This is another missive from our friend in Iraq, which we reproduce anonymously.
In his mid to late 30s, with a teenage smile and polite ways, private security contractor Spider served as a sergeant in Afghanistan. We call him spider because of a large spiderweb tattoo around his elbow reaching up to a massive tricep, plus a spider with a human head taking up most of the other forearm. His body is a ripped billboard of very large pictures and inscriptions in garish colors against his pale Puerto Rican skin, from the twin skulls on the back of his neck down both sides of his torso. Together they proclaim loyalty to his special forces unit, the Marines, his Navy Seal training, etc., plus a certain “don’t tread on me” spirit.
As a young man, Spider drank his way out of a college scholarship and into the Marines. His skills took him beyond special forces and ultimately into a super-special unit in the State Department for extracting hostages and other top government personnel (not including Hilary). Spider needed more action. A fiercely loyal American, he convinced his best friend, also married to his sister, to re-enlist and join him in Afghanistan.
While investigating a cave, Spider led his team into an ambush from which only he emerged. It appears that the $2/day Afghani informant, received a better offer from the other side. Spider returned to the US to bury his brother-in-law, guilty, broken, suffering from PTSD. He required years of hospitalization and psychotherapy before he could deal with those events. He completed college and went to work in law enforcement in Florida. But he needed more action again. So here he is.
Now Spider profoundly understands the difference between being macho and being strong. He can talk to a very aggressive crew in terms that help them solve problems and moderate behavior. He teaches every day, directly and by example. Spider is respected, not feared. He helps families and kids with every spare dollar he does not send home to his wife and three daughters. He does not drink. He does not party. But Spider has messed up one of his tattoos. Where it once said “pray for war,” there is an ugly blue-black splotch. Only the large red death head underneath it and his memory are left.
Click below for our correspondent’s musings on the physical look and feel of Baghdad.
I doubt that Baghdad ever really was a beautiful city. But it has its features. There is a peaceful place where at dusk I can climb ten flights of dark stairs in an abandoned building to a flat rooftop with a chest-high cement wall. I chat with the Kurds in their machine gun hut there through gestures and jokes. I can look out for 360 degrees—and down on our compound–so long as I don’t stand in one place long enough to get noticed from below.
Looking to the west and south, I can see the Tigris dodging clumps of reeds, beautiful and lazy. Due east, the Green Zone. The GZ once must have featured resort-like buildings along the far bank. It still sports some very attractive and interesting architecture. My view along the river southeast is interrupted by several real hotels, including the famous Palestine, and ends in a slim factory smokestack burning off industrial effluents. Sometimes when I walk in the morning I notice smoke from nearby explosions mingling with the factory smoke, in a kind of military industrial love.
Three bridges cross the Tigris to the north. Mid-rise buildings poke up through low miscellaneous badly maintained constructions and apartments across the river. Some office buildings are quite nicely designed, clearly commercial but in a non-Western way. On this side of the river bombed taller buildings, whose precision holes are scarier than if they had been knocked down, alternate with towers that look as if they should fall down any minute but have not so far.
Toward the Palestine [Hotel] and just slightly east, miscellaneous light industrial and commercial buildings and houses jumble together. Around to the “front” east-northeast of the building lies a busy commercial street from which we are separated by barricades and armed personnel. It is not a safe place. By chance, I happened to snap a car bomb gone awry on the street last month, in a fire that crisped up only its occupant(s). A more successful car bomb penetrated the lighter security we had about 3 months before I came, destroying our hotel’s street entrance. No chance for a repeat now. There’s more cement than a gypsum quarry between us and “civilization.” The street is heavily trafficked, ugly, dirty, and miscellaneous. People dump trash everywhere or burn it in front of their stores or houses—or in the street. They throw tires and broken household equipment on the flat roofs. It is easy to hide an IED in this mess, and people have.
In the distance to the north lie several mosques, quite beautiful, really, and beyond them the outline of a great (and doubtless evil—note Fatwa above) football stadium. Although I cannot see it from the roof, there is a massive stadium on the far side of the Green Zone. Its entrances and exits are marked by monstrous 40′ arches made of crossed scimitars held by iron fists. It is the type of oversized monumental architecture I’ve seen in other dictatorships, affirming power of the primacy of the state against things merely human in scale.
Housing is largely apartment style, and around here, small houses, not exactly beautiful. They often house multiple families. Sometimes families live in single rooms. We try to help one that is a single family with four young children in a 6×10 room–no air conditioning (today it is 117 degrees F), no refrigeration, only a hibachi like thing outside, no bathroom facilities I could locate. We can only buy them canned food. We help another family that lives a bit better, but with a single mom and no visible source of income. On hot nights, the boy, 7, sleeps outside for comfort on a set of bed springs, no mattress. This is not a good place to be poor.
Iraqis are very “clean,” but sand and dust accumulate everywhere—especially where wood and charcoal are burned, but really as a result of being in a desert. It I wash my face in the afternoon, the white Holiday Inn towel (honest) gets visibly dirty. If I wash a dish in the morning (hey, it has been known to happen), by evening a fine coating of sand blankets it—not perceptible to the eye, but “feelable.” I also have all the water—hot, cold, and potable–I need, frequent and regular laundry, and work and sitting space. My quarters could probably house half the population of Baghdad, especially if I had enough can openers.