There are days when I’m jolted to mental clarity at the astonishing realization that I’m in Iraq. Initially the feeling was a sensation of discovery, of alacrity and an adaptation to the unfamiliar. Lately it’s become an answer, a rationalization and in many ways a new reality.
In three dizzying months, I’ve come to the jarring, even disturbing, conclusion that there is no more a formula for the institutionalization of democracy than there is for eternal youth. This supposition begins to challenge many of my long-held personal assumptions, however patriotic, about my own country’s beginning.
Nearly a decade – following the day Cornwallis felt the salt of the Atlantic nipping his heels at Yorktown – of our nation’s beginning was marked by its own conflict. Settlers skirmished on the frontier, the French bullied our ships on the high seas to the extent the fracas has been characterized as an undeclared war, and Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts was a modest, if not the only, insurrection. Even more dramatically the years following 1789 were not always smooth either: American blood re-painted our morals in battlefields from Georgia to Maryland nearly a century later.
Given the amount of calamity it seems that the United States was, and is, the plausible product of divine intervention, astrological alignment, or luck. More than likely it’s all three. While there are a number of variables in this comparison to the conflict in Iraq – sectarian divisions, 30 years of brutal tyranny, and a great deal of oil wealth – there is one that I have come to believe that is stand alone. A uniting common denominator in America – that is absent from my observations here – centers on the ideas and work imparted over generations by the likes of Voltaire, Milton, Hobbs and Locke.
The idea that the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed or that freedom inherently belongs to the people except where a legitimate government is sanctioned by the people to restrict it -- is a new concept. Processing, understanding and implementing these concepts is a time-oriented learning process. Iraq’s democracy may not be a mirror image of ours. And that’s okay. For me, this is a reality that I could not have possibly concluded by reading between the lines of the daily reports in America’s newspapers.
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Window to socialization. Sitting on the step, he leaned over his left shoulder and threw the wrapper into the courtyard. The courtyard – a trash heap just a few months ago – had been transformed out of pocket by the Americans, British and Australian civilians working here. The wrapper now lay out of place, in a garden of blooming flowers, patchy shade and a fountainhead that produces the continuous babble of trickling water.
Having just arrived at the building in the morning, I was still dressed in full-battle rattle – which must look alien to the Iraqis – and stopped as I often do, to give this boy of perhaps five years of age a piece of candy. He was sitting next to his traditionally dressed mother with a scowl on his face. Almost begrudgingly, he took a piece from the bag I held open, quickly ate it…and then looking at me defiantly, threw the trash into the middle of the pristine courtyard.
I must have stood there and stared in disbelief for 30 seconds. He stared back unblinking. Pointing to wrapper, I mumbled until I found my voice and demanded he pick up the trash and dispose of it properly. He didn’t move.
Turning to his mother I repeated my demand. She said something in Arabic to her child, and pouting just like any American kid, he stood up and retrieved the wrapper and disposed of it in a nearby trashcan to which I was now pointing.
The faces of children, I’ve come to believe, reflect without filter, the feelings and perceptions of the adult population. Iraqis routinely dump their trash in the streets, but in this case, I think this boy was reflecting an attitude, not imitating behavior.
Lunch Ladies. Two women, perhaps in their 30s made their way to our office downtown several weeks back. They had been contracted by a company in Dubai, which brought them from the Philippines to perform domestic work for wealthy Iraqis in Balad, about an hour south of Kirkuk. Of course it costs money for travel and work arrangements, so they were indebt to the contracting company for their employment – essentially indentured servitude.
Having been abused by their employer they ran away, not a safe venture for two young women, who are easily spotted because of their distinctive physical appearance, on the streets of Iraq. Allegedly someone told them Kirkuk was safer and after hitchhiking rides, they finally found temporary refuge with an Assyrian Bishop (Christian) near our offices.
We are not equipped to handle such cases – they aren’t even Iraqi or American citizens – and this caused something of a moral dilemma. To do nothing would almost certainly be a death sentence but options are nearly non-existent.
One young soldier on my team also of Philippine decent came up with an idea. He contacted KBR, the subsidiary of Hallibuton that provides food services on post. This young soldier single-handedly arranged job interviews, lobbied the health clinic to provide requisite vaccinations and eventually facilitated their employment on post. These women can now be seen daily in the chow hall – very happy to be serving food to soldiers – with a safe place to live and most certainly earning more money than they had previously made. As for the solider, he gets extra helpings now.
Man Kisses. A few notes back I mentioned my friend Sheikh Groundhogday. This is the gentleman that visits weekly to discuss the possibilities of democracy but decidedly doesn’t want to actually get involved. We have long talks about how historically, various groups of Iraqis lost opportunities to influence government because they refused to get involved. We have the same talk week in and week out.
A week or two ago, he spots me in the hallway coming out of the governor's office. He's got great news – he’s decided to get involved and will throw his political support to the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), one of two main Kurdish political parties in the province. I’m psyched…progress.
The sheikh thanks me, shakes my hand and then goes for the gusto…pulls me close and kisses both of my cheeks. Culturally, this is a big honor as sheikhs are powerful leaders. But all I saw was these big crusty chapped lips coming at me in slow motion and I couldn’t stop them. Subsequently, I was paralyzed by shock. The man could have literally taken my weapon away from me and I probably would have just stood there, stunned.
I’m thinking I should get a battle ribbon or a ceremonial coin or something – I took one for the team!
Smells of Kirkuk
A friend once told me that details, such as a sense of smell, breathe life into stories. So here’s an effort at describing a few of the most common:
• Oil Fumes. The small refineries around the base burn impurities from oil to develop refined products continuously. A sulfuric smoke can enshroud the base – usually in the evening – the way smoke from a wild fire might shift with the wind.
• Smokey Halls. Iraqis are chain smokers and over here, there is no such thing as a smoke free building. Butts are thrown on the floors of the government building even as the stale stench from years of smoke accumulation sticks to the walls and ceilings.
• Sewerage. One side of post borders close to the city. When running or walking along this end of the FOB, the foul sickness waifs with an odd humidity across the runways of the airbase.
• Stillness of the Morning. Early morning, just as the sun is rising, a cool serene smell that seems to have wiped clean the events of the day before. Dawn here is incredible and promising.
• Hot Steel. At 120 degrees, the steel of a Humvee cooks up a special delicacy for any gunner climbing into the turret. The metallic heat is the smell of an empty pan on a stove top turned on high.
Big thanks for the multitude of letters and care packages
I’ve received. It is so much appreciated! There was one package
that stood out the most for me – my sister’s family, including
four kids under the age of eight, sent a little box of goodies. My nieces
and nephews must have heard it was hot over here and so they made hand
fans – five of them – out of construction paper. Kids are
amazing because they can solve any problem. I’m still chuckling
to myself. Man, I’m the coolest uncle in Iraq.