Chapter 10: Baghdad Blues
Caleb sullenly watched the mud-and-straw brick buildings slide past. Their lifeless, bedraggled sameness matched his mood. He was riding in a truck full of supplies being taken to the ISIS troops besieging Baghdad. The platoon had hitched a ride on the ISIS convoy, and was spread through the trucks. The buildings they were passing weren't the cause of his foul mood. His second guessing of his actions and decisions were the cause of his anger. Their attack on ISIS was no longer the lark that he had been treating it as. Incontrovertible proof of their vulnerability had that effect. Captain Stan Sloan had been killed, and three other men were wounded. Caleb believed that it was his fault.
The platoon had joined the advance to Migdadivah, and infiltrated the ISIS camps holding the city. They had witnessed several executions of retreating soldiers who told tales of demons praising ISIS, and a voice from on high urging them to forgo violence. Most troops kept their own council during the executions, but they knew what they saw, and heard. Caleb believed stoking the burgeoning anger in the troops at their leadership was helpful. He was right, but hadn't considered what would happen if that anger ignited into violence.
There were several separate camps of ISIS troops in Migdadivah, each with its own Imam or Mullah. The Mullahs were ministering to their subgroups by reading from the Koran, and explaining what the words really meant, in reference to their task. Every hour or so, the execution of a blasphemer was used to punctuate a lesson. The victim was normally a sinner that had violated some rule in the passage just read. Most of the rules discussed seemed to be about false prophets and allegiance to their leaders. Apparently, spreading rumors, and questioning the validity of their Mullahs, was one of the rules that shouldn't be broken.
Caleb had been confused by the separation of the troops, at first, until he received a report back from the city's ISIS command center. A team had managed to get eyes and ears on the command group, and it was enlightening. The defending forces had been segregated into small groups for better control. If the rumors of demons infected a small group, it was easy to control. Rumors in a very large group were impossible to control. The ISIS commander in charge must be pretty smart. Caleb was impressed, but really didn't like the idea of smart ISIS commanders. He decided to figure out something special for the man.
The platoon broke into ten fire teams of four men each, and spread throughout the camps. Caleb took one team to the command group. Captain Sloan took four teams to silence the heavy and mobile weapons. The rest of the teams scattered through the encampment. Caleb waited until everyone was in position to start the attack.
The command group had a bank of monitors set up, and were watching each group of soldiers via security cameras.
"Go," Caleb mentally ordered each of the teams.
On cue, each Mullah fell to the ground writhing. No one could see the tiny darts in their backs, or the wires leading back to a small taser.
"You would deny our existence?" boomed throughout every camp. A demon-like figure suddenly appeared, standing over each of the Mullahs, and roared, "You are all mine! By your violent actions and disdain for human life, you have sealed yourselves to me!"
"Kill them!" the senior commander screamed, pointing at the screens. "Shoot them!"
Caleb stepped forward, still invisible, and formed a knife with his armor. The blade sprouted from the face of his clenched fist, then thinned until the point and edges tapered to a sharpness only achievable at the molecular level.
Still invisible, Caleb punched the blade through the back of the senior commanders neck. His armor sealed the entry wound, and very little blood could be seen from the back. A gush of blood erupted from the senior commanders mouth, along with a black, forked tongue. The tongue flicked upward, twice, plucking the man's eyeballs from his head.
A deep voice purred with a raspy, hungry sound, obviously from the dying commander, "OUR MASTER HAS COME FOR US. ON YOUR KNEES TO GREET HIM!"
"Damn, Major!" Staff Sergeant Clemens mentally complained in bemusement, a few moments later, as he watched what was left of the ISIS command group running and screaming. "Warn me before you pull stuff like that. I almost beat them out the door!"
"I think I need to find a head and clean up," Sergeant Spencer complained. "I'm pretty sure I messed my pants!"
"Heads up," Caleb announced to the rest of the platoon spread throughout the camp, ignoring the byplay between the two soldiers. "Parts of the ISIS Command Staff may show up at their units soon. They are running pretty scared, so be aware they will be unpredictable. Everybody disappear, and stay out of the way for a few moments. Let's see what they do next."
Caleb narrowed his communications focus, and told the fire team with him, "Gather everything that looks like it might have intelligence value. We can see if anyone in Baghdad can use it tomorrow, or the next day, whenever we get there."
Shots could be heard across the compound, sporadic at first, but growing in intensity.
"Everybody pull back," Caleb ordered urgently. "They don't have to be aiming at you to hurt you. Pull back!"
The thump-thump-thump of a twenty-millimeter cannon hammered across the encampment, quickly followed by the detonations of exploding rounds.
"Man down! Man down!" Master Sergeant Bill Abbot announced calmly across the platoon mental network. "They seem to be fighting between the different groups and their heavy weapons are firing at everybody. Staff Sergeant Ellis is hurt."
"Captain Sloan's down, too," Master Chief Marconi added with the same calm demeanor. A moment later they heard, "Damn! Damn! Damn!" no longer calm, and very angry. "The Captain's dead. One of those twenties must have hit him in the head. He didn't have a chance."
"All hands, pull back," Caleb ordered. "Assembly ... Point Baker. Leave no one behind, alive or dead."
"I've got Ellis," Master Sergeant Abbot reported. "He's conscious. We'll ... Unh..."
"Top Abbot just got hit," Staff Sergeant Ellis broadcast raggedly, his thoughts tightly controlled, and tense with pain. "We'll need some help here. "
"I've got Overton," Sergeant Langley broadcast anxiously. "He was hit in the arm, but it must have been a fifty."
"Ellis ... Are you and the Top being targeted?" Caleb demanded.
"No, sir," Ellis replied. "I think we ended up in a shooting gallery. Neither side could see us. They were shooting at each other."
"Gunny Devereux, you're closest," Caleb announced. "Take your team and extract Ellis and Top Abbot. Try to do it without anyone else getting shot!"
"Yes, sir," Gunny Devereux replied, his thoughts tense. "Extract troops and don't get shot. Aye, Aye, sir."
Strained chuckles could be heard, mentally, at the Gunny's response, as the rest of the platoon carefully extracted themselves from the hornets' nest they found themselves in.
Captain Sloan had been hit with a twenty millimeter explosive round. The round hit him in the temple. The armor was probably what prevented decapitation, but it hadn't saved his life.
A fifty caliber had gone through Top Abbot's side. The shock knocked him out, but the nanites began repairing him immediately, and his Companion marshaled the body's own resources to repair the damage.
Another fifty caliber had taken most of Petty Officer Second Class Saul Overton's left arm below the elbow. His Companion assured everyone that, between him and the nanites, the appendage would be as good as new, in a few months. In the meantime, his armor became his hand attached to his arm. At first it wasn't as dexterous as his original arm, but he learned to use the armor hand for most things within a few hours. He could even fire his rifle.
Staff Sergeant Ellis had also been hit by a twenty millimeter cannon, midway between his right knee and ankle. The round had been armor piercing instead of explosive, and it had severed the foot and ankle with the precision of a surgeon. His lost appendage would also grow back, but it would take a little longer than an arm. Like Overton, Ellis could use his armor as a replacement for his foot for short periods of time. Standing put pressure on the growing stump, and the act of his Companion pumping endorphins into his system was the only thing that made it bearable.
Caleb believed he should have foreseen the outcome. He had spent most of the trip to Baghdad convincing himself of that.
Master Chief Marconi moved up beside Caleb, and asked, "Major, may I ask you a question?"
"I think you just did, Chief," Caleb said sourly. After a moment's silence, he said, "Sorry, Chief. Old joke. What is your question?"
"Major, that joke was old when I was a kid, and I'm ancient," Marconi advised. "I wanted to ask you how long you've been a major?"
"Well, let me see," Caleb began, sarcasm clear in his words, but the Chief could tell that he wasn't angry about the question. "We've been in this hell hole for six weeks. There was the four weeks of training, and two weeks of selection. That would make it just a little over twelve weeks."
"Damn! How long were you a Captain?" the Chief asked in surprise, and more than a little confusion.
"Do you mean, a Captain on active duty in the army?" Caleb asked.
"Uh ... Yeah." the Chief responded, confused even more by the question.
"That would be a little over twelve weeks, too," Caleb replied wryly. "I was hired to work in the Texas Attorney General's office as a terrorist troubleshooter. I needed a rank for the job, so they made me a Captain. I got out of the army several years ago. I was a Master Sergeant in the army, but got out after eleven years."
"Why'd you get out?" Marconi asked, after considering Caleb's answer.
Caleb snorted in self-derision, and choked out, "I couldn't deal with the glory grabbing officers that didn't care how many lives they spent grabbing that glory."
Chief Marconi nodded thoughtfully before saying, "Okay. That explains a lot. I've known a few officers like you're describing. You don't see them in the Seals, because the training weeds the bad ones out. I've seen them in other cadres though: Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force."
"What's your point, Chief?" Caleb asked bitterly. "Are you trying to figure out why I f•©ked up so bad?"
"What? No!" the Chief protested. "What are you talking about, 'f•©ked up'?
"I got a man killed," Caleb gritted out.
"Okay! I call 'Bullshit'," Chief Marconi scoffed. "But I'll get to that in a moment. I was asking because officers are normally more mentally prepared for losing people than you seem to be. The ... um ... Your fast track seems to have skipped that class."
"Listen, Major," the Chief continued in a stern voice. "I've spent four tours, in country, between Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been shot, stabbed, and concussed by IEDs. I've lost men ... hell ... There was only me and one other man left from one team. I don't think I did anything wrong, any time, but I still lost people. I was doing the best I knew how. That's all anyone can do. Second guessing yourself is fine on your own time. Second guessing while still engaged with the enemy is a good way to get people killed."
"Maybe my best isn't good enough," Caleb snapped.
"Maybe so," the Chief snapped right back. "That isn't your call though, is it? None of us want to be here, Major. We're here, doing whatever job we're assigned, the best we can, because we were ordered to do this job. Yes, we all volunteered for Ghost, but the platoon was ordered to do a job, so we're here doing it."
Caleb didn't say anything. All he did was grit his teeth, and look away.
"I think it's time to get back to that 'bullshit'," the Chief continued acidly. "You think you got a man killed. Those maniacs killed him, not you. If you thought we were going to get through this mission without losing people, you're delusional, or stupid. Personally, I don't believe you are stupid. Have you considered what you've accomplished so far? The ISIS hasn't suffered a setback like this since they coined the name, and we only lost one man. We have accomplished more than any other unit, and only lost one man doing it. Personally, I'd follow you about anywhere, and the men feel the same way, as ... long ... as ... you're ... willing ... to ... lead."
The sat in silence for several long minutes.
Finally, Caleb quietly said, "I understand. Thanks, Chief."
Chief Marconi didn't reply. He laid one hand on Caleb's shoulder, as if he were bracing himself as he got to his feet, and moved back into position to see the road ahead again.
"Are you over your funk?" Scotty asked, sounding frustrated with Caleb.
"Yeah. The Master Chief chewed me out and set me straight," Caleb replied morosely.
"Good. Someone needed to, and you wouldn't listen to me," Scotty replied. "What are you planning for Baghdad?"
"I'm not sure," Caleb replied after a moment's hesitation. "A couple of fire teams went ahead to gather intel. I'll need to see what they find out before I can make firm plans."
Caleb organized his thoughts, considering Scotty's question, before continuing with, "The way I see it, we have three or four different problems in Baghdad, depending on how you want to parse it. The Iraqi Parliament is a mess. There are a few members that genuinely care for the country as a whole. Then there are the partisans that only care about their Shia or Sunni sects, with a sixty-five percent majority committed to the Shiites'. Saddam's Ba'ath party were Sunni, the same as ISIS. They had a little over thirty percent of the population, and ruled by militarily dominating the Shia Muslims. Since Saddam's fall, the Shia have controlled the Parliament, and felt justified in getting some of their own back. That has been the major roadblock to creating a unified government in Iraq. Now we have ISIS on the scene, and the dysfunctional parliament doesn't seem capable of dealing with them. The troops from Iran are in the city, also Shia Muslims, and supposedly are here to help Iraq fight ISIS. I don't believe Iran is out to help anyone but themselves."
"Scotty, early intel reports tension so high, and morale so low, I could light a match and the whole city would go up like a powder keg. ISIS wouldn't need to attack. All they would need is infiltrators in the right place, and they could just walk in and take over," Caleb concluded.
"What about the ISIS troops?" Scotty asked.
Caleb mentally shrugged, before replying, "The teams checked their disposition before moving into Baghdad. The ISIS units have received word of the setbacks at Baqubah and Migdadivah. They've deployed their troops further apart to prevent contamination between units. They are worried about the same insanity striking here. I tasked a fire-team to stay with ISIS to keep them on edge, but with orders not to push them over the edge. They'll be appearing in flashes here and there, so quickly the troops and leaders will wonder if they really saw something. Frankly, I think the problems within Baghdad are worse than the ISIS threat. I want to use the ISIS threat to keep the Baghdad issues contained."
"That sounds okay," Scotty replied, his thoughts tinged with doubt. "Any ideas about what will happen next?"
"Not a clue," Caleb replied, sounding tired and frustrated. "Hell, Scotty, these people have been fighting since the year 632. They'll probably still be fighting in 2632! There is no way that we can stop them from fighting. If they didn't keep trying to attack America, I would say build a wall around them, and see who comes out alive. I don't want one more American dying in an Islamic religious war!"
"I agree with that," Scotty responded fervently. "Unfortunately, as long as they keep attacking America, we are involved. Don't forget the objective of your mission. We need to draw Branch out of hiding. Maybe it would be best to bypass Baghdad, and strike closer to Syria."