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.
As some of you know, I wasn’t the biggest fan of President Bush. I didn’t like his wars, I felt that his tax cuts cost the country more than they stimulated in growth, and I thought he came across as a goof.
I wrote snarky FB updates, shared snarky FB posts, laughed at his expense, called him names, etc. I was younger and dumber.
I had the chance to see him when he visited Fort Hood in 2005. His visit sparked all sorts of security craziness on the base. Roads were closed, vehicular traffic around the speaking venue was prohibited, and we soldiers had to be thoroughly searched upon entering the cordoned off area.
It was quite a production, actually. We had to be around our headquarters building at 0300, so we could be in formation and counted ‘all present’ by 0400, so we could march the 3-4 miles to the venue by 0530, so the thousands of us could be searched and processed through the gates, so we could fill the outside venue (a military parade field) by 0800, so we could be ready to hear him when he arrived by 0930. That meant I was awake by 0130 to get on the congested roads by 0215 (most of Fort Hood was involved in the visit). He was late, not showing up until 1030-ish (hey, he’s the president…). We had to hear about an hour long speech, then wait for him to leave—like in the chopper and out, leave. Then we had to march back and were dismissed in the late afternoon. Long day.
It was kind of the crowning “uggh” toward a president I wasn’t the most enthusiastic about, anyway.
But you know what? When I saw him, I clapped. And I meant it. When I saw him relatively close up, I cheered. And I meant it. The anticipation, the influence and fame the man had as a result of his office…it’s intoxicating for someone first experiencing it. And there’s something else going on there, something that has been written about monarchs and the presidency for centuries—a general reverence of authority and a love of country.
All the grumbling and name calling and things said in quiet inbetweens go out the window when you are face-to-face with the subtle majesty that comes with physically meeting the elected leader of the free world. I realized that he is a supremely accomplished man of power and prestige.
I shut my mouth and showed some respect.
Later in 2010-ish, I was traveling through Houston, in the George W Bush Airport. I came upon a crowd of people as I was going from one terminal to another. The commotion was from the airport’s namesake and former first lady, who had come to welcome the day’s freedom bird, the chartered airliner carrying uniformed soldiers back from deployment.
Again, people all around were ecstatic to see Mr. and Mrs. Bush. I was too. Because when push comes to shove, you shut your mouth and show some respect.
Later I was working at USAA. One of my duties was to serve public relation functions. USAA sponsors the Army Navy football game every year. It’s this big thing where all the friendly rivalry between the two services (and all of the DoD, really), comes to a head. It’s a very easily likable game.
Anyway, President Obama was going to be there. Cue a few of my nay-sayer coworkers: “Oh if I see that guy, I’m gonna…” “Man, I really hate that guy, he’s so…” “That scum-sucking piece of sh*t!” “What a coward. If I ever got a chance to, I’d…” “That Muslim SOB. Not even an American…”
I rolled my eyes.
Sure enough, when the game was still building up, when the cadets and the midshipmen were filing the stands, the president and his entourage arrived on the field to shake hands and pose for pictures. I got close enough to snap the pic at the top of this post (link)
And you know what? When they saw him, the nay-sayers clapped, and they meant it. They cheered and they meant it. All the grumblings and name calling and things said went out the window.
Afterward, so many of them were showing the pictures they snapped. They were swapping stories about seeing him and the rushes they felt. You could see the excitement in their eyes.
Because he was the president. And you should respect the president.
Look, you can disagree with a man—strongly disagree with a man, but it’s pathetic how we feel we have to emphasize our points with vehement hyperbole.
We can’t just say we disagree, we have to say the current president is the worst. Worse than the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Worse than Kony and the LRA. Worse than Ariel Castro. THE WORST EVARRRRR! We start talking about him being un-American, we call him a coward, we list the thousand talking points Fox News gave us as to why he’s about to usher us into a 1,000 years of darkness (link).
You know how some people wish for the ‘good old days’ even though they probably weren’t as good as people think they remember? How maybe they romanticize aspects of those days and long for those idealized notions?
Well I’ll do that too, for a minute. I wish for the ‘good old days’ when a man might get shot in the face if he called someone a coward. When breaking your word was seen as a major deal. Because all I see these days are champions of keyboard courage—people who will attack through emails and messages or, worse yet, through anonymous comments. (And yes, I realize the irony of pointing out the flaccidity of keyboard courage from behind a keyboard.)
Nevertheless, I wish we didn’t give so much credence to insults flung by talk show pundits and through Facebook comments.
Because just like in actual fistfights, it’s normal for people to talk a big game until they are actually facing someone who is about to rearrange their face. Then all that smack talk gets deflated. All that hate and consternation gets replaced with the realization that words and actions have actual consequences.
Actual consequences. Amazing.
So disagree away. VOTE. Write your Congressmen. Hell, record a video of your objections with whatever story is in the headlines for that day. Build support. RUN FOR OFFICE YOURSELF!
But mean what you say and say what you mean. Have facts to cite, not just emotions and hate-filled rants that veer toward the absurd.
Let’s freely disagree, but ultimately show some respect to our elected leadership. We might just discover the maturity and decency of yesteryear we often pine for.