Interviews October 2004

Iraq's Walled City

William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad

So now I go the other way. Royal Jordanian is running these little flights that come in from Oman. There are at least two a day. They're very expensive, and they're packed with all these strange people, because the only people who want to go to Iraq these days are kind of strange. They're either mercenaries of one kind or another, security people, who seem to make up the majority, or they're hard-bitten journalist types. Sometimes they're government employees. The pilots are South Africans and they fly these beat up old Fokker 28s, these small jets. Everyone's luggage is heavy with body armor and stuff like that, and the planes can't carry it all, so they have to leave some of it behind and put it on other flights or truck it in. The funny thing about the flights is they have flight attendants—these pretty girls who act like we're going on vacation to the Caribbean or something. They're trying to be real, regular flight attendants, and they offer safety advice about putting on seat belts. But you're going to Baghdad, so why bother? They say, "We'd like to thank you for flying. Have a great day, the temperature is so and so degrees, have a wonderful stay in Baghdad. Thank you for your business; we know you have a choice in airlines." Actually, I don't think they say that. Anyway, there's this veneer of normality to that flight, and yet the fundamental thing is that it's completely abnormal.

It's a short flight and then you land and you're in this weird airport. It's a giant airport terminal in typical totalitarian style—very modern. And nothing's there. It's not served by many flights, just a couple little air-share charity charter flights and these Royal Jordanian planes. So you wander through this huge empty terminal, you go outside, and immediately you're in the pistol-carrying, automatic weapon-carrying world of Baghdad.

The airport, Baghdad international, is actually this huge military base. And it seems to me, and to many people, that it's where the coalition and the CPA and the State Department should have based themselves instead of in the middle of the city. It's a few miles to the west, and it would have been much less obtrusive and very secure.

So you're in the middle of this huge military base, and you have to take a bus to the edge of it, to a checkpoint—a very typical military checkpoint with Bradleys and tanks and soldiers all over the place. That's where you get your ride into town. You drive down this road; it's a divided road that goes into town by a highway. It's well known to be dangerous, because it's the country's main artery right now to the outside. So attacks happen there all the time.

How are the military guys you've met in Iraq different from the ones you profiled in your Bosnia piece?

They're the same people. I was writing about the Third Infantry Division in Bosnia, so these are literally the same people. With the difference that Iraq has turned into a nasty, deeply frustrating situation for the military. I think there's a feeling among many of the guys that they're being used as canon fodder by the American political system, which they are. They're put in a situation where they have to just sit there until someone shoots at them and then they can shoot back but they don't really know where to shoot back. It's a battlefield of confusion. There are exceptions to that, of course. There are the house-to-house searches—the Fallujah- and Sadr City-type stuff where it's more like a traditional fight with particularly nasty urban warfare. But for most of the guys that's not what Iraq is. Iraq is just sitting around for endless, endless months and basically waiting for somebody to take a shot at them. It's not exactly relaxing. As I say in the piece, once I strip all the equipment off of them they're the most human, ordinary, wonderful American guys—not particularly aggressively macho—and they often maintain a deep humanity. It's surprising how many have not been dehumanized by this experience. They think about Iraq and the United States, and about the American political structure. These guys are capable of quite sophisticated thought and they exercise it a lot. Strip the uniforms and the body armor away, engage in a real conversation, and you find lots of thoughtful, frustrated, often somewhat angry people.

Are they're angrier with the civilian leadership than they were when you were in Bosnia?

Oh, of course. They weren't angry with the civilian leadership in Bosnia. They were angry with some of the force protection measures and some of the military leadership, because it was chicken shit. It was chicken shit that you couldn't have a beer and chicken shit that you had to wear a helmet when everybody else was walking bareheaded—that kind of stuff. But there was no problem with the civilian leadership in their minds. They didn't like Clinton, generally, but it wasn't because of Bosnia. In this case it's actually the civilian leadership of the Pentagon that bears the brunt of their scorn and really deep anger. About Bush, I don't even know. The conversation turns to Rumsfeld and the arrogance of that crowd. They're very aware of it. They're bearing the brunt of it. Of course, various officials will fly in and give little patronizing pep talks to the soldiers, as if the soldiers didn't know what was going on. You know, stuff like, "Taking the fight to the enemy, blah blah blah." These guys are perfectly capable of understanding that on their own.

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