One Veteran's Voice

12 January 2006

Culture Shock

Man on the street in the al-Shuada neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq.

Our government has sent trained killers to police a culture they don’t understand, using a language almost none of them speak. The military hires Iraqi interpreters, but I would estimate that our platoon had an interpreter with us about 1/3 of the time. Even then, the interpreter can only be in one place at one time, usually with the LT. The rest of the time we got by with gestures, broken Arabic, and what few words of English the locals might speak. Obviously no deep communication could take place, but it’s surprising what one can convey with his hands and facial features.

The Iraqis are kind of like American cowboys in that they love to shoot their guns off in the air for pretty much any reason. Weddings, funerals, births, sporting events, these are all worthy of at least 30 7.62mm rounds fired at full auto out of an AK-47, which, by the way, is nearly ubiquitous in Iraq. Every household has at least one. This practice is relatively disconcerting to the newly arrived American soldier in Iraq; he tends to jump at the sound of any gunfire while out on patrol, because he believes it to be directed at himself. With time, however, the sound of sporadic gunfire becomes background noise.

I distinctly remember one night on guard at the United Nations compound in Baghdad. The compound had been car bombed many months earlier, but it was still guarded by a small force of US soldiers to ward off looters and preserve the property as much as possible, in case the UN ever decided to come back. Seemed like a waste of manpower at the time, and looking back, it still does. That night I was on guard, sitting in the gunner’s hatch of a humvee at the front gate. We had been observing gunfire to our south, a little more than usual.

Suddenly the whole night sky lit up with tracers. The noise of automatic rifle fire surrounded the complex from all sides. It looked like a thousand anti-aircraft batteries were shooting at phantom bombers. Tracers arced high over the compound. I couldn’t understand what was happening. It seemed as though the whole of eastern Baghdad had gone mad and was assembled in the streets shooting off their rifles in the air. I frantically called on the radio to the sergeant of the guard and relayed that a large armed mob had assembled in the streets and was firing into the air. I gripped my rifle tightly, said a prayer to whoever was listening, and prepared to die defending an abandoned building.

The sergeant of the guard came on the radio several minutes later and informed all the guard towers that the Iraqi national soccer team had just beat Saudi Arabia, and that had prompted the spontaneous celebration in the street and all the gunfire. We don’t do that in America, we just loot stores and turn over police cars when our favorite sports teams win (or lose). That night, besides being a surreal experience which I will never forget, impressed upon me just how well armed the populace of Iraq is.

On patrol in Al-Tamar, a small neighborhood located just east of Sadr City, we heard gunfire coming from our direct front, very close. I hopped out of the humvee and saw a man firing a pistol. I trained my rifle on him and flicked off the safety, waiting to see if he was firing at us, although I didn’t think he was. For about three seconds I had him perfectly sighted, waiting to pull the trigger. Some sick part of me wanted to kill him, even though I was pretty sure he had been firing into the air. He would have the pistol on him, and I could have claimed that he had pointed at me, and then I would have been authorized under the rules of engagement to use deadly force.

I don’t know why I wanted to kill the stupid bastard, probably because I was sick of hearing gunshots and wondering if they were directed at me. The better angels of my nature won out, and I didn’t pull the trigger. The shooter walked back off the street and into the courtyard of his home, and I ran after him, yelling for the truck to follow. Our lieutenant had also dismounted, and was covering me from the other side of the street. I ran into the entrance of his courtyard, and saw him raising the pistol in the air again to fire it. I lifted my rifle, trained it on him, and began screaming, “Stupid Fuck, Drop the gun!” over and over. There were other men and a few women in the courtyard with him, and one of the men finally saw me and started frantically motioning for the shooter to stop. The guy was still firing his pistol with a big shit-eating grin on his face, and apparently could neither hear nor see me, although I was standing about ten feet away from him. Finally the man who had seen me was able to get the shooter’s attention. The shooter turned his head, saw me, and dropped the gun to his side. I immediately rushed him, head butted him with my Kevlar helmet, and simultaneously karate chopped his gun hand with my rifle. He dropped the pistol. I pushed him back, picked up the pistol, and tossed it out in the street for one of the soldiers in the truck that had just pulled up in front of the courtyard gate. Just about this time the lieutenant came running in, tripped, and fell on the shooter, knocking him to the ground.

The women in the courtyard had vanished inside the home, but the men were frantically spitting words of broken English at me. I heard the letters, “IP, IP,” repeated several times, as well as the word “Wedding.” I quickly inferred the obvious, that the occasion I had broken up was a wedding party, and the gunshots had been celebratory in nature. I relaxed my guard a bit, helped the large gentlemen lying on the ground to his feet, and was quickly offered a glass of some kind of juice . Just a minute before I had been ready to shoot this guy if necessary, pointing a rifle in his face and screaming at him, and now he is giving me refreshments, and everyone is laughing.

Some of the men produced ID cards identifying them as IPs, Iraqi police officers. It appeared as though one of the policemen was getting married or had just gotten married, and was celebrating with his coworkers, including the chief of police in that neighborhood, who happened to be the one I had head butted and taken the pistol from. We contacted Battalion headquarters, and they told us to confiscate the pistol, since it was technically illegal for the chief of police to have discharged it on the street, and to give him a note which he could bring the next day to our camp and exchange for the confiscated weapon. The men were not happy that we were confiscating the pistol, but they seemed to understand that they would be able to get it back. Who knows what they really understood; we didn’t have an interpreter with us.

Later I reflected on the public relations fiasco that would have occurred if I had indeed shot and killed the chief of police of Al-Tamar at a wedding party. Incidents like this are the rule, and not the exception in Iraq. And it is usually not the fault of the grunt on the ground. He is thrust into a situation for which he is neither properly trained nor equipped, in a hostile and foreign culture, and is expected to make life or death decisions within a matter of seconds. Bad things are going to happen, and it is a miracle that they don’t happen more often.

Iraq, War, Culture Shock

9 Other Voices:

One Salient Oversight said...

I have two thoughts about this story.

The first is that while you chose not to fire, how many times have other US soldiers chosen to engage? I'm not saying it's their "fault" per se, but surely a great many civilians have died because of a stressed US infantryman?

The second is the whole Iraqi culture of firing guns in celebration. I'm not having a go at them here, but was there any attempt to re-educate the populance? Ads on TV or radio that said "Please don't fire weapons in celebration any more. US troops are likely to shoot you because they don't understand. I know this may sound strange, but we are in a strange situation."

BTW - did you read the article about the British Brigadier criticising US military doctrine? He highlighted "inability to understand the Iraqi culture" and "inability to learn from mistakes" as some of the major problems. Unsurprisingly, some high-ranking US officer called the guy "insufferable" and dismissed his criticisms completely.

1/12/2006 06:59:07 PM  
KG said...

nice piece of writing... some common sentiments i've heard from friends and family.

1/12/2006 07:08:53 PM  
OneVeteran'sVoice said...

Many have chosen to fire.

On one occasion, I chose to fire on a group of men on a rooftop who I believed were hostile, even though they had no visible weapons. We were being attacked at the time from other directions. Was that group of men simply watching the fighting like dumbasses? Hard to say. There is certainly no moral justification for these types of actions, other than to say, war is hell. But that's not good enough. It IS the fault of the higher commanders and especially the president if he uses the incredible power of our military in a way that is bound to fail. The US military is totally not designed to fight a 'low' intensity war like this while simultaneously acting as the police, the judge, the jury, the media, and everything else in between. Things might be a little different now, and they damn well better be-- but while I was there, we were still doing 'police' type "presence patrols" where we just drove around in a predetermined area, supposedly looking for insurgents, really just driving around like jerks, interacting with the populace (sometimes positively, sometimes neutrally, sometimes acting like total asses)--in short, asserting our presence. I viewed it as waiting for the inevitable ambush. I guess my argument is that the US military is not suited for nation-building, especially given the cultural differences that exist between the average Joe and the average Iraqi. No one should be suprised when soldiers, incredibly frustrated by getting shot at, blown up, and otherwise fucked with-- lash out against civilians or people who may be guilty, but are POWs, or otherwise rendered non-combatants. Situations like this are almost inevitable in war, and the US military is actually pretty decent at checking them (more so, than say the Russians did in Chechnya), but it is still a huge problem, and it's why many Iraqis either openly support the insurgency or want us out of their country (80%, by some accounts).

As far as the culture of guns-- yes, the military tried to educate them. There were a few incidents early in the war of soldiers opening fire on crowds of celebrating iraqis who were firing off guns, and the military did let us know about this practice before deployment. It's a little different when it happens in real life, however. The military tried to reeducate the Iraqis as well with ads and whatnot, but I don't know if they neccesarily want to be reeducated. They really like their guns, apparently.

1/12/2006 07:27:09 PM  
Sara said...

Good story! I'm glad you write what you do.

1/12/2006 10:10:50 PM  
withinreason said...

In the environment you were in,was it hard to tell who was friend or foe,and thanks also for the number,80% by some accounts,I knew the number was high but it is good to hear from someone who was there.
P.S. great post.

1/13/2006 12:23:54 AM  
13 FOX said...

i remember that day! fucking crazy. i was on camp when the sky errupted with bullets and i remember thinking for a second 'this is it, everyone and their grandma wants to start some shit now'. then i saw some Iraqis i knew leaning against the wall of this building and smilling. it was creepy.
-why are you so happy?
-we won
-yeah, we just beat Saudi Arabia in a football match. they're celebrating
- you mean to tell me all this shit is over a fuckign soccer game!!??
he smiled.
-yeah. it's beautiful
-you guys are fucking crazy!!

1/13/2006 02:25:23 PM  
Anonymous said...


It amazed me of how humane you are.Instead of saying, " those Iraqis are insane!!" for firing their guns when their team beat Saudi Arabia, you compared them with our own world where the sport hooligans went about with no rules in sight.

I have great respect to people like you who look at the world as one instead of dividing it into " we are more civilized than them"..or" they are animals..weirdos..blah blah.. ".

It reminds me of a person with a mirror.He does not view the insanity of the other side as a unique trait of the "wrong human beings" but dare to see his own world's culture and paradoxically witnessed the same trait.

amazing entry!!

1/13/2006 07:43:27 PM  
13 fox said...

to said anonymous,
people who fire celebratory bullets into the air that eventually come back down are acting in a way that is best decribed as....."crazy". sports hooligans who start riots, destroying public and private property are acting in way that you say? "crazy".
"crazy", "insane" is woven into the fabric of every culture and country, be it 1st or 3rd.

i would have loved to see your reaction when the fun went down.

"oh, look...there's thousands of bullets flying into the air in the middle of a combat zone, coming from all directions. i wonder why that is?"

"X*&^$ (*&%*5 VSRC^*&^"

"it's celebratory fire you say? oh fiddle sticks! that was my second guess. well hold up just a sec, let me go smash the window of this humvee in so i can celebrate with you. yay!"

1/16/2006 01:31:43 AM  
BadTux said...

It's like I keep telling right wingnuts, our military exists for one reason, and that is to kill our enemies dead. Not to be the police, but to kill our enemies, the job they were trained for and the job they are the best in the world at and if you ask them to instead be the police, the situation is FUBAR because they just aren't trained for that. The wingnuts don't get it. They think the job of a policeman is to kill bad guys, and don't see why that is different from the job of a soldier. I explain to them that most cops never have to pull their gun out of their holster in their entire career (I grew up next door to a cop's son and my dad ran a "cop shop"), and they just stare at me aghast, because that's not what they see on cop shows on television, where cops are killing people left and right. They don't live in the same reality as you and I. They live in TV Land, where the job of a cop is not to maintain order and identify bad guys and arrest them for trial, but to kill bad guys.

Too many Americans just have no idea of the infrastructure that maintains civilization in the United States, no idea how it works at all, and, unfortunately, I think some of them are in Washington D.C. supposedly "running" this nation (more like, destroying the infrastructure of the nation because they do not understand it). I tell people that we should have flooded Iraq with military policeman and with Arabic policemen recruited from the surrounding countries rather than with armed combat troops, and they say "What is the difference?" There is a difference, you know that and I know that, but people just don't understand, and I can't seem to get it through their thick heads why armed combat troops make lousy cops... their jobs are just too damned different, in the end, if you retrain the combat troops to be cops, then they're lousy combat troops. You can't take a plow horse and run him in the Kentucky Derby and you can't take a thoroughbred and hitch him to a plow. People are more flexible than horses, but that still stays the same... but folks just don't *want* to understand, I've decided, because if they understood, then they might have to do something other than go through their pointless lives of masticating and defecating and fornicating and accumulating shiny baubles of no import, Lord forbid they be forced to get off their lazy ass in front of the TV watching Fox News...

Anyhow, thanks for providing a place to vent. 'Nuff for now...

- Badtux the Reality-based Penguin

1/18/2006 12:55:39 AM  

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