Politics & Policy

“One Hand Can’t Clap”

Talking to Iraqis.

Around midnight, I stood on a three-story rooftop in Baghdad, watching orange and yellow flashes from a distant artillery barrage far to the west. Earlier there had been a spirited firefight about a block from my position — crackling automatic-weapons fire, arcing tracers, and single shots between the two forces, with one side (the insurgents) eventually silenced by the rapid, heavy “boom, boom, boom, boom” of an American .50-caliber machine gun.

Now, except for the occasional muffled, artillery “woomph” rolling in from the west, the city was quiet.

All at once, the most hellish sounding screeching and growling erupted on the street below me. As I walked toward the edge of the roof for a better view, I could see two Iraqi soldiers running toward the same sound.

Two wild dogs were fighting over a badly mangled cat; and both were tearing at it like a tug of war. When the Iraqis got there, they began shouting at the dogs, and one used the butt of his AK-47 rifle to knock the animals away. The dogs took off down the street, and the Iraqis began desperately trying to save the life of the suffering, dying cat. It was a terrible sight to witness. “But it’s just a cat,” I thought for a moment, as I watched the men find a cardboard box and some blankets to wrap it in. A few other soldiers soon gathered around.

You’d have thought the cat was a wounded child the way the men all helped one another trying to save it. Yet these are people many Westerners would argue place no value on life.

The next morning, I was downstairs in the kitchen of the house in which I was staying — a former residence of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals — looking for a clean cup for some coffee. I grabbed one and started washing it, when an Iraqi woman (one of the maids) came over to me, lightly slapped my hand, took the unwashed cup and handed me a clean one. She couldn’t speak English, but she smiled at me in a motherly fashion and pointed toward the brewing coffee.

Soon other women came into the house, one with a little boy who was playing with toy cars just like any American child might. All of them were talking and smiling, some laughing as the little boy asked something of his mother.

As I left the house for a planned interview with a Sunni businessman, some Iraqi soldiers on the street waved, smiled, and — in their best English — said, “Morning, sir.”

A block away, I strolled past a machine shop where mechanics and auto-body repairmen were busy replacing shot-up windshields, flat tires, and bullet-ridden, IED-blasted doors and panels. These were the vehicles I had been riding in everyday since I had been in Iraq, and the guys were patching them up from almost daily highway ambushes were Iraqis.

Point being: The Iraqi people are like everyone else in the world: They have families. They work. Their kids go to school. They value life as much as anyone else. And they want a safe and secure future for their kids. Right now, that’s something they don’t have.

“We have some freedom,” one interviewee told me, on condition that — for security reasons — I would not reveal his name. “But right now it is not useful to us. Yes, I can travel outside the country whenever I want. But I can’t go to my own neighborhood because I am afraid of being killed.”

That fear didn’t mean he blamed the Americans for his and his countrymen’s plight. On the contrary, he was grateful for America, and he said, “Ask any Iraqi — Sunni, Shiia, or Kurd — and most will tell you the same thing.”

I did ask, and he was right.

“Definitely freedom will mean something to us,” my interviewee said. “But it will take time because under Saddam’s dictatorial rule we were all in handcuffs so-to-speak. Now we are free. We have something we are not used to, and the terrorists are trying to prevent us from having it fully before we realize how good it really is.”

The Sunni man discussed how far too-many educated Iraqis — businessmen (like himself), physicians, engineers, professors — had taken their families out of Iraq because they had the means to do so. “This does not mean they don’t love their country,” he said. But — like most all people (whether they are willing to admit it or not) — “family comes first.”

The problem is the people now trying to stand up and run the country have never done so before, and often find themselves in over their heads.

“Doesn’t mean they are not good people who want a free and secure Iraq,” the Sunni man told me. “They are good Iraqi people, and they do not hate anybody — Christian, Jew, whoever. We all believe in the one God. Believe me when I say, 90 percent of the Iraqis don’t hate.”

He added, “We have a saying in Iraq: One hand can’t clap. It takes all hands together to clap.”

What about the insurgents? “They are the uneducated,” he said. “They don’t know. They don’t understand. They listen only to the people who control them. They are small in number, but big in killing. This is the problem.”

It was the same everywhere I went. The Iraqis of all stripes, talked — so long as they knew I would not publish their names (to do so would make them and their families a target of the terrorists) — and expressed gratitude toward the Americans and the British. They also expressed a fear based on the antiwar rhetoric from Capitol Hill they read in their own papers.

“Surely America is not going to leave us?” one man asked.

I assured him we would not; believing, hoping that the fact of our moral responsibility to these people would ultimately trump white-flag politics in Washington.

The Iraqis are grateful indeed, though they do question our absolute commitment to them. In light of the defeatist rantings of our own Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Murtha, and Hillary Clinton; I can’t say I blame them. And people being people, at times I found myself questioning my own trust of others in Iraq.

That night, chatting with former British paratroop captain Charlie Turnbull — one of the residents in the house I was staying who now works for private security firm ArmorGroup — I asked him what assurances we had that the armed Iraqi soldiers guarding us wouldn’t come in the house while we were all asleep and cut our throats.

“There are no assurances,” he said, adding that it has nothing to do with whether or not they are good men. “They are, and as trusted as you can trust anyone in this country.”

But, as Turnbull explained, this is war, and what’s to say what any one of them would do if al Qaeda kidnapped one of their children and threatened to kill the child unless they killed us.

The Iraqis may be fond of saying, “one hand can’t clap.” But there’s another saying I heard in that country — “Desperate times call for desperate measures” — frequently uttered by the Americans and British who seem to understand and — in an odd way — accept the motives behind Iraqis who have been coerced into committing acts of violence.

I considered that every night as I locked the door to my bedroom and glanced at the locked-and-loaded AK-47 assault rifle on the table next to my bed.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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