Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appeared in the Oct. 29, 2006, issue of The Washington Post Magazine.
1st Lt. Nate Rawlings ’04 is standing in the Camp Liberty motor pool, just west of Baghdad, trying to figure out why a NASCAR track dryer should be welded to one of his minesweeping trucks. In such situations, Rawlings — who is 6-foot-2, 230 pounds — resembles an offensive lineman who has been asked to dance ballet. His brow furrows, his comic-book square chin dips with respectful curiosity. But he’d like to make sure that this step is really necessary. “What happens if [it’s] hit with shrapnel?” he asks the Asymmetric Warfare Group man.
The Asymmetric Warfare Man — who has what I can only hope is an irrational fear that if I use his name, insurgents will go to America and hunt down his family — bites his lip. A retired officer, he has his web belt cinched so tight that it acts as a corset, flaring out his rib cage. He’s here to help the Army combat unconventional weapons by inventing contraptions such as the dryer, which is supposed to blow dirt off of buried bombs.
“This gas can, OK, it sits right here?” The Asymmetric Warfare Man squats beside the dryer, which resembles a lawn mower engine bolted to a jet turbine bolted to an elbow of air-conditioning duct. He taps its exposed gas can, and continues. Maybe if Rawlings mounted some fire retardant next to the gas can, it would powder in a blast? Render the fuel inert? And then act as a fire retardant for the whole thing? “That’s not too bad,” Asymmetric Warfare Man declares, gaining momentum. “Whaddya think?”
“I don’t like it,” Rawlings says.
Neither do I, given that I’m going to be riding in one of these minesweeping trucks tomorrow. In fact, once we leave the base, the shrapnel he mentions will become an all-too-likely possibility, considering the 25,000 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that have been aimed at American troops since the war in Iraq began, severing limbs and crushing the skulls of U.S. soldiers and journalists alike. It doesn’t help that Rawlings’ soldiers — with whom I am embedded — are the leading edge of a $6.1 billion Pentagon effort to win the war against roadside bombings in Iraq.
They’re IED hunters. It’s their job to find the bombs that the insurgents plant. It’s Rawlings’ job to make sure they don’t get blown up trying.
“When I first started,” Rawlings shouts as the dryer revs up for a demonstration, “I used to sit by the radio 14 hours a day. I’d stay till 4 in the morning, whatever it took, listening to my guys out on patrol until I was sure they’d made it home OK.”
Rawlings isn’t supposed to worry this much. Part of the Pentagon’s spending has paid for specially armored trucks — such as the RG-31 we’ve been inspecting — designed to protect his soldiers from IED blasts. On the other hand, as we drive back to his headquarters, we pass another unit’s RG-31: Its engine compartment and 4-foot-tall front tires are gone; the ballistic windows in its cab and armored bed are spiderwebbed from an IED attack that wounded two.
“Yeah, well,” Rawlings says. “That vehicle looked a lot better when we first towed it in. People have been stripping parts from it.”
It’s hard to tell whether he’s reassuring himself or me.
It’s even harder to try to bridge the gulf between Rawlings’ language — this war’s now-familiar lexicon of “flaks” and “mortar pits” and scouts who disappear in a “fine red mist” — and what I know of his life as a history major at Princeton University, where he graduated in 2004. A “big, beefy rugger player from Chattanooga” — in the words of his writing professor, John McPhee ’53 — Rawlings was the kind of romantic enthusiast that I remember emulating when I attended Princeton in the early ’90s. In addition to rugby, he wrestled and acted as the social chair of Tiger Inn, a notoriously rowdy club, while at the same time studying with historian Sean Wilentz and researching a thesis on a Confederate ancestor in Tennessee. Rawlings also considered military service a family responsibility, and, following in the footsteps of his uncle and grandfather, who fought in Vietnam and World War II, respectively, he joined ROTC three weeks before Sept. 11. That decision has led him to a desk in this plywood-floored tactical operations center, or TOC, surrounded by soldiers from E Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry’s Ironclaw team. His deployment didn’t kill his romantic streak — in an e-mail last winter, he described his first firefight by writing, “Teddy Roosevelt would have found that engagement rather sporty” — but after six months in Iraq, that part of him seems to be struggling against the messiness of the fight against IEDs.
Despite his Ivy League background, Rawlings is clearly at home in the ramshackle confines of the TOC, which serves as a clubhouse for the soldiers who live in rows of blindingly white trailers out back. He can be found there at all hours, and is always willing to stop what he’s doing and engage in discussions on the value of the energy drink Rip It (“That stuff will keep you up forever”), evaluations of insurgents’ seized weapons (“What’s that, a flintlock musket?”) or mildly didactic history lessons (“What is unique about Harry S Truman’s name? His middle initial doesn’t need a period after it”). The prevailing mood of the place is a half-goofy, half-gallows humor — for platoon assignments, Rawlings has written “FIND BOMBS, BLOW UP BOMBS” on the dry-erase board behind his head — that I recognize from the hunting clubs I grew up with.
This afternoon, as Sgt. Willard Peterson calmly recites the multiple ways that an IED can be triggered and, thus, kill, Rawlings launches into a spirited defense — against withering remarks from skeptics — of a French movie whose director, he claims, “is supposed to be the next Hitchcock.” Meanwhile, he’s fixing a torn cardboard cutout used to stencil E Company’s numbers on the Ironclaw vehicles, and shouting modifications to Peterson’s lecture — “The worst thing the insurgents do is put the bombs out right after our trucks go by” — through its panels. Then a call crackles over the radio, and its 20-year-old operator shouts out, “Hey, they found a cache — the infantry patrol. They got anti-tank mines, rockets, ball bearings, cell phones!”
All the makings for an IED.
And that, of course, is where my hunting club analogy fails. Because Ironclaw teams are really being hunted, every bit as much as they are doing the hunting.
The man who ushers me out of Camp Liberty’s gates the next morning is Sgt. Kristopher Tate. At 24, he’s on his second tour in Iraq, and yet his face remains fresh and animated — a young Sugar Ray Leonard, if the champ had also fancied gold teeth. Tate’s looks have gotten him a lot of attention from women who work at the bases surrounding E Company’s headquarters. But what he’d wanted to be was a ballplayer, a center fielder. “My dream stopped because I went to a small school,” he told me. “LaPoynor High School in Larue, Texas. Nobody scouted me.”
Except the Army.
Now a career officer, Tate leads the RG-31 in which I’ve been assigned to ride — and the convoy behind it — with the casual confidence of the athlete he used to be. “You got something?” he shouts up at his gunner, whose tan boots are dancing nervously on the steel platform beside my seat.
The gunner, Pfc. Jeffrey McGorvin, drops down in a squat. He’s about 5-foot-4 — too short to use the .50-caliber’s sling seat — Jersey-accented and apple-cheeked.
“There’s this white rock with wires coming off the top,” he says.
“Keep going,” Tate tells his driver who has (in my opinion) reasonably hit the brakes. “Even if that is an IED, we got to set up security. Gonna have to pass it, anyway.” Until this moment, I’ve been using Tate’s vehicle as an armored tour bus and gawking at the Iraqi countryside. That’s what the RG-31 is designed to be.
From the outside, it resembles a cross between a covered pickup and a Land Rover. But its great tactical advantages are the spacious, shatterproof windows that wrap the cab and the armored back bed, where Tate and I sit in air-conditioned comfort next to a cooler of Gatorade. The soldiers inside — the “window lickers,” as they’re called – have a 360-degree view of the roadway, marred only by the matte black circles of gun ports and the occasional divot left by an AK-47 round. The day is sunny and beautiful, the roads are clear, the soldiers seem relaxed (though later they explain that they were unnerved by the lack of traffic, which often precedes an IED attack).
For the last half-hour, I’ve almost forgotten about IEDs. “That’s what we’re looking for,” Tate says. “Something different. Something that doesn’t fit.”
Tate points over my shoulder to a mundane landscape of dusty grass along a highway that is backed by a canal and then a raked hayfield in which a flock of pigeons has landed to eat. No ominous music plays; there’s no sound, beyond the grind of the RG’s transmission and Tate’s measured breathing. And then I notice a tiny white rock with a pair of wires drifting out of it and burrowing into the grass. “All right, let’s do an interrogation,” Tate says as the RG-31 speeds up, fleeing the object’s theoretical blast range. In Army-speak, bombs are interrogated just as insurgents are; the difference is that everybody hopes the bombs stay quiet. “Go on and bring the Buffalo up here.”
The Buffalo is the star of the Ironclaw program, and, like any star, it has its own press kit, music video, theme song, and testimonial page. These are all available at the Web site run by its producer, Force Protection Inc., which describes its product as “able to withstand bomb blasts that would shred a lesser vehicle” and “a regular truck but on steroids.” The 27-foot-long machine comes equipped with a mechanical arm and claw (thus the “Ironclaw” team), 5-inch-thick windows, and steel-lined, blast-proof tires. But its secret weapon is the revolutionary “V-shaped hull design” that will part the shock waves and shrapnel column of an IED just as a boat hull parts water.
That’s what I’m told, at least. But to me, the Buffalo looks like a phone line repair truck.
Accompanied by a young pair of fruit-stand vendors and an Iraqi in a melon truck, my RG crew watches from a safe distance as the Buffalo, operated by Sgt. Brett Eggleston and three other soldiers, creeps a mere 10 feet from the potential IED and unfolds its mechanical arm to interrogate. Eggleston can park that close thanks, in part, to the “electronic countermeasures” that many Army vehicles carry and which are designed to block the cell phone calls that frequently trigger IEDs. Still, cell phones aren’t the only way to detonate surplus artillery rounds — the favored payload for these weapons. Some insurgents tape frayed wires inside a cardboard tube (called “crush wires”); when a Humvee runs this over, the wires complete a circuit, ignite a blasting cap and, thus, detonate the bomb. Even IEDs with cell phone triggers include a washing machine timer as a backup; when it winds down, the rounds blast off. This tends to make interrogations a nerve-racking ordeal. “We don’t know what it feels like in here” when an IED goes off, one Buffalo crewman, Spec. Brendon Croteau, has admitted to me. “We haven’t been blown up yet.”
And this is where the whole expedition turns ... well, into a Wizard of Oz moment for me. Because as I peer through the haze of the Iraqi noon, the Buffalo’s claw ponderously raking the grass beside the road, I realize that the heart of the Pentagon’s program for defeating IEDs is: 1) buy some armored trucks with big windows; 2) send young soldiers out to drive up next to bombs; 3) investigate with a phone truck.
As Tate points out later: “I’ve seen tanks destroyed. I’ve seen Bradleys destroyed. ... There’s only so much armor can do.”
Fortunately, this particular wired rock turns out to be an irrigation pump. After another hour or so, I’m dropped off at a nearby patrol base.
Fifteen minutes later, Tate’s RG-31 nearly runs over an IED.
Then, all at once, his RG-31 passed a mound of dirt with a cone of rusty metal showing through its side. McGorvin’s gaze locked on a sliver of blue plastic tucked behind the mound. “I got something!” he yelled. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s got a cell phone on it!”
The RG-31’s armor wouldn’t protect McGorvin standing in his gunner’s nest, so, as radios barked and the convoy scattered, he tucked his thighs against his chest and squatted.
“McGorvin — good looking,” Tate shouted as their truck finally jolted to a stop outside the bomb’s blast radius.
As the Buffalo team prayed, Eggleston lowered its nine-pronged claw — his “pooper scooper,” as he calls it — toward the buried IED. He followed his progress on a color monitor connected to a camera on the arm’s first joint. Gingerly, he scratched the dirt, revealing two rusty 130 mm artillery shells and then, zooming in, found a blue Nokia cell phone, battery, and a washing machine timer that had been wired to a blasting cap in the nose of the first shell. He tangled the claw in the ignition wire and — carefully, carefully — lifted the cell phone, timer, and battery clear of the charge, disarming the IED.
McGorvin’s IED was one of 2,625 such bombs found or detonated during the month of July: 959 of them were discovered, while 1,666 exploded. Numbers such as these have made IEDs the leading killer of U.S. troops in Iraq, which places McGorvin and his buddies squarely on the front lines of the war. It also means their stories — “Gets the blood flowing!” I hear McGorvin exclaim to Tate when he’s finished — carry an extra authority, one they seem acutely aware of. Nearly all of them instruct me, “Just tell people what it’s really like over here.” At first I assume this is a reference to the administration complaint that the war isn’t going as badly as the media make it appear. And yet, the longer I stay with the unit, the less certain I am that their version of Iraq is meant to toe anybody’s party line.
“I would walk through these neighborhoods where I had kids running all over,” he tells me. “I’d sit down and have chai with them. As far as I can tell, they liked having us there, but they’re gone. You know what I’m doing now? Now all I’m doing is waiting for the [expletives] who chased them out to come in.”
Like the Ironclaw teams, Baxter has seen the center of the war. The facts he’s returned with don’t necessarily fit the Army’s — or, certainly, Washington’s — official version of the war’s progress, but because they’re true, he tells them to me anyway. I have a different experience the next day when Rawlings and I visit the 16th Engineering Brigade, which is the “executive agent” for the Ironclaw teams. Maj. Mitch Gargac, who greets us, is eager to talk about the showers, latrines, Hesco barriers (bags filled with sand) and concrete T-walls that his engineers build inside the wire. We sit in a video conference room whose stadium-style seats and blond wood furnishings are as nice as anything Rawlings saw at Princeton.
Gargac introduces me to the brigade’s “Baghdad is Beautiful” program. Its chief, Lt. Col. Tris Cooper, has $80 million to spend and flashes charts that say things such as: “Electricity: Goal: increase production.” And “Health Care: Goal: construct facilities.” They contain no statistics. Even if I hadn’t just read reports concluding that Baghdad residents get only five to eight hours of power a day and that the contractor, Parsons, has failed to deliver 130 of 150 promised health clinics, I would find this performance depressing. After all, Rawlings and I have just been out driving around Baghdad. Baghdad is not beautiful. Baghdad is covered with trash and saturated with the ugliest kind of danger. As we leave the briefing, Rawlings — who is as optimistic an Army supporter as you can find — looks as if he’s seen a ghost.
The meeting highlights the difference between the stories that the Ironclaw team tells about the war and those told by Army officials or politicians. The soldiers know that Baghdad isn’t beautiful. But neither is it completely accurate to call the varied landscape they drive through each day a “Dante-esque hell” or “nightmarish” — two descriptions of Baghdad that I find in U.S. newspapers on my return. And so, caught between opposing, abstract versions of the war, they refuse to simplify: This story means we’re winning. This story means we’re losing.
The soldiers live among facts too overwhelming to parse: Rawlings opens the door of a shrapnel-shredded truck on a highway south of Baghdad to find a beheaded child, on his dead father’s lap, cradling a flat of eggs. Only one is broken.
Tate picks up a scrap of rubber on a roadway to find himself staring at an IED. One night, during an ambush, a brave sergeant named Travis Parker sprints across 100 yards of open highway under fire, in the dark, to deliver ammunition to Rawlings’ Bradley. Peterson’s friend is scraped up off the pavement after the graffiti-covered wall explodes in his face. Or it’s a good week, and they putter past verdant date groves undisturbed and, quite frankly, bored for hour after hour, day after day. McGorvin fantasizes about returning in peacetime and driving the same roads in a rental car. Rawlings blasts rock-and-roll under highway overpasses. Tate keeps track of which houses on their route have the best landscaping.
For them, these stories are the war, period. They are not sound bites to be scooped up to justify some larger, political narrative. Their attitude reminds me of the soldiers in Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which I noticed Rawlings reading. At one point, as the narrator watches a friend die, he notes: “We have lost all sense of other considerations, because they are artificial. Only the facts are real and important to us.”
Rawlings comes the closest to stating this outright. One late night before bedtime — which for Rawlings is usually around 3 a.m. — I push him to talk about politics and war. I tell him that if he wants to be a writer (a profession he says he’s considering), he’s going to have to have opinions, to not worry too much about upsetting anybody.
Rawlings, clearly uncomfortable with the topic, ends up surprising me. He begins talking about seeing Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, on Meet the Press after the Valerie Plame scandal. “It was like an opera,” he says, in a tone that makes me feel this isn’t a compliment. “Everything the guy says comes out in threes. Two good things for us, one bad thing for them. I went to work the next day, saw my guys getting ready to go to Iraq — I hated the idea that while we were working, he’s flinging around political stuff.”
I hear a conversation in Camp Liberty’s posh, 1,000-seat cafeteria that crystallizes this thought for me. A well-fed soldier is polishing the vocabularies of two foreign national workers. A severe over-cleanliness of uniform already defines him as a “fobbit,” someone who never leaves his FOB, which stands for “forward operating base.” But he’s well on his way to defining “vicarious,” too. “Like, there are politicians who talk about this war ‘vicariously,’ ” he says, his voice rising, indignant. “They don’t know anything about the war because they’ve never been here. They just want to get their face on TV and make people think they’re looking out for them, and so they say the war is bad, but they don’t know whether it is or it isn’t.”
It’s a worthy question, whether the war is good or bad. But when the Ironclaw team is outside the wire, looking down on a bomb, it’s too late to ask.
The second IED didn’t even tickle McGorvin’s Jedi sense. Just a few hours after they’d found the first bomb, the solders were cruising down a hardball road, open scrub on the left, a canal on the right backed by corn stubble and the silver swoops of power lines angling through it, off to the horizon. Light poles, evenly spaced, dotted the road. As his RG-31 slowed for a speed bump, McGorvin heard a small pop, and a foot-high column of dust bloomed on the right shoulder of the road. It looked as if a bullet might have struck there.
Tate, expecting an imminent attack, shouted to his driver, Pfc. David Griffin. “Hey, you got to go on past. Even if it is an IED, we got to get to the other side.”
Griffin was a rookie, in country only a few weeks. But being a Missourian, he had plenty of experience on bad roads: He gunned the RG like a pro, slamming through potholes so hard that the crew nearly jolted out of their seats.
Once they were clear, Tate radioed the convoy they’d left behind, his voice quieter than usual: “Hey, an IED just went off. Everybody move up!”
This time the insurgents had timed the convoy’s speed by the light poles along the road, which allowed them to set off their bomb just as the trucks arrived. The puff of smoke signaled the ignition of a blasting cap that had inexplicably failed to detonate two 130 mm rounds. Otherwise, the RG-31 carrying Tate, Spec. José Fuentes, and McGorvin — who was standing up, unprotected, in his gunner’s hatch — would have been hit directly.
Up at the lead vehicle, a curious kind of giddiness descended. It wasn’t fear exactly — there was constant chatter, constant activity. That’s the strange thing about the front lines: There’s a high. Everyone, even a general, has to admit that you’ve visited a privileged place. Which, in turn, makes it harder and harder to fit in anywhere else.
Other voices rehashed the luck of the near miss, the fizzle of the bomb.
“Damn, we almost died,” someone said.
But Fuentes understood the paradox of this high: As good as it felt, it was also changing each one of them, in ways nobody could predict. Before the team dismounted to pull guard, he told McGorvin and Tate, “I love you guys.”
Then he turned to Griffin, the new driver. “Welcome to the war,” he said.
Postscript: After this article was written, E Company’s patrol area expanded eastward into more urban areas of Baghdad, and attacks on the soldiers’ vehicles increased. In an e-mail dated Sept.13, Rawlings reported that the lead RG-31 I’d ridden in had been hit by a bomb, which cracked but didn’t shatter its windows. McGorvin was struck in the face by shrapnel. He survived and returned to duty after three days’ rest. The company was scheduled to return to the United States at year’s end.
Whitney Terrell ’91 is the New Letters Writer in Residence at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He is the author of two novels: The Huntsman and The King of Kings County, which was recently released in paperback.