Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (3)


Manoucher Avaznia
by Manoucher Avaznia

To the memory of the soldiers who fell before my eyes in the First Persian Gulf War >>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4

Shelters walls and roofs are the first concerns of those who live in the bunkers in the war zones. One wants to assure they are strong enough to withstand any falling shrapnel. An ideal bunker would resist strong explosions that should be assumed would take place close to them or even on them. If the place is somewhere under ground like the inn, the walls feel secure and concerns shift to the roof. A strong roof gives ease of mind to the residents.

The roof of the inn bunker was made of crescent iron beams with some boards on them. The boards were covered with a few layers of plastic to keep the rainwater from oozing into the bunker. Sandbags between beams formed the walls and military blankets had become wallpaper. A small window covered with clear plastic let some light in; though mostly an electric lamp supplemented the bunker with a light barely enough for reading a book. With more than one meter of earth on its roof, the bunker made a shelter strong enough to resist shrapnel and small bombs; but no one was certain if it could resist heavy artillery shelling or aerial bombardment. Where other bunkers located and how strong they were; we had no idea. I never found out where the army commander’s bunker located or how safe that was. Somehow I felt the tunnel was a place safe enough for visitors to eat breakfast, live, and sleep as long as they stayed in the headquarters. This general configuration must have been the pattern of all bunkers at the headquarters.

After our first breakfast of tea, bread, cheese, butter, and jam my comrades started cracking the rude jokes they had learned during military service, making a lot of noise; but I felt too exhausted to participate in the merriment. At my request the host soldier showed me the adjacent room where I could rest. Lighting two lamps, I entered the cold room and wrapped myself in few blankets with an English translation of Alexi Tolstoy’s Peter the Great in hand trying to read a few pages before I fell sleep.

The pain in my shoulder was there; my colleagues’ loud laughter still reached me; and anxiety about the future started to assail me from every side. In spite of hard endeavor, I could not read even half a page of the book and I fell sleep with a distressed frame of mind.

A loud Azan, praising the majesty of Allah and calling Moslems for prayer, woke me up. No noise was coming from the inn; my colleagues were fast asleep. It was noon; I needed a way to escape the compulsory prayer. The best way seemed to be staying in the same bunker. I opted that; none of my colleagues went to the mosque for the prayer either. After the conclusion of the prayer and as my colleagues woke up we went there for lunch only. The meal was delicious and we ate as much as we could. What our commander in Shiraz had told us about good food at the front was coming true. At last, we had enough food to eat to our satisfaction.

After lunch we went out of the mosque. A broad day had descended upon the area. The sky was cloudy. We could see every movement. Some soldiers were changing sentries; some orders were being given; and for a long time in the afternoon we used to hear a loud voice barking military orders. It was strange; a commander was ordering his soldiers for few hours without letting them rest or taking a rest himself? I looked at the direction of the commanding voice. No military unit was visible; but the voice was incessantly coming. I thought the unit must have been in one of many depressions around the headquarters out of our sight.

Bored with idling in the chill of the inn, on my second day in the headquarters I walked toward a rocky peak to the northeast of the headquarters with Morteza Heidari; a graduate of political science from University of Tehran whom I had befriended in Shiraz. Morteza told me he had encountered a staff sergeant in the mosque who had wished the war continued a few more years. His words angered me. I was about to explode at the stupidity of the man who must have had a wife and few children who must have suffered from the war and its consequences and still wished the war continued.

“Do you know why he wants the war to continue?” Morteza went on, “Because he says he is building a house. If the war stops now, he loses his overtime payment, field allowance, and lots of other benefits that he is receiving. If the war continues a few more years, he will have his new house built. Without war this sergeant only would have to dream about having a house of his own even if he were on the verge of retirement.”

Unfortunately, Morteza was right. That was only one of the ways that warmongers gained the support of the victims of their policies for the continuation of the war: something not confined to the Iran-Iraq war. Many staff personnel with lower ranks were not paid enough to be able to purchase a small house of their own. So the war had turned into a source of good income for them to materialize a part of their many dreams. The price they paid for such materialization was high though. There was a person who had paid the price under the sergeant’s very eyes.

As we kept walking, in a place enclosed by barbwire fence on a hill slope a commanding voice suddenly addressed us.

"Excuse me Lieutenants!”

The voice called our attention.

“I have no a hat to salute you by hand; (15)” he said, “But I clip my heels for you!"

Behind the fence we saw a soldier in military underwear held on the arm by another soldier. He had firmly clipped his heels and had stood still in a military salutation while the other soldier was trying to take him to the bunker underground.

"Be at ease!"

I said aloud as I raised my hand to salute him back. At my command he opened his feet and clasped his hands behind his back for the shortest time before being taken away while trying to release his arm in order to stay in salutation.

We kept walking, wondering at the soldier’s improper dress and irrelevant saying realizing the voice was the same commanding voice that had been barking military orders the whole previous day. In this way we reached the peak of the highest mount around the headquarters.

It was a gloomy afternoon. On the north some military vehicles were scurrying to their destinations. At the northern foot of the mount beside a bunker built on the ground a green flag of the Politico-Ideology Organization office was trembling in the wind. A dreary plain stretched to the horizon in the west with no end in sight. The war field seemed very remote. Where was the battlefront then? I asked Morteza as we sat on a rock to a smoke and looking around for any sign of war activity.

All of a sudden we found that the battlefield was not as far as we thought. We were sitting among millions of rusted mortars, artillery, and tanks shrapnel attesting to the ferocious combats that once had been fought on those very peaceful heights. Fragments of bone, clothes, and boots of the men, who might have been brave and were probably dead, might have once scattered all around that very place. Anywhere around us could have become a front line according to strategic necessities.

We collected some rusted cartridges, removed the bullets, and piled the gunpowder in few places and carefully set them on fire. Then we made a small fire with pieces of wood that looked like fragments of ammunition boxes and warmed ourselves and kept smoking few more cigarettes. Half an hour later, as we were descending the heights, we encountered several wild dogs in a concave that ran away from us. Thus, we reached the inn with a melancholic frame of mind as I was reminding myself to inquire about the soldier who had saluted us.

The innkeeper told us that we should not have taken the risk of going to the peak unarmed.

“Dogs may attack you,” he observed, “They have eaten so many human bodies that they are not scared of human-beings any more. They have attacked some unarmed soldiers and have eaten them.”

He also said the soldier who was giving orders had been shell-shocked at the front and was out of his mind. According to him, the soldier was coming from Kordestan and since he had no relative to take care of him he was being held at the army headquarters.

There could be some personnel like him in the unit where I was to be sent.

"Are these men dangerous?” I asked myself, “How often I have to encounter them in the war zone? How can I handle them?"

I asked myself without trying to ask anyone else about them. When I saw a major with a big stature in the headquarters and I was told he was out of his mind because of shellshock, I was convinced there might be many personnel with those conditions. Probably some of them were in commanding positions. If they were not shell-shocked in the exact meaning of the term, they could have been warped by the ravage of war. How could I deal with shell-shocked commanders? This seemed to be the most difficult task I had to face.

Our distribution among different branches of the army was a main concern on minds. We frequently asked about the time and the location of distribution and always received one answer. The army and its commander were in Sumar in the mid-west border for an attack on Iraqi positions. The commander of the army would have to instruct the headquarters about the distribution plan.

Anxiety of participating in an incursion in the first days of joining the fronts had filled our minds. Almost everybody was certain there would be an attack either in Sumar or in Khuzestan. The only uncertainties were the precise date and place of military operations.

"All of us will be sent to Sumar for attack," some would observe, "The Guards are going to invade Iraq in the south: perhaps Fao."

Among these rumors, breath-taking stories about enemy spying agents in Iranian territories were adding to our apprehension. Although these stories seemed to highly exaggerate the situations, there were strong elements of truth in them. We heard that a couple of weeks earlier a man who was coming back from leave had seen two soldiers along the way. He had greeted them, but he had received no answer. He had asked them the way in order to determine whether they belonged to the region, but they had tried to hide themselves. The soldier, certain they were Iraqis, had fetched some men from a nearby unit and arrested them. They turned out to be Iraqi spies coming from Iraq.

Another instance had happened near the headquarters of the army. A soldier who had been hunting a deer had seen two men lunching in the hollow of a hill. They were spies, too, with cameras, compasses, maps, exact information about the headquarters, and many cans of food. Speaking fluent Persian, they had endeavored to collect data on the Army of Mohammad that was to attack Iraq. They had confessed there were other spying teams in the area on similar missions.

Also, we heard of an older case. Two Iraqis clad in Iranian military uniforms and speaking perfect Persian had been dispatched deep into our territories. After several days of gathering information and having finished their food supplies, they had gone to a Salavati (16) and had eaten there. But they had betrayed themselves upon leaving the station by going to the man in charge of the station and paying for the food in Iranian currency. They did not know that nobody paid for the service he received at a Salavati. So, they had been suspected and detained. It had been established they were Iraqi agents coming from Iraq.

Having heard these stories, we expected to see a spy in the headquarters any day or night. Obviously, no spy was as clear-cut and refined as to be recognized by the first look. They had to be neatly discovered by carefully scrutinizing their demeanors, sensitivities, and movements. Talking to them was one of the ways. We suspected almost everyone we did not know in the headquarters. For newcomers like us almost everyone except our own group of conscript lieutenants was a suspect. We used to talk to the people who came to the inn to ascertain they were not spies. Strangers who showed up for a night or two and disappeared the next day were of the most interest. Nothing looked suspicious to us and we could not discover any spy.

Early one evening a man in his early thirties clad in an overcoat entered the bedroom and sat at the door. I wanted to make sure he was not a spy and asked if he had a blanket to sleep in. He resented my question.

"I can sleep in my overcoat Sir;" he replied.

The response was as tense as I expected from an angry professional military man who did not like to answer the question of a conscript lieutenant. I tried to approach him in a friendly manner in order to talk to him and discover his true identity.

"I just wanted to bring a few blankets for you from the other room," I explained, "It's cold here."

I brought him three blankets from the adjacent room and we became friends. I asked which section of our army he was coming from. He named a different army and said he was looking for a missing soldier in our army.

"A woman lives in my neighborhood in Ahvaz,” he went on, “She has a son who has been taken to this army and she hasn't heard a word of him since he has left home. When I was on my last leave she begged me to find her son. I pitied her and have come here looking for the man. Tomorrow they will let me know if he is still alive or he is dead."

At this the visitor took off his overcoat. The rank on his blouse was second sergeant that was a very low rank for his age. To be sure he had not used the rank for spying purposes, I asked how many years he had spent at war. He answered that he had been fighting since the beginning of the war.

With that long precedence and the normal war promotions he must have received he should have been a sub-lieutenant. I seriously doubted he was telling the truth.

"But, you are just a second sergeant?” I said, surprised, “I don't understand."

"You are right Sir;" he sighed, "Because since the Iraqis expulsion from our territories I have deserted the damned military many times. I have done many wrong things to get kicked out of the service; but they don't let me go. They say there will be no dismissal from service until the end of the war. My punishment is to serve in the lowest possible rank. They don't promote me."

I was convinced he was telling the truth, but kept asking him more.

"Is it true that this is the strongest army in Iran and takes the most risky missions?" Something I had frequently heard.

"It is an empty blunt to stir the rivalry among armies tenser to continue the war,” he responded, “In 1985 in Laree Heights (17) this very dazzling army of yours was so badly defeated and ran away that it is known as the Great Escape. In breaking the siege of Abadan (18) two other armies broke the Iraqis' backbone and this one entered the scene late and reaped the fruit and the title of “Victorious”. On the whole, all armed forces are the same s… indeed."

As my apprehensive colleagues heard my friendly conversation with the sergeant, they left the inn and came to the bedroom to share the sergeant’s experience. They had found an honest young man who could answer many questions without cover-up. Especially as the sergeant found us conscript officers without war experience he grew bolder and talked about what was happening in the war field, removing some of our illusions about the heroic deeds the government media were attributing to Iranian forces. To have some fun with him, I asked about the Promised Mahdi in the front.

"Have you ever seen Mahdi fighting for Iranians?" I asked with a smile.

The sergeant burst into loud laughter.

"Once a Guard put a circular fluorescent lamp on his head and mounted a horse to make the shimmering Imam Mahdi, but soldiers killed the poor man,” said the sergeant, “It happened when the army and the Guards were fighting in one rank. In another instance two Imams were arrested. These miracles don't happen in the military. They take place among the Guards only. We are not fighting in one rank any more; but we are brothers."

The sergeant smiled.

“We are brothers in this way that Guard brothers attack and capture some areas of the enemy territories and pass them to brothers in the Military to hold them; and we pass them to the Iraqis as soon as they counter-attack. This is our brotherly relation. Of course, it is always easy to capture a land. Protecting and defending that land is the most difficult task that Guard brothers do not want to undertake.”

We laughed at his funny words and were relieved that we were not going to fight in the ranks of enthusiastic warriors who believed they would be rewarded in the netherworld for fighting and being martyred.

At this, Daee Niakee, one of my colleagues took the opportunity and began his endeavor to find a way out of being sent to the front lines. He thought a discontent sergeant might be a good help to his purpose.

"How can I keep myself away from the front line?” Daee asked, “How can I pretend I am shell-shocked? I fight for whom? For what purpose I endanger my life? I did not cause the war to fight for it? I don't have many lives to spare one in combat or in captivity."

"It's not easy, especially with your rank," replied the sergeant with a smile, "If you want to try it, I show you the way. When a shell explodes near you, pour some dust on your head and clothing. Mix up your appearance. Wide open your eyes. Speak about irrelevant things like insane people, laugh, scream, swear, and act up."

He demonstrated the acting that Daee Niakee was to perform and all of us laughed at the spectacular appearance he had to make.

"I am a failure in this respect," the sergeant resumed, "It did not help me, though it may help you. I claimed shellshock had completely deafened my ears; but medical examinations were not supporting my claim. Whenever doctors spoke to me I did not show I heard them. When I was walking in the lobby they used to drop coins behind me. Sometimes they swore at me, but I never minded. Indeed, I was playing my role perfectly well and spent three months in the hospital in this way until a nurse betrayed me. She said "hello sweet-heart" behind my back. I turned to her and smiled. Doctors who had hidden themselves came out of the hiding and asked me how I had heard the nurse’s charming voice when I was a deaf man. I was sent to the war again. I heard that was to be my last trial and I lost it. Had I received retirement on medical grounds, I would have had a good pension as long as I lived. Hadn't I done these, I wouldn't have been a sergeant. I could have been a sub-lieutenant by now. You see; this sort of smartness is very risky."
>>> Part 4

>>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4


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Nov 11, 2012
Nov 03, 2012
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Oct 21, 2012
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Manoucher Avaznia

Kaveh Jaan;

by Manoucher Avaznia on

By the army I mean different divisions of the military (Lashkar) and it is within the Iranian military only.  As I am not aware of division among the Pasdaaraan and the Basijis, I can't say anything about them.  Anywhere I compare the size of their forces and any other forces, I do this based upon military standards of the regular military. Anywhere I refer to those forces in this book I have mentioned that they were either the Guards or Basijis.  Of course, the tense rivalry among the military and the Guard forces that existed at earlier stages of the war had partially eased as at later stages of the war mostly different tasks and areas of defense had been asigned to them.  I never saw Guard forces mixed with the military anyway.


Thank you again for the

by KavehV (not verified) on

Thank you again for the excerpts of your book. In a number of paragraphs you refer to different "army" groups within the regular Iranian armed forces (IAF) such as:

"I asked which section of our army he was coming from. He named a different army and said he was looking for a missing soldier in our army. "


"It is an empty blunt to stir the rivalry among armies tenser to continue the war,”

I was curious if by stating different "army", do you actually mean different divisions, or battalions within IAF ? Or, does it include the pasdars and basiji's , as well ?