WEEK two: "goats in the distance"
25 MILES FROM KUWAITI BORDER, MARCH 24, 9:54 AM
Allied reinforcements are still streaming in from the south. So far I can't tell which soldiers are enemy pretenders sent by Saddam to poison our ranks from within. I wander over and casually test the newcomers with a few Civil War questions. I am chilled to discover fewer than one in ten can even tell me where Lincoln was hanged.
The warm welcome the American soldiers were expecting in Iraq has failed to materialize. It's understandable, I suppose. Only the children open their arms to us, though it's clear they seek gifts of water, rations, or pornography. Today a crowd of kids, none older than 10, chased our truck, begging. They might have been yelling foreign gibberish, but I didn't need a translator to hear what their eyes were mouthing. Heartbroken, I pelted them with bottled water, MREs, and a worn copy of Penthouse Forum. Only later did I realize it was an empty gesture. They were probably illiterate, and even if not, there's no way any of those stories are true. More Western lies, I thought sadly.
AN NASIRIYAH, MARCH 26, 6 PM
There are four official designations among the journalists here: Affixed, Attached, Inserted, and the highest rank, Embedded. This system has already led to several incidents of abuse by the higher-ranked reporters. I was originally "Attached," but found myself demoted after a particularly nasty hazing incident. Knowing my Marine hosts prided themselves on enduring hardship, I believed several senior journalists when they told me sleeping bags were a sign of weakness. "Lose the shirt! Hit the dirt!" went the curfew chant, and I spent four nights naked except for my gas mask, stained with oil and shivering in a gully.
When I discovered the truth, I took a swing at the ringleader, a pompous embedded alcoholic with CNN. For this, I was transferred to the less glamorous 132nd Fightin' Irish and downgraded to "Affixed." It's not a big deal, it just means I can be left behind if vehicles are overloaded and that if I were captured it would take four of me to equal one Iraqi POW in a trade.
ASH SHATRAH, MARCH 28, 3:27 PM
This afternoon my unit entered a captured enemy headquarters to find a ghoulish, hand-painted mural showing planes hitting the World Trade Center. What press photos fail to convey, however, is that this is just one scene near one end of a very long wall; a garishly colored and remarkably complete celebration of tragedy and missteps throughout American history. Behind the Twin Towers, clumsily rendered, is a ridiculous scene of election fraud in Florida. Further down I recognize the Challenger explosion, the Fall of Saigon, Kennedy's convertible, Joseph McCarthy, a Japanese internment camp, Pearl Harbor, the Titanic, Lincoln dozing in Ford's theater (?!), Florida achieving statehood, men freezing in Valley Forge, all the way back to what appears to be a stabbing on the Mayflower. I don't think that even happened!
The most recent paintings depict the Columbia disintegrating, the club fire at the Great White show, and Saddam escaping this war's first missiles. The paint is still wet on yesterday's downed Apache helicopter, and amazingly, at the mural's leading edge, preliminary charcoal sketches show a Marine stumbling as he entered this very building only ten minutes ago.
100 MILES OUTSIDE OF BAGHDAD, MARCH 30, 6:54 PM
Back at the edge of camp, an elderly Iraqi says the "Fedayeen"--Saddam's notorious, ultra-loyal, elite security force--have been seen nearby, and many families are leaving the area. Locals have already warned me about the Fedayeen. The word in Arabic means "Goats of the Hollow Twilight," and these silent, black-clad killers are blamed not only for the recent sandstorms, but also for several miscarriages and a near-fatal case of appendicitis in Basra. The old man claims the Fedayeen can move without touching the ground, see clearly in total darkness, take the shape of goats, command the weather, speak any language, and curdle milk. On the bright side, he says, they're afraid of cotton and walnuts. I cackle at this superstitious hogwash, but as the setting sun infects the sky with an eerie burnt orange glow and swirling tendrils of sand caress my ankles, I can hear what sounds like bleating, not far off in the distance.