Whatever she said

I’ve heard a lot of questions and views from other people, talking to me about being in Iraq.

Some wondered if I was looking forward to coming here, “Aren’t you excited?” she asked. “Wow, the idea of visiting a whole other country. It’s great.”

“What are the shopping malls like there?” someone else put out. Shopping malls? WTF?

“Do you have any Iraqi roommates? Are they nice?”

“Did you go clubbing while you were there?”

At the airport on the way home when I was on leave, the waitress at the Dallas airport Chili’s was wondering where all the guys in uniform were going.

“Some of us are going to Iraq, others are coming home.”

“Wow, we’re still over there?” she asked. “I thought the president said it was over like years ago.”

Wow is right. Look friends, it’s not college. It’s not Friday out on the town. It’s not fun. There are no roommates. There is no shopping. We don’t visit the sights — there are no sights. We’re locked inside our bases. No one goes out because mean people try to kill you out there. We’re just doing our time in purgatory, earning a ticket home.

If left to the Iraqis, everything thrives on cheap, imitation products. Imitated shoes, bootleg movies, bootleg satellite TV, cheap bicycles, cheap Internet hookups. There are no building codes, everything is out in the open — pipes, wires, whatever. Electricity shorts out. Things break. Everything is dirty. If you fix something up, it gets stripped as soon as the lights go out. So people don’t fix things up.

“Hey, you, is this all the episodes of ‘Lost’?”

“Sa, yes sa.”

“All of them, so if it doesn’t work, I can bring it back?”

“All them, sa. Yes sa.”

“If it doesn’t work, I can bring it back?”

“Bak? Yes sa.”

There is no grass. There is no pavement. Salt oozes out of the ground. The water smells like sewage. Dust fills the air. Hygiene is optional. It’s a part of the culture to lie if it “saves face.” It’s a part of the culture to get out of doing any kind of work. It’s a part of the culture to work only for one’s family and to hell with the rest of the country.

Trash is everywhere. Fires burn constantly, filling the sky with smoke. Toxic chemicals drip into pools that run into the water…all of it an environmentalist’s nightmare.

This isn’t a two-week vacation. This isn’t an exchange program, or a summer internship. This is life outside of American affluence.

Hope is preached by politicians with cash-lined pockets. In the streets, children gut sheep, then play in the green-black waters of nearby pools.

Men endure hours of searches to come on American camps and run booths, selling fake Rolexes, hacked XBoxes, pirated software and bootlegged movies.

And as we all say, “Hell, a few strip clubs and bars outside the gates and this place will be Korea.”



About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

29 responses to “Whatever she said”

  1. brogonzo says :

    It’s so easy for those of us who are safely within the borders of the U.S. to get complacent about day-to-day life in Iraq. News comes out of Iraq, sure… but it’s numbers, grandstanding, death tolls. As saturated as we are with coverage, most of it falls short of conveying any real sense of what life must really be like.

    So it’s damn good that you’re willing to tell it like it is. Preach on, brutha.

  2. WW says :

    “It’s a part of the culture to lie if it saves face.”

    Um, have you paid any attention to the Bush administration for, oh, I don’t know, the last five years? Iraq sounds like a real shithole, but they’re far from being the world’s only cheesy liars.

  3. WW says :

    Maybe I’ll find this out by clicking around your blog, but WTF are you doing there anyway? Okay, I know it’s because they sent you there. I mean the military.

  4. salmons says :

    Brogonzo: Glad to have ya with me dude 😉

    WW: True, but what administration HASN’T lied to the people about wars in the past?

    Spanish-American, WWI, WWII, Vietnam…they all had false pretenses (USS Maine, Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, Tonkin Gulf, etc.).

    All wars are fought this way.

    Why am I here? I’m fourth generation enlisted. War is what Salmons’ are good for.

  5. beka says :

    i have to chuckle at the shear stupidity of people who think you are in iraq on an extended vacation/sight seeing/shopping/night life expedition. it’s not the new vegas. (man, you outta see the chicks here slide down them poles in a burka! damn that’s sexy!) idiots. just so you guys know, there are people who know you are all stuck in hell, appreciate what you do, and what you have to go through and don’t have our heads stuck so far up our own arse as to not notice.

  6. WW says :

    beka, methinks the talking salmons was indulging in something called hyperbole.

    From Webster’s:

    extravagant exaggeration (as “mile-high ice-cream cones”)

    Writers use hyperbole to highlight a message. The duller of their readers take it literally. Yes, Salmons, every administration tells lies, and in a certain sense one could argue that every single war ever fought was fought for a lie, or at least for money.

    But at the age of 48 I’ve got a few miles on the tires. I’m old enough to remember the lies told during the Vietnam War, for example. I think this one really has broken some new ground.

    I also think that the U.S. has given up any pretense of trying to “win” in Iraq, and for at least the past year has been positioning itself for a face-saving withdrawal. Along these lines, I believe that the “plain-talking” U.S. culture has transformed itself into a face-saving culture over the past couple of generations.

    The last thing we Americans ever want to hear from political and corporate leaders is the truth. Problem with that is that countries that lie to themselves tend to lose their wars.

  7. WW says :

    Rather than continue to spout my opinions at you and the world, I’m going to try to henceforth put myself in question-asking mode, the reason being that you strike me as someone with a third digit in his I.Q. and a propensity toward candor.

    So my first question follows.

    At the outset of the war, everyone had joined the military as a general proposition. But now we are more than three years into it. I now wonder what proportion of the people there are re-enlistees or enlistees since, oh, let’s say the middle of 2004 when it was clear this wouldn’t be ending any time soon.

    I don’t expect precise statistics from you, but do you have a sense of it? The reason I ask is that I’m wondering how many are in Iraq fully knowing before they signed their papers that this is where they’d be going.

  8. beka says :

    WW- i know that salmons was using hyperbole, as was i. he and i speak the same slightly exaggerated, some what smart ass language. that was my little way, as a child of a career officer, someone who knows what is going on in iraq, and as an “old friend” of salmons was letting him and other know that i support him and all those who serve. 🙂

  9. finch says :

    to all: please disregared any and all posts made by “ww” as they are only here because the good Josh is tagged onto A Healthy Alternative…he’s merely attempting to be an ass…as for Iraq – i remember it as nothing more than fun and good times – waite …NO …that wasn’t it at all…

  10. beka says :


  11. WW says :

    finch is wrong. I discovered this site through A Healthy Alternative, but through the magic of bookmarking I no longer get here from there.

    salmons, I have other questions for you, but I’m going to ask ’em one at a time.

    So you know, I’m not here to (try to) trap or trick you into making statements that I’ll then take out of context. The reason for my first question was to try to get a better reading on how voluntary the troops’ participation in the war is.

    At the outsite, my feeling was that people volunteered for the military in general. Now I’m wondering to what degree they are volunteering not just for the military but for service in this particular war.

  12. WW says :

    correction in the immediately predecding post: “At the outset …”

  13. salmons says :

    It’s tricky — this “every other year in Iraq” gig. The Marines, Navy and Air Force all have shorter tours, with a bit longer in between. The Army bears the brunt of the occupation.

    Still many continue to reenlist, some working toward that 20-year retirement, some just with nowhere else to go. I can’t give numbers either, but we’re not on the verge of collapse just yet.

    We don’t think about “purpose” or “exit strategies” here. Some are here for promotions, some are here for medals. Most just want to get this year over with so they can prepare for the next. Every day is the same, man. There are no weekends, no holidays. Birthdays come and go. We’re just here, trying to get by.

    Iraq is different for everybody. Some can’t wait to get home, some can’t wait to get back here. Most are in the middle. Money’s good (for us, anyway), there are little to no expenses, and we have air conditioning. Sure it sucks, but, hey, what else is there to do? Watch another episode of CSI? Hell, a man can age a decade out here in just a few months. This is the crucible of humanity.

  14. WW says :

    Apologies in advance for the length of this post but I wanted to be really clear about what I’m asking and why.

    I’d be really surprised if the troops spent a whole lot of time sucking their thumbs about the Big Picture. Even though I’m not there, I definitely “get” your comment along those lines.

    I’m not asking if you’re on the verge of collapse, either. What I’m trying to get a sense of is, now that U.S. forces have been there for more than three years, what proportion of them are people who either joined or have voluntarily stayed on with full knowledge that doing either of those things means a high chance of going to Iraq.

    In my civilian job I used to give lectures about the dangers of false precision, i.e., the pursuit of an unnecessary level of exactitude. So I’m not looking for you to tell me that, say, for example, 53% of the military personnel in Iraq joined or voluntarily re-upped since June 2004.

    I suppose it would be good to have that percentage if it were available, but that’s really not what I’m after. I’m looking for a sense of it.

    I’m thinking of that scene in the book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where the crook who got himself assigned to the mental hospital finds out that everyone but him is a volunteer in the joint. It’s a climactic scene in the book; it opens the door for all kinds of observations.

    I could say, well, everyone in the military is a volunteer so they want to be in Iraq, but that’s bullshit. But if I know what proportion — in general terms — volunteered after it became clear that the war wasn’t going to be a repeat of Gulf War I, then I can at least get closer to the mark.

    Not that you want to be in Iraq, but if someone volunteered knowing that they’d probably go, well at least we can say we’re fishing in a different stream, wouldn’t you agree?

  15. salmons says :

    I came in during a magic time — January 2003. It was months before the Iraq invasion began, and I was still in basic training when it all went down. It was weird hearing about within those walls.

    Most people I deal with came in before me, so they’re just weathering the storm. Many have been to Kosovo, Bosnia, etc.; so this is just another trip.

    A good chunk of those more senior personnel are getting out. They don’t want to deal with Iraq anymore.

    It’s a wash with the younger soldiers. About just as many say they’ll stay in as say they want out.

    Some younger soldiers still are fed lines, one female “problem” soldier threw a fit, saying her recruiter promised she wouldn’t have to go to war.

    I couldn’t even give a rough estimate, though. I deal with Guard, Reserve and Active soldiers…too many demographics to know without starting to survey.

  16. WW says :

    Thanks for the answer. Two more questions, one a followup and one on a different subject.

    The senior people who are leaving. You say they don’t want to deal with Iraq anymore. Battle fatigue? Sick of the shithole enviroment? Homesick? That’s what I’d figure. Any other common reasons?

    The other question is prompted by Haditha. The day after the massacre, the USMC issued a press release that turns out to have been very inaccurate, i.e., describing a firefight that didn’t exist, and deaths from a bomb blast that wasn’t the cause of the deaths.

    I’m figuring that this press release was based on the battle report itself, and that the USMC’s PIO who wrote it essentially used that piece of fiction in a relatively automatic way.

    Can you shed any light on it? I’m not asking for comments specifically about the USMC, or about Haditha, etc. My question at the moment is narrow and procedural. How does a PIO assemble a press release describing an engagement, and what level of review does it pass through prior to being released?

  17. WW says :

    Let me elaborate. In postings elsewhere, I’ve described that initial press release in a couple of ways. I’ve called it a bunch of lies, but I’ve also said that if it had been the only lies told, i.e., had been counteracted within a reasonable period of time by true information, that the initial erroneous release would have been understandable.

    I’m asking my question to get a better understanding of how information passes to, through and then from a PIO. I’ll have some followups. I’ve debated the overall situation like crazy and am really not interested in repeating that in this thread, so I’m hoping I can get these sort of narrow-gauge questions answered.

    My posts are long, but they are long because I’m doing my best to lay my cards face up on the table. I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to run some sort of game on you. My aim is for a more complete understanding, and these questions are intended to go step-by-step through a logical process.

  18. JL says :

    Outstanding! I love it…I had to send this to my friends and family back home (along with a link to your blog, hope you don’t mind)

    When are we getting together for more Taco Bell?

  19. finch says :

    as for why many of the senior guys are getting out – most of them haven’t had to deploy EVER or maybe went a long for the ride back in 91 for desert storm and that was it – other than that, many of the them just simply want no part of going to Iraq – EVER – heck, josh, wasn’t darn near every one of your senior leadership first-time deployers? and they’re, in many instances, more freaked than the younger Soldiers… these folks have been able to spend 20 years in the service basically just livin life and moving every couple years (and no – i’m not hating on them, just a different army)…my SGM had a second job while he was coming up through the ranks just to fill all the spare time…and when it came down to them asking – do you want to go or do you want to retire – he’s getting the heck outta dodge…not that i blame him – just thought i throw that out there…

  20. WW says :

    finch, that’s a good story and I thank you for it. BUT it’s still an anecdote as opposed to a more global explanation. While I’ve made it clear that I’m not looking for false precision (i.e., 63% of senior military members cite Factor X for their retirement), individual anecdotes while interesting don’t really cut it either.

    I hasten to add that I honestly don’t want to stomp on you as much as my comment might have implied, but do you see where I’m coming from? I’m a civilian and I will never be able to claim a “you were there” sort of perspective. So, in the absence of that, the best info is going to have some degree of aggregation.

    Anyway, thanks for the story and honest to God I don’t mean to piss all over it in spite of how it might seem.

  21. salmons says :

    JL: Ya, mos def, bro 😉 It’s been awhile since I hit up Taco Bell.

    WW: Wow, you writin’ a book? Anything I say is just my opinion. I can’t give any sort of conslusive “fact.”

    After 20 years the Army lets you retire and collect a pension. For a lot of the higher ups, this is their first or second deployment in that 20 years.

    Now that we’re faced with deploying roughly every other year, they are opting to get out and collect that check. Heck, I would too.

    As far as Haditha, I have no idea. Marines operate differently than we do, but it is no secret that sometimes bogus reports are sent up (remember the “initial” stories for Tillman, Lynch).

    The press, ravenous for information, takes anything that is put out and runs with it. If the story catches fire, the “whoops” is magnified.

    The Haditha deal is ongoing and I am not privy to the findings.

  22. WW says :

    I’m not writing a book. I know I’m waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too wordy with my questions and I’m sorry for that. But see, if you look around the Internet, 99.999% of the military blogs are totally political and there’s no way to ask a series of informational questions. Maybe I’m too paranoid about having my intent misunderstood.

    No shit, I’m asking these things as a guy who wants to check things by going baby step by baby step. Sort of like when someone gives you driving directions to their house and it’s a 20-part list that says stuff like, “Go two blocks to Taylor St and take a left. Take Taylor St one block to Lowell Ave and take a right. Take Lowell Ave three blocks to Continental Blvd. and take a left. Take Continental Blvd. nine blocks to 43rd St. and take a left.”

    And so on. The directions don’t look pretty and the whole thing’s a pain in the ass from the get-go, but you get there just in time to watch your drunken father-in-law collapse into the swimming pool.

    Anyway, it’s obvious that a bogus report got sent up the chain. But what does the chain consist of? How does it work? If my questioning is too much of a pain in the ass, I’ll understand and will back off.

  23. WW says :

    Let’s see. I’m also not a: reporter, lawyer, relative, politician, politician’s assistant, car salesman or preacher. I’m an interested citizen. Yeah, I’ve got a point of view: Haditha was a bad thing. Torture is even worse. The war is a bad thing.

    But unlike the average person with all those viewpoints, I want to understand the underpinnings and I don’t give a rat’s ass where the chips fall. I’m about as pure a questioner as you’re going to get. A little on the loquacious side, but if we can get past all this shit, believe me, I can ask very brief and focused questions. I’m trying to understand this crap that I’m reading about. No more, no less.

  24. salmons says :

    WW: It’s all good. I understand. And I’m not being nebulous, but I can’t get into all the ins and outs of our reporting procedures.

    This site (and most military blogs in Iraq) is monitored by the military and possibly clandestine groups looking for insight into how we work.

    Guys post pictures of blown-up humvees and the bad guys can see where the armor was penetrated…you know, stuff like that.

    But I can say that as a public affairs NCO, we are required to put out a press release within the first couple of hours of a serious incident. Usually that press release is nothing more than the first scraps of information, gleaned from the initial reports (i.e. explosions heard, 2 missing, more to follow).

    There are many links to the chain, but a story explaining a legitimate response to an event (i.e. Haditha and the roadside bomb story), would go right up through the chain and to the press. If it happened by the numbers, what’s to hide?

    Meanwhile, external sources (video, witnesses) are collected by reporters.

    If the developing story differs from what was initially sent up through military channels, then someone lied and now there’s hell to pay, since half the world is listening in.

    However, the misinformation could have been created at any level, squad up to theater command. If it was the squad, it could have been said out of fear; at a high level, it would be a cover-up and far bigger misdeed.

    That’s why they investigate, to see how the game of telephone changed the info, or if it was bunk from the start.

  25. finch says :

    while anecdotal – i see it really as a 8/9 times out of ten scenario…the majority of seniors with more than 15 years in really just don’t see this as “their war” to fight…they served their time – most of it during peace-time – and are simply looking to dodge Iraq until they hit 20 and can get that retirement check…not knocking them, to a point i can understand…just sayin’… i’ve deployed many a time to many a place – though i haven’t been to bosnia/kosavo or afghanistan, but that just seems like the overwhelming emotion of the older cats who are close to retirement – “God bless you youngins and what not…i’ll be at the house”

  26. WW says :

    finch, believe me when I say that short-timerism ain’t restricted to the military. Thanks for your observations, and I particularly appreciate it that you replied even after I kinda sorta shit all over you for your earlier post. As soon as I hit the “post” button on that one I said to myself, “Now why the fuck did you post that to someone who gave a useful perspective?”

    salmons, thanks much for your reply. I appreciate it very much. You know, it’s really hard to get “behind the news.” I won’t go into what I did for a living (I’m retired now, on disability) but it called for me to do analysis often based on fragmentary information. So any sliver of fact is like a nugget of gold in my way of seeing things.

    With respect to the initial Haditha story, and me being fully aware that you’re an Army PIO and not a USMC one and that you weren’t there, is there any way you can intelligently speculate on how high in the chain of command that first release went before going out to the press? What rank would typically approve something like that?

    Second question concerns the inquiry by Time magazine. Apparently in January (two months after the indcient), their reporter contacted someone either in the Pentagon of HQ Marine Corps about it. They got a reply from a USMC captain waving them off of the story and terming it enemy propaganda.

    That tells me that there was discussion about this within the USMC at fairly high levels. Seems to me that a captain doesn’t make a statement like that one on his own lonesome. Can you speculate as to the process behind it, i.e., based on your knowledge of how PIO operations work, how would that USMC captain have formulated his response? Would there have been meeting(s) about what to say, and how high would it have gone?

    I fully realize that I am asking for speculation, and therefore anything you say in response will be just that — speculation. If it’s too hot to touch, believe me I do understand. Last thing I want to do here is get you in hot water. You could also just e-mail me if it’s more comfortable than posting on a website.

    Again: I’m just one guy, representing no one by my own curious self. Among other things, I was a history major. I’m really interested in how things happen.

  27. salmons says :

    The PAO/PIO community is usually pretty small. Incidents are relayed to the division level if they need a press release, so you’re dealing with a light colonel usually on the PAO side and if division command gets involved, it’s a two star affair. The captain was probably a deputy PAO if they follow a similar structure as the Army. He could also have been a PAO of a subordinate unit.

    Again, who’s to say how the misinformation appeared, that’s why they’re looking into it. Investigations like this involve Corps level stuff, the big boys.

    But again, if everything seemed by the numbers, the release probably went through with little fanfare. There are press releases every day from the 4th Infantry Division (my higher HQ) about IEDs found or IEDs detonated. The information that make up those releases comes from division intelligence assets, who had received them from subordinate assets. If everything seems on the up and up, there’s no fuss.

    What burned the Marines on the Haditha deal was that the official story turned out to be questionable, and now they’re investigating.

  28. WW says :

    Yeah, I agree about what burned the USMC. No two ways about it. And your answer is about the mechanics of it is pretty much what I expected. But I figure, hey you’re corresponding with a military PIO who’s on the ground in Iraq. You might as well ask about this shit because there might be a wrinkle you didn’t know about but that mattered.

    So, to summarize:

    1. It’s likely that the false battle report was used to draft the press release, as a matter of routine.

    2. The captain likely cleared that first press release with a light colonel.

    Again, I fully realize that this is educated guessing so it’s not like anyone’s holding you to a thing. If my understanding laid out above is flawed, please correct me.

    Now, just to be even more anal, I went and looked up the stories about the reports. Turns out the same guy, a Capt. Jeffrey Pool of the USMC, issued both the first press release and was the one who tried to wave Time magazine off of the story when Time inquired two months later. I had thought that the captain in January was a different person than the one in November, and that he was located in the States. My impression was wrong.

    Here’s a story from The Washington Post:


    The relevant sections:

    “The unit that arrived in the farming town of Haditha found babies, women and children shot in the head and chest. An old man in a wheelchair had been shot nine times. A group of girls, ages 1 to 14, lay dead. Everyone had been killed by gunfire, according to death certificates issued later.

    “The next day, Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, released a terse statement: Fifteen Iraqis ‘were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately after the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.’ …

    “Not long after (Army Lt. Gen.) Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi journalism student, gave an Iraqi human rights group a video he had taken in Haditha the day after the incident. It showed the scene at the local morgue and the damage in the houses where the killings took place. The video reached Time magazine, whose reporters began questioning U.S. military officials. Pool, the Marine captain, sent the reporters a dismissive e-mail saying that they were falling for al-Qaeda propaganda, the magazine said recently. ‘I cannot believe you’re buying any of this,’ he wrote. Pool declined last week to comment on any aspect of the Haditha incident.

    “But Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a more senior spokesman in Baghdad, notified Chiarelli of the questions. The general’s response to his public affairs office was short: Just brief the Time magazine reporter on the military investigation into the incident that Chiarelli assumed had been conducted.

    “The surprising word came back: There had been no investigation.”

    To me, The Post’s story implies that Capt. Pool talked with the light colonel about the Time query. It also seems to me, at least from The Post story, that it might have gone no higher in the chain before Capt. Pool replied with that, “I cannot you’re buying any of this” e-mail.

    What do you think? Just the captain and the light colonel on that, or higher in the chain at the time the e-mail was returned to Time?

    Again, I know you weren’t there. I know you’re not speaking officially. I know it calls for speculation, and that’s how I’ll take it. But I figure you might be more qualified to speculate than, say, my cousin in Omaha.

    Thanks for taking all this time to consider some very nitpicking questions.

  29. WW says :

    p.s.: But you know what they say — the devil’s in the details.

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