Peter van Agtmael

American Wars: Raids

An Iraqi soldier guards a mud hut after a midnight raid on a small farming compound suspected of harboring insurgents.  The hideout was down a long dirt road in the outskirts of Mosul.  It was surrounded by a platoon of Stryker’s after midnight on a winter weekend.  The night was bright, the moon full and casting vivid shadows.  The three houses in the compound were raided simultaneously.  A line of soldiers, a ‘stack,’ moved up discreetly outside each house.  At the signal, the lead soldier kicked in the door and moved out of the way, and the rest of the stack ran behind him with weapons raised and high-powered flashlights scanning rapidly, yelling ‘get down’ and ‘hands up’ in English and broken Arabic.  Lining the walls of the hut slept the young family on thin mattresses covered in layers of blankets to keep out the chill of the desert night.  The suspected insurgents sleeping inside had little chance to react.  The man closest to the door was restrained immediately.  He was grabbed and shoved against the wall, a soldier restraining his arms behind his back.  The second man awoke with a start, and immediately started fumbling for something under the blanket.  Hawk, the unit’s Kurdish interpreter, took several long steps and punched him sharply in the face, dazing him until he was restrained.  ‘I should have shot him,’ said Hawk, who nevertheless chose not to when given the opportunity.
An Iraqi man, blindfolded with a scarf, waits silently in near darkness as his house is searched for insurgency affiliation.  He was later detained after several unauthorized weapons were found.  Scarves and blacked-out goggles were used to keep detainees from collecting observations about their surroundings that might later be used against American forces.  Previously, most units used empty sandbags to blind detainees, but after the Abu Ghraib pictures prominently showcased that technique, tactics were changed.  After the initial adrenaline of the raid, the resultant search for contraband took on a casually workmanlike atmosphere.  Bundles of blankets stacked high on bureaus were thrown on to the ground, as soldiers talked about the latest sitcoms they had purchased on bootleg DVD.  Carbine muzzles were poked into grain, searching for weapons, and idle soldiers guarding the entrances took on a swaying, glassy-eyed concentration.
An American medic treats an Iraqi civilian after he was wounded by a roadside bomb meant to detonate on an American patrol.  The triggerman mistimed the detonation, and shrapnel from the blast peppered a small hatchback containing the man, his wife, and his brother. Although U.S. soldiers often keep driving under these circumstances, wary of an ambush or secondary IED’s, their commander ordered them to stop, and a bulky, baby-faced black medic named Johnson leapt out of the vehicle and ran to the smoldering car, followed by several soldiers acting as security. They found the man slumped over the steering wheel, bleeding from multiple wounds to his head and body.  Johnson gently helped lay the shocked Iraqi man onto the ground, assessed his wounds and then quickly and tightly bandaged him to stop further blood-loss.  Despite the medical attention, the Iraqi man was terrified of the soldiers who pointed their weapons at him as they lit the scene with high-powered flashlights attached to the muzzle of their rifles.If Iraqis are wounded in engagements with U.S. troops, they usually receive their initial care at a U.S. medical facility.  If Iraqis wound them, they are forced to take their chances with the Iraqi medical system, which is depleted and vulnerable after years of war.  Many of the doctors (and others from the moneyed classes) have fled to Syria, Jordan, and Iran.
A teenage boy separated for questioning leans against a wall, while in the next room American soldiers ransack cabinets looking for contraband.  The house had been raided on a hunch, as a passing American patrol noticed two young men fidgeting and eyeing them suspiciously.  Anticipating violence, the patrol immediately detained the men and stormed into the house to look for evidence of wrongdoing. Most of their carefully organized possessions were thrown onto the floor.  Toys, dishes, exam papers, a radio and a tricycle.  Throughout the search the soldiers teased their young medic, a recent high school graduate, about his lack of sexual experience. He responded defensively, touchy and shrill at the accusations, while sweeping the family’s possessions onto the floor.  The soldiers had performed hundreds of house searches at this point in their deployment, and their normal banter was rarely interrupted by reflection on their surroundings.  In the next room the boy was questioned.  ‘Had he seen anyone unusual around the house lately?’ ‘Were his brothers coming and going at strange hours?’  The boy muttered non-committal answers, never making eye contact with the towering soldier that questioned him.  Although nothing was found in the house to suggest insurgent activity, the hands of the two brothers came up with explosive residues.  The lieutenant in charge of the platoon detained the men, although he suspected they were completely innocent.
Three generations of Iraqi women look on as American and Iraqi soldiers detain one of their loved ones.  As the war entered its fourth year, the indefinite detainment of many young men captured during these raids instilled a deep fear in the families that had to watch helplessly as their loved ones were led away to an unknown fate.  Although many stories were exaggerated by a culture long fueled by the hysteria of rumor, the Abu Ghraib revelations and the graphic accompanying evidence secured the raids terrorizing reputation.
U.S. soldiers search the backyard of the house of a suspected insurgent during a night raid in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad.  The man was suspected of being an insurgent financier, but an impromptu interrogation and search turned up nothing suspicious, and he was not detained.
In the aftermath of a deadly raid, an Iraqi soldier gestures a comrade past a bullet battered wall.  The residential home was in shambles after a firefight erupted.  One American was seriously wounded in the clash, and an insurgent was killed.  In the search that followed, weapons, bomb-making materials, and Jihadist propaganda was discovered.  An old man and several boys were detained.  As the house was searched, a middle aged mother and her two young children cowered in a bundle in a ransacked bedroom, shying fearfully from the searching soldiers who did their best to tune out their misery.
A teenage boy lies beaten and bloody against the wall in the aftermath of a deadly raid.  Several minutes before, a squad of U.S. soldiers had breached the outer gate of the house, and as they were sprinting towards the door an AK-47 opened fire, the bullets snapping past the first man in line but hitting the second soldier twice in the left arm.  The rest of the soldiers charged in as a medic dragged the soldier to the relative safety of the outer wall.  A deafening volley of sustained fire ripped through the air moments later, as the American soldiers caught up with the gunmen, and shot his head to pieces.  The teenager, momentarily demented from fear and the thunderous noise, leapt at an adrenaline-filled soldier, who smashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle, dazing and bloodying him.  His hands were bound and he was forced against a wall, alongside a young, stoic boy, whose face nevertheless registered incomprehension at the events going on around him. Every few minutes, Iraqi and American soldiers would steal away from their search of the house to stare at the corpse, a man as alive as they just a few minutes before, now waxen and still.
A grandmother, furious at U.S. and Iraqi troops detaining a member of her family, leapt up and tried to claw at them as they marched the detainee towards an awaiting vehicle.  As she leapt, she was restrained by her terrified young grandson, who covered her mouth as she shouted raspy, shrieking curses at the indifferent soldiers.  Two other women helped force her back down, where she sat rocking and muttering as the soldiers filed out.
The body of an Iraqi insurgent in the aftermath of a deadly raid in Mosul.  Rigor mortis has frozen his hand into a claw that reached futilely to shield his face from the bullets that killed him.  His legs are locked mid-sprint.  He must have known he couldn’t have gotten away but tried anyhow, perhaps hoping to barricade himself in the room and continue the fight.  The soldier that killed him waited quietly down the steps, his arm against the wall and his head bowed.  He was young and peach-faced, vestiges of baby fat remained on his cheeks and his wire-rim glasses would have given him a thoughtful look, had his lips not been set into a pinched grimace.  He didn’t say much, just said he had to do it, that he was getting shot at and the man had wounded his friend.   The rest of the team continued the search, periodically clapping him on the shoulder and feeding him a constant string of cigarettes.