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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Chicken Ranch
"Those people are fools," the man told me through the interpreter. "I have a business to run, and they have no idea what that means."

He had instant credibility with me, and sympathy. There I was in the little town of Kubaysa, a small industrial town to the east of Hit which we visited earlier this past spring.

Well, "visited" is a bit misleading. It's more like we invaded it. A Marine battalion with attached tanks, amphibious tractors, engineers, helicopters and jets, and even guys who drive bobcats came to the town uninvited by the locals. Not completely uninvited, and not even completely unwelcome. The Iraqi government asked us to go there, and the local police were happy that we were there because they mistakenly believed that we would be paying them.

We came in, and made it our business to visit as many homes and places of business as possible, to find the muj and kill them. Or capture them. In that order.

Somehow I ended up being the senior officer present at the combat operations center, so when the man came to our gate asking questions, I was the one that dealt with him. I couldn't let on, but I really enjoyed meeting him.


As part of our presence in the city, we had several checkpoints on the roads leading into the town. Our orders from the Iraqi government were to not block traffic, only to screen it. We only stop people, check them out and allow them to pass. Unfortunately, the Iraqis don't always understand what the rules are. They ignore clear warnings and written signs to stop. Somehow, stupidly, people press on and drive at us at high speed even though Marines with very large weapons are shooting at them and telling them to stop. Usually they only make that mistake one time, I can only call them stupid.

So it happened that a rather stupid man was killed in the town, and now I had two groups soliciting my attention outside my gate. One group was for people organizing the funeral for the dead man. The other was the businessman. He owned a chicken ranch.

The dead man was being buried within hours of his death. I'm told this is normal among Iraqis. I wouldn't know. It seemed curiously timed with a gathering of military aged males at the mosque one block over, so maybe this guy died testing our reactions. Or maybe he was just stupid and his family was being efficient. I didn't know, and couldn't know. These are the Iraqis that are hard to trust. My cynicism towards them was pretty high. I was polite and ensured that their funeral arrangements were not impeded. While talking to this party of supplicants I made sure the snipers above me were alert.

Then came the chicken rancher. We knew about his chicken ranch. We had been ready for his business and all were briefed that anyone going to the chicken ranch was not to be stopped any longer than necessary to verify their business. Chickens need water and food to live, this was a big ranch.

The chicken rancher, like many Iraqis, was impatient and self-important. But he seemed different. His self-importance wasn't like the bullies I usually met, it was from being responsible. It's rare to find Iraqis that actually understand the concept of responsibility.

I didn't understand his words, and for a while I had no translator. Finally the first petitioner served as a translator. "I need to get to my ranch, I have a truck with engineering equipment to repair the watering machine." 

I instructed him to go, no one would stop him, we knew about him already. He wasn't so easily persuaded. He ended up coming back a second and third time. Finally, I wrote a note for him. He couldn't read it, but I made it look as formal as I could considering it was on a page torn out of my notebook. I wrote the letter to the checkpoint telling them what was already their standing orders, ensure this man was not carrying any bombs or weapons and then allow him to pass unmolested. The man thanked me and I never saw him again.

But he's one of the few in Iraq that gave me hope for their country. He had a business to run, didn't trust anyone to tend to his business interest for him, and especially distrusted the local government's actions on his behalf, calling them fools who didn't understand the needs of his business.

I don't know if he realized how much he impressed me with his attitude. I would have loved to tour his business, were I not there for a totally incompatible reason, but I suspect he was more interested in running his business than in giving tours of it. Again, I understand him.

I hope that soon Iraq has more men like this chicken rancher. I hope that men like him outnumber the thugs and murderers that try to dominate so much of this nation. An Iraq filled with men like him will prosper.
Friday, July 15, 2005

Shoot Fast
Many people send me their good wishes while I'm over here in Iraq. I appreciate all their good will and I'm proud that these wonderful Americans go out of their way to say such things. Their sentiments come in two types. There are those who say, "Be safe," "Keep your head down," and there are those who say, "Be quick on the trigger," or "Shoot fast."

I like the latter better. It shows me that they really understand why we're out here.
I'm not out here, quivering and hoping I don't get killed. I don't seek death or maiming. I don't even think of it too much. Those of my comrades that go on and on about worrying about death like that are quite boorish.

I'm not here to avoid getting into danger. I'm here to help kill the enemy. I like it when people understand my job is to be active, not passive. My job, as is every Marine's job is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and manuever and to repel his assault by fire and close combat. I don't see "keep your head down" anywhere in that mission statement.

Now, realistically speaking, I'm a staff officer in an infantry battalion. I'm not kicking down doors. I go off on operations, occasionally get shot at, and there's always the risk of mines, IED's, mortars, and RPG's, all of which I've seen. But realistically, I'm not locating and closing with any enemy as a practical matter.

When it comes to expressing sentiments of good will, I much prefer those who understand that our intent is to be active, not to find ways to not get hurt.

Entering Hit
I stood in the hills south of the city. When the sun finally rose, dirt and sand was all I could see in most directions. Looking north was Hit. It loomed large in my mind for the past couple of months as we contemplated how to enter it.


Off in the haze a few short miles away were the men who would face the brunt of the enemy defenses. Fortunately, there was no resistance.
When the companies got far enough into the town, we picked up and moved into the city. It's the biggest city in our area, about 150,000 or so. As we drove in we saw some women and children. Children are common, seeing women is extremely rare. We also saw groups of MAM's, or Military Age Males. Some glowered, others watched impassively. The only men who were friendly were those at their own homes or walking about singly. The glowering groups were almost assuredly muj.


We moved everyday for four days, and the comm platoon honed its setup speed to a blistering ten minutes. I couldn't be prouder of them, with the system they used, the discipline they displayed and the enthusiasm they maintained.

Finally we reached our destination, an old abandoned teacher's school right next to a major road and traffic circle. From here, the theory goes, we will be able to note all the comings and goings in the city, and make sure everyone knows who's in charge: The Iraqi army and the Iraqi government, of course.

We made two firm bases, the engineering and logistics effort was pretty amazing. The barriers, sand bags, reefers, sanitation, food, water, and all the other sundries needed to keep us alive and safe were trucked in at great effort.

After about two weeks, the attacks began. Some of my Marines were in a convoy going to the other firm base and the vehicle in front of them was hit by a bomb. Just prior to that a suicide bomber attacked the other firm base. Later, mortar attacks killed two. The attacks have come pretty regularly now, but we're there to stay, and their attacks are pretty feeble in the big picture.

I left the city after two weeks. We're proud of our accomplishment in Hit. The people are understandably nervous, but there are many friends of freedom there still. We fully intend to have a permanent US or Iraqi military presence there, until the war ends.