True Tales from Mortar-itaville

Courtesy Greg WeissCaptainGregWeissknowsthatthebattletowintheheartsandmindsoftheIraqipeoplehasnogreaterenemythantheundisciplinedAmericanG.I.WeissarrivedatCampAnaconda,40milesnorthofBaghdad,inlateMarch2004,justbeforetheAbuGhraibscandalbecamenewsandarecruitingtoolfortheIraqiinsurgency.Hisjob:JudgeAdvocateGeneral,orJAG—whichisthemilitary'sversionofalawyer.AfterayearprosecutingAmericansoldiersinIraq,WeissreturnedtoSouthernCaliforniaandnowserveswiththeNationalGuardatLosAlamitos.HerecentlyagreedtospeakwiththeWeekly abouthislastjob—andwhatittoldhimabouttheprospectsforthewarinIraq.


Greg Weiss:When you convoy from Kuwait through Iraq, you have a good sense of the area. You don't really have any interactions with people because you are driving as fast as you can to avoid getting blown up. There was a lot of poverty; most of what you see in the countryside is just very rudimentary farming, very basic living conditions.


In Iraq, everyone called it Mortar-itaville, you know, like Margaritaville. When we first arrived, we would have mortar attacks pretty much nightly. Sometimes you would hear the mortar impact, sometimes just the air siren, but you had to leave your immediate setting to go to a hardened bunker. So between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m. we would have some alarm or impact, which is a bit disturbing. You can wear your body armor and helmet all day, but when you lay down at night it doesn't make a bit of difference. You become callous to it because it occurs so much. The statistics were we had more than one mortar attack per day. Some days there would be four or five per night and sometimes none.

One evening, I was having dinner with some friends in the mess area. There are moments when you kind of forget your surroundings for five minutes, and this was one of those times. All of a sudden a mortar round hit the kitchen of the dining facility we were in. I did not have a very dangerous job relative to people on patrol in Mosul or Fallouja and didn't convoy every day; it was every week or so and I was able to fly. The guys who went out on patrol always seemed very weary and very tired. All the roads are full of land mines and explosive devices, and people shoot at you every day. You are a rolling bull's eye. Then, at the end of the day, you come back to relax and mortar rounds are falling on you. There's no sanctuary.


We had a wide range of cases, ranging from assault and aggravated assault to theft and drug cases where people brought back drugs from leave. All of them took place in Baghdad, in the courtroom where Saddam was charged, or in Saddam's old palace in Tikrit. The judges would come from Germany or the States for five weeks, and we'd have the witnesses brought there. There was a soldier who went on leave in Louisiana and brought back 80 tabs of Ecstasy in a hollowed-out candle and got through customs. Then he showed it to his roommate, who dimed him out. Nobody over there should be using drugs because everybody has a weapon and 200 rounds, and you need to maintain your awareness. In fact, you're not allowed to drink while on duty in Iraq, but it happens. Somebody would get drunk and get in a fight and pull a weapon or crash their Humvee into a telephone pole.

We had one case involving a company commander whose unit was in Kuwait just after the start of the war. They were a logistics unit and were supposed to roll north into southern Iraq. They decided they didn't have enough vehicles, so they stole a couple of Humvees and trucks and sanded off the serial numbers. If that was all they did, it wouldn't be that big a deal. But when they thought they were getting caught, they took an acetylene torch and cut up the truck and buried it in the desert. A major and a warrant officer were the masterminds of the whole thing; they got nine months in jail and a dismissal, which means that even though they had over 20 years of service, they'll get no retirement benefits.


Most of my cases were soldier versus soldier cases. We didn't have a lot of soldier vs. "local national" cases. The most significant of those involved a unit going out on a convoy near Tikrit. On the way back, one soldier said to some other soldiers, "Hey, I'm going to blow off some steam." They took off on the convoy, and the soldier fired his machine gun at this Iraqi shepherd on the side of the road. Apparently, the shots that were fired were between 100 and 150 meters away from the shepherd. Someone said they saw a sheep get hit; others said they saw the sheep running away with the shepherd.


He wasn't convicted. I was personally offended, because if our mission is to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population, that's not gong to help. Here is what I believed to be a harmless citizen being subjected to an aggravated assault. The result of that action was a legal ruling that the shepherd could not have been subjectively scared because the shots weren't close enough.


I hope there will be peace over there. I do think we have very well-trained, well-motivated soldiers over there. But their exposure to the type of casualties that are going on speaks volumes. We have well-trained and motivated soldiers getting injured and fatally injured every day. That says a lot. When I had conversations with local nationals that either worked on our base doing construction or interpreting, it was very positive. They were all friendly and nice; they were on our payroll as well. They were very happy we were there. I guess you could define interaction also as me being on the receiving end of mortar and AK-47 fire. I didn't speak to those people, but they shot at me, so that says something.


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