Keeping Faith with the Conquered

This piece never made it to the web. I sent it to Grey Montgomery, the editor, who agreed to publish it, then I never heard back from him. When I wrote him telling him that I would like to withdraw it, he reponded that he had printed it on paper, and that the families had appreciated it, but that they did not publish freelance work on-line. I had intended it to be a thank-you note to the brigade itself, not just those troops I knew, so it’s nice to finally give it its home on the web.

The Daily Union, Junction City, Kansas, July 25, 2004, Page A7

Keeping Faith With the Conquered

This is an after-action report. It is also a thank-you. And most of all, it is a tribute to that combination of courage and gentleness that constitute honor, and to how America’s military men and women in Iraq, by that honor, keep faith with the conquered.

From June 15th to July 5th, I was embedded with the First Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division, at Camp Junction City near Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle. I also spent a few days with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines in Ramadi itself. I was there on a research grant for a book, but also worked as an accredited journalist.

To say that the people I met were courteous and helpful would be an understatement and disservice. They were more, far more. They encouraged me do what I wanted, let me go where I wanted. And when they opened their thoughts to me, I gained great respect for their intelligence, competence, and the complexity of their attitude toward Iraq.

They don’t want to be in Iraq; one woman I spoke with has lived away from her husband and child for most of the past three years. They’re there because they’re soldiers and as honorable professionals, determined to do their best. But they know what they’re up against, that they’re only buying the Iraqis time, and that in the end only Iraqis can rebuild – and civilize – Iraq.

But they also care. There is empathy, and a sad and chastened judgment upon the horrors that have been, and are, and are to come. Time after time, I heard soldiers, especially combat arms soldiers, say the same four words:

“It breaks your heart.”

It breaks their hearts, knowing what Iraqis did to each other under Saddam Hussein. Camp Junction City is a former Iraqi air defense base that held a prison. Soldiers untroubled by killing in battle regret knowing what happened in that prison. They’ve seen the marks on the survivors. It breaks their hearts, also, to know that they, an occupying army, treat the conquered with far more consideration and respect than Iraqis show each other, even now.

I spoke with two Iraqi translators, one a Sunni from Baghdad, the other a Shi’a from Diwaniyah – educated men who had never seen soldiers fight with such disciplined aggression, then show such mercy. Until they worked with the Army and Marines, they’d assumed that such discipline could be inculcated only by fear and punishment. It came as revelation that we regarded humane and honorable conduct as the proper norm, a keeping of faith with them and with ourselves. Indeed, every time I watched Americans interact with Iraqis, I realized that at some level, we were offering ourselves to them as examples of how civilized people behave.

Especially regarding their women. It was not so much that this is an army that refuses to rape. It was that, when we went on visits and raids, the combat forces often took with them “Lionesses” – a complimentary name for attached women soldiers whose purpose was to calm Iraqi women. I often wondered what those women, and their husbands and families, thought while watching American men and women operating together. I also recall one lieutenant colonel, kneeling in a squalid courtyard with a terrified woman, urging her to send her children, especially her daughters, to school.

Because of Saddam, Iraqi women outnumber the men. By some estimates, over sixty percent of the population is female. And even though our policy-makers insist on regarding “women’s issues” as a tangential nuisance, it is not a mistake our soldiers make. Of all the things that break their hearts, observing the status and treatment of Iraqi women must rank near the top.

Right up there with knowing that the people who smile and wave at you today won’t pick up the phone when they know you’re going to be hit. Right up there with knowing that far too many Iraqis hold us in contempt precisely because of our gentleness toward them. And right up there with the fact that we may be all that stands between Iraq and civil war and foreign invasion . . . and that many hate us for that, too.

In the beginning, I opposed the war for military, political, cultural, and economic reasons. I was far from entirely wrong. But now that we’re there, we have to find a way to make this work. I don’t know if there is a way. Perhaps it will take a new generation with no memory of Saddam to heal that land. But I do know that a generation with no memory of Saddam will have memories of us. Perhaps we’re giving them memories, civilizing memories, they won’t fully understand for many years.

I want those memories to be good. So do the men and women of the Big Red One.

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