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Sparrowhawk
04-21-03, 08:01 PM
Journalistic objectivity is casualty of firefight

by Jules Crittenden
Sunday, April 13, 2003

Tomorrow, I may get to bathe for the first time in more than three weeks, not counting several wipe downs. It would be nice, but doesn't matter much at this point.

We have been in Baghdad four days and things had been pretty quiet, but this life is exhausting anyway. I was thinking, it's getting close to time to go home.

We began preparing for the ride into Baghdad Sunday night at an assembly area about 10 kilometers south of the city.

A psyops guy was joining us in the fire-support Bradley, and we had to make room for his electronic gear. We stripped out all the unnecessary gear. Ready for the worst, we kept reminding each other that in Mogadishu it was water and ammo. Out came more personal gear, in went more ammo and water. Then Pvt. Robert Baxter started up the track to move up onto the road, where we'd spend the night. He shifted into gear to move forward. Nothing happened.

The Bradley didn't want to go. I remembered what a photog friend with combat experience once told me. ``These things happen for a reason.'' There was no room on the tanks for passengers.

Later, the fire-support lieutenant informed me that he and the psyops guy had been assigned to ride in on a lightly armored M113 - originally not intended to make the trip because it is vulnerable to RPGs.

At 4 a.m. I woke to the sound of the tanks firing up. I was immediately depressed. ``(Expletive) it,'' I thought. ``I'm going.'' I raced up to the road, found the CO's tank and asked where I could ride.

``You're in the 113,'' he said. The colonel had told me we would hold the palaces for five hours and pull out, just to make the point. Maybe we'd stay overnight.

The thing about riding into an expected hell of fire is, it's only bad before it starts. Once you're rolling, you're rolling and you stop thinking about it. In the 113, we had the big crew hatch open in the back, and I could enjoy the ride, standing up with the lieutenant and the psyops guy, both watchful with their M-4 rifles, behind the track commander with his .50 caliber machinegun. Sgt. Dan Howison, the track commander, pointed out where his M-16 was hanging in case I decided I needed it.

The shooting started ahead of us. The 1/64 battalion was leading the column until they split off to the west. In the 4/64's column, there were just five tanks ahead of us, taking the brunt of the Iraqi fire and laying down heavy suppressive fire. In an industrial area on the outskirts, the first RPGs begun arcing over our track, and we heard the clatter of AK-47s.

Ahead of us, we heard the boom of the tanks' main guns and the heavy thudding noise of the 50s. Sgt. Dan Howison on our 50 began lighting up roadside bunkers and vehicles the tanks had bypassed. We agreed later the Iraqi fire was moderate, and thanked God they had such poor aim.

In front of the palace district, the tanks destroyed several recoilless rifles that might have been a serious annoyance to them but would have killed us in the 113. We rolled under the massive arch, the first visible dead Iraqis on the ground beside us, slumped in odd poses.

Down the broad avenue, the column halted in front of a Versailles-like palace, topped with four gargantuan and very bizarre busts of Saddam in an arabesque war helmet that caught our attention briefly, but the fire coming from the ditches under roadside hedges distracted us.

It was here I went over to the dark side. I spotted the silhouettes of several Iraqi soldiers looking at us from the shadows 20 feet to our left. I shouted, ``There's three of the (expletive) right there.''

``Where are the (expletive)?'' Howison said, spinning around in his hatch.

``The (expletive) are right there,'' I said, pointing.

``There?'' he said, opening up with the 50. I saw one man's body splatter as the large caliber bullets ripped it up. The man behind him appeared to be rising, and was cut down by repeated bursts.

``There's another (expletive) over there,'' I told Howison. The two soldiers in the crew hatch with me started firing their rifles, but I think Howison was the one who got him, firing through the metal plate the soldier was hiding behind.

Some in our profession might think as a reporter and non-combatant, I was there only to observe. Now that I have assisted in the deaths of three human beings in the war I was sent to cover, I'm sure there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity, etc. I'll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren't there. But they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism.

When it quieted down, we followed the tanks as they busted through the metal gates of a palace. We clanked through rose gardens, past ornamental ponds and a playground. I saw the profile of Red Platoon Sgt. Jonathan Lustig, looking intense and intent as always standing high in his tank commander's hatch, his hands on his 50, as his tank, Achtung Baby, turned down a little lane lined with exotic shrubs.

``There's Lustig, rolling through his enemy's gardens,'' I thought. Lustig said later he didn't notice the roses. But he did remark that rolling among Saddam's palaces made him think about Berlin 1945.

``It was like rolling into the Reich Chancellery. The Iraqis weren't exactly the SS, but they fought to the end. I guess you'd have to say I admire them for that. They stuck to their beliefs and fought to the end.''

Later, the psyops track was sent back to sit with Cyclone Company at the entrance to the palace district, where the tankers destroyed several vehicles that didn't stop and turn around quickly enough. One civilian car came racing toward us, ignoring the machine gun bursts, and was spun around and burst into flames when a main gun round slammed into its rear quarter.

The driver, amazingly still alive, bailed out and tried to take cover behind the car, miraculously surviving a heavy volume of machine gun fire. Howison yelled into the radio that he was raising his hands, trying to surrender.

I walked over as the medics' tracks rolled up. There was a pistol lying by the car, and the middle-aged, heavy set man's face was black with oily soot, his legs lacerated by shrapnel. I picked up a couple of packs of cigarettes lying around the car, and shared them with a couple of soldiers.

We were getting comfortable in the intersection by the big melodramatic Iraqi soldiers' memorial - one slumped dead, two looking forward heroically, another looking back to call his comrades forward.

We were sitting up on top of the track and eating MREs a little later in the day when more AK fire sounded down by the bridge. We looked over curiously, as gunfire in a war zone becomes routine and doesn't cause alarm unless it is clearly directed at you. That's when we saw the flash of an RPG, which cut a bright arc through the air 30 feet in front of the 113. We let out a collective noise to the effect of ``Oh (expletive)!'' and dove down into the crew hatch.

The tanks opened up with heavy fire, and started working on the date palm-dotted parklands around us, where figures were seen moving around. About 30 Iraqi soldiers later surrendered there, including one whose foot was shattered by a .50 caliber round. Most had chosen to stay in their holes, and there was only one body there.

That night, we all picked out places on the track to sleep. Howison and the psyops guy, ``RJ'' Pasto, slept on top, where there are a couple of flat places. The lieutenant and the driver slept inside. I took the ramp, big and flat, and worried more that the local rats or dogs would be attracted to my feet than I worried about enemy fire.

That was until I heard what sounded like incoming artillery explosions walking in. I mulled what to do about that, but hadn't come up with any good answers that also included the possibility of sleep by the time I decided it was tank fire down two different roads. I dropped off. Thus ended my first day in Baghdad.

SHOOTER1
04-21-03, 09:41 PM
Now him, I might take in with me, but he better know how to shoot that rifle, just in case.:D