It was a May day like any other as we pulled into the poorly fortified Traffic Police Headquarters compound. We parked in our usual spots and the squad leader rallied us around him. He had a BOLO (Be on the lookout) list in his hand, and we were to check license plates in the adjacent parking lot against it. He needed about half the squad; I was one of them.
It was about a 100 meter walk between the parking lot and our location in north Baghdad. In our way was small market, but a crowded small market, and we made our way towards it. As we fanned out, I saw all the blustering and posturing my comrades were doing; they looked ridiculous. You're wearing body armor, a helmet, sunglasses, a pistol, and a semi-automatic assault rifle; you don't need to intimidate anyone with your behavior. As we approached the market, I saw the Iraqis' faces; they looked apprehensive. What was going on? What was going to happen? Why do they look so angry?
"Sergeant Jackson, can I screw with somebody? Please, let me screw with somebody!" one of our junior NCOs asked our squad leader.
The squad leader said that it might not be a good idea to piss anyone off, especially when we were outnumbered and had to come here practically everyday for the next nine months, never mind that it was just plain wrong. Wrong was not something that the young sergeant would have responded to however, so I don't fault the man for omitting the most obvious argument against the request.
We continued walking towards the market and I could now make eye contact with the people there: the passers by; the shop keepers; the shoppers; the old men drinking chi under a canopy . . . all of them. They looked frightened. They looked angry. They looked hopeless. I made eye contact; I smiled. "Salaam a'alaikum," I said. Some smiled back and replied "Alaikum a'salaam" in the same nervous manner that I had greeted them; others continued to stare. Activity slowed all around us; we were the center of attention.
"Hey, Sergeant Stephens. That guy's staring at you!" one said with a laugh and a smile.
"I'll kick his fricken ass!" Stephens yelled with an exagerrated arch of his back and raise of his shoulders. Now, everyone was staring and the looks of despair and hopelessness deepened. What could anyone do? What could the man in question do? We were armed to the nines and wrapped in body armor; the staring man was in a tunic and sandals.
. . . and why wouldn't he or anyone else stare? They tolerated us at the police stations and on the roads, but this was their territory. Why were we there? This was out of the ordinary, and they had every right to wonder, every right to stare. They were scared, worried, angry.
As we made our into the market and started splitting up to search the parking lot, two old men sat at a table to my left. They were old; they looked wise. They both stared at me like they would a disappointing adult grandson: saddened; disappointed; resignation in their faces. They weren't angry; they were just sad. There was a lot of wisdom in the creases that stretched out from their old, tired, brown eyes. They had probably seen more war than I ever will, and they were tired. I gave a nervous smile, an embarassed smile, and made my way into the parking lot.
As I looked out over the vast parking lot, the sheer lunacy of this mission hit me. Here we were, looking for ten cars in a city of five million people. It was unlikely that we'd find one of them, but it was highly likely that we had just alienated a few more Iraqis. At that moment is when I empathized with the Iraqis still staring at me from the market. I felt hopeless, saddened, disappointed, just a tad angry, and resigned to my fate: I would spend the next eight to nine months performing counter-productive missions like this one. At the end of everyday, I would make a few more enemies than I killed or brought to our side. I was embarrassed and humiliated that I ever thought differently; I wanted to tell the people behind me that I was sorry for what my country had done. I was sorry we had interrupted their commerce that day.
Like a good soldier, I drove on. I continued to search; I continued to do my job, just as I would the rest of my tour. In front of me, two men were trying to push start an old rickety van. I had thought of helping them, but I was carrying the M249 SAW machine gun with no sling; there was no way I was going to set it down or ask someone to hold it so I could help. Then I heard SGT Stephens' muffled voice. "Screw it; we're supposed to be winning hearts and minds, right?" Stephens sighed under his breath. I watched, shocked, as the same man who had just lobbied to "screw with somebody" slung his rifle and helped these men get that van started as I covered him from a safe distance. It was indicative of his seemingly bi-polar personality, I thought as we all met up in the rear of the parking lot.
There wasn't any, and we made our back through the parking lot, to the market, through the market, to our humvees in the police station. As I passed through the parking lot that last time, the same old men stared at me once more. Our eyes met again, and I nodded in their direction. They nodded back, and I felt like I was forgiven.
I made it back to my humvee, sweaty and slightly out of breath, and didn't think about those old, tired men again for quite some time. It wasn't until August that the thought of those grandfatherly figures again crossed my mind.
It was August and it was hot. We were running late, and, as we approached the police station, we saw a familiar plume of smoke: car bomb. We parked as usual, SSG Jackson asked me to monitor the radio and provide security while he and others went to investigate. I wanted to protest; I wanted to go. I wanted to check on Ali and Achmed; I didn't see them and they could have been in the carnage. But I didn't protest; I did what I was told.
When the men returned, they told me of the death and destruction they had just seen and I was slightly glad I didn't witness it.
"Man, two old men were just sitting there drinking chi and it went off next to them; they're messed up!" One soldier said, clearly not joking and clearly not making light of it.
. . . and there it was. The eyes that told me how hopeless and resigned to their fate the men were, the eyes that had forgiven me, were dead, never to pass on any of their wisdom again. I felt sad; I felt like the world had just lost a couple of good men, even though we never spoke.
I started to remember all the faces I saw during The Walk, all the eyes I looked into. How many were gone? How many had forgiven me and my country? How many would die before I left? It was unsettling, but it was by now not at all uncommon. I was tired, physically, but mostly emotionally. Mentally, I just gave up, and, as I hoped I would see Ali and Achmed soon, I slid deeper into my body armor and took a nap while my comrade monitored the radio.