The police station’s empty windows are black against the night sky, sandbags piled high in the windows to provide protection from mortar rounds. Inside the building, soldiers sleep on dirty concrete floors, often using their hard body armor as a pillow. They sleep where they have collapsed, exhausted from a long day and night of continuous dismounted patrols and sandbag details.
On all sides of the police station stretches the decaying town. I am told that the towns population is 25,000... not all of them friendly.
My platoon has 38 men.
Soldiers are calling it “The Alamo.”
The stillness of the night is broken by shots to the north. I stop my pacing and look up. The shots continue to echo into the night, blending into one rapid blur of noise. From the roof of the police station, behind a sandbag bunker, I scan the outlines of the short, squat, yellow brick buildings for signs of life. Their crumbling facades are lit in the distance by naked fluorescent lights.
Unconsciously I begin to count shots. Ten single shots in rapid succession.
The Wahabi district of town is restless tonight.
I walk to the north wall on the roof of the Alamo and look out over no-mans land. No-mans land stretches before me in the darkness, a half kilometer of broken ground, trash, feral dogs, and half-grown, stunted weeds. When Saddam ordered the city built, he left an empty hole in its center. At night it looks like a black gash in the heart of the town, its long black void bisecting the town from east to west. I can’t help but reflect that if Hell had a central park, it would be a lot like this.
Turning and resuming my pacing back and forth across the rooftop brings me to the south wall. A gust of hot wind brings the promise of the coming day’s heat and a whiff of the foul odor of an open sewer from the Shia district.
On a patrol earlier in the day, I discovered the hard way where Iraqis dumped their waste.
Against the south wall, I check on the soldiers on guard duty. The soldiers are trying to stay awake, scanning the city below from gun positions mounted on the rooftops. The soldiers had built the gun positions earlier in the day, establishing a fortified presence in an Iraqi town that had not seen a regular U.S. presence for six months. The long, lethal barrels of the M2 .50 Caliber machine guns are silhouetted against the night sky, their tripods mounted on sandbag platforms. I stop myself from re-testing the sturdiness of the platform. I have already checked it half a dozen times today.
Checking my watch, the blue indigo backlight reflects the time back. 0315. Two hours until daybreak.
As I finish my inspection, I turn and catch a glimpse of an Iraqi flag flying from a pole on the west wall. Earlier in the morning, the Iraqi flag flying from the pole was a filthy rag, torn and frayed, its black, white, and red stripes barely discernable beneath the caked dirt.
The Iraqi police were similarly disheveled, disheartened after the murder of one of their own by insurgents earlier in the week. They wandered the police station with their blue police shirts un-tucked, and their checkpoints at the gate and their gun positions on the rooftops of the prison unmanned.
But this flag is different. It is beautiful.
Its stripes shimmering in the darkness, bordered by a fringe of gold tassels, the words “God is Great” are picked out in a dark green in Arabic. Sometime during the day, as my platoon dug in its fortifications, I noticed the Iraqi police beginning to man their guns and their checkpoints. They walked with their backs a little straighter…. and within a few hours of the arrival of my platoon, the Iraqi police remembered who they were and what they stood for.
As I lie down to sleep on the dusty concrete roof of the Alamo, I can not help but feel a burst of admiration for the Iraqi police. They have remembered their duty to their country, and with a little security, feel bold enough to change out their ruined flag for a new one.
Two hours later, I awake from a deep sleep to the insistent sound of an Imam issuing his call to the faithful. From a blue and green minaret glowing in the morning sun, the wailing prayer reverberates throughout the Alamo, and echoes throughout the stirring town bringing the promise of a new day.