Leaving Iraq – February, 2006
I had wanted to stay past the end of 2005 when the permanent government would be elected. We all knew that the Sunnite insurgents and Al Qaeda would, regardless, continue to contest the future of Iraq on the streets but we could also see that these two forces were increasingly hostile fellow travelers with the later still driven by the vision of their Caliphate and the former hanging on to privileges in a nation-state.
Yet even as it staggered forward, the election in late 2005 had at least brought the Sunnites to the polls and put them in a position to discuss legislative alliances with Kurds and Shia. Whether the talk that winter could produce consensus was very much to be seen. We, as a relief and development organization still held out the possibility for both civil war and great flows of refugees and displaced while our more hopeful side pressed onwards with our investments for transformation.
But the Iraq dynamic was only part of it. The commitment and the energy for the larger presumption back in the states was waning and the battle for control of the American legislature was heating up. "Americans have no heart for overseas adventures - unless the enemy is coming up the back lawn" I had told Paul. I was reading the daily reports from the USA and it was clear that the public was looking to tie a ribbon on it and hope for the best. Paul and I knew better. The West - the collective West - was up to its eyeballs in the Arabian Peninsula and could not now extract without unacceptable damage. "Like 30% unemployment in Detroit", we agreed.
But one could not stay forever, I knew. I was not of a mind to grow older yet in Iraq and so I would stay for the final tally, as some kind of milestone, and then leave for a break and then for another assignment.
Much had changed since I had lain on that bed at the Best Western in Amman in early 2003. Dishes were on almost every roof, cell phones had replaced HF, VHF, and SAT phones; Saddam was in the docket, the Internet had poked its way into hundreds of thousands of homes. Yet the roadside IED's and the martyrs willing to explode themselves kept coming. Law and order was still tentative and largely depended on the American G.I.'s - even as most Iraqi's had become upset at seeing the foreign uniform.
So, in that lull that followed the vote, I announced my intent to leave. Paul would take my place. Together we made the last trips down to South Central to receive the embraces, to sip the tea and to be told how they were losing a father or grandfather, as the case may be, revealing again their needs for the patron - the hierarchy. We lay together on the floor, in the dark in one of their homes, where earlier we had eaten the plates of chicken and rice and flat bread together, all stretched out now, together, asleep till the roosters started crowing. And then we had been driven north by tall Mohamed and been handed over to Ahmed to bring us back into the Kurdish lands.
The last event was northeast of Khanaqin aside a creek deep in a ravine only a stones throw from the Iranian border. They had fixed up a brazier and threw on dozens of shish's of chicken and lamb while a CD blared the Kurdish dancing music and a large circle of us came to life - men and women - raising the shoulders and feet in unison, following the lead of the sequined woman with the kerchief.
Afterward a few of us assembled next to the broken fountain next to our home. The three wild dogs, looked through the chain link fence at me, one of their providers, who gave them better than I ate... slum gullion.
And then, just as fast, I stopped and we all just sat very silent and looked up at the stars and then across at the dogs.
Hash and Greasy... as in easy, I thought. Old fried potatoes and vegetables cooked to exhaustion. Oh how I would marvel at those dogs... how they consumed the victuals I threw over or tore a cat apart... just tore it apart and swallowed it... crushed the bones in their jaws... that is... other than the dog Drakoulis who had poked at a poisonous snake in his hole and just shrank before my eyes in froth and sweat.
Sitting there for the last time silent in the cacophony of the Shia and Sunnite mosques... watching the 3 male dogs try to kill each other... then hump each other... and then devour some scraps I threw over while I gulped down a beer... just squeezed the tin can from the side and pushed the beer down and then lay it on the ledge of the fountain next to my SAT phone which could connect me to some unseen invention in orbit through the heavens... the same heavens the muezzin was trying to address.
And then my eyes dropped down to the perimeter wall around me and the watchmen outside and the Iraqi police and the stanchions against car bombs and Hamza with his wand which probably was also defunct... to protect against a zealot blowing himself to pieces with shrapnel exploding all over the place, ripping through mud brick and flesh alike.
And so.... right before me... and around me... my beer and slum... was a lot to take in and each of it... a word put to it... led toward a confusion. The dogs killing and humping and then tails awaggin and purring at the chain link... and the suicide zealot and the muezzins litany and the Sudanese sensitive on one side and the quiet Parisian on the other and such another motley group elsewhere in other office locations. Yes, a word from any of them or just the sight of dogs or watchmen and you got stunned by where it led... the vision of George Bush... the vision behind words like open and pluralistic, democracy, open markets, evangelical empire... as they bump against tribe, Shia, Sunnite, Kurd, Ayatollah, Saddam, Anfal, Najaf, Jew, infidel crusader... modernizer... avant-garde for western civ.
In the end, sitting there in Khanaqin, 4 k from the Iranian border in cold February a so called humanitarian aid worker trudged up to the roof, one last smoke before he pulled the dusty blanket, which Soriah never beat, over him.
The next morning, I had left early from Khanaqin for the beach-craft up North which would fly me back to Amman.
Bye from Soriah... The hag draped in her black abaya with 9 children and a dead husband. Swabbing the tiles by hand, bum up. Now sitting on a rusty gas canister, sucking on Pines in the shade of our tin roof. Chuckling at my western antics, as I had blown her a kiss.
Tears from Solham, the plump cook, the great mass of bosom, the substantial backside, the hopeful smile and glass specs, the dirt under her nails… “a man without a wife is like a kitchen without a knife'' on her Chinese apron… chicken, mutton or macaroni... chicken, mutton or macaroni.
Good Bye Ahmed... My ham-fisted friend who took me through the badlands, his magnificent grin. Like Soriah, he had humored me my antics... often my dogs. I was now beside the Land Cruiser telling him to watch over them. He had raised his hand and pulled his trigger finger. “No, No" I had laughed, "not that way"... recalling how in a blink of an eye he had plugged the sick dog with his AK and how we had stood over it, waiting, peering at it to die so I could lift it up and put it in the plastic bag. "Gee", he had uttered... so long after it should have died.
With him for almost three years now back and forth across the fault lines, trying to gauge my threshold. Two of his brothers dead in the last 18 months. We are very sad to leave each other, I am thinking, as Paul and I push out the gate.
Paul looked uncertain. We had been a pair for so long, it was hard to figure us apart. He, the son of a Mexican immigrant with a father from the 'Special Forces' - a consummate Arabist, a summa cum laud wherever he studied, now taking the farewell drive with me... with me who had none of those attributes but who, after all, had taken the responsibility of mission and men for almost 3 years in what was a defining moment for the West.
It was over. But in truth it was not. It is not as if you just take off a coat and put on a new one. It stays with you. You have been in a wasteland where there was a lot of killing going on and you have been there long enough to where it has gotten into you. Most of us will need surcease; some of us will get it.
I am now back in San Se clipping the toe nails. And then the hair... cleaning up and then sitting dazed on the corniche watching the parade of pedestrians in all their variety and wondering how they do it, how they skate and amble and stroll and struggle along on spikes and sandals and flats and sneaks.
You are dazed by the parade. Beyond it are the waves coming in off the dark and deadly Atlantic.
Finally, they would fly me to HQ for the last down-load... along with a smattering of advocacy before persons of influence. It would mean allowing the last of the alcohol from San Se to drain from my head, finding a couple of shirts whose collars and cuffs were not frayed, putting a polish on the wingtips, a trim for the beard. And then to the European gateway with all the ignominy of someone who had just been plucked out of the center of the world and put in the back row of a Boeing... soon to have some large fellow passenger compete with me for the arm rest and having the seat in front of me abruptly reclined onto my knee caps.
Yes, I could strut before those assembled in Washington. I could bring a tear, provoke a gasp. They knew I was authentic. They could feel the war standing next to them. Successful men would look away; their wives would stroke my arm and try to commiserate.
My last encounter was with my friend in Congress, Representative Wolf, who, like me, went as far back as Vietnam. Just as I had arrived at his office, he was running out for a vote. "Come with me and we'll talk on the way", he said. As it turned out we talked on the run. "I've just had four town meetings Dave", he said, "and they want us out. Tell me what do I say?"
I mean... one answers those types of queries with books, not short sentences on the fly. I think I disappointed him. I could only mutter, out of breath... "long haul.... you can't build 'open and pluralistic' on the fly... and, in any case, DOD is not the vehicle... with luck, there could be a facsimile by the time the oil runs out."
"So why do it." he asked as we stood before the chamber. "What do I answer them?"
I remember feeling helpless. I shrugged my shoulders. "I mean what else should America do?" I asked.
(Above Photo: Holdridge with Congressman Wolf)
With this thirteenth post, BtD concludes its description of how the American government's current attempt to control the narrative overseas plays out on the ground. For many of us, the approach has lost its relevance as a means to influence behavior and attitudes overseas. It is a relic of the cold war and does not reflect America's need to adapt its approach to the realities of the 21st century.
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