“I can’t sleep. I lie awake in my luxurious trailer and my mind is racing through possible scenarios. A few days ago there was a stretch where we were attacked several days in a row at 8am…like clockwork. Thankfully they have subsided since but for that stretch each morning my ‘alarm clock’ was a loud BOOM and a shaking trailer.”
#ad#So begins an April 16 diary entry of 25-year-old Brendan Lund. Brendan and his cousin, Craig, are in Baghdad, working with the Iraqi Ministry of Finance in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). They’re just two of the scores of young Americans who have volunteered since March 2003 to live in a war zone, sleep in bare-minimum trailers, work 16-hour days (or more), and wake up to rocket attacks–all in the name of building democracy in Iraq.
“Personally I looked at it as the right thing to do,” Brendan says. “How can people my age who have this choice not want to go out and do this?”
In September 2001, fresh out of Carnegie Mellon, Brendan took a job at Merrill Lynch and found himself just minutes away from the World Trade Center on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. Stepping out of the subway, the Massachusetts native heard an enormous explosion as the first tower’s cargo elevator crashed into the basement.
“What I took away from September 11 was a feeling of utter helplessness with regard to terrorist attacks,” he says. “They could happen any time, anywhere.”
Brendan describes 9/11 as a “subconscious motivation” for his decision to head out to Baghdad. He wasn’t sure–still isn’t–that there is a link between Saddam and al Qaeda, but “I think the U.S. understood and Bush understands that the war on terrorism is a war without fronts.” In some ways, it took being in Iraq to convince Brendan–a registered Independent–of the importance of building democracy there: Seeing with his own eyes what Saddam wrought and interacting with Iraqis were powerful testimonies to the justice of liberating and rebuilding the country.
It was Craig who introduced Brendan to the idea of working for the CPA. A 2001 Dartmouth graduate, Craig was working as an investment banker for Deutsche Bank when he heard that one of his coworkers and his girlfriend, who was then a consultant at McKinsey, were leaving for Iraq. In December 2003 Craig sent his resume to the Department of Defense and encouraged Brendan to apply too. By the end of February the two were in Baghdad.
The cousins’ story is not unusual among the young Baghdad volunteers. Many come from top schools and promising private-sector jobs. Some went because they believed in the war effort; others went because it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, or just because they could. What they have in common now is that despite the dangers of being there and all they could be doing back home–and despite the torrent of bad news Americans hear about the occupation–they believe we have an obligation to do right by the Iraqi people by seeing the reconstruction through.
You’d think these idealistic 20- and early 30-somethings risking their lives to rebuild a devastated country would easily become the darlings of the American media. But in fact they’ve gotten very little press, and little of that has been positive. The merciless beheading earlier this week of 26-year-old American businessman Nicholas Berg is an important reminder that being an American in Iraq is not fun and games–not in the least. Though the nation’s attention has recently focused on the American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, we should also remember that these young people–and indeed the majority of Americans in Iraq–are putting their lives on the line every day to make democracy a reality there.
FAR FROM HOME
Housing in Baghdad is a long way from Manhattan apartments and college dorm-rooms. One recent Harvard graduate, who arrived in May 2003, described sleeping out in the open on a cot at the bottom of a set of stairs in Saddam’s former palace. He soon moved into the Al Rashid hotel, but stayed only until October when the building was bombed (he was there sleeping at the time) and evacuated.
Brendan and Craig were told before they arrived that there was a waiting list for housing, so they knew they’d have to spend some time sleeping in a converted chapel or in some other temporary arrangement. Craig ended up living in a tent for two weeks with a group of Gurhka soldiers for roommates–an unusual welcoming committee. Eventually the cousins graduated to the trailers, where most CPA workers live. The trailers are small, squat white boxes paired up and connected by a tiny bathroom; from above, each pair looks like a fat “H.” It’s two occupants to a trailer and four to a bathroom, and the pairs are arranged just several feet apart from one another in a crowded trailer-park setup.
Spartan as that may sound, though, when asked about living conditions in Baghdad few speak about the amenities. CPA workers may joke about the cafeteria-style food–provided by Kellogg, Brown, and Root and served in a communal dining hall–but that’s by far the least of their worries. After all, what are soggy vegetables compared to traveling around in Humvees, wearing helmets and flak jackets to work, and being woken up by the sound of nearby explosions?
And then there are the long hours of extraordinarily intense work. Many in the CPA work 14, 16, even 18 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Some say that’s partly by default: Movement is more or less restricted to the area inside the CPA-controlled Green Zone, where aside from working out, watching TV, and maybe socializing in and around Saddam’s former swimming pool, there aren’t many recreational activities to choose from. All agree, however, that the more important reason for working so much is that there’s a whole lot of work to be done, and it’s work that has a direct impact on the lives of Iraqi people. In other words, they feel the burden of the enormous responsibility they’ve been given.
Jesse Pruett, a military reservist who volunteered to go to Iraq after completing his reserve duty in Afghanistan, is now in charge of regional programs for the CPA. The 33-year-old oversees all of the programs that provide CPA representatives in the regions and provinces of Iraq with funds so that they can respond to local needs. Needs range from refurbishing schools to training future Iraqi leaders in the ways of democratic government.
“There’s 24 hours of work to be done here,” he says. “The task is beyond us as individuals.”
Pruett was part of a small group of civilians hired by the Defense Department to help organize the Madrid Donors Conference back in October. They went out with the understanding that they would stay for six weeks to gather information for CPA officials to take to Madrid to raise money from foreign countries. But after six weeks in Iraq, sometimes working almost around the clock, all of them decided to stay.
Simone Ledeen was also part of that group. Working out of the Ministry of Finance offices to prepare for the conference, the 29-year-old MBA caught a glimpse of the kind of work people were doing for the reconstruction and wanted to be a part of it. So, after the conference, Ledeen joined a team working on budget execution, and she ended up being responsible for the payment of the Facilities Protection Service, made up of the roughly 80,000 Iraqis who guard the ministry sites.
“There was an unbelievable work ethic over there,” says Greg Pearly, a young military reservist who arrived in Iraq the day the war started and spent the duration in uniform doing logistics planning on the frontlines. When the fighting was over, the West Point graduate requested to work for the CPA and was assigned to do logistical planning and support with KBR. “In the military it’s standard–there is zero time off; you’re working all day, every day, and there’s nothing else to do. Civilian people come in and they’re not used to this–they’re used to working five days a week.
“There was a ton of work to do,” he continues. “Rebuilding a country that was so devastated and crippled by Saddam Hussein, there’s not enough hours in the day.”
THE IRAQI CONNECTION
The CPA is headquartered in Saddam’s former abode, which for some is a powerful, if eerie, reminder of why they–and we–are in Iraq. Ledeen describes taking a trip into the basement, where Uday’s belongings are kept. One wall, she says, was lined floor to ceiling with entertainment centers, which Uday would give to the “better behaved” among the women he plucked from the streets to rape and pass along to his friends (if he didn’t like their behavior, they were killed). “When you go over there you hear the stories of what happened to the Iraqi people, you just want to do whatever you can to help, in whatever way possible. You can’t help it, your heart goes out to them,” Ledeen says.
“Contact with Iraqis has been inspiring,” Brendan Lund says. “We’ve established such strong ties. By coming into the Green Zone [to see whether we’re alright after there’s been an attack], they put themselves at risk, because it’s an admission that they are cooperating with or supporting the Coalition forces, which to some of their neighbors is not a popular idea right now.
“The majority of Iraqis support the effort. They don’t want the U.S. here forever but they know that they need us now.”
Ledeen’s group lost one of its translators–she was murdered–but the next day all of her Iraqi colleagues nevertheless showed up for work. Another translator told her, at a time of heavy bombing in the Green Zone, simply: “I would die for you.”
Good feeling is one thing, however, knowledge and skill another. Critics of the CPA argue that many on its staff aren’t experienced enough for the kind of responsibility they’ve been given. In December, a Washington Monthly article criticized the Coalition for passing over seasoned Democrats in its hiring and instead letting untried Republicans run the show. And in January, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Jay Hallen–a 24-year-old Yale graduate managing the Iraqi stock-exchange project–that, while not itself critical of Hallen’s work or of his having been hired to do it, hinted at the difficulty of the project and to some lent support to the claim that 20-somethings had been given more power over Iraq’s future than they deserved.
Ledeen, who is also (NRO Contributor) Michael Ledeen’s daughter and for that reason featured prominently in the Washington Monthly article, says: “I question the idea that young people in the CPA are not experienced. Who has experience in what we’re doing? What precedent is there for that?”
Not only do CPA workers face logistical challenges–for instance, few Iraqis have phones and citywide cell-phone service is unreliable, so even routine communication can be difficult–there are aspects of rebuilding a country that no amount of experience can prepare for.
About her own work, Ledeen says, “It’s hard to explain how difficult it was to make sure that the money for the Iraqi budgets was released. Iraq is a completely cash-based economy. At the time, the banking system couldn’t handle the types and amounts of transactions necessary to keep the ministries functioning, so we were arranging for the movement of millions of dollars in cash throughout the country…. We had no way of knowing what the problems would be until they came up, and sometimes reached almost a boiling point.” Ledeen adds that she did, in fact, know people there who had experience in comparable situations, but that even the vets had trouble making predictions in Iraq.
There’s also the challenge of working with ordinary people who have known nothing but totalitarianism. Iraqis lived in fear for so long that some resist doing even the smallest task if it falls outside the realm of their established responsibility. One young CPA worker says that in renovating a building for a project he was working on–the building was on the property of a hotel–he had to work all the way up the hotel’s ranks for permission just to have a wall repainted. In the end, it was the chairman of the board who gave him the green light.
As for The Washington Monthly article’s contention that the CPA staff is largely or exclusively Republican, that certainly wasn’t true of the volunteers I spoke to. Brendan Lund wrote home in response to that article: “What is it that makes [the authors] think this whole CPA is just some Bush conspiracy to pad the wallets and the privilege of his faithful? … Yup, an all-expense paid trip to Baghdad. Now that is what I call political favoritism.”
The article also failed to mention that few middle-aged professionals, Democrat or Republican, want to leave their jobs and most of all their families to spend months in a war zone. Young people are uniquely suited to the calling.
More generally, almost all feel the media has done a disastrously bad job representing reality in Iraq. “When I came back, I was depressed, seeing the media coverage,” Pearly says. “I really questioned my own judgment after being there. ‘What was I doing? This is crazy,’ I thought…. Then I realized that if you report only on the two or three bad things that happen, it’s very depressing, but Iraq is a huge country.”
Sloan Mann, a West Point graduate now getting his Masters degree at Georgetown, worked for several months in Iraq as a contractor for USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, focusing on human rights and helping issue small grants to Iraqi groups on the ground. As part of his job he also consulted the CPA on policy questions. (Mann, by the way, is another volunteer who disproves the claim that only Bush-loving Republicans are working to rebuild Iraq.) “I was working on the ground for a long time and was very frustrated by all the news. The media is so focused on sensational stories that our message isn’t getting out. Instead of doing a body count or parading around Iraqi insurgents, how about we go into a school that’s been fixed or a handicapped center we refurbished?
“There are still great things happening in Iraq every day,” he adds. “The Iraqi people are hard-working, they’re go-getters. They don’t want to take handouts… They’re tired of violence and oppression.”
He continues, “I think there’s adequate support for us back home, but no one knows about the good stories.”
If no one knows about the good stories, then surely no one knows about all the volunteers working day and night to make those good stories happen. Energetic, passionate young people going abroad to work on traditionally left-wing causes get plenty of accolades from the media. But risk your life to bring democracy to Iraq and in the eyes of many in the liberal elite you don’t qualify as a humanitarian: You’re a privileged Republican child interested only in advancing your already flourishing career.
Speak to a few of the volunteers, however, and a completely different picture emerges. Ledeen tells the story of an Iraqi colleague in the Ministry of Finance–an older man with a family–who found a grenade in his home. He said he supposed it was an occupational hazard, and added, “I really admire you. You’re all so young, you don’t have to be here.” Ledeen responded, “It’s the opposite. We’re here because we’re young. We’re going to have to live in this world for a long time, and we don’t really like it right now.”
They also belie the liberal idea that the war effort is riding on the shoulders of disadvantaged Americans who’ve been exploited–forced into risking their lives–because they have no alternative. These volunteers and countless others have plenty else they could be doing back home. Fern Holland, the 33-year-old lawyer and CPA worker who was killed in Iraq while working for women’s rights, was certainly not there as a last resort. Nor was Nick Berg, who was on the tail end of his second trip to Iraq as a private contractor looking for work on communications towers when he was murdered. Nor, for that matter, was Greg Pearly, who says that had he or any of his reservist colleagues not wanted to be there they could have gotten out of it.
We should of course be grateful that these men and women are not doing whatever else they could be doing right now, but are instead serving their country proudly and helping make its democratic vision a reality. They’re also bringing home the valuable experience of having committed themselves to a cause greater than they are, and accepting the responsibility that comes with it.
But, of course, we should also look forward to their safe return. We need them back here to set a few things straight.
–Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is an associate editor of National Review.