Cork-screwing out of the night sky on a C-130 military transport aircraft, keeping that bit of Army food down, I remember thinking of how damn dark it was in that aluminum can of an airplane. This is how I found myself: Private First Class, US Army Cavalry Scout, 20 years old, on December 24, 2003. As I was heading down this gravity-induced gut ride to Baghdad International Airport, I was perhaps a bit on the naïve side; I did not quite know what to expect. I had an idea of sorts from TV and from what I was hearing from those who had either been blown up or were hitting their mandatory eight-year service marks and had to be sent home. But it was not the full, or accurate, picture. “Damn Hajji (Muslim who accomplishes the pilgrimage to Mecca) will smile at you one day and launch mortars at you the next” was the typical feeling among many vets I spoke with. Looking back on my two tours of duty, I have had the chance to reflect and to conclude that a complete lack of knowledge about Iraq and its people contributed to one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent human history. It is our duty, if we desire peace, not to repeat this mistake.
When I finally found myself in a unit—I was homeless for a while and it took some amount of time to get out of Baghdad—it did not take long for me to realize that this country was a pretty diverse place. “Islamic” was how many other soldiers and I viewed Iraq before we had the chance to have our wonderful first hand experience over there. It is true that Iraq is comprised mostly of Muslims. Sunni Muslims, which Saddam Hussein's Baa'thist Party was made up of, are a minority. However, the vast majority of Iraqis are Shi'i Muslims. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq those former Ba'athist loyalists were instantly out of a job and formed the base of the “insurgency” to follow; moreover, the power vacuum created by the ostracism of former Ba'athists and Sunnis created room for a majority Shi'i parliament to take leadership of the country. Many Iraqi Sunnis simply viewed the Shi'i leadership as the puppet of Shi'i majority Iran, and thus helped to create the room for Al-Qaeda to infiltrate into Iraq and wreak havoc. It appears that both Al-Qaeda and the United States knew little or nothing about the tribal makeup of the country.
I was perplexed by the dynamics of tribalism in Iraq; I had no clue that Iraq was composed of many different tribes and that one’s affiliation might sometimes make all the difference in the world. One town stands out in particular: a small backwater named Al-Biajj, about thirty kilometers east of the Syrian border. About 5,000 people strong, Biajj was broken down into no fewer than five tribes, with the majority tribe typically having mayoral control. I personally witnessed this poorly understood dynamic at work: a particular tribe, in retaliation for a wrong from another tribe, placed an IED in the offending tribe's streets. This brought no small amount of attention to the targeted tribe. Therefore, loyalty appears not to reside with the state, but with the tribe, and with God. Al-Qaeda got itself ousted largely because they were murdering people from different tribes, and thus incurring their retaliation. A general lack of knowledge about the Middle East at the highest levels is the heart of the problem with the war in Iraq.
Although I now believe that all war is insane and wrong, the lack of knowledge about Iraq, the Middle East, and Islam only exacerbated the problems that the US encountered in Iraq, and this mistake should not be repeated. High school history classes about the Middle East are tragically scarce; I cannot remember a single in-depth lesson about the Arab conquests and did not fully learn about this until college. Sadly, this same lack of knowledge was, and is, most obvious at the highest levels of the US Executive branch.
My time in Iraq was an interesting, at times quite frightening, but ultimately enlightening and rewarding experience. I met people from all walks of life and they did not fit one simple mold of “Iraqi” or “Muslim,” or even “Sunni” or “Shi'i.” Forty years or so from now, the war in Iraq ought to be viewed in its proper context: a war started out of ignorance that cost the lives of many and (hopefully) shook a nation to its senses.
Joseph White is a CSUB History major who served two tours of duty in Iraq.