Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Witness to Some of the First Elections in Baghdad

June 3, 2003 1910 3-32 AR TOC[1] South East Baghdad

Well, it is hot, more so humid here. Everything is going OK, but it is very stressful at times, especially with some of the childish people working here. There have been some arguments too about how to treat the Iraqi civilians, and varying attitudes towards them. Let me start first by tracking over the past two days.
Two days ago I actually had my first experience with Iraqis up close, as I greeted about 200 men who were there to start elections.
[2] The response I got was positive from them, while occasionally there would be someone who would not speak. The majority were very friendly, very well dressed, and well mannered. Some of them brought their sons too.
The election meeting was in the looted theater, about 200-300 people (well, men) in attendance. Some were dressed like sheiks, some very western, and some meagrely. Some looked very dark in complexion, some looked white European. All of them were laughing and seemed excited to be there. One of the first things I noticed were a few junior officers who work in general military intelligence positions, who have now been elevated to the position of city official, judge, jury and authority figure. Somehow I feel that these young guys, many of them filled with romantic and adventurous gusto, are ill-suited for this. They use military terminology with the people and deal with them in a military manner. I wish they would use State Department officials or civilians to perform the government re-building. Soldiers don’t make good ambassadors here, young ones, I mean. Well, after all of the men were seated, the debating began, and everything began to boil. The crowd got loud, then became enraged, and then they dispersed to the lobby area to calm down. The situation was very loud, very tense, and seemingly fragile. You might say that is democracy, Independence Hall, right here in Baghdad. My assessment is that these people act as if they have woken up to an impossible reality, a future that lays in the balance.
“A racetrack, they have a racetrack?” – Duty NCO with southern accent. I just had to write that down, he just said that as I was writing and he was reading a map. So many people here are surprised at how, well, normal this place seems to be. Back to the election…
I mingled with some men and their sons, who were dressed modestly and from a workers cloth, and I will never forget the expression that one man conveyed to me in earnest. As men were yelling at each other, he looked to me and communicated instantly, as would a long time friend, with his expression “Can you believe this, it’s such a shame.” I could only curl my lip and offer my sincere understanding and compassion with my expression, while dipping my head a slight bit. I looked to his son, about 8 or 10 years old, and shared in his disappointment. This small interaction only furthered my belief that there is a common bond between the good, family-oriented, working people of the world – a common understanding, a shared concern.
At some point, a boy came up to me and gave me a Pepsi. I thought he wanted money for it, and when I tried to pay, he would not accept the money. That was amazing, because the dollar goes a long way here. We always buy the drinks from them, so to give away an asset like that was truly meaningful.
The whole time though, it seemed like something was dysfunctional in the process, and that was the military involvement in the civil matters, when that role should be limited to security. There are a lot of missed opportunities and dashed opportunities because we have some of our least mentally equipped and experienced people, soldiers, acting as the official state representatives here.
We have also found that 3rd Infantry Division soldiers still have a real hatred and disregard for Iraqis. At the election, the war-weary soldiers, who were killing these people and being shot at by them only a few weeks ago, were telling them “MOVE MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” and grabbing them. Today, I saw three soldiers walking. They saw a pipe that we had made to bring clean water to the poor families that are living in the looted buildings and one said, “Can you believe this shit, they are givin’ these people running water??” From what I have seen and heard, they have a dark relationship with these conquered people – everything from sexual exploitation to half-hearted gestures of good will. I don’t even like to look these guys in the eyes, there is something in them that expresses confusion and darkness. I believe you can only understand this when you have known someone before a war, I mean a soldier, and seen them after a war – as I did at the Saddam Parade Grounds. I really worry about Jimmy, I wonder if he has changed in a way I have described above. I think about how blessed I am to have been at home with Nora and at Vatican City during the bombing campaign. I was and continue to be fortunate, but there are and were so many people killed and maimed, both mentally and physically because of this war. I convince myself to concentrate on the present, to help these kids, but I do think back on the past – and wonder if this could have been avoided. I was telling Foley about Hurricane Hugo. I was in that disaster, in the heart of it, and lived for almost a month in a war-like environment. We were (Foley and I) walking through some rubble of a bombed building, and I wondered how we willingly create disaster on such a large scale, with so many deaths. Natural disasters are such a horrible thing, but to consciously choose to create mass destruction and trauma is something evil. It is so easy to forget about what has happened here, especially when the children are so happy, and to forget the human price and the scar this time will leave in the hearts and minds of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis.
Today has been a little stressful, because the staff insists on lounging around (earlier they were searching for an old cannon to put outside for our new headquarters, instead of setting up the basics that we need). It seems like a lot of training we do in Graf and Hohenfels is not being used at all. I am running around coordinating a lot of things while everyone is relaxing near the garden, or going on treasure hunting trips. This really is a military “adventure,” Schroeder had it right to keep Germany out of this.
Well, that is enough about the ins and outs of this place. There is something that is really keeping me going and that is you, Spatzi! I am getting so much mail from you! It is the greatest, really. I wish you could see my face when I read them. I know that you love me Nora, and I know that you will be by my side forever. You make me want to live forever, just so I could know this heaven forever. I love you Nora! Last night at 2400, I got off work and I was so tired, I laid in bed and wanted to write you so badly – I started crying, more than I expected to. Nora, I am so in love with you! We will have a family, and I will be the best man you could ever wish for. I love you!

When we arrived at the officer training camp, I noticed something peculiar about the 3rd Infantry Division unit that was living next to us. Their MP and scout vehicles displayed phrases having to do with September 11th, 2001. Many would have a New York City Fire Department engine number on them, or WTC, or something else stencilled on them. It seemed they came with a different spirit than we did (1st Armored Division). It seemed they came seeking reprisal, seeking vengeance, for September 11th. We had been conditioned to think that this war was to rid Saddam Hussein of his “arsenal of weapons of mass destruction,” to enforce the U.N. resolutions that the U.N. itself wouldn’t enforce. Then, this mission to rid Saddam of WMD was dubbed “Iraqi Freedom.” Among the people I know, we never considered our deployment retaliation for that dreadful day. Maybe that had something to do with us being in Germany at the time of the attack. Maybe from within the United States, the embers of hate towards the Middle East glowed brighter than they did among Americans stationed oversees. I just don’t know.
[1] Battalion Tactical Operations Center, where most coordination is organized
[2] Community level elections


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