The Tortoise and the Tank Face Off at Fort Irwin 

A battle in the desert over territory and resources, starring hard-shelled refugees, burger-loving insurgents and a couple of dazed road warriors

Wednesday, Aug 20 2008

Sand in The Box

The worst sandstorm in John Wagstaffe’s memory is at full howl. We’re deep inside Iraq, somewhere between the towns of Medina Jabal and Medina Wasl, on a day when the threat of violence is as thick as the squalls of sand. But there’s something about the way Wagstaffe never goes anywhere without a carton of cigarettes that inspires if not confidence, then something like good cheer. Even as the sandstorm reaches a blinding rage, Wagstaffe, our military handler, maintains the upbeat demeanor of a tour guide. Until, that is, we lose sight of the vehicle in front of us and drive off the shallow and slightly smoothed path in the desert sand that serves as our road.

Our caravan is three-strong. The lead vehicle, like ours, is a white van with a U.N. sign in the front and back windows. The signs are meant to indicate we’re not fair game, though, as Wagstaffe warns, indiscriminate IEDs don’t pay attention to such warnings. Following us is a blue SUV carrying a documentary team from Sweden. They have no signs.

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We find our way back to the road, but the sandstorm raises a couple of issues. Veering off the path again could send us into a ditch or, perhaps, into one of the phantom Humvees that patrol the fringes of this sand-clouded route like sharks in murky water. Or maybe we’ll just hit the van in front of us, or be hit by the SUV from the rear. Wagstaffe isn’t exactly flustered, but he is a bit less unflappable than usual. I suggest that he radio the van in front of us to tell the driver to put on its hazard lights so we have something to follow.

“That would be great,” he tells me, “but we don’t have any radios.”

Sweet, I think, the world’s last dollar is going to be spent out here, but we don’t have walkie-talkies.

When we careen off the road again, the caravan stops and we wait until the sandstorm lets up enough for us to find the road back to Medina Wasl. I’m worried we’re going to miss the firefight that’s rumored to be taking place in less than a half-hour.

We crossed over the Kuwaiti border and into Iraq earlier this morning, June 4, 2008, at 10:40 a.m. There’s a military designation for that time but damned if I know what it is. After a quick debriefing from Wagstaffe and a successful negotiation of a checkpoint on the outskirts of the main base, we’re bound for the heart of what’s known as The Box — 1,200 square miles of sand, hills and shrub as far as the eye can see, occasionally interrupted by a mountain range or a spectral Hummer with a .50 caliber machine gun on top. The Box is where the shit goes down, and, if all goes as planned, we’ll be there to see it.

A mile or two into Iraq, proceeding east, Wagstaffe points out a mosque on a hill. “It’s where the Muslims go to pray,” he says. “It also gets blown up periodically.”

Not long after, we approach Medina Wasl, a village that comprises 70 percent Sunnis and 30 percent Shiites. Medina Wasl is little more than a stretch of primitive buildings along a main street. Like so many towns and villages in Iraq, it has its problems.

“Massive unemployment, insurgent activity, sectarian violence,” says Wagstaffe, before adding cheerily, “normally, on Wednesday night they slice the imam’s throat.”

Wagstaffe is a crusty denizen of this here desert and a salty vet of this man’s army. He was Colin Powell’s spokesman back when the good general ran the show, and can’t say enough positive things about our former secretary of state. Especially when it comes to Powell’s facility with the internal-combustion mechanics of his favorite automobile, the Volvo. According to Wagstaffe, the general was practically a certified Volvo mechanic. Ah, if only he could read intelligence reports as well as car manuals ... but that’s another story.

As far as this one goes, I want to say up front that Wagstaffe is a good egg and whatever happens out here in the desert is not his fault. He’s a good egg and a ripe red tomato. At least, his sun-blasted skin is the color of a ripe red tomato, an impression made all the more vivid by the shock of blond hair on top of his tomato face.

We park outside the village walls and proceed on foot. A couple of U.S. soldiers huddled on each side of a short alley between buildings politely but firmly ask us to get the hell out of the way. We slither past the soldiers and move down the main street, keeping close to the buildings. The tension is thick; the street is strangely still. Soldiers point rifles down the middle of the road and watch for anything suspicious-looking. Wagstaffe is less demure than his guests and strolls out into the fray like he’s bulletproof. He waves me over to talk with one of the less-harried-looking soldiers, Staff Sergeant Lewis Maffei, an Observer Controller — a higher-ranking combat vet here assessing U.S. troops’ performance.

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