Ed. Note: This is an occasional column by a native New Orleanian on military duty in Iraq. Because of military regulations, he is not able to use his read name. We can tell you that he is a decorated Navy pilot from a prominent New Orleans family.
Ihave just passed the two-thirds point of my tour in Iraq. Reflecting on these last 243 days, I’m struck by the progress made – and by the distance still to go.
As readers of this column may recall, the Combat Cajun used to spend a lot of time in duck and cover bunkers. It has been months since I was last in one.
Similarly, where I had become de-sensitized to the sound of explosions and the sight of black smoke in Baghdad, I’ve now grown to expect silence and clear horizons.
Perhaps most heartening has been the reduction in medevac helicopters flying over my little hut on the banks of the Tigris. In August I had many fitful nights, not from the heat but from the rhythmic sound of helicopter blades announcing the arrival of these aircraft with their wounded cargo. The noise never bothered me – the thoughts did.
Now my nights are mostly quiet. The only helicopters I hear are the ones I can also see because they’re ferrying passengers in the daylight.
Everyday, my anecdotal observations are supported by the data that pours into this office. The picture seems clear: Baghdad – and much of Iraq – is a less violent place than it has been in a long time. The credit for this success must go to those – coalition and Iraqi – in the field.
Now, the question that remains: What more is left to do?
The simple answer is “much more.” The more complete answer is “much more, for which the responsibility will fall mainly on those who work to improve life for the everyday Iraqi.”
This work will be less measurable and its effect less apparent than the task of defeating the enemy. Explosions, firefights and casualty counts make more headlines than do “ordinary” life. To be honest, this is also tedious and unglamorous work. People make movies or write books about smoke-filled meetings with mysterious Middle Easterners but not with international civil air regulations as the subject of said smoke-filled meetings!
Setbacks have been and will continue to be common in our work. It should come as no surprise that Iraq has its share of agendas, incompetents and criminals – even (or especially) in government. Find me a country that doesn’t.
In all this rough will be some real gems. These are the Iraqis who have and will continue to trudge along each day, regardless of the obstacles. They never seem to tire of our repeated questions and impetuousness and they never fail to offer a cup of coffee or chai. In language and culture we are often worlds apart, they aren’t “ruled by the tyranny of the clock” like so many of their American counterparts. Still, we all share many of the same motivations.
This work will also require patience, perseverance and a bit of luck. For many Iraqis it will also require downright bravery, (the best method to become a target in Baghdad has often been to perform one’s job). Nonetheless, Iraq’s gems will continue to perform in the face of the threat.
Sometimes we don’t have much to work with and the scope of the task can be staggering.
Consider Iraq’s growing, capable army, where the rather mundane detail of paying soldiers takes on critical importance in a country where the central bank and the average jundi have no system of or access to direct deposit or electronic funds transfer. The repercussions of this fact become evident on payday when places like the Ministry of Defense are flooded by a sea of sacks full of money (at 1,200 dinar to the U.S. dollar) to be guarded, counted, moved and disbursed throughout Baghdad. There are more than 200,000 soldiers in Iraq who must be paid every month.
Or consider the “good news, bad news” nature of electricity generation and distribution.
Daily, we work to overcome the effects of a decade of neglect and imbalance in Iraq’s national electric power grid. While on average Baghdad may have less power today than it did in 2003, there are now towns, cities and provinces that have access for the first time ever to the national grid. Yet, we’re sometimes the victims of our own success: increased stability has improved the economy, which, in turn, raises the bar in our efforts to meet Iraq’s demand for electricity.
The list goes on but the point is clear: There is still much to do in Iraq.
It is also clear that the work will be a slog and that change will come about incrementally (and probably too slowly for the 24-hour news cycle). Hopefully for our Iraqi counterparts, theirs will continue to be a less dangerous slog. Regardless, my colleagues and I will be here, every step of the way.