“Is full of beaners.” (Hintergrund)
“Fucking your wife.”
“Reenlistment papers” (with an arrow pointing to the roll of toilet paper)
“Here I sit broken hearted, I tried to shit, but only farted, next time I had the urge to fart I pushed it out and shit my pants.”
“Niggers: It’s not illegal to hang them in Iraq.”
“What if it was vice-versa and blacks were being racist to whites? Think about it: could you fight for a country that enslaved you and to this day treats you like a second-class citizen?”
“Pierced nips are the shit!”
“Hillary for President,” beside which was written “of Iraq.”
“The Army fucked up my life.”
“Kill all Haj” (Hintergrund)
“I need a big, hairy bear man.”
“I need some poon.” (Hintergrund)
“Bear sex.” (Hintergrund)
“Marines are fucking tools.” (Hintergrund)
Late one night in the middle of March, after eating several slices from the unnamed base’s Pizza Hut, I put on my flak jacket and helmet and walked aboard a C-130 transport aircraft. There were 30 other soldiers and civilian contractors on the flight, as well as a huge crate of equipment. We sat against the walls on seats made of nylon webbing. Next to me sat a very obese man who said he was a satellite technician. He had previously spent 38 months working in Iraq, earning about $225,000 a year. But then he returned to the U.S. and promptly lost most of his money in bad stock market investments. He was going back to Iraq, he told me, to get rich again. After learning that I was a journalist, he gave me a dirty look, “You aren’t going to put a liberal slant on the war stories, are you?”
The flight to Baghdad was pitch black and loud. An Air Force crewman shouted at us to strap ourselves in. We were not offered peanuts. I could tell when we neared Baghdad because the plane went into a steep descent (to make it harder to hit with a missile, I’m told). The airport tarmac was crawling with heavy machinery unloading equipment from other airplanes. Soldiers carrying their heavy packs and their clanking weapons marched like ants from the back of some of these planes. We jogged from the open runway to a protected warehouse. Some of the soldiers would continue flying onward to their assignments in Kirkuk, Basra, Mosul, Tikrit or Ramadi. Others would join me on a late-night convoy through the streets of Baghdad to the so-called Green Zone, which is the heavily fortified neighbourhood that was once home to Saddam Hussein’s palaces and is now the headquarters for the U.S. operations in Iraq.
To get to the Green Zone, one must travel through the Red Zone, which is another way of saying the dangerous areas of Baghdad, which includes pretty much the entire city. The convoy consisted of camper-van like vehicles covered by thick plates of steel armor. The vehicles are custom-built Rhino Runner buses and they are supposedly the toughest buses on the planet (Hintergrund). Still, I was nervous as we travelled down the notorious "Route Irish" (Hintergrund). We drove through the streets at high speeds, swerving randomly and never stopping.
The Rhino Runner’s windows were tiny and few streetlights worked, but I caught a glimpse of Baghdad: broken street signs, spray-painted graffiti, smashed brick walls, apartment buildings ringed by barbed wire and palm trees rustling in the night breeze. We entered the Green Zone after driving through a complicated security checkpoint that I am not allowed to describe.
The military told me I would spend at least a day in the Green Zone. They had to scan my fingerprints and arrange for my helicopter flights to the far-flung camp where Cpl. Matthew Shipp was stationed. But I ended up spending three days waiting. The military does not offer explanations for the delays, but on the day I was originally scheduled to leave, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Baghdad for a surprise visit. Lots of flights were being cancelled because of all the boosted security surrounding Cheney’s visit, according to the grumblings of soldiers who, like me, were late for their dates with the war.
It would be another three days before I would finally arrive at Combat Outpost Norseman. At stops along the way – to drop off troops at other bases – I met a Marine who had spent time at Norseman and patrolling the nearby town of Rutbah. When he learned where I was going, he shook his head and said, “That place is a shit hole. It’s full of thugs.”
Gulp. During the landing, the propellers kicked up huge clouds of orange, Anbar dust. After the dust settled, I saw a few small tents and shipping containers surrounded by piles of sandbags and three rows of barbed wire. Two cannons at the edge of base pointed towards a nearby town.
A sergeant met me at the landing pad. Cpl. Shipp was not at the base, the sergeant said. He was out on a combat patrol. I followed the sergeant to a small plywood shack where I would be sleeping for the next week. I dropped my backpack on a lower bunk bed, but kept my helmet and flak jacket on.
I didn’t get to bed until late that night. I was tired and my nerves were stretched thin after hearing gunfire coming from the nearby town. A Marine had also told me the base had been hit by mortar fire about a month earlier and that the insurgency was still going strong here. After zipping myself into a sleeping bag – the desert nights are unbelievably cold – I stared up at the bed above me. On the bottom of the mattress some soldier had had written Psalm 91 from the Bible: “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”