I Am a Student Again
A Soldier’s Story—Part 3
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IT SEEMS LIKE THE LEARNING NEVER ENDS, only the lessons change. Instead of cramming for finance exams in the MBA program at the University of Texas, I’m studying how to handle dislocated civilians and refugees and how to coordinate humanitarian assistance. I’m more than halfway through the nine-week Civil Affairs course here at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, at Fort Bragg, and while the academics aren’t as rigorous as those at UT, reacclimating to the regimented ways of the Army has been a challenge. It’s a world where my schedule, my clothing, and sometimes even my “free time” are dictated by someone else. Let’s just say that it clashes with my individualist tendencies! But I have learned quite a bit. The officers who teach the course have several tours under their belts—to Kosovo, Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq—and they have direct experience with Civil Affairs in combat settings. One of my most stimulating seminars, in fact, was led by a retired Army colonel who lived in Beirut and traveled the Middle East for over ten years; he had an intimate understanding of the perspective and mind of the Arabs. (Many times during class his cell phone would ring, and on the line would be a friend of his from Iraq calling with updates from over there.) He recommended two books to us, Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind and Bernard Lewis’s The Arabs in History. I just started the Patai book, and I highly recommend it. The history of the Middle East is so rich and varied that one could spend a lifetime studying it. I get the feeling I’ve simply touched the tip of an iceberg.
While I’ve been in class, there’s been a lot in the news about Cindy Sheehan, the woman who started protesting the war after her son died in Iraq and who demanded to meet with the president in Crawford this summer. You may be wondering how soldiers feel about this. My sense is that most of us probably disagree with Mrs. Sheehan’s take on the war but firmly believe she should be free to speak out against our foreign policy. That right is a direct result of the sacrifice of many service members.
To best explain my perspective, I should tell you about my first trip to Iraq. After the main invasion, when we’d settled onto our base, we had access to both American and European TV news channels. Each one was trying to tell a story about Iraq, and each one was different, but none of them matched our experience. I realized at that point that the media was a packaged product; the intent was not just to inform people but also to create a dramatic effect. The situation with Mrs. Sheehan feels like exactly that: another opportunity to elicit emotion from those whose eyes and ears are on their TVs and computers. Don’t get me wrong—I cannot begin to fathom Mrs. Sheehan’s loss, because I’ve never lost one of my children. She deserves the right to speak. But I’ve seen death on the battlefield, and I’ve watched helplessly as friends’ lives hung in the balance. As much as these experiences hurt, I do not feel they warrant a demand that the president reverse our national security strategy. To demand an audience with him (or in Mrs. Sheehan’s case, a second audience) to hear an explanation for the war in Iraq seems unreasonable. The president has already given an explanation in his foreign-policy speeches. No one in his right mind wants to be over there right now, but life doesn’t have simple answers. Our leaders are dealing with situations of a complexity that most of us will never encounter.
The Civil Affairs approach, as I’ve said before, should be our ticket out of Iraq. So I’m focusing on the job at hand, studying everything I can about the country and its culture. As a representative for a combat commander, I will coordinate with NGOs (non-governmental organizations), international groups such as the Red Cross, and officials from the U.S. government. The ideal in Iraq is for all organizations to work together so that a transition to a stable government is successful. Of course, that sort of transition also involves many other tasks, from general security to the management and distribution of resources like water and electricity. When I hit the ground, I’ll be responsible for evaluating both the politics and infrastructure of my area.
To practice making those kinds of assessments, our class has been traveling outside Fort Bragg in small groups. The other day, for example, I went with seven other students to the water treatment plant that serves Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. While the head of the plant walked us through the facility, our role was to consider its potential shortfalls. To put it more clearly, we had to identify what weaknesses in the system would, if exploited, limit a local population’s access to clean water. Such knowledge can serve as leverage in Iraq, where the insurgents want nothing more than to break our will and force us to withdraw. Knowing what resources there are and how to protect them means that if, say, a community wants to improve their lot by access to good water, we can ask that they in turn help us by separating themselves from the insurgents. In short, our resources are tied to favorable behavior, the ultimate end being to legitimize those who truly want to provide the proper services for the people in the community. Quite a task, if you ask me!
By the time you read this, I’ll have graduated from the course, on September 9, and will be waiting to find out my departure date. As the time approaches for my deployment, I feel an increasing sense of anxiety about going “into the box,” as we say here about the Middle East. I’m grateful for the Civil Affairs training over the past weeks; I hope that when I finally get to Iraq I’ll be able to apply it all. I’ve learned so much about the Arab world, but the overriding lesson seems to be to approach every person and situation as unique. We all tend to generalize based on our backgrounds and experiences; I hope to be as adaptable and flexible as I can. That’s what will really help me do my job.