Friday, April 4, 2008

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? What Chicken?

April 3, 2008

Most soldiers who have spent time outside the wire have been involved in a close call or two, usually a near miss with an IED or possibly an exchange of small arms fire. These experiences are to be expected in a time of war, and sometimes an encounter with the enemy becomes a good story, a story that makes a long deployment a little easier to endure. But the war in Iraq has entered an awkward stage. Soldiers don’t find themselves engaged in combat very often, which means they are busy doing other things. And stories about sniffing out insurgents have been replaced with stories about sniffing out, uh, chickens.
The soldiers at Patrol Base (PB) Woodcock, like soldiers all over Iraq, have had to adapt to a changing role in the war. At one time, their primary goal was to stop the enemy, but now there are other goals which are equally important. Now they are trying to do more to help the good guys. Lieutenant Adam Browne and the soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company, in addition to trying to keep their sector south of Tikrit safe, would like to see local businesses thrive, thus creating job opportunities for those looking for work.
One of the projects undertaken by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the area was the construction of a garment factory, which had been completed. Lieutenant Browne and his soldiers visited the factory to see how business was progressing.
Anti-American graffiti covered a nearby wall, and maybe that told the story. Inside the garment factory, a guard greeted the soldiers stiffly and watched as they toured the premises. The factory was operational but it was obvious no work had been done there. Rows of new sewing machines sat under plastic covers collecting dust. The only rooms that weren’t enveloped in dust were the bathroom and the kitchen.
Lieutenant Browne asked the guard where the manager of the factory was, hoping to discover why the factory was sitting idle. The guard said the manager was not there, as if as long as we were looking for him, he would not be there. A woman who had been watching the exchange stepped forward and said the manager would prefer to meet the Americans elsewhere. She explained that the Americans were not safe visiting the factory. It seemed what she was trying to say was the Iraqis were not safe when the Americans were around. American-initiated projects are tempting targets for insurgents, so it is understandable that locals would be reluctant to associate themselves with one of these projects. On the other hand, the people have been given a building full of possibilities, if only their imagination could triumph over their fear.
After the disappointing silence of the garment factory, it was time to look for some chickens.
A chicken plant near PB Woodcock had been recognized by the Provincial Reconstruction Team as a business that could potentially employ two hundred workers, not to mention thousands of chickens. Lieutenant Browne wanted to visit the plant to get a status report.
The convoy pulled into the parking lot of a sprawling establishment, and we were ushered into an office by the plant manager. The lieutenant asked how many chickens were on the grounds. The manager said none. There were some posters of chickens on the office walls, and a 2006 chicken-themed calendar, but no live chickens. Or dead chickens for that matter.
The manager of the chicken plant sat quietly, allowing the lieutenant to come to terms with the lack of chickens. He lit a cigarette and stared at the thin trail of smoke.
“I had really been looking forward to some fried chicken, “Lieutenant Browne joked.
The manager laughed as if laughing were a very painful exercise, and returned his attention to his cigarette.
Apparently the owner of the chicken plant was in Baghdad. It was unclear whether he intended to re-open the plant or not. It had fallen into a state of disrepair and would require a lot more than the introduction of chickens at this point. The owner had no doubt learned of the Americans’ interest in the plant, and maybe he was waiting for us to finance the improvements required for re-opening.
The manager didn’t pretend to know what the owner’s plans were for the chicken plant. He said he hoped it would re-open so he could do more than just smoke cigarettes all day. He said he appreciated the soldiers’ visits, that he felt safer with them around. Why he felt differently from the people at the garment factory wasn’t clear. He was in his seventies, and maybe he had learned the importance of picking one’s battles. Or maybe he just didn’t have any fight left in him. But he knew the soldiers were not there to do him harm, and maybe they would be able to help get the plant running again, so why not welcome them?
Maybe the manager of the chicken plant should have been put in charge of the garment factory.
The visits to the garment factory and the chicken plant could not be called encouraging. But the soldiers had survived another day. They had not encountered any bad guys, but not too many good guys either. The story could be told in pictures. A silent factory. Dusty sewing machines. A poster of a chicken. The soldiers would have preferred a different story, but it is up to the Iraqi people to bring the pictures to life. The good guys have to step forward and let their story be told.

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