Eight years ago I traveled to Iraq as a freelance journalist. What I saw there changed my life. But what changed my perspective on that country most was something my father said to me just before I left: “Who are their heroes? Who is their George Washington? These people are struggling but all we ever talk about is ourselves. What about their story?”
My father was right. America has never been more self-absorbed. Now more than ever, the Iraqis seem a faceless and nameless mass of misery. Muslims, in general, are the whipping boys of our zeitgeist, a block of human beings more than a billion thick many of us tend to lump together as if there were no difference between a New York imam, an Indonesian cab driver, a Sunni scavenger in Haditha, a Shiite weaver in Baghdad, or a Kenyan engineering student in a tie-dyed hijab. Yes, we often talk about valuing diversity in the United States, but when it comes to Iraq, maybe it’s too painful for us to imagine that incredibly unique people live there. The moment we acknowledge that basic fact is the moment we begin to reckon with the burden of our responsibility for our actions.
This is the story of a few Americans trying to reckon with that responsibility, but also the story of one Iraqi, a memorable figure I met while in the Al Anbar Province. 2008 was a different time. We were on the edge of an election. Who would we hire to clean up the mess? John McCain or Barack Obama? Here we are, in 2016, on the edge of another election. And thus, again, the question is posed: Who can clean up the mess? Who can empower others to rebuild the country? More specifically, and with my father’s advice in mind, is this series of questions: Who do the Iraqis want? Try to put yourself in their shoes. It’s a more complicated challenge than it seems at first glance. Do the Iraqis long for a strong man–order at all cost? Do they believe a woman can lead? Do they want the leader of “the free world” to be the former senator who approved the invasion of their country? On the other hand, do they want another invasion from a candidate who treats Muslims callously, a man who sees all resistance in the Middle East as a function of one insidious group? What will be the consequence of your vote in November, America, for the people on the other side of the world?
“A Friend in the Desert”
Previously published in The Winchester Star on April 8th, 2008
We enter the desert. One of the soldiers turns on his iPod—“Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. There are discarded drums and tire treads stuck in the yucca.
Then there’s nothing but sand.
“How often do you guys patrol up here?” I ask.
“The places we’re going today, we’ve never been before,” says Lt. K of Winchester, the leader of the platoon.
This reconnaissance mission is scheduled to take twelve hours, maybe longer. Depending on what we find, we may not return until dawn.
We’ll search out seven NAIs (named areas of interest). These may be homes or vehicles or perhaps nothing more than unidentified sites of movement and light, discrepancies in the intelligence.
There are four Humvees in our convoy. We drive for several hours. We stop. The soldiers of K’s platoon search a mud brick home on a hill for a cache. They find nothing.
We drive on, see silver glimpses of Lake Qadisyiah to the west. We approach another home. Our vehicle begins to slow and squeal. We’re stuck in the sand, the fine powder that, according to one soldier, turns to “snot” when it’s wet.
“I’m stuck,” says our driver.
Up ahead, I see the dark windows of the hut, several trucks outside, clothes on a line. After hearing that the exhaust pipe is stuck in the mud, I violate my orders and step outside of the Humvee with the rest of the platoon.
Several men now emerge from the home, one raising his hand to his forehead like a salute. It’s a bright day. There’s not a cloud in the sky.
Lt. K gives an order into his helmet microphone. Several of his men, with their guns raised, begin to walk toward the hut and the men outside.
“Look,” says one of our “terp”—code for interpreter.
I turn to my left and, initially blinded by the sun, see only two dark figures. And I’m scared. Our vehicle’s going nowhere.
But then I notice what appear to be soft white bushes all around two short figures: sheep. At least a hundred in the herd.
“Hey,” a soldiers says. “No worries. They’re friends of Captain Al’A.”
Our search team drops its guns. They are talking with the Iraqis in front of the clotheslines. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, in a place we’ve never been before, it turns out we have a common friend.
I, too, know this man. Captain Al’A Khalaf Hrat has one of the saddest and most triumphant stories I’ve heard from this war. I sat down to talk with him several times over the course of my visit to Haditha.
During each encounter, he wore the same dark suit, the same bronze tie. Each time they appeared freshly pressed.
“When the war began, I was a thief,” he said.
In 2003, Al’A, like many Hadithans, was poor. He made his money stealing copper wire and other scrap metals from trash yards. Now, five years later, his life has changed. He is the captain of an elite Iraqi strike force handpicked by Lt. K’s Special Operations Force.
Al’A has been subjected to rigorous physical and tactical training. He is one of thirty men on the ISWAT. He now wears a suit and carries a Glock and an AK-47. He has a truck he calls his own. He has tremendous pride in the people of Haditha.
“Come downtown with me,” he says repeatedly. “Come see the souk [market area]. It used to be so small you could fit it in the back of a truck. Now it’s like, it’s like…
Al’A’s eyes and arms go wide with enthusiasm and linguistic frustration.
“It’s like Europe,” he says in Arabic. “It’s like Paris.”
My interpreter laughs. He tells me it’s not quite that nice. But the point is taken. The city has changed.
Several years ago, Haditha was like a ghost town, people afraid to walk outside. Captain Al’A knows this fear perhaps better than anyone.
“Growing up under Saddam [Hussein] was hell, like a prison. Hush. Hush. Don’t curse the Baath party. I couldn’t even watch [the cartoon] ‘Tom and Jerry.’ Five minutes of ‘Tom and Jerry,’ no more.”
After the war began, things got worse.
“I lost eight family members. Three brothers kidnapped and killed. My uncle, who was the police chief, he and his three children were murdered.”
It was a horrific time for Hadithans, Al’A tells me. Hundreds of people left the city. He explains the confusion and the fear through the story of an insurgent:
“The man speaks to Americans in public so everyone can see. Fifteen minutes they talk so everyone can see. Then he goes and kills an old innocent man, a barber. What do you think people thought?”
Captain Al’A is a Jughayfi, what was once a disenfranchised tribe in Haditha. He was born the son of a worker at the local refinery. He witnessed the Iran-Iraq war and the first war with America.
For a long time, like most Iraqis, his hatreds were pure, thoroughly controlled by an oppressive regime and its lockstep media.
“You were not allowed to think,” he says. “Everything was military. Even summer vacations, Saddam would take you to the camps to train.”
Yet shortly after meeting Lt. K and the SOF, Captain Al’A began to see the war and his history in a new way.
“We have a saying,” he says. “Do the good and then throw it into the river. This is the Americans. They have helped us, but they expect nothing back.”
His eyes dart. He makes a throwing motion. He sits up straight, two pistols holstered to his shoulders, his flowing black mullet like a mane, his haircut enough to get him branded a homosexual in some cities, enough to get a man tied down and branded, according to one of K.’s men.
But Al’A doesn’t care.
“My men and I are not afraid of death,” he says.
He makes a motion with his hands like windshield wipers clearing away the rain.
We adjourn for dinner, walk into the room next door in what a year ago was an abandoned army outpost riddled with bullet holes. Now there are tasseled couches and television sets, computers with high-speed Internet, peach sheets across the cracked ceiling.
We stand over plates of fresh tomatoes and onions, fingers of goat sausage, rotisserie chicken. Al’A asks K. if he misses his home.
“Three years I’ve been away,” K says.
“That’s nothing,” Al’A says. K looks him in the eye and nods with humility. With his right hand he removes a drumstick and takes a bite.
“You realize,” he says to Al’A, “that we are going home soon. You guys are pretty much on your own.”
“Yes,” Al’A says.
This is the sobering fact of the month.
The war has been going on for five years. Schools are being rebuilt, power lines have been reinstalled by the SOF. The ISWAT team has been trained and mentored. Starting in April, the SOF will hand over its work to another platoon, a group of men who will no longer have solo arrest capability. Haditha, once again, will belong to Hadithans.
We lick our fingers, begin to move toward the door.
“You know the one thing wrong with Americans?” Al’A asks.
“What’s that?” K responds.
“You don’t know how to say goodbye. You don’t say goodbye.”