Friday, July 31, 2009

A Short Break

Though it is definitely a break from the norm of first person stories
that typically appear here, the mission today for 1st platoon, Charlie
2-35, 25th Infantry Division is worthy of a mention. In terms of
mission tasking in Iraq, this rivals the best as just plain good. It
made me smile, certainly, and I imagine it will do the same for
others. What’s more, I have photographic proof this time.

As many will recall from reading the news, a major component of
current US policy in Iraq is the reconstruction of essential
infrastructure. At present this includes schools, and throughout this
area of operations there are scads facilities either being built from
scratch or wholly restored from their condition of neglect. There are
also several others already operating. In total, more than
thirty-five primary schools are, or will be soon functioning in this
small, impoverished region of Iraq. There are children here, after
all, and they would benefit from something more than a hard life of
subsistence farming. This education gives them options.

Several times throughout this tour, Soldiers from C company have
gathered heaps of backpacks, pencils, paper, and other school
supplies, and prepared them for delivery to local school children.
They have also brought clothing with them, too – boxes of items
donated from the states that, while used, still have plenty of life
left in them. Rather than simply hand them out and appear the heroes,
US forces collaborate with nearby Iraqi Army (IA) commanders and even
local leaders to ensure that they are there involved, too. It’s a
combined effort, but it remains far more important that Iraqis are
familiar and comfortable with their own security forces than they are
with the US. We’ll be leaving soon, and the ISF will then be left on
their own.

Today I watched the latest school supply and clothing drop for a
primary school in this area. I could tell facts about it – how many
backpacks were handed out and how many shirts and pants were
distributed to the children, but that still strikes me as hollow.
Instead, I will tell you and show you what I saw.

The first thing I saw was a squat, concrete and block building
standing in the middle of nowhere. By the time we arrived, the
headmaster and his son (an English-speaking animal physiologist) had
herded a good fifty children outside and attempted to get them in some
sort of order. They were excited, so listening to directions was one
of the last things on their mind. With the assistance of our
interpreter, a few other teachers, some US Soldiers, a couple Iraqi
Army soldiers and officers, and the local sheik, they were formed into
a line. I must confess I’ve never seen Iraqis in a line (aside from
Iraqi Army boot camp), and certainly never children. In fact, I had
joked that the only thing I was going to capture today on camera was a
bunch of children beating each other, convinced that the backpack that
their friend received was somehow different and better than their own.
No such thing happened, however.

While a US Soldier went down the line handing out pencils and papers,
a small knot of IA, the school’s headmaster, and a few more Soldiers
quickly passed out backpacks to all of the children in this school.
Many, I believe, have never seen one before, much less owned one.
Their excitement was only tempered by my camera constantly shoved in
their faces.

Several things struck me as interesting about this scene. For one,
this is an infantry platoon trained for one primary mission: kill the
enemy and secure the area. Yet this mission finds them strictly in a
PR/humanitarian role. Few will likely admit it, but they enjoyed
themselves. Enough of them are fathers and uncles to not mind making
a child smile for a few minutes. They aren’t trained killers so much
as they’re trained fighters, at any rate, and this is a mission to
which they readily adapted – and did quite well. Quite simply, it’s

And they were also joined by their Iraqi Army counterparts. I
personally have had difficulty dealing with them in the past, mostly
because they were either unprofessional or downright harsh when
working with children, but they clearly enjoyed themselves too.
Slinging rifles in such a way that they didn’t bop kids in the head
every time they bent down, they directed children like fathers: gently
and patiently – despite the racket of the overexcited at the prospect
of receiving school supplies. I enjoyed watching their interaction,
particularly when it meant juggling a rifle, a cigarette, and
cumbersome gear that does little more than get in the way. Below is a
photo of the ‘Arif (Iraqi NCO) who would grab an item of clothing from
a box and walk around trying to match it with an
appropriately-statured child. He didn’t have to do this, but he did.

I observed a lot of cute kids, to put it bluntly, so I made an attempt
to photograph as many as would allow it. A number have the common
sun-bleached hair, giving it the appearance of burnished copper. A
number more have fingernails stained from working with newly harvest
dates. One loved having her picture taken, after she decided I wasn’t
really scary anymore. This is her below:

I did ask a number to smile for photos, but didn’t give up if they
wouldn’t. Maybe they don’t want to smile. After all, a backpack and
a few pencils isn’t going to change the fact they’re growing up
underserved and impoverished in Iraq. Giving them school supplies and
clothing doesn’t change the world. What it does do, however, is put
them one small step closer to receiving an education.

It is a known fact that the insurgency in some regions of this country
exists mostly because the locals are poor and Al Qaeda is the
highest-paying employer. This region is one such example. This is
why schools are so important here. An educated, equipped group of
children and teenagers is presented other opportunities besides the
few dollars that Al Qaeda offers them to dig in an IED. As much as
our own politicians always pontificate about everything being for our
children, there’s a bit of truth to it here. Kids that aren’t
desperate for income and food are less likely to make moral
concessions in order to find a job. In short, they won’t contribute
to the instability of this country.

Besides schools, there are also plenty of other unmet needs in this
community. I saw a few dermatological problems that needed attention,
and a few children badly in need of footwear. At least two bore
obvious signs of albinism – testament to high rates of birth defects
in this region of the world. Almost all could use a toothbrush.

Despite it being generally insulting, I have heard boys here referred
to as “pre-terrorists” or “terrorists-in-training.” Yet there’s some
truth to this. What solves this? It begins with parents that don’t
use their position as leaders to perpetuate a doctrine of hatred.
Another measure which definitely helps, though, is humanizing “the
enemy.” These children, having heard all their short lives that
Americans (or Iraqi Security Forces) are evil and part of the problem,
have seen a demonstration of something different. They met nice
people who joked around with them, played with them, and made an
effort to provide for them in some small way. Perhaps that lesson
will remain with them more than the violent rhetoric they may be
accustomed to hearing. It’s hard to hate somebody who you distinctly
remember being kind to you.

Iraqi girls don’t have it easy here, either. They are married off
young and often relegated to a life with little to no education. They
work hard and age quickly. An alternative to poverty will hopefully
improve their quality of life, too. Once again, it starts with an
education. Today I saw just as many female students as males. They
were all uniformly treated nicely by teachers and IA alike.

For those that are going to counter with some remark along the lines
of US troops were there so the Iraqis were on their best behavior, I
will say this: in the past, Iraqis have had no qualms about treating
children harshly in our presence. The fact that they did not today
indicates something: they didn’t want to.

I have worked enough with the population of Iraq to know that the
enemy are few and the numbers who simply want to live their lives far
greater. In short, I have put a face to this country. Those that say
we should leave them to their own devices are forgetting that there
are millions of innocents whose only “crime” was being born into a
chaotic, violent situation. Those that boldly announce we should nuke
them all and go home are boldly indicating their own ignorance (and
heartlessness). Those that insist that this country’s problems are
not our concern are overlooking the fact that basic human rights are
everybody’s concern. I don’t think there’s a good rebuttal to that,

Yes, this is a small act. Yes, a backpack and a few articles of
clothing isn’t going to change the world or dramatically shift a
culture from violence to progress. But it aims everybody in the right
direction, and that’s a great start. Additionally, this is only one
project of many. There are other schools, other projects, and other
efforts to improve quality of life.

It is always difficult for me to capture a “story” with a photograph,
so I find it easier to just describe the story and then show the faces
of those involved in it. Below are some of the players, and now
you’ve heard a little bit about them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re
all cute kids, either. However brief their encounter with us, it
leaves a good impression. In ten years time, they’ll still remember
us, no doubt. Will we remember them?

All Media Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Great photography, thank you for sharing, and bringing life to a land far away from here, and very close to you!

  2. You are getting it together, Grasshopper. The technique is effective and can be used time and again.

  3. The children are so cute! And they're smiling and enjoying the free stuff! Thanks for telling us about this.