Peter van Agtmael

American Wars: On Patrol

Two teenage boys, one of whom has an American flag stitched into his sweater, watch as American patrol passes at dusk.  Three years after the invasion, passing patrols would receive a limited range of responses from Iraqis.  Sometimes there would be a studied lack of acknowledgement, or perhaps an angry scowl and shouted words, or just a cryptic, masked expression.   Only in Kurdish areas or occasionally among children hoping for candy or soccer balls would U.S. soldiers receive smiles or waves.  The patrol had progressed the same way as most others.  Gunshots early on led to a frantic, frustrated search for the gunmen, who quickly melted back into the population.  From there a tip was given about a weapons cache buried in an abandoned yard, but a search turned up nothing.  The remaining hours of the patrol concluded in a wary walk through the old town of Mosul, the soldiers scanning all possible points of attack and occasionally engaging the local populace with questions regarding their needs and frustrations, which were always many and un-resolvable with the tools the Americans had on hand.
Specialist Lucas Yaminishi holds up the shoe of a victim of a suicide bombing in a café in Mosul.  The attack left nine people dead and 23 wounded.  It happened at the Abu-Ali restaurant early on a sunny winter morning, as policemen were gathering for tea and breakfast.  The bomber walked into the busy restaurant, wrapped in a vest filled with explosives and lined with improvised projectiles, the bustling crowd ensuring his anonymity.   Stepping into the center of the cramped room, he blew himself up, and in an instant the café changed from the serenity of a refuge from the war to a blood-bath, the ceiling hanging, power wires dangling, the walls sprayed with blood and the floor with possessions, body parts, and food.  The Iraqi police responded quickly, evacuating the wounded to three local hospitals and collecting the remains.  A U.S. patrol came upon the scene and wandered numbly through the restaurant they had passed many times before on patrol, cursing their enemy for its inhumanity.  The smell of cordite and blood lingered in the heavy air, and the streets were empty except for a few curious bystanders who stared at the gaping hole in the otherwise quiet block.  The patrol moved to the hospital to check the status of the victims.  Ali, the owner, an affable and enthusiastic man, lay shriveled on one of the beds, his head completely swaddled in bandages but for a his nose and lips, which were still covered in blood.  He did not survive the day.
A young man on a motorcycle is stopped for suspicious behavior in Rawah, a violent Sunni town in Anbar Province, near the Syrian border.   The teenager had scowled angrily at the passing column of U.S. Stryker armored vehicles, a gesture considered hostile by one of the gunners who shouted for the convoy to stop.  He then leapt out of the gunners hatch, weapon pointed at the head of the Iraqi and yelled at him in English to lie on the ground.  The teenager, numbed by fear and incomprehension, stood shaking with his arms thrust high into the air, and was shoved to the ground by the cursing soldier in order to be searched for weapons and contraband.  Nothing was discovered on his person, but the commander of the American unit decided to investigate further, and demanded to be taken to the young man’s house.  The house, a simple stucco structure with few possessions or hiding places, came up empty of contraband, and the after further questioning the young man was released.