Thursday, September 15, 2005


New Kinds of Interaction

I wrote a few weeks ago about visiting the Iraqi Army. That was quite an experience, and I'm glad I had the opportunity while I was here. We really haven't had any contact with average Iraqis, we are in our own compounds, and the Soldiers of our unit don't have the kind of jobs that get them out into the villages or the city.

One of the units here started a program called "Operation I Can." It connects schools in the U.S. with Iraqi schools, to distribute school supplies, toys, and shoes for the kids. One of our Soldiers brought it to our attention and he and a SGT have thrown themselves into it. They have gone on two trips to schools in town, and I think we've passed along a ton or more of supplies. Many of the Soldiers have asked family members to send such things instead of care packages for us; we have just about anything we want from the Dining Facility (DFAC) and Post Exchange (PX, an army store), or from previous care packages. Our Soldier coordinator just had several hundred pounds of kids shoes delivered here in about a dozen big boxes.

Visiting the schools gets done without prior warning, quickly, and only a short stay so that anybody that wants to make trouble doesn't really get a chance. The teachers appreciate the school supplies a lot, of course the kids only see the candy or toys. Some of the older kids try to make sure the younger kids don't get squished or have things taken; that's usually what happens out on the streets or outside bases if any kids gather there.

The schools under Saddam were not well funded --nothing was except personal palaces for him, his family, tribe, or close associates. We have five different palaces here at our Forward Operation Base (FOB), and that's only one out of three major palace complexes here. Saddam barely slept in a third of any of them, even one night. (His sister and Mother had their own, his two sons each and I think one was actually his.)

As the U.S. Army is beginning the process of closing down our base (and we are getting ready to leave ourselves), we have been getting rid of a lot of equipment, furniture, odds and ends that have accumulated since 2003 here on base and passed from unit to unit. Beds, closets, refrigerators, washing machines (funny, the water tub and spin tub are separate and they look kind of like doll furniture), wall lockers, all kinds of cheap appliances (here on 220 volts like Europe).

As it turns out, the Iraqi Army at lower levels have been about as deprived as the schools. Sure, higher officers had nice compounds, vehicles and equipment, but their troops were a different story. As the U.S. is helping them get these units reactivated, trained and equipped, we are finding that a lot of what we take for granted is quite needed. So, they are getting all the stuff we're getting rid of.

So lately, Iraqi Army Soldiers have been coming on base with their U.S. Army Advisors, loading their trucks with unwanted equipment and furniture. They explain, they have money for such things, but if they organize procurement through Iraqi businesses (the Army doesn't have the kind of professionalized and institutionalized Logistic Systems as our military has), they end up paying two to three times what stuff is worth. (A premium for selling to the new Iraqi Army.) This way, they save on what they can, and conserve the funds for stuff that has a real value like weapons, vehicles, etc. The rest of the stuff, comfort items especially, have been done without for so long that the luxuries can really wait, if it means a better prepared fighting force.

Working and speaking to the Iraqi Soldiers has been an experience. The few NCOs you see -- usually a "Sergeant Major" or "First Sergeant" is really just the only old timer or veteran Soldier. We met one the other day, he showed me his wounds. He said, "Saddam" gave him these, but on further questioning what he meant was, he'd been wounded in the brutal 8 year war Iraq fought with Iran in the '80s. He had a big gash out of his arm, and motioned to some kind of injury under his shirt. Both of the two NCOs were less in control than the Translator, who, like many in that position, ended up with more informal power and control than the officers or NCOs for whom he would translate in interactions with the Americans. They seemed like the equivalent of some old time Patrol Cop, too out of shape for serious work, but left on the force so he could earn his retirement. They both knew the Officer who lived in our building, he was responsible for Saddam's "Security," but they said he did nothing and they just about spit when they spoke of him. That, and of course they cursed Saddam. (This is standard fair when working for Americans, it's like code for "You can trust me.")

Culturally, Iraqis (as with Soviet citizens in that day and place) are incredibly docile, not at all used to deciding or doing much of anything aggressive or assertive. Those not imprisoned (or dead) or forced into slave labor were essentially on a public dole. No one here has much experience with work of any kind, other than the kind of work done by personal servants, landscapers, or laborers. But even then, nepotism and cronyism and very strong tribe politics means only the lowest have to do anything, the rest sit around and watch. (It's quite unusual, if 3 or 4 or 5 Iraqis are together in a work party, to ever see more than one or maybe two actually working. The rest watch, rest, or chat. This proportion holds in larger numbers, and is visible in village, rural, and army settings. (It may be different in more metropolitan Iraq, in the few such environments that exist, like Baghdad.)

It's not really that they're lazy; well, yes actually it is that they are lazy, very lazy. But that's what they've grown accustomed to. That's what's expected. In the Army, one of the biggest changes (and challenges) comes from actually getting everybody to work together at the same time. They have had no history of an effective Non-commissioned Officer (NCO) Corps, which in the American military are the primary leaders and trainers of Soldiers, with Officers being the planners and directors of larger aggregations of the smaller units (largely led by NCOs with some junior officers "in charge.") That's my role by the way. As a First Sergeant, I am the Senior NCO for 160 Soldiers in the Headquarters Company. I push troops, get them trained, make sure they keep standards, and make sure the Company Commander's (my Captain) intents and orders are carried out correctly.

And that's precisely the level of command and management they are missing, throughout the country. Officers are educated, enlisted are pretty much laborers. There's no professional military class. Throughout Baathist rule, intelligentsia and the educated were killed or chased off or put into service abetting a brutal, backward system. Punishment was often random and unpredictable, with whole families wiped out if one member ran into conflict with a Hussein or tribal associate. As in the USSR, incompetence in Civil Service and Nationalized Industry meant the people who ran things, who might have learned some advanced skills, were just there to have the perks, sat in the chair but did not need to do anything, and certainly not do anything well. Two generations of that was enough.

Does that mean they can't learn, or that enterprising Iraqis can't fill the void? No, but it makes it more difficult and time consuming. Many Iraqis have returned from exile, and that helps, as long as they're not resented for missing out on the sacrifices. Kurdish Iraqis are very industrious, and visible in Government, business, and the Army. They help. The Shia, those that are observant Muslims, and even those who are culturally Arab Muslims, with less fundamentalist tendencies, their religious practice actually reinforces many socially helpful practices and habits of mind that also will help, probably more than anyone realizes.

There is much more intermixing of Kurds and Sunnis and Kurds and Shia (and all three) than is widely supposed. Iraq was in many ways like Bosnia, Serbia and Herzogovina before all the genocide and ethnic cleansing. Neighbors knew about the differences, but nobody really thought them very important. (That's why Al Qaeda attempts to stir up Civil War have been completely unsuccessful; Iraqis just don't have that kind of animosity.)

The youngest democracy in the World still has much to learn. It would no doubt make the learning easier, if more of the organizations and national governments, that can otherwise be so magnanimous towards other troubled regions, would see the opportunity, and join in.

Links: Basil's Blog, Mudville Gazette, bRight & Early, Blogotional, Dawn Patrol at Mudville Gazette, Jack Army, Left Brain Female in a Right Brain World

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