Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unplugged from the Global Village

I arrived in Camp Commando, Kuwait with my unit on March 26, 2003. Our job as a civil affairs unit was to assist the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in dealing with the Iraqi civilians. When I got to Commando I found very few Iraqi civilians and, anyway, the MEF was long gone, having already entered Iraq in pursuit of the First Marine Division (MARDIV). So we settled in to read about the war through classified reports from the units in contact in Iraq.

This wasn't as exciting as it sounds. Reading Marine Fagementation Orders is not as thrilling as hearing and watching a breathless reporter on TV from the front lines. We were unplugged from the Global Village and really knew very little about what was going on other than the very narrow situation we were focused on: the status of the Iraqi civil population. We had some reports but they were fragmentary and maddeningly incomplete. For example, we received civil affairs reports on several small villages, but the report writers failed to supply a grid coordinate for the town or even the province in which it resided. Consequently, I remember spending many minutes in front of a LARGE map looking for the small town of Nowhere, Iraq. The Marine had spent a lot of time writing a detailed report about the mayor and the police chief and the school but failed in the simple business of identifying even where the town was in relation to a big city. As with everyting, context is important.

Even though we had weapons and ammunition and body armor and helmets we were still in Kuwait and this rankled some of us. We had been torn from our civilian lives and hauled half way around the world (that's actually an exxageration, we were one third of the way around the world) to help deal with the problems of Iraqi civilians and the Marines told us to read about them from Kuwait. I could have read about them from home, in better conditions. We finally started getting requests for civil affairs support from, of all people, the British.

The Britiish First Armored Division was subordinated under the MEF. While the MARDIV was racing the Army's Third Infantry Division for Baghdad the Brits were manuevering, a la the movie "A Bridge too Far", to invest Basra, a short, very short, distance from the Kuwaiti border. I could drive there in two hours from Commando. But first they captured Um Qasr, Iraq's only seaport, and assumed the responsibility for the civilians of the town. The Brits had a lot of experience occupying a country (read: Northern Ireland) so they didn't need a lot of help from us. We did have a few of members of our unit get sent to Um Qasr and we eagerly sought them out to find out what Iraq was like.

Right after the Brits captured Basra in early April the Civil Affairs officer for the British First Armored Division sent a request to the MEF for civil affairs support in the task of dealing with the sizeable metropolis of Basra. This request was forwarded to my unit and then assigned to me. I assembled a team of ten soldiers and four vehicles and departed for Iraq and Basra the following morning.

When I arrived at the Brit headquarters in Basra I discovered that the Brit civil affairs officer who had made the request was looking for some idea of the plan for the occupation of the country.

I had no plan to give him. There was none.

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