The Magazine

The Millennium War

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: A report from the Mesopotamian front.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By AUSTIN BAY
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OUR BLACKHAWK FLIGHT FROM VICTORY Base to Babylon packs 2,700 years of Iraqi history into a 100-kilometer dash at altitudes a cubit or so above the tallest date palms. Every Iraqi August day is a blowtorch by 1030 hours, and this morning is no exception. As I wait in the lead helicopter, sweat rolls from my helmet band and streaks down my face, soaking the cotton neck gaiter I use as a dust mask. For the umpteenth time in the last three months I promise I will never again damn summer in central Texas.

I'm flying with British Major-General Andrew Graham, the deputy commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He has a briefing scheduled at Camp Alfa, also known as Babil, site of ancient Babylon but temporarily the headquarters of Multi-National Division-Center South.

As General Graham takes his seat on the other side of our Blackhawk, I hassle with my shoulder harness. Even when you've worn it for weeks, Kevlar body armor, especially with heavy ceramic inserts, always adds an odd wobble or width to your body, and right now my harness just doesn't want to bite snug and tight. General Graham gracefully snaps his seatbelt, checks his headphones and mike, and both our pilots nod. I think General Graham's amused at Colonel Bay's one-handed battle of the harness--there's a twinkle in his eye.

The Blackhawk engines reach that perfect whine, the scream of escape velocity, and the helicopter springs up and out--over the concrete walls and razor wire, over the construction sites, over the observation towers and Abrams tanks that separate the Coalition's base at the international airport from the rest of Baghdad's western neighborhoods.

As the helicopter banks, a snapshot panorama flashes by--a woman stands on a roof shaking a clothesline, delicate scaffolding surrounds a mosque's minaret, cars jam a wide boulevard. The weapons, the construction, the glimpse of clean laundry mark Iraq as it is in the late summer of 2004: a difficult, fascinating kaleidoscope of intermittent war and tenuous peace, of poverty amid economic progress, of new hope plagued by vicious terror. This thought crosses my mind, one of those thoughts I shouldn't have but do: Maybe Baghdad 2004's not so different from Manhattan on 9/11.

Fifteen minutes later, after a three-minute touchdown in Baghdad's Green Zone (renamed the International Zone) where two British diplomats board the trail copter, our air convoy skirts the edge of a sprawling industrial park, then once again crosses the Tigris River. We are now over Iraq's real Green Zone, the Green Zone of Mesopotamia, the date palms, goat herds, and networked canals connecting the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the waterways that seeded Abraham's Ur and Hammurabi's Babylon. This is Iraq's splendid history, a living echo of what the region was, the Eden of city-states, the consolidator and exporter of the Agricultural Revolution.

After another 10 minutes of low-level jinking to avoid potential ground fire, over the copilot's left shoulder a hill emerges from the haze. At a distance the white stone isn't so hideous, but as we near the landing zone, the palace playpen Saddam built on the mound above Babylon becomes the cruel marble kitsch it is.

The Blackhawks hover over Camp Alfa's landing zone. Sure, it's too hot and there's too much war, yet the poetry's right there: Saddam's mound begs comparison to a trunkless stone leg eroding in the desert. "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings," Shelley opined, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" I don't despair, I just get ready to exit the helicopter. Saddam's in jail, not in a romantic's poem. Unlike those of Shelley's despot, Saddam's victims aren't forgotten, nor, unfortunately, is his lousy architecture.

"END STATE," the poli-sci mavens call it--or, to add the potent adjective, strategic End State, the grand goal. Wherever the great King Ozymandias thought he was heading, Shelley described his statue's shattered visage, a fossil relic of arrogance. Arrogance remains an American enemy, the arrogance of thug elites who never believe they'll be held accountable for their crimes.

Here's an example that drew a sad laugh when a friend working with Special Operations recounted it during a briefing on August 24. Iraqi cops and Coalition force advisers arrested one Ahmad T. Tahir (also known as Mohammad Bogy) at the wake of a man Tahir had murdered on August 22. Tahir had ties to Saddam's regime, possibly serving as an enforcer for one of Saddam's intelligence services. When the Coalition forces arrived, Tahir tried to flee into his victim's house. When the police chased him he tried to hide behind the daughters and wife of his victim. The women then began slapping Tahir and pushing him forward toward the police and security troops, who proceeded to capture him. The women told the police that "[Tahir] didn't think we could do anything to him, and that's why he was here."