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A Soldier's Story

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Bursting Bubbles

About the Author

Major Bill Edmonds
Bill Edmonds is a major in the US Army Special Forces, currently assigned to the US National Counterterrorism Center....

I have slowly come to understand that if we are to succeed in Iraq, we must either change the way we perceive and treat those we want to help or we must disengage the great percentage of our military from the population. The Iraqi base where I now live was once a small American base. The anxiety and distress of American soldiers in years past are scratched in the ceiling over my bed. "The mind is a terrible thing...," "keep a sharp look-out during your descent," "happiness is a temporary state of mind," "control is just an illusion" and "nothing is as it seems." Across the room, on another wall, next to another bed, are other words from another soldier. They read, "My score in this War: Arabs=10, cars=10, houses=3."

American soldiers are angry and frustrated with Iraqis. Iraqis are angry and frustrated with Americans. Many Iraqis just want American soldiers to go away, and I struggle within myself not to agree. Day after day I observe the interactions of Americans with Iraqis and am often ashamed. I see that required classes given to all American soldiers on cultural sensitivity do not work; 100,000 or more American soldiers daily interacting, engaging and fighting Iraqis within their own society for more than three years will inevitably create a wellspring of citizen hostility. In this war, none of us can change who we fundamentally are.

American military culture interacts with Iraqi Islamic culture like a head-on collision. And massive deployments of American soldiers fighting a counterinsurgency now hurts more than it helps. When we focus on the military solution to resolve a social problem, we inevitably create more insurgents than we can capture or kill. As a consequence, real "Islamic terrorists" subverting their own tolerant religion will use this popular anger and sense of resentment to their advantage. As much as they hate and fear us, they also say that we cannot just leave the mess that we have made.

"I know the American military cannot now leave Iraq," says another captured insurgent whom I will call Muhammad. "If you did, we would all start fighting each other until one person killed enough enemies to come out on top. When I stop seeing your military shooting at civilians on our streets and I stop seeing Iraqi soldiers and policemen as your puppets, then I will stop fighting."

Muhammad may be naïve and living in a bubble of projected motivations and false perceptions. But his bubble burst when he was captured and plucked from an insular society. My own bubble burst when I was taken out of my society and put into Muhammad's. Military leaders tell us to "focus on training the Iraqi soldiers and policemen to fight, and do not fight the insurgency yourself." Yet if the citizen is angry with us, won't this anger just transfer to the very people we train and fight with? What if we are unintentionally assuring that the Iraqi soldiers and policemen will have someone to fight against if we leave?

The Iraqi civilian I speak with says that is so. In the eyes of many, there is now no difference between the American on patrol and the Iraqi policeman or soldier who is with the American on patrol. If the citizen believes that the American military is an "occupying power," won't he now perceive the Iraqi policeman or soldier as this occupier's puppet?

American soldiers do live within self-imposed bubbles of isolation. These are called American bases and are where the greatest percentage of soldiers live and never leave. These bubbles are far different from the universe of Muhammad and his colleagues. We know that Muhammad's beliefs about who we are and what motivates us are mostly false. His first perceptions are defined by culture and religion, careful words of terrorist leaders, and a thousand channels of satellite television beamed into the homes of almost every Iraqi. It is then our behavior that contributes to these negative perceptions. Our self-imposed isolation and the citizens' perceptions may be all that the insurgency needs to continue and be successful.

I have come to realize that we isolate our soldiers from the societies in which we operate. We airlift and sealift vacuum-sealed replicas of America to remote corners of the world; once there, we isolate ourselves from the very people we are trying to protect or win over. An Iraqi once told me, "How you treat us must be like how African-Americans felt." If you're an American soldier in Iraq working as an adviser, ask yourself this: Is the Iraqi I live and fight with not allowed to enter any American facility? If you are a military adviser or training to be an adviser, look around where you eat: Are the Americans on one side of the room and the Iraqis on the other? Do you even eat with Iraqis? Do you go out of your way to avoid eye contact and thus not greet the Iraqis you walk by? Do you try to learn their language or follow their customs? Do you habitually expect Iraqis to share intelligence and then not respond in kind? Do you distrust them?

Last week I read an article in an American newspaper that described a very common scene. Getting ready to go on a mission with an Iraqi policeman, a young American soldier snaps at an Iraqi officer and says, "Get off the cellphone." Then this same soldier turns to another American soldier and says, "He is probably warning a terrorist that we are coming." It may not be racism, only ignorance combined with frustration and paranoia, but to the Iraqi, it sure does feel like racism.

To play the role of a combat adviser--something American military personnel are increasingly asked to do--is to live within a foreign culture and to train and fight with a foreign military. Many American soldiers are not capable of such an important role or mission. The job is long, very difficult, and set within a very austere, hostile and unfamiliar environment. The adviser becomes culturally isolated and so requires a unique personality combined with extensive training; but most lack this expertise and inclination. It's a sink-or-swim job, and most candidates sink after only a few months. They then retreat inside the shells of themselves and soon become combat advisers who do not interact or even advise. They thus form adviser teams that are dysfunctional and counterproductive. They exist until the day arrives when they can return home to a place that is familiar, where they are not hated.

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