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Friday, January 02, 2009

Thoughts on being here:

Iraq. Just the name is likely to bring up several different knee-jerk reactions when mentioned. It has been a talking point of our culture for long enough now that the images it conjures can be as varied as the people talking about it. So, does coming here give me an “enlightened” perspective that is somehow more valid? Doubtful, but I can tell you what I think.

My original opinion on the United States coming here remains the same: it was the right thing to do at the time, and I believe that, although not perfect, the justification was valid. I wrote an entire paper on the reasons we came here and I still stand by the reasons given (I did get an “A” on it, anyway…). I will not go into those details here; suffice to say that George Bush led a country into doing exactly what he said he was going to do, and the public crucified him for it. I believe he was right, even in some instances when he may have been wrong (the whole being greater than the sum of its parts). However – and this is a big “however” – what we are currently doing here in this country as of November 2008 is, in my opinion, somewhat pointless.
Let me qualify something here: when I talk about things being pointless, I am not speaking from the standpoint of a liberal, bunny-hugging college professor who got his PhD in Smug by looking down his nose at those less educated. On the contrary, I speak of things being pointless from the perspective of a guy who has seen the inner workings of the United States Army in many of its forms and has come to know a great deal about how it operates. And the talking point to be gleamed from that knowledge is: it doesn’t.

Let’s take, for example, my current occupation in the beloved US Army: that of a Psychological Operations ATL (Assistant Team Leader). Our job in PsyOp is to first, analyze the perceptions of people; second, to then assess their vulnerabilities; and third, to use those vulnerabilities to persuade them in some way. Now, if that sounds high-speed or secret-squirrel to you, that’s because you are not where I am. Because I can tell you what that really is. It’s called “marketing.” Seriously, we are an advertising agency for the Army.

And how can that not be a good thing, you may ask? For several reasons, some of which are quite obvious when you think about them from a different point of view. Let’s look at where we are in this war: There is no defined enemy, per se; we are essentially fighting the equivalent of gangs who wander from village to village, staying with various relatives and friends. They have no base of operations or tactical command center to take orders from, they simply…exist. Much like a criminal who goes from town to town robbing liquor stores, these people do not operate from some pre-planned, maniacal scheme to usurp the great Satan; they just…do.

This leaves people in my position two options. One, we can analyze the perceptions and vulnerabilities of the bad guys (good luck), or we can do the same for the general populace and hope that their idea of security is the same as ours and they will turn these dudes in when they see them or find out where they are. Surprisingly enough, this works a lot of the time. But here is where I get to the pointless part. Earlier on in this war, PsyOp’s job was relevant; they gave out numbers of who to call to turn in a bad guy, they told the public who the bad people were, they even told the public what the Army was doing so they wouldn’t be scared. They did all of this while the Infantry was blowing stuff up and kicking in doors, so that we could “win the hearts and minds” of the general populace. Now, five years in to this thing, everyone knows who to call, the most wanted list here is probably shorter than the one back home, and everyone already knows what the Army is doing (which, even in the case of the Infantry, is centered around winning hearts and minds). To top all of that off, whenever the Army does whatever it does, it essentially takes credit away from the Government of Iraq (GoI) and says to people “yeah, we’re still running the show.”

Most of the problems we are facing here are no different than the problems we face back home, and if we try to fix them, it actually prolongs the problem. Let me give you an example. If I were to ask the average Iraqi “hey, how are things going for you and what do you think needs to be done,” they are going to tell me that they want more security, they want better schools for their kids, and the roads in their neighborhood suck and need repair. Well I’ve got a hundred bucks for you that says you can go into a city council meeting in Anywhere, U.S.A. and hear exactly the same complaints. But the funny part is that it doesn’t matter if you fix it or not, because those things will always need to be better; it will never be enough. The difference here in Iraq is we are screwed either way. If we fix it, people see us as still being in power and it invalidates the GoI. If we don’t fix it, people are pissed off and blame the U.S. for coming here and ruining everything (never mind the fact that we actually fixed quite a few things that people just weren’t allowed to complain about under Saddam).

One would think, then, that what PsyOp should be doing is teaching the Iraqi government how to do its own marketing to convince their people that they are doing the right thing and are large and in charge. Well, that’s what my idea is, anyway. But we are not doing that. What we are doing is walking out on patrols and interviewing people so that we can hear them tell us the same things over and over again. Handing out any kind of printed product at this point in the game has little effect because they have seen so much, and even if they hadn’t, it takes us a month to get it printed up and sent down here due to all of the red-tape we must march through just to get tangible work produced by our own people. The loudspeaker on our truck is equally worthless because the Infantry and Cavalry units have discovered, get this, bullhorns. They are easy to use, weigh about 2 pounds, and don’t require an entire vehicle to carry around or an engineer to run (because I’m pretty sure that our loudspeaker was built by Thomas Edison as one of his, uhh, early projects). A novel concept, to be sure.

Now take what I have just given you and extrapolate it into the rest of the Army. Except (and here comes the scary part) the Big Army works much, much less than we do. We of the small FOB tend to actually go outside the wire on a regular basis; there are several thousand soldiers and airmen at a few big bases in this country who not only never leave the base, but exist in one of those “limbo” environments where no one really knows what it is they do. Maybe nothing. Or maybe they exist and get deployed just so the rest of us who are doing nothing outside the wire can feel as though we have a big support network behind us.

I came here believing in what we are doing. And although I still believe that the US coming here was the right thing, I have had a change of heart regarding us being here now. In my own, humble opinion, we could leave this place five minutes from now or five years from now and it would have the same result for this country. The only difference being the result it would have in ours. I, for one, am still in favor of us pulling out of here and taking over Haiti. It’s never too late to make that place a tropical casino-island. Until, that is, someone else does it first. (To be continued…)

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