At Large

Riding the Rhino

Attacks are down 70 percent on the airport road -- and other scenes from the eerie drive into Baghdad.

By 12.13.05

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BAGHDAD -- During the 1980s a thirteen-ton armored Winnebago would have been more likely to be the punch line to a scene featuring obsessive weapons aficionado Eugene Tackleberry in any one of the Police Academy movies than a reality. It becomes considerably less humorous or fanciful, however, when you're about to board one to travel from Baghdad International Airport to the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone) on a road that has alternately been described as "ambush alley" and "the road of death."

The Rhino leaves in the dead of night. The departure time changes daily and remains undisclosed until shortly before rolling out. Hours beforehand, a motley crew of reporters, defense contractors, soldiers, embassy employees and a slew of Baghdadis who work on base gather and wait either reading or watching the Pentagon Channel. One of the "simple rules" of the waiting area is "no sleeping on the furniture," a rule which, after a few hours and a television program on the benefits of washing one's hands, became increasingly less simple to follow.

Eventually an officer assembled that evening's riders for an operational briefing. We're instructed to turn off all our electronic devices, especially cell phones, any of which can trigger Improvised Explosive Devices buried along the road. We're told in very specific terms that failure to do so could wind up killing all of us. I scan the faces of my fellow travelers and hope they pay more attention to this request than the average theater full of moviegoers.

The call to load up finally comes and bleary-eyed we accept it gladly. Defense contractors have their game faces on and are cracking jokes left and right. Everyone else is laughing nervously or is silent or is making petty small talk. Everyone wants to looks so brave. We avoid the real issues at hand because...Well, because what's the point? Once on the Rhino it's out of your hands. I imagine a lot of passengers are silently repeating the same mantra I am in my own head: Attacks are down 70 percent on the airport road. Attacks are down 70 percent on the airport road. The Rhino's job is to protect us from that last 30 percent. The knowledge that "perfect" remains unperfected in this world weighs heavily, however.

AHEAD OF THE RHINO the night rolls out with an intense durability usually found in rural areas, giving no indication that a city with a population of more than five million lies not far ahead. Through the ultra-reinforced window I can see the gunner of the Humvee leading the convoy swiveling quickly back and forth atop his vehicle, searching for last minute threats, exposing himself to those threats with a brazen fortitude that is difficult to imagine. Sometimes a small spotlight tracks potential targets, giving a glimpse of the gnarled underbrush from whence so many terrible things can spring.

Suddenly the Rhino stops, leaning slightly as it rests in what for it must be a minor crevasse, but would likely break the axle of a car. Even in one of the most heavily armored vehicles known to man, surrounded by military escorts, fear begins to set in.

One beat passes. Two beats. Ahead of us the Humvee gunner drops into his vehicle and the top slams closed. The lights all go out. Three beats, four beats. The Rhino driver tosses his ball cap on the dashboard and grabs his helmet. The armed guards grip their tricked out M-16s all the more tightly. Four beats, five beats. Silence descends and for the next ten minutes a tension grows like a fast moving fungus in a Petri dish, uglier by the moment. Somewhere behind me a quiet prayer is recited. I close my eyes and think of my wife and dog studying law together on the couch, his paw on her huge tax law tome. We're waiting for something that never comes. The lights go back up and the convoy rumbles back to life.

I breathe a sigh of relief. The contractors are joking again. A twenty-something girl starts loudly reminiscing about her college days. All is back to normal. Then I notice that the look on the faces of the Iraqis, unchanging through the short ordeal, resigned to whatever was to come, and guilt burns in my cheeks. Most of these men are likely headed to much more dangerous destinations than I, homes in suburbs of Baghdad that may or may not be out of the line of fire on any given day. And unlike me, they cannot leave the theater of battle anytime they choose.

At that moment the weight of just how unfair and cruel this world is weighs upon me more heavily than my 40 pounds of body armor. One of the Iraqis looked over at me and smiled a smile so brief that its authenticity could not be questioned. I wondered: How could this man who life had dealt such a dire, terrible hand show such warmth toward me, a tourist in his misery; an American civilian, who hit the jackpot the day I was born. History has played upon my life with the light brushes of a fortuitous feather. For Iraqis, it has been more like a ball-peen hammer.

THE RHINO PULLS INTO ITS staging area in the International Zone. It's suddenly chaos as Army men order all of the passengers to unload the huge baggage truck that followed us. For some reason my fellow travelers seem surprised the operation doesn't run as smoothly as American Airlines and the shouting doesn't do much to streamline the process. Soon enough, though, the bags are lined up and we're herded into a large room to wait while dogs sniff our bags for explosives.

Statistically, it's probably no surprise that I have survived the journey. But secretly, in my heart of hearts, I feel lucky, however irrational that may be.

As I cued up for a bottle of water, I got knocked around a bit. It need not be sugar-coated. Many of the Iraqis I have met so far have been distant or rude. But more than a few have shown extraordinary kindness, as well. I caught the eye of the man who smiled at me on the Rhino, and he smiled again, more broadly this time, as he became more comfortable with me.

The dogs finish their job. I wait for my escort. The Iraqi gets on the bus. I'd like to think we, or two others similar to us, might one day soon be able to meet again on more equitable and pleasant terms. But the road seems far, far too long sometimes. Let's hope this week is another step toward an Iraq of equal rights and prosperity, because, aside from any political disagreements in our affluent homeland, the suffering here is real.

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