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Pause for the Claus

22 December 2004

Looking out the window of this Hashemite hotel, you never would know it’s Christmas Eve.  The palm trees and the Muslims took the place of silver bells, and the temperature is 54 degrees. 

Christmas is upon us.  It is a time of peace on Earth and good will towards Man.  I hope that my words this week will do their bit to stoke the already-glowing embers of sentiment and hasten the flush of warm-heartedness that make this holiday season the most wonderful time of the year. 

When I was in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by the main military hospital in the Green Zone to pick up a prescription for my boss and to use the facilities.  This is the hospital where wounded American soldiers are rushed to after they are maimed by a roadside bomb or an RPG attack.  The sight of medevac Blackhawks taking off in a hurry or landing with equal haste is very sad.  When one hears the rotors waking up suddenly, there is a realization that at that very moment someone is going through hell on a dirty, unfamiliar street and that soon, a family will be put through another kind of hell somewhere in between Fairbanks and Fort Lauderdale. 

Because of this, I try to avoid the Ibn Sina Hospital as much as possible.  When I do have to go there, I am in and out in a flash.  This time, however, I had to wait around a bit while the pharmacist looked in his supply room for the blood pressure medication my boss required. 

During this time, I tapped my fingers on the wooden counter and paced back and forth across the very small room.  I read health warning posters on the wall and studied instructions on how to help someone who is choking. 

Suddenly there was the noise of activity in the hallway.  Medical terminology was bandied about urgently and there was the sound of wobbly wheels rolling quickly down the cold and shiny corridor floor.  I saw through the glass window the serious faces of other hospital visitors who had sprung from their waiting chairs and were looking anxiously towards the approaching commotion.  

I braced myself in anticipation of what I was about to see.  Would the American soldier be dead?  Would he be shot up, bloodied, missing a limb or part of his head?   Surely he would be young, as most of the guys in the field are in their late teens or early twenties.  Would he be blonde-haired and corn-fed?  Black?  Latino?  Asian?  Would he be a she?  (That was almost unthinkable, but female soldiers too are bearing the wounds and scars of this war.) 

The gurney came into view and upon scanning the face of the injured man I experienced what I believe is called cognitive dissonance; when you’re expecting to encounter one thing only to be confronted by quite another.  The young man on the stretcher was not an American at all, but an Iraqi.  He was the leanest of sorts, with deep sunken cheeks and a generally gaunt look about him.  His skin was dark brown and his black hair closely cropped.  His lips were parched and slightly parted.  His Adams apple moved in his throat as he swallowed dry air.  His dark eyes were open and fixated on the ceiling.  His body was covered with a gray blanket.  The man looked exhausted and famished.   He also looked to be deep inside himself at that moment, as if no one else existed in the world, except perhaps a loved one whose fuzzy memory was right then offering him some comfort.  Injured and surrounded suddenly by strangers chattering away in English, he must have felt at once dejected, curious, and scared. 

“Here you go,” a voice said from behind me.  I turned around to see the pharmacist holding two Ziplock baggies of medication.   “I didn’t know you treated Iraqis here,” I said.  “Just urgent care cases,” he replied.  “Mostly insurgents like that guy.”   

His words gave me pause.  This was the first confirmed enemy combatant whose face I’d ever looked upon.  I’d been at Ground Zero in Manhattan on September 11th, 2001.  I’d ridden around Baghdad in a humvee a hundred times.  I’d even rolled around Fallujah and gotten some nasty looks, but I had never seen a face of someone who was without a doubt on the other side of this war on terror.  The pharmacist noticed my surprised and reflective look.  “Kind of funny, huh?” 

The enemy, it turned out, wasn’t some maniacal-looking beast with scheming, devilish eyes and a damnable sneer.  Rather, he was a poor, hungry, scared young man who had the distinct misfortune of being born Iraqi.  That he had taken up arms against Americans made him my enemy, but his reasons for doing so were probably more complicated than I’d like to think.   

It makes military sense to keep combatants alive.  Perhaps he had some information that would prove useful.  (Though this thought occurred to me only later.)  I wonder if it even occurred to those good doctors and nurses at all.  At that moment, this terrorist or insurgent or whatever was just a patient like any other brought in from the field.  The care he was receiving was the same as that any U.S. soldier would get.  

I’m sure this young man expected that he’d be beaten or shot or chopped up into little pieces at any moment—this would explain his inward look--but the American medical team around him was gentle in their manner and soft in their tone.  It was as if a time-out had been called and we were all human again.  Though sudden violence put this scene in motion, compassion carried the day.  There may not be peace on Earth this Christmas but, I am pleased to report, good will towards Man remains.