Outsiders, Looking In
The Military: Losing Hearts and Minds?
By Oscar R. Estrada
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page B01
The General and the Colonel have told us that we are the main effort, at the forefront of helping to rebuild Iraq. But how do you rebuild when all around you destruction and violence continue? Do the facts and figures showing levels of electricity restored, the amount of drinking water available, the number of schools reconstructed or the numbers of police officers hired and trained really convince the Iraqi people that we are here to help? Are we winning their hearts and minds?
Winning hearts and minds is my job, in a nutshell. I'm an Army Reserve civil affairs (CA) officer stationed in Baqubah, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. In Vietnam, winning hearts and minds was mostly a Special Forces task, but after that they were smart enough to get out of it, and the responsibility has since fallen into the laps of reservists like me who are trained to deal with every conceivable problem that arises when Big Army meets Little Civilian. And that's why CA soldiers are among those most often deployed overseas in the Reserve.
That's how they get you, actually, with promises of foreign travel, foreign language training, Airborne School, Air Assault School . . . and the chance to help others. We're trained in the Army's regimented style to deal with civilians in foreign countries, required to learn a satisfactory number of acronyms, probed, pricked and tested, and then sent overseas to do good.
And here we are, in Iraq, trying to help the Iraqi people as death threats frighten our Iraqi interpreters into quitting to protect their families, and as attacks from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) become daily and nightly occurrences.
We're told by senior officers that most Iraqis are being influenced by "bad guys" and their anti-coalition messages. The latest acronym for these bad guys is AIF, which stands for Anti-Iraqi Forces. The fact that most AIF members are Iraqi is neatly ignored as we try to win the goodwill of the "good" Iraqis.
One day last week we rolled into the town of Zaghniyah to win some of the local hearts and minds. In a country where most people are unemployed, we offer the townspeople $1 for every bag of trash they can collect. Our "docs" -- medics, assistants and physicians -- set up shop in the local health clinic and we try to "engage local leadership." But most of the local leaders, we are told, are not there. Those people who do speak with us do so only to catalogue their concerns -- chiefly unemployment and lack of electricity and water. It's the day after the swearing-in of Iraq's new interim government, and so I explain that their concerns have to be presented to their Governing Council, and that we can fund projects only through that council. An old man waves me off and tells me that they know the Americans control everything and will do so as long as they are here. The rest of the men nod in agreement.
As the day wears on, every ray of sun seems to add weight to my Kevlar helmet and body armor. I am at a loss as to why our efforts aren't recognized or appreciated. But then, as I look at the children collecting trash and the main road clogged with military vehicles, as I watch one of our docs try to help a woman carrying a gaunt and sickly baby in her arms, and as I listen to an old sheik struggle with our demands that he hold American-style town meetings, I realize that Iraqis may see our help as something else. I see how paying them to collect trash may be demeaning and remote from their hopes for prosperity in a new Iraq. I see our good faith efforts to provide medical care lead to disappointment and resentment when we have neither the medicine nor the equipment to cure or heal many ailments. And I see how our efforts to introduce representative democracy can lead to frustration.
Some experiences here have reminded me that our sacrifice for the rebuilding of Iraq is minor compared with that of the average Iraqi. A few weeks ago I was on a patrol in the town of Buhriz, near Baqubah. Our mission: to assess the city's potable water needs. Buhriz is a place where our soldiers are often shot at, so we rolled in with two Bradleys and several Humvees packed with heavily armed troops.
On the way to the water treatment plant, we stop for a psychological operations (psyop) mission. A psyop team walks up and down the market handing out "product," in this case pro-coalition messages in a glossy Arabic-language magazine. Young people take the magazines and seem to enjoy the novelty of the event; some people bombard the team and its interpreter with questions about things the town needs and the whereabouts of detained relatives.
But others return the fancy magazine and pull their kids away from "the occupiers." One man pulls a young boy by the arm and slaps him on the back of the head as he chastises him. I stare at the man and he at me; his hatred is palpable. We're less than five feet apart, but the true separation is far greater. I'm unable to communicate with him without the help of the one interpreter assigned to this patrol of 30 or so soldiers, and the "terp" is with the psyop team. I wish I could ask the man why he hates us, but I doubt anything useful would come of such a conversation. As we drive out of town, a little boy who looks about 3 years old spits at our vehicles as we pass his house.
I flash back to an incident a month earlier when we were returning to our compound by way of "RPG Alley," a route of frequent attacks. A unit ahead of us had reported taking fire and we rushed to the scene. Other patrols and M1 tanks soon arrived and we sat and waited, pointing our weapons into a date palm grove to the north. A small column of Humvees moved down a dirt road toward the grove, and all hell broke loose. I never heard a shot fired from the grove, but someone did, and then everyone was firing.
"Hey, what the hell are we shooting at?" I screamed at my buddy as I continued to squeeze off rounds from my M-16.
"I'm not sure! By that shack. You?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company