View Full Version : Diary Notes From the Invasion: Sandstorms, Bodies and Burning Tanks

03-21-08, 12:36 PM
Diary Notes From the Invasion: Sandstorms, Bodies and Burning Tanks

By James Hill

March 25, 2003: Leaving the Euphrates, the road north loses its asphalt and becomes sand. Along the route are more Bedouin either asking for handouts of food or to change dinars for dollars. One soldier exchanged a packet of cigarettes for a 250-dinar bill. When one of his colleagues saw he had a bill with a portrait of Saddam Hussein, he demanded, “Why d’ya want to get a bill with that [expletive] on it?”

Suddenly a huge sandstorm has blown up and we can barely see a few feet in front of us. The convoy just stops, swallowed in a yellow haze. The men all put on their goggles, scarves, and sheltered as best they could. In one truck a marine was resolutely eating a pack of Skittles in the teeth of the storm.

The sands drift by as we sit in the car doing nothing. The straps hum and flap, making sounds like an indigenous instrument. The car rocks constantly, such is the strength of the wind. We wait, which I have now realized is a military specialty, though it is hard not to be unhappy, disoriented from losing sight of our surroundings. The weather feels like a much more potent enemy than the Iraqi Army and we feel swallowed by it.

March 26: The sandstorm was still blowing this morning, but a shadow of its former self. We hooked up with another convoy heading north, pushing almost 100 kilometers forward. Our new camp for the night had been the site of an ambush by Iraqi forces on a Marine convoy just ahead of us, and two dead soldiers lay on the side of the road, one face down in the mud, the other staring at the sky as convoy after convoy of military vehicles moved by. I counted at least 15 bodies, and there were many prisoners, nearly all badly dressed and without shoes. An amber fog still hung over them as they huddled in a barbed-wire pen.

One of the seriously wounded had been shot in the head by his officer for refusing to fight. Many other soldiers claimed they had been press-ganged into service and that their families were being kept by forces loyal to Saddam. In all they looked a miserable bunch and hardly a match for these marines.

The American Marine doctor was caring for them and evacuated some out by helicopter. He denied Americans were being moved first. The most serious went first, he said, irrespective of nationality.

April 2: We drove through the night, no easy task since everyone has night-vision goggles except us. Awaking early this morning I see two Iraqis being questioned by the side of the road as an enormous convoy of armored vehicles stretched into the distance.

It turned out they were two men who had been caught in the firefight for the Saddam Canal the night before, and a friend of theirs, who had stood up wearing a red bandana to see what was going on, was unsurprisingly killed.

A Marine major went with them to help retrieve the body, which was lying by the bridge. Together they put it into two black plastic bags and then carried it to the Iraqis’ car. Only the body was too big and by now too stiff to fit in the car. The three of them stood there like cheap Mafia hit men wondering how to dispose of the body. Eventually they managed to squeeze it in and the Iraqis drove away, saying thank you to the major, and meaning it, even though it was the Americans who had killed their friend. The major said sorry and meant it. Such is the perversity of war.

On the front the Americans have pushed a long way today. At dusk, on the Tigris, marines were in rubber boats securing the far bank as engineers were constructing pontoon bridges. A tank captain parked near the river, Ted Card, was moaning that the Iraqis were cowards. “My men keep asking me,” he told me, “‘When are we going to see some action?’.” Meanwhile we are now in M.O.P.P. 2 [Measures of Personal Protection], which means we have to wear vast rubber overboots on our feet that make them feel like fish in an oven.

April 7: Immediately after waking up we heard on the radio about a large incursion by the Third Infantry Division into the center of the city. The final phase has begun.

Today they (and we mercifully) went to M.O.P.P. 0, which means we can all take off our chemical suits, which have protected us psychologically but otherwise made us do nothing but sweat.

Changing into trousers, even dirty ones, feels like a great luxury.

Putting them on though I can feel how much weight I have lost in the last few weeks. Anxiety is obviously a terrific hunger suppressant.

The Fifth Battalion of First Marines, with whom we are camped, seems to in no hurry to go anywhere, so we decide to swing back west to find the Seventh Marines.

At this point the embedded/unilateral issue doesn’t seem to matter. We arrive at a military column in a GMC Yukon and it’s “Welcome to the war.”

The battalion is waiting to cross a bridge over the Diyala River.

On the other bank it is already Baghdad. We stay 500 meters from the bridge while the sounds of battle thunder ahead. It is very hard to understand how much is Iraqi fire. After about three hours there is silence.

Dexter, using his full New York Times muscle, persuades the colonel of the battalion to let us across before any of the other journalists. The Iraqis had tried to blow the bridge but failed. On the right there are the charred remains of T-55 tanks and the bodies of a few badly dressed soldiers. A fire at an oil depot rages on a bit further down the road.

As dusk falls we end up proceeding with an armored column into an abandoned area. Turning into an unknown street, just ahead of us a truck filled with ammunition is ablaze, spitting out bullets, which we can avoid only by attempting to shield behind a large armored vehicle. It is plain idiocy what we are doing, and both Dexter and I know it. But we go ahead nonetheless even though our bravery turns out to be a mistake. Suddenly we find ourselves at the head of the advance and only three tanks between us and the Iraqis. The colonel of the battalion finds us and screams at us, sending us back to the bridge. So we double back, passing the burning truck and through a mine field cleared a few hours before.

Greeting us at the bridge is a horde of flies buzzing lazily from the rotting corpses nearby and a thick oily haze from the nearby depot whose angry flames light up the nearby sky.

April 8: I slept fitfully through the night, waking up constantly from the tarry smoke and in the morning light found a flattened dog only a few meters from my head.