News and opinions on situation in Iraq
13/07/04 On the road again by Edward Teague
Bob (not his real name) is a rangy 40 year old ex Legionnaire. An elite parachutist veteran of Ruanda, Congo, Djibouti, The Ivory Coast and other French colonial outposts. Sprawled in the sun in the South of France, on leave from working for Kroll International Associates (KIA – geddit) who are contracted to supply security services for USAID in Iraq he talks of his American employers contemptuously.

For 1,000 tax free US dollars a day he acts as nanny and nursemaid to nurses, doctors, engineers, oilmen, plus visiting Senators and Congressmen.

Based behind the “Green” zone in the grounds of Saddam's lightly bombed Palace which now forms the HQ of the Coalition of the Willing, this steely eyed adrenaline junkie talks of roadside bombs, ambushes, small arms fire, rocket propelled grenades as a fishmonger may talk about sprats and mackerel. He tells me about the chow house, the endless circulation of porn, the dope, and aimless and often dangerous practical jokes that they get up to in their sophisticated prison, which many will never leave until they fly our at the end of their tour of service.

“They may have B2 stealth bombers that can fly 24 hour round trips to drop precision guided missiles, but on the ground they couldn't organise a tour of chocolate factory for the Mother's Union”, he says, in his distinctive Lancashire accent, carefully adjusting his slumbering 2 year old son in the crook of his arm.

“The place is a mess,” he say's, “there is less electricity, only one generating set is working at a time because the switchgear is so dangerous. They ran more under Saddam, but would have been shot if they hadn't, they simply can't keep the phases in sync on the grid”. He sips his beer, leans back and contemplates the clear blue sky of France, his adopted domicile, who provide him with his Soldat Ancien credentials, free public transport with guaranteed seats by the door on the Paris Metro, complete free family healthcare and a generous pension. “Siemens and Babcock came to look at repairing it. They couldn't believe it. They told us it was 1950's technology, stuff they had never seen, just not worth repairing. They were off to China they told us, installing massive new plants, coal, nuclear, the latest technology. Working in a war zone with a military government breathing down their necks, where they need 24hrs a day on the job armed protection? Thanks but no thanks.”

“That's why”, he explains, “ all you can hear in the afternoon siesta is the running of petrol and diesel generators running the family air conditioning”. It's apparently no different inside the green zone, but the US Army diesels are that much bigger, numerous – and noisier.

“They were completely unprepared for this lot, Just look at their transport. Hummers might look evil mean machines – they are useless. A 25 year old design, they were designed to climb a 40 degree slope, well they have trouble going up kerbs, you can parachute drop them, fine. They can be immersed in salt water for hours – not a major requirement in Baghdad.”

The US Army have 120,000 Hummers made by the AM General Corporation, South Bend, Indiana. The 15 foot long and 7 and a half foot wide vehicle, has no body armour, a fabric top, no rollover protection except the windshield, they have a hefty 6.2 litre V8 diesel engine thrusting out a miserable 150 break horse power with an all up weight of nearly 3 tons without passengers, weapons and communications equipment they have a maximum speed of 55mph which can be reached on a paved highway in about 50 seconds, which is just as well because they don't have anti-lock brakes. Survivability in an accident is poor, originally fitted with lap seat belts (although shoulder seat belts are mandatory on US roads) many still await retrofitting, anyway no one wants a seat belt on if they have to evacuate fast because of small arms fire, etc.,

The National Guard units which form an increasing element of the US forces, are of course equipped with the oldest vehicles many with 20 years service. One month in the dusty conditions being hammered at full throttle at all times by scared kids, each month is said to add a year to their useful life.

“If the (US) Army ever leave you will know where they were by the piles of cannibalised Humvees.” Many departing units apparently leave them behind, as they will be useless by the time they get back to the US.

“The traffic is unbelievable”, he says. “The best thing they could do, is to install working traffic lights at about 12 major junctions in Baghdad. The Iraqis take no notice of the Police. They only take notice of us because we drive at 100mph everywhere and wave guns around.”

There are similar problems with the US Army M939 5 ton truck (average age of truck fleet = 24 years), which is essentially a slightly re-vamped version of GM's WWII 5 ton truck with an automatic 5 speed gear box, power steering and air brakes. Reservists are used to driving 6 wheeler semis with 16 gear pre selector gear boxes, air conditioning, sprung upholstered seats, in car entertainment centres, rear view CCTV and electronic engine management systems hauling 40 ton trailers with automatic fail safe air braking systems.

During WWII to speed up beach landings and movement of stores, Stephens of the famous Olin Stephens ocean yacht design partnership designed and produced the aquatic DUKW version of the GMC standard issue 5 ton truck in 7 weeks. This was immediately put into production and tens of thousands produced. A later modification allowing the driver to land with deflated tyres to provide better grip on the beach, and then inflate for road use whilst driving. The US Navy would never order any because they were standard issue in Army Drab Olive paint.

The US Army have made some changes to the M939, now designated the M925A but it is virtually unchanged, has a top approved road speed of 40 mph, no rollover protection and no seat belt anchorages. The brakes are notoriously subject to lock up and to date Premier professional systems have retrofitted 5,000 upgrade brake kits at a cost of $3,900 per vehicle since 1999 which leaves just 195,000 more to be upgraded. A rigid cab and rollover protection has been developed but has not received Congressional approval (required, for a product recall, which can take 2-7 years) so none have been installed. The Congressional Audit Office reported in 1999 that the fatal crash rate in Army trucks was seven times higher than similar commercial vehicles.

“As a consequence, the grunts bring their own mild steel armour, given by local businesses back home, sand bags, Kevlar cushions, they overload the Hummers with comms kit, ammo boxes, so when they rollover because their centre of gravity is so high they become unstable, and nothing is braced, everyone gets crushed. They roll over a lot because kids are taught to smash their rear view wing mirrors, they leave sand bags in the roadway, make sand ramps in the gutters – and these frightened guys straight from the backwoods, with no defensive driver training, going full bore hit them and flip over. “Then,” he adds laconically, shifting the child again, “the small arms fire starts up. Really good Kevlar helmets and body armour, so they know now, go for the limbs, smash em'up.” In the distance a jetliner starts it's descent to Nice airport, probably loaded with Hollywood glitterati anxious to give Michael Moore his Palme D'Or for his new film “Fahrenheit 911".

Bobby, a graduate of defensive driver course held by Bentley in Cheshire, Mercedes in Stuttgart and ex-Stasi and Israeli army staff in various Eastern European locations he won't detail, explains how essential it is to be fast, totally aggressive and ruthless – “you only get one chance to getaway” he says. “Plus, we have the latest GM SUV's fully armoured bodies, up rated engines – $550,000 a pop, some of the other outfits use Mercedes, BMW off-roaders and saloons. For VIP's they use Mercedes 500's 7.5 litre twin turbocharged, bomb blast protected, and if Bremer is there an Apache helicopter overhead with a detail of guys with shades and Uzi's hanging on the outside ready to abseil”

“These Iraqi guys are getting better and smarter every day, at this rate of attrition though, the US are doing the job for them. Morale is so bad with units being told they are going then being held back that a road accident is a sure way to get back home.” He paused reflectively, “Of course if you fight these guys on TV, you can't always do what you want. It wasn't like that in Africa or in Algeria where we've protected the pipelines.” I recall the 100,00 plus reported killed in another of Africa's unseen wars, where Muslims, oil, gas and ex-colonial powers collide.

He leans back,”You are 18, it's 50 degrees, dusty, you are wearing about 50 pounds of body armour, weapons, sighting gear on your helmet, comms modules, you are in a rag top house on wheels, driving at 50 mph through districts that all look alike, getting the odd pot shot. You joined the Army to get a trade, citizenship and have a good time.”

He pauses and empties his beer glass.

“Is it any wonder they drive into a wall just near their base?”

The child wakens up and wants feeding, as does his father. It doesn't matter what his wife or his parents say, he can't wait to get back to Baghdad. The steely eyed, adrenaline junkie sniffs the kids nappy, and gingerly picks him up at arms length and carries him inside.

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