A Soldier's Story
On this small plot of land where I live, next to the Tigris River, in the very center of an Islamic metropolis, I help find and then interrogate terrorists alongside the Iraqi officer whom I advise and with whom I also live. We interrogate hundreds of suspected terrorists over many, many months. One of my responsibilities is to insure that prisoners are not abused. This I have done.
But for a year I have also been an observer of an immensely complicated situation. I am a soldier who fights alongside Iraqis, and I interact daily with and hear the words of Iraqi soldiers, civilians and insurgents alike. Through their eyes I see the strengths, foibles and faults of my military and culture. Sometimes I wish for the return of my ignorance. If no one else can understand my distress, I hope other Americans who fought shoulder to shoulder with other cultures--the French, Filipino, the Nungs and Yards and tribesmen of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia--will understand.
From my seat in a dark basement room I understand that many of those who terrorize have always hated the Americans. But being Muslim is definitely not a predisposition for violence; quite the opposite for most Iraqis. Why is it that many have slowly transformed over three years from happily liberated American supporters, to passive supporters of the insurgency, to active fighters of the American "occupation"? "I love Americans but hate your military," says a college professor turned insurgent. "Americans have come here because you want our oil and because of your support of Israel. You bring democracy, but the Iraqi pays the price." These were the first words I heard from a man I will call Ibrahim. The Iraqi Army had captured him. He was angry, and for the first time he was sitting face to face with the American soldier whom he hates beyond reason. That was two weeks ago.
Yesterday, I put two red plastic chairs outside in the sun and spoke with him again. This time, I believe I am not the American soldier he has come to hate. This time I am "Mr. Bill," and it is now hard for him to hate me. I can see and sense his inner turmoil. For Ibrahim and for me, it is hard to hold on to the hate when the once-indistinct face becomes a real person. Later, he admits to having been deceived about the evil that is the American soldier. For two weeks I have spoken Arabic with him, started and ended every interaction with the required cultural and religious sayings, and demonstrated knowledge of his religion. For two weeks I have shown Ibrahim that I respect him as both an Iraqi and as a Muslim.
"It is how you act," he says, "and how we are treated that makes me fight. For many Iraqis this anger at you is just an excuse to kill for money or greed. But for most others, they truly feel they are doing what is right. But you give them this excuse; the American military gives them the excuse." So now terrorist leaders pretending to be pious Iraqis target this very common base anger, Iraqis fight and civilians raise their fists to salute the Holy Fighter.
"Two years ago I saw Abu Ghraib and what Americans did to women. I became an insurgent," whispers a man I call Kareem, another civilian turned insurgent. "You come into our homes without separating the women and children, or asking the men politely if you may enter. Almost every hour of my life I hear some noise or see some sight of the American military. Soldiers talk with Iraqis only from behind a gun, from a position of power and not respect. Last week American soldiers got on a school bus and talked with all of the teenage girls. You had them take off their hijab so you could see their faces. You do not respect our women. This is the biggest of all problems of yours. You do not respect our women. How can we believe that Americans want to help when you do not even respect us or our faith?"
I later tell Kareem that these soldiers thought a person hiding a bomb was on the bus. This was obviously too little and too late. Perceptions are what count and word of American soldiers demanding to see the faces of Muslim women streamed from cellphone to cellphone across an entire city. Perhaps different from other past insurgencies fighting in different societies, within Iraq and over years, negative perceptions are what transform a citizen into an insurgency supporter and then into an insurgent. Now I drive throughout the crowded city alternating between shooting a machine gun and throwing Beanie-Babies to waving children. I think that at least the children are out in the streets and most are still waving. But even this hopeful sight is disappearing.
Last night the Iraqi Army captured Ibrahim's cell leader and brought the two together in the same small room. For Ibrahim, this was a very traumatic moment, for he saw that the pious Muslim man, whom he followed but had not met, was in fact a 27-year-old tattooed common criminal. Ibrahim began to weep when he realized he had been deceived. A greedy and immoral man who killed for money while pretending to be religious had skillfully manipulated Ibrahim's anger at Americans. Before Ibrahim was turned over to the Iraqi authorities, I saw him teaching soldiers to use their new office computer. He was helping them to type up his own written confession. But Ibrahim's transformation is an anomaly. Such a confluence of peaceful events does not often turn an insurgent away from the insurgency. Most insurgents continue to fight the hated American soldier whom they have never met. Their hope is that the American soldier will just go away.