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The Way out of Basra




(Note from the translator: This is the story of a Vietnamese American Soldier based on his true life and death… He was killed in action in Iraq, but his American dream had come true. I had the privilege to read his story, and I was so touched by his narration that I decided to ask the author, writer Nguyen Thi Thao An, for permission to translate this article into English so that not only my American friends but also the whole World could feel the way I did when I first read this article. I hope that my humble translation touches your heart as well. God bless you all. Thank you. Le Hoang An)


To: Sgt. Le Ngoc Binh & family

When I first set foot on American soil, I couldn’t help but notice that the first feeling upon arrival was the same for all who arrived.  It created a very deep and everlasting impression in my mind.  But my disorientation at that moment only lasted for a short time, and I soon recovered. The strange feeling began as the airplane left Viet Nam. When the United Airlines plane lifted off from the ground, I realized that I would never set foot on this soil again. I floated, floated forever. Suddenly, I felt like my body did not exist anymore, I felt like a spirit floating, leaving the universe behind.

My mother said: “When you set foot on American soil, you will have reached paradise.” My father said: “Stay there by all means, don’t you ever come back to this hell.” I understood, my parents were suffering, and I also suffered for leaving my family behind to go overseas for my education.

“Stay there by all means”. Those words haunted me and stayed in my mind. But could I stay here? How could I stay in the United States, become a citizen, and then bring the whole family over? That was my ultimate goal, and the dream of my entire family, but it would not be easy. The fastest way was to get married to a U.S. citizen. At the dorm, in class, when going shopping, when working part time, or when going anywhere, I always set my eyes on the girls. I observed and categorized the target; this girl was still too Vietnamese, probably only had a green card; that girl was too Americanized, probably born here, or already a citizen. I didn’t care about the age or the beauty. In my mind there was only the hope of a fast romance, ending in a swearing in ceremony at the I.N.S. But in reality, I never dared to open my mouth to make acquaintances. I stood there with humble feelings. In fact, in front of them, I felt like a transparent man made of crystal. I felt that they saw right through me, to my unlawful heart, with my bad intentions as clear as the ink-spots on a body. The other overseas students told me to be careful, and warned me that if I messed with them, I would be stabbed or shot to death. They said that if I wanted to stay, I had to have a fake marriage. A fake marriage would cost me a lot of money. My parents had to pawn our house, our biggest belonging, to pay for my going overseas, so how could I ask for more help from them?

Another guy told me to join the army. Serve in the army for a while and then you could have citizenship, even have a scholarship to study at the university; it was like killing two birds with one stone. The war in Iraq had just begun, and the need for soldiers was high, so I decided right away, I was going to join the army to achieve my destiny. My decision filled my friends with surprise. They said: “Joining the army now is like jumping into Hell”. I smiled, rubbing my head with its short hair. No, I just wanted to make a big jump. According to legend, there was one kind of carp which every three years made a big jump with the hope of becoming a dragon. From a Vietnamese to an American was like being born again, I must make that big jump just like the carp in the legend.

I didn’t tell anyone about the time I spent in basic training. How could a civilian become a soldier? It was done in basic training. They taught a soldier to stand firm in all situations, even when being captured by the enemy, or tortured. A soldier was taught to accept all corporal punishments. They teach weapons and I had one colleague who had a collection of insane survival knives which shocked and amazed me. Later I sent home a picture of the graduation ceremony. I wore the uniform, holding my gun, with different positions. My mother cried. She had spent several years working hard to feed my father in the Communist concentration camps. As for my father, he had only been a simple soldier, but when the T.54 tanks drove into the Independence Palace, Father and his comrades-in-arms were holding a defensive position on the West side of Saigon. He was captured at the 25th hour of the war; that was why he was detained for so long. In his letter to me, he wrote: “I respect your decision. Remember, once you are a soldier, your whole life is as a soldier. A soldier does not use the army as a means… When you have a purpose, you have to conquer it by all means”.

From that day on, Father never mentioned the past. His letters contained all the details and the characteristics of the different weapons, and he told me how to protect myself from different dangers. Without saying it, I understood that my father wanted to give me all of his inner strength, all of his confidence, without holding back the smallest piece. I thought that all the weapons used in Viet Nam were now kept in museums. The war in Iraq lay in the deserts, in the mountains, in the cities, at the markets, along the roads. The most dangerous thing was the “road side bomb”. It was only a self made bomb, very simple, lying among the rocks, the trash along the roads. In a place where the enemy was not only a person, but also rocks, trash, plants, then everything was very dangerous. But I did not tell my father about that.

One year after my graduation, my unit was deployed to Iraq. Before that, we had been fully trained for the new war, with practice in the deserts near Black Rock (Nevada) and climbing the high peaks in the magnificent mountains of Arizona. During winter, we practiced military operations on the White Mountains in Canada; in the summer we went to Texas to walk through the deserts of the Far West, bearing the heat and thirst for a week to try to survive and escape. The commander of our unit said that we must live in the “freezer” and in the “oven” so that when we went to Iraq, the fighters of Al-Qaeda would be surprised.

The war in Iraq started on March 20th, 2003, and on May 1st, while visiting the battleship USS Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Bush declared that the war was over. The dictatorial government was overthrown, giving way to a democratic state. All of the political parties were invited to join the government through elections. On December 12th of the same year, Saddam Hussein was captured; his hopes of restoring his reign ended. However, the guns continued to blast everywhere in Iraq. From the cities to the countryside, the mountains, the deserts, the churches, the markets, there were resistance groups all over. The smaller groups were only a few people, the bigger ones a few hundred. They looked like simple peasants, but they were fighters when they carried a gun. Not only did the Iraqis fight the Americans, they fought even harder among themselves. The resistance forces would shoot at the markets, the churches, the schools, even at weddings or funerals.

When I arrived at Mosul, the strongest fortress of the Baath party, part of the Sunni sect that supported Saddam, the war was still going on fiercely. Michael Tea, my new squad leader, said: “It will be a long time before the war ends. Even when the American troops withdraw, the war will still go on.”

“Why will it still go on?” I asked, surprised.

“You think the Iraqis fight only the Americans? They fight against each other more than against the Americans”. Looking at my surprised eyes, he said: “They are all Iraqis, of Arab origin, and they are all Muslims, but the Sunni fight the Shi’a, and both of them fight the Kurds in the north. The Kurds fight the government, regardless of which sect leads it. The Turkmen fight against the Iraqi government, against the Sunni, against the Shi’a, and against the Kurds. The Assyrian Christians fight against all of the other sects.”

“My goodness! That gives me a headache”.

“I’m going to go crazy”, the other guys in my unit exclaimed, holding their heads.

I calmly asked: “Among different groups, who are the most numerous?”

“The Shi’a are the most numerous, making up about 60% of the population. The Sunni, about 20% of the population, comes second. The third group, the Kurds, also make up about 20%. The remaining groups are about 3%.”

“It’s so easy. We just need to stabilize the bigger groups, then the smaller ones will have to subdue. Iraq will have peace”.

Michael Tea laughed loudly. “Even the kids know that. But how to have them all sit together is another problem. Only God knows how”.

“But why do they fight one another?” Ted asked.

Michael explained to us,

“The original cause began with founder Muhammad. Born in 571, he began to teach the Qur’an and create the Muslim religion in 610, at age forty one. In 632, he got sick and began to think about a successor. At that time, his disciples were divided into two groups. One group believed in hereditary succession; because the founder had no son they felt that his son-in-law, Ali Abu Talid should succeed him. But the other group believed that Muhammad was simply a servant of God, and that his great follower, Abu Bakr, deserved to take his place. The dispute led to everyone waiting for the founder to give his final decision, but both groups grew impatient, there had been a fight and at that moment someone had killed the founder. From then until today, nobody worried about who killed the founder. People were busy fighting for power. Even today, there has been no winner”.

“But, more than a thousand years has gone by, Ali and Abu were not there anymore, so whoever the leader might be, he would read the Qur’an, so there is no reason for dispute”, I said.

“The Muslim religion has one point three billion members around the world, and its regulations are very strict. The religious leader has more power than the president, or the king of a country. Even Ali and Abu did not expect this; otherwise they would have killed each other rather than forming two groups, which brought about disastrous consequences lasting until today.” Michael Tea added. “If you don’t dispute, you lose easily”.

I had joined the army so that I would have the citizenship, and in the future I could sponsor my whole family to come over. When I thought of the family reunion, I felt I had gained a lot, and hadn’t lost anything. I continued to ask: “So the pro Saddam Sunni’s belong to what group?”

“They are the disciples of the great follower Abu Bakr, the minority group. Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, had the majority group, the pro Iranian Shi’a…”

“Holy sh..! How can Saddam use the minority to win over the majority?” I exclaimed.

“By using the ‘iron hand’.” Michael Tea answered with a straight face. “Just cause, justice or else, will be overthrown. During 25 years, Saddam killed over a hundred thousand persons”.

“Oh God!” The entire squad exclaimed.

That night, I restlessly thought of Saddam. Iraq is a very ancient land, with two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris running through it. It had been declared the “Cradle of Civilization”, because scientists had found evidence there of the first civilizations on the planet. Because people lived on the soil built from the alluvium of the two rivers, they called it the Mesopotamian civilization. In the eras of stone, of bronze, of iron, each was used for weapons. The artistic masterpieces of architecture such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon would become one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The culture was developed to its highest, but the ancient Iraqis were weak, they were very bad fighters. Through thousands of years, Iraq was always invaded and mastered by other peoples. Iraq never had its independence, or had its own boundaries. After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Middle East, was defeated by the British, the French and the Americans. It was the British who drew the boundaries for Iraq. But Saddam and his Baath party won independence for Iraq from the British. So Saddam was a hero, not a criminal. When I thought of that, I could not wait, I had to ask Michael. He laughed loudly.

“Yeah, Yeah, Saddam was the hero, but only the hero to 20% of the population.” He yelled: “My, go to bed. When you live here, you had better shut your mouth. Say something stupid and the 60% of the population will kill you.”

But I could not go to sleep. If Saddam was a Shi’a, perhaps the situation would change. If Saddam was not a dictator, the situation would change. If Saddam did not invade Kuwait, did not dream of becoming Genghis Khan and unifying the Arab world, the situation would change. And if I did not lose my sleep, the situation would change.

At dawn, my unit received orders to go to Haji Ibrahim. It is in a mountainous region in Iraq with the highest elevation, over 11,000 feet, near the Iranian border. The commanders of the unit said that the organizations of the Sunni were regrouping there, in order to kick the Kurds out of the region and own it. If we let them do that, it would be difficult to control. It might also be used as a route for bringing in clandestine weapons from Iran for the terrorists. Our mission was to protect the Kurds, and to stop the movement of weapons into the country from Iran.

The sun was not up yet, but three squadrons of UH-60 Black Hawk flew in line to drop us at the foot of the mountain. As soon as we landed, we ran and rolled. We had to keep moving to make us a difficult target. Perhaps some enemy snipers were hidden somewhere. The operation began from the two lowest valleys and spread out to the surrounding area. Iraq’s mountains have thin forests, or areas of knee high grass, while other areas had only rocks. The battalion commander ordered everybody to spread out, to find the caves before going up the mountain, and to be careful with ditches and mine fields.

My squad spread out horizontally, holding our weapons at the ready while advancing slowly. That kind of horizontal spread, according to my father, could be very dangerous, because the enemy could just fire one burst of bullets and the entire squad would be history. I became scared. Michael Tea did not have the experience; in theory the squad should move forward in one line to be safe. I told Michael this through the earphone. He shouted: “Look through the scope, observe those black points.” The black points usually were the entrances to caves, hidden behind some canvas or plywood. My eyes were fixed through the scope and I adjusted it. I had to beg several times before being issued this 50MM scope that could enlarge objects from 3 to 9 times, very clearly. I fixed the scope on my M4A4 with its two triggers, because beneath the gun there was the M203 grenade launcher which had more destructive power and range than the M79 used in Viet Nam. The battalion commander said that the operation would last two days, that our military equipment should be light and tidy, so that we could climb the mountain, with support from the air force when necessary. But my father had written that we could not foresee the progress of a war, and that an operation could last longer. Besides, the tactical vest had many pockets, and I put a lot of things in them; 4 magazines with 1,800 bullets, 10 M203 rounds, the sharp Ka-Bar knife, the Infra-red glasses for night vision, one water canteen, two instant MRE food packs. I also carried an anti-gas mask, because the Kurds had been attacked and killed in masses by Saddam’s troops with Sarin gas.

When I climbed onto the chopper, wearing all my equipment, the entire squad looked at me as if I was a monster. “Hey, you think you can destroy a whole battalion with that?” Ted put his finger in the pockets of my vest to see if there were any empty ones left. “Oh! My hero!” Robert said as he mischievously held out his hands as if in appreciation. “Now that we have you, I guess we won’t have anything to do.”

I became angry, pushing their hands away. I yelled: “Leave me alone.” But when I looked back at myself, I looked like a beggar with eight pockets. I brought too many useless things. Next time, I would be more experienced. Then I felt a big hand groping in my backpack.

“My god, he even brought a blanket.” Ed laughed soundly. “You plan to live on this mountain?”

“Shut up.” I shouted angrily. When we touched the ground, I told myself that I would give him a strong kick. But looking back at him, his hand was three times bigger than mine.

Our squad leader, Michael Tea, yelled. “Shut up”. His eyes looked at each of us, burning with anger. We felt so hot inside.

Suddenly there were bursts of M4 “pan..pan..pan..” The fight was on. There was a shout behind me. We all got down on the ground. About 30 seconds later, Michael, at the first position, gave a signal with his head, and we all split into two so that two guys carrying the M249 stepped up, one in front and one behind. We crawled forward, approaching the entrance of a cave. Surely there would be people; I saw the canvas move, I was sure that they were not civilians. Perhaps the Baath had been there before us.

“Marhaba”, the squad leader shouted three of four times in the megaphone, but no one answered.

Through the scope, I saw the canvas moving as if someone was standing right behind it. I put my finger on the trigger, getting ready. Whoever showed up, I would shoot. “It’s better to shoot first than be shot at”, I told myself. “It’s preferable to shoot by error that to be shot to death.” I did not want to die, especially here. I did not care if Mr. Bush wanted to build democracy or expand freedom or whatever he said. I didn’t even care if the Iraqis died on their oil wells. I just wanted to live and go back home. To fulfill the dream that, one of these days, my parents and my siblings could put their feet on the Promised Land of America.

“Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?” Michael shouted with all his strength.

Suddenly the canvas lifted and a branch was pushed out, with a piece of white cloth on the top. Surrender, we all felt better, we would not have to open fire. But to maintain our vigilance, Michael, who knew what the adversary could do, continued to shout to them in Arabic. They started to come out, one by one, cautiously. Ah! I recognized them, they were Kurds. They had different clothing than the Iraqis; men wore loose trousers like the Turks, a shirt, with a turban on the head, with hair, beards or mustaches well trimmed. All together there were twenty seven of them, including four kids that were around 12 or 13 years old. In the Kurdish tribes, whoever could carry a gun did, whether young or old, man or woman. Luckily, the Kurds were here, and that meant safety. While my squad contacted our commanders, I walked around to observe.

From what I saw in this cave, I thought that the security problem or the stopping of the transfer of weapons through the borders would be a very difficult matter. The entrance of the cave was small, but the deeper we went in, the bigger it became. The main cave could hold several thousand persons. In the middle of the cave there was a small lake, with crystal clear water. The Kurds said that in spring when snow on the mountains melted, the water would come down to the lake, enough for their use all year round. In the back of the cave, there was another exit, through which people could easily escape. That back door exit was not natural but had been made by them through many years. I walked around to see how they lived. Perhaps this cave was only a temporary shelter for the guerrillas, therefore the utensils, the furniture, had no trace of a woman’s hands. The cooking materials, the tools in that place all seemed to date back to the time of Adam and Eve. They all seemed so ancient that it frightened me.

Perhaps the Kurds had been in Iraq since the creation of the World. They were not Arabs, they were not Muslims. The difference in culture, in traditions, in languages, in clothing, made them a thorn in the side of the Arabs. Through thousands of years, they were pursued and killed by the racists, the emperors, the kings. But, with their enduring fighting strength, and their instinct of survival, they had fled continuously from generation to generation. When they were chased as enemies in Iraq, they fled to Turkey; when Turkey chased them, they fled to Syria; after Syria began to chase them, they went into Iran. When they were chased and beaten by the Iranians, they came back to Iraq. They led the life of a nomad, and they ran around the borders of those four countries. The history of the Kurds was the history of a fleeing people. Until today, they had not yet had a place to stop.

I learned that after World War I, the British signed a treaty giving them a country, the Kurdish nation, with the capital in Mosul. In exchange, the Kurds signed a pact allowing the British to exploit the big oil fields in the North of the Kurdish territory. The pact had been signed, and the British exploited the oil fields. But still today, the Kurd nation exists only on paper. It wasn’t that the British did not keep their word. The problem was that the Kurds had missed the unique opportunity to build their nation. This was also the time that the British built the nation of Iraq, too. Because the Kurds lived far apart from one another, they had been divided for as long as anyone remembered. When they started to build their nation, the Kurds living in Turkey liked the policies from Turkey, the Kurds living in Iran copied the model from Iran, the Kurds in Syria enjoyed following the regime from Syria, and the Kurds from Iraq did not like the ideas of the other groups. Several years later, when Iraq declared its independence, the new border included the territory belonging to the Kurds. And from that moment on, the Kurds continued to flee.

I felt sad when I listened to that story. I hoped that all the Vietnamese refugees living in the United States, England, Australia, France, will avoid following the same path as the Kurds.

The squad gathered to receive new orders. We came back inside the cave and gathered into one big circle, half Kurd, half American. The battalion had just dropped a soldier/interpreter by parachute. He told all of us that the Americans would protect the Kurds, temporarily drawing an independent boundary for them. From the city of Tikrit north there would be a No Fly Zone, except for the American, British and United Nations planes. The Americans would furnish weapons and train the Kurdish groups. In exchange, the Kurds would find and control the routes of infiltration of illegal weapons across the border. The weapons and the training would be provided later by someone else. Our new mission was to leave this area and to patrol on the other side of the mountain.

Ted swore, Robert swore, Ed swore, and I swore … in my mind.

“Why don’t they let us stay and train them?” Bob grumbled.

“That’s an order. That’s it!” The squad leader stated.

We walked around the mountains. There was mountain after mountain. The rocks were violet, flat, the slope was gradual. My backpack started to feel heavy, weighing on my shoulders. It was only 17:00 hours, or 5:00 PM, and yet the sky started to get dark. The wind blew hard enough to cut our faces. We stopped next to a deep stream, with some bushes as high as our heads covering a cave. I felt exhausted. Leaning against a tree, I panted. The others with lighter packs also sweated a lot. When Michael came running, he made a sign to me as to push me forward.

“Go, go, and enter the cave to check it out first”. He swore loudly. “Without checking, and standing there, do all of you want to get killed?” This man could become a general someday! He did not seem to care about his men. We sweated, and he thought that it was only water.

We ran inside the cave, checking. I was exhausted to death. From dawn until now we had only run and run, and I had not eaten a single piece of food. Furthermore, my eyes wanted to close. Even if I encountered the enemy, I would sleep first, and then fight later. Luckily, the cave was shallow, and there was nobody in it. Michael said that only when we were sure that we were safe, could we have rest and food.

Ted joked: “Why didn’t he say when that when we captured Bin Laden, then it we could eat”.

“Clear”, said Bob, coming from the other flank of the mountain.

“Clear”, Tom’s voice boomed from another side or some where else.

“Clear, clear”, two or three voices from others shouted aloud. The squad leader called the Operation Center and then assigned different duties. We would stay here. One, two, three, Michael pointed out to me, Ed and Ted, “You three, position 1.” Then he waved to the rest to go to position 2. But he had just walked a few steps when he turned back and said, pointing toward the bottom of the mountain.

“Tonight, you split up to guard this end of the mountain. If you discover anything, sound the alarm, but don’t do anything by yourself.” He turned to me: “As for you, tonight you cannot write poems, and you can not go to sleep”.

I did not have to time to react, when he shut my mouth with: “That’s an order”.

“Yes, Sir”, I yelled, angry enough to spit blood.

Ted and Ed said: “We’ll eat first, from morning till now I felt like I was starving to death” They ate; I put my head against the backpack and slept. Sometimes, sleeping was much better than eating.

I slept for about three hours, until Ted woke me up. The sky was as dark as black ink. I had the impression that I was thrown into a hole in the universe. As soon as they reached the ground, Ed and Ted slept soundly right away. I rubbed my eyes, they were deeply irritated. I took a sip of water, and yet I was not fully awake. Now Heaven was not the town of Babylon, not the Hanging Gardens, not the paradise on Earth, or in Heaven itself, but it was under a soft and smooth blanket. I wished I could slide myself under it, and sleep for one hundred years.

Michael’s voice sounded on the speaker. I answered and then I pulled a poncho and one bottle of Alert out of my backpack. This medication would keep me awake for 48 hours for sure. I put the poncho evenly over my two friends. The night on the high mountain would be very cold with the thickening fog.

I positioned myself in a corner in the dark. After a while, my eyes got used to the darkness, and it seemed to me that the night was not as dark as I first thought. The sky was clear and high, with thousands of sparkling stars, the crescent moon starting to go up in the east. The crescent moon was sharply curved, its image hanging indifferently. Its vibrant color made the night more fairylike. I never understood why in all the Arab stories, they talked about the sky and the crescent moon. Now, I looked at the moon and the moon at me. But no, the moon looked at nature. I looked at nature as well. The night was so calm. I listened to the wind caressing the flank of the mountain, the grass whispering, all along with the regular beating of my own heart.

Three hours passed. I sat in a motionless position. I looked at the canyon below. There was not a single soul down there. Who could understand the difficulties of a wolf in search of prey? It must be very patient. I looked at the canyon as if I looked at infinity. It was two in the morning. This would be Ed’s turn to watch. But I was fully alert, so I let him sleep a little longer. Then the moon started to go down in the west. The Iraqi night was marvelous, but I still missed the far away moon in my native country.

“Oh blue sky, since when is the moon

I stop drinking wine tonight to just ask the question

When man reached up to the moon, he couldn’t

But when he went away, the moon looked back at him.”

(Excerpt from a poem by Ly Bach)

Was it the moon from Viet Nam that had followed me here? And the stars? Where was Venus? Where was the morning star? I looked at the sky, then at a “hot” spot in the canyon. The stars twinkled, twinkled. It was unbelievable. I rubbed my eyes several times. In fact, there seemed to be a star in the tall grass. What was that? I seized my gun, opened the scope to adjust the vision. It was not the stars. It was the light from a flashlight waving back and forth. I looked through the goggles. The flashlight was turned off. Hearing the rattling, Ed and Ted woke up and sat up. They crawled toward me, whispering: “What’s up?”

Not waiting for my answer, they seized their rifles, and looked through the scopes. “Oh, man”.

I called to report the situation. Michael gave me orders to follow the target and not to shoot. I made the report to the Operations Center. We three confirmed our positions and followed the enemy through our scopes. Perhaps it was a group of enemy carrying weapons to supply to the terrorists. They might have a tunnel or a secret cave going through this canyon. If there was an entrance, there should be an exit. I did not know whether the guards on the front side of the mountain discovered that. I did not know the amount of the weapons or the number of persons linked to that line. What group were they from?

Ten minutes later, my entire squad gathered together. Because the cave went deep inside the mountain, we could not destroy everyone in it if we attacked from the outside. The other units had surrounded the mountain, front and back. The Operations Center would reinforce a squadron of AH-64 Apaches to attack both cave openings. If the resistance was great, the Center would call the F airplanes carrying the Bunker Buster bombs to assist later.

While waiting, we moved to coordinated positions. My eyes did not lose the target. Down there, people walked in single file, silently front to back. Others appeared, pushing big and long containers. We were anxious. These might be the SA-7B or SA-14 ground to air-missiles, which are easy to move. The group was composed of about 20 men. They started to enter the cave. Oh my God! Perhaps they would disappear inside the cave or would try to resist, and that would make it more difficult. We needed to attack now. Many guns were pointed toward them.

After a while, the sounds of aircraft were heard above our heads. Many strong spot-lights illuminated the area. There were voices through the loud-speaker asking the enemy to surrender. The enemy ran here and there. There were people who ran into the cave, others pointed and shot their guns toward the aircraft. The Apaches made their rounds. We shot at the enemy. The noise was continuous. From the aircraft we saw AGM-114 Hellfire rockets going into the cave. Pam, Pam. Big explosions lifted the ground, the soil vibrated, the fire glowed and rounds of smoke lifted into the air. I shot like crazy towards the bushes near the entrance to the cave. I could not let them shoot at the aircraft while they flew so low.

When the battle ended, I went down the mountain to have a look. The enemy corpses laid everywhere. I did not know which ones I had shot at. Those people had regular faces, but now they were only corpses. If the one I shot at had lived, I might have invited him to have a cup of coffee with me some day on a Baghdad street. Tired of looking, I entered the cave, but I was stopped. They were sending the weapons specialists in first. There might have been mines or explosive devices planted there. My unit received orders to return to base, but the operation continued. After that, the army had to lock down the Iranian and Syrian borders to stop the infiltration of weapons into Iraq.

Starting in the spring of 2004, Al-Qaeda, along with Musab-al-Zarqawi, the Mahdi militia of the Shi’a sect, and the group following cleric Al-Sadr, organized attacks everywhere. Among them, Musab-al-Zarqawi was the most dangerous terrorist. He used the method of execution from the old times, using the Sinbab sword to cut the heads off all of the foreign hostages so that the United States would withdraw the troops without conditions. The hostages were scared in the face of death. But the ones who were not captured yet, or who were not beheaded, were not afraid. The Muslim world everywhere protested. Al-Zarqawi tarnished the worldwide image of the Muslims. Other Muslims were not as savage as Zarqawi was. They had to oppose the U.S. in a different way. The armed forces of the Sunni organized a strong counter-attack at Fallujah at the beginning of March 2004, killing four security guards supplying food for the Blackwater organization. They tied the four bodies to a truck and dragged them along the streets of Baghdad. Their purpose was also to make the U.S. leave the country. But they failed. People saw that the Sunni were savage, and that they must be destroyed. The bloodiest battle with the Sunni’s was the battle that lasted 46 days and nights at Fallujah. The U.S. compared it to the battle of Hue during the Tet offensive in Viet Nam in 1968. The U.S. lost 93 soldiers in the Fallujah battle; the enemy left behind 1350 bodies of all races such as the Chechnyan, Iranian, Syrian, and Arab. After November 2004, the situation seemed to calm down.

The Iraqis fought the Americans in another way: the Vietnamese way. During the Viet Nam war, the Americans did not “lose” on the military front, but they “lost” on the psychological front. Psywar was widely used. The anti-war movement, using stories similar to the My Lai massacre story in Viet Nam, exploited negative stories. Anti-American organizations and human rights organizations continued to denounce human rights violations. The most famous person condemned was Lynndie England and soldier Charles Graner of the Abu-Ghraib prison. Their worst and most outrageous picture showed them in front of six nude prisoners, overlapping each other to form a pyramid. The world was angry. The Americans were angry. The American soldiers were angry. The American government was angry, but I was not angry. I thought to myself, “Is this pair of lovers crazy or what?” Didn’t they know that by doing so they violated human rights, they violated the military regulations? They risked prison. They knew, and yet they did that. And who was the third person who took the pictures. A third person. That was a violation of human rights with premeditation. How much money did Lynndie and Charles get? Contrary to the My Lai case, the American court martial made a big deal out of it. They tried intently and declared that they would bring all the human rights violations to justice.

By the end of 2005, we had received orders to move south. During the elections, fifteen thousand soldiers were used to protect the ballot boxes. All of the organizations, religious sects, racial sects, pro or anti-American groups, were invited to participate. Everything would be decided by the people’s vote. Mr. Bush hoped that with that method, everybody would be represented in the government, and the whole of the population would decide about their regime. We thought that Mr. Bush was wrong. No sects would accept collaboration with the others, each sect would want to have the monopoly of administration, and they would want to destroy the opposition. They would try to use the iron hand like Saddam had. They fought the Americans because the Americans did not let that happen.

After the vote, the Iraqis opened new battle fronts. They killed one another with all of their hearts. The Sunni fired at the Shi’a markets, killing 65 people. The Shi’a launched a bomb into a Sunni wedding, killing 124 people. A Sectarian group (nobody knew where they came from) threw a bomb into the church Al-Askari of the Shi’a in Samarra, killing 165 people. The Sunni launched a car containing a bomb into Sadr killing 215 people. The number of people being killed grew every day like the lottery grows each week. That was only a prelude for a future civil war.

At the beginning of 2007, Mr. Bush ordered more troops and more expenses for the war in Iraq. He did not care that there were anti-war demonstrations everywhere. The situation in Iraq could not be stabilized, but we could not withdraw our troops. It was like being between the devil and the deep blue sea. If the American troops withdrew, there would be a civil war for sure. It would be worse than during the Saddam regime and the war to topple him. The Iraqis would kill the Iraqis. And all the blame would be put on the American shoulders.

The idea of stabilizing Iraq was like daydreaming. The hatred between the ethnic groups, about religions was the hereditary feud that would last until the end of the world. The allied forces started to withdraw. The British started reducing their forces at the Basra base.

My battalion received orders to move from Samarra to Basra. When we went passed Baghdad, we had the chance to visit the capital, and its scenic beauty for 48 hours. Many did not go, they preferred to stay with the unit, and they only went out when on duty. Baghdad was the center of terrorism, destruction, kidnapping, “road side bombing” and “suicide bombers”. Because Baghdad had was so important, it had high visibility, and had a lot of action around it. But because it was a chance in a million, my squad decided to go out. They wanted to visit the city of “One thousand and one nights”.

We wore civilian clothes, with small arms hidden under the shirt, and, armed with GPS, we went outside. Baghdad was very large, full of people, with the river Tigris dividing the city into two parts. The capital was full of houses and palaces, with some of the most complex and beautiful architecture, next to ordinary houses for the regular population. The roads were badly built. The young people wore European clothes, while the older generation wore the traditional clothes. Men wore the thawbs (long robes covering down to the ankles), with the kuflyah (a hat) on the head or the gutra (head-scarf) with the egals (a band of material around the head). Women wore the abaya (long black robe hiding the whole body), with a big head-scarf.

Suddenly, Ted said: “I will give $100.00 to the person seeing the first Iraqi girl wearing high heels”.

The whole group laughed aloud. It was a nice prize. But how could we find one. We looked at the girls’ feet. It was very surprising. Going around for a while, we met over one hundred girls, but none wore high heels. And women were made beautiful thanks to their high heels. High heels made women walk graciously and look fragile. Now I started to understand why the Iraqi girls did not appear tender and soft. It was due to their strong way of walking, somewhat like the men. They also wore big robes covering everything, from head to toe, looking like moving crows, not attractive at all. We walked around the city, and noticed a unique tree, the date palms. We wandered all around, it would be easy to get lost on the Iraqi streets, the houses and trees were the same everywhere. War, terrorism, road side bombs made everything appear lonesome and sad. Iraq had only a few restaurants or coffee shops like in other countries. Contact with the population here was tense. They were afraid, full of suspicion, with thoughts of revenge. We were also afraid of coming across the suicide-bombers.

We decided to return to the center of the city to visit Saddam’s palace. We had heard that Saddam had had enough of women wearing those long robes, so inside the palace there were pictures of Marilyn Monroe lifting her robe. But Saddam had 23 palaces, and he slept in a different one every night, so we wondered which palace had the pictures of nude Hollywood actresses?

“Do you think that Saddam used one palace for meditation?” one of us asked.

Everybody laughed aloud.

We walked back to the Tigris River, and went across the bridge. At that end of the bridge that year, when entering Baghdad, the Third division had to remain for several days waiting for orders. People waited for an agreement by the National Guards Fedeyeen, a group that was true to Saddam, to put down their weapons and avoid useless bloodshed. At that moment, there were rumors among the Iraqis that the Americans had no more ammunition. A group of armed men built blockhouses right on the streets, using AK-47 against the M1Abrams tanks. During the war, people sometimes died because of such nonsense rumors.

The 48 hours in Baghdad went by fast, and then my unit quickly moved towards Basra. 55 miles south of Baghdad was the old city of Babylon. The convoy moved slowly through that area. Old Babylon was large, around 10 square kilometers, where about 3000 years ago they built palaces high up to the sky. In 1258, when Genghis Khan led the Mongols to occupy half of Europe, he then invaded Iraq. History told that wherever the Mongols went, what they could not take would be destroyed. The books of prayers and regular books that they could not read were burned, including books about architecture, medicine, astronomy. Fire had destroyed Babylon, and the books burned for three months before the fire went out. The whole population inside the city was killed. The Mongols had destroyed a whole ancient civilization that was one of the splendid jewels among mankind. Now, debris laid everywhere, the ruins looked so pitiful, and we all felt sorry.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

For there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land? …..

(Psalm 137)

The Iraqis should have hated the Mongols for what they had done. But instead, they hated the Westerners. I thought that it had begun with a certain case of misunderstanding. In 1927, after the British discovered oil in Kirkuk and drilled for the first time, a terrible accident happened. Oil gushed out and went upward like lava from a volcano. It reached 15 meters high, and the spill flooded the ground, and caught fire. With one match, the whole city might burn to the ground. After nine days, the British succeeded in putting the fire out. Although it was an accident, the Iraqis were doubtful, saying that it was a threat. Never drill for oil on one’s own accord. The technique of drilling for oil was kept very secret, it was national secret.

The convoy followed the highway to go directly to Basra. We drove over many rivers, lakes and marshes. This was the richest plain of Iraq, but the soil was not rich. Grass grew sparsely, there were bushes near the bogs, and there were large date-palm tree fields like the coconut trees in Ben Tre (Viet Nam). Such a stunted area and yet it was labeled the Cradle of Civilization? The first ancestor of mankind, Abraham, left traces of his birth here. A poor territory, the peasants traveled in poor boats, and lived in tents because they could not build a house.

It was June, and we passed into summer. It was 120F, and Iraq became the biggest barbecue. The heat hurt our skins. We went across a deserted area and the wind started to blow harder. Word from headquarters informed us that a storm would begin in about one hour. The desert storm came on unexpectedly, and went away just as fast. We stopped and waited for it to end. The tents, canvases, and ponchos were used to their maximum. We covered our weapons, ammunitions, and shielded the barrels of our guns. Everyone wore masks, and went inside the cars to seek protection. About an hour later, the storm arrived, screaming. The wind blew so hard that it seemed like the tearing of materials from above. A tide of yellowish color rolled in, tossing everything upward, through the desert. We bent our heads low, the soil and stones fell onto us like a shower. When the storm finally ended, we stood up, shaking out the sand, and looked far away. The Earth looked like she had changed completely, a new colorful piece of sand spreading out endlessly.

About 46 miles from Basra, we stopped for a rest. The soldiers jumped out of the vehicles in haste, running towards the village. This was Al-Qurnah, thought to be the Garden of Eden of Adam and Eve, the first couple on the Earth. Everything was like the Bible had written. In the Garden of Eden there were plenty of fruit trees and beautiful flowers, but there was one forbidden-to-eat tree called the Tree Of Life. Whoever ate that forbidden fruit would be kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and would have to earn his/her own living by cultivation, become old and die. However, Eve looked at the Forbidden Fruit and wondered. Satan seduced her, saying that God forbade people to eat the Forbidden Fruit because whoever ate it would become as intelligent as God, and would be able to do whatever things God wanted to do. Eve then bit one piece and she kept another fruit for Adam. After eating, when they came in front of God, for the first time Adam felt ashamed because he saw himself nude. God knew that they had violated the forbidden rule, so God kicked them out of the Garden of Eden. Now I wanted to rush to visit the Tree of Life. One way or another, I would have a bite too. I begged God to kick me out of the Garden of Eden, or more precisely to kick me out of Iraq, far away from this war. I did not want to die yet, especially in a country that had no link whatsoever with myself. But when I entered the village, I saw a group of people standing near the supposed Tree of Life to have their photographs taken. It was just a very old trunk, without leaves, showing its branches up against the blue sky.

In July 2007, 441 British soldiers attached to the Danish group left Basra. It seemed that their group was the ninth one to leave that camp. The choppers airlifted them out when they left. I looked up at the sky and watched until there was no more trace of the choppers. I wished that one of those days, I would fly out of Basra.

We had our base near the British camp. It was located in the outskirts of Basra to protect the city, to protect the oil wells and pipeline systems, and to protect the important natural gas resources of Iraq. Other than the capital, Basra was the largest city in Iraq, with a population of one million five hundred thousand. Basra had other centers of chemical production, as well as other industries. As far as the oil industry, Iraq furnished 20% of the energy to the whole world. During the war with Iran in 1980, mistaking Iran’s will, Iraq attacked suddenly and invaded several villages in Iran, killing hundreds of soldiers. The Iranians immediately gathered their troops and counter-attacked, hitting straight towards Basra, killing thousands of Iraqi soldiers, and destroying the oil pipeline systems of the city. However, Saddam still declared victory. To cover all of the expenses for the war and its damages, Saddam decided to raise the price of oil four to five times. The world had to pay for the errors made by Iraq. However, Kuwait, a country near Basra, continued to keep the price of oil low. Saddam condemned Kuwait for devaluating the oil price. Furthermore, some of the underground oil fields extended into the Iraqi soil. In 1990, Iraq threw its troops to invade Kuwait. The whole world was outraged. In response, the U.S. and the allied forces attacked Iraq. Before withdrawing his troops, Saddam ordered his army to throw millions of barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, and to set fire to 700 oil wells in Kuwait. At the beginning of 2003, in order to hold Basra by fighting to the death, Saddam ordered the army to put mines around the 400 oil wells in the city. But the Americans bought oil with dollars; they never threw away money, even if that money belonged to someone else. The Americans surrounded the oil wells, trapping the Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqi soldiers could not drink the oil to fight, so they surrendered one group after another.

The war continued wearily. To force the Americans to withdraw their troops, the Arab block used all of its means to raise the price of oil. The world started to enter the energy crisis period. The oil price went up. The new government in Iraq agreed to sign a pact to exploit oil with the Americans, the British and the Chinese.

The thought of stopping the war was the common dream of everybody. Furthermore, it was the biggest hope of all the soldiers; sometimes the idea of the end of the war became more joyful than the thought of victory in battle.

On September 10th, the Iraq Field Commander for the Allies, General David Petraeus declared: Next summer we will withdraw 30,000 troops. Mr. Bush also promised to give permission to 5,700 soldiers to go home for Christmas. Oh my God! We jumped for joy. The joy of sitting on Aladdin’s magic carpet, the freedom to fly here and there.

“This time, when we return home, I’m going back to school”, Ted said. He had joined the service in order to have a full scholarship.

“I would run for city council.” Michael Tea said. Like father, like son, his father was a Congressman.

“I would get married and have ten children”, Edward declared openly.

We all teased him: “Hey, you want the army to declare bankruptcy because of your children?”

“And you?” They turned to ask me.

“My biggest dream was to become a citizen and to sponsor my entire family to come to America”. I said, feeling awkward.

The whole group said, patting my shoulder. “That’s not a big deal. You will be able to do it.” They encouraged me.

The next day, Friday, my squad received orders to stand by. Our squad leader told us that, according to the report from Headquarters, the intensity of terrorism had diminished slightly, but the number of civilian attacks and fatalities were still high, 265 persons in Baghdad, 450 in Kirkuk… They predicted that there would be a civil war everywhere. I did not care about the civil war. They could kill one another. If this Saddam died, another Saddam would take his place. As for me, I would leave this place, one way or another.

The four of us were standing guard, two on the blockhouse, and two in front of the gate. Rifle on the right shoulder, eyes looking far away, we walked in front of the garrison. Of all of the roles I had as a soldier, I hated the patrol and guard duty the most. It was a boring duty. Plus, in the movies, the guards were the ones who died first. Two hours went by. Man, I felt so thirsty. The more I drank, the more the water evaporated in my stomach. I looked at Ted. His face was dry, his lips parched, his skin turned red. I imagined, I just needed to turn on the lighter and he would burn to death like a human torch. Looking at him, I understood the feelings of the Americans who fought in Viet Nam. Why did I drip sweat and blood in this battle field? For the ideas of Freedom and Democracy? Two thirds of the World did not have democracy, not just Iraq. Many countries from the Third World had such a dictatorial leader. Was it because of the oil?

The anti-war movement in the U.S. accused the government of taking the lives of the soldiers to protect the profits of the oil companies. But in order to sign a treaty to exploit oil, or to lower the oil price, there were other methods, not necessarily creating a war. The expenses of the first war in the Gulf were 61 billion dollars, after six weeks, and the oil trade did not increase that fast. The second war in the Gulf after five years cost 577 billion dollars. The world said that the U.S. fought with the spirit of a rich boy. But during the war in Viet Nam, the U.S. was miserly to the extreme. The U.S. spent 111 billion for a 20 year war, around 5.5 billion per year. And toward the end, the American Congress refused a mere 300 million dollars of aid to help its ally.

It was noon time. The sun was just above our heads. I stood by the gate, holding my M4A4 tightly. That was the most modern weapon, and there was only one piece missing, the IRIS night vision scope, distributed to the Special Forces. As for my father and his comrades-in-arms, they were issued only the M1 Garant or Carbine, with single shots to fight against the strong AK-47, the most modern Russian weapon. They used the M41 tanks, the APC M113 to fight against the enemy’s T.54 tanks. We could compare that with giving a soldier a dull knife to fight in a deadly war. Only after the Tet Offensive in 1968, was South Viet Nam given the limited aid of modern weapons such as the M.16 and M.48 tanks. But, it was too late.

People considered the war in Viet Nam as a place to consume all the weapons left over from the Second World War, to save the weapons-making companies from bankruptcy. The war in Iraq was the place to test new weapons. And the soldiers of the South died at the hands of the allies more than from the enemy.

Oh! Viet Nam! Oh! Dear Father! All the prisoners after the war were deported into the jungles or the mountains to cut bamboo trees, to fell big trees, and to lose their lives deep inside far away, unknown jungles or mountains.

My tears fell, my heart broke.

“I am so thirsty.” Ted said in a rough voice. “Where is the water?”

He grasped the bottle of spring water that Ed threw to him. He gave me one.

No. I was not thirsty. The water was already with me. My tears fell like the rain. And I tasted them salty drop by salty drop on my lips like someone else tasted wine.

Far away, a truck appeared. Ted grabbed the binoculars, and looked. He said that it was the truck delivering dairies. He went back behind the gate with the mine detecting device. I also looked through the binoculars. The truck continued toward us at high speed. I recognized the driver as Abu, whose whole name I forgot. He had the habit of delivering dairies every Monday and Thursday. But today was Friday. On Fridays, all the Muslims rested; nobody worked that day. I looked intently through the binoculars. “Oh my God!” I yelled. It came closer to the gate, and yet it continued at full speed.

“It’s a bomb truck!” I shouted myself hoarse.

It was too late. I ran to the front, raising my gun to take aim. In the camp, everybody was eating lunch. More than 400 soldiers were sitting inside the base. If I shot at the truck, it would be dangerous. I might be wounded or killed. If I shot Abu, the truck would continue to advance. I did not think any more, I decided in one second. I pulled the trigger for the grenade launcher beneath the M4. One M203 round shot out like a rocket, hitting the trunk of the truck. I saw a line of smoke follow the round, and it stayed in the air, showing the path. One huge explosion shook the ground. The blockhouse vibrated. Sand and stone flew everywhere.

And it was strange. I found myself very light, flying and flying higher and higher. I looked down. Oh! There laid my body. I laid still. The pieces of metal were all over my body. The bomb truck was in small pieces. Abu’s body was smashed. When my unit ran out, the ambulance siren sounded. They lifted my body. The whole squad shouted.

“While there is life, there is still hope!” Michael hit the ambulance with his hands.

“Please save him.” They all screamed, running behind the ambulance.

“Save whom?” I shouted, but they did not hear me. “I am here.”

Now, the world was split. I started to drift into my sleep. Somewhere around me, I could hear the song I loved:

“… I give you back my weapons and my ammunitions. Oh yes. I have fulfilled my duty toward my nation.

I am coming back to my village, to my village to find my lost youth, my younger years….” (Extract from a Vietnamese song: Farewell to arms)

At the end, I had found the way out of Basra.

(Note from the author: The funeral of Sgt. Le Ngoc Binh was solemnly organized at Arlington cemetery and was attended by many representatives from different military units, from local organizations, from the media and the Deputy Secretary of Defense. To show their gratitude toward Sgt Le Ngoc Binh, the Department of Defense fulfilled his dream, and sponsored his entire family to come to the United States of America to attend his funeral. I write this story with all my respects and emotions when I see the good example and the spirit of sacrifice of the Vietnamese soldier fighting under the American flag.)





bài đã đăng của Nguyễn Thị Thảo An

Phần Góp Ý/Bình Luận

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