Day Four (Second Battalion, Iraqi Army)

Could it be day four already? I’ve lost track of time so quickly here. In some ways, it feels as if I arrived at Second Battalion just yesterday. It’s been fun. The two most crucial factors: they let me sleep my own schedule (three or four in the morning til about ten) and I have coffee whenever I need it. With those two needs met, I could be happy about anywhere in the world. Which reminds me of a conversation yesterday with my new friend Ahmed, whom I’ve come to like and respect, quickly. We were talking about the rest of the world (Ahmed, like the majority of Iraqis, has never been out of the country) and the topic of American prisons came up.

Ahmed told me how great they were. They’re like a dream for an Iraqi, he said. They’re clean and warm and spacious and the people there get fed everyday—three times a day. I asked him how he knew this, and he told me he watches the series Prison Break, and some other program about jail life. I warned him about developing his impressions from TV and movies. It’s all relative, I told him. I’m sure if you ask someone in one of those prisons, they’ll tell you they’re hell.

“That’s ‘cause they haven’t been to Iraq yet,” he told me. “Just let them come see this place and then they’ll know how good they have it.”

Ahmed is 24 years old and infatuated with the U.S. He wants to be an American more than I do. We joke about trading citizenships. It’s odd and touching to me how much he loves the idea of America (ironically, that unrestricted good will and optimism that built and at one time defined the U.S., now seems to live outside its contiguous borders … at the same time, maybe America’s greatest admirers, people like Ahmed, are the ones who’ve grown up in the grottos of dictators like Hussein, and have learned of American democracy from the Plato-like fire-born shadows dancing on their cave walls—or TV screens). Whatever the case, in Ahmed’s eyes the U.S. is an entity sent by Allah and run by saints.

Where he comes from, in the south of Iraq, the people used to pray everyday that the U.S. would come and free them from the chains of a repressive dictator, one who’d maintained them in a hellish kind of poverty.

“And now you’ve come,” he said. “You’re sent by God—believe it, man.”

I’m an American by passport, but a journalist by trade, and I’ve never shown much compunction about shitting on other people’s dreams.

“What about all those Iraqis who don’t agree with you? I asked him. “Surely their opinions are as valid as yours. All those people saying America go home.”

“Where?” he said. “Where are all these people? There aren’t any people like that. I’m telling you, my friend.”

“Don’t tell me that, Ahmed. You’re insulting me. With all due respect to your nationality—you’re Iraqi and I’m not—I’ve talked to people all across this country; civilians, government officials, sheiks, shepherds, teachers, doctors and housewives. And if you think there aren’t people out there who want the U.S. to go home, you’re deluded.”

“They’re all Baath Party people,” he said. “People who were made rich by Saddam—and they’re all dirty. You can’t listen to them, not a single one of them.”

Ahmed’s father teaches high school electricity classes; his older brother is a doctor. His friends call him the Russian because his countenance makes him look something other than Arab. He has a quick wit and his English is solid (he learned it from public school and from watching TV), and we laugh constantly. Most importantly, he’s honest. He’s a great admirer of America, no doubt, but he’s realistic, too. I told him it’s dangerous that America has decided to come to another country and solve its political problems—that we’re riding on the rim of a slippery slope. Americans with guns have no right being in so many foreign countries—and that’s why the twin towers fell.

“Why do you think that?”

“Because that’s what Al-Qaeda fucking said,” I told him.

He nodded his head in acknowledgment and said he understood my concern. In answer, he told me again about the repression the Iraqis were under, their abject poverty and what they’d come to see as a curse visited upon them by Allah. He talked about the fanaticism of religion, and of people who use his sacred Islam as an excuse to unleash violence and proliferate their agendas. As we got deeper, I realized we were butting up against opposite sides of the ideological crevice I hadn’t seen between us. When he asked, I told him I thought the U.S. came to Iraq for a perfect storm of bad reasons, natural resources chief among them (the driving force behind most imperial conquests).

“I’m sure liberating the Iraqi people factored into the decision to invade,” I said, “But you’re naïve if you think it was a primary reason.”

He agreed other factors played into the invasion impetus, but then came right back to the fact the U.S. has liberated a repressed people. I smiled. He was refusing to let my benighted version (one that I see as simple common sense and realpolitik rationality) take hold in his more effulgent interpretation of history. Maybe through his example a motif of victimization can be seen in the contemporary Iraqi psyche (one that, other people have told me, is bruised at best and possibly shattered). You can tell a woman who’s been freed of the chains of domestic abuse that the man who pulled her out of her hell—who beat the shit out of her abusive husband and carried her away—only did so because he was sick to death of the screaming that kept him up at night, but on a deep level she’ll only see that man in the positive light of her own redemption and liberation.

“I’m 24 years old and I’ve seen three wars already,” Ahmed said. “Three wars—what the hell is up with that?”

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