(Hilla is Beautiful)
It’s this piece of watchband. Just two charred and melted
links. It’s where to begin. Not the first trip to Afghanistan
where I parachuted into the center of Kabul. Not the second
either, when I returned at the behest of a strange couple in
Dubai who asked me to find out whether or not their bodyguard
had indeed executed two Afghan nationals at the Intercontinental
Hotel. It’s not the endless hours of uncontrollable sobbing in
the mansion at Yaddo, an artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New
York. It’s not having gone crazy, though all these things have
something to do with how I went from being a one book novelist
and Columbia adjunct professor to professional soldier. I think.
It’s not the documents on the living room table which I can’t
read, but say I’ve converted to Islam. Converted to Islam in
order to marry the twenty-year old Palestinian/Ukrainian woman
asleep in my bed. It’s not her, but it could be. Amman, Jordan
is where I met Lily, and the Dahit Al Rashid area high above the
city is where we now live. Many stories begin in Jordan, but not
It’s the piece of watchband.
My team, T-4 (Training Tomorrow’s Terrorists Today), had been
in Hilla, Iraq for two weeks before the piece of watchband came
flying over the wall of the Babylon Police Academy. We were
there, under the dozens of too tall date palms, to provide force
protection for the Academy, one of the few successful police
academies in all of Iraq. The day after we arrived there was a
class of over 400 cadets graduating and we became a PSD
(personal security detail) for all the U.S. and Iraqi
dignitaries attending the brief ceremony. Kitted out with an old
Falluja buy-back AKS rifle, Browning High Power pistol in the
drop holster, and10 mags of AK ammo hanging off the Paraclete
level 4 multi-hit body armor, I was seventy pounds heavier and
posted to the rear of the formation of cadets. I was told to
move around so that my view of the podium was never obstructed,
and it was then that I had my first sustained contact with the
people of Iraq. The cadets, proud, excited and ragged in their
blue uniforms with various types of worn out black foot wear, no
socks, had been held in formation for over an hour waiting for
the graduation to begin and were roasting under the December
sun. To glance over their shoulders or to attempt conversation
amongst themselves was to risk the attention of one of the
academy’s instructors and this meant either a rock or a sawed
off pool cue depending on how deep into the formation the
offending party was. Despite this they came. Every few minutes a
cadet would turn his head, smile, and say, "I love you." One of
my teammates, V, a twenty-two year old former marine and six
foot two Mexican American who had only left active duty and Iraq
fours months prior was, out of boredom, straying over towards my
position when he caught one too, I love you.
I couldn’t hear him, but saw his mouth move as he turned on
his heels and headed back towards his area: " I love you too
We heard "I love you" a lot. We also heard over and over that
there was no "Ali Baba" in Hilla. Neither was there any "Whabi",
or "Mujahid" or "Harami." We were assured this by everyone at
the Babylon Police Academy. From the Iraqi Police instructors,
from the Iraqi Police security who were either too old or too
young for regular police work, from the Iraqi security forces
who were all ex-army and under our direct command, from the
Iraqi S.W.A.T cowboys who were tear-assing in and out of the
academy regularly with their tricked out Hi-Luxe pick ups
yelling "SWAT! Whiskey!" from behind the mounted PKC machine
guns, from the maintenance crews, the barbers, the learning
disabled kitchen workers, from the U.S. Army MPs, from anyone
who ever seemed to have set foot in Hilla we heard different
versions of the same thing, "No Ali Baba Hilla."
Even in Iraq if you hear that and "I love you" enough times
you might begin to wonder if anything is ever going to happen.
I’m not saying that we felt as safe as our guest’s pride needed
us to feel, and it’s hard to put your guard down when the Polish
and Mongolian troops shoot over your head nightly from their
towers which almost abutted our northwest wall, but soon there
was an almost palpable air of disappointment within T-4 that
maybe nothing is going to happen.
A month to the day of our arrival in Hilla something did
happen. I had just come off guard duty at the entrance of the
academy and was in the process of dropping my kit –detach the
AK’s Wolf Clip, untape the radio earpiece, unwrap the shamall,
and remove the sunglasses first before lifting the Paraclete
overhead—to the floor of the caravan in the room I shared with
CB a thrity-two-year old former M.P. who was the second youngest
and least experienced member of T-4. We had become close during
the last weeks of our two month delay in Amman, as we had both
hooked up with women who worked at the Bristol Hotel, otherwise
known as "Mercenary Central," and had spent many nights
wandering Amman’s Bilat, the area everyone told us to avoid. It
was his first time out of the states. I remember asking him if
he needed some more time alone with his computer and from his
rack he said, "Very funny." It was 11:17 in the morning and the
amplified prayers from four different directions had just ended.
I swear I felt the explosion in my chest first, and then came
the rattling of the caravan, the sides and under my feet. CB
shot up off his rack, and later told me that it had come like a
punch to the back of his head. "Car bomb," I said, not yet used
to the term VBIED (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device) and
then our radios, mine on the floor and CB’s in the charger, in
opposite ends of the room, sparked to life. "It’s a hit," said
the voice of Stryker our team XO, followed by Hodad the CO
"T-4, move to the assembly point."
All I thought about was all that I had been truly worried
about ever since we’d been issued our gear back in Washington,
DC: If something happened, could I get all this fucking shit
on in time? I’d been out of the military for over twenty
years, hadn’t touched a weapon in all that time, and yes, I’d
recently trained with the Newark S.W.A.T team and with an
ex-Special Forces nut in North Carolina who had Hate and Kill
tattooed on his knuckles. But that vest, that fucking Paraclete
vest with the belly band, two side closures, and a front zipper
was what kept me up at night. This day it went on smooth, even
the front zipper and I remembered to tape the radio’s earpiece
securely to my elf ear. We didn’t know what would be waiting for
us outside, insurgents coming over the walls of the academy,
mortars, poorly vetted academy employees praying and spraying,
but having already faced my worst fear under pressure—the vest—I
was full of self-satisfaction and ready. I’m not stupid; I know
what this means: that I’m more worried about embarrassment than
death. But fear and narcissism, while central to this story,
will have to wait.
CB had beaten me out the door and was running back and forth
between the team’s caravans yelling "Come on, guys. Come on,
guys, let’s go!" V, the two time combat veteran, who had watched
half his platoon killed, ripped apart, by our A-10 flying tank
killers not six months before, took his time, enough to have a
look out his window, and then a laugh at his pal CB still urging
us on. Gunfire was heard from all directions. We assembled just
outside the perimeter of caravans, while Hodad our CO and
Stryker the XO (ex-Special Forces and ex-Marine Force Recon
respectively) screamed at the American construction manager to
stop taking pictures with his phone and stay the fuck in his
caravan. By all estimates it had taken us three to four minutes
to assemble and still, on one knee, facing the North wall of the
academy and the deep black plume of smoke rising above the
Babylon Sports Center 150 meters away, we felt small pieces of
debris falling on the bills of our ball caps. What was pelting
us was light, papery, like tiny pieces of crumbled damp paper.
Hodad gave the command for T-4 to move out towards the small,
gated door across the academy and as we trotted over in a
modified wedge formation sirens could be heard and the gunfire
increased, not just from the Sports Center but from the
Mongolian and Polish guard towers as well. At the North wall,
the gated door was open but crowded with kitchen and maintenance
workers. Hodad, who usually acted like the SoCal surfer he’d
once been, began to toss Iraqi’s out of the way, and for the
first time that day I heard him threaten to shoot someone. In
this case, anyone who came through that gate. I too put my hands
on these Iraqi men, boys really, and yelled, and shoved, and
cursed. Maybe for their safety, and maybe because I didn’t want
to face the two mangled cars still burning, or see the naked men
trying to out run their burning flesh.
Soon, Hodad and Stryker, placed each of the team in order to
cover the avenues of approach. Facing west down the street with
my AK locked and loaded, and off safe, I stole a look over my
right shoulder towards the chaos in front of the Sports Club and
thought of Chechnyans. There were Chechnyans in Iraq running
teams of insurgents and this kind of melee, no security by the
Iraqi’s, just the need to run towards the explosion, the
gunfire, the trouble, was just what they hoped for. It is the
desire to help, to do what one can for their fallen brothers,
but it is also the incredibly stupid macho need to be seen, to
be known as unafraid. This disregard for basic tactics--and the
ever growing amount of intelligence coming down that the
insurgents were the ones employing simple, simple, tactics such
as lengthening the kill zone with roadside IEDs (Improvised
Explosive Devices), using one VBEID to gather a crowd and then
sending a second and even a third—I was to witness on varying
levels. At first, I was as disgusted and amazed as the rest of
my team, but the reason I was able to come to peace with was
that after over twenty years of war and Saddam, the collective
synapse of the Iraqi people were fried. What remained did not
include perimeter security or caution against diversionary
tactics. What remained was faith in God’s will competing second
by second with the continually compounded practical application
of the fact that life and death are very, very random. It’s
what’s left after a life of being afraid. Born afraid.
We held our positions. Hodad’s voice coming across my
earpiece every few minutes, "T-4, watch your sectors." I pointed
my weapon at my first person, then a second and third, and so
on. I pointed my weapon at the driver of my first vehicle, who
turned out to be an IP Captain. Once he felt the threat of
another VBEID had passed, Hodad pulled us back and dispersed T-4
around the academy, but not before sending the kitchen workers
to the ground. They hadn’t heeded his warning about the gate but
he didn’t keep his promise to shoot them.
At the front gate, we tried to control the flow of local
construction workers as they attempted to flee the academy.
Hodad, made his second promise to shoot anyone who tried to
leave before being cleared to do so. Despite having heard his
first death threat go unfulfilled I still believed him and so it
seemed, did they. I took a position overlooking the small park
to the left of the academy’s entrance and in between two Iraqi
security guards. It wasn’t until I caught myself staring at a
small plane--really small, not much bigger than a model
airplane—circling overhead that I took a deep breath and
realized that I hadn’t "tunneled." In other words I hadn’t done
what I should have been most worried about, indeed what most
soldiers are worried about. I hadn’t frozen or freaked out.
Hodad’s voice on the radio, "T-4, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em."
After chastising the guards for talking, I bummed a Pine from
one of them, ripped the filter off it, signaled I needed a light
too, and clicked my AK up to SAFE.
Index, end of mission, was soon called, but not before looks
I think we all would come to regret, were exchanged between all
eight members of T-4.
The fire pit was lit early, still daylight, and we were quiet
as one by one we took turns with Hodad’s Sat. Phone, calling
home, not saying to watch the news, just "If you happen to…."
We’d taken a team picture and sent them out by e-mail as
Christmas cards only two weeks before. At the top of the photo
Merry Christmas from T-4
Babylon Police Academy
Folks knew where we were.
The death toll was given at somewhere between 20 and 30, and
the ex-spooks in D.C., executives in one of the many companies
included in the matrix of companies which we worked for, told
Hodad that they’d seen us on CNN, lying in the prone, guns out,
The ODA guys came by. Their team leader, a Captain, had been
a sergeant under Hodad’s command when Hodad had been a Special
Forces team sergeant so they looked out for us pretty well. The
ODA were advising the El Salvadorian Special Forces at the
Logistics Base run by the Polish just north of the academy. They
went out on "hits" regularly—going after the homes and hang outs
of suspected insurgents. The Captain had five or six of his guys
with him, mostly New York Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, as well
as Californian Mexicans. Special Forces guys always surprise me
with how they look, act, never like you’d think, but seeing this
particular bunch was more of a pleasure than usual. They seemed
like the stalwart, focused, student athlete, teenagers I’d known
in every New York City neighborhood I’d ever lived in, Spanish
Harlem, Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen. See them on the bus and
subways with their books and that look, "Go ahead White Lady.
Look down at me. I dare you."
Latino Special Forces A-Team in Iraq. Air-fucking-borne.
They stood around the fire with us a bit, told us that they’d
sent up the UAV (the small plane I’d seen apparently loaded with
high-tech cameras and remote operated by a hand held toggle) and
saw us all down in the fetal position sucking our thumbs so
they’d figured they better come over to see how we were. We
laughed knowing that they’d QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for us
before we even knew we needed them. They’d know, as I would soon
learn, the severity of a situation by the sound, the blast, the
gunfire. By the time I would leave Hilla, if the rounds being
fired did not number at least 3 or 4 sustained bursts from at
least two different weapons, I wouldn’t break stride or put down
a cup of coffee. We had a good one for the ODA, the fucking
Polish and Mongols had fired into the academy at the
construction manager who’d been told to stay in his caravan.
Rounds came within 5 yards of him and I’m still not sure if he
ever put his camera phone away let alone stayed in his trailer.
As soon as the ODA left, the Iraqi instructors T-4 had become
closest with joined us at the fire pit, heads down, silent. We
asked after their friends. Did they know anyone? "Yes," they
replied, "and you too." There was a captain killed who we all
had seen around the academy, eaten with him at the big table in
the dining hall. There were others, as well. Ali translated the
descriptions of the men who died, the one’s we had known for
Manar and Arkan who spoke over each other. "Habibi" was the word
they seemed to use like a verbal hot potato—My friend. We
stood and sat, trying to help them as they tried to describe the
dead men that we knew.
"Oh, big moustache, always walked like this?
"Wait, the tall guy. Funny, always singing that Portugala
This was too awful to continue so we asked if what we’d heard
had been true. About the Sports Club.
A recently graduated class of police officers had been doing
martial arts in a large formation outside the Babylon Sports
Club. I’d heard them out there, over the wall, even by the front
entrance when I had duty. I heard them Kiii-aaaaing! in unison
all morning. Stupid. With a walled-in police academy just across
the street with plenty of open space, a parade ground.
The Americans around the fire were thinking it, maybe loud
enough for the Iraqis to hear, and suddenly the fire itself
seemed a bad idea as our friend’s gaze bore deeper and deeper
into its center.
We all drifted away from the pit. Guard shifts were doubled,
more phone calls were made, and a few members of T-4 wandered
the academy grounds. Later, those who weren’t on guard went to
visit the security guard quarters to visit the guard who had
blown out of his tower by the VBEID. Instead of in a hospital,
he was in his bunk with a blanket over him surrounded by his
friends. He had massive contusions along one side of his body,
and we heaped praise upon him for climbing back into the tower
and refusing to leave his post, which he appeared to both except
and wave off. I think he just wanted us to leave so he could go
back to sleep.
Clothes were slept in that night, and AK’s shared our beds.
The next day I heard that the Iraqi’s had buried many body parts
right where they had been found as per Islamic law. Still, all
of T-4, besides my self had found something: a head, a piece of
jaw and various other body parts which had landed in the academy
grounds. Some came right out and said that they were going out
to see what they could find. Others, as I later would do, simply
wandered off, unable to say it, but also unable to leave the
dead, the pieces of them, alone.
We weren’t the only ones, the dogs, three of whom were always
together (Hondo named them Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod) had dug up
what had been buried the night before. I did find the gnawed-up
remains although I couldn’t tell you what section of the human
anatomy they belonged to except for the pieces with teeth. Also
clumps of hair attached to the parts limit the possibilities. I
also found assorted car parts, a blackened spring, and a round
corner of the bottom of a 105 Artillery shell. Never found out
if that was indeed the source of the blast but what I found
next, and last, needed no confirmation. The two blackened links
of a steel watch band. Enough.
I picked it up and let the links play over my fingers, its
weight no more than a half dozen penny nails. Someone bought
this, maybe because of the band, bold and simple. Or maybe it
had been a gift, bought, wrapped and hidden away on some high
shelf until a birthday. Maybe they too had admired the band and
thought how fine it would look around their loved one’s wrist. I
remembered what someone had once told me about how to get out of
a bad mood while riding the subway: Look at someone’s feet
across from you and imagine them buying their shoes.
It works. Sweetens the people.
But this also led me to Auschwitz and the piles of shoes. How
that image, more than any other, burned its way into the mind
and memory of one of the liberators (NOTE: Is it an author?
I put the links in my pocket. Something had happened.
Two weeks later an American woman who worked at the P.X. at
the Logistics Base gave us a disk. "Not sure if you want to see
this but is was right over by y’all."
It was of the car bomb, and begins with gunfire and naked men
running along the academy’s wall, wisps of flames stubborn on
their shoulders and genitals. The cuts are fast,
professional—Who got there with a camera so fast?—a man, his
face charcoal, skin, green-yellow falling off him, and flapping
his arms at an I.P. who can do nothing but shrug. A body still
smoldering in the driver’s seat of car, just the seat, but a
bone white spleen is the only thing that says, This was a man.
Another man, twitching and looking like he is attempting to
perform a sit-up before he dies, burns to death. Enough.
This is what we didn’t see as we watched our sectors.
Everyone in T-4 saw the video, and everyone got a copy, but no
one talked about it beyond, "Did you see it?"
Sometimes the only place for shame to go is quiet.
We’d taken the car bomb as our initiation, no Blackwater or
Dyncorp guy could ever bust our balls, "Boy, I smell BIAB
(Baghdad International Airport) all over you," and we’d have our
own stories because we’d been there. Hey, nobody in T-4
Tunneled, and damn if we didn’t get kitted up quick.
Something happened. Something has been happening to Iraqis
since they day they were born and on the day of a car bomb at
the Babylon Police Academy we took the loss of 24 men, their
stink in our noses, as our stripes.
Standing by the wall of the academy and fingering the piece
of watchband had brought back everything I knew before I came to
Iraq. That Muslims were killing Muslims, funded by who knows, in
a country my country had invaded without provocation. I tried
keeping it in my pocket, but after the video, and after a
ceremony for the dead officers at the academy where the children
were given fuzzy pastel stuffed animals and board games too big
for most to carry, I put it up in my wall locker. Now it sits
beside me on my desk in Dahit Al Rashid.
It was a long serpentine journey which took me to
Iraq—someone else’s backyard—and it was sparked by a piece in
the New York Times which said there were over 20,000 private
security contractors there. The name has morphed, professional
soldiers, security operators, with mercenary used only by far
left blog sites and among the 20,000 themselves. "That can’t be
right," I thought, followed by "I wonder if I…."
The temptation, now that I’ve been at the desk, and spoken by
phone to friends and family in New York City, is to be
longwinded here. About who I was, but it can wait.
I’m a professional soldier now. One, who when the subject
came up among those in T-4, those other professional soldiers we
worked with, the ODA, was always included on the list of
operators who will continue to this work. I had an offer
from Dyncorp to work PSD for the Embassy staff in Baghdad, from
the big daddy of security firms, Black Water, and from the
British firm Erinys, to run convoy from Kuwait to Baghdad. My
last night on guard I stuck my weapon in the faces of eleven
people because I didn’t like the way they were driving. Either
too fast or too slow. This while the IP (Iraqi Police) whispered
in the dark, Good Raul. Good.
T-4 got pulled out of the academy early due to problems
between our matrix of security companies, the Jordanian
construction company tasked with building academies across Iraq,
and the Capt. Bassim the no nonsense commander of the Babylon
That last night on guard my self and the Iraqis, 4 IP
Instructors, 6 IP security and 5 security guards performed
imitations of each other and the rest of the academy staff. Lit
by the fire in the bent and blackened olive oil can with small
pots of chai at the corners, and a fat moon, we moved and
twisted our faces like each other. From the circle those not yet
imitated waited anxiously. Know me. To be imitated is to
be known. To be known is to exist.
We’re going back.
CB called me from California four nights ago. Did you see?
There had been another car bomb in Hilla with 140 killed. It was
the largest number killed since President Bush declared the end
to major conflict in Iraq. Ali Baba is in Hilla. He told me that
he got a call from Ali, who asked him if we were going to keep
our promise and return. Our promise. Americans being
asked if we would keep our promise.
I asked CB if Ali had told him that he loved him.
"Yep," he replied.
I was happy in Hilla. I didn’t know it until it came time for
the imitations of me that night. Someone had cried out "Raul!"
and all 15 Iraqis gripped their AKs tightly, arms swung out from
their shoulders, heads back, smiles wide and yelled "Hilla
Unhappiness is often complicated, happiness is not. Not then,
or now, as I understand that I was in Iraq, like every other
foreigner, to take. There is happiness in hard truths.
Twice the steel links, melted and blackened, once in the
airport in Jordan (there are wild owls flying outside its
entrance) and once at BIAP, will drop from my pocket to the
security workers grey tub before boarding.
We return the day after tomorrow.
Raul Correa is the author of a novel, I Don’t Know
But I’ve Been Told.