Spring Break in Iraq

Writing War and Peace


Just before midnight, on March 11th, 2008, a man walked into my tent at the Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. He began unpacking his bags on the bunk next to mine. He looked like a grey-haired Philip Seymour Hoffman on steroids, or so I wrote in my notebook. As a fiction writer, I’m often yielding to flashes of catchiness, privileging the vivid over the accurate, a tendency I was trying to combat as a journalist who’d just returned from his first tour of Iraq. 


“You hungry?” I asked the man.

 “Starved,” he said.


I let him know that the DFAC—the dining facility—was still open. He asked me where I’d been. When I told him Haditha, he said:

 “They show you what they found at the base of the dam?”

Not wanting to sound as ignorant as I suddenly felt, I told the man a bit about what the SEALs had shown me: an Iraqi Swat Team captained by a charismatic thief, a bombed out girls school, and a bankrupted sheikh whose son had cancer. We’d hunted for Al Qaeda in the Al-Jazira desert, which was sprawled out behind the Haditha Dam and Lake Qadisiyah, the reservoir that fed into the Euphrates through the dam. I saw it every day, towering over me like a trapezoidal tenement, camped as I was on the east side of the Euphrates. But I never spent more than a half hour inside of it, because the dam wasn’t the domain of the Joint Special Operations Force with whom I’d embedded. The Marines manned the dam. When I told the man as much, he told me that was a real shame.

“Cuz inside that dam’s the story of the war. I was there the night EOD [Explosives Ordnance Detachment] made the discovery,” he told me. “Chemical Ali’s stash pile.”


It took me more than a second to register the significance of this disclosure. My entire time in Iraq I had been accompanied by a Public Affairs Officer, a large mustachioed Air Force sergeant who was very good about making sure I was never alone. The effect a constant chaperone has on the information an embedded journalist receives cannot be underestimated. That night in that tent in Kuwait was one of the only moments of my tour in which I was entirely unsupervised.


When I told the man “you gotta be kidding me,” he shook his head and smiled ruefully. We began to talk, to have a natural, un-monitored conversation. However, I didn’t tell him that the soldiers that had processed my embed in Baghdad said I was the only reporter they’d ever met who smiled for his ID and came equipped with a laminated letter of sponsorship. I didn’t tell him that I’d never published anything but poetry and that my writing sample had been an essay about The Grateful Dead and that my contact with the Joint Special Operations Force (JSOF) was a friend from high school and that the colonel who’d okayed my embed had largely done so because he’d seen that all three of us had gone to the same high school, James Wood. We were all James Wood Colonels, so I must be trustworthy, right?


Not quite. I may have been the most naïve American journalist to have ever stepped foot in the country of Iraq, but I didn’t say anything about that. I just asked question after question, found out as much as I could about this man who had walked into my tent and this weapons discovery at the Haditha Dam.


I’ll never forget how his face grew red and the way he seemed to be playing bloody knuckles with himself as he started to remember his time in Haditha. He told me he was from Mississippi and that in July of 2007 he’d been driving through the Al Anbar Province to deliver fuel to bases. He returned to the Haditha Dam one night in the midst of an incident with a considerable amount of excitement. He, along with quite a few others, witnessed a massive EOD discovery of WMDs and had been compelled to sign a confidentiality agreement. He claimed that all EOD personnel present that night had been retired on the spot. WMDs had been found at the base of the Haditha Dam, sarin and cyclosarin, massive quantities of nerve gas. 


“I’ll be right back,” I said.


I ran over to the recreation tent to send an e-mail to my friend, who was my contact with the platoon. I felt like this was a time sensitive story. Chemical Ali, the mastermind of Iraq’s chemical weapons program, was still alive in March of 2008, but he’d been sentenced to death. 


“He’s playing you,” my friend wrote and told me not to go looking for some “big story.” 


But I hadn’t gone looking. I’d just started a conversation about food in the middle of the night with a stranger who, for whatever reason, was now breaking his confidentiality agreement about a classified discovery of WMDs.


I immediately consulted my agent and asked for advice, feeling it was important to document my conversation with this contractor in as many ways as I could by creating a paper trail. I sought out sources from EOD. I returned to my tent and confronted the contractor with my friend’s claim that he—the contractor—was “playing” me.


“When did that platoon arrive in Haditha?” the contractor asked.


My friend arrived in Haditha in October of 2007. Thus, he and his men wouldn’t necessarily have been privy to intelligence about a weapons discovery at the dam in July. But let’s allow for a moment that my friend was right and the contractor was indeed playing me. 


I certainly took that possibility seriously. I paced around the recreation tent, watched soldiers play ping pong, aware of the metaphor. What if I was being played? What if this guy wasn’t a whistleblower, but instead a spook—a spy? Well, what that possibility seemed to suggest to me was a deliberate campaign of misinformation—propaganda—a possibility that was nearly as interesting as a genuine revelation of WMDs.


I told the contractor that if his information was accurate, Bush’s war was justified, so why wasn’t the administration capitalizing on this game changing story? I stood against my bunk bed as dark-skinned workers slept in the beds across the aisle and a powerful fan filled our quarters with refrigerated air.

The contractor told me that he and his brother had worked for KBR (Kellogg, Brown, Root) for a couple years before he’d taken his current assignment with DynCorp. His duty in Iraq now, in March of 2008, was to demonstrate to the troops how to use the new MRAPs, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protection vehicles that were being distributed to platoons thanks to the whistleblower, Franz Gayl, the Marine engineer who had leaked government documents about the insufficient armor of the Humvee. Gayl had been furious at the Bush administration for continually allowing the unnecessary deaths of American soldiers. He’d tried to go up the chain of command, but his complaints about Humvee casualties had been ignored, so Gayl broke the law. He broke his contract.


My source told me he was getting sick of KBR in 2007, a subsidiary of Halliburton. As he told me this, I remembered that every day when I’d wake up and walk out of my Conex box and look across the Euphrates, I’d see the contractor camp with the letters KBR spray painted in red on a piece of plywood posted on the outside of a cement barricade. KBR was on one side of the river, JSOF on the other, while the Marines manned the dam. The contractor’s justification for blowing the whistle, for violating the confidentiality agreement, was simple: KBR didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. They didn’t protect him. They were derelict in their duty, negligent in providing security for their employees. He and his brother were constantly shot at as they drove their fuel convoys across the night roads of Iraq. He said that people like me, the media, were also to blame for this injustice insofar as it was the corporation’s fear of the media that made them so cowardly, so unwilling to protect their men. He said he’d often arrive at the dam with his trailer riddled with holes, furious.


I could imagine his anger and fear, a terrified man in a foreign country screaming into a CB radio as his truck’s getting rocked with fire. I could imagine the exasperated conversations he must have had with his brother in their camp on the Euphrates, their doubts about the courage and integrity of their employers, a more precise mirror of the cloudy suspicions the rest of the country expressed about Dick Cheney’s former company. 


“Why classify evidence that could justify the war?” I asked.


“One of two reasons,” the contractor told me. “They might still release it, might use it for political advantage before the election. But more likely, they won’t. Because the weapons they found are like all the weapons they’ve found in this war. They’ve got our serial numbers all over ‘em, bud. That’s what they’re afraid of.”


This hit me hard. The contractor arched his eyebrows and squinted, that pained ruddy crinkle maybe the reason I described him in my notebook as resembling the now dead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. I walked out of that tent, looked out on the hundreds of other windowless tan canvas roofs arrayed under the stadium lights of Ali Al Salem Air Base. I took my notebook to the latrine where I could sit on the can and write with a degree of privacy. I took note of the graffiti on the wall:


KBR:  Keep Bush Rich

Hey Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, Keep the war going so I can keep making 150,000 a year tax free while you dumb ass military idiots talk shit about each other on the bathroom walls making 30-50 a year!!  I love this country. 


A Military Contractor


I didn’t know what to do with these revelations when I returned to the U.S. in March of 2008.  I sold three of my stories to The Winchester Star, my hometown newspaper, but this fourth one could never find a home, and at first, I grew paranoid. I didn’t know why the major newspapers of America didn’t share my sense that this was a story worthy of the public’s attention. But maybe my story wasn’t ready. Perhaps I still needed substantial corroboration. Perhaps I needed to step back, get some distance, allow history to do its work. Perhaps I needed more precedent for properly understanding my source. The cases of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, and Franz Gayl, the story of other people who broke the law in order to tell the truth, came to mind.


We now have that distance from Iraq, even as we return with “advisers” to the chaos we helped to unleash back in 2003. And I now have corroboration for the contractor’s story. After receiving nothing but denials and cold shoulders from every Marine I talked to after I had returned to the U.S., I caught a break last December.


My friend from the Haditha platoon recently introduced me to a former advisor to the Bush administration. Although this man’s understanding of events suggested that the weapons cache belonged to the sons of Saddam, and not Chemical Ali, this source, who chooses to remain anonymous, did confirm the discovery of a massive classified weapons trove at the base of the Haditha Dam in July of 2007.


“This changes everything!” cried the voice of the naïve young writer I once was.


But that voice, of course, is wrong. 


The American news media knew about stories like this, at least heavily redacted versions provided by the Bush administration and championed by their favorite network: Fox News. As early as 2006, just before the midterm elections, stories slipped under the radar about chemical weapons discoveries with no mention of serial numbers. That’s the part we’ve been blacking out—our part. To the contractor I met, this censored part was “the story of the war,” but to most in the media, it was all much ado about nothing.


When I listened to Edward Snowden recently, I remembered how passionately I felt back in 2008. The contractor told me we sold nerve gas to Hussein in the 1980s to help him defeat Iran in their eight year war with Iraq, that we were the ones, by proxy, who killed tens of thousands of Iranians as they sought to defeat the guy we, just a few years later, would call the bogeyman. To a rookie journalist, in 2008, this was a revelation.


Many journalists have cited the involvement of American corporations like Bechtel and Union Carbide for their contributions to Iraq’s chemical weapons program. The whistles have been blowing for awhile with humbling, incriminating, and sometimes Orwellian intelligence.


Now I’m working on a memoir called Spring Break in Iraq. Just saying this, just the word “memoir,” feels trivial and emasculating compared to what the rookie journalist in me wanted back in 2008, which was to change the world with the information I’d found. My first draft of Spring Break in Iraq was little more than a two hundred page indictment of America. But now several years have passed and I’m struggling with a revision and that timeless question of timelessness. 


How do revelations age in the information age? At what point do they cease being revelations and wilt into mere information, or worse, anecdotes—bits?  To what degree do I need to jettison the journalist in my mind? And to what degree do I need to privilege the personal—a virgin visit to war in the context of a called-off wedding and a mother dying of cancer—over the political—the contractor’s story about our country’s big lie? As a writer, I suppose what I’m struggling with more than anything is you: My audience. I’m trying to read you before you read me and what I want to know is:  Do you really still care about the WMD thing? Are you really that shocked to discover the Ouroboros nature of our role in Operation Iraqi Freedom? How much dramatic weight should I give to the stranger I encountered in Kuwait in 2008?


That man may not be a patriot or a prophet, a Martin Luther King or a Daniel Ellsberg or a Mark Felt or a Franz Gayl or a Chelsea Manning or an Edward Snowden. In the end, he might just be a disgruntled employee. I suppose at this stage in the game, it’s still possible that my friend from the platoon was right, and that the contractor was “playing me,” and so was my corroborating source, all of them veils in a Wizard of Oz drama in which the truth—the man behind the curtain—continually eludes the increasingly paranoid seeker. 


But I’m not that cynical just yet.


I know what it’s like to believe that a story can change everything, and I’m not quite ready to discourage that belief in my audience. Right now, the contractor from Kuwait is at war with the story of a wedding and a mother. He still plays a big role in my book. His story has become mine. That man was furious at his country. He was appalled at his government. But I think it’s also important to mention that that same angry man was back in Kuwait on a new job in 2008.  He was delivering a vehicle to our troops we never would’ve given them if it hadn’t been for a whistleblower.



Iraq, Journalism, Memoir, Travel