Baghdad, American-Style, or How the Chicken Got Its Own Funeral

MOSUL, Iraq-”She’s lucky I didn’t shoot her,” said Sgt. First Class James Johnson, 43, of Queens, N.Y., via England and Jamaica. “We will shoot a woman in a heartbeat.”

Sergeant Johnson was recalling an encounter with a covered Muslim woman at a U.S. military checkpoint. Asked to be checked for weapons under her robes, the woman had pointed to the sky-indicating a religious objection to being touched by a male who was not her relative-and declined. In turn, Sergeant Johnson had declined to let her pass, and the woman opted to bolt through anyway. Sergeant Johnson ran after her.

“I grabbed her,” he said, gesturing to indicate the scruff of the neck. “I was about to shoot her twice in the back.”

This encounter had occurred in the heavily Shia southern city of Najaf, but Sergeant Johnson was describing it as he played a game of spades on the second floor of what had been the Hotel Mosul. Once the second-swankest hotel in Iraq’s third-largest city, the hotel was now the command post for the Second Battalion, 502nd Infantry of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division. At the tail end of the war, the hotel had become a post for the Kurdish militia, known as peshmerga , and before that it had involuntarily hosted a wild looting party.

Therefore, it was a shambles. Wires dangled from nicks in the ceilings where fixtures had been, and certain flights of the stairs appeared to have been char-broiled. Although some of the floors had been cleared out to make room for the soldiers’ sleeping bags, others were still collages of shattered glass and pillow feathers and all manner of garbage. But according to the infantrymen playing cards, the place was the Sherry Netherland compared to the way it had been before they restored the electricity, fixed the plumbing, scrubbed and bleached away the human feces that had littered the carpets in the hundreds of bedrooms.

Having found the swankest hotel in Mosul, the Nineveh, to be in very similar shape, three freelance journalists ended up staying for the night on the floor of the old office of the general manager. As if to punctuate the looters’ determination to leave no movable object behind, both the Arabic and the English letters spelling out “general manager” had been pulled off the wall outside, leaving just the shadow of the words.

“This is a fraternity, so you can imagine the possibilities,” said Staff Sgt. Byron Humphrey, 27. Given the shrieking halts to which the soldiers’ anecdotes sometimes came, they were editing out the most colorful possibilities, but this still left quite a few. There was, for instance, the recent going-away party for one Lt. Tyler Van Horn, who was switched out of the unit-but not before his colleagues strategically spread him with petroleum jelly, and then even more strategically spread him with the pungent muscle relaxant Icy Hot, and then threw him into the great globe-shaped fountain outside. They bought a chicken with the intention of decapitating, cooking and eating it, but the chicken somehow crawled into a corner of their hearts. The soldiers checked the chicken into its own hotel room, complete with a little sink and a poster of the girls back home, and tied a Coke can to its foot so as not to lose track of it. Then the affection waned, and this led to an allegedly trumped-up chicken court martial, followed by a game of live-chicken football which became a game of dead-chicken field hockey, followed by a chicken funeral, with full mock military honors.

Sergeant Johnson opened his mouth only when the conversation turned to intimate apparel. “The last time I wore underwear, I had on a chemical suit,” he said. “I can’t remember when it was. It was at an early phase of the war.”

In describing the incident with the woman from Najaf, Sergeant Johnson was being neither cavalier nor cruel. In fact, for most of the previous hour he had been almost totally quiet, studying his hand and absently tapping his knee with some Muslim prayer beads he had been given. As a veteran of numerous conflicts (“We got a lot more shooting in Panama, and a lot more resistance”), he seemed long ago to have lost whatever bravado he might have had. Rather, Sergeant Johnson was stating a fact, and a logically defensible fact at that. That was just the problem.

The more one sees of Iraq under American occupation, the more one sees that the real problems of the occupation have nothing to do with the usual stuff of dire prediction. At its most worrisome, the scene here is not one of overbearing military men imposing ridiculous policies on a population that is seething with anger toward America. On the contrary, the scene is one of decent, often admirable soldiers carrying out inevitably (well, somewhat inevitably) problematic policies among a population that is churning with ambivalence about America. In moral terms, the latter is vastly less offensive than the former. In practical terms, though, it is vastly more daunting.

After all, clearly insensitive soldiers can be disciplined; clearly inept policies can be scrapped; clearly overblown anti-American sentiment can, with enough solid proof that that sentiment is undeserved, be mitigated. But apart from the glaring, ubiquitous fact of it, this occupation is not clearly anything. The real problems come from the rubber of American aspiration meeting the road of Iraqi expectation. These problems are fundamentally impossible to solve, and damned hard to manage. In this respect, the aftermath of the war is very like the war itself: long on good intentions, short on viable alternatives and fraught with dangerous tripwires.

The question of the military and the Muslim woman is just one tripwire, and far from the most regularly or explosively confronted. In the stubborn sides of the dilemma it poses, though, it is as revealing as any other.

No remotely traditional Muslim woman will feel comfortable letting a man outside her family touch her, no matter how asexually. In many settings, such as airports, this fact is easily accommodated by employing women to search women. Given U.S. military restrictions on women serving in combat positions, however, the American fighters turned peacekeepers who perform checks here are overwhelmingly male. (In three weeks in Baghdad, I noted one female Marine. “There’s about two of us here,” she said.) Yet, as their presence in the ranks of suicide bombers indicates, women are as capable as men of doing anything, and Islamic cover can make them more capable than men of hiding anything.

According to the military, most Iraqi women either submit to a body check, which the soldiers often try to perform by having the woman herself gather her own robes closer to her body, or she turns back without incident. But even if such encounters never occasioned violence, they will always occasion friction. That is what the military does, no matter how politely, no matter how justifiably, no matter how much toward the greater good: It causes friction, and the invisible sparks of it are everywhere, all the time.

There are, just to complicate things further, those who say the hell with friction; the U.S. should just get on with getting this place in shape, naysayers be damned. Interestingly, those who say it-at least openly-tend to be Iraqis. “The American soldiers are very good, but they are too polite,” Hakim Mallaleh, an ex-Iraqi military helicopter pilot from Mosul, told me. “If they want any Iraqis to help them, they must not ask. They must give orders.”

They also must maintain their sense of humor. The occupation, it bears noting, is unfolding in the full context of Iraqi life itself, and is therefore full of Iraqi life’s inflections, war or no war. I asked a European friend who is a long-term resident of Baghdad what his Iraqi friends were saying in private about the U.S. military. The answer fell nowhere in the familiar territory of gratitude for liberation versus horror at invasion. “They say, ‘They’re black!’” he told me. When I asked Sgt. Stacey Simms, an African-American from Rochester, N.Y., whether he had encountered any race-based amazement from the local populations, he nodded and burst out laughing. “They want to touch my face or hold my hand,” he said, adding that he let them.

Asking or telling, the soldiers are playing strict and omnipotent parents in pretty much every public role that they assume here. They enforce curfews. They confiscate forbidden items (weapons, mostly, except those kept at home, which are permitted). They stand at barbed-wire checkpoints and entertain requests for jobs, cash, food, bone-marrow transplants, the whereabouts of the husband or brother who disappeared at 8 o’clock one night in 1982 and never came back. Vastly more often than not, they entertain such requests by saying some form of “no.” In Mosul, they do perhaps the thorniest parenting that can be done in Iraq: They ration fuel.

Iraq is rich in oil. But largely because of the recent war, its refineries have been so disabled that its oil must be sent out of the country for processing and then returned. Thus, there is a chronic shortage both of the propane that is used for cooking and the gasoline-or benzene, as it is locally known-that is used for driving.

In Mosul, the U.S. military has initiated a policy of alternating fuel distribution: one day for cars with even license-plate numbers, the next for cars with odd license-plate numbers. On each of these fuelings, each car is entitled to 25 liters (between six and seven gallons) of gasoline, for a price of 1,000 dinars, or 50 cents.

The reality is that if the American military were not rationing the fuel, it would be sold to the black market at exorbitant rates, and it would be impossible for any Iraqi who could not pay those rates to function at all. As it is, so many people have been caught siphoning fuel for illegal resale that public destruction of the hoses and cans they use has become part of the U.S. military routine. In a microcosm of the difficulty that does and will cut across the entire endeavor of refashioning institutions that have run for so long on principles of personal fear, personal influence and personal gain, it has also become part of the U.S. military routine to call to the carpet the not-negligible proportion of local Iraqi police officers who have been enlisted to help facilitate the orderly distribution of fuel, but who allow their friends to cut ahead in line or to resell the fuel, giving a cut to their police pals.

“I think the police are useless,” said Specialist Tim Pierce, 22, of Tampa, Fla., as he stood stationed at a pump, within earshot of an allegedly reputable police officer accusing an allegedly disreputable police officer of dirty dealing.

“Actually, I think they are worse than useless,” said a second soldier, who was named Morisette. “They create problems and they don’t solve any problems.”

In the eyes of many Iraqis, however, it is the U.S. that has created the problems-problems, in this instance, that were vastly less onerous under Saddam Hussein. Now that the Americans are rationing the fuel, Iraqis are waiting in lines that start at the surprisingly rare gas stations and stretch four or five miles. Many sleep in their cars overnight; some abandon their cars for a few hours and walk back later to rejoin the queue. In the morning, they sit in their cars and bake as they inch and stop, inch and stop, toward the pumps. On the morning of Monday, May 5, only two of six pumps were working at one of the two gas stations that were open in one military sector of Mosul; the U.S. military had forbidden the proprietor of a third to sell benzene because he had been denying it to local Arabs so as to sell it at great markups to Kurds in the countryside. Inevitably, then, at least hundreds of drivers who wait in line all day and night never reach the pump. Those who do reach it never get enough fuel to last them two days, particularly if they make their living as taxi drivers.

“Everyone asks for five more liters, five more liters,” said Morisette. “I feel really sorry for them.”

Thus, for thousands of Iraqis day after day, the primary postwar experience is that of an American, and very likely an American who looks to be in his mid-teens, refusing to allow the sale of desperately needed fuel to an Iraqi, and very likely an Iraqi who believes that if the pavement beneath his car were to be removed, precious oil would spurt from the ground; that he is decades overdue the profits from that oil; and who further believes that American has come specifically to deprive him of those profits. All such problems are instantly cut into the shape of a conspiracy theory, and the conspiracy theory here is that the gasoline shortage would not be nearly so acute if the American soldiers were not getting first dibs on the benzene to fill the tanks of their tanks.

Let the record reflect, however, that U.S. vehicles cannot use locally processed fuel. They take diesel.