walking arm in arm is a common cultural practice among men. I later found out from Major Mike that the more likely reason he was attentive to me was because Muslims revere their elderly and I was the oldest of the four of us. How funny that I at first thought it was my high sense of style.
It’s five AM on Monday and I am writing in the hotel lobby. We are making another attempt to fly from Amman to Baghdad. What a great time we had last night, and like Jama said when I explained the frustration of the previous two days, everything happens for a reason.
The term for this attitude in Arabic is “In shah Allah,” which translates as ‘if God wills it’, or ‘God willing’. This notion of fatalism and predestination permeates all aspects of Arabic life, and our lack of understanding of this at the highest levels of government, in my opinion, is at the heart of our failed policy here. For Arabs, the hive is the organism, not the bee. Americans are so narcissistic and self-referential that we can’t understand this notion of being a cog in a much larger wheel.
I am early to the lobby. Our ride is at six, but when I was trying to put the digital clock face down so as not to be kept awake by its luminescence, I accidentally turned the radio in it on and it squawked some crazy Japanese station. I fumbled with it in the dark and somehow managed to freeze the time. I got up in the dark and panicked that I might be late, so I took a shower and went to the lobby to write a little while.
Halleluiah! We’re on the plane to Baghdad! It’s an hour and a half flight. Right now, I can barely hold the pen due to a pair of incredibly cute Asian flight attendants that greeted us onto the plane. Perfect! Ay caramba these girls are FINE! My word. I know I’ve already spouted off about gorgeous flight attendants, but a new bar has been set. These Asian women make the French flight attendants look like mere mortals.
I am currently in the crossfire of a conversation between two motorcycle gearheads; our trumpet player seated directly in front of me and an ECC contractor seated directly next to me. It has been going on for 30 minutes and it is driving me insane. I am hoping they tire each other out soon. Discussions of compression ratio, chassis characteristics, please, just shoot me. Now they’re talking about the death wobble characteristic of the 1971 BMW motorcycle, just fucking SHOOT ME!!! Apparently BMW solved the death wobble problem by lengthening the wheelbase. Shoot me. Please? Just fucking shoot me. In the head. Like Old Yeller, out behind the barn. Have mercy. SHOOT ME!!!!
We’ve landed. Of the four airports involved in our safe passage, this is the scariest. There is a tension here that was absent the other three. There are guards with machine guns, as there have been at all of the airports I’ve been in over the course of the last three days, but at Baghdad International, there are a lot more of them, and though it’s difficult to guess this, they seem to have a lower threshold for what it would take for them to actually shoot you.
As we stood in line, I heard an explosion out on the tarmac. A loud explosion. I was standing next to a US soldier and he didn’t flinch, so I figured there was nothing to worry about, but I was still curious.
“What was that?” I asked him.
“Con-det,” he said.
“Con-det. Controlled detonation. They probably found some IED or UXB out on the tarmac. They put a concrete box over it and hit it with an EMP. No big deal, happens all the time.”
IED = Improvised explosive device
UXB = Unexploded bomb
EMP = Electro-magnetic pulse.
It occurred to me that I was speaking with a fellow who sees enough controlled detonations to have to fashion an abbreviated way of expressing it. Wow. I guess we’re in Iraq.
An ECC representative met us at the airport and drove us to Victory Base. Victory Base is one of four bases located just north of Baghdad International Airport. The four bases, Victory, Striker, Liberty, and my favorite, Slayer were once truly separate entities, but it became so dangerous to travel between them that they were each expanded so as to spill into one another, creating something of an army base megalopolis, a massive tent city from which most security operations in Baghdad are launched.
From there we were taken on a tour of the base complex, which incorporates among its assets several of Saddam’s fourteen palaces. Our guide, Sergeant McGuinn pointed out the functions of many of the various palaces. One was used to house his many mistresses, and another structure, a jaunty, aimlessly designed sandstone building that was a play castle for Saddam’s various bastard children. It had been renamed Fort Flintstone by the occupying American forces.
McGuinn’s thumbnail assessment of the way things stand now is that Muqtada Al Sadr’s Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, is the greatest threat to stability in Baghdad. Apart from Al-Sadr’s heavily armed forces, numerous independent cells operated with relative impunity as well.
He said that the greatest threat to the bases was random mortar fire into the base area. He described a dynamic called “shoot and scoot,” in which small groups of insurgents would pull up in a pickup truck somewhere outside the base perimeter, take a 300 pound mortar launcher out of the back of the truck and set it up, and then lob one or two mortars into the base, then hop back into the truck and disappear into the city.
“We have systems that identify where the incoming are coming from, which is why they never get more than two shots. If they try for three, by then we’ve deployed an air strike and it’s just red mist for the bad guy,” McGuinn said. “Fortunately, they pretty much suck at what they do. Sometimes though, they get lucky and someone gets hurt or killed.”
He then drove us over to the “Rhino,” the heavily armored and armed military personnel transport vehicle used to shuttle people in and out of the International Zone. The Rhino is a boxy, awkward-looking oversized van that can carry up to twelve people. It is a thirteen-ton, $300,000 vehicle with a rough ride. We donned flak jackets and helmets as is required in order to board a rhino, and rode the twelve miles down Route Irish, escorted by two up armored Humvees with a .50 machine gun turret mounted in the back.
After orientation with two of the International Zone’s Army sergeants, we procured our identification credentials. We now have three IDs. One, a department of defense ID that identifies us as contractors, one is a VIP pass that gets us in and out of the IZ and permits mobility and access within the IZ (sometimes you pass through several checkpoints getting from one place to another), and one that gets us into the US Embassy.
Proper ID and compliance with security personnel is critical. Not long ago, an Australian official was driving into the IZ. He was motioned to stop at a checkpoint but was apparently distracted by a cell phone and drove right through it. At a secondary checkpoint, he drove through again and a guard shot out the tires. He panicked and accelerated and the soldiers then, as they say here, lit him up. As our orientation sergeant said of the security personnel, “They will kill you.”
International Zone security personnel are not US soldiers. They are private security detail, professional mercenaries from a cross-section of nationalities, mostly British, Spanish, and my favorite, Ghurka. The Ghurkas are a Nepalese fighting force descended from a long tradition of professional militias, having fought for Queen Victoria during the Indian mutiny in the mid eighteenth century. They have a legendary loyalty and ferocity, and are not to be trifled with.
They are diminutive, and very handsome as a rule, with beautiful smiles and teeth. In addition to the modern assault rifle they carry, they are also equipped with a sidearm and a twelve-inch curved dagger at their side, and one gets the impression that given a choice, they would prefer to eviscerate you with the blade rather than blow your head off with the gun.
I noticed that some Ghurka had a series of small scars on the inside of their forearms. Our drummer knows a lot about military history and I asked him about it. He was ready with the answer. He said that when a Ghurka unsheathes his dagger, if he does not kill his opponent with it for whatever reason, he must then blood the knife on himself. Yikes. Humorist though I am, I don’t think I’m going to goof on these guys AT ALL!
Yesterday was our first gig in Baghdad. After the travails of flying from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Paris, to Amman, Jordan, followed by two consecutive cancelled flights from Amman to Baghdad, it was a joy to finally do what we came here to do.
It wasn’t until the next day that we found out what a terrible day in Baghdad it had been. We knew something was going on because of the massive increase in helicopter traffic overhead, but even having been there only for a second day, loud explosions followed by small arms fire were so constant a part of the auditory landscape, that as new to Baghdad as we were, we were already almost jaded.
Dozens of Blackhawk helicopters flew at low altitude over our heads, and for the first time we saw a pair of Apache helicopters. Apaches are a breed apart from Blackhawks. They are sleek and fast, and their approach is heralded by a lower, throatier report than a Blackhawk. Men leaned out the doors of the Blackhawks, Apaches glowered down at the city below them, and the guns waved menacingly across the city as we set up the PA system. An Apache helicopter is an intimidating presence.
A lot of people died that day while we were setting up to play. We heard it. Most of the people who were killed were students at Baghdad University. I tried to think of this happening at BU, or Harvard, as a New Englander. Imagine something like this in Boston. Just imagine.
The method of death’s dispatch that killed the 75 people at Baghdad University was typical according to a soldier I spoke with today. The insurgents detonate a car bomb, and then wait for a crowd to gather in its aftermath. Then they send in another car bomb or a suicide bomber on foot. It is sick. It is so sick.
There was small arms fire all across the city yesterday, but one big blast was followed by another big blast and then by a sustained cacophonous symphony of multiple sirens. It was the sound of maimed and murdered innocents being brought to morgues and hospitals across Baghdad, systems so stressed by the incessant fighting and killing that they are barely able to deliver services.
I had previously heard the dull thud of car bombs followed by the bright, clattering report of small arms fire, but never before with so many ensuing sirens. I asked a soldier about that dynamic and he explained it: “After a car bombing, a crowd gathers. The insurgents know this, and very often they send in a second to kill more in the aftermath of the first attack. The police know this so after a car bombing they disperse the crowd by firing their weapons into the air.”
This time the police didn’t get there in time and 75 students, faculty, and visitors were killed.
You hear the explosions in the morning typically. First, the call to prayer emanates from the mosque minarets, and then the attacks begin. They ebb and flow throughout the day, and then accelerate in the early evening. Overnight, the attacks continue. Sometimes you hear dramatic fighting in the night.
We played up-tempo Rhythm and Blues music, dressed in tuxedos and playing outside in chilly weather as the helicopters flew. We played well enough. I had heard this band better and I’d heard it worse. We were definitely good. Mike, of course, was awesome. We were a little tired. We most certainly did some good that night though. The show was a benefit for the Starfish Network, an organization that funds and facilitates surgeries and other therapies for sick and injured Iraqi children. Ticket sales totaled $20,000, and in addition there were corporate contributions of more than $50,000.
Life-saving monies were gathered and life-ending horrors were perpetrated. I suppose that most days in Iraq, sum zero is as good as it ever seems to get.
By now, most everyone knows that IED stands for “improvised explosive device,” and that it can be anything from a crude nail bomb to a bundle of dynamite sticks, to a couple of dud artillery shells wired to blow from a cell phone ping. Most people have not heard of EFPs, but they are apparently becoming the weapon of choice among the Iraqi insurgency. EFP stands for “explosively formed projectile”, and its utterance is not welcome in the barracks.
Metal tubes with curved seals are packed with explosives and a fitted with a metal charge. These EFPs explode, as do IEDs, creating a tremendous concussion, but they also throw off a superheated molten round, usually either copper or steel, and it can tear through anything, even an Abrams tank.
“We have no armor that defends against an EFP,” said Petty Officer, E5 Army soldier Josh Blair (also our sound engineer). “I have some video of an EFP going through armor, engine block, personnel, and right out the back end of a fully up-armored Humvee.”
Our singer, Major Mike echoes the sense of chill. “Mention an IED to a soldier and he almost shakes it off. A lot of them are poorly made. A lot of them miss. Some of them, we are armored for. IEDs are potentially survivable. But EFPs,” he shook his head. “Nobody likes to hear about EFPs on the road.”
It is a steel pipe, usually less than a foot long, filled with explosives and sealed at one end. A curved steel or copper round is fitted to the other end, forming an oversized bullet that melts on detonation and kills everything in its path. Again, with a few thousand dollars, the insurgency has gone a long way toward making a lot less useful an expenditure of millions of dollars in vehicle and body armor in this increasingly asymmetrical war.
EFPs have caused the deaths of 50 soldiers and Marines in the last month. It’s the new way the insurgency has to kill us and it’s working. Examinations of captured ordnance suggest that they appear to have been machined elsewhere (read as Iran) and smuggled into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
Today we visited Saddam’s old parade site. It is a concourse about the size of three football fields. At either and of the concourse, there is a pair of huge statues that depict a hand holding a sword. The swords’ tips cross at the center of the paved acre about sixty feet in the air. They are called The Hands of Power, and are probably familiar to most people. What most people don’t realize is that at the base of the statue, a bronzed tassel is attached to each of the four swords which in turn attaches to a bronzed woven basket about the size of two minivans; each of these baskets is filled with the helmets of Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran/Iraq War. Many of them have bullet holes in them. Sunk into a strip of cement connecting the bases of the two hands holding the swords are more helmets, so that when the armies marched across the parade grounds, they would trample upon them.
As skeptical as I am of the Bush policy in Iraq, Saddam was a son of a bitch. The Hands of Power Iran/Iraq War Memorial is exemplary of Saddam Hussein’s psychopathic ghoulishness. Nobility is possible in warfare, and it is possible to be the reluctant warrior, as the United States has traditionally been. World War II began in 1937, and we weren’t in until 1941, and Vietnam was well in play when we stepped into that hornet’s nest. Ours is also not to gloat. The heads on pikes and Mi Lai were out of control soldiers, not presidential policy, as in the case of “The Hands of Power.” Our war memorials honor and mourn America’s fallen soldiers. This place, this evil place, instead mocks the dead enemy soldiers. To a true pacifist, I guess the distinction is meaningless, but I see the difference. I feel the difference.
The top “Saddam’s a bad guy” anecdote came from Sergeant McGuinn, who had taken us on a tour of many of Saddam’s palaces. One was reserved for his mistresses and his rape victims. When Saddam saw a woman he found attractive, he had her kidnapped and brought to him along with her mother. If she didn’t agree to the sex, her mother would be tortured until she relented. The mother would sometimes then be killed, sometimes released. Once having served her purpose, one or multiple times, the woman was placed in a cage and thrown into the huge manmade lake outside the palace near Camp Liberty.
The Sergeant had participated in a recovery effort that pulled up the cages containing skeletons and half decomposed female bodies. They stopped the mission after 120 were pulled up. There is now no boating or bathing permitted in the lake. It lies dormant as a shrine to these tortured, murdered women. It’s hard not to cry for them, so I’ve taken the easy way out and cried for them. And cried and cried.
Just across the lake from that palace is the jaunty, fun, sandstone castle, with crawl spaces all throughout, and irregularly shaped rooms inside, some with low ceilings, others with rough finishes and odd angles, a playhouse for Saddam’s many unacknowledged children, born of regular mistresses whom he did not kill. When they would have his children, they would live with them in their own homes, in parts of the palace and at what the soldiers have come to call Camp Flintstone.
In the parking lot at the end of the Hands of Power statues there was a group of about a dozen soldiers in two up-armored Humvees resting before going out on a mission in the red zone, or Baghdad proper. The entire band, ten out of ten of us had gone out to see the parade grounds, and we were greeted warmly by them. We befriended them quickly, taking pictures and asking where they lived and racking our brains for common interest or experience that would make for good small talk, or that would help give them a sense of home.
Some of them were musicians, and all of them were young. There were men and women, Asian, African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian. They looked like America. We goofed around with them for about fifteen minutes, and then they drove into Baghdad, the most dangerous city in the world. It’s hard not to worry about them. I hope they all made it back.
Tonight’s gig was at the US Embassy, temporarily located in one of Saddam’s old palaces. It is an awesome structure with multi-colored polished marble floors, walls, stairs and ceilings. The ceilings are about thirty feet high, vaulted and ornately decorated, some with finely turned and polished marble, some with hand-painted scenes featuring horses rearing on hind legs, others depicting rockets soaring into the distance.
The doors that provide ingress off the main hallway into a series of ballrooms are about twelve feet high. I counted eighteen of them, though there may have been more. Each was finished with a fresco of solid gold, not gold leaf, solid gold! There were sculptures in relief depicting battle scenes, landscapes, and other mythic images I didn’t understand. Each one of course was priceless, but for a layman to appraise them, they must have been worth a quarter of a million dollars each at least. This kind of opulence in construction was going on while millions of Iraqis were starving to death, and while members of Saddam’s own police force were being paid $5 a day.
There is a basement to this building in which unspeakable torture was perpetrated on dissidents and other perceived enemies of the state. They are sealed pending further forensic examination in the hopes of implicating other Baathist operatives and prosecuting them for crimes against humanity. All of this decadence in the face of all of this misery paints a picture of evil in a man, an assessment uttered by George W Bush in his first inauguration speech, one that I bite my tongue to have to agree with him.
The audience for tonight’s show was enlisted men and women who enjoyed two long sets of very hot, horn-driven pop and R&B. It was the best playing we’ve done so far. The band was tight, crisp and relaxed. We had gotten the jetlag out of our system and we were spot on with the arrangements, having run them the night before at the Starfish Network fundraiser. We were funky and loose, but still sharp. Sweet. I’m beat. No cigar tonight, I’m going to bed.
Our final gig was for Embassy staff, mostly Iraqis. We had been scheduled to play one more date at the hospital in the IZ, but the people responsible for setting it up did essentially nothing to prepare, not even bothering to inform hospital brass that this was happening. Imagine a ten-piece funk band blowing into an army hospital unannounced. Add to that the fact the Good Morning America was broadcasting from there that morning, and it became obvious we were persona non grata. Whatever. I still think we should have done the gig.
Anyway, these Iraqi men and women who work with the embassy are critical to the smooth interaction between locals and the occupying army. Without their assistance, integration of this whole effort would be a lot more difficult, and a lot bloodier.
They get a good deal, $10-$12 an hour for a lot for the menial jobs, more for translation, negotiating with local elders and the like. Compared to the $5-$10 a day most would be earning in local bottling, manufacturing or construction, it is a great way for these men and women to contribute to their family’s welfare.
They work at the embassy at great peril to themselves, and do so in secret. There is an undisclosed ingress and egress to and from the IZ for the ones who live in what they call the red zone, that is to say, any place in Baghdad outside the International Zone, or as it was formerly known, Green Zone. If a Sunni man were to be found out by neighboring Shia that he was working in the IZ for the Americans, he might be a target for murder.
To underline the sense of danger, we were awakened rudely that morning. I didn’t need to have set my alarm as I was awakened by a loud announcement pealing from a series of speaker towers located all across the International Zone; “Incoming! Incoming!”
I rolled out of bed and crawled under it, as instructed in the survival sheet I was given at orientation. I was not sure what to expect next. A few minutes passed, and the same metallic voice again rang out across the IZ. “All Clear!! All Clear!!”
The early warning system in the International Zone is called “Big Voice,” and it identifies itself as such during testing; “This is a test of the emergency alert system. This is Big Voice. This is only a test.”
The early warning system can provide between five and eight seconds in which to duck and cover before a rocket or mortar strikes, and I wondered if Big Voice had been falsely triggered. After the “All Clear” message, I crawled back into bed for another hour of sleep before my day was to begin. It was 6:00 AM.
A half hour later, there was a thunderous explosion that rocked my windows. Perhaps Big Voice had missed one. “Lockdown!! Lockdown!!” Big Voice bellowed. Again I rolled under the bed for a few minutes until Big Voice said, “All Clear!! All Clear!!”
I later found out that a mortar round that had been fired into the IZ had triggered the first warning. It was a dud. The second round of course wasn’t a dud, and the early warning system had failed to pick it up. It landed in a field near a checkpoint at a place called Assassin’s Gate, and there were no casualties.
The gig that day was for me at least the most rewarding of all of our performances in Iraq. It was held at 1 PM outside the Gulf Regional Division offices. It was a cool, sunny afternoon, and our audience was Embassy workers from Baghdad. These men and women provide custodial, construction, and other essential services in the IZ.
These are brave, even heroic people who risk their lives on a daily basis working for the US military. They lead double lives to work here, as if they are found out by radical elements living in their own neighborhoods, they and their families would be subject to harassment, even murder.
As our singer Major Mike Pacheco predicted, men populated the front rows, the women for the most part feeling that it was not appropriate for them to be there. By the end of the gig there were a dozen of them on stage, dancing and clapping with us. It was a fantastic, surreal gig, epitomized by two Blackhawk helicopters streaking by 100 feet in the air directly overhead in the middle of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” You can’t make this stuff up.
It was a brilliant sunny day and we had been looking forward to saying thank you the brave Iraqis who are casting their bets on us to be a stabilizing force in the region. It started out pretty awkwardly in that of course they weren’t familiar with the language, let alone the music we were playing, but between the combined charm of Major Mike and Adriana, they began to relate to us, and before long were up dancing and clapping, many of them jumping onstage and dancing with the band. One particularly handsome and charismatic fellow got up on stage and sang a beautiful traditional Iraqi folk song.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I honestly felt like we were building a bridge between Manchester, New Hampshire and Baghdad, Iraq. And again I was reminded, as I so often am, of the very simple but very true statement that my friend Billy Lee once said to me; “Chris, never underestimate the power of music.” Amen, Billy, Amen.
Those words ring true with every carol I play at Christmas time in assisted living facilities, with every sounding of Taps at a veteran’s funeral, with every patriotic medley I play solo after fourth of July fireworks, and with every slow blues I play in a gin joint when I know someone is really listening. Never underestimate the power of music. Never underestimate the power of music.
The Major took me on a virtual tour of Baghdad’s main morgues late last night after I filed my stories with The Boston Globe and The Portsmouth Herald. The pictures are classified, and I can’t get them for publication, but I saw them, and I cannot get the images out of my head.
The morgue photos I saw were of a facility that was equipped to handle perhaps 100 corpses per week, whereas their intake was typically more than five times that. Bodies are laid out on stone floors one next to another in seemingly endless rows. In some of the rooms the quantity of bodies was such that they had begun to be stacked in a second tier.
Many of the dead had obviously been shot execution style with a single bullet to the back of the head, the exit wound occurring in the face, ripping a silver dollar-sized hole in the eyes or cheek. Of these executed, many still wore handcuffs. Another popular killing style in Iraq is the severing of an arm before execution. Of the hundreds of bodies I saw, dozens were missing an arm.
Another typical torture method is anal rape with a broom handle, table leg, or some other foreign object. Many of the corpses were naked, with pronounced black bruises four or so inches across emanating from the anus. Many of the faces of the dead bore expressions of terror, frozen there until rot would work its miracle.
The other remarkable thing about the bodies was how average they seemed. They were in large part men my age, balding, mustached, and a bit pot-bellied some. They seemed to be men with children, wives, and jobs. They weren’t soldiers. They seemed to be men living lives who were killed for attempting to do so.
Murder of heads of households is just the beginning of the picture. Shia militia operatives monitor the morgues, and conduct vengeance strikes on family members who claim Sunni bodies. As result of this, the United States has purchased a sophisticated video monitoring system for the morgue that transmits images of bodies in real time to a remote location. The system catalogs them by name if there is conclusive identification found on the body, and also by age and other descriptors.
Well guess what? The system was purchased three months ago and it’s still in crates. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of refrigeration units are likewise parked and idle at this same morgue. We have footed the bill for all of the hardware necessary to run an efficient, sanitary morgue in Baghdad, but because it suits Shia bloodlust to have families not know what happened to their vanquished enemies, the corpses sit and rot until a few weeks go by, at which time they are loaded into dump trucks and shuttled to various mass graves outside the city.
These dead are primarily Sunni. The killers are primarily Shia. Maliki is Shia. Maliki wouldn’t have been elected if not for the support of radical Shia clerics like Muqtada Al-Sadr. Forty-eight of the 50 governing council members are Shia. Not that the Sunnis are our friends either. It was a Sunni clan that executed the four Blackwater contractors whose helicopter crashed in central Baghdad last week.
So where did we screw up? Apart from hindsight with regards to going in at all, I think it is our obsession with elections. Didn’t that one just bite us on the ass in Palestine? We hurry to assist in the implementation of free and fair elections in Palestine and they vote in Hamas! Fantastic. It’s the same deal in Iraq.
When you topple an autocracy in a nation that’s known only tribalism and clan warfare for 8,000 years, who do you suppose is going to prevail in an election? The biggest, baddest tribe, of course. This isn’t the warm, fuzzy, representational government we imagine a nation will select for itself, seeking to find a place in it for the Turkoman, the Kurd, the Sunni, the Chaldean. No, silly American. This is Iraq. It’s like Chinatown, only more inscrutable.
We have created a sovereign nation that disdains us, and have lost 3,000 American souls and suffered 10 times that many maimed soldiers in order to do so. From conception to implementation and on through its current management, we have failed and continue to fail. We have handed the governance of Iraq to a Shia tool in Maliki, and we are bound over to a policing role as a result. We tried that in North Korea some 50 years ago, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then.
It’s Friday, about to become Saturday and our work here is done. We are manifest to deploy back to Camp Striker. Our last journey in Iraq will be a twelve-mile trek in a Rhino down Route Irish, formerly the most dangerous road in Baghdad. The road has since been brought under firm control.
The Rhino is a 13-ton military personnel transport vehicle with heavy armor on the top, bottom and sides, designed to withstand RPG and IED fire. In the past two weeks, there has been some insurgency activity on Route Irish. The tension in the holding tank for our transport is palpable, even among the officers who have done this dozens of times before. Dead and injured civilians are a bad PR move, and they are heavily invested in our security. Tonight’s convoy is apparently large, and requires more intense security.
We are told that sometimes the Rhino doesn’t roll until 3 or 4 AM, even given an 11 PM manifest. They sweep the road with an electronic IED locator, take aerial photographs of the area, and also “mix it up” according to previous Rhino deployments as far as departure times. According to one officer I spoke with about the strategy, “The one thing you don’t want to do is develop a pattern of behavior.”
Once at Camp Striker, we will sleep (or most likely in my case, won’t sleep) in a tent city, and then catch a 7 AM flight to Amman, Jordan out of Baghdad International. It is a one and a half hour flight whose departure is also not without the possibility of trouble.
One real knockout for me was the surprise arrival of a soldier from Exeter, New Hampshire named Suzanne Tetrault, a sunny, wonderful woman who came out to the Rhino holding area at this late hour to wish us well and to thank us for our humble contribution to our troops’ morale. I cannot believe she took the time to do this, but she did.
At 12:30, an officer barked that we were ready to deploy, and to put on flak jackets and helmets. There is a sign at the holding area which invokes the common stateside restaurant sign that reads “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” only in this case it reads, “No flak jacket, no helmet, no Rhino.”
Our convoy is as follows: two up-armored Humvees, Rhino #1, one up-armored Humvee, Rhino #2, one up-armored Humvee, Rhino #3, one up-armored Humvee, Rhino #4, and two up-armored Humvees bringing up the rear. Ten vehicles on the ground along with a Blackhawk helicopter escort in the air equipped with Hellfire missiles and a pair of .50 caliber chain guns. I was told that if a Blackhawk took two laps around a 60,000-seat football stadium, the Blackhawk could put a bullet in every seat. Our detail leader told us that if we run into any enemy fire that stops the Rhino, that the chopper can land in three to five minutes to evacuate any injured.
He also said that the Rhino can survive most IED explosions, and that he had been aboard one that detonated an IED during a previous convoy. The front end popped up, slammed back down and kept rolling. His speech went something like this: “The Rhino rolls until it can’t roll anymore. If it becomes disabled, another Rhino will come to pick you up. You’ll know it’s us. There are three escape hatches, one on the side, one in the rear and one on the roof. The levers on the roof hatch go to the side, and the hatch opens to the front of the vehicle. It is not a gun turret; it is not an observation post. I don’t need any hyper motivated individuals popping the hatch to act as a spotter or to return fire. The safest place to be is inside the Rhino.”
It was breathtaking to observe a 25-year old man manage ten musicians, most in their forties to the degree that we were of a “yes sir, no sir, whatever you say sir” mindset. Our soldiers are FUCKING FANTASTIC!!!
We are indeed in the care of the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the world. Nobody can stand mano a mano against our soldiers. They are inspiring, and I knew that the hour that would follow, I would learn more abut professionalism than I would have in a full semester of pursuing a Harvard MBA.
The most surprising thing about the Rhino ride from the International Zone along Route Irish was the traffic. It was thick as a morning commute. There were dozens of military vehicles, eighteen-wheelers, and other heavy machinery coming from the other direction as our convoy zigzagged through a series of Jersey barriers that made Route Irish into a slalom course. Obviously, everything rolls at once. Route Irish is a dead zone until all of the sweeps are done and the aerial photos are taken, then they pull the trigger and numerous convoys of various types are deployed. In a second, Route Irish goes from being a silent desert to crowded highway.
At times we were flying down the road, and then there were moments when the convoy stopped altogether. We were so buried in the middle of it we couldn’t see what the holdup was, but it was unnerving every minute that we were stopped.
Each Humvee is equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun and men who know how to operate them. Facing seven of them along with highly trained and mobile small arms fire would require a tremendous organizational effort on the part of the enemy. Add to that a Blackhawk helicopter equipped with Hellfire missiles and two .50 caliber chain guns. The intimidation and readiness our teams display are the reason these personnel transports aren’t attacked as often as they might be.
I believe the US Army saved our lives that night, because if they didn’t display that unerring professionalism on every Rhino run, then every Rhino run would be at greater risk. Heroism isn’t always about a single dramatic event. Though it’s harder to see than a nail-biter rescue, daily commitment to excellence as displayed by the Rhino team operating out of Camp Striker is as great an act of heroism as those that occur on the battlefield.
After the half-hour ride we were hurried off the Rhino to be processed for a tent assignment. It was done without fanfare or farewell, or even a chance to thank the soldiers who as part of their bargain with Uncle Sam had defacto pledged to risk their lives bringing ten civilian musicians out of the International Zone.
We were processed at Camp Striker’s front office building, a cozy wooden structure, austere, but heated nicely against the forty degree chill of Iraq’s winter nights. We were given a blanket and a tent assignment. K3. The soldier handling the paperwork was a smart, efficient, and serious young man, I’d guess to be about thirty years old. His left hand was missing, and I can guess how it happened, and how he came back to where it happened when he could easily have gotten out. He wanted to continue to help, and brave warrior that he is, he had the guts to take the desk job, an adjustment that I’m sure was hard for his pride and commitment to swallow. Like I say, guts.
Each tent held about twenty cots, some with a two-inch thick mattress, some without. The cots were okay, but I was disappointed and a bit angry for our soldiers that they weren’t being issued good wool blankets. The blankets were very thin and very poor quality. This time of year it gets cold and uncomfortable in Iraq, and it’s really troubling that military hardware is so high a priority relative to the basic creature comforts for the people doing the fighting.
We were driven to Baghdad International Airport the next morning, having played soldier for a day. We had trudged in the weird, silvery gray metallic mud that forms in a desert after a rain, we had tossed and turned in a bony cot under a thin blanket, and we had risen before the sun. Big deal. Our fighting men and women do that every day.
We’ve been herded onto the plane from Baghdad to Amman, and this team is the anti-Rhino! Baggage inspectors inspecting my DOD credential because they didn’t know what it was, uncertainty about departure gates, mixed up seating assignments and more. “Hey Moe! Watch me fly the plane! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!”
Adriana told me that on the way into Baghdad when the band had been split up, when the 7AM flight landed they rolled the wrong size staircase out to the plane. They rolled it back and then got the right one! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk indeed.
The food is hideous, but I am in love again with both flight attendants. As I read back through this diary, I wonder if I’m oversexed, or if this is normal and most people keep it to themselves, or maybe it’s just that I haven’t gotten out much lately. Regardless, one had a beautiful bell-tone voice with a lovely English accent and skillful voice modulation, something you might expect to hear on the BBC news hour on NPR. The other one had great tits and a winning smile, or perhaps it was a great smile and winning tits. Not sure. I am becoming coarse in my language again, so I should probably stop. God, I’m tired.
We’re back in Amman and we have been invited to a complimentary seven-course meal at a French restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel, as if our hosts haven’t done enough already. A lot of the people who were instrumental in putting this together were there, including representatives from the two corporate entities that sponsored our trip, ECC and the Taha-Kubba Group. The menu was as follows:
1.) Amuse bouche; a single baked shrimp on a mussel shell with bread stuffing
2.) Avocado coconut mousse with smoked salmon
3.) Leek and potato soup
4.) Pan-fried red mullet with sweet potato and bisque
6.) Lamb fillet and liver with chicory and potato
7.) Dark chocolat fondant with chocolate sorbet and Britney biscuit
Conversation was breezy and fun, and as dessert drew near various dinner party members made toasts, and eventually I made one in honor of our hosts that went something like this: “To ECC and the Taha Kubba Group for sponsoring this amazing journey. Travel fosters understanding, understanding fosters empathy, and empathy fosters peace. Perhaps we have been a part of something bigger than we now know.”
I had a great conversation with Karam, ECC’s operations director. He is a retired Marine colonel who has had face-to-face strategy sessions with many of Washington’s top power brokers, scummy Rummy included. He now serves as a liaison between city and national officials in establishing construction projects in Iraq. He is the kind of soldier you can really be proud of, and the kind of businessman you can trust and count on.
Half of the band went to bed right after dinner, and that means the other half did not. Ironically, all but one of the regular band members went into the snuggy-boo, while the subs decided to rock the hotel a little further.
The four stalwarts are myself, Jim McConduib the drummer (very bad-ass drummer), Jim Sambataro the bass player (identical status as me—former regular with the band subbing on this gig), Carl Benevedes the sax player (the best musician on the gig this week), and…drum roll please …you guessed it, Adriana the lady singer! Hah! Girl can party!
We went down to the dank, dark beer bar on the second floor for Amstel drafts and Montechristo #2 torpedoes. Damn, those are some fine cigars. Off topic again, the Cuban embargo is the blue ribbon pig of stupid legislation on the books right now. All we are doing is depriving ourselves of the finest cigars, piano players and shortstops in the world. And also putting us in a position where Republican officials feel obliged to turn down Cuban medical assistance after Katrina. That’s some stupid shit.
Joining us a little later was Dan McFerrin’s wife. She is a riot, cute as hell. Dan is a great guy. I am not remembering her name, fuck it all to hell. It sucks getting old, especially when CRS syndrome, or “Can’t Remember Shit” makes it seem that you are someone who identifies and considers women through their husbands rather than as unique individuals. I’m not. I just can’t fucking remember her name. Her husband is one of the principles at ECC and the prime mover in its association with the Starfish Network.
On this the last night of the Groove Alliance Deadly Force Tour, Baghdad 2007, having just been treated to a French seven course meal at the Hotel Royal in Amman, the four subs and the female vocalist thought it a fine idea to prowl the hotel and huff Cuban cigars, drink all of the complimentary wine that had been given each of us at the front desk, and make a dull racket laughing and talking in cavernous, empty marble lobbies until 3 AM. The wakeup call was at 4:30 and so began 30 hours of traveling.
I have skipped a lot in relaying these observations from Iraq, but one cannot write all the live long day the way friends of Dinah work on the railroad apparently.
Baghdad to Amman had a new security feature, the bomb and dope dog. All of our luggage was lined up and Rin Tin Tin gave it the once over twice. I was glad there were no wink and a nod “special” tobacco purchases made at the hajji shop in my luggage.
Amman to Paris was nice enough, but we were scheduled for three hours of layover in Paris, so we were all preparing iPod, airport novel reading, or in my case, writing all of this. To reveal truly what I was thinking, and here we go again, the great event of the past hour was the arrival of second shift at the duty free Parfums et Cosmetiques section of that Parisian shopping center known the world over for its cutting edge haute couture, Gate E-74.
Included in this ebb and flow of beautiful French girls was one above all others, truly a terrifying beauty. Epic. Lush-lipped and sensuous to the definition, she laid waste to my soul. It is a cruel reality that not until such an age as would an approach (I speak French fairly well) to this goddess be regarded as pathetic that I have developed a personal confidence in speech sufficient to pull it off technically. If I knew then what I know now.
It was three hours of sitting in seats designed to be unsleepable, separated at two foot intervals by crooked, steel armrests, and of such rise and run as to frustrate the slouch, the curl, or even the snuggly lean with rolled up fleece as pillow. Cramped seats, airline quality prefab food in the terminal, dismissive agents, Air France leaves no tern unstoned. I can imagine an Air France announcement, “We have tried to feed you poorly, delay you, and subject you to searches of such duration and thoroughness that we should probably be giving you flowers and candy, but if there is anything else we can do to make your flight less comfortable, please let us know.”
As I while away these hours, like an Oz-bound scarecrow, I converse not with the flowers, but with bass player and fellow sub, Jim Sambataro. Jim is so effortlessly likeable a person, notably by women, that I have always been on a low boil frustration in trying to figure out how to assimilate his ineffable attributes of attraction by osmosis. I have a tendency to make people feel nervous and uncomfortable. Jim has a tendency to make people feel comfortable and relaxed. Damn you, Jim! How the fuck do you do it?
Aaaagh! Right on cue. Our flight is delayed for another two hours. Balls! We will spend two more hours in the company of rude French as opposed to two hours in the company of rude New Yorkers at JFK. I’d prefer the New Yorkers. At least they’re sincere about their disdain. The French merely regard it as sport. Les Francais peut bouvior du piss avec leur fromage. Maybe it’s me. Tired, hung over, saddened by the death I’ve seen.
The Paris to JFK leg was unpleasant, mostly because my frame of mind was poor. It had been a brave gesture the night before to take up the cudgels and hoist the party flag on the last night of tour, but it is well established that absent ideal sleeping conditions (darkness, silence, concubine), I don’t sleep well.
I can socialize and function without sleep, but not after cigars and wine with no sleep, so I couldn’t read the challenging book I’m into right now effectively on the plane (Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics and Calamity Physics—she is a real deal genius, and here I go again, really fucking cute), and I felt I probably wouldn’t be writing anything of much value if I were to have broken out the journal (though that’s never stopped me before).
After an hour or so of general blabbing, most of the band was finding sleep. Some opted for the head tilted straight back look with mouths agape and a slack jaw, while others curled up and nestled their noses in thin but complimentary blankets. Out of sorts, stupefied but not a candidate for sleep, I was reduced to trifling video amusements like playing chess on the computer screen in the seat back in front of me. I played it a couple of what I thought were tough games and lost, but apparently it recalibrated itself to my dullness as I trounced it the next three games, it making moves a chimpanzee wouldn’t condone.
Next I switched to Who Wants to be a Millionaire, only it was predicated on British common knowledge. I would burn all my lifelines on low-dollar questions having something to do with English school songs or mascots, and then I'd get up to $64,000 and it would start asking me about William of Orange’s lineage or the rules of cricket.
It pissed me off, which is how I know that I was insane while on that flight. Getting honestly pissed off at the Who Wants to be a Millionaire game because it’s full of UK-oriented questions is the mark of a madman. After ten rounds of watching myself lose thousands of dollars, I really hit bottom: the Miami Vice movie. Hot chicks, explosions, machine guns, and ten thousand pounds of coke, it was Shakespeare by comparison.
It was a long and dreary flight against the prevailing winds, though with relatively good food and wonderful flight attendants. That I was unable to make the most of it was my fault (though I am now glad I stayed up with those guys and gal, we had such a nice time together). What happened at JFK, however, was not my fault. It was Delta’s fault.
We staggered off the plane in New York City to find that our flight to Manchester, NH had been canceled. Lovely. Delta is facing possible strikes soon, and is also in negotiations for a merger with US Air. When both of those two airlines combine their respective poor service into a single, huge, sucking transportation giant, it could be quite a travel experience.
In the middle of a conversation with a Delta desk clerk about other flights and accommodations, he walked away, went through a door and disappeared. He and a co-worker came out a different door wearing their coats and carrying daypacks. They left and that was it. There was no one else left to talk to at Delta. Three of us left the terminal to go to the ticket counter to try and get some information, and we attempted to get through security again.
There was a little hang-up since we had already been through, and over the course of working it out, we got into a conversation with the security personnel. There was a nice, black Irish-looking young woman who said, “I wouldn’t take a Delta ticket for free. Every night, there’s someone here from Delta, locked out, crying, old people. It’s ridiculous.”
We ended up renting a car and driving about four hours from New York City to my city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I think I slept a little in the car, and again, wasn’t much fun or company for the unflappable Adriana, who drove her now flu-bedraggled husband, a beat up old trumpet player and a beat up young trombone player all the way from New York to Portsmouth. As I’ve mentioned before, Adriana is wicked cool. So the moral of the story is get plenty of rest before you travel and don’t fly Delta.
I’m back home in Portsmouth now. I’ve spent the evening with Heather, who gave me the journal I’ve been writing in. I talked and talked, and fell apart a little because of fatigue and the tremendous amount of information to process, along with the fact that I am quite a softie and the fact that I trust Heather enough to fall apart in front of her.
I have seen so much, and I understand so little. I am hopeful for Iraq. I have to be. I have come to love her people.
Lastly, here is a poem that I wrote on the plane between Amman and Paris:
Cradle of civilization
What has become of your child
Has she been kidnapped?
Has she been enslaved?
Jewel of the Middle East
Rudely plucked from the crown
Of Tigris and Euphrates
The first to plant for future seasons
Seeds of life and hope
How bold among nomads
To be certain of tomorrow
Men of vengeance
Steer your ship of state
Fig and date, palm and camel
All in bondage
Shackled, mocked, humiliated
Iraq! I have seen your heart
In the eyes of your children
I have heard your spirit
In the voices of your elders
This peril will not stand
Usurpers rape the modern treasure
Trapped beneath your sand
I hear your music in the wind
That shapes your dunes
And bends your trees
I feel your righteousness
In the prayer rugs whose colored fibers
Crush beneath your knees
Believe, Baghdad and Mosul
Weep but don’t despair
Arise again and claim your glory
Arise again and tell your story
Arise, Iraq, Arise