U.S. Military: Good Morning, Baghdad!
Without uniforms, they are the average "Joe" or "Jane" you see on the streets of America. Some of those I talked to were nice people, but some of them were nasty. Before they were called to duty, some were students and government workers. One was even a school teacher with two kids at home. Except for a few, most had never seen battle or death before. However, with guns and power, they became the "boss" of the streets in Iraq, just like cops in the "hoods."

Most of those currently in Iraq arrived after the major combat in late April. Marines and British troops are staying in southern Iraq, Army personnel are stationed around Baghdad and Airborne units are based in northern Iraq. Some of the troops are "regular army" mobilized from Germany, but many are reservists called to duty early this year. Initially, they were told they would be in Iraq for a few just months, but now they are being told they must stay in Iraq for a year until next spring.

At post-invasion Iraq, officially U.S. troops are not combat troops, but rather "military police", and most of the tasks performed by them these days involve street patrol or conducting raids to catch what they call "the very bad people" from Saddam's regime, social criminals or those attacking American troops. Amnesty International's Curt Goerig criticizes many coalition soldiers who engaged in post-invasion law enforcement duties in Iraq because they "do not have basic skills and tools in civilian policing and they are unaware of the law they are supposed to be applying," he says.

By luck, I was invited by the U.S. military to stay and visit the 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Division in Baghdad for a few days. They've taken over Baghdad Island as their military base, the biggest park in the city next to the Tigris River, and now the park is off-limits to the Iraqis. There are over 1,000 troops occupying the Island, including some soldiers from other battalions.

I interviewed many military personnel from the base, and, depending upon which unit they're in, they come from anywhere in the country, such as: California, Alaska to Arizona, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Idaho, New York to Florida. Asking why they are here in Iraq, most troops told me they are coming to overthrow Saddam, and to free Iraqis from a dictator. Some, like private Scanlon from Hampton Rds., Virginia, were very straightforward: "We are here because we're told to [be], this is our job, …you're here to do your job, and move on."

During these interviews, I could clearly see signs of the internal struggle these soldiers are going through, especially when seeing their comrades injured or killed during ambushes by Iraqi resistance.

Many U.S. soldiers told me they are proud to have come to liberate Iraq from Saddam, and restore social order. But acknowledged that many Iraqis do not like them. Anthony Parrish is from task force 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Division and he says daily attacks in Iraq against U.S. soldiers are common. Parrish is a native of England who migrated to the United States, joined the army and became a tank driver. He came to Iraq from Germany in May. He says about his first couple of days in the base: "we got shot, we got rounds coming at us, every time we went out, there's somebody yelling [at us], everywhere people hanging chicken wire across the street, dropping grenades off the bridges, shooting at you, even children. We saw thirteen, fourteen-year-old children with weapons - AK-47s, rifles, handguns."

Parrish recalls two of his friends from the base who were killed recently, "The soldiers who died … two people from the 1/36 [Armored Division] … one was in Charlie company driving a Humvee and other one was a scout ... and both got killed two weeks apart, and it was from ambushes and sniper fire ... there's nothing we can do about that … I mean, we miss them, they were good soldiers, both of them. But, that was part of the job when you sign up."

According to the Department of Defense (DoD), for the first 4 months of the U.S. invasion, there were approximately 300 U.S. and U.K. soldiers killed from both combat- and "non-combat"-related deaths. But both Iraqis and peace activists in Iraq are skeptical about this figure. In fact, even the DoD acknowledges that U.S. military estimates relate only to fighting in or near Baghdad. They make no other figures available, and rarely report the number of injured soldiers, which is several times higher than the death toll. In many cases, they aggressively cover-up their casualties and do not allow journalists to report them.

When I was on the military base on the morning of July 21st, two Humvees from the base were ambushed and destroyed by rockets while they were out on morning patrol near the base. One U.S. soldier and an Iraqi interpreter were killed, and several others wounded. Rescue crews came and transported the wounded back to the base, where a helicopter was dispatched to transport them to the army hospital. I filmed the injured soldiers being taken away by the helicopter. According to the media agreement between the unit and me I was allowed to film events like this as long as no soldier's face was in the picture, and no mention was made of their identities. One of the base's commanders saw me filming and got upset; he wanted to confiscate my film. I reluctantly agreed to destroy the film because I did not want to be kicked out of the base too soon with no chance to interview the soldiers.

With the U.S. death toll rising and public support of the U.S. occupation in Iraq waning, the military is making sure no negative pictures of soldiers' dead bodies are shown on American primetime TV. Surely this would cause the further deterioration of public opinion as well as troop morale. No, what the military planners want is more cheerleading for the GIs. There's a proposal from one of the producers at Fox TV - the most-loved television station by the troops - to produce "COPS, the Baghdad specials."

Most soldiers have expressed, either privately or publicly, that they want to go home to be with their families. 37th Armored Division tank driver Jason Gunn says the hardest thing is not the daily attacks against the troops, but the forced separation from his loved ones. "You can deal with being shot at a lot, because after a while you just get used to it, and you don't really think about it, and you just keep your mind on what your job is [because that's] what you have to do. But actually, when you come back in and you're by yourself, you just start to think about your family, your friends, being away so long, what they are doing, what they have gone through, and how they feel [while we are in Iraq]. You know, what they hear on the news and you are not able to get in touch with them, and they worry a lot. So that's probably the hardest thing, missing friends and family." Gunn says.

There's no doubt that without Iraqi friends outside the base, a soldier's life inside the base is almost like being in prison. It's routine, dangerous, boring, hot, uncertain, and boring military rations (it's not very bad taste, but will be tired if eating same foods everyday).

With daily attacks against U.S. troops and their bases, GIs are rarely loitering on the street outside the capital. But you will see plenty of them around Baghdad, either going through the streets with Humvees or tanks, or otherwise barricaded behind tanks bearing machine guns at checkpoints across the city. When they do venture off the base for personal reasons, they are only gone briefly, maybe on the street shopping or checking email at a cyber cafe, but always with tanks and guns. Not surprisingly, one of the reasons retail business has surged in Baghdad these days is the tremendous buying power of the GIs, their preferred purchases being smuggled electronic appliances or pirated DVDs.

Beyond what they were told, the average soldier has very limited knowledge of the history and culture of Iraq, or of the Islamic faith.

At the base while they were watching DVD movies during a break, I asked several young U.S. soldiers how much knowledge they have about Islam and Iraq, they said not much. "Their [Iraqi] culture is definitely a lot different than ours, different things in different perspectives, that's for sure. Things we are taking for granted I think they don't … you know what I mean, they are just poor people in a poor society trying to make it," PFC Stevens from Jackson, Michigan says. They told me they learned much about Iraq through a DoD publication, Iraq Handbook.

At my request, Rt. Col. Garry Bishop, Battalion Commander for 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Division, gave me a copy. This book is given to every U.S. soldier who comes to Iraq. Its 385 pages can be broken down as follows: key facts and cultural information accounts for 24 pages; history, primarily focusing on the time period since Saddam's rise to power, accounts for 17 pages; government, politics and economy accounts for another 17 pages. By far, the largest part of this book, 270 pages, is devoted to information about Iraqi military and what kinds of weapons they use.

Without any social and family support network, the only "spiritual" guidance GIs have is the army chaplain, who is a Christian. They are issued guidebooks, such as "Prayers for Iron Soldiers" or "Iron Soldiers' Spiritual Fitness Nuggets", which essentially justify going to war and killing the enemy.

The army chaplain from the 37th Armored Division offers the religious justification to fight in Iraq. "I walk though the facts that when we are defending ourselves, when we are in position to protect those who cannot help themselves, when we are dealing with people who seek to take the lives of and endanger the people we are protecting, as long as we are staying within the rules of engagement that we have," he explains, "the Bible says we're OK." But he didn't say "thou shall not kill", just "thou shall not murder".

With complains against from the Iraqis, and soldier's moral in crisis, Rt. Col. Garry Bishop defends they are coming to protect Iraqi people, and many Iraqis do support them. "We are making difference, we are seeing the process." He says.

To show that the U.S. Army is in complete control of Iraq, the unit invited me to accompany them on one of their evening raids in Baghdad's northern suburb to catch what they called three "very bad people." They deployed at least 100 soldiers, dozens of Humvees, tanks and helicopters, but they never caught the "bad guys" they were looking for.

There have been several major military successes - for example, the arrest of top former Iraqi military commanders and Ba'ath party officials during the much-publicized "Operation Peninsula." However, the number of failures of general U.S. operations in Iraq is far more distinguished. According to the Baghdad-based English newspaper Iraq Today, false intelligence resulted in the death of at least two blameless men. It led to the tribal execution of an informant allegedly handed over by U.S. forces, as well as to the detention of hundreds of innocent Iraqi men and children who now view the U.S. military with far more anger and indignation then they ever did before.

Capped by the recent succession of bombings - the August 7th Jordanian Embassy bombing, the August 19th bombing of the United Nations office in Baghdad where the U.N. special representative in Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed, the August 29th bombing in Najaf which killed 100, including the most powerful Iraqi Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim - not only Iraqis, but Americans are growing weary of the U.S. military's consistent failure to restore social order and to end attacks by members of the Iraqi resistance. They now view U.S. presence in Iraq as unambiguous military oppression. Even when the military does, say, successfully catch a handful of social criminals who have terrorized city neighborhoods, its customary display of arrogance and its general lack of knowledge of the faith and culture of the Iraqi people effectively nullify the win.

One example highlighting this ethnocentrism in the military's policy is its extensive use of the body search, which is applied to men and women alike. Iraqis feel American troops do not understand eastern customs. Religious leaders are subject to searching, which is certainly an affront. Even more egregious, though, is the search of Iraqi women, which, in their culture and faith, is a great offense, so much so that some are willing to die to protect against this violation. Iraqi women have raised this issue with those in charge of the occupying forces, to no avail. Although each U.S. patrol unit has female soldiers to search women, according to Amnesty International's Elizabeth Hodgkin, complaints have been made to U.S. and British authorities because male soldiers have been allowed to search female prisoners during detention.

There have also been accusations against U.S. troops of stealing during searches. According to a recent issue of Baghdad's activist-run newspaper Al-Muajaha (translated as "The Iraqi Witness"), on June 30th in Baghdad's Hay Al-Resala Al-Oula district, a U.S. solider (not related to the 37th Armored Division) allegedly stole 25,000 Iraqi dinars (equivalent to US$16) from supermarket owner Samir Adbul Rasool Al-Humdani. When Al-Humdani protested this theft, he was arrested by the troops. In another incident, according to the Amnesty International report, on June 26th, an officer from the 101st Airborne Division stole three million Iraqi dinars (equivalent to US$2,000) from As'ad Ibrahim Mahdi's house.

Ironically, the most energetic in their welcome of U.S. troops in Iraq are children under ten. You'll see a group of curious but naïve Iraqi children surrounding GIs yelling, "Hey, Mister! Mister!" waving and talking to them, and trying to touch their guns. It's a charming moment, until you notice the backdrop of destroyed buildings.

more of Lee Siu Hin's writings on Iraq and U.S. Militarism: from Covert Action Quarterly and ChangeLinks