Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Consider the poor man.

You know the one. He's probably a minority; possibly an immigrant. You've probably seen him sleeping on the train going to work, or maybe you've seen him standing on the side of the freeway in traffic, trying to wash your windows. Maybe he's begged you for bus fare on a street corner, or tried to sell you some chintzy knicknacks as you walked out of your favorite cafe. Perhaps you've stepped over him, passed out on the steps to your apartment, as you've invited a date up for a late-night cup of coffee.

Sure, you might have been able to ignore him. Maybe you just pretended not to see him. Maybe you told yourself that he's not your responsibility. But I doubt that any among you could ignore the pang of shame in your gut, as you rationalized your own inaction.

Now, multiply that by an entire nation.

I had "haji guard" today, one of many assorted details we are assigned from time to time. Specifically, it's where soldiers escort packs of Iraqi nationals around base, shepherding them as they perform various acts of manual labor. The locals often come from miles around, usually from poor farming villages. They gather every morning at the gates, hoping to be allowed in to work. For a day's work they usually receive $10 U.S., and the danger present in taking such work for these men is high. The road outside the gate is often targeted by mortars, and people who come on post to work risk death by targeted killing.

Those who came in to work ranged in age from teenage boys to old men. They shivered in the cold morning air, and they chattered and laughed in throaty Arabic as they paced and smoked cheap cigarettes. They lined up when directed, and from there they were divided up into work crews, and escorted off by small groups of soldiers. We were required to wear full gear while performing our escort duties, and even when we arrived at our company area and doffed our armor, we were still required to have full magazines in our weapons.

Today, the workers (I hate the term "hajis") were moving sandbags around our trailers. They worked well, even though the labor must have strained many an aging back. We paused on occasion to chat and smoke cigarettes, and as we did a number of them approached us and offered to sell us any number of goods: Iraqi currency, fake Rolexes, exotic cigarettes. I tried to abstain, but ultimately bartered some dinari coins off of a young man named Haider. I listened to the men converse in Arabic occasionally, and though I didn't understand most of it, I did catch one man's impassioned ranting. I found myself wondering why he was so angry, but truthfully, I probably already knew.

I also talked briefly with one man named Faras, whom I asked about the dangers of working here, and about his family. Much of what he told me seemed to echo what I've already seen. During my last couple of missions, I've been struck by the jaw-dropping level of poverty that exists here. The homes are almost never more than crude mud huts, and the livestock all look to be dying of tuberculosis. Too many mouths to feed, and not enough food. These men are from the rural villages, and thus their lives are fairly peaceful, but still it's known that this area is a hotbed of insurgent activity. Honestly I'd be surprised if at least some of these same men hadn't, at some point, accepted a generous sum ($100 or more) to help emplace a roadside bomb. It's a sad thought, but having been poor myself, I can personally testify to the ugly choices that desperation lays out. Take our money one minute, take money to kill us the next. Democracy, I think, is a nice idea, but having full bellies and money for basic needs is a better one. And sadly, though many here suffered under Saddam Hussein, many more seem to have it worse now, as a direct result of the chaos caused by this war.

Imagine that little pang of shame you feel when you walk by the poor man in silence. Multiply by an entire nation.

Toward the end of our shift, Haider approached me again. I'd proven I drive a hard bargain, and I was proud to walk away with a minimum of my pay parted from me. I regarded him with mixed amusement and suspicion, but as he approached me this time he said nothing, only handed me an old bill for 50 dinar. "A gift," he told me. "You take this." Then he hugged me, a gesture which I returned, hesitantly at first, then more fully. Haider's salesmanly guile was gone now. His eyes were dark, and here again I saw shame, as I saw shame in Romano's eyes.

After a moment of this strange interaction, Haider pulled out a picture of his baby daughter, whom he told me was named Fatima. I found myself staring at a photo of a pale, dark-haired infant of six months. She was bright-eyed and smiling, and clearly resembled a bit of her father. I told Haider he should be proud. He smiled a bit at this, but then the exchange took on a more somber turn. Haider looked me in the eyes, and spoke again, haltingly.

"My country," he said to me, "we are many poor here. We cannot go to the cities, they try to kill us. We cannot work, there are not enough jobs. Your people have so much here--our history, our oil. You have our oil, and for this work, moving sandbags, I am paid 10 American dollars. I can barely buy food, let alone soap.

"Please sir, my daughter. I need soap, I need shampoo, for my Fatima, my baby. You have these things, yes? Please, sir. You help me."

His eyes plead with me quietly, and I hated having to stare back at them. It made me think of being twenty years old, and having to walk into the local St. Vincent de Paul in Escanaba, Michigan. I remember being a college-educated man, and having to walk up to the elderly woman at the counter and request a food package, and the burning loss of dignity I felt in uttering that request. I remember the disgust I had felt then; living in a glorified halfway house, working two jobs, eating a bowl of ramen a day and still not being able to afford a security deposit on an apartment. I looked back at Haider, and looked into those eyes, and I saw my old shame reflected back at me. Me and my gun, and my air-conditioned trailer, and my broadband internet in my living quarters, and the countless care packages from mother and wife and friends, all brimming with hygiene products and food that I will never be able to go through by my self.

More shampoo and soap and toothpaste than I will ever possibly need.

Such a simple thing. I convinced another guard to take my place briefly, and when I returned to my post, I came back with a Ziploc bag full of toiletries that would last this man and his family a month. I came up to him, pointing and saying the words back in English.

"Soap," I told him, "and, see, shampoo? This is toothpaste, and here are a couple of toothbrushes. This is skin lotion, for your baby, if she gets a rash. All these I give to you. Gift from me, ok? This is ziyen?"

I awaited his response, ending with the Arabic word for "good." Sure enough, Haider's eyes lit up, and he hugged me again, this time much more firmly. I couldn't help but smile. We sent Haider and his crew out the gate soon afterward, but not after another, more effusive stream of thanks and handshaking. I watched the locals leave, and suddenly felt better.

I don't support this war. I never have. But I'm here to serve, and serve I will. If nothing else, I hope simply that, at the end of this day, Haider talks about this with his friends, and remembers what I did, and maybe comes away thinking just a little better of us Americans. We may not be perfect, and we may even be the reason his country is falling apart. But maybe when he gets that offer to place a daisy chain, he might think twice about our conversation, about the talk of our families, and about the simple gift of soap, and remember that we're human too. Maybe by doing what I did today--giving away something of which I had too much in the first place--I helped secure my own safety in the eyes of this man, as well as the safety of other soldiers. Sure, it may be overly idealistic, but there's so little compassion in this line of work. I don't have the word tattooed into my skin without reason. Anything I can do here, I will do.

And so I did today. And for once, I can walk away from the poor man, having done right by the values inscribed into my arms, and I can feel no shame.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Always remember this day, even a year from now. This will get you through, without the bitterness and distrust that so many of your brothers in arms are coming away with.

Stay safe and stay "idealistic", that's what is going to make a difference.


11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a brillant post. Full of insight, compassion and feelings that all of humanity know...from one side of the material fence or the other or both...(like you). A nation full of poor people...and the mothers and fathers count their babies toes and need soap and a smile and hugs in the same way we do...You are building the bridges...and spreading the word.
Thank you!

3:03 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Yeah, you got a great heart and these little gestures are huge gestures for goodwill with these folks. It's so admirable.

I worry though that the competing forces of darkness are just too far spread in this nation for anything to matter anymore. Like if Sauron got the one ring.

Stay sharp, man.

6:40 AM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

You're a good man, you know that?

I don't even know if I've the right to say something like this, but...you make me proud.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Softball Slut said...

You are too cool for school. You did a good thing today. Remember it And know that in your heart.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Hayden said...

Just stopped by to catch up with your recent posts, and, as always, am completely impressed with your writing and humanity.

On this Thanksgiving I am thankful for your service and your grace under pressure, and I decided to de-lurk and tell you so.

2:12 AM  

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