Thirteen town fathers sat cross-legged on blankets arranged in a rectangle on an improbably green lawn. They wore headdresses and jalabaya robes and ran loops of smooth worry beads over and over through their fingers. Their faces showed skepticism.
They were waiting for a tall, eager Midwesterner with a degree in telecommunications and more than 14 years of service in the U.S. Army.
Capt. David Krzycki, 35, commands an infantry company. He is trained for that, and his men say he is good at it. He was not trained to teach civics to reluctant strangers in a farming village in Iraq -- or to get them to put the principles into practice.
In the unscripted drama that is Iraq today, U.S. soldiers have an ambiguous role. They are fighters still facing deadly attacks. They are midnight raiders and bridge builders. They rain bombs on insurgents and deliver candy to kids. They are hated as occupiers and, occasionally, appreciated as nation-builders.
Krzycki was a little late for the meeting, which was held at the home of one of the town elders. He had made a side trip to show a visitor a school that had been a filthy, broken place when his A Company, 2nd Platoon, began patrolling this dusty village of 750. Now, largely because Krzycki got the school on the short list of projects being financed for reconstruction, the classrooms are clean and newly painted, the lights fixed, the broken windows that let in rain and sandstorms replaced. New blackboards and desks are on the way.
The first time his patrols came here, Krzycki explained, they were met by hostile stares and rocks thrown by children. They worked hard to overcome that. Once, their patrol came across a man whose car had run out of gas. Krzycki did what he would have done at home in Sturgis, Mich.: He jumped out and helped the man push the car to his house.
"He said it was right down the street. It turned out to be on the other side of town," Krzycki said with a laugh. But practically everyone in town saw the American soldiers sweating as they pushed the car. "People said, 'Hey, these guys aren't so bad.' "
But this evening, Krzycki's task was different. Rather than having his troops do what needed to be done, the officer wanted to persuade the town fathers to do it.
Krzycki arrived at the elder's house, sweating and weighed down by the tools of his trade: steel helmet, steel-plated armored vest, automatic rifle, ammunition vest with 210 bullets, first aid kit, goggles, glasses, camera, pistol. Several of his platoon members, similarly hot and heavily laden, entered with him, as their Humvee purred outside the gate.
The Iraqis had put out plastic lawn chairs, a thoughtful gesture for their encumbered guests. Krzycki shook the hand of each man, took off his helmet and laid his M-4 assault rifle casually beside his chair. The other soldiers kept their weapons on their laps, a matter of habit and training.
Arab conversations are a kind of courtship, initiated by kisses and inquiries as to the health of each party. Krzycki started out with business. If the town fathers winced at the abruptness of it, they hid it well. They had met with him before; they knew his ways.
"All right, do you remember your homework?" Krzycki began. The Army interpreter glanced at him with a frown, then put the question to the elders more politely. "Last week, I asked everyone for one thing that you could do individually to make the town better. We had 16 people there, so we should have 16 good ideas. What have we got?"
There was silence.
And more silence.
Krzycki waited patiently. The men before him shifted uncomfortably on their blankets.
Finally, Ahmad Salmon, 36, a stocky man in a tan robe sitting toward the more junior edges of the group, spoke up. "I had an idea to clean out the road," he said. "There is rubble on the road. But we need a dump truck and backhoe to take it away."
Krzycki leapt at the suggestion. "Good! Now, does anyone have a dump truck?" Someone in town had one, he was told, but who would pay for it?
"Why would you need to pay anyone to use it to help clean up the town?" Krzycki asked, pleased at the opportunity to make the point. The men fell silent, contemplating this concept. Communities are not defined in this way here. Allegiances go first to one's family, then to one's clan. And then, maybe, to one's friends. But to work, free, for the town?
There was a murmur as the men on the blankets talked among themselves. Finally, one of the older men, Ahlan Farhan Fihan, 63, decided to share a thought. "I have an idea that everyone should clean out in front of their own house," he said.
"Yes! Yes! That's the idea," said Krzycki, cheerleading the tentative group. "These are great ideas! And you don't even need me! You don't need me to tell you how to clean up your town."
The sheiks looked pleased.
"I'll tell you what," Krzycki said, as his interpreter strained to keep up with his enthusiasm. "I'll do one of those projects if you do the other. I'll give you a contract to get a front-end loader to load the rubble, if you agree that everyone will clean in front of their house."
Soon he had a promise. But he wanted to close the deal, to make it happen. He asked Sgt. Todd Carlsrud for an envelope.
"Now, I'm a man of my word," Krzycki said. He fished out three U.S. $100 bills and a $50 bill and slapped them on the plastic table in front of him with a flourish. "I'm prepared to sign a contract right now so you can rent a backhoe. That's my end of the bargain. But I hold you accountable. When I come back next week, there should be a big improvement in the town."
Dusk had come. The men were becoming shadows, and the sky, drained of its ferocious heat, came alive with darting bats.
Salmon, in the light of a flashlight held by one of the soldiers, signed a receipt for the $350. It would not be enough, he demurred, but he would take it. It was the second such job Salmon had accepted. Krzycki was impressed with his evident ambition. He thought the work would get done. If it didn't, no more contracts.
"Let's come up with three ideas a week," he urged the men. "If we do, Awynat will be a better place."
The soldiers strapped on their helmets. Krzycki started to leave, remembered his manners, and did a slow round of handshakes with the men. Outside, he was enthused. Two ideas was progress, he said. He had made a deal, and he had the leverage of future contracts to enforce it.
Maybe this was not what he was trained to do, not even what he was sent here to do. Maybe he had stepped on a few cultural sensitivities. But they were getting the point, Krzycki said. They were learning to do for themselves. When the Americans left, he concluded, they would leave Awynat a better place.
For Krzycki, that was reward enough.
"There's no better job than this," he said with a grin.