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.”
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.
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.
American soldiers now patrol the streets with extreme caution and quick reflexes. They have come to think that every Iraqi who runs a red light or does not yield is a terrorist. They shoot at or accidentally kill civilians, which then creates one more insurgent and three more insurgency supporters. I know this cause-and-effect explanation is simplistic for an immensely complicated situation, but you get the picture. I will never fault American soldiers for their actions and reactions; it really is dangerous out there, and no other nation could ever ask for such service and sacrifice from its citizens. Yet I also try not to fault Iraqi civilians, for their truth is just as valid to them as is mine to me.
I have seen firsthand why I cannot create stability by force within an Islamic society and why many say democracy cannot be brought by force but must evolve.
To be a moral person in a protracted counterinsurgency is my daily struggle, one in which I am asked to instill social morality on a culture that is not my own.
So what is the balance between taking charge in Iraq and/or abandoning the country? Our best response is to pull the American soldiers back and push the Iraqi soldiers/policemen forward as quickly as possible. I feel the urgency of this mandate as I type these very words on this small Iraqi base among Iraqi soldiers. As I told Ibrahim, the captured insurgent, “I want to leave your country. The only reason I stay here is because Iraqis are dying and you insist on fighting. All we want to do is to help.”
I naturally assumed he understood this. Well, he had not, and most do not. This message is one that is lacking and one that Iraqis surely need. So I find myself balanced on a tightrope bridging a deathly height. As Iraqi intelligence officers once explained to me over hot tea, “It is a race to see which of many possibilities comes first; the competency of an Iraqi Security Force with a stable and competent government, or the formation of a monolithic and deadly insurgency or civil war, both of which would prevent the latter.”
In Iraq, I wish to survive and to succeed. Yet as the days pass, my hopes increasingly become mutually exclusive: The insurgency gets more effective; the citizen anger at us and the Iraqi Security Force becomes greater; the fractions in the society grow deeper and more violent; the American public becomes more impatient as the war is perceived as less legitimate and the conditions to form a stable Iraqi government become more elusive. So I run along this rope as if in a race to get away. I run knowing full well that my speed comes only at the sacrifice of my balance. I long for the tranquility of normalcy, the comfortable, the understandable, and so I want to run from Iraq. So what then can I do besides serve admirably and hope for the best while fearing the worst?
The Iraqi officer I advise once said after months of frantically working to capture terrorists, “You need to just relax. You are here, so there will always be another terrorist to capture. Sit and drink some tea with me.”
I doubt he was intentionally being prophetic. As a soldier who lives with an Iraqi, I do hope to one day just sit and drink some tea with him. To sit and talk of family without a worry in the world. But to do so, I must do more than just train, advise and fight with my Iraqi friend. I must go out of my way every single day to disprove the “Ugly American” label that is attached to me. I must approach every personal interaction as a singular opportunity to battle the insurgency and then realize that my interactions with each and every Iraqi do have very lasting and very strategic consequences.