'I Wanted the Iraqis To Be Nervous'

Big Lebwoski

Image by Remko Tanis via Flickr

Intriguing story in USA Today this morning. I suggest reading the whole thing. It opens with an American soldier pointing a rifle at friendly Iraqi commanders before sitting down to drink some tea.

But the young Army private just stood there, his M-4 raised menacingly at chest level, his eyes focused on the Iraqi commanders in the room.

The other Americans had removed their helmets and flak jackets and were sipping hot tea during a regular meeting with their Iraqi counterparts. It wasn’t until Schmidt’s commander gave him a second direct order that Schmidt reluctantly sat on the edge of a folding chair against a back wall. He kept a tight grip on his rifle.

“I wanted (the Iraqis) to be nervous,” Schmidt said afterward. “I don’t trust anybody who’s not wearing an American uniform.”

This moment gets at one of more pernicious aspects of the war: the inability to know friend from enemy, when anyone who isn’t “wearing an American uniform” is automatically suspect. This is part of the larger problem of being a foreigner trying to subdue an insurgency in a country not of one’s own. It’s difficult too impossible not to treat all Iraqis as potential threats(which feeds an underlying racist subtext that’s always there, not as explicit as in wars past with “Japs” and “Gooks,” but still alive and well.)

It’s set in Mosul. I was there many a year ago, in 2005. Doesn’t seem like too much has changed. Still a persistent level of violence. And still, the Americans are worried that Iraqi soldiers are going to accidentally shoot them. From a section of the story called: Iraqis Need More Discipline

Ask Staff Sgt. Shawn Moriarity the biggest shortcoming the Iraqi forces must overcome, and he lets out a howling laugh. “Muzzle awareness,” he said.

U.S. forces are usually disciplined when on patrol, keeping their gun barrels down or aimed at specific targets. Their fingers are kept off the trigger. But Moriarity said the Iraqi forces — many of them newcomers to the military after the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi army following the 2003 invasion — routinely walk around with their guns waving in the air.

“They’re like this all the time,” Moriarity said, sweeping his M-4 rifle around with its muzzle waving high.

Another American nickname for the muzzle unawareness is “the death blossom.” That is, when Iraqi soldiers come under attack, they start shooting in all directions, petals of lead lethally blossoming.

Stories like this in USA Today have been around for the past four years at least, probably longer. Clumsy buffooning Iraqi soldiers needing to be disciplined by the U.S. Forces. There’s always been “significant progress,” “great strides,” etc; the Iraqis are always just about to become great soldiers who don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Almost! But this day still hasn’t come–thus the Americans already want to stay longer in Mosul than they promised.   

(Dude, an aside: Where does this boundless American confidence in Iraqi soldiering come from? Aren’t the Iraqis, pace Walter in the Big Leboswki, “a bunch of fig-eaters wearing towels on their heads, trying to find reverse in a Soviet tank. This is not a worthy adversary.” Wasn’t the Iraqi Army a joke force that the U.S. beat in twenty minutes in 1991 and in three weeks in 2003? But since 2004 we’ve had expectations that they’ll be able to perform like Hessians because we’re giving them billions dollars worth of classes at the rifle range?)


About michaelhastings

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6 Responses to 'I Wanted the Iraqis To Be Nervous'

  1. ntstlkr says:

    Two examples from experience…

    1991, probably sometime in January or so since the air campaign had started in the build-up for the ground phase but we hadn’t even infil’d the recon teams yet. I was up in Riyadh basically playing bodyguard for an Air Force LNO assigned to our unit, picking up some kinda new satcom enabled flight tracking gear we were supposed to use to keep an eye on the waves of aircraft streaming north. Lucky me. i was sitting out by our vehicle (AF Security didn’t want to let me into their area because I was geared up. Guess it made them nervous to have a guy stand around with M16 in hand, kitted out with mag pouches, backup pistol, and body armor…you know stuff the average Army joe wouldn’t bat an eye at)…anyways it was getting on evening and I was sitting there having a smoke. All of a sudden sirens start going off (loudly lol) all over the place and the first thing I think is “shit”. But nobody shows. Of course the place is all sandbags and blast walls anyways so there’s not much to see regardless but I expected someone to come running along. Hell where was my Air Force guy? Nothing. A thunderous roar over-rides the interminable siren and i see what appears to be a tremendous pilar of fire erupt nearby and go arcing off into the cloudy night sky. This is followed by a few more (as I found out later) Patriots being fired off to intercept the incoming (again as I found out later) Scud. “Shit” again and a whole litiney of other colorful expressions as I hurredly plowed through the truck to try and find my MOPP gear and put it on (which I did in record time I believe).

    Ok, so now what to do? Figuring I needed to do something other than stand around and watch the airborne fireworks, I hussled down the road to where I remembered the entrance gate was to find a lone Air Force Security type holding his position with what appeared to be a squad of SANG (Saudi National Guard). Air Force was obviously relieved that he wasn’t going to be alone when I offered to lend a hand. He pointedly nodded to the Saudi’s and warned me to just “keep an eye on them”. if you had seen them you would have understood. About a dozen men, all clearly upset and extremely aggitated with what was going on around and up above them. “Poor weapons control” would be a complement. They looked like kids clambering all of the playground monkey bars except this was on the (apparently) squad truck with ring mounted light machinegun. *sigh

    And, for those not experienced in such things, a promask (gas mask) only works (if it works at all lol) if it has an airtight seal with your face. You know, keep out all that nasty “bad air” stuff that’s floating around you. You’re not helping your promask do it’s job by constantly lifting it from your face (breaking the seal) because it’s hot and itchy after a few minutes of wear. And two, if you have a beard (increasing said itchiness and sweat) you seal is probably for shit anyways. But then again half of that group didn’t apparently have promasks, which probably added to their aggravation…

    Second Example Will Follow….

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Nstalker, fascinating stories, thanks for posting. I think the under currents of race and culture are not given the attention they deserve.

  2. ntstlkr says:

    1996, somewhere on the road between Sarajevo and Split. Me and a buddy were stopped off at a gas station, getting some fuel, all part of a small convoy of vehicles making our way to an assembly area for a Coalition run command and control exercise. We’ve been in country for about 6 monthes so you can say we’ve been exposed to most of what the FRY was gonna offer in the way of people, places, and potential things to shoot at. More on that last part. So here we are, in line to get some diesal, getting the usual speel to check out the sodas and other snackage on display in the proprietors little shop. Or maybe we might like a souvenir or two?

    Anyways I don’t know where he got the idea we were listening but all of a sudden he cuts into speech about how we should never turn our backs on the Bosnians. That they are Muslims and that you just couldn’t trust them because “they’re coming after you too!”. Serbs are just, barely, a step above because they are better than the stinkin muslims, but not “much” better. This wasn’t just a speech though (which again makes me wonder why he needed to give us the speel), he had that glassy-wide-eyed look of a true beleiver.

    Which is funny. Well not “funny” per se but funny in that for the guys in my section at least, we all agreed that one, we really didn’t give a shit about what he thought. Two, we really really really couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. Seriously. Light hair, dark hair, pale or tanned complection. All you could say was they had Euro-mediterranean features. That’s it.

    Well that and at the end of the day they were all fucked in the head. Why do I say that?

    I say that because I saw the countless bulletholes and wreckage of a city torn between factions in a country with more land than they rightfully know what to do with. It looks alot like Montana or Wyoming if you could get past all the little markers for minefields everywhere you go. I know why they called Sniper Ally that name.

    I say that because one day I gave a little girls begging on a street corner a case of MREs out of the back of my truck. I had nothing else to give her. She was no more than 5 or 6. About the age of my own sons back home. Cute thing with a big smile full of missing teeth and dark hair in little curls reaching down to her shoulders. She was also missing her left leg from the knee down. One of those minefields…
    At least she made it to that point. Alot of kids didn’t, brought down by a snipers bullet, or the random mortar shell.

    So yeah, sometimes it’s hard to tell friend from foe, ally from enemy. Horrible answer? Sometimes I really wonder if even “they” know.

  3. Yep, Iraqis are a bunch of f–kin’ amateurs.. But say what you will about the tenets of Baathism, at least it’s an ethos..

    (And Death Blossom? Since when did they get their hands on Rylan technology?!

  4. ntstlkr says:

    Iraqis, Saudis, Syrians, Palistinians…it has more to do with a tenet of Muslim faith (or maybe outcome of Islamic belief is more accurate). It lies in the saying “Inshallah”. Or “As God Wills”. It’s something that underlies Middle Eastern societies (with the pointed exception of Isreal) on many levels. Whether the inability to address incredably long-standing corruption to the sub-par military performance for most (recent exceptions noted) of the last few centuries.

    Now the terrorist/freedom fighter/jihadist/revolutionary is a break in some ways of the old mold. Hamas and so on have at least tried to ween some of the rank and file from the “inshallah” way of doing things. “God may will but you must deliver” seems to be the change in sentiment there. When Isreal went into southern lebenon we saw the fruits of some of that change in perspective.

    Additionally, think of the political power structures in place. Generally autocratic, some fully dictatorial. An incompetent military may not be a threat to the “enemy”, but it isn’t much of a threat to the ones in power either.

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