4 Rifles launched a “trigger op” later that night, a simple operation designed to interdict smugglers. The vast area is so heavily mined that going just a few feet off the road can be fatal. Much of the smuggling is apparently happening on the nearby Shat al Arab River, the seizure of which had been one of Saddam’s prime excuses for launching one of the largest and longest-running conventional wars in a century.
The Welsh Warriors, under Major Steve Webb, set off to recon hiding places for tonight’s VCPs, or vehicle control points. The idea was merely to surprise passersby and politely search their vehicles coming from the direction of Iran—the border was maybe three miles away—for things like surface-to-air missiles and EFPs. No weapons coming across the Iranian border have ever been captured by Coalition forces. Practically nobody lives near the crossing, and the border crossing closes at 1600, so any traffic after that would be suspicious.
The Welsh Warriors headed out, but little happened that night. Eventually some lights flashed across the desert, coming toward us. After some minutes, three mopeds carrying a total of nine young male riders came toward the vehicles parked in the dark. The men seemed drunk or high and were laughing and enthusiastic about the surprise encounter. The British soldiers released them to drive off into the night. An hour or two later, two wild dogs approached nearby, and through my night vision I could see the dogs stop about 20 meters from us in the dark, and then keep going. And that was it. We returned at about 3AM without incident.
Scenes from the Desert
There are two sides to the nets: in very hot weather or cold weather, it’s important to turn the proper side up (or down). One side reflects radiation more than the other, and so the net is like a heat valve. Turn the wrong side out and not only does the darker side (now facing the sun) absorb more heat, but lighter more reflective side (now facing the earth) traps it longer even at night as the ground “tries” to radiate back into black space. One day we accidentally put the net up backwards and suddenly we were cooking like potatoes.
On clear desert nights, space practically sucks the heat out of the desert and it can get cold, fast. Though the days were invariably very hot, most nights we needed sleeping bags to ward off the chill.
Day after day, British combat veterans express their admiration for American soldiers who serve 15-month tours. The British serve 6-month tours in Iraq, and that’s plenty long enough in urban combat. The British soldiers want to know everything about those Americans up north who are spending so long at one stretch and coming back for a second, third or even fourth tour. (I spent 4 November in Baghdad with an American captain, Jim Keirsey, who was on his 5th combat tour. CPT Keirsey had created an excellent command climate in his infantry company. I spent a good amount of time with Keirsey’s soldiers, and they hugely respected him: 5th combat tour and still going strong! I wish I could write faster and tell more stories about such people.)
We slept a few hours in the desert, and before sunrise 4 Rifles began breaking camp to head for the Iraq-Iran border crossing at al-Shalamcha. Every drive we make through the war-ripped landscape is haunting: Iraqi helmets baking in the sun. Miles of rusting barbed wire lay in patches around defensive positions. Stories of human waves, including young boys sent from Iran pushing forward to clear minefields with their bodies. Iraq had attacked Iran, but it didn’t end there.