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Old 06-05-2010   #3
Rex Brynen
Council Member
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: Montreal
Posts: 1,600

Another update from Iraq, courtesy of Biker Chick #1:

One of the things that I consistently notice when I'm out on mission is how little soldiers interact with, well, anyone. I'm not talking about detailed conversations, just a simple word of acknowledgement. A 'salam', perhaps even a 'asalamu alaykum' if they were feeling ambitious. God knows the Army has spent enough money on Arabic language Smart Cards for soldiers to carry around in their pockets. Our PSD (Personal Security Detail) will walk straight past groups of people who are obviously perturbed or upset by their presence without a word. Several of us sat around talking about this tonight.

I told a few other team members about a mission I recently went on, where the first stop happened to be quick checkup on a Civil Affairs project where they had attempted to lay a 400 square foot patch of sod and grow grass at the local court building. We were in a series of four MRAPs (absolutely giant, but very very safe to ride in, vehicles) and parked in the middle of a main street, blocking three lanes of Iraqi traffic. It took about 30 seconds before horns started honking. As I was in the same MRAP as the CA folk, I tagged along. We walked straight past Iraqi Police guard checkpoints into the building without a word, as the IP stared at us in awe. I offered a friendly greeting, and they yelled down to me:

"Hey! Are you a translator?"

"No, um... I'm... I'm an analyst, but I speak some Arabic."

"What the hell is going on with the traffic! What are you guys doing here? Who is supposed to be controlling the security in this area; us, or you?!"

I am pretty sure that my response was, "I'm sorry. It will be five minutes, five minutes only. We are here... (I paused, unsure what to say...) to look at... some grass."

They took it well. I thanked them for their patience and they asked if I was married. But I couldn't help thinking, if I hadn't been there, would anyone have said anything? Would they just have walked in, walked past, blocked traffic, and left without a word?

My colleagues laughed sadly when I told them this story. One explained. "It's all about the way that you see the people around you. It's perfectly normal for a person to say a simple hello when they see another person. It's substantially less normal to say hello to a lawn chair. To most soldiers, Iraqis are simply the local fauna."

Another colleague says, "It goes both ways though. You know, I used to watch these Hizbullah anti-Israeli occupation cartoons on al-Manar (Hizbullah's satellite tv channel). And you'd notice, every Palestinian in the cartoon looked different - some were fat, some skinny, some had mustaches, some didn't, different hair colors... you get the picture. And for the Israeli soldiers, it looked like they just drew one, and used him to represent every soldier. We look equally 'the same' to most Iraqis."

I laugh. "Hell, I can't tell the guys on our PSD apart half the time. Everyone's tall, built, low body fat, buzzed hair, dressed the same, lots of body armor, and has eye-pro covering half their face. Our green-suiter research manager sometimes gets mad at me when I don't see him and sit with him in the DFAC. Honestly, I just can't pick him out from everyone else."

It's yet to be seen how the majority of Iraqis will remember our presence here. The experience I've seen the most is that people have had one or two positive interactions with individuals that they remember and respect, amid a wash of identical shapes, most of whom either ignored them or shouted at them in a language they did not understand.


The thing that shocks me the most here is just how much money is being injected into the system, and how little return USF and aid vehicles see in their projects. The assumption that aid is inherently good is alive and well here, with little understanding of how putting this much money into a limited number of hands and seeing how it spreads can affect the economic system of a district, or a country. There is an awful lot of 'doing', and pitifully little 'thinking', or attempting to understand potential effects of actions. Reports are a long list of accomplishments; $500k spent here, $150k spent there, this clinic built, this program funded, but very little analysis on why, or any measure of effectiveness. At times it delves into the absurd, such as the Beekeeping for Widows program that seems to be floating around here these days, or PRT's current plan to establish 4H Clubs throughout southern Baghdad.

It's not all humorous. The vicious cycle of aid unintentionally fueling conflict appears in all kinds of ways. The head of the Civil Affairs team told me that during his last deployment, he was literally given a large bag with stacks of $100 bills in it to pay Iraqi contractors with. Halfway through the bag, he started recording the serial numbers of the bills he was giving out. He asked our S2 (the brigade intelligence shop) to please send him serial numbers of money they found on detained insurgents, and found that the wide majority of money being used by AQI and smaller groups came directly from Civil Affairs.

"It was about a one week turnaround, and by that I mean one week in between me giving the contractor the money and it appearing in an insurgent's wallet. Of course, we'd call up the contractor and say, 'What the hell?' and he'd say, 'Well, if I don't pay 10% to AQI (or whoever) then they will attack my project and threaten my family.' " So what do you do? You can't just stop doing reconstruction projects. If it was a case of protecting myself and my family, hell, I'd probably do the same thing."
They mostly come at night. Mostly.
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