Los Angeles Times
I know how religious the people in Iraq are, how traditional they are with regard to gender relations and stuff like that. I would see certain stuff and I would just cringe and want to say [to U.S. soldiers], “You guys are really, really making a bad name for yourself here by storming into this guy’s house with your shoes on. This guy’s done nothing and yet you’re going to make an enemy out of him because he’s gonna talk about you guys for the rest of his life, and that day when they came storming into my house with their shoes on — nobody walks into my house with their shoes on!”
One time I was really tempted to say something to U.S. soldiers when I was in Najaf. And Najaf is a very American-friendly place in general. And there were these soldiers and they were just sitting there, taking pieces of bread and throwing them at each other. They were just kids — like twenty-two years old — just playing around. There’s these Iraqi police officers looking at this from out the window and they’re just totally aghast. They’re totally shocked: Look at what they’re doing to bread! You know, bread is considered holy in Islam. You know, you’re just not supposed to do that. People pick up pieces of bread and you’re not supposed to step on bread. You’re not supposed to play with bread. And I felt tempted to say something and I didn’t. I just didn’t feel it was my place.
I tried to interact with the Iraqis who were being ignored. And even by then there was a great deal of literature being produced by various religious organizations; they all had their own newspapers and journals and magazines and CDs, and they were very clear about their position and their grievances and their attitude towards the Americans. And I think the Americans, for some reason, didn’t take religion that seriously as a factor in Iraqi society, which is weird because we’re like the most religious nation in the industrialized world. We have a born-again Christian president and the religious right is so powerful, but we didn’t think that religion was an important motivator for Iraqis. So we just ignored that, except for the so-called moderate clerics who we could try to use to our advantage. But that Iraqi anger and hostility toward the American occupation, and fear of the Americans, and fear that the Americans are going to corrupt their values, steal their women, bring the Jews in to create a greater Israel, bring the Jews in to divide the land — all these fears that just sounded stupid to us were real for them.
I’ve been struck by how essentially humane a lot of the soliders are, with a very strong sense of right and wrong, which I think comes with growing up in America. And how ill-equipped they were to apply that to a situation like Iraq, without enough historical or geographical or cultural knowledge to actually — unless they were under the command of a very gifted officer, and there are some who are extremely well-equipped, but a lot of them are not — to apply that sort of fairness to Iraqi society. I feel that a huge majority of them are good men trapped in an impossible situation and have not really understood where they are historically, as well as culturally and physically. I think they’re hostages of a terrible situation as well; it’s given me enormous sympathy for them, and certainly a new appreciation for how ill-prepared they were for the mission, at least in the early days.
I remember early on in Baghdad — it must have been the end of 2003 — some American soldiers who were very keen to befriend a couple of families — families who had been, who were essentially caretakers of properties in Baghdad. They were very poor and these soldiers wanted to befriend the children. They had this tremendous human instinct to try and help them make life easier. It was just at the time when the insurgency was really getting going, and Iraqis who were seen to have relations with the American forces were in great danger, and the soldiers found it very difficult to accept that this gesture of friendship — their wanting to help look after these children and give them gifts and so on — could, in fact, get the family killed.