Coming Home

Ed. Note: This is the last of a series of columns written by a New Orleanian on duty in Iraq. Because of military regulations, he was not able to use his name. We can tell you that he is a decorated Navy pilot from a prominent New Orleans family.

By the time this “Baghdad Dispatch” makes it to print, I’ll be on my way home.  
But before I could even think about leaving, I needed to prepare my replacement for his duties in Iraq. This turnover is a routine part of military life. When it was all said and done, I realized how much my relief had to learn and how little I could teach him.

I attempted to create a very detailed turnover brief. I wanted to cover all of the projects I had worked on for the past 12 months. I wanted to go into deep discussions about the different groups at play in Iraq, the nature of the battlefield and to provide a key to the effective and ineffective officials with whom he would work. Heck, I even wanted my relief to have an insider’s guide to the correct pronunciation of names and places in Iraq.

Alas, this all proved undoable. I had neither the time nor the paper to teach my replacement everything I had learned. Iraq is a full-contact experience, learned only by doing.

I tried to put Iraq into some geographical context:
This is a country that stretches as far north-south as the distance between New Orleans and the Missouri-Arkansas border and as far east-west as the distance between the Mississippi River and a point 120 miles west of Dallas. If New Orleans represented Iraq’s port city of Basra, then one would have to travel as far as Shreveport to cover a distance equal to that between Basra and Baghdad.

I also tried to put Sadr City into an understandable context:
Sadr City, I wrote, isn’t a city at all, but rather a Baghdad suburb of nearly two million Shi’a squeezed into an area that would fit in between West End and Causeway Blvd., from I-10 to Lake Pontchartrain. A vast majority of Sadr City residents live in poverty and the community is plagued by an extremely low literacy rate. Many of these people are stirred to fervor by the rantings of a quasi-religious leader in his late 30s whose singular achievement seems to be that he is his father’s son. This leader is, of course, Muqtada al-Sadr, or MAS.

By his rhetoric, MAS plays on the frustrations of Sadr City residents who are understandably unhappy with their basic living conditions. MAS’s army, known as Jaysh al-Mahdi, or JAM, does everything in its power to deny the government of Iraq access to Sadr City. JAM does this while turning a blind eye to its own extreme, highly trained elements who use Sadr City neighborhoods as a launching pad for rockets and mortars aimed at the “Green Zone.” Imagine if folks in Metairie were firing rockets at City Hall.

But it turns out my relief is neither from New Orleans nor Louisiana, so my “context” was largely lost on him.

I also attempted to put the whole Kurd, Sunni, Shi’a “thing” in layman’s terms.
I tried to warn my replacement how difficult it is for an American to grasp the subtle differences between sects in Iraq and how I found it nearly impossible to differentiate the many ethnic groups and tribes here. Imagine sending an Iraqi to Louisiana and having him understand the differences between Protestants and Catholics, much less the many ethnic groups that make up our state.

Ironically, I think it would have been easier to explain the execution of our counterinsurgency strategy – or at least my understanding of it. It is surprisingly simple: as war is politics by other means and as all politics are local, reducing the violence in Iraq requires local engagement to achieve local accommodation. Hence, coalition forces have been successful where they have immersed themselves with the locals. And, unsurprisingly, our greatest successes have come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. Now our tasks largely involve connecting local accommodations with national accommodation, allowing popularly elected officials to be the agents of change.

My relief mostly “got” these analogies and explanations … then he lost them. I can’t blame him, since I was similarly confused when I first arrived.

Next, I told my replacement about things he already knew but may have overlooked:
He would live and work with some of the finest people in the world. Usually I avoid sweeping generalizations, but, in this case, I made an exception: there has been no finer fighting force in the history of mankind. 

My relief would be surprised to discover how many soldiers here serve with members of their immediate family. Over the course of the past year I became friends with at least five people serving simultaneously with a spouse, son or daughter. I found it difficult to imagine how stressful such a tour would be – this place is hard enough without the added worry of loved ones in a combat zone.

Also surprising would be the not-so-insignificant number of service members who have volunteered for second (or third) tours or to extend their current tours in Iraq. These folks made their choices out of a sense of duty and a commitment to their comrades-in-arms.

As part of the one-half of one percent of Americans who serve, my relief “got” this part of our turnover.

In the end, however, my turnover still fell woefully short. The fact is, my replacement will have to learn as he goes and his education will take about a year.

As for me:
I leave here grateful for what I have learned.
I hope my relief is as lucky.
Every day, for the rest of my life, I will remain humbled by the service of the American Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine.

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