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An American Abroad: Living in Post-Invasion Iraq

Being of a nation is more than politics. It is the same as being a part of any group identity, both the good and the bad. It carries heritage and responsibility. There is a weight to bearing the name of a group, even if that reputation was won by someone else. The mantle is on your shoulders, and you can either take on that burden and bear it, or let it fall.

The Weight of Being American

In the summer of 2008, I was in Vienna, Austria on an academic trip, wandering around with another student. We were going to hear Mozart that evening, looking for a place to eat and kill some time before then. I suggested we eat at a falafel shop I saw along the street. Through a comical set of misunderstandings, she and I ended up sitting at a table with a friend of the owner’s. He had some English and my friend asked where he was from. “Iraq,” he said, and she immediately began to apologize for America’s 2003 invasion. This didn’t come as a surprise: We had already clashed on candidates for the upcoming 2008 elections.

The waved his hands, telling my classmate to stop apologizing. Slowly, through broken English and my very limited Arabic, he explained that he was a Kurd and had fought with the Peshmerga against Saddam. He told this average American student about Anfal, Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds — it was the first time she had ever heard of it. Listening to his stories about the ongoing oppression the Kurds had faced, she slowly began to understand why he was so thankful that the US had come. “It was like…a dram. Dram?” he asked. It took me a while before I could figure out that he was trying to say “dream.”

I was in Erbil, Iraq in 2011-12, driving along with an Arab woman in her late thirties. She had moved up from Baghdad because things were more stable in the Kurdish region, and more suitable for her more “modern” sensibilities, as evidenced by her short hair and customary pantsuit (I don’t think I saw her in a skirt the entire year I spent there). As we drove along, she began to talk of Baghdad and how it had been when she had lived there. “It is only a….a shadow of the beauty it was,” she said, reaching for words in imperfect English, and, in true Arab form, coming up with unintentional poetry. “That was before,” she continued, with a knowing look and a slight, enigmatic smile on her face, “you killed Saddam.”

She didn’t mean me personally, of course. Still I was included in that statement; she used the second person on purpose. Never mind the fact that the Iraqi government was technically the one to execute him. We get the credit. The full force of being an American, there, in Iraq, hit me.

The Face of America

I wasn’t there in any official capacity. I was neither military nor government. I was a twenty-three-year-old girl who went because she wanted to. I was the only real face of America that half the people I met there may ever truly know. I was the receptacle of all their feelings and thoughts about America as a whole, and to them I represented all of America in my interactions.

In Northern Iraq, there was mostly the weight of deeds held in high regard upon my shoulders. Near the end of my year-long stay there, I was walking with another American through the bazaar, just below the citadel of Erbil, when an old man in a fedora and traditional Kurdish clothes stopped us. “You are American?” He asked, and we nodded. “God bless you, God bless you!” he said, and shook our hands.

I taught in a school, and my students–Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian–expressed their thoughts about Saddam and the situation in Iraq constantly. For the science fair, one of my Kurdish 6th graders created a diorama of Halabjah, a Kurdish town gassed by Saddam during the Anfal. The project was complete with small hand-made dolls strewn about, streams of red from eyes, ears, and nose painted on. The United States didn’t actually do much of anything in response to those chemical attacks, still the largest such attacks targeting civilians in history, yet the Kurds connected the cessation of persecution with America. We’ve become legend, even for the things we did not do.

A Fearsome Reputation

We have a reputation, and by and large, it’s a fearsome one and a good one. You can tell a lot about a person by his enemies, and the same is true of countries. In the documentary on the Dalai Lama Compassion in Exile, there is an interview with an old Tibetan woman who recounts being beaten by Chinese soldiers. She describes the beating and the solider yelling at her, “The Dalai Lama cannot save you now! America cannot save you!” That statement struck me deeply. This was a woman from a third world country who had probably never seen an American in her life, and yet there was this hope, this belief, that maybe America would come to save her and her people. That soldier beating her was setting America up as the antithesis of himself and his government.

Sometimes that perception of America seems far more honorable than what we may think we are currently living up to. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recently released a message addressed to “America, the defender of the Cross.” Last I checked, the US remained embroiled in our own internal battles over free religious expression, yet this is how ISIS, who beheads children, names us: Defenders of the Cross. In some ways, it seems that title is more than we deserve, given our foreign policy track record as of late.

More than a Foreign Policy

To the rest of the world, America is more than just our official foreign policy decisions, although the policy certainly has a huge impact on international perception and politics. Such official decisions aren’t the only things that affect how we are viewed or dictate what we can do on the international stage. I still have many contacts and friends in Iraq, mostly in Erbil. Over the past few days I’ve received updates of the conditions there while a number of the Iraqi nationals (also not officially involved with their government) have organized shelter and aid for the thousands of refugees streaming in ahead of the ISIS advance. This was before President Obama announced any airstrikes or other real aid. A site was quickly set up for donations, and, feeling otherwise somewhat helpless, I dutifully forwarded it along to friends, many of whom are still in college or only recently graduated. While it remained uncertain if the US government was going to do anything, private individuals took what action they could. In 24 hours, this limited network raised over $35,000.

In America, we are prosperous enough that, regardless of what our government chooses to do or not do to, we can give our own money and support when the situation demands it. As individuals we can make small efforts to be deserving of our national reputation, which, regardless of your stance on foreign policy, is a good one. We are known as a defender of the weak and oppressed. Terrorists, extremists, and totalitarian governments declare us to be their enemy. If that is the case, let us shoulder that reputation and do what we can to be worthy of it.

Author: Virginia Phillips

Virginia Phillips has a M.A. in Religious Studies and an enduring interest in history and politics. In her spare time she writes opinion pieces on current events and theology. She enjoys speculative fiction, martial arts, dancing, and both consuming and preparing food and beverage pairings.

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