Monday, November 24, 2003

Anatomy of a Decision 
This morning I hopped on a convoy going out on a short run to pick up bottled water and MREs and to drop off and pick up soldiers at the brigade medical clinic. I wanted to go along myself because I wanted to visit the soldier that got wounded last night, and talk to the public affairs office. I used to lead most of those convoys myself, in the early days here, but as we’ve gotten settled we’ve handed off the routine functioning of the unit to the noncommissioned officers—the sergeants--which is as it should be. Good units are commanded by officers, but they are run by NCOs!

So the NCO in charge of the logpacs got his missions from me and the battalion S4 the evening before, and took care of everything—lining up the vehicles, trip tickets, vehicle manifests—everything that needed to be done. The security escort came from Bravo company and was led by a very strong E-7. The mess sergeant was all over the water and MRE resupply mission, assisted by a couple of the unit supply sergeants. The ambulance knew exactly what to do and where to go with the medical transfers. And the security escort of gun trucks knew how to get us there and back safely, and was well drilled in the case of contact. Radio and equipment checks were done right on time. So all I had to do was get the latest intel update from the TOC and go along for the ride.

I was very pleased.

So I hopped in the passenger seat of a humvee that just happened to be going along for the ride. The chaplain was driving. (He usually drives himself, since he doesn’t carry a weapon. That leaves someone else who DOES carry a weapon free to shoot it.)

Although several vehicles in the convoy had radios, the humvee I was riding in did not, and so I was incommunicado if anything happened en route.

But all was well, and we left the gate to the kachunkering sound of chambering rounds.
I don’t know if I can describe how it feels to hear a vehicle full of people all locking and loading simultaneously. I don’t know if I’d call it a ritual in the religious sense—it’s a purely practical gesture. But it definitely has a way of preparing the spirit.

Along the way we passed an intersection on the banks of the Euphrates river, with several fruit and vegetable stands underneath an overpass. As my vehicle, towards the end of the convoy, approached the turn, I saw a man turn and walk away back toward the crowd, behind one of the stalls. He was wearing a coat, a red scarf around his head (in the Palestinian style), and most significantly, carrying a stockless AK-47 across his shoulder as if he were Opie carrying a fishing pole.

There was nothing about him identifying him as a policeman or security guard, authorized to carry a military style weapon. I hadn’t seen policemen wearing head wraps before, either. He was moving away from us. His back was turned, and he was not, himself, an immediate threat.

My first instinct was to jump from the vehicle and capture him, yelling “Kiff!!!” (“Halt!!!”). But that’s problematic in a vehicle with no communications. If I jumped out, the two vehicles behind me would stop, but the rest of the convoy would keep rolling, and I’d be left with me, one gun truck by itself, an ambulance crew, and a chaplain. Hardly the force I want to gather if I'm going to be out picking a fight.

I was also worried about getting hit from the flank by an unseen buddy of his. If he’s an Ali Baba, he’s not working alone.

My second instinct was to drop him on the spot, center of mass.

No, that would be a stupid idea. I didn’t have a clear shot. I would have had to fire left handed. I was in a moving vehicle. He was standing right next to a market. There were kids around, and if I fired, everyone else might have fired wildly in the same direction and we’d have a Fallujah-like moment on our hands.

So I stayed put, kept an eye on him, got the soldier behind me to keep an eye on him—probably too excitedly, in retrospect, and scanned for his buddies.

A few seconds later, I realized that although he could easily have done so, he was making no effort to conceal his weapon. I lowered my rifle, scanned the overpass and anywhere else he might have buddies hiding, but we let the man go. We took no action.

The time elapsed between the spotting and the decision to move on was about five seconds or less.

When we got to brigade, I went into their ops center and gave a report to the intel officer, so they could send a patrol to investigate.

It was nagging at me for a couple of hours. Did I make the right call? Would another convoy run into a deliberate ambush because I let this guy go? Would WE run into it on the way back?

I mentioned it later to the NCO who was behind me and said, “I don’t know…maybe I should have shot him on the spot.” I’m not sure myself how serious I was about that statement. But the sergeant said “No. We’re not kids. That’s something a dumbassed kid in the 82nd would do, and you would have caused a massacre, because everybody would have shot in the same direction.”

He was right.

I found out later that it was an Iraqi security guard who works at that intersection all the time. He wears an armband, but apparently had put his overcoat on, concealing the armband.

The decision to live and let live, in this case, turned out to be the right one.

This time.

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