I was in Baghdad in 2003. We weren’t supposed to talk to the local nationals about politics or religion, but how do you avoid it? I asked our Iraqi interpreter how he felt about Sadam being taken out of power. He laughed and said “You Americans don’t get it. Sadam was a bad man, but he understood Iraqis. People in this country must be ruled with an iron fist; they understand power and authority. I saw a man who had killed another man and stole his car. He shot that man in the head. The American soldiers caught this man and put him in jail, but did not have evidence against him. So they put him in jail, and ‘torture’ him by making him stand in the sun for 45 minutes, then he can go into the shade for 15 minutes, then back into the sun. This is not torture to us! We live in this sun! Now this man has a bed off the floor. He has three meals every day. He has a fan on the ceiling. He is living good! And you Americans think this is punishment! Sadam’s people would have just shot him and be done.”
Every day I watched a local national come onto our compound with a janitorial crew. He really stood out, because he was immense! I mean really big, especially compared to most of the others, who werre very thin. And he always had the glower on his face. I finally got curious enough to ask another one of the locals about him. Turns out, he used to be a colonel in the Iraqi Army, and now here he is, coming onto the base of the people who turned his country upside down so he can clean the waste out of their port-a-johns. That really struck me, how drastically things can change, and how quickly.
In Afghanistan, I traveled to a lot of coalition compounds. I learned very quickly that the compounds that put up fortress-like walls and did all the expected military things were getting hit hard, but the ones that blended into their surrounding communities, both socially and physically, often went unscathed. At one, the local villagers actually set up their own checkpoints on the road and stopped strangers and checked their vehicles for IED materials in order to protect their foreign “guests”.
I got to one compound that, compared to most others, was a paradise. It had been built on top of what was once a Russian “rest and recoup” base during their war. It hadn’t been attacked in the previous seven years. The men guarding the entry control point were local villagers, mostly goat farmers. The compound had a problem with tall grass around their perimeter, and I pointed that out to them. The soldiers complained that they had no way of keeping the grass cut. It absoultely baffled me. I asked why they hadn’t talked to the men guarding their entry point and asked if they would like to bring their goats in to crop the grass. It was an obvious win-win. These guys looked at me like I had just grown a dick out of my forehead, but the next day, sure as hell, there were goats in the yard, cropping the grass down. Later, I bought a huge bag of local-grown raisins and almonds, and went to the chow hall and loaded up on fruit. I took all this to the main entry point and asked the guards if we could share the fruit and nuts. They very graciously accepted and everyone sat on the ground next to the road. I sat down with them, and all of a sudden there was a big fuss as they dragged a chair over and insisted I sit in it. I refused, saying if they couldn’t sit in chairs, then I wasn’t going to either. I was amazed at how much it meant to them that I was “like them”. When I asked why one guy wasn’t eating with the rest of us, they explained he had been sick during Ramadan and couldn’t fast, and so was making up for it. I made sure he put some of the goodies in his pocket to take home for later, and we all ganged up on him to make him sit in the chair. Before I knew it, they had someone make up a huge platter of the local cuisine (sort of a stew on a bed of rice with tons of flat bread). They even gave me extra bread to use as a scoop since they knew we as Westerners don’t like to eat with our hands. I never saw them again, and I’m sure I never will, but I’ll always remember that meal and I have no doubt they’ll remember the crazy American who wouldn’t sit in the chair.
We in the Western world have a hard time understanding the sense of tribal community they have. We can’t go over there for a few months or a year and expect to make lasting change. They never learn us, we never meld into their community. They see us as one huge “tribe”, the Amriki (American) tribe. According to their code of honor, if an Amriki kills a man without justifying it to the tribe, his brother must retaliate, but the brother doesn’t have to kill the Amriki that killed his brother…any Amriki will do. If you visit, you are a guest for three days. After that, you are either accepted as part of the family/tribe and are expected to chip in, or you need to move on. Any lasting change will take years of the same people being present, showing they care, that they are committed, that they have skin in the game, so to speak. Otherwise, we show we don’t care, we don’t trust, we just want <name a resource>.
Benjamin, I feel for you. I’ve seen the same kinds of things, felt the same paralyzing fear listening to the mortars walk in, felt that fear go numb and jaded. My heart has bled for the good people of that region. At least I was armed, though. I can’t imagine not having that small amount of comfort. Unfortunately the people that make the decisions don’t talk to those of us who’ve been on the ground, who’ve made those interactions. Hell, one of my missions was to tell the combatant commanders what changes we could make to be more effective. They were only interested in what technologies we could deploy, what resources we could transfer from region to region. They didn’t want to hear the human aspect.
Freedom, you asked if there is a solution. Yes, there is, but no one wants to hear it.