Apr 18, 2008

Of chow and mortars 

It was a sound I wasn't used to. And so I froze for a second - a little "deer in the headlights" action - waiting to see what the protocol was. My first response was to head for the exits. I mean, the only thing I was familiar with that was close to the sound I was hearing was a fire alarm. And so - flashing back to being ten years old in school - line up and head for the exits. Right?

Of course, that would be monumentally stupid, which I realized before even a second passed. Why? Because there were shells falling outside... somewhere. Which the "big voice" on the PA system made abundantly clear, when - in between the whooping, dive klaxon-like sound I was hearing - it stated quite clearly, "Incoming. Incoming."

The only time I had previously been exposed to falling artillery of some type, it was over before it began. In October of 2005 during Ramadan, I had been sitting at a desk inside a building on Al Asad airbase in Al Anbar province, when I heard a loud thump. There were Marines outside at the time building stuff and moving pallets and I figured it was 50/50 that they had dropped something heavy on the concrete or we had just taken some rockets pretty far off (rockets being Hajji's preferred method of shelling Al Asad because he has to shoot from so far away and there are no close population centers for him to hide in). The air raid siren went off after the two rounds landed, and no more came in. So - truly - it was over before it started.

But now I was hearing warnings BEFORE thumps. This was something new. I guess that means the radars work. So there I am in the dining facility, and everyone lies down on the floor. It's sort of silly I guess - I mean the building has a reinforced roof and is completely ringed by concrete barricades. The only way anyone's taking a hit is if the building gets hit directly - and by something rather large, I'd imagine. But down to the floor I go. The thought does briefly cross my mind how crappy it's going to be to meet my end here, next to the taco bar, on the floor of a chow hall in Baghdad. And then, a couple thumps a descent distance away, and the "all clear" sounds. Everyone gets up, a few sheepish looks are exchanged, but more smiles than anything else. That wasn't even close. Heard it more than felt it.

Easier to set up, take down, and aim (and hide) than rockets, mortars are the "shoot and scoot" weapon of choice in urban areas. Mount a tube on a vehicle and now it's even easier. So that's what comes in around here mostly. And then, Hajji melts away into the the city. He's done his bit for the jihad for the day, whether he hit anything other than dirt or not. And because he's in the city, it's a hell of a lot less dangerous for him than shooting those rockets from the middle of nowhere.

Regardless of what Zawahiri says, your average Muslim warrior is not so hot on meeting his 72 virgins right away (you'll notice ol' Zawahiri himself doesn't seem to be in any kind of a rush). No, he'd rather do his thing as safely as possible and then go back home. When those rockets came in at Al Asad in '05, the shooters had the bad luck to do their thing right when two Harriers were on station. Even though they got away, the couple hundred rounds of 25mm that chased them down the river that night obviously had an effect - we didn't take any more rounds out there for the next three months.

I heard that sound again tonight, and realized it actually reminds me more of the ship's alarms from when I was on float, which they tested constantly. Either a collision alert or an NBC attack warning - I can't remember exactly which. This time I knew what to do: take another bite of ice cream, then get under the table. Hey, the system seems to give you a pretty descent head's up. Heard it more than felt it. But felt it more than last time...

Maybe they know when I'm at chow.

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