September 1, 2006  

War birds

Soldiers keep tabs on Iraq’s wildlife

The story of the soldier has long been one of suffering seemingly endless boredom interrupted by bouts of extreme danger and stress.

In that light, one welcome innovation from the war in Iraq has been the proliferation of distractions from the tedium of barracks life — PlayStations, e-mail and VOIP communications with home, Wi-Fi Internet access on many bases and, of course, blogging.

But some soldiers have chosen to pass their time in the most traditional way imaginable — through the appreciation of the natural environment that surrounds them. Fortunately, a few of them have been generous enough to maintain blogs as well.

The most well-known of these naturalist soldiers is Jonathan Trouern-Trend, a Connecticut Army National Guard sergeant who was deployed at Balad’s Camp Anaconda between February 2004 and February 2005. During this period, Trouern-Trend maintained the site Birding Babylon, where he kept a journal of his birding experiences in Iraq. His blog was edited and published under the same title earlier this year by the Sierra Club.

The most powerful theme in Trouern-Trend’s writing is how indifferent the Iraqi fauna usually is to the war. While pulling guard duty for a halted convoy across the Kuwaiti border into Iraq, he is stunned when “I’m lying on the ground with my eye on some guy racing around in a pickup truck, wondering if he’s going to take a potshot at us (which would have been suicidal), while a pair of crested larks were not even 10 feet from me, the male displaying and dancing around.”

Likewise, when Trouern-Trend watches a pair of wood pigeons forage as nearby F-16s take off on afterburners: “The noise was incredible as [the jets] disappeared into the sky. The birds were unfazed.” His journal is a welcome reminder that despite the sturm und drang of war, men and their worries are not the only protagonists in the world’s dramas.

Which is not to say that soldiers in Iraq have been unwilling to play a supporting role. Milblogosphere superstar and confessed birdwatcher Michael Yon describes one occasion when he inquired about a bird’s nest in the antenna patch on a battalion tactical operations command post in Mosul:

“Doesn’t that nest interfere with comm[unication]s?” I asked the soldier.

“No, Sergeant Major Prosser disconnected that antenna so the birds could nest.”

Yon, who alternately named the house sparrows at his base “French Fry Catchers” and “Saddam’s Sparrows,” recounts that his first serious Iraq bird encounters happened during helicopter trips over rivers and marshes along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: “As the helicopters approach the marshes, undulated blankets of birds rise into the air, so that by the time the helicopters are over the water, the pilots are forcing hard right or left turns, or pulling up fast to avoid flocks.” Most observers at home might imagine that rocket-propelled grenades are the primary obstacle for pilots in Iraq to dodge.

How many birders are there among American forces and contractors in Iraq? Although that’s one category of statistics the military does not keep, Trouern-Trend recounts meeting at least a dozen on his walks around base, and he has opened an (as yet modest) “Iraq Fauna Wiki,” a Web site on which anyone can contribute or edit articles on Iraq’s wildlife.

John Duresky describes his birding experiences on his blog, The Fourth, and has also created the (also modest) Yahoo Member Group “Operation Iraqi Birds,” where soldiers and civilians in the Operation Iraqi Freedom area of operations can discuss the birds that they have seen in Iraq. The forum is useful: Identifying birds is difficult enough anywhere; when one does it in a foreign country without adequate guidebooks, recognizing species can take a team effort.

At the same time birders are watching the skies, sport fishermen are working the rivers and palace ponds in Iraq. Although photos of American troops plying a rod and reel in their free time have been commonplace since 2003, the Baghdad School of Fly Fishing (BSSF) deserves special mention for its mission of “introducing deployed service members to the ‘quiet sport.’”

When Lt. Joel Stewart noticed during his 2005 deployment to Baghdad that several of his fellow soldiers were interested in fishing but did not have the necessary supplies, he solicited the advice of the “Outdoors Best Forums Fly Fishing Forum.” In response, some 40 individuals and a dozen tackle shop owners contributed the gear and flies necessary for Stewart to teach 35 students before he returned stateside in February 2006.

Since then, the BSSF has continued to run strong, with teaching duties in the hands of “Lt. Col. Bill,” Maj. Vance Sperry and Capt. Bob Ruckdeschel. A visit to the BSFF Web site is worthwhile simply to see the good time the soldiers have as they work the knots, cast countless times and catch the occasional asp, carp and mangar.

In addition to allowing them to pass the time and relax, birding and fishing have given service members a small window into Iraqi life beyond the war.

Trouern-Trend, for example, discussed birding with Iraqi locals, asking them about birds’ Arabic names and learning their role in Iraq’s culture — as when a group of interpreters sang a folk song about storks delivering babies. The environmentalist movement has also provided a politically insulated space for civil society to develop. The Eden Again project, founded by expatriates concerned about the degradation of Iraq’s marshlands, has been working in southern Iraq since 2003, bridging ties between coalition authorities and the local population.

Being a naturalist in a war zone has also created special opportunities for the service members involved to maintain relationships with the home front. The generosity of American fishermen and tackle shops that have made the Baghdad Fly Fishing School possible is a model for the type of support Americans can offer their service members.

Meanwhile, several birding groups have taken advantage of the experiences of deployed birders to gather information about Iraq’s bird species. For example, Laura Erickson at BirderBlog maintains a site with significantly more than 100 photos e-mailed to her by soldiers in Iraq. And former contractor in Iraq Joe Herda spoke to the Anchorage chapter of Audubon Society about his birding experiences in Iraq after he returned to Alaska earlier this year.

And most important, the experiences of these naturalists in Iraq indicate the great accomplishment of having deposed Saddam Hussein. After all, in addition to the human rights crimes for which he is being tried, Saddam was one of the past century’s most effective environmental terrorists.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Saddam infamously set fire to the oil wells of Kuwait in a desperate scorched-earth ploy, he turned his wrath on the southern Iraqi Shiites who had risen up against his rule in the wake of defeat. One element of his strategy was to divert, dike and dam the waters flowing into the homeland of the Marsh Arabs, depriving them of their traditional livelihoods along the river.

The fruit of Saddam’s environmental terrorism was the destruction of all but 7 percent of Iraq’s southern marshes by 2003, with the area’s native inhabitants having fled from their burned villages. Today, almost 40 percent of the Iraqi marshes have been restored, and they are expected to continue replenishing at a rate of about 800 square miles (13 percent of the original size) per year. This progress means that both an ecosystem and the society that it supports have been saved — no mean accomplishment.

Now that most reporting focuses on the burgeoning civil war in Iraq, this environmental victory provides a small glimpse of the country that U.S. policy aims to help create and that many Iraqis want.

Blog list

How to find the blogs mentioned in this article:

Birding Babylon

Iraq Calling


Iraq Fauna Wiki


Michael Yon’s Online Magazine


The Fourth


Operation Iraq Birds


The Baghdad School of Fly Fishing


Laura Erickson’s Iraq bird photography


Eden Again