Tomorrowland

Since my return to Iraq, I’ve been working to rebuild a war-torn country. Here’s what life as a captain with the 451st Civil Affairs Battalion looks like.

We celebrated Christmas by heading to an M240 machine-gun firing range outside Najaf (from left, me, Major Greg Scott, Corporal Mike Darling, and Sergeant Sterling Oyadomari). It was a good time. I’d never fired an M240B machine gun before, but I got the hang of it with the help of some very experienced noncommissioned officers.

Top Left: Our chow-hall cooks are mostly from India, and the American food they prepare tastes like, well, like it was cooked by people who don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like. My most recent (and happy) discovery is that they also prepare Indian food, so I’ve started to opt for that.

Bottom Left: The M240B fires several hundred rounds per minute, and you try to walk the rounds right up to the target. It’s more difficult than you’d think, because the Humvee is moving and bouncing around. We practiced in an area called the Najaf Sea. The sand is mixed with tiny seashells everywhere you walk, and there’s water ten meters underground.

Top Right: In Najaf there are vendors who sell decorative strands of flowers. I’ve seen the flowers on cars, and some soldiers have bought them to decorate with. They’re a strange sight in a city where the ground outside every home is a place to dump trash.

Bottom Right: There’s always an Iraqi interpreter with us wherever we go (from left, Major Scott, me, and our interpreter at a construction project in the village of Suq Shalan). Interpreters are critical to our success in Iraq. They and their families endure continual threats against their lives, But many of them feel that by helping us they are serving their country.

Top Left: I was on the roof of Najaf’s newly constructed Al Tabary Primary School, checking its tiles and drainage quality, when I heard kids yelling. I asked the contractor what they were yelling, and he said, “Thank you! Thank you!” Later my interpreter told me that they weren’t saying that at all; they were asking us to renovate their school, next door.

Bottom Left: Armored Humvees save lives, but they give a false sense of security, because IEDs can still penetrate them. eventually a soldier realizes that when it’s his time to go, it’s his time to go. It’s a quasi-spiritual perspective, where you simply accept the randomness of who gets killed and when.

Top Right: In my job I frequently deal with local authorities. The mayor and a city council member from Al Kifl, a town on a military supply route between Najaf and Baghdad, often visit with me and my interpreter to discuss the clashes between their citizens and the fast-moving convoys. I do what I can to maintain good relations, but I’m also careful not to get led around by the nose.

Bottom Right: The cans we live in are basically shipping containers with doors and air-conditioning. But we do have a library, a small movie theater, a gym, and phone and Internet centers. My favorite comfort is the laundry service: My clothes are washed and folded in 24 hours.

I check my e-mail in one of our offices. It’s great to be able to receive news from home, and it’s also nice to shop online. (I can order books or DVDs or clothing, and they get here in a few weeks.) Some soldiers even use the network to make calls over the Internet. It makes me think of the words in that U2 song—“far away, so close.” This poses some difficulties for the military, which must balance between offering a system that’s good for morale and controlling the information that’s vital to operations. And there’s little doubt that our enemies are technologically advanced: They’ll publish videos of IED and sniper attacks on their Web pages, and sometimes the footage is synchronized with Arabic music urging you to join the jihad. In today’s world, not only do we have to be competent at shooting wars, we also have to learn to fight the information war.

Captain Jonathan Moss, of Paris, has been chronicling his tour in Iraq for Texas Monthly since August 2005. To read his previous installments, go to texasmonthly.com/authors/jonathanmoss.php.

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