Why I Went, Why I Stayed

November 2008, Maryland


If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

–Alexander Solzhenitsyn


People ask me why I went to Iraq. I’m a political independent, leaning hard to the left. I despised both Bush presidents, saving the worst vitriol for the little one. I considered the Iraq war an unconscionable act of aggression perpetrated by arrogant ignoramuses based on hilariously incompetent lies fed to a bafflingly quiescent American public. Most of my friends and relatives felt similarly, if not quite so passionately.

Feeling as I did, why did I go? Once over there, almost all of us said it was for the money, but that was rarely true. Some were there solely for the money – the war zone premium, the locality premium, overtime hours – but you could tell who those people were and there weren’t many of them among the Corps of Engineers staff, at least where I worked. I suspect most of us had reasons that were a bit nebulous, partially unconscious, too complex for a sound bite, or too uncomfortably earnest or personal in some way to be stated outright. For me it was never really about the money, although that was an attractive perk. I went for a complex amalgam of reasons, the most immediate being curiosity.

This rather alarming (some might say stupid) reason may call to mind the old adage curiosity killed the cat. I knew the possibility existed. If you go to a war zone, presumably you’ve thought through the possibility that you could get hurt or die over there and are willing to chance injury or death. I had thought it through and was willing to take that chance.

I was willing even though the focus of my curiosity was nebulous and a bit squiffy. I was looking for something that I attached many names to in order for that something to be categorized as an acceptable personal sound bite, trying to satisfy friends or family or my own reasoning and fairly (ok – occasionally) reasonable, culturally middle-class mind.

In the end, I verbalized the motive of my curiosity by admitting that I wondered what was really going on over there. Obviously all was not well in the land, but what was real? The politicians’ descriptions sounded superficial and partisan to the point of profound stupidity. The media made the place look like one big sloppy car bomb. I found it impossible to believe any of it. I wondered, for instance, what the normal everyday Iraqis thought of the conflict. I wondered if there were legitimate reasons that reconstruction contract costs were spiraling out of control, or if the evil contractors were all sucking our tax coffers dry with deliberate calculation. I wondered who the Iraqis trusted and what they hoped their country might someday look like. I wondered whether security contractors were thugs with guns, or professionals doing a job. I wondered …

Well, I wondered many things.

I still don’t know what’s going on over there, but I have a better idea. Answering all the questions specifically would take too long. Here’s my soundbite: People are going on over there. Some are true and some are liars; some are thieves and some are saints; some are killers and some are heartbreakingly gentle. Most fall somewhere in between. The Iraqis themselves are trying to earn a living and raise their children in peace, just like us, while a small portion of the population turns the place upside down with violence in the name of an ideology born and maintained in fear and arrogance… just as our government went in and turned the place upside down with violence in the name of ideology born and maintained by fear and arrogance. Iraq is a hard place rife with stunning concentrations of the best and worst of humanity. Humanity is happening there, in all its fucked up and touchingly beautiful glory.




Not long after I’d arrived in-country, a friend wrote to me that he was envious of my decision to go to Iraq. “This is history,” he wrote, “and you’re in it.” He had pulled strings to avoid the Viet Nam draft, disagreeing with the premise of that war and wanting no part of it. He admitted to me that he’d come to deeply regret that decision, feeling as if he’d opted out (or chickened out) of a defining moment in our nation’s history. 

I think that many of us were conscious of that we were there: that we were on hand for what could prove to be a defining moment in the history of our nation and perhaps the world. And not only that we were witness to history, but that each of us were key participants. How many chances do we get to live those moments? Every day in Iraq felt meaningful and, possibly at least in part due to that awareness, the work that we did there was the most satisfying work most of us have ever done, even at its most outrageous or frustrating (and it could be monumentally outrageous and frustrating!).

After I’d recovered somewhat from being blown up, someone asked me if there was one major lesson I learned while in Iraq, one thing that I particularly value. That’s a pretty hard thing to answer, since there were things that were personal with no public application, or things that were small and silly but valuable to me. I did think it was a valuable question though, so I chose one thing to share and it’s related to this notion of participating in history. Here it is:

I’m pretty cynical, and went to Iraq not really believing that one person’s actions can make a useful difference in the world – certainly not believing that I could make a positive difference in something as large as that war. I suspected (well, worried) that by the time I left Iraq I’d feel more as if, by participating at all, I’d condoned the war.

Now I believe that individuals can and do make a difference, and that each of us shapes the world in some way, every moment of every day – all the way to the big picture of places like Iraq. When I was still an inpatient at Walter Reed I received an email from an engineer who shared my office during the last months that I worked there; he was on temporary loan from Baghdad. In the email he told me that just being in the office with me, watching how I spoke and interacted with the Iraqi engineers on staff, changed everything for him. When he went back to Baghdad, his engineers asked him what had happened to him in down south, because now he was treating them as equal colleagues, asking advice, arguing openly, listening to their opinions, treating them with respect. He said even his persistent problems with contractors were disappearing as he approached the Iraqis differently.

I was and am grateful to him for changing the way he treated Iraqis, because every Iraqi engineer was and still is, in my eyes, my Iraqi Engineers’ brother. I thought, If I did nothing else worthwhile when I was in Iraq, this one unintended influence made everything worth it. I believe that if the only people who went to Iraq were the worst sort of people I met while I was there – the officers chasing Combat Action Badges, the yahoos chasing big paychecks, the arrogant Americans talking to Iraqi engineers as if they were three-year old children, the journalists who only reported the bang-bang, the ideologues in Baghdad who cared more about sound bites than they did about truth or reality, the State Department appointees bartering long-term gains in business, education and health care for international oil contract agreements … If the only people who go to Iraq are the worst sort of people that I met while I was there, I believe that we as Americans – and I personally as a human being – would have to accept some responsibility for compounding the general incivilities and horrors of war.

This is now how I think the world is changed: one person at a time, treating one person right. If just that one man sharing my office touched a few people, then the respect that I tried to give to my Iraqi engineers and contractors was at least doubled. This is important: respect and dignity foster self-confidence and pride in themselves, their work, other people, and their country. With luck, they’ll go touch others with that, and those others will touch others, and each day the world will grow a little more peaceful instead of a little more weighted down by fear, greed, anger and resentment … inshallah.


I loved working in Iraq – even when I hated it, there was no place I’d rather have been.



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