(Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Once Upon a Time in Iraq

Public memory of the war in Iraq fails to consider the human cost

I don’t recall any Iraqis we searched at vehicle check points singing the praises of the Backstreet Boys pop group, as detailed by Findley Harnett in his edifying review of the BBC’s impressive new documentary Once Upon a Time In Iraq. But I’m not at all surprised that those jaunty pop tunes appeal to Iraqis in the same way that catchy pop music appeals to most people around the world.

Bar the small minority who were shooting at us, the vast majority of Iraqis that I remember from my tours in the cities of Al Amarah and Basra, in 2004 and 2006 respectively, were a gregarious and hospitable bunch, who clearly liked to have a sociable and good time like the rest of us; a point that shines through in this five-part account of the consequences of the 2003 invasion that thankfully leaves aside the politicians and generals to tell the story from the perspectives of ordinary Iraqi civilians and the likes of foreign journalists and soldiers caught up in the conflict.

When my troop rotated through guard duty at the Pink Palace—once the home, before the British Army commandeered it, in downtown Al Amarah of the governor of the surrounding Maysan region—my soldiers would source cans of fizzy drinks, chocolate bars and Viagra pills sold by a local man through a hole in a chain-link fence. I only found out about this clandestine trade when it led to a scenario that my officer training at Sandhurst hadn’t prepared me for. During a subsequent 24-hour guard duty back at the main Abu Naji camp, a few kilometres away from the city, at midnight I set off to drive around the perimeter to check on the soldiers in the guard towers, in essence to make sure they were still awake in the hot soporific darkness. At one tower, in reply to my enquiry about how things were going, the soldier manning it replied in a slightly panicked tone that he’d had an erection for eight hours that showed no signs of abating; he explained he had tried a Viagra pill from the batch he bought during our Pink Palace stint to prove them usable before he headed back for his two-week R&R and seeing his wife.

High up on the rooftop of the Pink Palace one afternoon, I was making the most of the lack of incoming mortars, rockets and rifle shots, admiring the panoramic views of the city and toward the sparkling Tigris River. I scanned the surrounding buildings through my SA80 rifle’s telescopic sight. The magnified image came to rest on an Iraqi woman hanging laundry on the roof of a building about a hundred meters away. She spotted me and began waving an arm in my direction. Rather than being perturbed by the position of my rifle, as you might expect, she was beckoning me toward her.

Had I stumbled on some sort of local brothel, I wondered with a tinge of excitement. Might it have been some sort of honeytrap? In the years since I’ve often wondered what the gesture meant. I suspect she was just fooling around—a friendly gesture in defiance of the war going on around us. Either way, it suggested—as did other encounters with the residents of Al Amarah—that the locals didn’t necessarily view us as a malign occupying force, or that if they did, they were willing to give one the benefit of the doubt on an individual level.

Near the end of what I remember as the hottest, sweatiest and most exhausting midday foot patrol through the alleys of Al Amarah, I signalled to the patrol to take a knee on the pavement. My CamelBak was empty of water, my lips cracked, my shoulders ached from the heavy radio and the webbing was chaffing maddeningly at my hips. As I shifted my shoulders and back trying to ease the pressure points, swearing at the webbing that wouldn’t ease off, the wizened head of an old man appeared from a shack off to the side, before disappearing. I thought nothing of it, focusing instead on the sensations of relief that were beginning to flow through my weary limbs. A few moments later he reappeared, carrying a silver tray with a steaming glass of tea. Slinging my rifle to the side, I took the glass uttering an Arabic “shukran” in thanks, while the man grinned and nodded.

The dark liquid swirled with sugar particles above a centimetre-thick layer of sugary sediment at the glass bottom. A cup of tea was never sweeter, nor did hot liquid ever fall so like monsoon rains to my parched insides. Now that sweet cloud appears more like a crystal ball, in which I failed—as did we all—to see what would come: endless lives obliterated in years staying hungry for sacrifice, the vortex finally conjuring the horror of ISIS.

“Better get moving, sir, don’t want to stay static too long,” came the voice of my troop sergeant on the radio. Handing the glass back to the man, an even bigger smile dominated his face after seeing his tea drunk so whole-heartedly. The patrol moved on as he headed back to his shack with the tray. I never saw him again, as much as I would have liked it.

Even the RPG man who attacked us at the junction of Red 11 during Operation Hammersmith was pretty decent about everything, all considered. For a start, we were ensconced in the most heavily armoured tank in the world at the time, a Challenger 2 main battle tank, weighing in at 72 tonnes with additional armour plating. Standing in a t-shirt with just a bit a building corner to shield him and from which he had to emerge entirely to shoot his rocket propelled grenade, the odds weren’t exactly in the RPG man’s favour; nor were they for the gun men working alongside him hiding behind a large block of masonry in the road—it wasn’t as if they could shoot our tyres out with their AK-47s.

The first burst of 7.62mm bullets from the tank’s coax machine gun went wide of the RPG man, so my gunner had to correct his aim. As he toggled his thumb control to realign the cross hairs in his sight, I quickly glanced through the cupola periscopes to check what was happening in the general area. It was empty of civilians—not surprisingly—apart from one dilapidated-looking car slowly approaching from the left and about to cross the junction and go straight through our firing line.

“Cease fire!” I roared in vexation and bewilderment at the driving habits of Iraqis.

The turret went quiet. Amid fumes of cordite from the coax, we all watched the car doing a sterling impression of the worst type of Sunday afternoon driver ambling along an English country road. Eventually the car began to cross the junction—slowly, majestically, as if giving the adoring crowds time to admire. I could see a man with a white beard in the driver’s seat looking rigidly ahead, either ignoring us and hoping for the best or simply oblivious to our presence. The RPG man seemed to have taken stock of this development too, and sportingly appeared to accept some sort of unofficial truce. The car passed through the sight cross hairs then continued to exit stage right.

“Target go on!” I shouted to the gunner. “Come on!”

A bright arc of coax 7.62mm rounds was still in the air as the RPG man wrenched himself behind the wall, not to appear again. A separate volley of coax at the masonry block appeared to persuade the gunmen behind it not to push their luck anymore. At the time, after being in a closed-down turret for hours it was too hot to think straight, let alone parse the finer details such as the warning of the 17th-century poet John Donne that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all Mankind.” Looking back now, I can only hope the RPG man and gunmen got away from Red 11 and were able to get back to listening to the Backstreet Boys or whatever tunes they liked to relax to.

In the years after the tour, I wondered about just who were the individuals that had the gumption to take on Delta-30 that day at Red 11. There wasn’t much identifying detail to go on. Everything had happened so quickly with the RPG man that even with the tank’s magnified sight his face was simply a blur edged with black hair and a beard. The gunmen appeared to have wrapped kufiyahs, the classic chequered scarf of the Middle Eastern rebel, around their heads. Were any of them even proper insurgents? What exactly is a proper insurgent anyhow? Perhaps they were simply bored young men with no other prospects, looking to earn cash from the coffers of the so-called Mahdi army that was part of the burgeoning insurgency taking hold in Iraq. It was reportedly dishing money out to ordinary locals to take on the foreign invaders.

Might some of them have just been teenagers, pissed off at their world as they saw their country going to pieces, with no girlfriends to dissuade them or show them a more ennobling path—the latter being a dynamic I could relate to after years of an all-boys boarding school education—the sort of young men who would normally mean well, like Waleed Nesyif in the BBC documentary, who Harnett describes as the series’ standout participant. Nesyif was an 18-year-old heavy metal rocker in Baghdad at the start of the invasion and “infatuated with all things Western, from McDonald’s to Metallica,” Harnett says. Nesyif describes how he welcomed the arrival of Allied troops in April of 2003 and how most Iraqis were “hopeful at the beginning,” until “the myth that we were sold unravelled itself into this nightmare we all knew now we’re stuck in.”

I heard similar assessments when I bumped into Iraqi refugees in Austin, Texas, when I was reporting a story about Texas Governor Greg Abbott declaring at the start of 2020 that the Lone Star State would not accept any refugees that year; a decision coming in the wake of an executive order issued from President Trump in 2019 granting local politicians a veto over the placement of refugees in their communities. (I can’t help but notice parallels with the current fuss and rhetoric issuing forth over immigrants—some of whom have been Iraqis—currently skimming across the English Channel.)

“There were so many killings and kidnappings, if you or another member of the family went out into the city in the morning, you couldn’t be sure that you would see each other again at the end of the day,” I was told by Raya Thanoon, the owner of small diner specialising in Middle Eastern fare on the outskirts of Austin, about life in Baghdad once the security situation deteriorated after those first hopeful days. A friendly, articulate and intelligent woman, both Thanoon and her husband, 50-year-old Attar Bashi, agreed it would have been better if Saddam Hussein had been left in power.

Ayman Attar Bashi making Turkish-style coffee at Pita Shack in Austin, Texas. (Photo by James Jeffrey)

“At least we had a country, and could walk around safely,” Bashi told me—one Iraqi I spoke to offered the alternative take, assessing that we were right to remove a “dictator and a genocidal system”—while Thanoon ruminated on the dreadful ripple effects of Iraqi’s disintegration that have destabilised the whole region, contributing to death and destruction in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt.

But all of that seemed a long way away as Bashi invited me to join him for a coffee that he brewed up Turkish style. He introduced me to one of his workers, 31-one-year-old Adil, another Iraqi refugee who arrived in Texas in 2012. Flashing a winning smile, Adil talked amiably about growing up in the region around Al Amarah before moving to Baghdad. “Sure, you could visit, it’s not as bad as Baghdad,” he said when I told him I have always wanted to return. Throughout these exchanges, as with other meetings over the years with Iraqis, I was reminded how Iraqis appear no different than the majority did in 2004, and don’t hold anything against you on a personal level regarding all that has befallen their country.

The irony for me is that, amid the colossal amount of mayhem and bloodshed that has attended Iraq and Afghanistan, I may not have killed anyone. I can never be sure what happened to the RPG men and gunmen at Red 11, or to other insurgents Delta-30 fired at during my 2004 Iraq tour. There’s a fair chance that Delta-30, and by association myself, didn’t kill anyone in Iraq. My gunner, bless him, wasn’t the most accurate of marksmen. He was forever having to correct his aim after missing the target; I still remember a chastised turret after Delta-30 had to reverse back down the track to re-do the final shoot on the pre-deployment ranges in Wales after failing to hit enough targets.

I still feel utterly culpable for the mistakes we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for what then followed

In Afghanistan, I coordinated close air support for a team of excellent Joint Terminal Air Controllers who, admittedly, were killing a fantastic number of Taliban with bombs, hellfire missiles and 30mm rounds from A-10 tank buster jets, but I never directly coordinated an attack myself. Nevertheless, I still feel utterly culpable for the mistakes we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for what then followed. It doesn’t matter what anyone says—not even the forgiveness offered by priests and the Sacrament of Confession that apparently is coming directly from God (which really should be as good as a forgiveness handout can get)—I know that I was a willing participant in a military effort that caused the deaths of women and children, bringing into existence the wheelbarrows and carts of body parts that came to our camp gates. It is made all the more tragic by having seen in Kosovo how the British Army could be a force for good and part of competent international intervention.

I can’t rationalise the above and the moral injury that attends it away. And that’s after 10 years and counting. At the same time, I don’t want to rationalise any of it away, and there is nothing more galling than the admonishing advice from friends and family of the need to move on and leave it all behind. Someone has to bear a responsibility for what has happened, hence I share Finley Harnett’s enthusiasm for what he describes as the “brilliance of the documentary” in bringing “Iraq back into the public’s consciousness in a forceful way” and in humanising “the people of Iraq by giving them the space to represent themselves directly.” This has, Harnett says, provided an insight that has “been sorely absent in Western discourse.”

I could not agree more strongly. That said, the documentary is not perfect. Others have noted that is too focused on the American military in the north of Iraq, thereby neglecting to adequately address British involvement in Iraq’s south where I was, or the problems with post-2003 Iraqi governments backed by the West.

“The documentary’s attempt to recall the past is incomplete, in spite of its merits in bringing Iraq’s suffering back into public consciousness,” writes Nazli Tarzi, a freelance British-Iraqi journalist. “If the aim is really that, how do viewers square this against the editorial decision to airbrush British complicity and the participation of British forces in Basra from the story…the story told chimes not with popular Iraqi sentiments but Britain’s sanitised narrative, carefully stitched to exclude conversations about Britain and America’s appeasement of the corrupt government in existence today.”

But despite the documentary’s shortcomings, Tarzi is, like myself, grateful to its director James Bluemel, who also made the Bafta-winning Exodus: Our Journey and Our Journey to Europe, which similarly has refugees fleeing Syria tell their own stories, for at least offering an opening for a long overdue unburdening by Iraqis about what they and their country have been through.

“We have been wilfully ignorant for years,” Harnett says. “Brexit may have been an important issue for Britain, but the unravelling catastrophe in Iraq has dropped off the news cycle too easily in recent years…I am sure I am not alone in feeling desensitised to the violence that became a daily fixture of rolling news coverage and, in later years, forgetting about it altogether. In truth, we are yet to reconcile ourselves with the real, human cost of the Iraq War.”

Iraq, I’m afraid, implicates all the UK as participants of war, whether through commanding, directly fighting, supporting, or just standing idly by. The recent tragedy in Lebanon highlights part of this hypocrisy. Everyone is, rightfully, appalled by the terrible explosion in Beirut and the appalling state of governance surrounding it and perhaps contributing to it. As a result, the media is rightfully all over it. But, at the same time, this is what we have allowed to happen in Iraq a hundred times over, a thousand times even, and yet where were the public gasps about that as it was happening. Such comparisons too often fall foul of sophistry, but not here. We chose to look the other way as Iraqi cities exploded again and again. A similar charge can be made toward elements of the Black Lives Matter campaign in the UK and the rehashing of colonial ills: some of the charges are relevant, yes, but if we are going to talk about colonialism and imperialism why don’t we hear about it in relation to the more recent Iraq invasion, for which an argument can certainly be made that it bore hallmarks of imperialistic folly.

The problem for the UK is that the moral injuries carried by individual veterans are part of a larger moral injury and failure on a national scale that has insidiously fed into so many other facets of our social fabric. I am not the only one who has noticed how the coarsening of politics and civil discourse can be tracked since 9/11 and against the backdrop of our Iraq and Afghanistan catastrophes. Even if we don’t engage with any of it, the astonishing evil and violence manifested in both countries can only come back to taint us. As the documentary notes, events in Iraq have changed the world. By not facing up to these disasters in which the UK participated, we have also utterly undermined our country’s moral integrity—and I think we know it at some sort of public subconscious level—with profound implications for our confidence and self-belief and sense of harmony as a nation.

In Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, co-authors Rita Brock and Gabriella Lettini note how veterans are often driven by a deep concern for the people they fought against and by a powerful desire for regular civilians to know about the sufferings of Iraqis and Afghans. “They remain fiercely committed to avoiding denial and forgetting,” Brock and Lettini write. “They seek to remember what they did personally to harm others and to take responsibility for how they violated their own moral conscience as their route to recovery.” This process, they explain, has profound implications for the moral status of the rest of society. “The fact that many veterans live in anguish because of moral injury while most citizens still sleep comfortably at night is not evidence of a collective clean conscience. It is evidence of a lack of awareness and accountability. We cannot uphold our moral integrity by pleading an ignorance of facts, by claiming a war is legal, or by distancing ourselves from the leaders who declare a war.”

We did nothing to help Iraq extricate itself from the mire we helped create

Despite the welcome appearance of the BBC documentary, I am not optimistic that much will change regarding our approach to Iraq. While we had it relatively good before the COVID-19 pandemic, we did nothing to help Iraq extricate itself from the mire we helped create (the British consulate in Basra, scene of my futile 2006 tour and the British Army’s ignominious withdrawal in 2007, closed at the end of 2012: we’ve not exactly been going out of our ways to make amends). Now, taking concerted action over Iraq will be even harder to achieve with all the ramifications of the pandemic, and the bungled response to it, on our national health, livelihoods and economy. But, then again, people and nations have been known to rise to higher levels at the hardest of times. Maybe we will surprise ourselves by what we can still put right.

When it comes to the mystery, for me, of why Iraqis are so bizarrely friendly despite all that has happened to them, perhaps one of the reasons is because they all carry in them some of the country’s glorious past. Iraq was once called the Cradle of Civilization thanks to its ancient Mesopotamian cities famed for their innovations in science, writing, literature, medicine, theology and law. It is the old home of Babylonia which used to be the stomping ground of Alexander the Great. There was a time when travellers were drawn to its myriad attractions, ranging from its breath-taking mountains to vibrant cities, numerous archaeological sites, and a population known for its warm hospitality.

The crime novelist Agatha Christie visited Iraq before its independence from Britain in 1932—again, if we are going to talk about colonialism, which the BBC and The Guardian appear particularly eager to do these days, how about diving into that episode for once and tying it in with contemporary events if we are ever to get something constructive out of the colonial-obsessed navel gazing—and lived for a time in the city of Nimrud. Her visits inspired her novel Murder in Mesopotamia, and she began writing her autobiography in Nimrud.

“What a beautiful spot it was,” she wrote of Nimrud. “The Tigris was just a mile away, and on the great mound of the Acropolis, big stone Assyrian heads poked out of the soil…It was a spectacular stretch of country—peaceful, romantic and impregnated with the past.”

It still felt that way in 2004, even amid the fighting around Al Amarah and with randy soldiers and eight-hour-old erections in the watch towers of Abu Naji camp. I can only urge people, especially my fellow veterans, to watch this documentary that manages to be both horrendously harrowing while also strangely heartening at times. Watch it, and cry as you do so, which all considered is really a pretty appropriate response for those of us who were directly involved; one would have to be a bit of a sociopath or in utter denial to watch what appears on the screen and not get that clogging feeling in your throat. Much of it makes for wretched viewing. But all the while it is saved by the dignity and good humour of those interviewed, particularly the Iraqi interviewees—although I am only two episodes in and the insurgency has just begun. There is a lot more of the 17-year-long Iraq tragedy yet to come.

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