Saturday, March 1, 2008

Down on the Farm

March 1, 2008
In a war like the one our soldiers are fighting in Iraq, looks can be deceiving. An American soldier with the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade is generally pretty easy to identify. He wears a digital camouflage uniform and he travels in a dust-colored humvee or MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected). The enemy, on the other hand, could be anyone.
The bad guys have plenty of uniforms to choose from. Every organized security force in Iraq harbors some insurgents. And just as many wear no uniform, blending in with the civilian population, both the guilty and the innocent. Try studying a face, any face in Iraq, and determining whether the person you are looking at is a friend or an enemy. It isn’t easy.
The farmland outside the city of Samarra looks peaceful and calm. Our convoy doesn’t make sense here. Cows shift an eye toward the MRAPs. Chickens scatter nervously. It would appear our arrival, with Scouts dismounting from each vehicle and fanning out to secure the area, has shattered the calm. What could the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion’s Charlie Company possibly want with the people living in these modest houses and huts? Life must be hard enough without having to put up with armed, uninvited guests.
Uninvited the soldiers may be, but unexpected they are not. An Iraqi male on a motorcycle has been following the convoy during the week, and has no doubt been informing others of the soldiers’ whereabouts. A source has told the soldiers there is a cell dedicated to tracking their movements, and not so a party could be thrown in their honor. Hidden beneath the calm is an enemy presence that has used remote areas like this farmland to hide people and weapons. Recent discoveries have caused Coalition Forces to focus more of their efforts on seeing what else they can dig up in the country.
The soldiers approach a girl who appears to be alone at a small farmhouse. This in itself is unusual. More often than not there are more people than one would expect tucked away in these houses. And usually the soldiers are presented with a pretty good poker face. But this girl is visibly shaken, scared and crying. The interpreter tries to reassure her that the soldiers will do her no harm, but she acts as though their arrival is the sound of the other shoe dropping.
The women and children are the wildcards here. Usually any bad business would be conducted by the men, but in confined quarters like most of these people live in it is difficult to imagine everyone doesn’t know everything.
Some females seem to hide behind their role, embrace their status as second class citizens. They know we know they aren’t supposed to know anything, but their smiles suggest they are full of secrets. They must enjoy the power this knowledge gives them.
In these rural communities the residents are usually related, or members of the same tribe. They might share a vehicle. Certainly they share information. If bad people show up, if they hide or bury weapons or explosives in the area, can the locals possibly be oblivious to this activity? And if one knows, wouldn’t they all know? But something keeps them from sharing what they know. Fear? Probably. And maybe the soldiers in their MRAPs are just too foreign. How can they be made to understand the vulnerability that comes from living in a place where the bad guys can hide from the good guys, but the residents cannot hide from anyone.
During the patrol, the motorcycle is abandoned. At a house nearby, two males are questioned. One is asked if he is the owner of the motorcycle; it seems he must be, but he denies it, and doesn’t pretend to want to be helpful.
After several stops, none particularly fruitful, the soldiers are frustrated. There is something lurking beneath the surface here, something that is causing the residents to behave strangely, sometimes revealing more of themselves than is expected, sometimes less.
And the abandoned motorcycle? With no one willing to step forward and claim it, no one willing to explain why he had been following the convoy, there seems to be no choice but to destroy it. One of the gunners shoots it up with his 50 Cal., and the soldiers enjoy watching it burn.
The people of the area had no doubt been warned or enticed into cooperating with the bad guys. By destroying the motorcycle, the soldiers are not only making life a little more difficult for the bad guys, but sending a message to anyone who assists them.
It will take a steady and increased presence in these rural areas to persuade the local population they are not alone if they choose to stand up and fight the enemy. Maybe it seems easier to turn a blind eye to the insurgent activity around them, but the insurgents will only stick around until they have destroyed whatever or whomever it is they wanted to destroy. Our soldiers, on the other hand, will keep coming back until everyone feels safe.
The Scouts of Charlie Company are patient. They have talked to a lot of people in Iraq, and some have begun to respond. The soldiers are receiving more tips and useful information from locals than they have in the past, enabling them to stop insurgents in their tracks. They will continue to talk to people and these conversations will begin to bear more and more fruit. The soldiers may look intimidating, with their body armor and their weapons, but it only takes spending a little time with them to know they want the best for the people of Iraq.

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