"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Goin' huntin'

So a couple of days ago, I got my first chance to fly a slightly different kind of mission than what I've done thus far. Instead of hauling ass and trash from FOB to FOB, I got a crack at tracking down local miscreants. The mission is known as Aeroscout, and pretty much boils down to hunting bad guys. A little background: our increased presence in the populated areas of Anbar, coupled with the local tribes' rejection of AQI, has pretty much expelled insurgents and other shadowy characters, like oil smugglers, from urban areas. They've been forced to set up shop in the (extensive) open desert, where we have little to no troop presence. Aeroscout is designed to extend our presence into those wilds, denying freedom of movement and any kind of 'breathing room' to these malcontents. Our targets are sometimes insurgent safe houses, caches, etc, but one of the biggest trades in the dunes and wadis is oil smuggling. Now, it might sound like we're expending significant military resources on what is essentially a customs or constabulary problem; however, while the smaller fish may be tapping the pipelines for a quick buck, the big ones use the cash to support criminal and terrorist activities, and have a large and elaborate network that turns the profits into deadly weapons systems. But big or little, they're damaging this country's vital infrastructure, and in the past have operated virtually uninhibited. Aeroscout was introduced to change that.

So my day to fly it finally came this week, and I gotta say, I was excited about this break from the ordinary. It would be a long day like always, but if it went well, you could really feel like you directly contributed to our efforts in this province (plus, we had a team from the Discovery Channel embedded in the grunt unit, so if it went well we'd be the stars of our own version of Cops). So we loaded up the troops and off we went.

The first couple of sites we poked around had nothing interesting going on, so we pressed on to the lakeshore to inspect a small encampment with a dozen or so locals and a handful of boats. You can ship things in boats, and the lake isn't exactly patrolled by the Coast Guard, so we landed to take a closer look. It turned out the locals were quite ordinary, but talking to them can produce good intelligence, and if nothing else they could pass on to any smuggler-types the fact that we could drop out of the sky at any moment. The grunts gave them a few care packages, known as "speed-balls": backpacks filled with toys and soccer balls (kid version), or more mundane gear for adults, and in both cases packed with food and water. The fishermen, or whatever they were, quite enjoyed this; one of them held his up high and ran around, taunting his friends who proceeded to chase him down. As we lifted, they waved us good-bye. We were about two hours into the mission with no smugglers thus far; but we showed ourselves to be the first part of "no better friend, no worse enemy" and spread some goodwill, which could pay us dividends in that area in the future.

From that point on, however, it was game on. Almost as soon as we left the fishermen, we found a couple of "bongo" trucks (local versions of pick-ups) driving along a wadi, and a quick pass revealed several barrels - oil still wet on the top of them - stacked in the back of each. "Red-handed", I believe, is the word. Driving in a wadi in the middle of a desert was an indication of guilt by itself: these dry river-beds are great places to travel if you don't want anyone who might be standing in the desert to see you. Our bird pushed to one side of the gully to land on the opposite plateau and drop off our grunts; Dash Two, apparently opting for a little "shock and awe", flew into the wadi and landed between the trucks. The drivers knew the jig was up and got out of their trucks with no fuss (what does one do, after all, when you're puttering along with your illegal cargo displayed for the world to see, and then ten seconds later you're engulfed in a blizzard of dust, out of which appears dozens of Marines?). We captured them, tagged the trucks, and told higher where they were for a later pick-up.

A few minutes after lifting, we found another bubba driving a bongo full of barrels and invited ourselves in for a little conversation. Coming in on final, a crew chief reported that our rotor wash had blown in his driver-side window; further investigation by the grunts revealed that the truck was brand-new, with stickers still on the windshield, and probably stolen. The driver's window was doubtless a jury-rigged deal, repaired to cover up the fact that he'd smashed it in to steal the vehicle. The guy confessed immediately: he'd already sold his product, and was on the return leg with $90 million Iraqi dinar in his truck. That's only about $7000 U.S., but that goes a long way in the local economy, and is more than enough for a few assault rifles, explosives, or an RPG. Bagged and tagged, we lifted and pressed on.

Not long after we came across a veritable convoy, each truck with barrels in the back and drivers so guilty they didn't even try to run when they saw us. Time was getting short, so we picked the middle truck, landed, and snagged its occupant. By now, we'd already had a very productive day; some Aeroscouts don't find anything worth landing on, and here we were, three vehicles interdicted with enough daylight left to catch one more, if we could find it.

Turns out, we could. We soon tracked two supertankers driving through the desert, and one pass was enough to see fresh oil stains on the top of each. Supertankers are the jackpot in this trade, the big fish; the smugglers who drive them are part of sophisticated networks that can muster resources like this, stealing huge amounts of crude and selling it to bankroll some really bad dudes. We swooped in, thinking we'd hit the motherlode after an already lucrative day.

Unfortunately (for us, anyway), this pair turned out to be legitimate. Their papers were real (or, if fake, superbly forged) and their story of hauling it to a cement factory rang true with the infantry commander. We left them in peace, feeling a little disappointed that our last bust was anticlimactic. Still, the grunt commander was quite happy with our tally at the end of the day: goodwill dispensed to one set of locals, two vehicles caught with their cargo, and one whose owner would never get to spend the profits from his sale. There may be future dividends as well; however small, these people are part of a network, and they can give us names and places that could lead to bigger players. Most of all, the smugglers are learning that, even in the open desert, they can't hide.

So, the hunt was good and the gods were pleased. The next day, it was back to hauling ass and trash, though we did go to a couple of places out east that used to be verboten for 53s. None of our pilots who'd deployed here before ever went east on past deployments; that takes you to the bigger urban areas, where you couldn't fly, period. Not under cover of darkness, not even with escorts. Strictly no-go. Now, here we were, flying into these places in broad daylight, no escorts, alone and unafraid. Quite a change for our community.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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your bro-bro,