Thursday, May 05, 2005

Town/Gown Interaction

OK, "town/gown" is silly, but you'll see what I mean in a moment.

There is a great deal of noise at the moment about claims made in a New York Times article by a conscientious objector about the mistreatment of Iraqis by US forces.

I'm not going to put you on the spot regarding this. There is already enough sound and fury in the air about the story - there is no need for us to rehash any of it here.

What I would like to hear from you is for you to talk about a positive experience you have had in Iraq with Iraqis - outside the Green Zone or whatever base, building, office or camp in which you live and work.

We have already discussed that Baghdad isn't Saigon - for better or for worse American soldiers aren't living amongst the Iraqis.

That being said, you are living in Iraq and presumably must find yourself interacting with the locals at times. I'd like to hear about one of these times. Do you have any stories to share?

Dadmanly Responds:

Town/Gown would make a certain sense to some of our soldiers, who refer to Iraqi men who walk around in "man dresses." As you suggest, I won't consume blogtime with a rehash of the Consciencious Objector story, although I can't resist making two points.

I read in one of the accounts about the story, that a soldier claimed his fellow soldiers were hitting Iraqis with soda bottles from convoy vehicles. This is probably apocryphal on several counts. We drive fast through towns, and the intent is NOT to get anyone in a fighting mood. On convoys, we drive on wide highways, avoid city streets,and their are Iraqi Police at major intersections, especially in cities. It would be a strong and accurate arm, and unusual closeness to Iraqis, that would allow a soldier to accomplish that feat. Also, we don't have any soda bottles here. All our sodas some in cans, and the water in plastic bottles, gatorade in plastic, milk, juice, etc., in juice boxes. No bottles, except for NA Beer, and if that had been what the soldiers were throwing, this objector would have known and called it a beer bottle, not a soda bottle.

Soldiers do throw things at Iraqis. Early in our stay here, several soldiers were concerned that there was no intermediate step they could take between waving Iraqi vehicles away from convoys and firing warning or real deal rounds. Iraqis are terrible drivers, and road courtesy non-existent. They drive on any side of the road they want, weave in and out, go off the road, over the median, etc. Convoy gunners have a VERY difficult time distinguishing between a possible Vehicle born improvised explosive device (VBIED) and just your average Iraqi lunatic driver. So our guys now carry stones. When a car comes up quickly, tries to pass or get between vehicles, or won't yield right of way, they chuck one of these stones. Sometimes the result is a broken headlight or taillight, sometimes a cracked windshield or a dented roof (which just adds to all the other blemishes these cars have, many of them Caprices). But usually, the guy moves away. And stays in one piece.

Back to your actual question. I have met very few Iraqis, some of my soldiers have met somewhat more. The ones I deal with are a group of young workers who do odd jobs for us on the base. They are young, seem positive, but they take some chances working for the Americans, and they spend a lot of time hustling Chinese made pirated movies (also on sale at our on post Bazaar), knock off Rolexes for $20. I try to discourage too much closeness with them, one they could be put in danger, and two, when we leave any economy we create on base leaves with us. These Locally Employed Persons (LEP) need to keep an eye out for more permanent employment. (Also, I got to know a lot of the "near base" economy dynamics in Germany, and it always has the whiff of desperation and dependence (and disdain, on both sides).

There are other, highly visible Iraqis who clearly run contacts between Contracts and Iraqis, Military and Contracts, and are so comfortable in their business enterprises that clearly they know the right people outside (or pay them enough) that they are not in danger. Modern Iraq has a 40 year history of corruption at every level of society to an extent that would cripple any industrially advanced nation. But they don't need to be taught about opportunity, they'res plenty of entreprenuers to go around. Too many.

When we first got here, we heard about the former sculptor of Saddam, who gratefully created a terrific statue of a soldier of the first unit here, helping an Iraqi schoolgirl. We also heard about the tailor who was killed and his stylist wife who lost her arms (or vice versa) after being ambushed after work one day. (Our hair got long at first with no barber.) But as time went on, some soldiers would shell out money for some service or product, only to be told that their money (and the vendor were gone, with the Iraqi killed on his way home. I heard enough of these stories (and watched the money add up), that I believe at least some of these accounts were designed to prevent retribution against theft and generate soldier sympathy. (My Lieutenant says I am conspiracy minded.)

We are located in the heart of Sunni territory, and our Iraqi foreman says they don't like us outside the gate. There's a Civil Affairs detachment that organizes donations to the local schools, and we have several soldiers who work with Iraqi Police (IP) and Iraqi Army (IA) as trainers and advisors. They describe locals as wary, but fascinated with these Americans, about our ethnic and racial differences, rank and social equality (versus their very stratified culture). My former clerk, who is over 6 feet tall, described his first meeting with his IA students, and they swarmed around him, like eager schoolkids meeting a sports hero.

My guys out at a remote site deal with sheepherders, but I think they are mostly Kurds. They get pretty cocky, they know they are not targetted, and they compete to get their sheep as close as possible to the wire (getting at fresher grass) without causing the guards to tap off a few brrrrat brrrrat bursts to shoo them away.

All in all, I am not much of a first person source on the Iraqis.

Followup Questions from LiberalAvenger:

Thank you for your response. It makes me

I don't know how close you are to a town... Could you leave the gate from your base and walk alone into the nearest town, stop at a shop to buy something, maybe sit and have coffee somewhere? Perhaps some kabobs... Could you do this in uniform? Could you do it in civilian clothes? Do the men you are responsible for do this?

Can this be done in Baghdad? In Basra? In the Kurdish region in the north?

I remember seeing a story a year or more ago about an American soldier in Iraq who met an Iraqi woman. They fell in love and were hastily married. My recollection is that his "tour" ended and he was rotated back home and she was waiting for her visa to join him in the States at the time.

Have you heard of this happening other times? What would the legal/social ramifications of this?

Thanks again.

Dadmanly's Response:

Most of us ca't leave the FOB alone, and most wouldn't want to. Special Forces, infantry soldiers, scouts, Military Police, Civil Affairs, some Counter Intel, some high level Officers, and those soldiers training the Iraqi Army or Police are the only soldiers who can venture out in the way you describe. And even they tend to use convoys and routine security precautions (Body Armor, Armored Humvees, plenty of firepower).

Civilian contractors and other governmental civilians can and do depending on the region or area. This is possible in the Shia South, in the Kurdish North, and I believe there is some opportunity in Baghdad. In Sunni areas, this would not be advisable even if we could. Hit and run small arms fire, an occasional RPG, IEDs, and the like make such attempts too risky for most people.

Whereas in other overseas posts, most soldiers stay on post because they are more comfortable with their own culture, in Iraq they do so because that's the order handed down.

There are opportunities for the soldiers mentioned above to meet Iraqi women, and if they say patrol a specific area or town (as was the case wiht the soldier you mention), such a relationship could form however unlikely. But it would be foolish, dangerous, and possibly endanger your fellow soldiers, and you would likely be punished for starting such a relationship. Culturally, you could spark a tribal war or trigger a vendetta with such carelessness. Not good.

Compared to any prior conflict, soldiers in today's military are held to a far higher behavioral and ethical standard. (Some of our old timers even mutter that they've taken away any possible outlet or tension reliever there used to be. No booze, no gambling, no sex, no adult material.) This is not a trivial concern, and the fact that our military is voluntary and does as well as it does with the constraints is a testament to the quality of our service members.


At 6:26 PM, Blogger Ryan said...

Dadmanly: Compared to any prior conflict, soldiers in today's military are held to a far higher behavioral and ethical standard. (Some of our old timers even mutter that they've taken away any possible outlet or tension reliever there used to be. No booze, no gambling, no sex, no adult material.) This is not a trivial concern, and the fact that our military is voluntary and does as well as it does with the constraints is a testament to the quality of our service members.

I would say so! It sounds like a very confining and constrained life. Whatever you do to stay sane, keep it up!

It seems you've answered a question that I've been hesitating to ask: What is the frequency of drug use among U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq?

I've heard a bit about the drug problem in Iraq since the fall of Hussein's regime. I guess the related question with prostitution goes along with it.

Keep your head up out there!

At 11:25 PM, Blogger dadmanly said...


This is what I do to stay sane. Some might prefer the other pursuits, and I miss my wife, but I go home with LOTS of writing and material. Thanks for the encouragement.


Post a Comment

<< Home