Wednesday, June 23, 2004
A letter from near the front lines: I got an e-mail today from a friend of mine who's an Air Force officer currently serving in the Middle East. He claims to be far in the rear echelon, though, as you can read, he's close enough that he doesn't have to depend on the American media for his news.
Here's my reporting story: The reporters all tend to stay in my tent when they move into our area of responsibility for the first time. The only guys I really remember are a "Charles" from the LA Times and Guy Raz from CNN. I didn't get to read the LA Times out here, obviously. But I did get to see CNN.
Earlier, the Mahdi Militia (MM) had been the major problem in our area. The Army got into town here back in April and started kicking butt and taking names. The MM eventually tried the standard cease-fire, regroup, and try again. However, during the cease-fire, we continued patrols in town, and they repeatedly came under fire. I think Guy went out on the third night. It was probably his first time taking fire, and I'm sure he was pretty excited. Anyway, he reported live (about an hour after the shooting started) that "There has been a major exchange of fire between insurgents and the US Army. The cease fire is broken, yada, yada, yada. . . ." Anyway, I never saw Guy after that report, and although he did get better as days went by, I was going to razz him (yes, the bad pun was intended) about that first night and the lousy reporting.
Other fun things I saw the bad guys do: Mosques are regularly used over here as weapons storage facilities. It was with not a small amount of pleasure that I saw one of them blow up. I'm surprised we didn't get blamed for it. The MM tried, but it didn't stick. For the record, it wasn't us.
I do have a lot of hope for these people. It'll be interesting to be here on 30 June. I want this place to settle down so the ordinary folks can get on with their life. They need a good police force that can handle the remaining insurgents and foreign fighters. Many of these folks aren't very brave, though. I think we killed most of the braver ones. It remains to be seen how well the police can stand up to the bad guys. The first time I saw a pair of Iraqi police, I luckily happened to have two extra sodas in my hand (they were 3-for-$1, and they don't take less than $1.00!). I immediately gave them both a soda. It's not much, but I really do appreciate what they're trying to do.
Now, I do have a story about the locals. We have several who have been vetted and are allowed on post to sell their wares. I got a pillow from one of them, but no pillowcase. I went to a different guy to see if he had a pillowcase. He didn't, but the next day or so, he ran downtown to get one. At the time, if the MM had gotten hold of him and found out he was working with the Americans, he could have gotten shot! I'm not the only person he did this for, either. That's pretty humbling itself. But then, the pillowcase didn't fit right, and the zipper was broken. So he gave me a second pillowcase (also too small), and he tried to not charge me for it!!! I insisted on paying. I need them to have the money and for their local economies to recover more than I need a silly pillowcase.
One of the other salesmen was kind enough to teach me a couple words in Arabic. I would go to his shop and he'd invite me to sit down and he'd give me a free soda and we'd just chat, and I'd try to learn one or two words. He eventually asked me if I wanted any souvenirs from this country. I couldn't think of anything for me. Some of my friends collect shot glasses, so yes, I idiotically asked for shot glasses in an Islamic country! He politely told me that no, he couldn't get those. So I asked for a coffee mug. He brought me twelve! This guy probably makes as much in a month as I make in a year, and he brought me a dozen coffee mugs just for sitting down and chatting with him a little bit.
I've found in my travels that an American who displays even minimal interest in other country's culture, language, history, or people is almost always very well received. This country is so far not that much different. It's just that stupid war going on getting in my way of having a great cultural experience along with my "campout with several thousand of my best friends!"
For the record, my friend revealed that the only things he's killed in Iraq are a mouse, a scorpion and a spider.