Leaving our Iraqi friends to die…again
As many of you know, I’m not the biggest fan of Congress these days. They are the most unproductive in history (link). They are witheringly unpopular (link) (yet we continually re-elect upwards of 90% of them (link)). They are the most polarized since the Reconstruction (link). The House does little but try to repeal Obamacare (now tallying 42 failed attempts…42 times to undo a law they already passed….) (link). The Senate has been inept on a half dozen things anyway and now does little but spend its days under threat of filibuster (link).
But we know that, right? I mean, it’s just politics and all. Besides if those damned Democrats/Republicans would just do this or that, everything would start to work itself out. ‘Oh well,’ we say.
Yeah, I’m not here to talk about that.
The headline that got me going yesterday was this:
“Unless Congress Acts Time is Out for Iraqi Allies Waiting on Visas” (link)
Many of my friends served. Many didn’t. Many went to Iraq or Afghanistan. Many didn’t.
People regularly asked me what it was like over there, if I made friends, if I went shopping, how the food was over there. And I don’t blame them for questions like that. It’s the frame of reference that most people have. You visit another country, you see the country, the people, the sights etc.
No, Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t like that (though I’ll henceforth only speak about Iraq, since I personally didn’t deploy to Afghanistan).
We weren’t really welcomed as heroes as then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said we’d be. We were considered by many groups to be nothing more than occupiers. For my time there, we hunkered down in our bases, stopped all of our civil affairs outreach efforts, bided our time and endured the bombings, mortars and attacks.
We clocked in, spent our year there trying to maintain the status quo, and clocked out. People got their promotions and their combat pay and their war stories. Lost a few friends along the way.
My unit worked with several Iraqi units. Our mission was to train them up. You can check out one of my old news stories about it (here).
Beyond the happy waving and cheers, those guys were messed up. More than half were absent at any given time. The Iraqi colonel in charge ran a secret little internal thug squad that extorted his own troops. Their weapons would end up in the hands of insurgents. We’d find them when on local patrols, trace their serial numbers back to the Iraqi army troops, they’d say “Insha’Allah” and we’d repeat the process a week later when we’d find the same weapon in another local insurgent cache. Good money in arms selling.
It was easy to get discouraged at the state of the Iraqi military. However, the guys who had it the worst were the interpreters and other Iraqis who closely pledged to help the Americans.
You see, the Iraqi army troops themselves could just feign enthusiasm for the Coalition Forces. Once we went back to our side of camps, they could meet with whatever insurgent leadership they wanted—make whatever back alley deals they felt they could cash in on.
But it was the Iraqis who were outright pro-American or pro-Coalition who had it bad. They had prices on their heads.
Iraqi insurgent and militia groups would want Iraqi army soldiers to turn them in for a reward. And they would. It got to be pretty dicey. Interpreters would have to wear masks around their own countrymen. They’d live apart from them, for fear of their lives. They would lie to their families about the work they did, saying they were away at another part of the country, helping at a farm or getting work in a machine shop; because their own families would turn them in. I wrote about it briefly in an old post “Adjusting” (link).
We had three interpreters. They lived with us on our side of the camp. As a photographer, I had to make sure I never photographed them or even mentioned them. I didn’t know their real names. We called them Magic, Big Mohammad and Little Mohammad.
I loved those guys. They were so brave. They talked about trying to build a better country for their families and friends, even if those friends felt they were betraying them. “They hate me,” Little Mohammad said once, “but they’ll thank me some day.”
They were all hoping to come to the US one day. They knew that even if things improved in the country, their lives would always be in danger. For as much as they didn’t want to leave, the three I knew at least felt the only real future they had was away from their homeland.
I’ve wondered how they are through these years–if they’re even still alive. I know there’s no way I could ever be reconnected with them. I just remember the missions we’d go on, the villages we’d visit and the stories they’d tell about their families. I remember how hopeful they were about their country’s future, even if that meant sacrificing their own livelihoods to help it get there.
Then of course the US pulled out and let Iraq fester and go to sh*t.
Seeing the headline about how our inept Congress can’t even get these allies the visas we promised them got to me. This SNAFU just seems like another instance where we’re leaving our allies hung out to dry.
Was Iraq a failure? I think history will say it was. But we don’t have to let die those poor noble guys who gave up their safety and lives to help us. Geez.