Memoirs of Failure

Aliens in an Alien Land: Iraq Through the Lens of Soldiers’ Memoirs
by Stephen Soldz
January 23, 2007

Not so many years ago, perhaps five, there was a country known as “Iraq.” That Iraq no longer exists. It has been replaced by two Iraqs. No, I am not referring here to the Kurdish Autonomous Region, nor to the nascent Shia statelet likely about to be created in the south, though either of these could be considered as break-up products of that former country.

I am, rather, referring to the two zones into which Iraq has become divided, the Green Zone and the Red Zone. The Green Zone, a.k.a. the “International Zone,” the “Ultimate Gated Community,” or more appropriately, the “United States of Iraq,” is the place where the various would-be rulers of Iraq have congregated since the March-April 2003 invasion. The colonial administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), set up its headquarters here. After the June 2004 handover of “sovereignty” but little power to an Iraqi Interim Government with its Prime Minister forced upon United Nations officials nominally in charge by the United States, this government made its home in the Green Zone. The current “elected,” but largely powerless, Shia-dominated government also “rules” from this zone.

For the Americans there, life in the Green Zone resembles life in the United States, with just enough of an exotic tinge to make it interesting. Night clubs serve liquor, women jog in shorts and sports bras, and pool parties sometimes get wild. McDonalds and Burger King are available, though, just as in many modern American cities, kebabs served by real natives are available for the daring.

For the time of the CPA, the Green Zone was a nice career stop-over point for those hoping to get some attention in the modern Republican Party. A few months there helped get that coveted PR job back in the States. Of course there was the occasional mortar shell to contend with, but the hint of danger helped relieve the boredom that was, perhaps, the greater risk of service in the colonies.

So what of the Red Zone? It is the place where those Iraqis not cleared to get near the occupation forces live. The place where people go about their lives in a situation economically much worse off than that before the invasion. In the Red Zone people die by the tens or hundreds of thousands, from bombs and bullets, yes, both Iraqi and American, but also from crime, from disease, and from lack of basic medical care. In the Red Zone clean water is scarce, electricity available but a few hours a day, if that, and doctors are increasingly rare as the few remaining flee to the safety of exile. And boredom, that plague of the Green Zone, also plagues the Red Zone as millions of women and children, and increasingly men as well, are afraid to step outside the house for months on end as fear of murder and abduction keeps them under long-term house arrest.

The Green Zone sometimes sees conflict between US political officials with their fantastic visions of an occupied Iraq willing and able to submit to every whim of the occupiers, and the Iraqi officials with their visions of an ascendant Shia state. The Red Zone, in contrast, sees daily conflict between numerous militias with varied political and governmental loyalties, some labeled police, army, special Interior Ministry death and torture squads, others known as the militias of various political parties and organizations, while yet others are labeled as “insurgents,” “terrorists,” “jihadists,” or “freedom fighters” depending on who is doing the labeling.

As Iraq is divided into these two separate but unequal worlds, there are those who go between them, who cross the barriers separating the two worlds. Among these are the US soldiers, the “grunts,” upon whom the day-to-day tasks of occupation fall. Unlike the politicians, bureaucrats and corporate scam artists of occupation, who can often do their jobs without stepping foot in the Red Zone, these soldiers cross the border between the two Iraqs on a regular basis. Can these ambassadors of freedom, and of occupation, bridge the two Iraqs? How do they construe the situation thrust upon them? Perhaps the experiences of these soldiers can shed light upon the evolving relations of the two Iraqs, relations so complex as to challenge the pundits who attempt to make sense of the Iraqi mess for the folks back home.

Insights into the experiences of the US soldiers in Iraq can be found occasionally in the accounts of reporters and in the torrent of memoirs pouring out from those veterans desperate to tell their story as they seek, somehow, to fit back into a land they believed they were defending, but into which they no longer seem to fit.

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