Another letter home from Lt. Col. Matt Green.
I vaguely remember one of my literature teachers telling me that good writing should serve to both educate and delight. That seems like pretty good advice, and I try to make sure I do both in these updates, especially as the audience grows. I never really know what I am going to write about next. So much of what we do is classified. It is not really possible just to describe things as they happen. And to be honest, many of the stories would start sounding the same. So I usually wait for some sort of inspiration that ties a few images or tales together.
I got that today when I came back from a particularly successful district area council meeting where we are really beginning to gain some traction. I opened up my computer and scanned the headlines from the major wireless services … and once again my faith in the American Press’s ability to responsibly use the freedom of speech a generation is fighting to defend was shattered. "Polls show Iraqis don’t trust Americans!" "Only 19% of Iraqis trust Americans." … Blah blah blah … drivel drivel, poppycock. Story after story reciting some poll without ever explaining any of the methods used to take the poll, or when it was taken. No accountability whatsoever. I would bet this month’s pay the poll is at least 30 days old, and the polltakers have enjoyed about 4-5 weekends and a couple national holidays sitting on all that useful data, while 20-year-old American and Iraqi patriots put their lives on the line without break to actually fix the problems the brave pollsters can’t even articulate decent questions about.
I would love to know how the data was collected. I bet it wasn’t door to door. If it was I would probably have seen the Soldiers tasked to guard them. By telephone? I wonder what percentage of folks have a cell phone and where they are located regionally? Even without my rocket science degree I can pretty well determine that telephone won’t get you an even representation in Iraq. Mail? Sorry friends, Cliff doesn’t get off his barstool at Cheers to deliver to Haifa Street – even in good weather.
I wonder about the questions not asked in the poll. Did they ask what percentage of Iraqis trust Iraqis? Would it be higher or lower than the 19% level afforded to Americans? Next month’s paycheck says it is less. I am not an expert on Arab culture by any means, but I am pretty sure of this: Arabs don’t trust anyone unless they have looked them in the eye, eaten with them, and have included them in their circle of friends. Trust is built over time and not given easily. They do not do any business on the first meeting, or the second, or often the third. They will judge you and prejudge you until they find you worthy, and when they start calling you friend, you will be in the family and they will do anything for you. The default answer to any poll question asked about trust is going to be no.
So here are some examples of Iraqis I have met. You judge if they trust us.
Several weeks ago we conducted a cordon and search operation to serve warrants on a list of about 60 individuals. We rounded up about 40. Iraqi names are often very similar, and sometimes you don’t get the right guys. In this particular search the Iraqis detained a guy with an Egyptian accent. For a variety of good reasons the Iraqis assume that non-Iraqis are here as foreign fighters. This particular gentleman was pretty old, probably about 60, so I was a bit skeptical. While we were processing all the detainees, he began faking seizures. My medic examines everyone we detain, at the point of capture and every few days at the detainee facility to make sure there is no abuse. He was certain the old guy was faking. It is common. Almost everyone ever pulled from their home has a bottle of pills for some life-threatening illness that they must be released to go get. At any rate, this old guy went through the process, and after a few days the Iraqis determined that he had no information of value and we escorted him back to his neighborhood. Weeks later, Col. B and I conducted a foot patrol through the neighborhood talking to residents. When we get to the bottom of one alleyway, we hear a ruckus and the Egyptian breaks through the crowd and greats both Col. B and I like we are long lost friends. My medic was with us, and got a warm hug and a thanks for the placebos he had been given for his seizures. (I am sure the motrin helped him feel better, but had little effect on his seizures.) He invited us down to his market stall and insisted that we eat fruit with him. I am pretty confidant that he trusts Col. B and I. He knows he was treated fairly, and so do the folks in his little community.
We went into a school around the corner, an elementary school for boys. We sit with the school master, a male, and three female teachers. They are actually excited to talk with us, and contrary to many of the myths, the females engage us openly. They are happy to be back to work after months of being too terrified to open the schools. I ask how many of the kids are actually back at school. They tell me that about half are back, the remaining parents are waiting to see if the next month is as good as the last. I ask why they feel safer now, why they think the violence is down? The response is that they have Iraqi units permanently assigned to the checkpoints in the neighborhoods, and they see Americans working with them.
We negotiated a busy traffic circle the other day. An Iraqi motorcycle cop was in hot pursuit of a guy on a moped and they both careened into the traffic circle to my right rear. A car saw us and stopped abruptly. The moped slipped past, the motorcycle clipped the car sending the patrolman flying off the bike. All I saw was a while helmet fly past my window! That was strange enough. I ordered a halt. My trail vehicle saw what happened, so we helped clear the scene and my Doc and terps went to work. It didn’t take long for the Iraqi ambulance to arrive on the scene, but the common response from the Iraqi police that arrived to help their comrade was "thanks, we are glad you got to see him first."
Today we drove through a busy market. As I admired a narrow alley overflowing with fruit stands, and wishing I had my camera to capture the colors, I watched a guy collapse for no reason. We stop. Doc goes to work and quickly assesses that he has passed out due to dehydration. An old man helps keep the crowd away from us and as we leave, he tells us that he is glad that we stopped when we didn’t have to. He wishes us safe travels, and is glad we are finally back in the area to help. No pollster had to coerce that response from him. He could have easily stayed in the crowd and said nothing.
About an hour before that we were stopped by a group that wanted to tell us something. It was in an area we have visited often (near the Egyptian). The kids all recognize us – candy has that effect. They know several of us by name and ask for us to stop. We find a safe spot and pull over. The kids bring over a few young adults who are asking about their brother. They are concerned because a national police unit came and took him yesterday, obviously because he was a Sunni, and most police are Shia. I start asking questions. What did the vehicle look like? How many trucks in the patrol? What did the uniforms look likes? What time of day? The answers all match my suspicions. I tell them "the only guy the national police arrested yesterday in this neighborhood was selling fuel."
"Yes, that’s him!’ They cried.
"Oh really, and he was selling fuel on the side of the road?"
"Yes, that is what he does."
"You know that the prime minister has made selling black market fuel illegal?"
"Did you know that the commander that arrested him is Sunni?
"So is it possible that they arrested him because he was breaking the law and not because he is Sunni?"
Pause. The adults that have gathered all glance at each other.
Grudgingly, they say, "Yes. But Is he OK?"
"Yes, we saw him this morning. We check the detainees every day."
"Good. We understand that he was caught doing illegal things. We just don’t want him killed. If you are checking then we know they won’t kill him. We trust the Americans, but not the police."
"You know that I don’t get to go home till you start trusting them more than you trust me?"
"I am really looking forward to going home!"
One of the first people the national police detained when we got here was a really odd Taliban-looking guy. The full out of control beard and traditional Arab dress. That is actually very unusual in Baghdad. He had been casing one of the checkpoints and the police noticed his suspicious behavior and detained him. He was so nasty and dirty he had fungus growing on him. When he was brought back in for questioning, we were just arriving at the headquarters. They had him kneeling on the ground in the intelligence officer’s office asking him some questions. They had told us before we went in that they were pretty sure he was Al Qaeda and had had some brainwashing. He was blindfolded, so didn’t see the Americans enter the room. We listened to the questioning. After several minutes one of my guys asked a question. The sound of an American voice hit him like a brick. He collapsed to the floor and began reciting the Koran over and over, refusing to come out of the trance. He trusted Americans too – he knew his chance of Martyrdom was over.
Trust is won one person at a time. It requires looking them in the eye and convincing them that you are just like them. It requires courage. It requires a commitment to stay the course. It requires consistent ethical behavior. Over time acquaintances become neighbors, neighbors to become friends, and friends to become brothers. Candy may win the kids, but consistency wins the adults. Too bad there is no magic pill to cure the attention deficit disorder of nation. Ours could use one.
Hope this finds you and yours well,