Different Wavelengths

Iraqi firefighters exercising in unison in Baghdad's International Zone. (photo by John Goodman)

In any war zone, soldiers' stories abound, and some achieve legendary status. Some of these yarns have to be taken with a grain of salt, but still, some of them seem believable. Then again, there are also stories that seem unbelievable until you witness them with your own eyes. Some of the following stories take on an almost myth-like quality, but they all describe humanity and culture, and the disconnects which occur when two very different ways of life coincide as has been the case in Iraq for the past six years. Still, if these stories weren't at least somewhat believable or entertaining, nobody would bother listening to them. They cause the listener to perk up with interest and think, "Well how about that..." Essentially, the following stories are about cultural differences, but things have already begun to change as many Iraqis become accustomed to Americans and their peculiar habits and vice versa.

Los Pistoleros

Although the Iraqi government began cracking down on gun ownership two years ago, the Kalashnikov rifle, or AK-47, is a fairly common sight in these parts. Danger lurked at every corner after the war's 2003 debut, so the Coalition Provision Authority deemed it wise to allow every household one AK with which to protect itself. Due to the amount of urban warfare and house to house fighting that became the norm during this conflict, the U.S. military armed most troops with a dual weapon system. To date, most soldiers are still outfitted with an M4 carbine or M16 rifle, and a 9mm pistol. According to many American soldiers, rifles are seen as pretty run of the mill by Iraqis -- policemen and Army troops carry them everywhere. Pistols, on the other hand, were allegedly something that struck fear into the hearts of many Iraqis when US military policemen called them in for questioning or when they were searching for insurgents and terrorists. Apparently, the pistol was a well-known executioner's tool under Saddam's regime. Legend has it that the sight of an MP with a Beretta strapped to his or her leg was enough to terrify any Iraqi, and many soldiers wondered why so many Iraqis quaked with fear when a handgun was used as a sidearm.

Power Soldier Superjuice

Gatorade is one of those products that is very much a part of the US military's arsenal of beverages from the time a recruit stands before a screaming drill instructor (then, it's considered a treat) to his or her first deployment to the arid Middle East. Every base has loads of bottled water and Gatorade on hand, and servicemembers can often be seen drinking it. To Iraqis, who did not grow up with this brightly-colored liquid available to them, it seemed strange that these soldiers who twice succeeded in defeating their army always seemed to have the stuff. Eventually, rumors began to spread that it had special chemicals in it that turn US soldiers into supermen. They are said to be afraid of it.

One sergeant major I talked to said that one day in the chow hall, he saw two Iraqi soldiers looking at a bottle of Gatorade, pointing at it, conversing heatedly, and looking at one another skeptically. After this debate had gone on for some time, he said that one of them gingerly picked up the bottle and unscrewed the cap with a look of bold determination. His companion watched, with a concerned expression, as his mate slowly put the drink to his lips and took a big slug. As soon as the bright orange liquid touched his lips, a look of disgust flashed across his face, but after some more discussion, he quickly finished it. His trial complete, he beamed proudly as his buddy delivered a few congratulatory back slaps. Apparently, the chest puffing didn't last long though, and the soldier's face went ashen as he rapidly lost his composure and bolted from the room holding his gut. To this day, you really don't see Iraqis drinking much Gatorade, let alone quaffing it the way Americans do.

Release the Hounds!

In the US, it is widely accepted that the dog is man's best friend, but in other parts of the world -- Iraq for instance -- they are seen not just as a pest, but as the very embodiment of evil. From our perspective, it is hard to understand how our furry companions can be regarded with so much hatred, but from what I've heard, children are told from a young age that if they're bad, the dogs will come and get them. This leads to a couple of different behaviors seen by soldiers on a regular basis. When US troops were searching houses for terrorists and insurgents and the military police used canine units to assist, people were terrified when dogs were brought into their homes or when they encountered patrols armed with dogs on the streets. Considering the sort of stories they were brought up with (and the afore mentioned perception of pistols), imagine being Iraqi and seeing men with dogs and pistols storm into your house.

Then again, the dog isn't necessarily always the aggressor. Scrawny dogs are often seen slinking around looking for food in Baghdad's trash-choked back alleys, looking like they're trying to avoid notice. Just the other day, an American soldier was walking across the courtyard at a base they share with the Iraqi National Police when he saw something that made him freeze in his tracks. For a few months, the soldiers have been raising two puppies at the base, and this man saw one of the dogs walk up to one of the Iraqi policemen, perhaps to beg a scrap of food or for some attention. The cop responded by kicking it squarely in the face as his mates watched. The dog squealed and cowered, and the American soldier began screaming at the Iraqi man, who seemed not to know that he had done anything wrong. The other puppy was seen to have scabs on it shortly thereafter, and a few of the Americans stationed there built them a kennel. The two young dogs keep away from the Iraqi side of the base now.

Safety First

American combat troops are all about gear. Whether on a simple convoy mission or an all out attack, most soldiers and marines come fitted out, at the very minimum, with a long sleeved camouflage uniform, a class IV flak vest, a Kevlar helmet, eye protection, an M4 carbine, extra clips, a first aid pack, knee pads... I think you get the idea. With all that equipment, the combat ready servicemember cuts a unique profile, but one thing I've noticed is that many soldiers wear their knee pads around their ankles when they're not actively engaged in some sort of combat exercise. Ask any soldier who does it -- there are a lot of them -- and they'll tell you that it's more comfortable that way.

Iraqi Army soldiers, National Policemen, and other paramilitary types are astute students of the way American troops do things. They've seen firsthand how effective Americans can be, so you often see Iraqis wearing similar uniform items if they are allowed to. One thing many Iraqis have picked up on is the knee pads around the ankles trick, except without translators, there are some who don't know why Americans do it that way. If you were ever to drive past an Iraqi checkpoint in Baghdad, there's a good chance that you might see a uniformed Iraqi, rifle in hand, with knee pads around his ankles and on his knees. These are the guys who nobody has bothered to tell yet that it's done for comfort. I wouldn't have believed it, but I saw it with my own eyes.

Finger Food

When I was preparing to come to Iraq, I heard that two pertinent features of traditional Arab culture were eating with your hands, and using Turkish squatter toilets. This is why it is considered such an insult for anyone to use their left hand to touch another person. The right hand is for eating, and the left hand is for wiping. I knew this much already, so was very careful to avoid upsetting someone by accidentally slapping them on the back with my left hand or something. What I wasn't prepared for was the extent to which people actually use their hands for eating. Having lived on American military installations the entire time I've been here, I haven't had to deal with either of these phenomena extensively. There are western style toilets for us to use, and and forks and knives at the dining facility. Taking care of my basic functions before we go out on missions ensures that I don't have to use any Turkish toilets.

Let me add that Turkish toilets here almost never include toilet paper -- usually, a little watering can or hose is supplied -- and unless frequented regularly by westerners, the sinks aren't often equipped with soap. One day, the soldiers I was traveling with were meeting with a neighborhood council in Baghdad, and were invited to lunch. Several large plates laden with rice, lamb, chicken, cucumbers, hummus, and other delights were carted into the conference room and people began to dig in -- with their hands. There was no timid poking around the edges here; people were shoving their hands deep into the piles of rice and manhandling the meat and bread. My mind shot back to the dingy bathroom I had used fifteen minutes earlier, and I tried not to think about where those hands had been. One guy was even eating, with a spoon, right out of the communal dish like it was no big deal. To most Iraqis, it isn't. I've heard many other stories much the same as mine, but having been raised in an intensely germophobic Western society, I had a hard time getting used to it. I'm happy to report that I have not yet perished from dysentery, so maybe it's not as bad as it seemed from my perception. There are a lot of Westerners who wouldn't have touched that food, but they would have missed out on an amazing meal.

Some of these little stories are largely hearsay, but they attempt to explain differences between culture. If you don't speak or understand Arabic (as I don't), you miss a lot, and much of your perception is shaped by the English speakers you hang around with and the interpreters' take on things as they translate what the locals are saying. That said, I think that one can learn a lot from listening to little stories like this, by capturing the feeling of any situation, and by paying attention to peoples' interactions with one another. Observations tell a story all their own, and attempting to understand the disparate ways different cultures use body language and facial expressions does much to affect that. As someone much wiser than me once said, knowledge is the key to understanding, and understanding the key to empathy.

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