Tuesday, October 03, 2006

'Prime Targets for Terrorists'

Part one in a series written by my friend Kat, who was a contractor's employee in Iraq for almost two years.

She refutes the media's excuse for not covering the Iraq reconstruction. The introduction to the series is here. The series hinges on an interview with Dexter Filkins of the "New York Times" in which he says the media can't cover the reconstruction work ongoing around the country because doing so would be too dangerous to the media.

Her post about that drew a faintly hostile comment from "Bob," insinuating she was just pushing "a larger GOP talking point," implying her work in Iraq was less dangerous than that of a New York Times journalist, and challenging her to prove her right to criticize the media.

[by Kat]

Bob, before I go any further, I should say I wrote in reaction to the whole article, and my reaction may have seemed resentful. But the reaction wasn't as much to Dexter himself as to what he said. To me, the whole piece looked like just another media-on-the-media-in-Iraq story.

Within four hours of Cal posting what I wrote, I was awake in bed regretting it, because it's not really my nature to be so harsh, especially to people I haven't met, like Dexter Filkins. But now that you've brought this up, I find myself not really sorry I said what I did, or that I allowed Cal to post it. That picture he chose of me, on the other hand, I'm not sure was a really good idea.

I believe I understand your questions. I'd like to say from the start that I'm not a hero and I don't think I'm one. I'm just your basic person, and whenever Cal isn't being over-protective of me, he'll admit that, too

I'm also not trying to cut the throats of everyone in the media. As I've said before the media is full of good people who do excellent work. But where Iraq is concerned, I can't congratulate the MSM on a job well done unless I believe they are organizationally incapable of delivering any better coverage than they do. Perhaps that is what Dexter is attempting to explain in the article Cal showed me. In Filkins' opinion, it seems, or maybe that of the Times, any better coverage than what they've provided is simply impossible for security reasons.

Perhaps he is correct, but I doubt it. I believe that MSM companies that can afford to pump money into finding ways to never miss a moment of bloodshed should also be able to find ways to cover the less-exciting but materially important events, too. I believe that if their top management said, "Hey, you know what? These other things we're doing in Iraq are really important for Americans to know. I think we should cover them, too," they would suddenly find ways to get that coverage on your TV screens and in your papers. But that hasn't happened, has it?

You are correct. I didn't dress like I'm going clubbing while I was in Iraq. I also admit I had physical advantages in Iraq just as I do now in Thailand. I'm small; my hair is naturally black and straight. My eyes are black, and unlike the picture Cal posted, which was taken in the U.S. during winter, my skin tans very deeply and doesn't burn easily. I'm part Native American and I know how to use makeup with my natural coloring to blend in with the natives of other countries.

And if you must know, a good German surgeon took care of that ugly nose you saw (yes, it's a woman's prerogative to do things like that, and I won't apologize for it), so slipping into the Arab and Asian world is pretty easy. In the U.S., I might stand out, assuming you don't walk over me. But in those other locations I don't stand out like your average big, tall, white guy.

So, yes, I had a physical advantage over Dexter and many other western journalists. But I'd also remind you that it gave me the same advantage over my bosses and many other western contractors and workers, none of whom used their disadvantage as an excuse to stay home and not go to work. I'd also point out that it offered no advantage whatsoever to any of the Iraqis who took jobs with those companies.

But working in Iraq wasn't just about covering myself up. Our company took steps to protect ourselves, just like the NYT did for its employees. I was fortunate to be working for close friends who have strong military backgrounds. As I've mentioned in another post, I carried a submachine gun with me much of the time. I had to train with it for a couple of days until it didn't scare me and I could consistently hit something the size of a man on his knees from a number of positions and while moving.

I had fired guns before in the U.S. and am licensed to carry one. But I'd never fired anything as violent as the gun I was given by my employers. As one of them explained, mine was the most effective gun I could easily carry for my body size, assuming I hit what I was aiming at. But sometimes men just talk too much. Their reasons for the choice, "You've got to be able to shoot through a car," and, "You've got to be able to shoot through light steel," didn't sound very reassuring to me at all.

Iraqi men aren't particularly accepting of their women walking around with machine guns. They tolerate it to a greater extent with western women, but they're not pleased about that, either. And concealing the gun under traditional Iraqi clothes makes it harder to get to or control. For that reason mine more often than not stayed under my seat when I'd be out of the truck.

Then there were security issues I dealt with almost exclusively. As the person responsible for scheduling travel, I had to learn what times were best for movement and what routes were safest, and if possible, I scheduled our movements with those of other companies. On rare occasions we were able to move with military, mostly through the personal connections of my bosses.

Not being a big company or one with the budget of the NYT, we didn't have the armored cars or buffer vehicles crammed with trained security. Instead, we had a number of boring-looking used vehicles that were changed out between engineers and traded for different ones on a somewhat regular basis.

Doing this reduced the chances of our trucks becoming recognizable and those driving them becoming targets for insurgents. On the downside, we also had to be just as careful as normal Iraqi citizens when near the military, lest we be mistaken for insurgents. It also meant that on many occasions we would be required to leave our vehicles in order to speak to military and police security. For our big white guys, that wasn't an ideal thing to have to do.

For a while, the military wasn't friendly about some of our individual movements over the countryside, but those movements were often necessary, and it was up to me to at least try to keep them to a minimum and as trouble-free as possible. Every day’s route was different whenever different was possible. It's not that we got bored with the scenery, but where travel is concerned it's important to alter your routes.

There are times when you can't do that, because there's only one way in and out. When that's the case it makes it easier for the bad guys to target you. Then all the need to do is pin down your approximate travel schedule, and they can hang out to IED you. Changing routes was important, but so was knowing the routes chosen were actually safe, open, or in some cases, that they even existed. For this kind of information we traded info with our client companies and the military, and we developed a series of maps as a result.

Within our own company these ended up working successfully, because none of us was killed or wounded. But they weren't infallible, because several contractors and workers from other companies who used these same routes were. So after all the attention and work, we could only reduce the chance of violence, not remove it entirely. Every time one of us hit the road we were rolling the dice, and it's as simple as that.

Most of us took comfort in the fact that in a way, it wasn't much different from what we'd do back in the U.S. Because in the States, we — and you — take risks as well. Blowouts, drunks, other drivers, they're all out there, and one of them maybe has your number and you know it, but you still get up and go do your job. For a couple of us who ride motorcycles on the street, that's something we're used to just keeping in our heads. You work to reduce your risks to a reasonable level and then go deal with it. It's maybe harder for people who don't ride to accept, but if they think about it, it's all the same.

The roads and routes in Iraq I’m referring to are the same ones that members of the MSM would have traveled if they had chosen to visit any of these job locations. They were welcome to use their armored vehicles if they wished. Several larger contractors usually chose to use them as well. And many contractors had additional security traveling with them. But I'll point out that sometimes they experienced big trouble, and some of them got killed, while others got kidnapped.

Right now, I couldn't say whether our covert methods of security worked any better than the armor-plated-guns-bristling versions. No contractors drove right into firefights by choice, but violence still happened. But unless the violence became absolutely ridiculous, we still went to work and did our jobs. According to Dexter and the Times, those risks weren't worth taking, unless -- and I didn't see the coverage of his that you mentioned -- he could be embedded or, apparently, the story was sensational enough to merit it. That's not my fault, Bob. I didn't write it, and I didn't live with that as a part of my job. Then again, I didn't take a job as a war reporter.

The body count for contractors as posted by Cal is pretty impressive. But that doesn't count all of the support labor killed or otherwise harmed. When it gets into those people the numbers grow considerably. Throw in the security personnel and it gets worse. By the time you add in Iraqi government workers associated with the projects, I believe the number is in the thousands. I don't believe anybody in or outside of Iraq can deny that contractors and those associated with them have been prime targets for terrorists and insurgents.

Continued tomorrow: Part two is 'I Learned to Handle Myself'.