Boots on the Ground
American troops in Iraq aren't abstractions. They could be your sons or daughters or best friends from high school. To bring that simple truth home, Post photographer Andrea Bruce Woodall walked some very rugged miles in their shoes
Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce Woodall has traveled to Iraq five times since the war began. Most recently, she arrived a week shy of the first anniversary of the invasion in March and stayed through a period in which a widespread insurgency against the U.S. occupation flared anew, and U.S. fatalities approached 1,000. For some Americans, the chaos and violence in Iraq has receded to a kind of grim background noise, distant and impersonal. Woodall set out to dispel that creeping indifference by getting up-close and specific. Here, through her camera's lens and her personal journal, is Iraq as it's seen from the bulletproof window of a Humvee.
I CAN'T GET THE BOMBINGS OUT OF MY HEAD. Not just one, but the aftermath of them all. The metallic smell of blood. The stains on the roads. As if each victim was blown up individually, from the inside out, or maybe dropped from the sky. Razor wire collects flesh like torn pieces of clothing . . . I saw one police officer go mad in Baghdad recently, obsessively picking up stray pieces. I thought, maybe for burial -- but it seemed more drastic, more urgent. U.S. Army and other Iraqi police tried to stop him with force. But he yelled back, shrugging their hands off his shoulder, never losing sight of the ground, the razor wire, the pieces, quickly filling his plastic bag -- until the bag was full and he had to pile the pieces into his hands, gloved in plastic, intestines hanging through his fingers.
People always want me to take pictures of every last piece. Like proof. I have to do it -- we won't use the photos -- but it makes them feel better. An eyeball. Teeth. A finger swept into a corner. Piles of bloody shoes. Brains. Other things that I don't recognize but I know by the smell. Pieces stick to the bottom of my shoes.
No one cries at these scenes. We all -- Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, journalists, family members -- walk from the bombing to the hospitals to the morgue. We are all sleepwalking. Numb. A nightmare. It happens almost every day.
TODAY I PATROLLED WITH THE U.S. ARMY'S 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT THE MISSION WAS. Neither did the soldiers, but they knew the location. It was relayed to them over the radio. One soldier cursed under his breath and looked out the window. Everyone else was quiet -- scared.
Our Humvee pulled up next to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. A soldier from our vehicle ran to it -- it lowered its mouth-like door, and he climbed in. I popped out of the Humvee, wearing helmet and flak jacket, and followed him inside the Bradley. Eight soldiers were already piled inside -- I had to sit in the middle, on everyone's laps. The door closed behind us before the soldiers knew what to say to me. I didn't know these guys -- never been out with them. And I'd never been in a Bradley before. We were in Sadr City.
The air conditioning was broken. Sitting four on one side, four on the other -- the soldiers' knees were touching, and that is where I sat. Guns everywhere. My glasses fogged immediately -- the thickly armored fighting machine was like a sauna. I felt the same nervous quiet that I had experienced in the Humvee, and it made me forget about the sweat pouring off us. One man joked with the medic with exaggerated friendliness. The medic was also new to this group.
Again, it seemed they all knew where they were going and were filled with bad memories.
After two hours riding in the Bradley, I thought I was going to faint. I never faint. I created a mantra: Stay with it, stay with it; don't faint, don't faint. There was only one small window lighting the outside world to us. It was like being crammed into a closet waiting for someone to walk by so that we could open the door and scare them. But the Bradley was a closet only to us. On the outside, it was the loudest and scariest thing in Baghdad. And it was a huge target. At one point, we took small-arms fire. The Bradley returned with force.