Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (12)


Manoucher Avaznia
by Manoucher Avaznia

To the memory of the soldiers who fell before my eyes in the first Persian Gulf War. From my Iran-Iraq war memoirs that has been published in a book titled "A Path To Nowhere" >>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12 -- Part 13 --

A Good Death For Others

In the summer of 1987 more weapons were introduced to the Iraqi side of the conflict. Some of them could be found in our area of defense. In one instance Iraqis used their artillery cluster bombs on southern flanks of the front line that we had occupied in Fakkeh. We always believed using cluster bombs was a prelude to using chemical gas. The cluster bombs that explode in numerous shrapnel in the air above soldiers’ heads cause them take shelter under a roof that normally is the lowest place in the front line. Once in the lowest position, chemical gas that is heavier than the air and descends to the lowest surface is used in order to kill a large number of combatants. In these circumstances the most effective tactic against cluster bombs and chemical agents is to stand on both feet on higher ground with hardhat on head and provide smallest area to the raining shrapnel. Fortunately, in that instance Iraqis did not use chemical agents due to a blowing breeze, though they kept practicing cluster shells for two days on our positions and wounded a few soldiers.

In the same summer we heard Iraqis had received some radars that could be launched by artillery. Neekvarz told me the radars were launched to the air; and from air they safely landed by means of a parachute and immediately started transmitting information to their receivers based in Iraq. It seemed that arms-suppliers were selling drones to Iranian side and at the same time they were selling their small radars to the Iraqi side. I heard of few instances of radars in the area of our battalion. Soldiers had discovered them and had taken them to the regiment. We were expected to be watchful for these radars.

According to the conscription laws ratified by the Iranian National Assembly; The Majless-e Showra-ye Mellee, in the period between World War I and World War II as long as a healthy male attended school he was exempted from military service. Therefore, students who mainly attended government-run higher education institutions were exempted from service until they concluded their education. This exemption would last for, at the most, ten years for university students while for mollas it was, almost, for life. Since they used to go to school for their entire life, when the time for their military service came they had already reached their late forties or early fifties and because of their age they were exempted from service altogether.

By the establishment of the Islamic Republic and after the purgation of the secularist factions of the government, mollas almost monopolized the power and privilege of military exemption continued. Somehow, under both types of government and despite their profound differences mollas enjoyed the benefit of exemption: under the Shah they used the government secularism to avoid military service and under the Islamic Republic they used the privilege of being in power to avoid serving in the armed forces.

At the same time in the government-run media there were reports about mollas who had voluntarily spent times in the fronts fighting against the “infidel” enemy. In some instances portraits of those who had fought and lost their lives for the cause were shown to the public. Before going to the front I believed the media, but on the ground I faced a different reality.

In the war field there were a few mollas, but they always stayed in the headquarters and rarely visited the front lines. This was their participation in the war of Islam against infidelity. Naturally, sometimes these headquarters were targets of Iraqi planes and artillery bombs that inflicted casualties that mollas could be found among them. There were more than sixty thousand mollas in the country and their number was on the rise; but in the entire time that I spent in the front line I saw only two mollas to share the divinity of the war with us. One of them who seemed to be a countryman and wore thick eyeglasses stayed one night with us and guarded with Karamee while we were in ChazzabehStrait. The second molla spent just a few hours in the Hellish Base with my platoon and left.

One July morning Neekvarz told me a molla had come to the company and I was ordered to prepare my men for listening to his preaching. It seemed for its relative safety, the base had been chosen for him to visit. When I let my soldiers know about the molla’s coming, showers of swearing began. They said we were fighting at their orders and they were responsible for our suffering. Their swearing could cause trouble if reported to the Politico-Ideology Organization. Certainly if the molla heard them, he would have reported the matter. I asked the soldiers they had to be polite to the fellow in my presence and they kept silent as they were sitting in full military combat gears under the awning adjacent to my bunker.

At around eleven the bearded conscript sergeant in charge of the company Politico-Ideology who had replaced Seyyed arrived with a tall molla; introduced him to me and left. The molla’s long beard, cloak, white turban, and civilian shoes did not fit the war region and military life. Soldiers became restless again.

"Salmon Aleikom," said the molla as he came close to us.

"Salmon Aleikom and snake venom," a soldier murmured.

The molla did not hear whereas I choked my laughter. I told the molla soldiers were ready to listen to his speech and left the class for my bunker where I laughed myself sick at what was going on between the molla and soldiers.

As the molla began, the soldiers asked irrelevant questions and made fun of him. But he was too smart to easily lose the ground. He patiently answered every question and kept on speaking for half an hour. At some points he hinted at Islam’s attitude towards warriors, God's assistance in the war, and status of the warriors before Him. He said Islamic soldiers' endeavors were so precious to Allah that His angels kissed their hands and arms while they were shooting; and they led their bullets to the target. He brought an example from the Qur'an that Allah had said: "it was not the Moslems who were shooting their arrows, but it was Allah who was shooting in their behalf".

When an Islamic warrior was killed in the war he would go to paradise without being questioned because he had sacrificed the most precious thing he possessed: his life. In this context he brought the example of an early Islamic martyr whose dead body had been cleansed by the angels right after his martyrdom and he became a “Ghaseel-ol Malaaekah”. According to him, a martyr’s remains did not need to be cleansed before burial as others’ bodies did; and he did not need to be wrapped in shroud for burial as others’ did; and each martyr could intercede for up to forty people of his relatives and friends of choice with Allah and take them to paradise with himself.

With this the messenger of death-for-paradise brought his speech to an end and came to my bunker drenched in perspiration. We lunched without talking much while he was heavily sweating. After lunch we took a nap. He held his afternoon class without soldiers asking questions. They would rather he talked his full time and left them alone. Perhaps, he received the message and spoke for one hour and asked me to order the soldier to line up for general prayer.

Knowing the soldiers hated the prayer as much as I did, I said from a military point of view it was dangerous to hold the prayer in general because Iraqi shells might have hit the base and kill many soldiers with one shot. It was an empty but useful excuse. Until then we had received only two Iraqi shells in the yard. The molla agreed with my point saying in that case Islam did not order the prayer to be held in general. The soldiers went to their bunkers and he prayed alone.

In the evening we drank tea and spoke in a friendly manner. I asked him a few philosophical questions that he answered in detail and depth as I expected from him. Then, he told me he was a paid clergyman with six children and came from MashhadReligiousSchool. He had not been told that he was going to be taken to the front line when he had been brought to the war field. He meant that he had not intended to come to the front; but, all of a sudden, he had found himself in the front line; and so he was in a hurry to leave.

I thought I should have the man taste the reality of the war that perhaps he told the truth to his own circle of friends, family, and relatives. Also, I wanted to show him Iraqis well-fortified positions, so that he could see the promised victory was indeed out of the question. I proposed he visited our observation post with me so that he could get a better understanding of the Iraqi side. He reluctantly consented to my proposal and we prepared to go forward.

To have him camouflaged, he took his cloak and white turban off and wore my military overcoat and a helmet. His appearance was spectacular. His long beard and shoes looked especially interesting. I took my gun and we set out; and as the sun was setting we reached the post. Located to the west, Iraqis had the advantage of observation as we reached the observation post.

I gave the molla an overview of the Iraqi front line while he was looking at Hill 85 with a pair of binoculars borrowed from the observer. I had not finished my explanations that Iraqis started pounding our neighboring unit: Siamak’s platoon, to the north. With the first shell that hit somewhere about one kilometer from us the molla dropped the binoculars and withdrew.

I followed and caught up with him some one hundred meters away. I did not want to hurt his feelings by reminding him that his withdrawal was out of fear. Instead, I said that it would be a pity he left the battlefront without shooting a few bullets at a target. Loading my gun, I gave it to him to shoot at a target several meters away.

He shot only one bullet and returned the gun saying that was enough of shooting. There were twenty-nine more cartridges left in the magazine and I insisted he shot more. He declined my offer without posing any Islamic pretext in which the mollas are experts. I did not want to let him go without extracting his true motive for not shooting: was the gunshot too loud for his ear? He admitted I was right and his ear was whizzing. I wondered how the mollas could offer the sloth of paradise to soldiers whereas they as scholars and advocates of the same religion were not willing to endure the loud noise of a gunshot.

By the time we reached the base the shelling had ceased and the sun had almost set. The molla left for another unit to prepare more soldiers for martyrdom and my soldiers encircled me with big grins on their faces. They said once the molla and I were gone, Shaaban had put on the molla's turban and cloak and had danced to the drumming of another soldier; the whole base had been merrily clapping and dancing, ridiculing the molla. I shared molla’s shooting story with them. A soldier who was furious came close.

"I know these bastards better than anybody in the world,” he said aloud, “They go to their immune places and tell you to fight for paradise. They believe death is good for the neighbor; but not for themselves!"

The Deserters

A common phenomenon in every war is the phenomenon of desertion. On both sides of the warring parties there are many soldiers who are aware of the futility of wars and real economic and political motives behind them. There are many soldiers who do not want to become means of implementation of certain policies that they cannot support. Deserters’ reasons and justifications vary, though results are the same: these soldiers do not want to serve the cause of war.

The First Persian Gulf War was not exempted from the phenomenon. There were numerous soldiers who did not want to invade other country’s territories: an unrighteous act against a neighbor. If they were good believers in Islam, they regarded attacking the other side an invasion against an Islamic nation. War between Moslems who regarded one another brothers and sisters was without meaning from a religious point of view. There were many verses in the Qur'an that forbade fighting among Moslems. If they were not strong Islamic believers, they did not want to have a hand in some else’s blood; or simply they wanted to save their own lives and live a peaceful life. These considerations seemed to be strong in both armies of Iran and Iraq whose warriors were mainly conscripted soldiers with strong ethical ties and with no or little interest and benefit in the war.

To evade fighting, dissident soldiers deserted mostly when they returned home for leave. At home the military police often caught them and sent them back to the war fronts. In face of this problem, soldiers found some ways to avoid detention. Some moved from their own cities and villages and lived in other cities while others left the country altogether. Taking refuge to the enemy forces was one of the ways to evade the war, though not as common as the other ways. Nevertheless, in the last case, according to the tide of the aggression the flow of desertion changed from west to east and east to west.

In the beginning of the war when Iraqis were in the offensive position against Iran many Iraqi personnel sought refuge in Iran. In some cases they killed their own colleagues and commanders for shooting at Iranians. But in the last years of the war when Iranians were in the position of attack, many Iranians fled to Iraq. Radio propaganda was an important contributing factor to this kind of desertion. On both sides of the conflict there were radio programs engaged in smear campaign against the other side. These programs were asking the other side’s soldiers to leave their front lines and take refuge in the other country. I had heard many Iranians who had escaped to Iraq being broadcasted on Radio Baghdad. Some of them were members of the armed forces and they sent messages to their families and colleagues.

Motives behind desertions to Iraq were different. Some soldiers escaped to save their lives; some escaped to join opposition political organizations that had some headquarters in Iraq; some escaped because they were frustrated with their commanders; and some escaped in order to reach Western countries for a better life.

For military considerations, information about deserters was rarely officially reported to the soldiers. It was believed reporting about deserted soldiers would encourage other soldiers to follow suit. In any case, soldiers so successfully received the news of desertions through mouth-to-mouth that no instance went un-noticed. Sometimes, I learned from my soldiers about deserted soldiers. In Fakkeh two soldiers from Assadi's company left for Iraq. Before our unit occupied Chazzabeh a soldier had killed his commander for ignoring his serious problems and had fled to Iraq. In Base Number Six one soldier had deserted when we were in Fakkeh. In one instance a conscript lieutenant had escaped to Iraq as the military had been on the verge of an attack. He had disclosed important military information to Iraqis and as a result the attack had been annulled. There were many other cases of desertion. One case was particularly interesting and stuck to my mind for a long time. It was the first and the last formally reported case of desertion.

In a summer day I heard from the regiment that a soldier from my neighboring base had defected to Iraq. I was ordered if we saw the soldier to arrest him, treat him like a prisoner of war, and deliver him to superior units. The order sounded contradictory. If the soldier had reached Iraq, we would not have the chance to arrest him to treat him in that way.

I called Base Number Nine and spoke to the sergeant in charge and learned that the soldier had gone from Base Number Eight and his commander was not certain if he had reached Iraq or not. He said the soldier had arrived at the base only two days earlier. He had a notebook that according to him had contained plenty of military information. It was believed the deserter was part of an Iranian political organization with its base in Iraq. According to the sergeant the soldier had come to the front with a plan to desert to Iraq and had left his guarding trench at dawn of that day.

As a newcomer, the soldier did not know about the exact location of Iraqi forces and had come toward his own unit by mistake and had met his own sergeant. The soldier excused himself by saying that he had lost his way to his bunker because he was new to the region and there were many bushes around. The sergeant had slapped him on the face for undisciplined behavior and had told him to go to his bunker. When soldier told the sergeant he had hidden his rifle in a bush in case the enemy caught him, he was given permission to fetch it. So, the soldier left the base to fetch his gun: this time he never returned. The sergeant dispatched some soldiers to find him without success. The case was reported to the company, the battalion, and eventually the whole regiment.

"Despite his strangeness to the area, he is a very smart man," the sergeant warned me, "Be on the alert to find a clue."

Two day of watchfulness came to nothing and the young man successfully defected to Iraq >>> Part 13

>>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12 -- Part 13 --


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