Monday, December 18, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: December 2023

 “From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

Sent: Friday, December 05, 2003 7:39 AM

Subject: Hail and farewell

    The staff here continues the normal Army custom of a Hail and Farewell evening. The room normally fills up on Saturday and Sunday night for football games. They get a cake for a birthday, some wings and pizza chips for a farewell. We even had a promotion there the other day. This week Air Force Sergeant Vanessa Kidby got fare welled. She had been here four months, and was rotating home. The Air Force takes care of their people, she confided to me. Vanessa has a husband and two small children waiting for her. She deserves to leave. Nevertheless, her farewell depressed me. She was leaving after four months: I had four months to go – but I had already been here for eight months.

Myself and my friend Colonel Bede Strong, from Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, at a Hail and Farewell.

    The view from my foxhole is that we are doing what needs to be done right now. Everyone is on board with what the President and Amb. Bremer have decided to do. There isn't much second guessing here about our future course. As for past actions: several critical mistakes were made and one fundamental one. The fundamental mistake, and I blame the Bush Administration at the highest level for this one, was failing to recognize up front that we would be an occupying power. This was obvious to me when I first saw the plan in November 2002 but no where did I see the kind of detailed planning required to execute such an awesome and unprecedented task as occupying a large Arab country. 

Myself and a crowd listening to President Bush announce the capture of Saddam Hussein.

    During all the frantic planning before the war we (the Civil Affairs people) were screaming for answers to fundamental questions. Plenty of plans and annexes and appendices were written, but the critical questions were not answered. And the reason for this failure is that the political decision directing the military to prepare (in earnest) to occupy the country never came. And what is infuriating is that we have made this same mistake so many times before. We do a great job of planning for and executing the war and a miserable job of dealing with the aftermath.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Saturday, November 11, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: November 2023

From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

Sent: Thursday, November 27, 2003 9:28 AM

Subject: The end of Ramadan and Thanksgiving.

    Ramadan ended Tuesday night according to one Najaf cleric and Monday night according to another. Evidently, Ramadan starts on the full moon and ends on the new moon. The leading cleric is supposed to make this determination. Confusion reigns because they cannot decide which cleric is the lead.

November 2003, city of Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq.

    It has been overcast and rainy for two days. This has turned desert dust into desert mud. Since it seems like EVERY vehicle in Iraq either leaks or spews oil, the introduction of water on the roads has sent some of us spinning. One SUV slid into a ditch and we had to call a Humvee to winch it out.

    By order of the Combined & Joint Task Force today is Thanksgiving and everyone will be served turkey, even if they are a Pole, Brit or Ukrainian and didn't ask for it. Today we will have a Continental breakfast from 0630 to 0900 and then a Holiday meal from two to 6 in the afternoon. The Packers against the Lions on TV in the evening. The Pakistani cooks have been busy smoking the turkeys.

Group Captain Wilkinson, our resident Aussie Air Force rep, said at a meeting the other night, when told CPA would have reduced activities and a holiday turkey meal, said "Oh, so we're going to follow their quaint custom." There is a lot of friendly international needling. The Group Captain is suffering from the jibes of Col Strong, of Her Majesty's 1st Royal Tank Regiment, after the Aussies lost to the Brits in the Rugby World Cup final.

“There was tremendous interest in this game on this compound, and people who actually saw it on television. The Aussies and Brits look with amusement at our fanatical interest in football, and only ask that they not be required to sit and watch an entire game. They will watch for a few minutes, grow bored and move on. "Too much standing around," they will say.

Convoy briefing prior to departure from our compound in Al-Hillah, Iraq.

    The Iraqis have definitely not been standing around, but have been celebrating the end of a month of fasting. There are similarities and differences between how we Americans celebrate a holiday and how the Iraqis celebrate. From my observations of Hillah, Karbala and Al Kut the last few days, the Iraqis appear to have combined our Easter and July 4th. Like Easter, there are lots of families out in their best attire, little boys in suits and ties and little girls in adorable dresses and hats. While on the 4th we use firecrackers, bottle rockets and fireworks, the Iraqis use AK's, RPG's and hand grenades. I walked to breakfast to what sounded like a gun battle, but what I knew to be the famous or infamous Iraqi "celebratory" fire.

“Other Iraqis walked through the streets beating a large drum or playing a horn in a decidedly off tune non-medley rendition of something. Yet, as I stood on the roof of a building in our compound in Al Kut, inspecting the line of Texas barriers and barbed wire we had erected in the last two weeks, I could see Iraqi families promenading in the park, enjoying their holiday in peace and without fear. As we left the children ran up to us shouting, "Thank you" in English. I had never heard them say that before. We waved back.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Wednesday, October 04, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: October 2023

From: Michael Whitehead  
Sent: Friday, October 3, 2003 4:40 AM 
Subject: Moving across the street 

We went to Baghdad yesterday (1 OCT) to discuss our mission with the Powers That Be and FINALLY got some resolution. We are moving to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Regional Headquarters in Hillah, which is five minutes away from Camp Babylon. Our move is only five minutes away, but it will be a world of difference. 

Our new workplace, the Coalition Provisional Authority South Central Headquarters, a 5 minute drive from our former quarters at Camp.Babylon.

Our trip to Baghdad was interesting. I had not been there since July, and there had been a lot of changes. Most of the changes were security related: lots of new concrete barriers and streets closed. We had to take different routes to go where we were heading. There wasn’t as much of a military presence in the city as I had remembered. This was intentional on the military’s part. 

I had a near religious experience during my visit. I got to use a commode in a real bathroom for the first time in almost three months. This wasn’t any old bathroom – it was a Saddam palatial bathroom in one of the buildings in the main palace complex in Baghdad. There was a real commode (not some hole in the floor), with a real sink with running water, and a mirror and a towel rack. The floors were marble, with some special kind of rock trimming the sink, and a bidet next to the toilet. Lots of toilet paper. I mean fancy. I paused during this moment to savor the experience. I luxuriated, even I dare say reveled in this rare and unique moment. 

You may be laughing at me, but you have to look at the chain of events that brought me here. I went from an airman during the war giving me a shovel and pointing to a spot of desert near an airfield, to using a Seabee constructed wooden outhouse with a sawed off 55 gallon drum, to the ever fragrant and widely varied quality conditions of the INNUMERABLE portajohns that are scattered everywhere in Iraq, to the mountaintop of the Saddam palatial toilet. Wait a minute… I think I missed a category there, like a McDonald’s bathroom and then a Holiday Inn. Don’t have those here. I am really sick of portajohns. I am ready to trade the experience of them all for my newly renovated bathroom back home. 

We traveled to Baghdad with some Polish MP’s and some Filipino police as force protection. The Filipinos are dressed all in blue, with black helmets and a sign on their back that says “Philippines Police.” As we passed through a checkpoint, I saw a G.I point at one of the Filipinos and say, “Hey, who is that?” I was afraid he was going to stop and question us. 

 The interesting part, though, was on the highway back to Babylon, when two Apache helicopters took a VERY great interest in us as we rode down the highway. They moved very slowly down the median, only 100 foot above the ground. I immediately sat up in my seat because I thought they may be trying to warn us about something. One of them turned sideways and hovered as we approached. I have no idea what they were doing, but I think they were looking at our Filipino and Polish comrades, and trying figure out who they were. The Apache moved off as we got close, sending a backwash of wind rolling over us as we passed through. The Apaches are scary enough when you just look at them flying by – to have one LOOKING at us was disconcerting.”

 Excerpt From Messages from Babylon Michael Whitehead This material may be protected by copyright.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: September 2023

    From: Michael Whitehead

    Sent: Friday, September 12, 2003 11:14 AM

    Subject: The dates are getting ripe

    Most of the palm trees around us are full of dates, and they are beginning to get ripe. When I say most, I understand from Phil McMillan, our agricultural officer, that there are male and female date palm trees. The females carry the fruit. The males, I guess, sit around absorbing sun and water. I have eaten some of the dates (in fact, I just ate one) and they are very good and sweet. Hillah will be having their date festival soon. We talked to Phil about having a Date Palm Queen and a Date Palm Parade, and all the dates you can eat contests, but we won't be here to organize all that. We are off to other parts.

My cot, sleeping bag, chair and accumulated stuff in my air conditioned tent. Note the Florida pennant.

    Things are picking up here, like from 5 MPH to 10 MPH. Not much, but something. We got news from the unit up north we will be supporting, and they want us and have work for us to do, which is good. The logistics guys are busy doing a lot of coordinating and are anxious to get up there right away to get all the care, feeding, housing, communications, etc. issues worked before we all arrive. We also have a lot of equipment in containers down in Commando that will have to be moved north, and we have to prepare everything and arrange the big trucks to haul the stuff. My B bag and my C bag are still in Commando, and I haven't seen them for months. I was assured recently that they are still there, but I am anxious to get my hands on them. These bags have my cold weather clothing and boots the Army gave me back in Bragg, and the warm liner to my sleeping bag. They told us to expect temps down in the 30's this winter.

In September 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Camp Babylon. 

    I finally decided to wash the poncho liner that I have been sleeping on for six months. I figure with this wash, I should be good for the deployment. I borrowed West's wash buckets (more on that later), took one over to the water buffalo, put a little laundry detergent in it, and filled it with water. I put my poncho liner in, moved it around in the bucket, emptied the dirty water, refilled it with clean water, and then emptied that out. After rinsing, I wrung it out the best I could and hung it up on some white engineer tape that was strung between two poles to mark the barbed wire that is no longer in front of our tent. The sun, as always, was shining brightly and a stiff breeze was blowing, so I literally stood there for 20 minutes and watched it dry. I had to guard it because a poncho liner is the kind of thing that would disappear off a clothes line in a New York minute around here. I already had two pair of socks stolen off my clothes line when I wasn't looking back in May.

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Monday, August 14, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: August 2023

 “From: Whitehead Col Michael

    Sent: Sunday, August 10, 2003 8:50 AM

    Subject: It is HOT here”

“Did I mention that it is hot here? I mean really, really, REALLY hot. I'm from Florida and I know hot, and this is HOT. My buddy Phil McMillan from Blountstown, Florida says that it is so hot he saw two fire hydrants fighting over a dog. What a miserable place this country is! This place is so screwed up because anyone with any sense left several millennia ago.

My new residence in an air conditioned tent. My cot, chair, black trunk and sleeping bag that I have slept in for 3 months without benefit of cleaning.

The official forecast is 116 degrees, but someone saw a thermometer (in the shade) by a tent in the parking lot at midday and the temp was 142 degrees.

We sent a convoy down south to Talill Airbase Thursday to link up with a convoy from Kuwait, and the temp in Talill was 128 degrees. When they opened up an air-conditioned tent for the troops in the Palace two weeks ago, not everyone moved down. "We like it up here," they said. They are now deserting the Palace like rats from a sinking ship. One holdout said that the LOW temp in the Palace last night was 99 degrees. All that stone in the Palace absorbs the heat during the day and cooks everyone at night. Plus, the breezes that were a godsend in June and July have disappeared. Larry West finally gave up and moved in our tent with us last night.

I went to run last night a 7 PM and I felt a little sluggish. Actually, I felt a lot sluggish. I had a bottle of ice water waiting for me when I got back, but I still took a long time to cool down. The water in the shower is even warm, and doesn't provide any relief. The shower tent, with all the people and water, is like a sauna. I don't even dry off. I just put on my shorts and shower shoes, and walk outside to put on my sneakers. By the time I walk back to my tent, the water has evaporated off me and I stay a lot cooler in the mean time. Tricks of the trade.

Did I mention that it's hot here?

Of course, this could all be a lot worse. I could be patrolling downtown Baghdad every day, for instance.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Saturday, July 08, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: July 2023

 “From: Whitehead Col Michael

  Sent: Sunday, July 13, 2003 8:08 AM

  Subject: I saw history being made

  On July 9, 2003 at 9:21 in the evening I saw history being made.

  I was walking from the Palace to visit one of our new portapotties lined up on the road when I saw a large convoy, a string of headlights, positioned to enter the front gate: the Polish Army had arrived at Camp Babylon. This in fact was the Division Headquarters, the advanced party of a 2,000 man plus contingent from Poland. I called my friend, [COL] Bill Faulkner (from Tampa) over, and pointed the sight out to him. "This is history being made," I told him, and he agreed. We watched as the vehicles pulled in, twisting through the terrorist barricades, and I thought of how exhausted they must feel, having completed the 12 hours drive (in this heat) from Commando in one day.

The ruins of the city of Babylon in the foreground, with one of the palaces of Saddam Hussein, where I slept for 3 months, in the distance.

  Bill, a devout Christian, pointed to a piece of the black land to our front, and said, "According to the Bible, this is where the Tower of Babel was built." We are in Babil province, another spelling for Babel. He continued, "Isn't it strange that the Headquarters for this Multinational Division of twenty nations is right here?" I agreed. This was a strange and special moment. I saw history being made.

  Two nights before, Lee Ermey, the actor who was a Marine Drill Instructor and then played one in Stanley Kubrick's Movie "Full Metal Jacket," came to Babylon to give us a talk. He has been here all week traveling throughout the sector to talk to Marines in the field. He spoke to us in the Mess Hall before a packed house. He began the speech as he began the Movie, with his Opening Speech to the recruits, which I am sure he gave hundreds of times when he was a Marine DI. The worst profanity I have EVER heard in my life, on or off the screen, came out of his mouth in the movie.


“Sir, yes sir," We shouted in unison.


  "SIR, YES SIR” We shouted again.

  The Marines, of course, ate all this up. The soldiers and sailors in the audience enjoyed it, too.

  A common saying overheard here from soldiers, sailors or Marines who don't want to do a particular task, "And what will they do if I don't do it: shave my head and send me to Iraq?"


Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Saturday, June 17, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: June 2023

 “From: Whitehead Col Michael

    Sent: Friday, June 20, 2003 10:22 AM

    Subject: Laundry Day

    Today is laundry day so I have to empty my pockets. Laundry day is signaled by the fact that my clean clothes bag is almost empty and my dirty clothes bag is REALLY full. I monitor my dirty clothes bag by using it as a pillow every night (my pillow was stolen in Arifjan back in March). This process takes about six to seven days. Laundry day is good because I put on a clean uniform. If you only have two uniforms, you get a lot of use between washes.

The officer sleeping quarters in one of Saddam Hussein's castles at Camp Babylon, Iraq in June 2003. The skinny guy in the picture is me. I had lost 20 pounds.

    To wash my uniform, however, I have to empty my pockets and there are a lot of pockets to empty. The shirt has four pockets and the pants have four. I keep them filled with things because: 1) I don't have a desk or office where I can leave things, 2) Anything I leave out in our work area is subject to walk away, because we have about 15 people working in a small room, and 3) If I find I need anything during the day, it is a LONG walk back up the hill to get it. I walk around with everything I need to work in my uniform pockets.”

    “In my bottom left shirt pocket I have a baggie filled with vitamins and Malaria pills. I take one of each after breakfast. In my bottom right shirt pocket I keep my sunglasses in a case. In my top right pocket I keep a flashlight (never can tell when you may need one) and my antibacterial hand wash. In my top left pocket I keep two pens and important pieces of paper that I may pick up or have thrust upon me during the day. On laundry day I discard or file the papers. In my right rear pants pocket I “keep my wallet. In my left rear pants pocket I keep my Red Man. In my left cargo pocket I keep a memo book to write down important, Secret, Army War info. I also keep there a brush I use to clean my pistol. I can't use my right cargo pocket because my pistol is hanging there.

    So you see, laundry day is a busy day of unloading and loading pockets. Then I lug my dirty clothes down the hill to the laundry point behind my office building. Things are a little better now because they installed a new laundry (and shower) point at the bottom of the hill. I put my clothes in the washer, go eat breakfast, and then go back to put them in the dryer. When I am done, I put my laundry bag of clean clothes near my desk and hope to remember to take it back up the hill with me at the end of the day. Once I put my clothes in the dryer and forgot about them until 4:30 that afternoon. When I went over to the laundry point, there they were, sitting all lonely on top of a dryer.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Sunday, May 07, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: May 2023

 “From: Whitehead Col Michael

      Sent: Sunday, May 18, 2003 6:12 PM

      Subject: Magical Iraqi tour

      I left Babylon for seven days and civilization arrived. Washing machines. And dryers. No more bucket brigade.

      Ten of us left in three vehicles, me in command for a tour of the provincial capitals in our area. We went east from Hillah to Al Kut, on the banks of the Tigris River. We drove south from the banks of the Tigris to An Nasiriyah on the banks of the Euphrates. Then we went northwest to Ad Diwaniyah. NW again to An Najaf. Then north to Karbala. Finally SE today back to Hillah. Got a lot of pictures and a lifetime worth of experiences.

      Stark memories of my trip:

      Children, seeing us approach on the highway, streaming to the road to wave. This happened DOZENS of times.

      A line of Iraqi women, covered from head to foot in black or colored dress, pots full of laundry balanced on their heads as they walk from the river.

    A civil affairs soldier reported in a meeting, "We come out of a meeting tonight and some Iraqis approached us and said there were some teenagers nearby, drinking whiskey, and they had hand grenades. I sent the Marines over to deal with that." "Good idea," I told her.

    A scene out of Lawrence of Arabia: sitting cross-legged on carpets in a large tent, filled with Muslim clerics, and eating lamb and rice and pita bread with our hands (right hand only!) from a large bowl.

      Listening to a city council meeting in Karbala while a crowd of protestors chanted outside.

      Seeing every military or civilian vehicle on the side of the road picked CLEAN down to the chassis. Once I saw a group of children trying to pry something off the top of a bus.

    Sleeping on a cot on the hood of my vehicle. With a mosquito net.

      Taking a bath with Baby Wipes.

    Riding in a Hummer in full battle gear in 109-degree heat.

      Three men walking abreast in the right lane of a street in An Nasiriyah. They were blocking the lane. Directly behind each man was a woman clothed head to foot completely in black. We drove around them.

      Seeing men throwing wheat up in the air with a pitchfork, separating the wheat from the chaff as they have done here for thousands of years.

      Drinking water that is so hot it tastes like the water from the hot water faucet. And then drinking some more because you are so hot and thirsty you have no choice.

    Hearing a Marine Battalion Commander describe how his troops captured the University of Baghdad.

      Vendors outside the barbed wire of every Marine compound selling Iraqi Army bayonets, medals, ice, sodas and coolers. We bought ice, coolers and sodas. And pita bread.


Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Friday, April 07, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: April 2023

 “From: Michael Whitehead

    Sent: Monday, April 7, 2003 4:57 pm

    Subject: Haircut day

    The sky has clouded up and the wind has increased so things have cooled down considerably. Earlier, we felt like we were in a sauna. SGT Manning gave me a crew cut and I have a picture of me to record the event. How your hair looks doesn't seem very important out here. I have tried several times to attach a photo to my e-mails w/o success. I will keep trying.

    I am in a tent full of people and we are all working on computers. We have to tape Saran Wrap over the keyboard and monitor to keep out the Major League caliber dust that is EVERYWHERE.I just heard someone ask, "What is going on in the war?" We hear things in bits and pieces as they happen.

    I am getting a lot more information. Now I can read the classified Situation Reports that are coming from the major Marine and British units “information about "kill boxes", boundary changes and a lot of other very technical jargon that comes with controlling the violence and making sure the bad guys are getting shot by all this technological violence and not the good guys. The complexity and level of sophistication in the management of combat is incredible.

    Iraq is still a very dangerous place, so they are keeping us here at Camp Commando until "Indian country" is a little subdued.We are coordinating relief convoys of humanitarian aid into Iraq. Some of our people are going "north of the berm" as they call it to do assessments of the civilian populace. We are getting reports of these assessments from tactical civil affairs teams attached to the combat units. The information is flowing to us and we are analyzing this information, submitting reports and preparing briefing slides for the Marine General down the hill.

    We live in North Camp and the flagpole is down this sloping hill at South Camp. The mess hall is at the top of the hill so that in the evening after supper when we come out of the mess hall we can see the Persian Gulf and Kuwait City in the distance.

    I get up every morning and look forward to my job. When we go forward across the berm we will be a part of an historic enterprise. I am expecting a lot of confusion, chaos and long hours. We all look forward to getting the job done and going home.


Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Sunday, March 19, 2023

My Memory of the Iraq War 20 years later: March 2003

March 21, 2003, Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina

I took this picture on March 21, 2003 at Green Ramp on Pope Air Force Base. The line of faceless, helmeted soldiers carrying rucksacks and rifles was dramatic. Since the Army liked to do things in alphabetical order I was, as usual, at the end of the line. I vaguely remembered and discarded a prohibition against taking photographs on Green Ramp. I stopped, pulled out my camera and took this this photo. . 

I'm glad I did. The picture is framed and hanging on the wall of my office.

The United Airlines 747 was chartered to take us first to Germany and then on to Kuwait City. I have two big memories from that flight. The first was the announcement by the flight attendant after we boarded to "Please move your machine guns out of the aisles." Have not heard that announcement on a airplane before or since. The second memory was of our approach to Kuwait City Airport in the darkness before the dawn. The pilot asked us to close our windows since the plane was extinguishing all lights to ensure that we were a more difficult target. More reassuringly, he advised us that two US Air Force fighters would escort us the rest of the way.

As this anniversary approached I was confused about the date that the war started. I vividly remember sitting in the ancient World War II barracks on Ft. Bragg, NC that had been our home for the last 4 weeks (the same barracks where I mobilized for the Bosnia operation in 1996), listening on Public Radio as the President announced that the long anticipated war had started. This was the dreary, cold evening of Wednesday, March 19, 2003. I was disappointed. I thought that we were going to be in Kuwait before the war started. 

The Washington Post announced this morning that the war started on March 20. A quick Google search verified the date. Did I have the date wrong all these years? No. March 19 in North Carolina was March 20 in Iraq. We were both right.