DISCUSSED: Mass-Produced Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Unglamorous Death, The Coalition Provisional Authority, Young Republicans, Flak Jackets, Calculus of Terror, Mao Tse-Tung, The Army Field Manual, Doubt, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Multilingual Insurgents, Boredom, The Malaysian Emergency, Giving Up and Going Home, Iraqi Traffic Cops, The Green Zone Café, Cell Phones, Self-Blinding, Choosing Between Fears

Insurgency: the rebellion of a small, ill-equipped group against a government through subversion and armed conflict


The night before my GMC was bombed by Iraqi insurgents, I’d spent hours in front of a U.S.-controlled base in Baghdad. I dawdled in front of the base’s gate waiting for permission to enter while Private First Class Bob Johnson craned his neck to try and see the stars.

“I don’t mind when I get guard duty,” he told me. “It’s the only time I get to be outdoors. Except when we drive around and shoot at people.”

Johnson couldn’t see the heavens because his helmet—clunky and impersonal except for a scribble reading “O + pos” that signaled what to transfuse should tragedy strike—pushed over his eyes.

“We don’t get to go outside much,” he explained. So to pass the time crouched inside Humvees, or waiting in barracks for the next serving of mass-produced grilled cheese sandwiches, Johnson said, soldiers obsessively discussed their favorite preoccupation: how a soldier dies in Iraq. Death usually comes in an unglamorous manner, he noted, following the unexpected flash of a roadside bomb or an unluckily accurate rocket-propelled grenade. Insurgents pointlessly fire at tanks invulnerable to their attacks, they run headlong into machine-gun fire, they hold their rifles so ineptly that only one in every hundred bullets seems to hit a Humvee, much less a soldier. So when an American soldier dies, said Johnson, it seems almost a foolish coincidence.

“This is a weird war,” he continued. “We shoot at the same people we give candy to. It’s like they attack us just to let everyone know they can, just to prove we can’t kill them all. And they are proving it.”

I was passing time with PFC Johnson because I am a journalist, and although he initiated my hearsay education regarding the mechanics of insurgency, my first-hand tutorial began the next day when my GMC was attacked. We were driving down an empty street in Ramadi, a poor town two hours west of Baghdad surrounded by the lush fields and palm groves that give this crescent its fertile renown. I had caught a ride with a military caravan of two SUVs and six Humvees, seeking transport through the city en route to an interview. Based on Johnson’s advice, I chose to ride in an SUV. He’d confided that “all the politicians ride in GMCs when they visit, and you know that means they’re either safe or have free liquor.”

The SUV carried no booze, but it did contain two Americans working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Iraq’s interim government, which dissolved when sovereignty was returned this summer. The rest of the convoy’s vehicles were filled with soldiers dressed for war. But the two CPAers were decked out in blue blazers and red ties like Young Republicans on a résumé-burnishing holiday. One wore loafers with the tassels pulled off. His companion, however, had boots, and the skinny, small-spectacled look that in movies indicates the guy went to Yale and now works for the CIA.

Our GMC—we were in the middle of the convoy—crossed a bridge and was speeding down a vacant street when the bomb, unseen but probably buried under the roadside dirt, detonated underneath the car. The window next to my head exploded into a beautiful starburst of cracks. The CPAers began shouting at the driver; an Iraqi woman behind me began to cry.

A great cloud of smoke and dust obscured us from the other trucks in the convoy, which quickly sped away. Everyone in the car was yelling, shouting at the driver to keep driving, just drive forward, whatever you do don’t stop. But the engine was dead. The car rolled slowly, and after about ten feet, stopped. The Iraqi woman began to scream. The dust was such that we couldn’t see more than a foot or two outside the shattered windows. Then a small jeep appeared next to our car, and a bearded American in civvies with a gun that looked very strange and serious—all soft edges and smooth tubing, like it was designed to shoot Frisbees—jumped out and tried to open my door. (Only later did I fathom the courage of this act. Terrorists usually wait for bombing-victims to exit a car and then open fire. The smoke, however, was probably too thick for waiting gunmen to see through. Had our car been visible this rescuer probably would have been killed.) Mr. CIA donned his flak jacket awkwardly, a strange dance of long-limbs-floundering-in-a-small-space, with a dose of fear tossed in for tempo. I felt a small laugh build until he pulled out a long Kalashnikov. The driver also produced a gun, then Mr. CIA’s door was open and the bearded man was shouting at us to get into the jeep, just get in it doesn’t matter how and we all jumped in, the bearded man, too, the door slammed, and the bearded man yelled drive.

Miraculously, no one was killed. But the scary part was far from over.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Charles Duhigg is a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times, currently based in California. He can be reached at [email protected], and deeply appreciates any email.

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