Getting to Know You

09 April 2004

April 9th marks the first anniversary of the marriage between Iraqis and Americans.  With such a sudden introduction, what were the chances of a harmonious union?  How are both partners doing a year into the relationship?

Watching CNN, which I did this morning from a mess hall here in central Baghdad, you’d think this entire country is going to pot.  The images of gun battles and destruction from Fallujah and Najaf are quite disturbing.  From within the relatively safe confines of the Green Zone, it’s hard to have a sense of reality or proximity.  Watching the war on TV from here is much the same as watching it from Denver or Des Moines.  The fighting is going on somewhere else and it’s being conducted by others.  At least it felt that way until about two hours ago, when a mortar round landed 100 meters from the place where I was having lunch.

Is it now time for great wailing and gnashing of teeth?  Are the Iraqis and Americans headed for an ugly divorce?  I don’t think so.  Single-round mortar attacks in the Green Zone have been a relatively common occurrence over the past year.  While CNN and the BBC are highlighting the recent surge in violence, they’ve done little to nothing on the story of how $12 billion worth of construction projects have finally begun.  It is worth remembering that most Iraqis are not as angry as the ones you see on TV, and that many of those angry guys on TV are angry because they have no work.  (If they had a job, they’d have no time to go to rallies and protests.)  The massive construction effort that is now underway should go along way to mollify these men.

Let us also remember that a few hundred people in a nation of 26 million have taken up arms against the Coalition.  This small band of brothers have succeeded in turning the world’s attention away from the epic building and creation that is going on here, toward the muzzles of their beat up AK-47s. 

I do not want to present myself as a propagandist for the coalition.  This has been a bad week, and the anger expressed violently by the men with guns is an extreme expression of some very real problems that face Iraqi society.  Gone is the Maximum Leader who provided all the answers.  What will free markets and democracy look like in this country?  Who will gain?  Who will have to yield?  The “Mission Accomplished” carrier landing seems more inappropriate everyday.  But it was inappropriate from day one.  The mission of bringing Iraq out of its goats-in-the road, cow-in-the-pickup, thuggish third-world existence will be accomplished only through long and steady, patient and deliberate effort.    

This past Monday, I flew into Baghdad from Amman on a United States Air Force C-130.  In the cabin with me were 22 Iraqi women from the Ministry of Antiquities.  These women were coming back from a six week tour of the U.S., with stops at museums in New York, D.C., and others cities.  These Shiites and Sunnis were all smiles and giggles as they told me about their wonderful time in America.  Many still wore their Metropolitan Museum of Art visitor buttons and carried their canvas Smithsonian bags stuffed with souvenirs.  The chattering stopped as we made our tactical approach to the airport.  Out came the Muslim prayer books and out came my Bible.  As we banked and pitched our way down to the runway, the woman next to me instinctively clutched my hand.  There we were, the blue-eyed, Bible-holding, American soldier and the abaya-wearing, Iraqi Shiite squeezing the color out of each other’s fingers until we touched down.  Could she have predicted this time last year that twelve months later she would be voluntarily inside the belly of a U.S. war plane, seeking comfort in the palm of one of the Great Satan’s native sons?

Over the past year, a familiarity and respect between Iraqis and Americans has developed in most quarters.  Over the next year, the two groups will be working hand-in-hand building new roads, schools, hospitals, and power-stations.  There may very well be bloodshed this Friday.  Chances are, there will be some violence the Friday after that.  And that’s what will be reported.  But when you see those images, remember that what you see on TV is like what you see of other couples’ marriages.  Only those who live it truly know what goes on behind closed doors.