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 —
By the second night our telephone line had been laid; but it was not reliable. We still frequently used our wireless for very short emergency messages. I had sent six soldiers to our forward trench together; the rest of my soldiers were appointed to five guarding trenches before the base. With no telephone communications working, personal contact was the best way of communications. As the guard chief, Nasser Saffee was frequenting between my bunker and trenches. As long as the moon was up in the sky it was easy to receive reports; but as the moon went down contact became arduously difficult.
At midnight Shaaban and I went to bed, but I could not sleep. Babak’s warnings were renewed and the fear of being surrounded filled every corner of my mind. I contemplated on the possibility of being besieged over and over and came to the conclusion that it was inevitable. So, I had to defend my position from a spot that I could shoot at all directions. Where could I find such a spot? Top of my bunker seemed to be the best place to defend the empty base and our bunker. After all, it was two meters higher than its surroundings and offered a more effective defense. Taking my blanket, my gun with a thousand Klashinkov cartridges, and twenty hand grenades, I climbed the bunker.
The moon had just set. Darkness was clear; stars were blinking brightly. I carefully placed my ammunitions beside my blanket and lay on the blanket watching the twinkling stars and thinking about a way of effectively fighting back any would-be attack. The thought of fighting generated a fear that obsessed me for a long time. I thought if we were to be attacked, normally a barrage of long-range bombs would come first. During bombing if a shrapnel struck the ammunitions, they would explode and would throw my chopped off limbs hundreds of meters away. In a box the ammunitions would be better protected against shrapnel, but we had no spare box. I thought covering the ammunitions with my own blanket could do the same job. Rolling on my side, I took an uneasy look at the ammunitions, sacrificed my blanket and lay on the earth.
Another thought was telling me my dread was baseless: there would be no explosion and no shrapnel would hit the munitions. So, I took the blanket off and lay on it watching the stars that looked so close to the Earth. In the middle of watching, Iraqis launched an illumination right above the base. I looked around; there was nothing suspicious. After the illumination went off it became dark and clear again.
The fear of being surrounded began to overshadow my dread of explosion. When I saw Shaaban taking a hand grenade to the bunker and loading his gun, my fear soared. I thought the illumination was launched as a signal to an Iraqi-dispatched unit like the one we had sent against them the previous night. Putting my gun under my head, the safest place I knew, I scrutinized nearby mounds and bushes. The night was deadly silent and boiling warm. No breeze was blowing; not even a mosquito interrupted my obsession. I thought if Iraqi commandos occupied the empty bunkers on the northern flank of the base, they could have easily attacked my bunker: the most important place in the platoon. But I had not heard any footsteps or noise of approaching forces to support this idea.
I was tempted to visit the bunkers, but restrained myself by thinking there were no limit to the spots that I had to visit. If I were to visit the bunkers, I would have to visit every single depression and mound in and around the base: that was impossible. If I had gone there, then I had to go south, then I had to check the east and the north and every bush as well. I came to the conclusion that the best defense was to stay quiet and make an ambush for the would-be invading forces. I re-examined my surrounding. Some dark spots seemed to be moving toward me in a slow pace. Rubbing my eyes, I looked at the spots again and again. Unbelievable, they were moving all around the base, heading towards me.
“How and when have they infiltrated?” I asked myself, “I was right. There are so many of them. The illumination was launched to show them the way to my bunker!”
Any moment I expected to be targeted by a volley. My heart was beating madly; I was sweating with fear; I could not fight all those forces. I would not have had enough chance to use up my ammunitions before they killed me. I was certain they were moving toward me, but for an unknown reason they were delaying. They were not reaching me; probably they needed more inspection of the nearby bunkers first. I must not have made an easy target for them.
“I fight them to the last bullet,” I told myself resolved, scared, and anxious.
Grabbing my gun with a shaky hand, I quietly clicked its fire-regulator to the fire position and firmly pressed its butt into the cavity of my shoulder to be the first to open fire. At least, I could have killed a couple of them before being killed. The benefit of this unequal gun battle would have been a warning to my men to take proper defensive actions. I lingered in that position for a while, but the moving enemies were not coming closer. My eyelids were growing heavy and I fell asleep, my gun in fire position, my finger on the trigger ready to pull. My moving enemies were the small bushes that looked moving in darkness and so they never reached me.
At around two o’clock a conversation woke me. Gun butt was still onto my shoulder. I turned towards two men who were talking near a vehicle in the middle of the base and pointed the gun at them.
I called out in a loud fearful voice.
The word “friend” eased me. I recognized the voice of the third sergeant whom I call Siamak because I have forgotten his name. He was the sergeant in charge of my neighboring platoon. He was speaking with the soldier who had brought ice for us. Shaaban drowsily received our share of the ice and distributed among the bunkers that had no one present in them.
At around three I woke up, decided to visit my sentries in their guarding spots, as it was my habit of lifting their spirits. Climbing down with my gun and a hand grenade, I started my visit from north to south with a fear in heart. There were three soldiers in the second trench; two of them were asleep. It was not normal to see three soldiers at the same time in a trench and I asked the reason.
“We fear to be alone,” responded the guard, “It’s very isolated here. I cannot see the next trench.”
The routine had been repeated in the other three trenches as well. In the southernmost trench, all three soldiers were awake. They complained about the eeriness of the area. Thus, in a base that was vulnerable to infiltration from the rear as well as the front, we were only six men in the base itself: too meager to defend our own bunkers let alone the base.
At the end of the inspection I headed back to my bunker. After walking a kilometer I found out I was going a wrong way. I started to walk back the same way that I had just come; but I feared to be shot at by my own soldiers. I stopped in my place.
“Nasser! Nasser!” I called out.
Nasser responded and directed me to my bunker.
Thus, we started the defense of Base Number Ten. As days passed more and more perils were revealed to me. Zeerakee told me it was the most vulnerable spot from Chazzabeh to Zobeidat scores of kilometers to the north.
“One morning when commanders came to visit it,” Zeerakee had added, “all they had found were eighteen severed heads in bunkers. In another instance thirty men were captured from it. In the early days of your coming to Chazzabeh an Iraqi unit surrounded it. A soldier became aware of it by chance and Iraqis fled before commencing an attack.”
I surmised the commanders’ notion about the base vulnerability from their frequent visit. Although commander of the battalion in Chazzabeh and Fakkeh, Jalalee rarely took the risk of visiting his units at the front: mostly he sent Haghee or Jahanpour for visit. In our first days of occupying the base he visited us several times. In one instance he told me he would give me more soldiers to strengthen the base. With this the story of the banished started.
From that visit on Jalalee started sending more and more men to the base. Some of the new men were to stay with us for a short period of time to help us against a likely besiege; however, most of them were to permanently stay there as long as I needed them. These soldiers could be divided into two groups of new soldiers and the banished. New soldiers came straight from training centers. They were dutiful and did their work properly. The second group was the soldiers who were already serving in the war fields and had been punished for their wrongdoings by being banished to the base. Their offences ranged from disobedience and drug abuse to sleeping on guarding duty and attempted rape. I always had problem with them. Although I needed them, I had to spend a lot of energy to make them obey the meticulous discipline that was dearly needed to safeguard our life and the base.
One night Lieutenant Heidari told me he was sending me a man whom I call Dariush. He was being banished for his stubbornness, sleeping on duty, and laziness. As I was told once he had tried to rape his guard-mate and had been banished to Heidari’s unit. As I understood, the base had made such a terrible reputation in the whole battalion that commanders threatened some soldiers of banishment there if they did not properly obey their orders.
I asked Heidari to send Dariush to me as soon as he could. I resolved to bring him under control by force. In my belief, making him obey the hard discipline of the base would have solved all his problems.
At his arrival, Dariush did not come to me to introduce himself. When the guard chief had approached him to send him for guarding duty, he had said he had no weapon. Informed of his arrival, I went to his bunker and pushed him out with his grenade launcher. With this rude introduction it became clear that he understood the language of force. It was the only effective means for the first few days. Taking him to his post, I told him I would visit him every once in a while.
“If I find you sleeping, I’ll wake you up by kicking,” I said and returned to my bunker.
A short while later, I checked his guarding spot and found him awake and vigilant. The next morning I sent him to exercise with the platoon. He reluctantly followed what the rest were doing. I felt he had admitted he could not evade our discipline. My threats were working. To complete them, I publicly told soldiers whoever brought Dariush’s weapon while he was sleeping on duty, I would give him one day of extra leave. I added I would send the weapon to the military court as an attestation against him during a trial. These threats were empty. I knew those men would not betray their fellow-soldier to me and I would not have sent the weapon to court martial. They worked, however. He was always on the alert not to lose his weapon to a person who sough an opportunity to steal it for extra leave.
My experience with soldiers told me difficult men were not dangerous in the exact meaning of the word. In my belief they needed more respect, attention, and friendly dealing. After the first challenge with Dariush, my problem was how to establish a friendly relation with him. Removing the probable hatred created in our first confrontation was necessary.
Gradually, I began to realize that Dariush was more of a sensitive man than an idiot or stiff-neck. We became cautiously friends; but we had one last challenge ahead. It happened on a moonlit night.
That night Dariush reported seeing two Iraqi soldiers in front of his trench. The way the report was given indicated it could be a baseless claim. Nonetheless as soon as I heard the report I ran to his position and asked where he had seen the enemy. He pointed at a couple of bushes, but his relaxed manners and tone were void of the excitement of a soldier’s demeanors who had seen the enemy closely. I was certain he was lying though I asked him why he had not shot at them. He responded he had no gun. This was certainly a lie. A gun belonging to his fellow soldier who was asleep was at hand.
I walked to the bushes to show that I was not scared of the enemy and thanked him for being vigilant, resolved to prove to him that I had discovered his trick, to prevent him from going further down that path.
The next morning I called him to show me the enemy’s foot prints to discover their way of doing things. He was taken by surprise and said he had told the truth. I insisted he came with me to his previous night’s guarding post, as I had to prepare a report for the superior commanders. And so, we walked to the place of guarding, but we did not find any footprint and continued searching the vicinity. We found no prints anywhere. On our return I found a single footprint more than one week old and showed him the footprint. He jumped to the opportunity saying that was the enemy’s footprint. I stared at him for a moment.
“You are the fool, not me!” I said and both of us burst into laughter.
I told him if I heard such lies from him in the future, I would take him to the foot of Hill 85 in search of footprints. “To hell with your life and mine,” I had added.
Thus, our last challenge led to my victory and we became friends.
In the evening of the same day Dariush asked to be appointed as guards’ chief. It was the very thing he needed. I had been taught the best way for dealing with undisciplined soldiers was loading them with more responsibility. I appointed him chief and I was rewarded with an excellent result. The lazy boy changed to a tireless soldier who was always walking from trench to trench meticulously doing his job.
Banishment continued. Drug-use brought some soldiers to the base. As a fragment of our society, the army had the problems of the whole. As drug-abuse and addiction had grown into one of the most serious social ailments in Iran after the revolution, so the number of drug-users among the military personnel had increased. Drug dealers had particularly targeted the armed forces because they received extra cash from the military thanks to the war.
One day Neekvarz told me to expect two difficult soldiers whom I call Cyrus and Javad. According to him Cyrus smoked hashish and Javad opium. I should have taken close care of them. Cyrus would come the following day while Javad was on leave and would join us later.
The next day Cyrus arrived with a machine gun. Two days later Javad came and I appointed him as one of the servicemen of Cyrus’ machine gun. A few days later Neekvarz warned me Cyrus and Javad were smoking hashish. Cyrus had told him Javad had brought some hashish from leave and they had shared it.
I rejected the accusation, however I was determined to prove Neekvarz wrong. The next day I called Cyrus and asked for some hashish. He laughed and said that he did not smoke. I said I wanted to smoke with him. He said that from the first day of our meeting he knew that I was a hashish-smoker. Of course, his assessment was wrong. I told him to empty his pockets. He grinned and poured out some coins, banknotes, a pack of cigarettes, a pen, and a little notebook out of his pocket.
“I told you I don’t have hashish,” he went on.
I looked into his pack of cigarettes. There was no drug there. Then, I scrutinized his banknotes. There was a big black spot on one note made by a drug, but I did not know what kind. I asked about the black spot and Cyrus admitted opium smoking had caused it. Also, he admitted he smoked hashish. I did not report his smoking to the company.
One evening Shaaban told me a lame soldier whom I call Hooshang had been sent to the base. The word “lame” came as a blow on my head. It was illegal to have lame soldiers in the front line. I was almost certain the fellow was another wrongdoer. Neekvarz told me nothing was wrong with Hooshang and he just pretended to be lame. After meeting him I felt sorry for the young man and told Neekvarz that with one lame leg, which Hooshang said had been hurt in a motorcycle accident he would not have been able to properly do his military tasks; but Neekvarz reiterated that he was just pretending to be lame. He added Hooshang had bribed the chief sergeant in order to be kept behind the front line and for the same reason he had insisted him to be sent to the front line and specifically to be sent to Base Number Ten.
That very day Hooshang deliberately dropped a cement block on his foot in order to make a medical excuse for hospitalization. His skin was scratched; but his injury was not serious. I welcomed the incident to get him out of the front and called Neekvarz for the ambulance, but he refused the ambulance saying that he had dropped the cement block on purpose and the injury was not serious. Hooshang’s attempt came to nothing. Days passed and he continued limping; but I still did not believe he was really lame. In fact, Neekvarz and Zeerakee had so frequently told me he was pretending that I denied the truth to myself.
As months passed one side of Hooshang’s hip grew thinner than the other side. I was certain that he was genuinely lame. Despite my reports, Zeerakee did not send him to the hospital or non-combatant branches of the company. In a few instances some high-ranking visitors from the battalion and the regiment asked me why he was limping and I replied he had been limping for a long time and I had reported the matter to my commanders. Knowing it was against the law to keep soldiers with serious health problems at the front, none of these visitors took Hooshang’s case seriously.
Meanwhile Zeerakee reported to me that Hooshang used drugs. The sort of drug was not mentioned in his report. But Hooshang always denied drug use. I was nearly convinced that he did not use drugs, but my skepticism was always with me until one cold night a guard called out that Hooshang, who was guarding in the base field with him, had a stomach pain. A connection in my mind said the stomach pain could be the result of eating opium. I tried to prove my guess. When Hooshang came to me I said unless he told me what he had taken a couple of hours before, I would not have let him rest. He admitted he had taken opium and the amount had been too much. I let him go to his bunker and rest for few hours.
Later, he gave me his reason for eating the opium instead of smoking. He said he used to smoke before he came to the army. At home and in the places where everybody was smoking, he smoked but at the front because of living with soldiers whom he did not trust he ate opium. Eating was easy and could be done swiftly. The chance of being detected was reduced to almost nil. When I asked if he were addicted to opium, he replied he was not because he did not always have the drug with himself.
The main question was the chief sergeant’s involvement. Hooshang said he had given drugs to the chief sergeant free of charge, adding he had given drugs to others and named a few staff officers and sergeants. It was easy to believe that he had given opium to all but officers. I knew he was implicitly telling me that he had the backing of high-ranking officers to defend him against my rules in the base; but none of those people was doing anything for him any way. I asked whether he ever smoked with the officers.
“You can’t smoke with them, Sir!” he would respond, “They are commanders! I just passed to them through the chief sergeant.”
Where he received the opium? How could he pass so many military checkpoints and carry the drug to the war field? He told me he had relatives in Ahvaz not too far from the war zone. On visiting them he could easily obtain the drugs. Carrying it was easy, as well. According to him, once it had been arranged for him to go to Ahvaz to repair the company truck through the influence of his relatives. This could be a way of easy trafficking.
Difficult to explain was how he paid for the drug: a price that went far beyond the income of a soldier or an ordinary family. Had he made a business of drugs? In the base and under my eyes he was not in constant contact with anyone outside the war zone. At least, I knew nothing of such a contact. Ultimately, I did not believe he had made a business. Probably he was doing it with others’ money.
Despite these facts, I did not report Hooshang’s case to Neekvarz and Zeerakee. He was already a victim of an ailment all across Iran and the corrupt system of the army. Most probably if I reported his case he would have been banished to another unit and would have resumed using drug. In the base I was certain he could not easily obtain drugs for regular use.
In the winter of 1988 Hooshang was arrested by the military police at Karkheh Bridge for carrying hashish and was detained for a couple of weeks. After, he was sent back to me until being called to stand trial.
Whatever Hooshang’s involvement with drugs, he was one of the most useful persons I had found in my unit. He had finished grade nine at high school and was advanced in reading and writing. Besides being kind, he had plenty of patience. A few weeks after he joined me at the base, I asked him if he could teach my illiterate soldiers how to read and write. Fighting against illiteracy was, indeed, the only battle that I always believed in. Fortunately, Hooshang took my request seriously and started holding afternoon classes under the awning that we had built with branches near my own bunker. I changed the soldiers’ guarding schedules in order to make them available for learning and constantly encouraged them by giving one or two days of extra leave. Every day I could see my soldiers sitting in a circle before Hooshang with their pencils and pieces of paper and carefully following his instructions and sometimes showing me their handwritings with ecstasy of learning in their voice and eyes. Under my very eyes eight soldiers who were either totally illiterate or barely could write their names learned to read and write within few months.
Besides Hooshang, Cyrus, and Javad there were few other soldiers who used drugs. I had found enough evidence to be certain about all. None of those men was a drug addict, though all of them were potentially drug-addicts. Their cases can be stated as a sample of soldiers all over the battle line. With the continuation of the war the number of drug-users was swelling. Thanks to my friendly relations with my soldiers, I could talk to them individually about the dangers of drug. How successful I was in this field; I do not know. Definitely, Hooshang was more successful in teaching my soldiers how to read and write than I was successful to teach him how to keep off drugs >>> Part 11