Celebratory Fire

Updated: July 9, 2015


By J.E. McCollough

After Baghdad fell and the main fighting was over in 2003, my Marine Corps counterintelligence team was moved to Al Kut in southern Iraq. For the majority of the summer of 2003, HET (HUMINT Exploitation Team) Three was in Al Kut on a tiny, postage stamp-sized base on the eastern side of Tigris, just north of the city. We were remote, the main Marine force of Third Battalion/Twenty-Third Marines (3/23, a reserve unit) was on the western side of the Tigris on an old Iraqi air base. They were at least forty minutes from us, across the bridge. We were on our own.

The extent to which we were alone was made perfectly clear the day Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed.

The team had a satellite dish and a tv in the squad bay-style room that served as our quarters, courtesy of excellent scrounging in the Al Kut bazzar with our linguist. We had a few english channels, Al Jazeerah, and of course Al Manar – Lebanese Hizballah’s propaganda channel. There was also an Eastern European music channel that played a lot of Polish ghetto rap. It was weird.

But, during the day on July 22, 2003, nothing came on about Uday and Qusay getting killed. If 3/23 HQ knew, they didn’t radio the news to us.

Evening fell. Some of the team, well, not our lieutenant or team chief, had been boozing’ for several hours, and smoking hookah (just tobacco, no hash!). Being Counterintelligence had its perks back then. We had brands of foreign beer we’d never seen before and rot-gut Lebanese whiskey. Tough on the stomach but it got the job done.

shutterstock_102786401 Just before dusk, small arms fire started in the city. AK-47’s, pistols. We barely looked up from our beers and hookah, celebratory fire is perfectly normal in Iraq. Weddings, funerals, births, Iraqis took any celebration as an excuse to fire weapons into the air. It was disconcerting at first, but we eventually got used to it. It turned into just another part of the Iraqi background noise, like the daily call to prayer wailing from the mosques.

Being mid-summer, it was hot as shit even though it was getting dark. We were all stripped down to our green silkies and flip flops in the 100+ degree weather and the last thing we wanted to think about was enemy fire. We hadn’t been shot at in a couple of months. Well, once or twice, there had been a few pot shots, but nothing serious. No real attacks. It was late-July, the war was over, right?

But that night the small arms fire started to increase. Slowly at first, then, as dusk turned to night the gunfire became almost constant. Heavy machine guns started opening up, red tracers began streaking across the sky over Al Kut, explosions from what sounded like RPG’s sounded in the distance and orange glows flashed from the heart of the city.

The lieutenant started to freak a little bit, he thought the Iraqis were about to come over the wire and kill us all. Actually, we all thought that was a real possibility. The company of Marines holding the base were sober, of course (they didn’t have access to booze), but even so, the tiny base only had some concertina wire and a berm to protects us. If any concerted effort was made to overrun the base, we were all dead, there’s no way we could fight off a serious attack given the relatively poor defensive posture of the base. No one was coming to help us, not that they would be able to get to us in time from the airbase.

And, of course, considering the team was… not sober, we were definitely fucked if any Iraqis actually came over the wire.

HMMWV_Tracer_Fire_darkOur lieutenant ordered us to get into our battle gear. Considering the amount of fire we didn’t bother putting our uniforms, we just ran back into our barracks in nothing more than shorts and flip-flops. We grabbed our weapons, threw on our helmets and body armor and ran (stumbled) back outside to take positions against what we thought was an imminent enemy attack.

I crouched against the barracks wall. Well, leaned, mainly. I had to have looked ridiculous in my helmet, armor, silky shorts and flip-flops. Holding my weapon, and swaying, hoping I wouldn’t have to fire it. And, maybe kinda hoping I would. I guess it’s kind of like drunk driving, fun as hell, but dangerous and stupid as fuck.

Dusk turned to full darkness, and bullets and explosions cracked all around us and throughout the city. A handful of muzzle flashes popped from across the road and the Marines in the overwatch position on the roof above me opened up with the .50. The Ma Deuce thumped out, and brass rained down around us for a hot minute.

The muzzle flashes stopped quickly, and when the 50 cal fell silent, almost on-cue, one of our linguists stuck his head out of the main barracks room, where they’d all been watching satellite TV.

“Hey, guys!” He shouted cheerily. “Fucking Uday and Qusay are dead! Army killed them today! Whoo hoo!”

Celebratory fire explained. We weren’t under attack (aside from a few pot shots). The Shia in Al Kut hated Saddam and his sons. Uday and Qusay had murdered and tortured the Shia for decades, and now the Iraqi Shia celebrated. In style. With explosions. And heavy machine guns.

I slumped back against the wall, clutched my rifle to my chest, and whispered an idiot’s prayer of thanks.




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