One Thursday in early July, just before midnight, I was on a London bus taking me home through rainy darkness. I was listening to a song by Gillian Welch, ‘Revelator’, which I’d often played in Kuwait and Iraq during the recent war. I suppose it was the song which made me remember something I had seen on my journey out of Iraq in April, when, it appeared, the fighting was over.
We were an odd convoy leaving Baghdad that morning. There was Ghaith, my new-found Iraqi assistant, and myself in the driver Haider’s worn taxi, a Cadillac of 1980s vintage, followed by two frightened young mechanics in a tow-truck of about the same age. Hitched to the truck was the nearly new Mitsubishi Pajero which I had rented in Kuwait before the invasion, promising not to take it into Iraq. The Pajero, which had been broken into, ransacked and immobilized by looters in Baghdad in the days immediately after the fall of Saddam, still carried the livery which the photographer Paul O’Driscoll had adorned it with before we crossed the border: mud, gaffer tape covering the lights and chrome fittings, and orange patches and chevrons to signify to US and British forces that we were not hostile. I’d parted company with the colleagues I’d travelled from Kuwait to Baghdad with – Paul, who worked with me for the Guardian, had returned home via Jordan, while the New York Times team of Dexter Filkins, James Hill and their interpreter, Mandi Fahmy, were still working in the city.
Towing the car over 400 miles from Baghdad to Kuwait was tiresome. The tow-truck had four punctures. Twice the mechanics were threatened by armed men, once by US troops, once by vigilantes with Kalashnikovs; on both occasions the mechanics were assumed to have stolen the Pajero. But in the early hours of the journey we sped south under grey skies along a smooth, quiet motorway.
At one point, we passed a man and a boy walking along the side of the road close to some wheat fields. The man, dressed in a charcoal dishdash, strode forward without looking to the right or left. The wind making his tunic flutter was only a light breeze, yet his gait was suffused with weariness, as if he was moving against a gale. His face was heavy with anxiety and suffering. He held up his head proudly, but just to do so seemed to be an act of giant strength. The boy, about nine, was his opposite. He was jumping and skipping around the man in eccentric circles, laughing and talking, trying to attract the man’s attention, losing interest, running on, running back.
When people go as correspondents to follow armies at war, as Paul and I did when we followed US and British troops into Iraq in March, they are supposed to keep only the sombre adult, grimly fixated on the horror, and leave the frisky child behind. But the two will not be parted. Without childlike curiosity, without a love of the momentary, the trivial, the surprising, the scary, the bright and the loud, what would be the point of going on? And without an awareness of the bloody burden of all the wars men make, how could the child ever come to understand the dark nature of the journey? I kept a diary.
March 21, road junction north of Safwan, Iraq
We’ve fallen down a whole flight of steps in the economic league, just by travelling across a line on the map, out of Kuwait and into Iraq. The first people we see are looters, picking their way through the rubble on the edge of town – ruined by this war, or the last one, we never found out – and looters are everywhere, coolly plundering equipment from every state institution going. We drive through the litter-strewn main street and women in black and boys in ragged grease-stained pullovers and tunics look at us with stares that say: ‘Who are you looking at? What are you going to do for me?’ They aren’t unfriendly. Nor are they particularly inquisitive. Some of the guys smile and wave.
We drive on through, past the pictures of smiling Saddam and Saddam in Bedouin sheikh garb that the marines haven’t got around to taking down, and try to find a quiet spot to park the cars and take stock without attracting a crowd.
We’re faced with an emotional scene in the courtyard of the first house we go into, a tumbledown mud brick place opposite a great dry field covered in scraps of black plastic fluttering in the wind. An old couple who lost their son to Saddam’s goons two years ago welcome us into the yard and spread rugs on the ground for us to sit on. It is a mad scene, hysterical, dozens of children crowding in, thin bright-eyed men standing looking into the group with their hands behind their backs and darting in to interrupt with their comments and stories, and Mandi, our interpreter, not knowing where to look and what to translate. The old man sobs and we are close to tears too. He says we have come too late, and for his son, of course, we have.
March 22, Rumaila oilfields
It becomes apparent that Basra is not going to be taken quickly, either by the British or the Americans, so we are uncertain what to do or where to go. Initially we strike out east from Safwan towards Um Qasr. We pass British tanks and troop carriers from the 7th Armoured Division. We drive between their gun barrels and the so far invisible enemy. It is an uncomfortable feeling. We head north up the motorway towards Basra. The Iraqis have made no attempt to destroy their transport infrastructure by blowing up bridges or mining roads. Occasionally the Iraqi army leaves signs of its presence, a blown-up tank which didn’t have a crew in it when it was hit, a stinking scorched ditch which the Iraqis had filled with crude oil and set on fire in the mistaken belief it would confuse US imaging systems, a pile of grubby blankets and stale bread rolls under a bridge where soldiers hid. But these are little installations of failed, halfhearted defence in an otherwise empty, undefended landscape controlled by the US and the British.
We talk to various soldiers, mainly American, and I build up a story I think might work, about a farcical tank battle some marines had been involved in two nights earlier. The tank crews were restricted in the kind of ammunition they used in the oilfields for fear of damaging oil installations. They were not restricted in the number of Iraqi soldiers they could kill.
Just before evening we find a camping place with a group of British military policemen from 16th Air Assault. They can’t do enough for us. They give us water and food and cover our cars with a piece of hessian so that we won’t leak light. I’m so tired, I can hardly make out the words I’m writing. In the oilfields, despite the marines’ tender care, some of the wells are burning. After dark, the military police on duty are silhouetted against the orange glow as it brightens and fades. Their bulbous helmets make them look like aliens.
At about 9 p.m. the MPs call for Mandi to translate. An Iraqi family at the checkpoint is trying to tell them something. I follow her and start talking to the MPs. One of them comes back from the group at the car and says: ‘I almost shot a kid.’ He’d told the people to get out of the car, and they had, and then he’d seen a movement out of the corner of his eye, and almost pulled the trigger; it was a child.
Today reports start to come in of journalists being killed, reports which turn out to be true. I call my wife and my parents to let them know I’m okay. I let the military police make personal calls on the Guardian satellite phone. Most of them call their mothers.
March 23, West of Nasiriyah, waiting to cross the Euphrates
Basra has not fallen; fighting continues. It is the tomato season in these parts and we talk to farmers with their trucks heaped with crimson fruit from plantations round Zubair. They are still going to try to make it to Baghdad. They are brave men. It is their livelihood.
Everywhere there is evidence that Iraqi soldiers never went on campaign without a change of civilian clothes: the gaunt young men in cheap shoes and a bottle of grey, scavenged water walking home after tearing off their boots and uniforms and running away from the war. When they talk to us about how many hundreds of kilometres they have to walk to get home it is without indignation or surprise. That is the way things are. I wonder how many of them will die of hunger or thirst or disease by the roadside, trying to make it back.
We swing west on the road that leads to Nasiriyah and eventually Baghdad. There are six lanes and the marines are using all six in the same direction, thousands of military vehicles pouring forward at high speed. At one point we drive up on to a bridge over the motorway for a better view. Paul and James take pictures but the point is in the motion. Very few civilians will ever see anything like this: a modern-day blitzkrieg, a motorized horde taking over a road which, though it runs through the desert, otherwise looks like any European motorway, and using it to rush into battle at commuter speed.
March 24, US Marine supply base near the Euphrates
Our fourth day in Iraq and two preconceptions look shaky. One is that we would be entering Iraqi towns; the other that we would be living and working away from US and British troops, with Iraqi civilians, in ‘liberated’ areas. Basra still has not fallen and fighting continues in Nasiriyah on the Euphrates east of here. We cannot reach either place. The marines have no interest in urban areas. They want to avoid them. This means these towns are under Ba’ath Party control, however tenuously, and are not safe for us. Left in open, mainly desert country, unpoliced, much of it considered a free-fire zone by US air power, and without access to working petrol stations, shops or markets, let alone hotels, we have no choice but to seek the protection and assistance of the marines. To our everlasting gratitude, they provide it. All we can offer in exchange, which is not a small thing, is use of our satphones. On that basis Paul manages to blag 120 litres of petrol from a marine refuelling dump.
I want to see the legendary Euphrates, so in the morning I leave where our cars are parked, where the tarmac of the finished section of the Basra-Baghdad motorway expires, and walk forward through the fine dust of the unmade section, past queues of drab olive amphibious tracked vehicles – Amtraks – trucks, tanks and Humvees stretching for miles. The dust is continually thrown up and ground finer by convoys moving forward, but for the time being I have given up any thought of being clean.
The Euphrates is a disappointment: a narrow channel barely forty yards wide with a few palm trees along its banks. The marines newly dug in around a bridge express their scorn for the reality of the fabulous river. I walk a little distance away from the bridge – like this section of the motorway, it is not fully built, and can take only one tank at a time, or a convoy going in one direction – and crouch down by the bank. With my back to the bridge, I can imagine the marines are not here. The river does not seem so small, and it moves powerfully enough. This is at the western edge of the Marsh Arabs’ old lands. In front of me is a thicket of delicate green reeds rising from the puckered surface of the water and bending in the wind. A high-prowed canoe shifts like a vane on its moorings and, on the far bank, there is a reed hut with an arched roof. It is peaceful for a moment, before a pair of marine Cobra helicopters the colour of cigarette ash chug low overhead.
We spend the day here, talking to marines and Iraqis. Already there is bad blood between them. Irregular Saddam loyalists have been taking the occasional potshot at the marines – a pea to an elephant – and the marines have been arresting locals, confiscating their domestic Kalashnikovs, searching their houses. A pathetic cluster of Iraqi captives in civilian clothes sits cross-legged in a circle of razor wire under the bridge. At another stretch of razor wire, the boundary between the marines’ domain and the way to Nasiriyah, Mandi tries to mediate between the mutually uncomprehending marines behind their machine guns and scores of Iraqis who are trying to get through. One Iraqi family brings a woman with cancer, under the impression that the Americans will help her. They can’t, and she is taken back. An Iraqi who works in the hospital in Nasiriyah says US aircraft have killed ten civilians and wounded 200 in an air raid on the town.
In a house a few hundred yards away, Iraqis give us strong sweet tea, a heavenly drink to us at this time. We sit in a big quiet bare room with rugs on the floor, lit by the doorway and a small triangular window in the whitewashed mud wall. One of our hosts says that it was the nature of his country which called forth Saddam, not Saddam who made the country. ‘If in Iraq there’s a leader who’s fair, he’ll be killed the next day,’ he says. ‘Iraqis have hot blood. If he’s not tough, he dies the next day.’
March 25, the Basra-Baghdad motorway, just north of the Euphrates
We’re parked in what the marines call a herringbone pattern on an unmade stretch of the highway. Herringboning is a tactic to prevent an attacking aircraft being able to destroy an entire column in a single run. It is a good idea, except that Iraq doesn’t have an air force any more.
We’ve been on the road since 7 a.m. Woke up at about five, listened to the BBC for a while. The World Service’s coverage has been disappointing. I haven’t heard a single interview with an Iraqi civilian or a Western soldier on the ground since the invasion began five days ago. Even though the embedded correspondents have no idea what’s going on beyond the units they’re embedded with, the BBC deals with them as if they do, and presents their deep, narrow perspective as if it is deep and broad, in the worst traditions of twenty-four-hour rolling television news. There’s no sign that anyone from the BBC is operating outside the embed system in southern Iraq, although some of them surely must be.
Our days are like this. We wake at about five or six. I make hot water on a little camping stove we bought in Kuwait, and give some to our neighbours from the New York Times, so we can all have coffee. We’re down to our last twelve or so litres of water; Paul and I are using about three litres a day between us, mainly for drinking, but also for cleaning our teeth, washing our hands and shaving. Shaving in cold water is a long exercise in painful scraping, especially if you’ve let a growth set in. We haven’t had showers since we left Abdaly on Friday morning. It’s now Tuesday. The worst is the hair, which is carrying so much dust that it’s solidified into the kind of stiff, abrasive, matted pad of wire wool you scrub pans with. I can’t drag the comb through it any more. We eat breakfast from what food we manage to pick up along the way plus what we brought from Kuwait – tins of processed cheese, biscuits, chocolate.
We spend the day interviewing and driving, and scrounging from the troops. At night, the marines ask us not to show white light, even from a torch or a laptop screen, because, they say, it gives snipers something to aim at and it blinds the marines’ night-vision equipment. The evening meal is US military MREs, Meals Ready to Eat: fat brown plastic packets containing stodgy shrink-wrapped cakes and biscuits and processed cheese. The centrepiece of the MRE is a green plastic envelope with a hot dish inside, one of twenty-four possibilities, which you slip inside another envelope containing a thin sachet of chemicals. You pour a little water into the envelope, fold the top over, lay it on its side, and the chemicals start to react and fizz, producing heat. It heats us the pottage in about fifteen minutes. It’s not great food, but our condition is such that we look forward to it.
Later. A sandstorm. Everything stops. The car rocks on its springs. For what seems like hours there is a crinkling sound as millions of sand grains strike the rear of the vehicle. We try to open the door a little but every time the wind forces it wide open and dust rushes in. The edges of the road disappear on either side and the vehicles in front and behind become invisible. I feel afraid for the first time since coming here, an echo of an old, irrational fear which has nothing to do with the fear of being hurt or killed. It is a fear of going too far and not being able to find the way home again.
March 26, south-east of Diwaniyah
We’ve arrived at this forward supply base in the desert which in a short time grows from a few trucks and Humvees to a park of acres of fuel trucks, ammo trucks, trailers, bulldozers, generators and tents.
On the other side of the road, behind a sand wall, in a long deep ditch and along a catwalk, lie the bodies of dozens of Iraqis, most of them untouched by bullets or shrapnel; a blast must have killed them. They died after what, despite some marines’ attempts to claim otherwise, was a feeble, ineffectual ambush. The marines crushed them effortlessly. With the sandstorm and the rain their faces and bodies have been covered with a fine coat of mud, making them look less like dead people and more like clay models, or like the dead Romans at Pompeii. In the article I write today I say they look peaceful, but this is because I don’t have time to think of a better word. Eternal would be a better word. They look as if they have been there forever and have just been uncovered by the wind, the same wind that will shortly cover them up again. I walk along the catwalk, clocking the stuff they have left. Little parties of marines are there, souvenir-hunting, but all the good stuff, such as guns and badges, has already been taken by the infantry, who were on the scene earlier. What are left are helmets and filthy blankets and canteens. I think about taking a canteen, they look fine and almost new, but decide it would be too bad karma.
We’re guests here of Colonel John Pomfret, the US battalion commander who smokes cigars in the evening and says things like ‘I love the smell of diesel in the morning,’ and ‘I think we’re all serving the same constituency,’ and ‘I believe in honour and nobility.’ His mother was a refugee from the Kuomintang domains of China. I have a feeling this war is going to take a long time.
March 27, south-east of Diwaniyah
It’s 8.30 p.m. I’m sitting in a tent with the other journalists, in our gas masks and NBC suits (nuclear, biological and chemical), in the second gas alert of the night. Everyone is trying to keep calm. Finding vials of mustard gas treatment on the dead Iraqi troops in the ditch across the road made the idea of them using chemical weapons seem more real. Looking at the map the other night I saw we were about ninety miles from Babylon. I remembered the nursery rhyme:
How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
Back again would be good.
March 28, south-east of Diwaniyah
The marines announce they are confiscating all Thuriya satphones on the grounds that the Iraqis can track them and take a grid location they can use for targeting. It’s bad, though not the total disaster it appears. Paul files using another satphone system which I can use, though it’s hard to get through. We still have the Thuriya hidden in the glove compartment of the car, turned off.
We’re thinking of switching battalions to a unit closer to combat, namely the 5th. We speak to the commander, Colonel Dunford, and he seems to be happy to have us travelling with him. I’m beginning to think that, rather than regarding accompanying journalists as a nuisance, the marine field commanders see them as trophies. Until prostitutes get 4 x 4s and war accreditation, we are the nearest to camp followers the battalions are going to get.
The US advance seems to have ground to a halt. Colonel Pomfret says as much today. ‘What we are going to be in is an operational pause, to rearm, refuel and rest. It doesn’t mean we are stopping.’ Or rather, it does. The ambushes on US convoys have freaked the marines out. Dunford doesn’t mention it but his driver tells me he got shot at yesterday.
Over by one of the Hueys parked at the 5th I see a girl I assume is a journalist. I say girl not woman because she seems like the torchbearer of all-Californian (she is from California) girlhood, with straight shiny blonde hair sticking out under the brim of her bush hat, a glowing red-brown tan, snub nose and bright blue eyes, and an expression that says ‘Hey! What’s going on?’ before she does, which she does. I assume she’s a journalist, yeah, leaning there insouciant and apparently idle against the ‘copter doorway, but she is a crew chief. Sarah Wilson is her name. She stands behind one of the two big machine guns in the doors of the Huey. A few days ago she’d been behind the gun while the bird was clattering over Nasiriyah, pumping .5 calibre bullets into a house, a house thought to be full of Iraqi resisters. A tank had called for help and she was on to them, ‘Like, which house? Fire your gun at it or something so we can tell.’ So the tank fires and the helicopter crew sees the house, and they try to fire their rockets, but the rockets haven’t been loaded properly so they don’t fire, so they bring their guns to bear, and the bullets hit the building, and the forward air controller tells them: ‘Good hits.’ Sarah’s glad to have been busy, the first marine crew chief to have been in combat, because she didn’t think she’d end up doing anything.
March 29, south-east of Diwaniyah
This is a down period now, after those first days of driving forward through Iraq, always forward every day; now we’ve stopped and it’s frustrating. More for us than for the marines. They seem glad of the chance to do their laundry. Sports news, non-war news, is beginning to creep on to the BBC. Pomfret tells Dex he’s grateful that his report in the New York Times about his ‘operational pause’ remark, which was raised at a Pentagon press conference and impatiently denied by the spokesman, didn’t name him. My report named him, but neither he nor the Pentagon seems to know that.
I’ve been trying to work out what this mighty force of marines is lacking; what their billions haven’t bought. The answer is language. It is not just that there’s never more than one Arabic speaker per battalion, not just that they haven’t put more money and effort into making more of their troops multilingual by conventional means, but that they haven’t even tried to apply their ingenuity, their technological and organizational genius, their gift for systematizing life, to language-learning. They’re afraid of enabling elements of another culture to enter the minds of their men and women, and the cost is high, to them and their opponents. They can’t meet each other except by fire. An Arabic speaker in each platoon: they could slip into the cities in small groups and talk to people. They could ask questions first, and shoot later. But to get there their American minds would have to travel a little way into the mind of Arabia, and that is a journey that seems particularly terrifying to the institution of the US military.
March 30, Camp Pomfret, south-east of Diwaniyah
I go with James and Dex to watch Major Stainbrook and Major Cooper, the civil affairs duo, trying to help some farmers start the pump to put water into their irrigation system. There’s Cooper, first language Irish Gaelic, second English, trying to communicate with the aid of a device called the Phrasealator. It isn’t much better than nothing. The end result is that the pump starts working and water gushes out of a foot-wide pipe. It is a joy to see it move, white and cold and alive, through the channel of parched, cracked earth towards the barley fields.
March 31, Babil Province
We move forward at last, heading for the River Tigris. We are entering the Iraqi heartland. At dusk we come across a group of marines who have found a civilian trailer parked under a tree with two surface-to-surface missiles in the back, abandoned by the Iraqis. If they are leaving equipment like this behind, surely it signifies the final collapse.
April 1, Babil Province
In the morning we leave Colonel Pomfret’s benevolent cavalcade and switch to the hard-riding 5th Regiment, whose headquarters battalion camped overnight at an unfinished petrol station by the motorway a few miles down the road, past the trailer with the missiles. We stop off there for a while; a group of intelligence experts has arrived to examine the weapons. They pull down the side of the trailer and we can see the name of the missiles is written on the side. In big blue Arabic letters it says: ‘Al Samoud’. None of the intelligence experts knows this, because none of them can read Arabic, not even the letters. Mandi and Hussein, a Kuwaiti journalist embedded with Colonel Pomfret, enhance their intelligence for them.
A terrified Iraqi farmer, whose farmhouse is right next to the missiles, creeps back to the home he has fled in order to get some things. There is a stand-off between him and a group of patrolling marines because he is afraid, with good reason, that they might shoot him if he does the wrong thing, and he cannot understand what they are saying to him, and the marines don’t speak a word of Arabic. He stands cowering and quaking and flinching in the middle of the yard, not knowing whether to lie down, put his hands up, go back, go forward, or prepare for death. Mandi steps in to translate. The marines tell him they’re happy for him to go back and live on his farm, but the farmer doesn’t believe them, or doesn’t trust them. In all fairness, he is right; these marines may want him to move back in, and want to help him, but later other US troops will come who do not know him and his family, and who knows what could happen in the confusion of the night when heavily armed men are all around and two peoples do not speak each other’s language.
There are two grey marine Chinooks parked at the petrol station. They are supposedly there in case they are needed for casualty evacuation but they are also used to transport Oliver North in and out of the marines’ area of operations. The colonel is embedded with this helicopter unit for Fox News. He spends much of the day at the petrol station, as we do. He sits around telling young marines bloodcurdling tales of Saddam the torturer – ‘. . . and he said, “I want him to last nine days” [before he dies of torture].’ North urinates ostentatiously in full view of everyone in the centre of the petrol station forecourt, holding an aircraft navigation map to conceal his prick, while carrying on a shouted conversation with a group of marines a few yards away. The marines love him. He does a live two-way to New York with one of the medics who went to the village. I go over to say hello and he asks me whether I work for the New York Times. I tell him no, I’m from the Guardian.
‘Who owns it?’ he asks.
‘The liberal conspiracy,’ I say. No I don’t. I tell him it owns itself. He’s furious with the New York Times for quoting Pomfret’s ‘operational pause’ remark. Later it transpires that some officers didn’t want the journalists travelling with them after Dex quoted a regimental sniper describing how he had killed a civilian woman. ‘The bitch wouldn’t get out of the way,’ was what the sniper said. The objectors were overruled.
In late afternoon, when it is already getting dark, the part of the battalion we are to travel with prepares to move. There is a drivers’ briefing. The drivers are told what they should do in case of direct fire and in case of indirect fire. Later, when we’re in the car, Paul says: ‘What’s the difference between direct and indirect fire?’
‘I suppose direct fire is when they’re shooting at you and indirect fire is when they aren’t shooting at you but hit you anyway.’
April 2, near Numaniyah, on the River Tigris
Back from a trip with Major Broton to the Saddam Canal bridge, shot up by marines who went forward ahead of us last night. Broton went to help a man whose friend was killed by the marines because he didn’t put his hands up. The corpse is lying in a shallow hole. The dead man’s friend keeps thanking Broton, who comes up with a couple of old black plastic bin bags to cover the two ends of the body and helps manhandle it into the back of a small car. He writes a laissez-passer for the friend on a page torn from my notebook.
The company crosses the bridge and moves towards the Tigris. We pass through villages where the residents seem surprised to see us; not by the military presence, since we can’t be the first to have passed through, but by the sheer quantity and purposefulness of the convoys. They wave at us if we wave at them first. Most of the roads here are built on embankments running alongside deep irrigation channels, through corn fields alive with larks and plovers. Despite its state-of-the-art navigation systems, the company gets lost for a while. As soon as we stop, baby goats dive under the Humvees for shade and the marines lovingly coax them out.
We find our designated night stop, a fallow field, and while the marines are setting up we go to the river, a couple of miles further on, to watch a pontoon bridge being built. An F18 comes down low overhead and performs a barrel roll, scaring the Iraqis watching from the far bank, who think they’re going to be bombed.
Apart from the F18, it is quiet. This bridge-building has nothing in common with film portrayals of Second World War bridges being built with shells splashing in the water around. A tank captain at a checkpoint nearby, Ted Card, complains that he and his men are bored by the Iraqis’ failure to resist.
April 3, north of Aziziyah
We drive across the Tigris and on the main highway from Kut to Baghdad join another episode of blitzkrieg as the marines race each other along the tarmac at high speed. We stop short of Aziziyah while Cobras and tanks clear the road through the town, ruthlessly blasting anything that remotely resembles resistance, while avoiding any responsibility for aid and order in the town itself. For hours we watch the helicopters passing through the smoke and hear the thud of automatic fire and the crack of artillery. There are two gas alerts. Eventually, after many requests, we get an escort forward into the town and are able to talk to civilians, who tell contradictory tales of who has been hit and hurt by the US attacks, who is in hospital; some say Iraqi fighters, some say civilians, some say both. The Americans, says one man, Abdel Karim, sent bombs like silver rain.
Our company drives past and we slip in with them and drive forward in the twilight. We pass shops gutted in the fighting and see figures dancing on the roof of a burning building, trying to put the fire out with buckets. Dozens of vehicles are on fire, but it is not the scene of the aftermath of the titanic clash between the marines and the Republican Guard we had been led to expect. It is beginning to look as if the guard is evaporating. A tank burns in a palm grove, the trees, lit by the flames, reflected in the still water of a pool. We stop for more than an hour close to where something vile is smouldering, a smell so pungent and toxic-seeming that I put my gas mask on. The frogs are not affected. They cheep lustily.
April 4, near Baghdad
Paul goes forward wearing a baby-blue flak jacket and an old US helmet from the Gulf War which is too small and makes him writhe and curse as he drives. I’m not much better, in an old Israeli-made flak jacket with worn Velcro and a helmet which is to my body as the cap is to a mushroom. ‘Hey look!’ screamed a marine the other day as I drove past. ‘There’s a guy with a fucking kayak on his head!’
There can be no doubt now. For those on the streets, at least, the welcome for the Americans, the smiles and the waves, are genuine. For the first time today I see someone attack an image of Saddam Hussein; a young guy, alone, hurling stones at a portrait of the dictator, not for anyone’s cameras or for the US military’s benefit but for his own release.
The marines’ lack of linguistic skills continue to make them enemies. We see them destroy a harmless car with heavy machine gun fire because the occupants got out of it and, with no idea what the Americans screaming at them wanted them to do, ran away, leaving their vehicle. There has been a lot of fighting here today. Another first was seeing a burnt-out US tank, an Ml Abrams.
April 5, south of Baghdad
So many of the embedded reporters we see are paunchy old guys with hunter’s moustaches and big camper’s coffee mugs, whose families and friends are doomed to be bored with this war for decades to come. It seems to me I saw a big fellow sitting in a camping chair wearing a pair of waders the other day, but this is not possible. My wiser self has to keep pointing out to my vain self that I don’t want to be one of those men. My wiser self also knows that wisdom is not the end and the answer to all things and that ultimately wisdom can only uncover the dual nature of existence, the irreconcilability of states which is reality but which we strive, with our narratives, to hide.
Yesterday the marines sent Omar on his way with his shirt and trousers covered in the blood of his family. His mother and father, his uncle, two sisters and one brother were shot dead at the crossroads checkpoint. The marines said their coach hadn’t stopped and had accelerated when warning shots were fired. I guess in the darkness when people are shouting at you in a foreign language and shooting at you it’s hard to know whether to stop or whether they’ve just missed and you only have a few seconds to escape. What do civilians know about warning shots in the dark? So there was Omar, crying and lost, all covered in blood, and his baby brother behind him with his face shot up. Omar was looking at us, and the marines standing around exhausted by shame and fear and fatigue, and feeling even worse now because the reporters were writing it down.
What do you say to Omar? How do you look him in the eye? What comfort can there be? These marines weren’t going to be punished or investigated. Dex wrote it up for the New York Times and I wrote it up for the Observer, and both papers ran it, but so far as I know it went no further. The marines killed eight civilians at this checkpoint, three of them children. What do you say to Omar? The fact is that his family have been murdered for no reason that was good for him. A supporter of the war would say that there will be greater happiness for all surviving Iraqis as a result. But they couldn’t say that to Omar, because it is meaningless to him. That is the duality that we can never find our way around. In speech we are all purists; there is the good, the bad, the must-be-done and the cannot-be-allowed. In our hearts, we are accountants. I wrote about all those who died last night, the Iraqi general lying in the dirt behind the white Japanese family car, Omar’s family, the marines, being petty cash in Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush’s grand accounting. But the truth is we are all accountants, and the balance is not only in how good or bad this is for me, my friends, my family, my folk. It is: ‘How close do I have to get?’
The reason old men can make wars is that they don’t have to get close to it. Those who take responsibility don’t have to look into Omar’s eyes in the morning when he’s drenched in his parents’ blood, and those who have to look into his eyes don’t have to take responsibility for it. It’s a sweet scheme. I wonder what George Bush had for dinner last night. His fork must have been clinking on the china just about the time when his marines were killing Omar’s family. It must be nice for the President to realize he doesn’t have to say sorry to all the people who’ve lost the people they loved in this war. He doesn’t have to say sorry to anyone.
April 7, Baghdad
The 5th is not going to cross the river into Baghdad today.