November 28, 2008. Yet another trip to the area known as Golden Hills. This is the same general neighborhood where I “walked” my first mission, and also the one place in this particular AO (Area of Operations) that has the biggest potential to kick off in an orgy of violence at any given moment. Today I wasn’t walking, however. I was back to my regular spot in the gun turret of our Humvee. While it isn’t the most exciting place to be at this point in the war, it does give me a better view of the countryside and, on days like today, helps create a burning desire within me to kick small children in the chest.
It works like this: our vehicles pull into a neighborhood and set up 360 degree security. Then everyone except the drivers and gunners of each vehicle dismount and do whatever it is that particular day’s mission calls for – usually talking to sheiks and local leaders about general concerns. If this happens to be in a regular neighborhood where families live, it is then the job of the children to come out to the vehicles and harass soldiers by begging for whatever it is that pops into their cute little minds. And in case you are picturing a bunch of cute little street urchins similar to what could be pulled from the pages of a Dickens novel, scratch that thought. I would sooner draw a parallel to a horde of Urokai from Lord of the Rings.
Don’t get me wrong, the kids mean well and they are always very happy to see American Soldiers. They wave and laugh and are eager to talk to us. They are also eager to beg for…anything. And everything. But mostly pens. Man oh man do they ever want pens. Why, I do not know. And if you gave them each a pen, it would be about four seconds before they asked for another one. As another soldier remarked, we could open an Office Depot on every street and there still wouldn’t be enough pens for these little rapscallions. But they will take other stuff, too. Oh yes, they would be more than happy for some food. Or candy. Or water. Or bullets. I had one small boy today ask – by way of pantomime – if I could shoot at his feet while he ran away with the machine gun. Sure, I could see that being fun and in no way dangerous or counterproductive to our mission here. But that doesn’t stop them from asking. Repeatedly. And regardless of whatever answer was given them. I was probably asked for pens and candy no less than fifty times by the same kids. Persistent little buggers, I tell ya. What’s funny is their reaction to us saying no; a frown, followed by approximately four seconds of pouting, and then some sort of time-matrix, worm-hole phenomenon occurs and it goes back to the beginning where they ask the question as if it is for the first time. Scientists could make millions by studying this, I am sure.
What I find most interesting is that the parents allow this to happen. I am not amazed about allowing children to ask strangers for free goods (in the U.S. we call this “welfare”); I am intrigued by the concept that a foreign Army has vehicles on your street with machine guns manned by guys who are dressed like urban-camouflaged Storm Troopers and the guardians of these children see no problems in allowing them pester the soldiers to no end. Let’s suppose that the Russians had invaded the United States. After a few years of being there, they pull their vehicles into your neighborhood to talk to your local police chief who they have helped put in power. The soldiers pulling security are on edge due to years of danger, they are in a bad mood from not enough sleep and wearing indescribably uncomfortable gear, and they are itching to unleash thousands of rounds of ammunition upon any possible threat. Do you as a parent tell your child A) ”go and play on the other side of the street, away from the big scary guys with guns,” or B) “go ask those soldiers for everything on their body and in their truck, and if they say no, cry for a second and then ask again. A lot. Over and over. Then get mad at them when they say no and point at their guns and make fun of them.” Seriously, what the hell?
Perhaps it is that, after the regime of Saddam and a threat of al Qaeda, nothing scares them. Maybe they know that Americans are good guys with “rules” they actually obey. Or it could be the culture, the Middle East has known so much war and they place so much emphasis on the Will of Allah that they figure, “hey, let the kids play with that bomb. They will live if they are meant to.” Hence the phrase “imsh Allah,” which means, in essence, “if God wills it” follows nearly every sentence in a conversation. But whatever it is, this is a land of children with no fear. And maybe that is a really good thing. I suppose that if children ran away screaming every time we came by, it would be a sign that we were failing, or that the bad guys were near. Either that or they found another way to get pens.On a side note, one of the places we stopped today there were no kids. It was at a security station located on the side of the main road – route Tampa, the main road through most of Iraq. It was here that I witnessed what was probably the most disturbing thing I have seen since I have been here. With no kids to watch, I was being mildly entertained with a dog on the side of the road who had been nursing its puppy. Then it became hungry and started sniffing for food, which it found quickly and began devouring. And what a meal, it was. Complete with all the trimmings of a post-Thanksgiving Day meal, too. If, that is, your definition of “all the trimmings” means eating something that looks exactly like yourself. Seriously, you know a place is bad when even the dogs are messed up. It would be one thing if it was, say, a German shepherd eating a Chihuahua. But the “meal” for this dog could have been its twin. How wrong is that? Probably not as wrong as us taking pictures of it and showing to everyone, but still pretty wrong, I say. At least it didn’t get mad when I didn’t give it any candy.