An iPod at the Observation Post

I manned the Army’s main observation post in central Baghdad in June and July of 2004, and I have to admit that I took my iPod with me most of the time. This will seem shocking to older infantry-types who knew LP/OPs (Listening Post / Observation Post) as little spots on the perimeter of your unit’s defensive position in the woods, which you slithered up to on your belly in the middle of the night to spend a few hours silently listening and scanning through a starlight scope while dipping tobacco and instant coffee to stay awake–and to keep from hallucinating. This was also my idea of an OP until I got to Baghdad, since I was mostly trained to lead an infantry platoon in the Vietnam War.

I know how to take a trenchline without armored support, and how to twist a bayonet into someone’s gut to achieve maximum damage and incapacitation, to give you an idea. But the job of peacekeeping in Iraq, especially in and around the Green Zone, was very different from what any of us had trained for. I took an elevator to my OP. I brought my iPod and a few small cold cans of “Mr. Brown’s” Iced Coffee which I dropped (the iPod and one of the Mr. Browns) into the beer-can holders in the arms of the OP’s folding lawn chair, which sat under a camo net next to a large laser-range finder, a pair of quality binoculars, and a cooler which was hopefully stocked with ice.

Note that this particular OP was on the roof of the Al-Rasheed Hotel, which was probably the most heavily guarded building in the country, including the embassy. An entire SEAL team lived there—members of which were surprisingly metrosexual. One SEAL in particular would appear on the roof from time to time to talk to his significant other on a breadbox-sized satellite phone wearing flip-flops and Abercrombie-type cutoff shorts. He obviously worked out a lot, which isn’t surprising for a spec-ops type. But less in keeping with character, he shaved his chest.

A few of my lower-ranking troops complained that the chatty, loitering SEAL made them uncomfortable. I think they were mostly joking. What made me uncomfortable about the SEALs is that whenever there was a demonstration or large public gathering outside the walls they liked to set up on the roof with M82s, which are sniper rifles that fire .50 cal BMG. .50 BMG is a huge load that will go through cinder blocks and commercial brick walls, and for film reference purposes is about four times the size of the biggest bullet Rambo fired in First Blood. First of all, as the person in charge of the rooftop snipers (we posted our own during demonstrations) it was disconcerting to have some Navy snipers I’d never met and didn’t control lolling about and peering through their scopes for fun. But further, in the not-out-of-the-question event that it became suddenly necessary to shoot someone, the .50 would go through as many bodies as happened to be between the initial target and the pavement. Thankfully we never had to fire at anyone.

One common misconception of the Iraq “war” is that the allied soldiers were largely responsible for the extravagant body-count documented by human rights organizations. I saw my fair share of carnage during my tour, but none that the coalition troops caused. Another misconception is that the insurgency consists of nationalists or pan-Arabists resisting foreign occupation—we were certainly attacked, but the vast majority of the violence in central Baghdad was directed at Iraqi civilians or recruits for the new Iraqi Army or police. This is why it is correct to call most insurgents “terrorists.” But I digress; the point is that the Al-Rasheed Hotel was secure. Unlike the guys on all the other OPs in theatre, I didn’t have to worry about someone sneaking up behind me and putting one in the back of my fitted Pro-Era, Wire Season Five-style. Hence the liberties with the lawn chair and iPod.

In my defense, I only used one of the ear-buds at a time, and I kept the volume low. This never affected my ability to hear a car bomb or a mortar impact, the latter of which happened at least thrice daily that summer. I also didn’t keep the ear bud in constantly, but instead listened to a song once and then replayed it in my head a few times. A piece of music playing on loop in your head is called an “ear-bug,” according to a Berklee alumnus friend of mine.

I have always found that the music I imagine is more intense and epic than any music I actually hear; I’m not sure if this is common. As a child, I used to hum constantly while keeping the beat by lightly gnashing my teeth. It’s loud inside your head, but very quiet outside. I still do this, and so passed many hours on the top of the Al-Rasheed accordingly, although I had the freedom to snap my fingers. I once studied a video of Quincy Jones snapping the beat for his studio bands, and I can snap loudly, now, like Quincy Jones. I snapped quietly at the OP, though, so I could be sure to hear mortar impacts.

My iPod was the first generation of 40 GB iPods, and a guy named Mansky, who I’d met a few months earlier at the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course in Georgia, had filled it. Mansky had a giant, ruddy shaved head that looked almost infantile in its shape; he did this funny thing where he’d stuff one hand down his pants and point at you with the other hand while giving you crazy-eyes and breathing through his mouth. He got detailed to the infantry after requesting a cushy job as a supply officer, and spent most of the four-month basic course trying to figure out how to get out of going to ranger school, which is almost mandatory for active-duty infantry officers. Before he got commissioned into the Army, he was a High Fidelity-style record store clerk in Philadelphia, and he had a truly impressive decade-spanning collection of indie rock CDs which I spent weeks ripping in my off-duty time in Georgia. I was most of the way through my year in Iraq before I had acquainted myself with all my new albums from the 80′s bands I’d never heard of, like Slint and X Japan. Pretty much all the new 22 year-old Lieutenants I knew from my four months in Georgia are now Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. Many have gone twice or three times. Mansky’s tour was ’06-’07, I think.

Read Part I, here.

By Studs Ford


  1. (not) Brent Newland says:

    dear riaa,