By the Rivers of Babylon

  • Share
  • Read Later
Maybe it's the turquoise cool of the Euphrates, out beyond the sandbag bunkers. Maybe it's the open sky and the sunshine after days of sandstorms and cold, mud and rain. Or maybe it's simply that we're out West and moving again, rolling North up to Baghdad. But when Charlie Rock's tanks and Bradleys roar up to take over the checkpoints on the bridge Ash Shifaniyah, a feeling runs through all 170 men that today, Day 7, is going to be a good day.

As the day began, Captain Jorge Melendez and 1st Sgt. William Mitchell quickly spread the vehicles among the berms and along the riverfront. The S.A.W. and two 40-Bravo heavy machine gunners took positions at the end of the bridge, pointing into town. But Charlie Rock has been driving all night through the desert, there's traffic on the horizon, and it's only a few minutes before the men are lying in the sun and "Rock Doc", the medic Track, is filling the air with R&B.

War on Iraq's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

 After Saddam
Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
Jubilation and chaos greet the fall of Saddam's regime, leaving Iraqis and Americans puzzling over how to rebuild the nation
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties War in Iraq
Private 1st Class Jonah Bishop, exhausted, his face filled with dust, his eyes as red as his round cheeks, collapses on the back ramp of his M-113 Track. "That's one thing about this place," he tries to explain, shortly before passing out. "Time doesn't matter. Days don't matter," Bishop frowns. "It's like being in Indiana."

The day is filled with all the little things that allow soldiers to feel human again. Making cups of coffee mixed with cocoa on illicit propane stoves. Washing and changing socks for the first time since Kuwait. Swapping girlie magazines. Smoking, eating, sleeping. Down on the riverbank, among egrets and kingfishes, I take a swim and a bath, watching a tortoise the size of a dustbin lid push itself lazily down stream. And realize I'm washing by the Rivers of Babylon, a few score miles to the North.

It doesn't take long for the war to interrupt our reverie. At dusk, gunfire erupts from Al Shifaniyah as a Black Hawk flies low overhead. An hour later, Staff Sgt. Scott Fountain snaps open the company radio. "Rock 6, Rock 6. Two men walking across the bridge, something in their hands." Illuminated rounds are sent up, the two men hit the ground and don't move. After watching them for half an hour on his Bradley's thermal scanner, Captain Melendez orders several bursts of rounds over their heads to scare them off. It works. The men slink off down the opposite riverbank. But the Bradley crews know that they will be on watch all night. And a few minutes later, comes the order from Brigade Headquarters that after a sleepless night, Charlie Rock will be moving out further North in the morning, right into the fire zone.

But there's still the night. Laughter and more music are still bouncing out of Rock Doc's Track. First Sgt. Mitchell fires up the laptop in his Track and settles in to watch "Deep Impact," for what must be the 20th time since he deployed in early January. And up above, sprayed across the roof under the 50-caliber machine gun and the stars above, comes the whale wheezes of Private 1st Class Jonah Bishop's snoring. War is 99 percent waiting, and every now and then that's the best thing about it.