Love My Rifle More Than You
Earlier this year I read a tremendous book by Kayla Williams, entitled Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army. It tells the story of her five years in the army, including deployment to Iraq (she trained as a specialist Arabic translator), and it tells it extremely honestly. You never doubt her patriotism and commitment for a moment, but there are some episodes of casual sexism at home and sheer callousness toward the Iraqis, whether combatants or not. I think the following extract sums up what she tries to get across, which is that the US Army in Iraq was a mixture of reasonable guys trying to help if they could, and ignorant assholes casually destroying lives. I couldn't help thinking of Riverbend.
We clear a monastery.
I know on some level that Iraq has a small Christian minority, but finding this monastery astounds me. It certainly explains the many people in the neighborhood who ask if we are mesihi. Christian. It is a Catholic neighborhood - catholiqi.
We are in an area of Baghdad called Dura. It is quite lovely - trees, orchards, homes inside walled compounds. The doors, as in most of Iraq, are elaborately designed and often blue.
We go in the back of the compound. The grounds are lush, well tended and groomed. Around to the front of the building, which is beautiful and clean to a degree which is surprising. Amazingly the UN embargo and the ravages of two wars have somehow spared it.
We knock, and a man in robes ushers us inside.
In Arabic I repeat my by-now-standard questions.
"We must search this building. For weapons. Do you have any weapons here? Or caches of weapons and ammunition?"
The monk is polite. He smiles. He responds in English.
"We have nothing to hide," he says. "I am happy to show you our church. However, some of the rooms are locked. The man with the keys is leading prayers in a small room. There." He points to his right. "Perhaps you can search those rooms later? When prayers are done."
The lieutenant in charge of this mission is looking at me.
I look back at him.
We are all silent for a moment. "Specialist Williams," the lieutenant says.
"Sir?" I respond, uncertain.
The monk stands there, a model of serenity and calm.
"What did this guy just say?"
I glance at the monk, but his expression does not change.
"He says they are in the middle of prayers, and the man with the key to the locked rooms is leading the prayers. When they finish prayers, he can show us the locked rooms."
"Oh," the LT says. "Okay." But I can't take this.
"He's speaking English, Sir. You can ask him anything you want."
The lieutenant is uninterested in hearing my views.
Is it possible the lieutenant cannot understand the monk - simply because he looks foreign?
"Ask your commander," the monk says, still in English. "Ask him if he would like to join us. In an Easter prayer. Or whether his soldiers would like to join us in prayer."
"What's that?" the lieutenant asks. "What's he saying?"
"He is asking whether we would like to join them in prayer. For Easter."
"Yes," the monk says brightly. "Today is a holy day. Are any of these soldiers Catholics? Would any of the soldiers like to come and join us in prayer?"
"He's asking about prayer. Whether any of us would like to join them in prayer."
A few soldiers shift restlessly, almost longingly.
"Can we, Sir?" one of them ventures.
"No!" the lieutenant says loudly. "No. We're at war. We have a mission to do."
I feel slightly sickened. These are Christians in a Muslim country. Haven't they been persecuted enough? Are we really spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East by clearing this Catholic church?
"We can't wait," the lieutenant says. "Tell him we plan to begin searching the building. Now."
"We could also offer you tea?" the monk suggests. "While we wait for services to end."
I don't even bother to translate this, expecting the usual response from the lieutenant.
"I'm sorry. We can't wait," I say to the monk. "We need to search the building now."
The monk nods, but I can see he is not pleased by this.
So we begin to move through the monastery to verify that everything is clear.
We start down a hall, and the lieutenant impatiently jiggles each locked doorknob. We reach an unlocked door that opens to reveal stairs.
"Ask him where these stairs lead."
"To the basement," replies the monk. "A storage space."
It appears to me, though I cannot be sure, that the monk has chosen to enunciate hos English more slowly. As if he is speaking to a child.
The lieutenant rolls back and forth on the balls of his feet.
"What did the fellow say?"
I catch the eyes of a few of the soldiers standing around us. Some of them are also half smiling at the absurdity of the situation.
"To the basement," I repeat.
We go to the basement, where there are precious sacred icons. the only lights provided are the tactical ones attached to soldiers' weapons.
There is a room filled with vats of sacramental wine. The smell, heavy and sweet and fruity, hangs in the air, cloying. None of us have had alcohol in a couple of months. We are stunned with desire for it. We move past this room quickly, unable even to articulate our desires to one another.
In the back there is a plywood sheet nailed against the wall. The edges look glued. This draws the lieutenant's instant suspicion.
"Ask him what's on the other side of this."
Wearily I repeat the question to the monk.
The monk nods.
"It goes to the outside."
"It leads to the outside."
"Hm." The infantry lieutenant thinks this over. "We are going to have to break it down. Tell him we don't believe him."
I repeat this to the monk, who is already shaking his head.
"Look," the monk says, pointing upward. "There's a window to the outside, You can see that this door leads to the outside. There is nothing on the other side of this door."
I repeat this to the infantry lieutenant, who ponders things for a moment.
"No," he finally says. "Uh-uh. Tell your buddy here we are gong to have to break it down."
"Please," the monk says. "Send some of your soldiers round to the outside and have them knock on the other side. We'll hear them. And then you can know that this door leads nowhere. It goes outside."
When I repeat what the monk has said, the lieutenant agrees. He sends two soldiers around to the outside.
But he remains suspicious.
"Ask him why this door is barricaded like this. Why did they block this door?"
The monk is becoming agitated. He doesn't wait for me to repeat what he already understands.
"We put it up in case of chemical attack. To keep gas out. This was our way to protect ourselves from a chemical attack."
This sounds too strange and sad even to me. But locals have lots of strange ideas about chemical attacks. I begin to repeat everything to the lieutenant.
"He believes that this plywood would protect them from -"
"Get in here," the lieutenant gestures to the soldiers who have joined us in the basement. "Bust this thing down! Now!"
It just feels wrong to desecrate this place.
By the time they've busted a few holes in it, soldiers begin banging on the door from the outside.
"Yeah," we hear them saying. "It's the outside! Like the priest said!"
We leave the basement and search the simple kitchen facility. We poke into a few of the rooms. Everythign is disappointingly empty.
Returning to the foyer, the LT is pissed. The prayers continue. The head monk with the keys has not concluded the service.
"Ask him again if they have any weapons."
I speak Arabic this time.
Dejectedly the monk acknowledges - also in Arabic - that they do.
"We have one AK," he says quietly. "One Kalashnikov."
This is an ancient weapon at least thirty years old.
"And twenty rounds," he continues. "We have twenty bullets."
So that is how the monastery protects itself. What stands between the monks and the looters is one pathetic weapon with its twenty rounds.
I tell the LT about the rifle, He looks absurdly satisfied by the news.
"Find that damn rifle," the lieutenant says. "And confiscate it."
The monk retrieves a key and produces the weapon and its twenty rounds. As the rifle and the ammunition are removed from the monastery, the monk practically begins to beg.
"Please," he protests gently."Please. We need this rifle. We need to be able to defend ourselves. We have the only computer in the entire neighborhood. And we have religious relics. Please. Everything will be taken."
The LT is slightly amused.
"What was he planning to do with the AK anyway? Shoot an armed mob?"
"Scare people away," the monk insists. "Not shoot people. Never."
I know the LT's orders are to remove all weapons from mosques and schools and organizations. But orders can be interpreted. His orders at this point also stipulate that families can keep one weapon for self-protection. To protect themselves from looting. This lieutenant can make a personal judgment call on this. he can interpret his orders differently - if he wants to.
Again. The right thing isn't always the right thing. The right thing doesn't happen. Perhaps to justify this colossal waste of time or perhaps because this is an institution (and not a family home), the lieutenant is unmoved when I repeat the monk's plea. On the contrary, he takes his actions further.
"It's time to finish this," he tells me. "Tell him we are not going to wait any longer for those prayers to end. They're taking way too long. Tell him to get the keys for those rooms that are locked. We need to search everything. Now."
So during Holy Week we cut mass short. We march into the room where the monks are praying. We order them to return to their rooms and open doors for us.
In this way we finish clearing the monastery.
We find nothing else.
As we pack to go, the monks gather at the front of the monastery. They see the lieutenant toss their AK in the back of the truck. He doesn't bother to glance back. Orders his men to climb in, His job here is done.
I linger as long as I can. I want to say something. Anything. But I can't think what to say. We are abandoning these poor monks to a fate I cannot imagine. I can only hope their building is considered too insignificant. But news travels. No doubt our search has been noted on the street. The word is out. The monks have been disarmed. I give them until dusk - maybe the night - before some gang or other comes busting through their door.
How does this qualify as liberating the people of Iraq?
I load up with the men. Looking back, I see the monk I've been translating for turn away frm us, as if we are already gone.
It's over. We're out of here in a swirl of dust.
I never see those monks or that monastery again.
Maybe I told a captain I knew what had happened. How we had stripped those defenseless men of their one rifle. It would be a dramatic breach of military authority for anyone under these circumstances to return a rifle to the Iraqi people. Given the circumstances - that we are currently at war - what would it mean to provide a weapon to Iraqis? In plain cold terms, it would be a serious breach of military protocol, There would be consequences.
I don't say this happened, but it might have happened. The captain I told about this incident at the monastery headed out there later that day. He arrived at the monastery, Climbed over the back fence. Knocked on the door. Probably interrupted their evening prayers. The same monk came to the door, thinking: Now it begins. But also thinking: Looters do not knock. So he opened the door, expecting the worst, and was then confounded. It was an American captain. Silently and without ceremony the captain displayed an AK rifle. Not the rifle. But a good facsimile of it - some other crappy weapon confiscated in a sweep of some other poor soul's miserable dwelling. Hastily the captaan handed the AK to the monk.
And he was gone again, even before the monk could thank the captain for this priceless gift.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Kayla Williams and Michael E Staub