One benefit of closer proximity to the military—so much harder to come by now—is that after spending time with soldiers, you realize that for every comment like that one there’s a sergeant who knows more history than you do. Two years after Fallujah, during one of those interminable waits for a convoy, I listened in admiration to two noncommissioned officers explain to a third the definition of “wasta”— the
concept of using influence to get things done that is essential to understanding how things work in the Middle East.
But if the sophistication of the troops has increased, it’s not always mirrored among military public-affair officers, who tend to have far less contact with Iraqis. At a press event earlier this year at Saddam Hussein’s former palace at Camp Victory, a buffet laid out for the mostly Iraqi reporters prompted the usual question about what meat they were being served.
“It’s ham,” said the press officer. “How do you say ‘ham’ in Arabic?” The Iraqis politely demurred, backing away from the table.
Early this year, at the transfer-of-authority ceremony for the second-highest-ranking general in Iraq, responsible for all ground forces, only two Western reporters of the dozens in town decided it was worth the hours of waiting and security checks to cover the event, where the intensely private Lieutenant General Lloyd J. Austin III turned over his duties to the even more private Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby Jr. It was made clear to the American reporters who were there that they could expect even less accessibility from the new deputy commander. In fact, Jacoby’s first interview in Baghdad—three months after arriving there—was not with a journalist. It was with Stephen Colbert, during a taped appearance for The Colbert Report.
Some officials say the war is over. It isn’t. It is a different war and a much different story—one that Americans are being encouraged to forget.