Friday, January 4, 2008

A New Time Zone

January 4, 2008

We have all heard and used the expression “time flies.” But you won’t hear anyone using it in Iraq. If you would like your minutes to feel like hours, your hours to feel like days, you should move to Iraq. As far as I know, I’m the only tourist currently wintering in Iraq, but as soon as they get the dust issue sorted out, and Iraq becomes a real vacation destination, I think one of its strongest selling points might be that you can spend a long weekend here but it feels like a month. Now that’s value.
Of course, our Army deserves some of the blame (or credit, depending on your point of view) for the time situation in Iraq. They have been working very closely with the Iraqi forces, and have taught them everything they know about waiting (which is a lot). The Iraqis, in turn, have taught our soldiers a thing or two about how to set the pace, how to keep others waiting. So our soldiers together with the Iraqi police and soldiers, perhaps without even trying, have actually achieved what many thought impossible; they have stopped time dead in its tracks. Yet I feel ten years older.
The day began at 0530, that’s 5:30 am to most of us. That’s way too early to me. Actually, I was ready at 5:30, but didn’t get picked up until 7:00. A soldier would not be surprised by or complain about this ninety minute discrepancy, but I’m not a soldier. I’m a VIP. There were no other VIPs to complain to, so I was forced to look at the bright side: at least they showed up at 7:00. And this time the VIP trailer has a working bathroom! I have my own shower! I am visiting a small base, FOB (Forward Operating Base) Summerall, near Bayji, home of one of Iraq’s oil refineries. I was invited to witness the progress being made between our forces and the Iraqi forces, and I have learned that even though progress is being made, you still have to wait for it. And wait for it.
I was transported to an even smaller base jointly operated by American soldiers and Iraqi police, where Captain Aaron Billingsley of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade’s 1st Battalion, and Lieutenant Russell Kaufmann, an MP from a Washington, D.C. unit, and I waited to speak with the Iraqi police chief of Siniyah. After over two hours of waiting, we were shown into the office. They talked, and I mostly listened. While I was listening, I realized there is something about just putting in the time that the Iraqis equate with cooperating. They will talk in circles, avoid certain issues, claim to know who some of the bad people are but make excuses about why they haven’t been picked up yet, thank us for all of our help, and make promises they don’t intend to keep. These conversations go on all the time, they usually feel like a waste of time, but they give the impression that the people in the room have nothing but time.
It was beginning to seem as though the police chief was just behaving the way he thought he ought to, saying what he thought we expected to hear, putting in his time with the Americans until they moved onto something else, and then maybe he would have a chance to watch a little TV. But it turned out he was just slow to warm up. Once the unpleasant topics had been covered and/or dodged, he became more animated and he made a point of explaining to me, through our interpreter Nissan, how much he valued his relationship with our troops, beginning with the 82nd Airborne Division, and now continuing with the 101st and the MPs, who have helped to re-establish his station and reduce acts of violence in the area. So, though the conversation was not entirely productive, it served the purpose of maintaining the relationship, the spirit of cooperation.
In a land where a life can be cut short so quickly, it may seem surprising that the hours that make up a day are often squandered. Maybe this reckless disregard for time is a way of standing up to the temporary nature of life in a warzone. Getting nothing done today means it will have to be done tomorrow. Or the day after that. So life must go on.
There has been a very conscious effort on the part of our soldiers to try not to force our timeline on the Iraqis. Our soldiers, who have learned so much about patience since they joined the Army, are demonstrating what it means to be patient every long minute they are in Iraq. Although every day seems very much like the day before (soldiers make frequent references to the movie Groundhog Day, and did last year too), there is the possibility that by showing up each day, even if it is to have the same conversation over and over again, some change is occurring.
A tree may look very much the same from one year to the next, but each year is marked by a new ring. In Iraq trees, like everything else, do not have an easy time of it. But they do grow, and our relationship with the Iraqis does too. The rings may not be very thick, and the roots--it is hard to know how secure the roots are, but time passes, however invisibly, and maybe after enough of it passes, the changes will be evident and positive, and time will be looked at differently. Maybe its healing properties will be recognized, and time will not have to worry so much about being killed either.

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