NAJAF AMMUNITION STORAGE FACILITY – The winds and the sands of the Iraqi desert began swirling at around noon Tuesday but it didn't seem so bad. Two hours later, the storm was still passable as we set out for the suspected chemical weapons storage facility and the largest weapons storage facility in Najaf, Iraq, to meet the army weapons inspection team that arrived in the morning to survey the site that was taken by Bravo mechanized infantry company on Sunday without a fight.
By the time we arrived, navigation was reduced to following the arrows on a global positioning station. Our driver, Specialist Bobby Roberts whose vision puts eagles to shame, could see no further than the hood of the jeep.
Ten minutes after we arrived, the sky turned an eerie orange. It was not day, it was not night. It was an earthly light that soon turned red before the sun disappeared completely and the darkness that descended upon the swirling sand was as other-worldly as the light that preceded it.
There by flashlight, Bravo mech's infantry men surveyed the surroundings. Standing amidst row after row of AK47s, RPGs and bayonets, company executive officer Lt. Colin Hoyseth explained that the 70 Iraqi officers and soldiers who surrendered without a fight on Sunday 'were not expecting to see us here so quickly and not expecting us to come from the South like we did. All their guns were pointing towards the East.'
Looking over the officers' quarters Wednesday morning at first light and after the storm had somewhat abated, Sgt. Kettrel Baylor noted, 'They had all their stuff still organized here in their rooms. They clearly weren't expecting any company.'
It was a strange sensation standing in the personal quarters of an Iraqi colonel. On the one hand he was living the high life – especially when compared with the US troops' current harsh living conditions. His quarters were equipped with a living room, a refrigerator, stove, private bath and toilet, and a television set. He had a stack of fresh clean uniforms and boots and a large personal stash of tobacco.
On the other hand he had no computer. All of the records were kept in notebooks – some bizarrely covered in Mickey Mouse wrapping paper – and filed in cabinets.
The colonel had ledgers of troops and equipment but no computerized or even typewritten documents. On his desk he had glued a picture of himself with his hero, Saddam Hussein, standing outside his office.
The officers' quarters were far past a mess. Between the duststorm and the US troops' clearing operation to defend against booby traps, the rooms abandoned only three days earlier, look as though they hadn't been touched for forty years.
The soldiers of Bravo mech company were the ones who accepted the Iraqi troops' surrender on Sunday.
'All of these EPWs (enemy prisoners of war) tell us how much they love the US and hate Saddam. But then we go through their stuff and see Saddam's picture glued onto all of their notebooks. In one of the rooms we searched, for instance, this guy had carefully cut Saddam's picture out of a newspaper and taped it into his notebook and then drew all these curly cues around it in red marker. Why would they do that if they hated him? Obviously, they are lying to us,' says Pt. David Faulkner of Virginia, a 19-year-old infantryman from one of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle crews.
I spoke with Faulkner and his crew mates outside their Bradley as they fed six wild puppies Beef Teriyaki and Salsa Chicken from their combat rations on Wednesday morning.
The crew with Faulkner included David Youngston, 20, from South Carolina, Jason Shawn, 18, from Houston, Texas, Doug Glazer, 24, from Brooklyn, New York, Rickey Lewis, 23 and Ryan Bigley, 20, both from Virginia.
To describe the looks of these young men is to describe the faces of all young soldiers. They are beautiful even when the grime of the desert makes their faces black with dust. They are sweet even as they speak of war and killing. They are strong and tough and innocent. They are young men who have chosen to be warriors and guardians of their countrymen.
US GROUND forces entered Iraq last Friday morning. After a brief stop some 2 km inside the border, the entire First Brigade of the Army 3rd Infantry Division made a night journey through the desert. The 100 km. drive, in diamond formation was illuminated by the bright lights of the thousands of vehicles of war. The feeling was one of pure power. In all directions all one could see was this immense war machine, traveling unopposed through enemy territory, like a cavalry charge of old. Saturday afternoon the sensation of invincibility was reinforced as the forces met for the first time with civilian population lining the highway along the banks of the Euphrates, smiling and waving.
Just an hour later these civilians turn to combatants as they set an ambush for the same forces they were previously cheering.
Youngson: That first battle really reminded me of Somalia. There our troops went to help those people. We were on a peace-keeping mission. First they smiled and cheered us and then they started to kill our soldiers and drag them through the streets. It was like the Israelis in Lebanon.
Glazer: I think that the initial drive through the desert was like giving a big middle finger to the enemy. But we can't be cocky. They may hate Saddam, although they probably don't, but I assume that 90 percent of them hate us just as much. I don't trust any of these people. It is clear to me that they do what we tell them to do because we are pointing our guns at them. Many of the soldiers have been troubled by the cries of the EPWs and their families. One officer commented to me on Monday, 'We want them to like us. That's the American way. We're good people. The problem is that probably everything they tell us about how they feel about us is a lie and we have to get used to it.
Faulkner: Some of the Iraqis came to look for their families in the EPWs camp, a few begged to be allowed in and said they would be killed by the Iraqi army if they went back to An Najaf. They kept asking us to take them to America. It was hard to take until we saw all the pictures of Saddam in these guys' barracks. These men have been brainwashed to love that man and hate America for the past 12 years.
Glazer: I don't allow emotions to play a role in my actions as a soldier. I make a separation. There is home and there is here. No matter what you do for these people they are going to hate us because they are jealous of what we have. These people haven't made a decent contribution to humanity for over a thousand years. They hate us for our accomplishments.
Shawn: If you're soft on the EPWs you'll be killed or your buddy will be killed. I am here to fight a war. I am not here to make friends.
Glazer: And for all that look at how we treat our prisoners and look at how they treat us. We feed them our food, give them our water and let them sleep on our cots. Then they execute us and drag our bodies through the streets of Baghdad. How can anyone doubt who the good guys are in this war or who needs to win?
Bigley: The Iraqis are trying to mess with our minds and hurt our families.
Glazer: We will stop this soon enough. We just have to crush, to totally destroy his armies. Nothing can be retained.
Shawn: The EPWs we got who tell us they hate Saddam would no doubt be partying if the tables were turned. They'd be killing us.
CBG: The picture you guys paint doesn't lend itself to an easy or quick solution to this war. You really need to believe in what you're doing to persevere in the midst of the Iraqi hatred you described. Why do you think you are here fighting?
Youngson: A lot of people think this is a religious war but I'm a Christian and I don't believe that. The US army has soldiers from all religions fighting side by side. It isn't a religious
issue. We're fighting here for the safety of our families back home. Who knows if we weren't here that our children or our brothers wouldn't get blown up on a public bus or a school field trip like they are in Israel? They are using terror and guerrilla tactics against us here. If we let this fester they'll do the same thing to us back home. So I'm here to protect myself and my family back home.
Shawn: It's our job. We chose to do it. But if we don't put a stop to Saddam and bin Laden, they will keep bombing our buildings. The more of these people we put away, the less terror there will be.
Lewis: I'm here to make the future terror-free for my baby daughter.
Faulkner: I am here to do this job so that I can go home.
Glazer: I'm here to start and finish a job that should have been done 12 years ago and make sure that incidents like September 11 never happen again.
Shawn: That's true for me too and also to make sure that my sons won't have to come back here in 10 years.
Glazer: I think we need to be here doing what we're doing for another reason, too. We have to show that you can't just bomb the US and get away with it. These guys are lucky we didn't come here a year ago, when we should have been here after they cheered the attacks on our cities. September 11 was worse than the Pearl Harbor attack.
CBG: Have you thought about the possibility that the US could lose this war?
Bigley: The US cannot lose this war. We will win this war. If worse comes to worst and we sustain mass casualties, we'll still do whatever it takes to win. The US can't lose. We have too much at stake and too much pride to ever accept defeat.
I asked the men what they think of the anti-war protesters.
Shawn: I expected it. Anytime there is a war you get those people out there screaming because they are afraid.
Bigley: These people refuse to understand what would happen if we let Saddam stay out on the loose. And the thing is that it is our families who are most afraid, who sacrifice the most and they understand why we are here.
Faulkner: I think that if they could see what we see, the nasty, underhanded way this enemy fights us then they would think differently about this war. I think the reports on the way they are treating our POWs can make it clear to a lot of protesters that this is an evil that must be defeated. I can't imagine that they could see what is happening to our guys and still believe that this isn't a necessary fight.
CBG: What do you guys think about the French and Russians opposing the US decision to go to war?
Glazer: Who are the French? We don't need the French. We fight for freedom and security. They only care about their money. What is really upsetting is that the US will probably end up paying the French and the Russians whatever the Iraqis owe them to buy their support for freedom.
Bigley: They don't seem to understand about terrorism in France. They don't seem to understand that terrorism must end. The Russians understand this and yet they are still selling these guys arms. That has to stop. The Russians have to start thinking about the consequences of their actions.
Glazer: Not that I care, but I assume that the UN will follow us eventually. The UN members are too scared to support us upfront, but everyone will join the bandwagon once we win.
CBG:How long do you think this war will last?
Shawn: I think we'll finish it fairly quickly but that we'll be here for a while.
Bigley: The US can't leave the public eye in Iraq, otherwise another Saddam will take power a few weeks after we leave. These people don't understand what freedom is. They need to understand freedom before they can begin to expect or demand it.
Youngson: It will be really hard though. I heard on the radio about all the different religious groups here. I know that whoever doesn't end up leading here will rebel against whoever is in charge. They did that to the Turks and they will do it again. It will be very hard.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.