Chapter 10: Christmas 2003 - Six Words


    Thursday, December 25, 2003

    From Tikrit & Baghdad, Iraq

    It is 10:45 on Christmas Eve here in Baghdad. The space in which I work is a large barn of a room we call The Green Room even though the walls are more blue than green. The Air Force folks set up a white board against one of the greenish walls, borrowed a projector used for presentations, and put the DVD of "It's a Wonderful Life" into a computer.

    George Bailey has just been declared, by his brother, "the richest man in town," and Clarence has just won his wings.

    Earlier tonight the bad guys tried to prove that neither Saddam's capture nor meant anything to them by launching a mortar attack, but it didn't hit much; missing the Sheraton Hotel but causing a good deal of chatter.

    Tomorrow is a day off for the civilians, but more-or-less a regular work day for the military. I mentioned that, because of the attack, the young Marines who nightly come in to use our phones to call home, were missing.

    They are out protecting us. They will probably patrol all night. We'll let them use our phones tomorrow.

    All over Iraq there are young people like our Marines who are out protecting us. They are Army, and Air Force, and - to our east - Navy personnel who are not home tonight and will not be home tomorrow.

    Most of them will get to a phone or, at a minimum, a computer with which to share a moment with their families.

    They are not sad, these young people. They are committed to doing what they have been trained to do. They want to go home. And they will, most of them. But for tonight, it is another night on duty, or in a building or a tent depending upon where they are with or without any inside plumbing.

    Route 1 - from Tikrit to Baghdad - was the scene of a murderous attack earlier today. An explosive device was set off under a passing convoy at about 9:00 am and killed three young people. I was on that road yesterday morning in about that spot at about that time in a three-vehicle convoy.

    It makes you think. It makes you think.

    This is a photo of the windshield of the Humvee in which I had ridden up to Tikrit a few days earlier:

    Many - not by any means most, but many - of the civilians have taken leave to be home for the holidays. I mentioned to someone that the surprisingly short lines at the dining facility had to be either that, or Ramadan was so successful this year that they've decided to reprise it. I suspect it is the former.

    Christmas goodies are strewn everywhere. Care packages of candy and cookies have been flooding in to the Green Room as, I suspect, they have everywhere in the theater.

    The rule is: You open the box and leave it on the floor next to your desk. Anyone who comes by is welcome to take whatever appeals.

    The big winner is Oreo's Double Stuff. Can't keep 'em in stock around here.

    Pringles are a feature of just about every box. People ship them because of the container they are in. People think the container protects the Pringles from breaking. It doesn't.

    We have a name for them: Pringle's Dust.

    David Letterman is in Iraq. He stopped by the Palace and did about 20 minutes with Paul the piano player and another guy whom, I was told, was a regular on the show. Letterman has a 7 month old baby. He joked that the kid's first words to him were, "Hi, Grampa," but he is missing his baby's first Christmas to be with troops in Iraq.

    That says a lot about Mr. Letterman.

    Here is a photo which shows him perfectly delighted to be in my company:

    The best line of his riff was: "We were surprised that Saddam surrendered so meekly. Michael Jackson put up more of a fight."

    Earlier in the day, the Army Band played a concert in the driveway in front of the Palace. This was during the LeRoy Anderson tune, Buglers' Holiday:

    It might have been a holiday for buglers, but if you note the flak jacket on the trumpet player and the pistol under the arm of the band director you will understand that it is not a holiday from the war.

    Tomorrow I'm going to go out with my friend General Mark Kimmitt. You may remember we visited with the soldiers of the 1st Armored Division on Thanksgiving. I suspect he would rather be out in the field with fighting men and women rather than around a bunch of civilians.

    I will be happy to accompany him and I will try not to break into sobs every time we wish some young man or woman, "Merry Christmas."

    I suspect I will not be successful.

    SIDEBAR:

    I mentioned that I went to Tikrit the other day, to do some actual real work. As it happened I found myself about 15 km outside of Tikrit at the place where they captured Saddam. This is the opening to the hole:

    The sweatshirt says, "Marietta" as in my alma mater, Marietta College. I'll bet when they threw me out lo those many years ago they never, ever thought I would be photographed kneeling over Saddam Hussein's hiding place.

    They probably thought there was a much, much higher chance that I would need to hide out in a hole dug in the woods 15 clicks from a place called "Tikrit."

    The work I was there to do, was to interview a group of young soldiers from Golf Troop, 10th Calvary Regiment, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.

    They happened to have been the soldiers who provided the cordon protection around the area where the operators grabbed Saddam. Two people tried to escape; these were the kids who caught them.

    We interviewed about 16 of them and shipped the video tapes back to Washington to be forwarded to their hometown radio and television stations.

    Every young man we interviewed was thrilled to have been part of the capture of Saddam - HVT #1. That stands for "High Value Target" number one.

    But they weren't happy about it because of what it meant to them individually. To a man, they were happy because it brought praise to their unit.

    We few. We happy few. We band of brothers

    It was a chilly but sunny, Sunday. If there are American kids around, and the sun is shining, this will be the scene - whether it's Tikrit or Tallahassee.

    While I was in Tikrit, I stayed with a friend named Bob Silverman who is the State Department foreign service officer charged with trying to create a functioning society in the middle of Saddam's home territory.

    Celebrating Christmas and, in Bob's case, Chanukah, in Iraq is a bit weird because we are a car ride away from the events which are being celebrated. A long car ride, and several millennia away, but still.

    I helped Bob light the Menorah candles one night. We had 20 percent of a minyan, but we decided God would appreciate and accept the effort:

    The next morning, I was in that convoy which left at 0600 (which is just prior to oh-dark-thirty for those of you with military experience). This was a photo from the morning before, looking south down the Tigris River:

    When I got back, my friend Suzanne Schaffrath had a birthday party for me. It was no longer my birthday, I had spent that with those 16 soldiers, but it was a wonderful thing to have done and it meant a great deal.

    END SIDEBAR

    It is now just after midnight; and so it is Christmas in the Middle East.

    Colonel Bill Darley just stopped by my desk to tell me to tell me that two additional soldiers had been killed by explosive devices this evening. That makes five this Christmas Eve day. We had heard that the terrorists would be using today to make a point. They have. They have proven themselves to be heartless cowards who have nothing but hatred in their souls.

    Col. Darley is the intellectual of the outfit. The other day he announced that the capture of Saddam was "the apotheosis of my military career."

    Apotheosis is not a word you hear military men throwing around every day. In fact it might have been the first time in military history that someone in uniform had used it correctly in a sentence.

    A remarkable man, that Bill Darley. One of 130,000 remarkable men and women here on this Christmas day 2003.

    All over Iraq these men and women - old enough to have children, but young enough to be someone's child - all over Iraq they will be calling home this day, or e-mailing, or instant messaging; renewing the connection between parent and child; or child and parent.

    Each of those renewals will end with the same six words, six words I share with you this day and which come from my heart and the hearts of every person who is here to do this vitally important job.

    You can watch them - even the young, tough Marines - as they are on the phone, staring across the 10,000 miles between a desk in the Green Room and the phone on their mom's kitchen wall. They stare, and they listen.

    And then so quietly. And so gently. And so tenderly, these tough, young war-fighters; just before they have to replace the phone and break that connection, they each say the same six words which must end the conversation:

    "Merry Christmas.
    I love you, too."

    Be safe.

    -- END --

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