Atlantic Monthly


The roadside bomb is the signature weapon of the Iraq war, but measured purely by the man-hours of dread they inspire, rockets and mortars easily have it beat. Roadside bombs kill soldiers only when they’re on the road. But indirect fire can hit U.S. bases at any hour, in any place, and with little warning. (Some bases have red-alert sirens, which usually crank up only after the attack has started and are therefore widely ignored.) The homey comforts of the bases — rich food, well-stocked stores, fast-food restaurants — only increase the psychological stress, since they make death a constant presence during what otherwise feels like your safest moments. That war-zone Whopper tastes a lot less like comfort-food when you know each bite could be your last.

The effect of these new weapons is to rob U.S. soldiers of one small consolation: Whereas rockets that use a point-detonated fuze (an object on the nose of the rocket that causes it to blow up when it hits its target) often don’t explode when they land in bases, these new fuzes rely on radio-frequency detonation and probably produce fewer duds. And when the fuze activates, the rocket explodes a few meters above the ground, rather than on the ground — creating a wider and more deadly kill-radius.

Although these fuzes could, if used correctly, substantially reduce the security of American soldiers, there is good news. First, the leaked document says U.S. forces found the proximity-fuze weapons in February 2006. It has been a long time since then, and the casualty rate from mortars does not, from anecdotal reports, seem to have increased much, if at all. The second, more interesting bit of good news is that the mortars that do land are not always targeted precisely. A properly trained mortar team can be miles away and drop a mortar in an area the size of my office. The Green Zone, site of much of the civilian government, is well-mapped, and mortars do rain down in tight clusters there. But on military bases — where photography and maps are prohibited — they land much less precisely.

The leaked report, classified as secret, wasn’t even sure whether the insurgents knew their new fuzes were better than the ones they had been using. Judging by the middling skill with which they’ve been lobbing the rockets in so far, it’s quite possible the insurgents are as clueless as the report hopes. But even if they are, it’s a scandal that at this late stage in the war they’re able to shoot mortars and rockets into U.S. bases so easily, rattling nerves even when they toss in a poorly-aimed dud.

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