A Soldier's Story
For just a minute or two, step into my life. I am an American soldier in the Army Special Forces. I have just returned from a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, where I lived, shared meals, slept and fought beside my Iraqi counterpart as we battled insurgents in the center of a thousand-year-old city. I am a conflicted man, and I want you to read the story of that experience as I lived it. In the interest of security, I have omitted some identifying details, but every word is true.
Routine and Ritual
I wake in the cold and dark of each morning to the sound of a hundred different muezzins calling Muslim men and women to prayer. These calls reverberate five times per day throughout a city the size of San Francisco. Above this sound I also hear two American helicopters making their steady patrol over the rooftops of the city and the blaring horns of armored vehicles as they swerve through dense city traffic. As a combat adviser and interrogator, I find these contrasts very appropriate for the life that I now lead.
This morning, on the Iraqi base in which I live, I walk 100 feet from my bedroom to work and back again. These are the same 100 feet I will travel month after month for one year. During every trip I smile, put a hand to my heart, sometimes a hand to my head, and say to every passing Iraqi the religious and cultural words that are expected from a fellow human being. In Iraq, one cannot separate Islamic culture from the individual. They are intrinsically woven into the fabric of daily life, but for most Westerners, they seem abnormal. I sit in smoke-filled rooms and drink sugar-laden tea in small crystal glasses. I spray tobacco-scented air freshener, kiss cheeks three times or more, allow the Iraqi on the right to pass through the doorway first. I know never to inquire on the health of a wife or elder daughter. I even hold hands with other men.
I proclaim my submission to God and my relationship to reality by saying "God willing" when referring to any future event. I say "God bless you" every time someone takes a seat. I eat with my hands, standing up, taking food from communal bowls. I attend work meetings where socializing is always the first priority. I hear the expressions "upon my mustache" or "by my eyes" or "over my head"--signifying the most binding and heartfelt of oaths. One day, I ask an Iraqi friend how many relatives he has and he answers, "In the city, maybe a thousand." I have slowly come to realize that in Islam, and in Iraq, every action is worship. Every single thing that a person does--not just prayer or the time spent in a mosque but every action--is in fact an act of veneration. So yes, many things are different here. Yet we all have become friends--good friends--in part because I am here; I honor them and their religion by going out of my way to show them respect. Not all Americans act this way.
Many Americans assume that if a person does not speak English, it implies a lack of intelligence or some mental simplicity. We usually speak up only when spoken to. We attend meetings to pass information in the most efficient ways possible; our goal is always to decrease time while not losing content. For most Americans, God is intensely personal and religious utterances are not considered appropriate in a group of strangers. Our society is established on the principle of separating religion from state. In America, tobacco is quickly becoming a social taboo, and most men do not hold hands. If we are the first to arrive at a door, we enter first. We go on dates to meet future spouses--this is a cultural activity that I try again and again to explain. Also, Americans are a pragmatic people. We calculate the merit of an action first by its utility. In Islam, such a philosophy is immoral, and this truth is clearly manifest in the current clash between the Muslim and the postmodern worlds. So yes, we are very different. Yet if I look closely, with eyes wide open, I see that we are in some ways very much alike.
I jogged this morning around the small Iraqi base where I live. It was 6:00 a.m. and mildly warm. I wore very revealing blue Nike running shorts with ankle socks while listening to Limp Bizkit on my iPod. I slowly passed a small group of Iraqis and they all just stared, unsmiling. As I came closer, with a huge smile spread across my face, I put my hand to my heart and said, "Peace be upon you all," (in Arabic of course) while gasping for air. They all, in unison, completely changed and beamed smiles, waved, talked, gave me a thumbs-up and replied, "Peace be upon you."