-A Tank Called "Hostile"-
By Jerry Levin
(Baghdad, Iraq May 2, 2003) Like warriors of old,
soldiers assigned to Tanks like to give their weapons
names. When selected, the names are stenciled-in large
black easy to read letters-on the right and left sides
of the barrels of their vehicles' powerful canon. The
honor of actually choosing a name usually goes to the
There are probably as many reasons for each name as
there are tanks in the U. S. arsenal. For instance,
the meaning of "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue,"
or "Camel Tow" seemed clear enough to me. But another
name, which I saw on a Tank standing guard just inside
the entrance to the Republican Palace, one of Sadaam
Hussein's former palatial places of rest and work,
suggested that I not make any assumptions about it,
even though it bore the potentially revelatory title
So I asked the gunner, if there was any special reason
as to why he settled on that name.
"Not really," he answered amiably. "I got me a
dictionary. Started at the front and kept going until
I found a word I liked."
"Does it fit with what you are doing now?"
"I hadn't really thought about that. I just liked the
However, the soldier, who named the first U. S. Tank
we encountered as we reentered Baghdad on April 18,
clearly had an attitude, which was unambiguously
expressed on the barrel of his gun: "Hostile."
"O. K., so that's an attitude," I thought, "but does
that also express an intention?"
Not long after that the intention issue popped up
again when we encountered another Tank whose
inscription asked the worrisome question, "Where's The Bitches?" Not
being able to question the author, I nevertheless believe that in
his case, we were encountering an adolescent or barely post
adolescent fantasy put stupidly into words-but not intention.
Bad enough, however, because such a message cannot be reassuring to
Baghdad women, very few of whom are venturing from their homes these
days, because of their fear of looting, robbery, and worse by their
own men. "If the soldiers won't protect them, a brother of one
college age woman worried, "who will? My sister will not leave our
house, unless I go with her."
Another time we glimpsed the barrel of another Tank as
it rumbled noisily down a main thoroughfare. It was
providing protection for one of the ubiquitous convoys
moving warily-guns at the ready-which one encounters
round the clock everywhere every day: hodgepodges of
solemn humvees, severe armored personnel carriers,
unyielding trucks, determined tankers, and resourceful
recovery vehicles that look as if they had been
assembled by a committee, as well as the
aforementioned don't-tread-on-me tanks.
The Tank's name was "Agamemnon." Since there was no
way I was going to be able to get the convoy to stop
in order to ask Agamemnon's gunner the reasoning
behind his choice, I could only wonder about it:
especially the extent and bent of his erudition.
Who in the gunner's mind is/was Agamemnon? A good guy
or a bad guy? What is his view of Agamemnon's war/and
this latest mother of all wars of liberation, and the
rationale/incident used to fan the flames of assertive militancy and
eventual aggression back not only in the days of Troy but right now
as well? And does he recognize the screaming subtext to the
Agamemnon story with respect to the futility of war and violence? In
one way or another both war and violence can be counted on to change
lives inevitably for the worse for both those who engineer war and
violence or who are helplessly touched by it.
I would have felt best about his choice, if I could
have thought that it was irony driven. But I'll never
know. So, I can only hope that was the case, because
it is very possible that instead of thinking
ironically he may well have thought about Agamemnon
the way so many contemporary super patriots do about
War of 1812 hero Stephan Decatur whose indelible words
are said to be, "Our country! In her intercourse with
foreign nations may she always be right; but our
country right or wrong." With that sort of ideological precedent as
a prevalent superscription to U. S. history, the logic that followed
inevitably almost two hundred years later was and remains, "If you
are not with us, you are against us."
The fall-out from that line of reasoning has been-not necessarily in
order of significance-1) the emergence, I am told, of "liberty
fries," in fast food outlets all across America, and 2) an
increasingly frustrated Iraqi population, many of whom are now
feeling snookered by the propaganda campaign waged by the allies
during the build up to the invasion. It seemed to promise much in
the way of installing quickly a new normalcy in return for Iraqi
civilians (and soldiers) sitting on the sidelines during the
fighting. And for the most part, most Iraqis taking the propaganda
promises as binding contracts did sit it out.
Apparently the allied propaganda-inspired Iraqi
assumption was that the occupiers would deal with
their needs not just with promised professional nation-rebuilding
aplomb but-more important than that-with dispatch. But the
occupiers, until now, have been proving that they have been much
more professionally adept and efficient at the making of the war
than quickly solving the problems created by it.
A characteristic of this failure is a detectable
penchant for making excuses for the frustrating pace
of repairing critical damage to Iraq's vital
institutions-as well as its national psyche-instead of providing, as
required, the wherewithal needed for the people of Iraq to be able
to pick up the ball of liberation and run with it.
In specific terms, the "wherewithal" that is lacking
remains 1) security: Looting continues; and now a new
problem is mushrooming out of control-unexploded
explosives left over from the Iraqi arsenal lying
dangerously out in the open in every part of the city.
The occupation is barely coming to grips with both
this terrifying issue and the rising toll of curious
young people being wounded, maimed and worse when
venturing into areas that the military still have not
closed off or even marked as dangerous.
2) reliable electrical power: Vast sections of the
city remain without it. As a result, in those places
there is no running water.
3) water purification, garbage collection, and
sewerage treatment facilities continue to be
inoperable. As a result, dysentery and diarrhea
stricken children are flooding already overcrowded, understaffed,
and medicine-short hospitals.
4) education: Some school grounds have been occupied
by slow to leave soldiers intent on uncovering
abandoned or craftily stashed weapons left behind by
Iraqi military and paramilitaries. Some Iraqi parents
and educators claim this is hampering their efforts to
get schools up and running again.
5) a health and nutrition infrastructure: Hospitals
are still being attacked and looted of medicine and
equipment while minimal food supplies remain out of
reach of the city's poor.
6) wage producing jobs for Iraq's willing educated
workers, especially in vital governmental ministries.
What good jobs there are, so goes the complaint, are
going mainly to former Bath Party workers, the party
When trying to get to the bottom of these issues, it
is becoming increasingly evident that with respect to
all those urgent needs the occupiers are also proving professionally
(or is it reflexively) adept at hiding out or passing the buck. For
instance, for the better part of April, the military was not
accessible to the voicing and/or inquiring into such urgent concerns
as those listed above by the handful of frustrated hand wringing
NGOs in Baghdad. Finally late in April the occupation did begin
providing a daily forum-consisting of a gaggle of low to mid-level
officers-to discuss problematic elements of the occupation with the
However, the loudest and clearest message emerging
from those meetings is that the occupiers do not
recognize that fixing them is really their job. In
fact, more than once, attendees have been told that
it's up to the NGOs to resolve the current crises.
Moreover, questions or statements concerning the
intent or efficacy of occupation policy too often are
met with suspicion bordering on paranoia, because the
only officers accessible thus far to queries are at
the stage in their careers where carrying out policy
with as few waves as possible washing up the chain of command-for
which they can be held accountable in a way that might cloud their
performance evaluations-seems to be a daily be all and end all for
"The generals make policy. We are just doing our
duty," is the gist of an unspoken refrain.
In other words: Make war not love.
As one clearly beating-around-the bush officer said
warily to me after I asked a simple hidden agenda-less
"soft ball" question, "When I talk to you guys, I
always worry whether my answer is going to come back
to haunt me."
Despite such discouraging responses, I often do
encounter a more encouraging side to what might be
termed a more positive operative ethos among allied
military in Iraq. One was actually delivered to me confidentially by
a subordinate of the officer mentioned directly above. "Look," the
not much younger man said sotto voce, while looking carefully over
his shoulder, "if we can't do better than this and soon, the
honeymoon for us is going to be over quickly. And when it does end,"
he continued-mixing his metaphors-"it will go off like a rocket!"
Another constructive example was related by Iraq Peace
Team stalwart, Wade Hudson, who said that one veteran
of the allies' dash from Kuwait to Baghdad, told him
that during the entire campaign he just couldn't bring
himself to fire a single shot. The soldier told Wade
that although it may have looked like he was
participating in the shooting, he was only pretending.
Also encouraging-kind of-was a conversation I had with
a member of the crew of another Tank named "California Dreaming."
Here's what I mean by "kind of."
"We had a job to do," the First Lieutenant said, "but
I sure didn't like a lot of it."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the wrong people die too often in these things.
I'm stuck with the memory of the morning, when we
first reached Baghdad and we were manning a
checkpoint. An Iraqi family kept coming on to us.
Maybe they did not understand that we were trying to
get them to stop. But our rules of engagement were to
shoot anyone who wouldn't. But they kept coming.
"Despite our frantic efforts to try to get them to
understand that they needed to stop, they just kept
coming. So I gave the order to shoot, which we did;
and an unarmed family-a woman and her kids-were
killed. All of them were killed. This happened earlier
at Un Qsr too: the exact same thing. I don't like
having to live with that."
"So now what?" I asked.
"Well, I know one thing. When I get home, I'm quitting
the army. I'm not going to volunteer to do this
"What will you do?"
"I'm going to be a man of peace from now on."
"I'm going to join the FBI."