Saturday, August 29, 2009

Something To Chew On

If you were at home one evening in the states, and a man came to your door and told you had twenty-four hours to leave or he would kill you and all your family, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to reach the end of your sidewalk. Such threats are generally poorly received in America. For the sake of this scenario, however, let us presume that he escapes with his life.

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, you may call the police. Many, particularly in the southern states, will not bother, instead preferring to sandbag all their windows, call friends and relatives with guns, and then assemble to make a final stand in the house. It is, after all, your house, your land, and nobody is going to remove you from it, forcibly or otherwise. Generally speaking, we as a nation and as individuals are willing to fight for things. It’s how we "earned" our country.

Now let us propose the same scenario takes place in an Iraqi household. From innumerable conversations, personal observations, and speaking with leadership in both Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces, this is the outcome: they simply leave. And this is not a generalization. Ask nearly any Iraqi, and he or she will quickly agree.

Some will immediately argue that the Iraqis are fearful police will punish them for firing weapons, but this is a remarkably flaccid rebuttal. Police forces in the past have been either slow or absolutely apathetic about responding to gunfire in their areas of responsibility. In the past, the night sky was often lit with tracers. Not from sustained firefights between US or Iraqi Security Forces and insurgents, but neighbors shooting at each other. It was, at least at time, incredibly common. Ask any US veteran of Iraq who has done his or her fair share of night patrols. The police are hard to find.

Others will say that there is a lack of ASSISTANCE of the local constabulary, but in reality the Iraqis don’t need their help. Since nearly the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqis have been permitted one rifle (and this can include an AK-47 automatic rifle) per military-aged male. I, and thousands of other US military personnel, have searched homes, inspected their weapons, complimented them on how well they’ve cleaned and cared for them, and promptly handed them back to their rightful owners. Every population deserves the right to defend itself against tyranny, whether governmental or not. It is also fairly safe to assume that for every one weapon I was voluntarily shown, at least two or three remained will concealed. In reality, this population is armed to the teeth. Rightfully, we have allowed it.

A few will contend that the "threatened parties" lack sufficient numbers to successfully repulse an attack, but this is inaccurate. Iraq is a tribal country, where most hamlets and sections of villages are populated by one tribe. They are all related, and all family. They are frequently led by sheiks from their own tribe, too. Family and tribal ties have always been important in this culture. Given this, an Iraqi should never be without an ally. Armed family members, under their own cultural philosophy, should flock to the aid of their kin.

Having thus explained away the most common reasons why an Iraqi would be unable to defend himself and his land, we are left wondering one thing: why? Here I venture away from rhetorical argument and present a few ideas of my own. Well, actually only one idea: Fear.

Three days ago, I stood, unarmed, without body armor, out in the open, speaking with a Christian Iraqi in an exclusively Christian village near Kurdistan. The area was incredibly peaceful, though such things are always tenuous in Iraq. The man, in English, was explaining to me how fearful he was.

While the neighborhood was safe, a Muslim Iraqi police officer had been recently stationed in their town, and this Iraqi man told me repeatedly that, "he is making trouble for all of us." Just what exactly that meant he never articulated, but he spoke with fear. Naturally, I inquired why somebody had not gone to this police officer’s superior and filed a complaint.

"The major helps him, or maybe he is afraid of him."

Did he have neighbors that felt the same as he? Yes, he told me, but they were all afraid to speak up, and so was he. They, individually, collectively, and as an entire community, are terrified for their lives. He told me this. He fears he will be killed if he speaks with any Iraqi police superiors about this matter. I cannot confirm if these fears are legitimate.

What I find absolutely baffling is that an entire community can be paralyzed by the presence of but two opponents or threats, but it is commonplace in Iraq. Nobody comes forward in a community of thousands and identifies the one person "making trouble" in their community, because they fear death. When they are threatened and told to leave (as is a common tactic of Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in Iraq), they simply pack their belongings and depart. Some don’t even pack at all. Many interpreters, as a matter of fact, have simply fled, leaving behind everything: cars, money, possessions, etc. They are trapped in a pattern of survival, not self-defense.

At one time, I thought this was strictly an affliction of Iraq proper, where sectarian violence has run rampant for some time, and everybody seems to have a good reason (in their minds, at least), to hate or fear everybody else. I am discouraged to see this same impotent behavior in Kurdish territories, since I have been hopeful that Kurdistan is today is what Iraq as a whole may be in fifteen years time. This optimism, however, may be misplaced. Apparently, people in Kurdistan are still governed by fear, not a strong desire for self-determination.

And this matter as a whole is perhaps the biggest hurdle Iraqis face: not an inability, but a DISINTEREST in standing up for themselves. I have spoken with hundreds, if not thousands of US personnel stationed in Iraq, and many have stated this problem in their own ways A refusal to take ownership of their own lives. A lack of national pride. A lack of personal pride. A lack of tenacity to stand up for something worth preserving. Apathy. Lack of dignity, and so forth. I can’t say I disagree, either. Iraqis would rather subscribe to fear, ignoring the obvious fact that they possess the ability to band together and transform their country into something hegemonic, safe, and free. They are content to look to the US for help.

Yet while the US and other countries continue to pour billions into this country in the hopes of creating sustainable enterprise, wealth, and longevity, the one thing Iraqis need is the one thing we cannot buy them: heart – an ambiguous character trait that nobody can offer them, but they must find within themselves. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to be fearful, but refusing to confront those who they fear permits the cycle to continue.

I bring this up not to crush whatever hopes Americans may have about a free Iraq, but to illustrate the sharp contrast between our country and the country of Iraq. Where we will quickly fight, they will quickly run – and live. Where we find certain freedoms and rights so inherent to our lives that we are willing to jeopardize personal safety to secure or maintain them, Iraqis are often more concerned with self-preservation. Nor is this a trait limited to strictly one ethnicity or religious group. All feel this way here, including Kurds, Turkomen, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, and other ethnic minority groups. It is truly a national, if not international affliction. Most find very little about their lives worth fighting to preserve, and thus they flee the smallest of threats.

Still, I do not believe that all hope is lost, because one of the finest aspects of joint missions, bases, and operations is that the Iraqis are seeing first-hand how Americans will ferociously battle to preserve something that they deem important. In short, US forces are demonstrating character traits which have begun to rub off onto their Iraqi counterparts. But such things take time, which unfortunately is the one thing the Iraqis do not have.

The US continues its "responsible drawdown" throughout Iraq in the hopes that the indigenous forces and local populations have received ample training in self-governance and self-determination to continue unaided in the future. But I would argue that more time is needed to revolutionize a culture. Not eradicate it, "westernize" it, or purify it, but encourage it to become better. These things will take time. Until they are fearless before the small numbers of insurgents in this country, they will remain prisoners of them. The one thing we need them to have, alas, is the one thing we cannot purchase for them: heart. We can only hope they summon the courage on their own. Very shortly, we won’t be here to help.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved 

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