I visited the killing grounds in December of the third year of the 60th century.
It was back in 2003, and I was staying with the Bastogne Bulldogs, the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division out at Q-West, an Iraqi air force airfield west of Qayyarah, a town of about 15,000 souls sitting on top of a field holding an estimated 800 million barrels of oil along the Tigris River south of Mosul. There is so much oil under Qayyarah, it comes bubbling up out of the ground in the middle of the oil refinery there, so you have to walk on carefully laid out paths in order to not get stuck and it’s bubbling up alongside the roads and it’s bubbling up down by the Tigris River, that’s how much oil there is. But the Qayyarah oil field had nothing to do with the presence of the 5,000 or so heavily armed paratroopers of the 1st Brigade exactly 10 miles west at the airfield. No sir, as we shall see, they were just out there sightseeing, visiting the ruins at Hatra, stuff like that.
One chilly morning as the sun rose over the sands of Nineveh governorate, the brigade commander sent a Spec 4 to my bunk with the news that we would be flying into town for a big meeting of all the sheikhs in the region. The commander of the 101st Airborne Division, (then) Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, already somewhat famous by virtue of his quote in The New York Times asking, “Someone tell me how this ends?” would be chairing the meeting. So a bunch of us piled into a pair of Blackhawk helicopters and flew over to Qayyarah and landed in a field near the town hall and joined a large roomful of sheikhs in various tribal attire.
Up on a low dais, Petraeus and several Iraqi men in suits sat at a table along with a guy who translated Petraeus’ remarks to the gathered sheikhs. The place was packed, standing room only, but a young Iraqi guy made room for me to join him on a bench at the very back of the room. He was grinning ear to ear, and I had no idea why. Nothing funny seemed to be going on. The room, in fact, fairly crackled with tension. Sheikh after sheikh rose to his feet and yelled at the men on the dais, including Petraeus, something to which I had to assume the general was unaccustomed.
It had been advertised as a meeting where the region’s leaders could air their concerns. Petraeus had flown down to Qayyarah from his headquarters in a Saddam summer palace up in east Mosul as part of a listening tour around the region occupied by the 101st. It was an area stretching from just north of Tikrit to the south all the way up to the Turkish border in the north, from the Syrian border in the west, to a line between Irbil and Kirkuk in Kurdistan to the east. Petraeus and his 30,000 soldiers of the 101st occupied a landmass about the size of Connecticut, which was by any sane military measure absolutely ridiculous. New York City has a police force of 34,000 to take care of 304 square miles. The area the 101st was assigned to police was about 5,500 square miles. Absurd, right?
Well, Petraeus had come up with an answer that had more or less worked for the past six months — making up for what he lacked in soldiers by liberally spreading money around, most of which had been glommed up when his troops had blown away Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay and seized millions in cash from the house in Mosul in which they were hiding. But now the money had dried up and the sheikhs were restless. Some guy with a big mustache in a suit was trying his best to calm them, but the sheikhs kept jumping up one after another yelling at the guys on the dais and at one another.
The young Iraqi I was sitting next to kept cracking up, and I asked him what he was laughing at. “These fucking guys — they are all from different tribes and they all hate each other, but they hate the guys up there even more!” he exclaimed, pointing to Petraeus and his officials on the dais. I kept asking him questions, so he started translating for me — and not only translating, but telling me who was who, which sheikh led which tribe, what tribes hated which other tribes, the few that were allies, which sheikhs had been colonels and generals in Saddam’s army, who had been in the now-outlawed Baath party and who hadn’t.
My new friend was giving me a short course in local politics Iraqi-style. It wasn’t merely confusing. It was bewildering, and this was just the Qayyarah region, a tiny slice of greater Iraq. The best part of the whole thing to him was that four of the five guys on the dais with Petraeus, who had been elected to some sort of regional council some months previously, had all been prominent in the outlawed Baath party, and Petraeus didn’t know it. “Baath party guys weren’t supposed to be eligible to be on the regional council,” he told me. “They were banned from politics! But look up there! Four of them were Baath party leaders! The whole place is full of Baath party guys!”
One of the older sheikhs, a gray-haired guy with a long gray beard, stood up and suddenly the rest of them fell silent. “This guy is a big leader,” the young Iraqi whispered. “And he is pissed.” The old sheikh didn’t yell, but you could hear the anger in his words. My friend translated: The Americans had screwed everything up. They banned the Baath party. They disbanded the Iraqi military and fired all of its officers. There was no one in Mosul to run any of the departments in the Nineveh governorate because all of the bureaucrats had been in the Baath party. No one working in the department of power knew anything because the professionals were gone. There was no one competent to run the water system. There was no one in charge of sanitation. The police had all been in the Baath party, and now a bunch of idiots were walking around in police uniforms doing nothing. Traffic was crazy. Crime was everywhere. The courts were broken because the judges and prosecutors had been in the Baath party. Everything had fallen apart.
There were murmurs of assent as he made each of his points. “You know what he’s saying?” asked my new friend. “He is saying, What is wrong with you Americans? You came in here and you beat us and now look what you’re doing! You’re fucking everything up! When you are conquerors, you are supposed to co-opt the power structure, not disband it! He is asking, What’s going on? Are you crazy!”
The answer then was yes, and looking back from the perspective of 14 years, it’s hell yes. We did something very, very crazy when we invaded Iraq. And then we did something even crazier when we didn’t have any idea what to do once we owned the place. The reason these Iraqi sheikhs couldn’t understand what we had done to their country was because they were inheritors of a long, long history of conquering or being conquered and collaborating with the winners until they could drive them out. This had to be the first time that their ancient history had not repeated itself, the first time the conquerors, instead of acting like any sane conqueror was supposed to — kicking ass and taking names and ruling the roost and ordering people to do stuff — were instead spazzing around and making things up on the fly.
The old sheikh was exactly right. The Americans were crazy. Petraeus was standing up there representing a country that had not only lost its way, but lost its mind, and from the looks of him, his mind was going, too. He’s not a big guy. He has a slight frame, and even his custom-made BDUs looked a little big on him, and his head seemed to be sinking down a little further into his collar with each verbal blow. You could see on his face that he couldn’t wait for January, only a month away, when orders would arrive to pick up the whole 101st Airborne Division and get out of the Nineveh governorate and go home. Which is exactly what he and the 101st did.
They took all their Humvees and howitzers and M240 and .50-caliber machine guns and Blackhawks and Apache gunships and they loaded them up and they went back to Kentucky's Fort Campbell, where they could drive down the road a few miles and find not an oil field but a Burger King, where they could order a Whopper or they could hie themselves over to the O-Club and slap back a double shot of Jack or they could stop off at the local Clarksville Gentleman’s Club and ogle a few pairs of inflatable boobs. Yessir, heaven on earth, and fuck all those sheikhs back there in Qayyarah in their weird head wraps and shower clogs yelling and complaining and shit. We’re out of there.
And now here we go again. Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles without a military strategy, without a plan for what comes next, without really even knowing who the hell we fired the damn things at.
Wouldn’t it be useful to know who those sheikhs were back in Qayyarah? What makes them tick? Why do they do stuff like chop enemy heads off and gas their own people? You think a little down and dirty history might help? Iraq? Mosul? Nineveh Governorate? Syria? Idlib, the town Bashar al-Assad gassed? Anybody know anything around here? No? Well, pay attention because it’s time you learned what the hell has been going on over there for the last 5,900 years.
First, however, we’re going to travel back to that day in December of 2003 when I visited the big meeting between Petraeus and the sheikhs in Qayyarah because that wasn’t all we did.
Later that day we loaded back into the Blackhawks and flew out to Hatra, in the desert about 30 miles west of Qayyarah. The ruins at Hatra are famous as the site of the archaeological dig shown in the first few moments of that classic horror movie "The Exorcist." Remember? They’re digging around in these stone ruins and somebody comes up with a little amulet depicting the devil himself, a rendering of the Numero Uno evil one, which becomes important later in the movie. Anyway, Hatra was an ancient city that was probably built sometime in the second or third century B.C. surrounded by a wall about a half mile in diameter that once had temples and holy buildings supported by some 160 columns. The Great Temple of Hatra had walls nearly 100 feet tall, one of which was used when night fell as a stone screen on which soldiers from the 101st's public affairs office projected a slideshow of photos telling the story of the division’s six-month stay in the Nineveh governorate.
To say it was a bizarre scene is to do the word “bizarre” an incalculable injustice. Images of tanks and Humvees and soldiers handing candy bars to Iraqi children and helicopters landing in huge clouds of dust, all of it playing to Phil Collins singing “In the Air Tonight.” I mean, this is going on with about a hundred Iraqis standing around watching and another gathering of even more sheikhs from other towns, and some younger Iraqi men and even a few women in long, ankle-length black garb, and moving through all of them, Maj. Gen. Petraeus with a coterie of aides and a translator, shaking hands and greeting sheikhs and assuring everyone that all they had to do was be patient because the month before, in November, the Congress of the United States had passed an enormous supplemental appropriations bill of $70 billion for the Iraq War and only one month hence, in January, the money would begin to flow into northern Iraq and All Would Be Well.
Before the sun set, I set up my camera on a little tripod and climbed up on the wall around Hatra and took a picture of myself surrounded by all that ancientness — columns and stone walls and stone steps leading down through narrow tunnels to hidden vaults. It all seemed so old that nothing could be more ancient, more historic, more beginning of it all than Hatra.
But that’s how stupid I was because it had all begun about 4,000 years before Hatra 300 miles south in Lower Mesopotamia in the Uruk IV period, which refers to the truly ancient city of Ur, way back at the time the first known historical writings were scratched in sandstone in pictographs. It would be another thousand years before the words and deeds of dynastic kings would be recorded in an actual early language on cuneiform tablets. But even back then, even in the land of Ur, they were drawing pictures of wars on the wall because that’s pretty much what they did. They went to war and they either won or they got beaten, and then they went to war again.
Sometime in the third millennium, about 500 miles north and west of Ur around the city now known as Idlib but then known as Ebla, a long war was fought with Mari. Now listen up: We’ve got Sargon of Akkad and some goddamned grandson of his called Naram-Sin, and they pounded Ebla over and over again in the 23rd century B.C. until they could make Ebla a part of Mesopotamia under the Akkadian Empire. And man, they were off and running. One century after another, one ruler after another, one war after another. By 21 B.C., some guys called the Hurrians moved into the northeast part of Syria and the town of Mari — remember Mari? conquered by Ebla? — made a comeback until it was conquered by a ruler known as Hammurabi of Babylon.
Then along came Yamhad — now better known as the destroyed city of Aleppo — which controlled northern Syria around the 19th and 18th centuries B.C., when eastern Syria was ruled by Shamshi-Adad I, king of the Old Assyrian Empire, which was then taken over by the Babylonian Empire. You following me? Yamhad was famous for having even more slaves than Babylon, and those dudes in Yamhad ruled the roost up in Syria until it was conquered, along with Ebla, by the Hittites around 1600 B.C. Idlib and Aleppo couldn’t catch a break even back then.
So here we are, we’re only halfway to A.D., and we’re already waist deep in blood and kings and wars and cities and conquered peoples and up comes the Assyrian Empire, and it’s a goddamn battleground for the Mitanni, the Egyptians, something called the Middle Assyrians, and up comes Babylonia again! Around 900 B.C., along came Adad-nirari II and he took Assyria into Anatolia, the Levant, ancient Iran and back down to goddamned Babylonia again, and he was followed by some butcher called Ashur-nasir-pal II in the mid-800s B.C., who pushed even further south into Mesopotamia and got himself into Asia Minor until Shalmaneser III came along a couple of decades later and unsatisfied with how much land that lazy Ashur-nasir-pal II conquered, cranked up his armies and marched right into Israel, Damascus, Canaan and the goddamned foothills of the Caucasus.
And then along cams a real mother whomper, Adad-nirari III, son of Queen Shammuramat, and this guy started slaughtering Phoenicians, Philistines, Neo-Hittites, Persians, Israelites, Medes and Manneans, and he was just getting started. He went down to Babylon and beat the shit out of the people there, and he basically enslaved all of eastern Mesopotamia. Then about 700 B.C., the Egyptians and a whole bunch of locals got together and decided to teach the Assyrians a lesson. So King Lule and King Hezekiah and King Sidka and the king of Ekron teamed up with the Egyptians, and they took on this new Assyrian King Sennacherib, who had relocated to Nineveh (Mosul). That pissed off Sennacherib, who slashed his way through the lot of them and kept on going for Jerusalem, taking out 46 towns and villages along the way. Then he turned east and took out Babylon again. Then a couple of Babylonian guys took it back until King Sennacherib got pissed enough to go after Babylon one final time, this time diverting the canals around the city and flooding Babylon, turning it into a swamp.
You with me? No? Well, who we have been talking about all this time are the murdering, thieving, slave driving butchers who ran Syria when modern butcher Assad wasn’t even a quark in some future molecule. Before we come within a few centuries of the birth of Christ, the ancestors of today’s Syrians had conquered and basically enslaved 28 nation-states and occupied all of what is now Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Cyprus and large parts of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, Armenia, Libya, Azerbaijan and Georgia. They still had to face Alexander the Great and the Romans and then the Byzantines and then came the Aramaeans and the Jews and the Christians and then the invasion of Duma by Muhammad and then came the Arabs followed by the Crusades and occupation by Germans, French, Italian armies and then some Turco-Mongol dude called Timur-Lenk took over and then came the Ottoman Empire and a period of comparative peace until the Ottomans made the mistake of taking the side of the Germans in World War I.
After the war, a couple of the winners, England and France, in the persons of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot secretly agreed to divvy up the Ottoman Empire and drew the infamous Picot-Sykes line creating the modern Middle East and present-day Syria, including, of course, the descendants of the murdering, thieving, enslaving monsters we’ve been talking about.
So my pals, the sheikhs over in Qayyarah and Hatra and the ancestors of all the various tribes and religious factions and ethnic minorities and majorities in northern Iraq and all over Syria and the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds and the Yazidis and the Turkmen and the goddamned Persians of Iran and the Turks of Turkey for crying out loud have been at one another’s throats for 5,900 years and we’re going to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at some deserted airbase in the middle of a Syrian desert that has seen more bloodshed than a goddamned Kansas City slaughterhouse and we expect these fuckers to pay attention?
I keep thinking of Petraeus up there on that little dais in Qayyarah listening to those sheikhs yelling at him and he’s looking all confused and then when he got out of there and was heading over to his Blackhawk that already had its rotors turning he looked positively giddy with the thought that in about two months he would have his ass and the asses of all 30,000 of his soldiers in the 101st out of that sandy hell and back on the heavenly clay soil of Kentucky, and I keep thinking, Who the hell do we think we’re fooling? We sent a few hundred thousand troops over there in rotating shifts of one-year deployments and then we shipped them right back home, which is where they remain today — all but the 5,000 troops we’ve got over there slogging through the wastelands and looking around and wondering what they’re doing.
We’ve got the Iraqis around Mosul, which is rapidly on its way to being in ruins, and the Syrians over there around Aleppo which is a maze of heartbreak and rubble, and Idlib which just got hit by poison gas killing 100 of its citizens, and their ancestors have been slaughtering each other and various invading armies using everything from rocks to sticks to knives to swords to spears to bows and arrows to muskets to AK-47s to RPGs to mortars to Russian-made jet fighters and high explosive and gas bombs. And they’ve been doing it pretty much around the clock for almost 6,000 years, and you know what they haven’t been doing? They haven’t been out on the hustings campaigning and running political ads, and they haven’t been voting, and they haven’t been doing shit like going on shows like “The Apprentice” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and they haven’t been playing “Naked and Afraid” and “Survivor.”
What they have been doing is just hoping to survive, and as usual, their ruler of the moment has been killing them by the hundreds of thousands without pausing for breath and that’s who we’re supposed to impress with 59 Tomahawks and three talking heads on “Morning Joe” babbling about freedom and our national credibility and how we’re the bulwark of liberty?
God help us, for we know not what the fuck we do.