BAGHDAD, Iraq — Over the past few days I have been jotting down some notes on a number of things I have seen or heard or that have happened to me, either very recently, or since I have been here…
1. I’ve just been officially appointed my company’s Mail Clerk by the U.S. Army. The Army runs the Post Office here and at bases all over the world. The U.S. Mail is important stuff and can’t be trifled with. At a base with tens of thousands of soldiers the job is probably the equivalent of being Postmaster in a city of 50,000. But here, of course, it is something to be laughed at. Because it is such an important position, however, no Iraqi can be a mail clerk since they can’t be trusted. So the job has fallen to me.
In order to be qualified for the position (in fact, even to be allowed to pick up mail) I had to take a two-hour mail clerk course taught by Specialist John Poindexter. At the end of the two hours, we were given a very long and quite complicated exam. Fortunately, we were able to grade our own exams with the teacher! As we went through the grading, John would tell us the correct answer and give us enough time to change our answer if ours was wrong. Happily, all the students in my group were able to do very well on the test!! John was a proud teacher indeed!
Since I passed the exam, I was given a Certificate recognizing my new position in God’s Master Plan. As I looked at the certificate (actually a crappy Xerox copy on which I had to print my own name!), I reflected upon a book that was a huge bestseller in the late '60s or early '70s. It was called The Peter Principle. I see my promotion to Mail Clerk as proof that the Peter Principle is still at work and still thriving. I can’t imagine a position, that, by temperament or talent, I am less qualified to do. I have finally reached my level of incompetence!
2. An Iraqi cockroach is the size of a small horse.
3. I had to go to the Post Office today to pick up mail (I go only when someone thinks he has some) and was out for the first time since the well publicized flooding of Baghdad streets with Iraqi police and soldiers. We are told the number is 40,000, but the U.S. Army says there are only 30,000 trained Iraqi soldiers in the Baghdad area. I don’t know of anyone who can tell the difference between the two numbers but be rest assured that this city is CRAWLING with soldiers and police.
All of them wear the U.S. Army desert camouflage uniforms you see every night on the news. Most also have the Kevlar helmets that are much in demand and very expensive as well. Many others also wear bandanas to conceal their faces, much as we all saw in Grade B Westerns. The reason for this is quite simple: Every Iraqi is terrified of ever being seen and identified by a friend as being a part of the Coalition or of cooperating with it. In the worst case, that friend might be kidnapped and tortured to reveal anything he knows about anything or anybody.
What is either truly funny, or truly pathetic, about this huge group of men is the way they get around. All of them ride in badly beat-up old pickup trucks! The backs of the trucks are packed with guys standing with their AK-47’s pointed skyward as the pickup literally races along, putting all of their lives at risk. Have you ever tried standing in the back of a pickup as it chugs along at anywhere between 30 and 60 miles an hour through city streets? All the soldiers in the back are waving and shouting and it is quite obvious that to all of them this whole thing is a gigantic game of Cowboys and Indians! They are in it for the sheer excitement of looking and sounding very macho, being armed to the teeth and racing around at high speed while firing their weapons in the air to make a lot of noise. It is a truly rag-tag looking group.
To me it is very reminiscent of watching the war in Somalia/Mogadishu on the news every night ten years ago. The screen was filled with all these lunatics racing around in pickups and firing their machine guns to light up the night sky.
The funniest thing I saw today was a pickup in which the only guy in the back was a soldier manning a .50 caliber on a swivel so it could swing through a wide arc. The soldier manning the machine gun was sitting on a barstool! And, when the pickup went around a corner too fast, the gunner was pitched out on his head! Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt badly and I did see him getting to his feet and going back to retrieve the bar stool that had followed him over the side. That is the kind of army $18 billion can get you.
Just as we were getting back to our compound from the Post Office trip, we came to a point at which we had to make a sharp U-turn right across a two-lane highway with traffic moving in both directions! I cringe every time we come to this U-turn, but so far we haven’t even had a near collision.
As we reached the U-turn today during the late afternoon rush hour, I noticed a Police SUV stopped in one of the lanes of the highway. It was full of cops and all of them were leaning out their windows with their AK-47’s and looking very mean and threatening. Suddenly, a guy on the street who was not in a police uniform but was carrying a pistol ran up to the SUV. My very first thought was… My God! I am going to see my first suicide bombing!! I was wrong. The guy jumped in the back of the vehicle. Since he was not instantly shot dead and the SUV did not blow up, I have to assume he was among friends.
Once he was safely inside, all three cops leaning out the windows (I thought one guy would fall out!) started to fire their weapons at about a 20-degree angle straight down the highway!! I shouted to our driver (not Khattab, my regular driver) to watch out since the SUV was only about 20 meters from us and, quite frankly, I did not know whether the cops were friend or foe. There are lots of soldiers and police wearing stolen uniforms in Baghdad, and that has been a serious problem.
It turned out the police were simply trying to clear a lane through traffic and did so by firing at least 50 (a guess) rounds right down the road! The bullets probably came down a mile away and went right through some unfortunate guy’s back window!
What I find incredible about this is that when I got back to the compound and told the local folks what had happened, not one of them had any objection to the police firing indiscriminately down the road. Their point was simply: How else are they going to clear a way through traffic?
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