In May 1991, my Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit stationed at Incirlik AB, Turkey, was deployed into northern Iraq in support of the Kurdish relief efforts. Our mission was simple; find and destroy any ordnance that posed a threat to the civilian population. In four months time, our unit found and disposed of over 1,000 tons of high explosives.
On many days, my team chief and I traveled the countryside in a Humvee with no security force support. Regularly, local Kurds would act as guides for us, showing us where there were minefields or caches of ordnance. The people were friendly to us, and we were friendly to them. Our unit did operations in Zahku, Dohuk and Sirsenk, and at no time did we ever feel like we were in danger.
On one particular day, we stumbled upon a Kurdish refugee tent camp up in the hills. Despite being in uniform and armed, my team chief and I were invited to lunch. We sat in a tent with about ten Kurdish men, eating a meager meal made of meat wrapped in grape leaves and fresh goat’s milk, while the only Kurd that spoke English, a former teacher, told us tales of how Saddam Hussein waged a relentless war against his people. After the lunch and tales were finished, we thanked the men for their hospitality and they thanked us for helping them. It is an encounter that I will never forget because of the pure goodwill among us.
In 2006, I returned to Iraq, this time as a US contractor doing ordnance disposal work on behalf of the Department of Defense. I flew from Kuwait to the US AB base at Talil, Iraq. I had to wait two weeks before I could get to the site I was assigned because the private security convoys were few and far between.
The team to which I was assigned worked a site south of Basra for two weeks before the US Army Corp. of Engineers’ representative deemed the site, an Iraq-Iran War battlefield, too saturated with ordnance for us to ever fully clear. We returned to Talil, Iraq, pending reassignment by the company.
When the company decided to send our team into an area that wasn’t safe or secured by military forces, I was stunned. It was an area that was rightfully called “insurgentville.” We were told, point blank, that if we were attacked, we were “on our own.” I asked for, and was granted, a transfer to a company depot site.
I was flown to a military forward operating base outside of Kirkuk, Iraq. I waited until the depot sent its private security convoy to pick me up. During the convoy, I sat in the armored vehicle as the security contractor that manned the top-mounted gun fired upon a vehicle behind our convoy that carried a man, his wife and two children. I sat there, in stunned silence, as the brass fell around me, looking out the back of the vehicle at the car, watching the Iraqi man who was driving yelling, waving his arm out the window of his car at the convoy that was firing at his vehicle.
It was while I was at the depot that I worked with Iraqi civilians that were bussed into camp to work as day laborers. We would start the day by going to the Iraqi worker camp, picking up eight to ten day labor workers, and they would assist us for the day. I had plenty of opportunities to talk to the Iraqi workers. Many of these workers were unemployed and felt they had no other option than to work for American contractor companies in order to have money to feed their families.
While many of the Iraqis I talked to were glad that Saddam Hussein had been deposed from power and had seen the US invasion as a great opportunity for Iraq, they had become disillusioned over the years. Some told me that they wished the US had never invaded Iraq, telling me that life under Saddam Hussein had never been as bad for them or their families as it was for them now.
It was while I was at this depot that I watched how these Iraqi civilians were being treated by the contractors. Respect in the Iraqi culture starts with an individual’s age. Age implies wisdom, and wisdom demands respect. The older the person, the higher in stature and responsibility they are granted. Because I granted these workers their most basic form of respect, many gravitated to me whether to talk about their families, political views or simply to ask about America. Some of the contractors I worked with could not understand this concept, and worse, treated all Iraqis as if they were beneath them.
After a mere month of working at the depot, I told the company to send me home. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take watching how the workers were being treated by certain contractors. It had gotten so bad that many workers began boycotting working for us. If we didn’t have workers, we couldn’t meet the production level set, and that meant that the company looked bad in the eyes of the US Army Corp. of Engineers’ representative. The further we fell behind, the worse the threats against the workers became.
I have been to Iraq during a just war, and I have been to Iraq when our war was seen by many to be an unjust war. The best thing America can do is leave Iraq and let the Iraqi people put their country back together. The worst thing we can do is try to maintain our military bases and presence in Iraq indefinitely. We lost the goodwill of the Iraqi people years ago and nothing we do now will generate different results or feelings.
We can leave or we can fight an insurgency in Iraq indefinitely. Those are our only two options.