Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Facing Ignorance about Iraq

The sun had almost set over the snow-covered mountain as I struggled to maintain my balance and board the ski lift. All of my friends, as more experienced skiers, had gone off to the more alluring slopes, while I was in line for the beginner trails, left to ride up the mountain with a complete stranger.

With a shaved head, wearing army fatigues, a snowboarder shuffled next to me and sat down as the chairlift began its ascent.

“You come here often?” I asked him, initiating that awkward small talk that ensues when people from disparate walks of life are thrust into close proximately for a fleeting moment and feel a hollow obligation to go through the motions of getting to know one another.

“When I’m at home I do,” he responded, in a twang that betrayed his West Virginia roots. “But lately I’ve been over in Iraq.”

“Iraq?” My voice piqued. “How is it there?”

“Well it’s hot and there’s lots of sand,” he replied. “And it’s always sunny.”

The chairlift wasn’t even halfway up the mountain, so I decided to probe further.

“Did you meet any of the people?” I asked.

His initial reply came as a shock.

“Well they’re a backstabbing people,” he said. His military unit, he went on, had paid several Iraqis to do maintenance work on the base. Those Iraqis, he claimed, had used their money to buy hand grenades that they threw into the base at night.

“Yeah, they’re a real good people,” he said, with biting sarcasm.

Undeterred, I went on to ask him if he was able to speak to any of the Iraqi people or get a sense of how they felt about the situation in their country.

He dismissed my question, laughing. “Ain’t nobody knows how to speak Iraqi except for them that was born there.”

At this, I wanted to cringe. I wanted to correct him, to say that, no, the Iraqi people speak Arabic, a language spoken by over 170 million people worldwide. A language that I study as well.

But beyond my shock at his lack of knowledge, I wondered how this soldier could have gone to Iraq and come back not even knowing this basic fact about the country.

I wondered how a military that purports to be working to build democracy in Iraq could seemingly educate its members so little about the country and the people its soldiers are meant to serve.

Then I realized that this soldier’s ignorance may have resulted from something beyond his control – our government’s failure to see the human side of its foreign policy decisions.

Policies are made by educated government officials who have thoroughly analyzed every facet of the situation. Yet too often these same decisions are carried out by people who, through no direct fault of their own, barely have a basic understanding of the country they are going to or its people, not to mention the political intricacies of the situation.

As a result, soldiers are sent into countries not even knowing the language spoken there. The people in that country, who often have equally skewed views of the troops coming in, tend to view foreigners with mistrust and apprehension. And when both sides are armed, whether with tanks or hand grenades, the situation only worsens.

Many of us at Georgetown will be policymakers someday and we must be careful not to fall into this same trap. We must be careful not to neglect the human faces – both American and foreign – that are on the other end of our foreign policy decisions.

The military is seen as a tool of geopolitical strategy, its size figured along with GDP and nuclear capabilities into calculations of national power. The Iraqi people are viewed as a sort of collective test case, guinea pigs for some sort of modern, genetically-modified theory of forced democracy.

Yet both entities are anything but faceless; they are people, individuals who demand our full understanding and consideration.

We must not become, like the policymakers in the government, cloistered in our own world of academic theories, forgetting that Iraq exists as not just as an interesting case study for analysis, but a brutal reality for many – both Americans and Iraqis.

Behind the concepts and theories and case studies, there are people.

In Iraq and elsewhere, more thought must go into the interactions between people and policies. If peace is to be possible, policymakers and soldiers must make efforts to educate each other and, more importantly, learn about the people of the world.

Despite my disgust with the soldier’s ignorance about Arabic, I didn’t say anything.

I bit my tongue, perhaps out of an attempt to stifle my inner SFS-kid-raising-her-hand-in-the-front-row mentality, or perhaps out of a strange sort of sympathy for this soldier and his circumstances.

Perhaps this was a reflection of my complicity in this understanding gap, and I regret not speaking up to try to bridge it. But by then the ski lift had reached the top of the mountain and we disembarked, going our separate ways down the white abyss.

Kerry McIntosh is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

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