American soldiers in Iraq are as differentiated as Iraqis. They believe firmly in their mission of pacifying an enemy people and bringing democracy to them, or they think they're wasting their time as peacekeepers, or they hate it and want to go home, or they grit their teeth and follow orders. Morale is mixed; some soldiers I met feel they were misled and have to stay in Iraq much longer than they were originally told, but others maintain a steely resolve to see the job through, whatever the job turns out to be.
Sweltering as they protected a US compound in Baghdad, two GIs from Florida said they came to Iraq as part of a QRF--quick reaction force--whose wartime job was to rescue downed pilots. What they do now is stand guard, day after day, wearing heavy flak jackets and helmets. Each is Latino and in the National Guard, one originally from Puerto Rico, the other from Mexico. Both are fathers. The Mexican is training to become a policeman, and the Puerto Rican drives a bus at Disney World. "The duty here is OK," the policeman said. "We've done what we came to do, took over the country. Mission-wise, we're done." Three men from their unit of 130 had recently been killed, and they were still thinking about that. "Ambushes, man," the bus driver said. "This country is not under control, and it never will be under control." His buddy took a swig of bottled water. "I guess I'm glad we came and did what we did," he said, "but a lot of the Iraqis, now, they have a big problem with us staying here because they want to take over their own country. Us staying here doesn't give them a chance to start anything, run anything on their own." I wondered if their not being Anglos possibly contributed to their understanding of how an occupied people feels, but other GIs were equally wary of being part of an occupation force.
Romeo and Juliet, almost. Dating between soldiers and the local population is forbidden not only for security reasons but because it is offensive to Muslims. When it happens it is furtive. A young Muslim woman--not Iraqi but a Lebanese import--who works for the US government in Baghdad was flat on her back on a couch, drying her eyes, the first time I met her. Her name is Randa and she told of her relationship with a GI named Jeff. Jeff's ambition to become a lawyer was diverted when he enlisted patriotically after 9/11. Stationed in Iraq, he met Randa. "We really bonded," Randa said. "We both loved debating, and we'd debate anything from a favorite ice cream flavor to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jeff was an only child, and Jewish, and he said, 'Gee, Randa, you're the first Muslim I ever met in my whole life.' We kept exchanging books and magazines. I gave him a book on Islamic fundamentalism and told him to get up to chapter six by the next time I saw him, and he did it, so then we debated some more."
Randa and Jeff couldn't see each other often, but they e-mailed constantly, then met when they could after her office hours were over and he finished duty at Baghdad University. Randa said Jeff was so full of charisma, charm and intelligence that she was sure he'd become President of the United States. Jeff was shy, which increased his attractiveness to Randa. After two months they were very close. "We were both 23, and I really liked hanging out with him," Randa said. Then it ended. "It's so hot here, you know," Randa said, "and one day Jeff went into the cafeteria at Baghdad University for some ice cream. He came out and while he was walking down the steps of the building someone just came right up to him and shot him dead. As quick as that. I guess you could say I'm in mourning now." The next time I saw her Randa was busy again, plunging back into her work, which involves interviewing Iraqis, especially but not exclusively women, who have been mistreated. Recently she sent an e-mail. She still thinks about Jeff, still is certain he'd have become President. Her job continues, she finds it rewarding to help people, and she likes her colleagues. "I'm doing much better," Randa wrote, "taking it one day at a time."
How about the arts? A theater director came to see me several times. Rasim Mansour, a long-faced man with a severe yet quizzical expression, manages to look like both James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. He seemed to want nothing more than a conversation, and he was fresh from a postwar triumph, his presentation of Desire Under the Elms, which he said was a smash hit in Baghdad and had just closed. Beneath his black-framed round glasses, his eyes flashed as he explained that O'Neill's play is close to Iraq's situation now because a cruel father--i.e., Saddam Hussein--had doomed his entire family--in this case his country--to tragedy. He also admired Arthur Miller, who he felt had joined Eugene O'Neill in communicating American civilization to the world.
Rasim, now 32, made his start in the theater by playing Macbeth, for which he was praised so much he began to receive grants and commissions to direct plays. Chain-smoking very long cigarettes, Rasim said his Macbeth, even though it deals with a usurping king, slipped by Saddam Husein's censors, but many other plays, such as Caligula and Richard III, did not. "Our second most important export, right after oil," Rasim said, "became our artists and intellectuals. I wouldn't leave because I felt my country needed me to stay here, and good or bad I love it." The censorship is gone now, he said, but half the theaters in Baghdad are destroyed while the other half are used by Americans for storage. The O'Neill play had been presented in a borrowed auditorium. "An American captain told me, 'Kiss my ass,' when I asked if we could have a theater. I'm glad Americans got rid of Saddam, but conquering us was not a good idea. Americans have harmed this country, and traces of the occupation will remain a long time. You never thought how to save Iraq, only how to conquer it in order to terrorize and warn the entire world. I can't believe that four months after they won the war they have still not restored basic services like electricity and water. So who's worse, Saddam or the Americans? I'm a great fan of George W. Bush as an actor and I hope he'll be performing in a theater one day very soon."
At the Polytechnic Institute in Baghdad, I felt I was on a campus that had substituted rage for electricity as its power source. By now my translator and guide was Sa'ad Al-Izzi, a tall, stout man of 29, though he seemed older due to his having had to mature quickly at the age of 10 in order to take care of his mother and sister after his father died of diabetes. Izzi, an English major himself, was appalled at the condition of the institute, which he had not visited since the war began. The custodian of buildings and grounds, who lives in a house just inside the college gates, displayed a broken tooth he said he'd received while defending the institute against a gang of looters that included Kuwaitis, Syrians and Palestinians. He brought out his 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son; the daughter had shrapnel in one of her eyes, the son had shrapnel in his head, both from wild firing, the custodian said, by US troops. The soldiers, he said, fired a few times into the grounds of the institute but otherwise simply watched from their tanks across the street while the college was looted and burned. Becoming angrier as he spoke, the custodian said Americans had refused him the money to pay for an operation to restore his daughter's eyesight.
A professor of computer science told Izzi the vandals had burned every book in the library, which he said had been the largest scientific collection in the Middle East. The gutted and hollowed library is now being used as a cafeteria because the cafeteria itself was burned to the ground. Two women professors--of geography and mechanical engineering--very politely said they hoped Americans would stay until there is a secure and stable government. An older student, who said he is in his 30s, agreed with the women professors and said most Iraqis want Americans to stay for now.