Justin Cliburn speaks about his time as a gunner in Iraq.
When people ask what I did in Iraq, I try to explain what our mission was, where that mission took us and how I fit into the equation. After almost six years of trying to explain it, I have learned that people want to hear it in one sentence … and they want to know if you were in a combat role.
The simple answer is that my job was to point guns at people, big guns, on the streets of Baghdad. My squad escorted military and State Department personnel to police stations in Baghdad, where they trained Iraqi police forces. Sometimes the grunts were asked to train the officers, but we mostly kept watch inside the station compound. I was a gunner and manned the .50 caliber machine gun atop the Humvee. To my left was an M249 machine gun while my M4 rifle rested on my right. My M9 pistol was on my hip at all times. Few people in country had more firepower than me.
What I initially loved about being a gunner was the freedom. I was not cooped up in the Humvee; I raised my head and arms out of the hatch like a dog stick its head through a car window. When we were traveling 50, 60, 70 mph, the winds could cool me down even on the hottest days. I felt more connected to the Iraqis around me. I could make eye contact, wave, toss toys and candy to the children. That personal interaction worked both ways though.
My primary goal was to keep traffic and pedestrians as far away from our convoy as possible. This was during the Civil War of 2006 and it seemed every faction was bombing the other. We were in the crossfire and I was not to let any potential bombers invade our space. When someone tested us, through negligence or frustration, I was responsible for our safety.
The rules of engagement included the escalation of force provisions that I came to know so well. If someone got too close, I was to first “shout” a verbal warning. If that did not deter the person, I would “show” force by aiming my rifle at them in an aggressive manner. If that did not work, I was authorized to “shoot” a warning round at the vehicle or near the person. If none of the above worked, I was authorized to fire on someone if I felt that he or she posed a legitimate threat.
The power that a gunner has is hard to imagine for most people. In seconds, a gunner can decide who lives or dies, including his friends and brothers in arms. Still, I will remember that year as the most powerless I’ve ever felt.
The vast majority of people that I persuaded with my rifle were just careless or impatient. Baghdad is a big city and people have to get to work. We would force traffic to the side of the road until we passed, and sometimes people would try to speed up or maybe get away with just slowing down a little bit. Sometimes cars would appear on the highway from an on-ramp and not see the convoy they were merging with. Other times Iraqi police personnel would mistakenly believe that they were immune to our rules of the road.
In all these cases, I lunged forward from the hatch of the Humvee and angrily stared the driver down through the sights of the rifle. The anger was usually an act. We were trained to look like “hard targets” for anyone looking for an easy kill. The army taught us that and a lot of other things, but they never prepared us for looking someone in the eye while pointing a rifle at their face. No matter how much a good guy you think you are, those eyes tell you different. You are the bad guy … and you don’t have a choice.
As the Civil War unfolded around us, I realized that our mission to train the Iraqi police forces was failing. The police was divided along the same factional lines. Some of our officers were arrested by the Iraqi army for running a death squad while others were kidnapped, tortured and killed. After we detained a friend of the police, we had a couple of suspicious close calls with IEDs planted just outside the entrance we used. Another one killed a couple of soldiers in a different convoy on a day that we were scheduled to be there. It became clear that, although there were some very genuinely good guys working there, the Iraqi police were not our friends.
We could not even protect the children that we came to love. I watched as children walked home from school during a firefight. The boy that I befriended the most was killed by a suicide bomber. The day that I learned that news is the worst day of my life. After a day of grief, I put on my brave face and went “outside the wire” to do my job.
Shortly after that tragedy, I listened in suspense as I heard a man’s life end over the medical evacuation radio frequency. I could not change the channel, and I could not help the man. I just listened and felt helpless. In the year I spent in Iraq, I carried four guns and didn’t save a single damn soul. Aside from the children that I know I helped, I know that I terrified someone new each day.
When the year was up, and we were packing to leave, my friend turned to me and said, “I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way, but aren’t you going to miss this?”
“Miss what?” I asked.
I don’t miss the power. I don’t miss the look a man gives you when he’s staring at the wrong end of a barrel. Furthermore, I don’t remember having any power. I did not choose to instill the fear that I did. I did not choose to go to Iraq. I was reacting to the actions of others . . . not that it is any consolation to the Iraqis.
Photo credit: Flickr / Your Local Dave