A facebook note about my research


Following is a facebook note that I wrote about my research on June 25th 2010:

Title: “At the Iraqi Border”

For the last three and a half weeks I’ve spent my days studying Iraq, tribalism, and the Awakening movement. Hundreds of pages, scores of news reports, and dozens of articles later, not to mention countless google searches in English and Arabic, I know I’ve absorbed a helluva lot of information and even though I think I’ve learned a lot, I still feel like there are some things I’m plain incapable of understanding.

It’s not really a question of language barriers or even of cultural barriers. I speak some Arabic and can read it well enough to understand the gist of an article. I spent nearly four months in Amman, Jordan and have some first-hand experience on what Arab culture’s about (at least in that region). I met Iraqis there, ate at their restaurants, and even walked past their Babylonian-esque embassy. Certainly Arabic’s a huge language that I’m still mastering, and Arabic culture is complex and varied, but I have some credentials in those areas.

Nevertheless, I have this nagging feeling that no matter how much I read about the experiences of Marines in Al-Anbar or pore over interviews with various sheikhs, there’s certain things I not only wont get, but can’t get. This came to me strongly while watching “Gunner Palace” a documentary of the soldiers in 2/3 Field Artillery who occupied Uday Hussein’s “Pleasure Palace” shortly after the regime fell. Captured by embedded journalist Michael Tucker, the film tracks the soldiers from 2003 to early 2004, while the insurgency was coalescing but immature.

The film left me thinking that no matter how visceral the movie, how raw the footage, or how unsparing the report, there is simply no substitute for being there. But the film also left me with another thought, just as important – you cannot fully grasp post-Saddam Iraq without some experience of its trauma and of its suffering. Anything less than that is vicarious and however powerful or piercing, not the real thing.

I’m not saying you have to have survived an IED to qualify as an Iraq expert, nor am I saying that doing a tour establishes you as a master of COIN dynamics. I don’t believe that suffering is somehow ennobling, in fact I think it’s often damaging, but I’m left with the impression that feeling first-hand some of that fear, uncertainty, and terror is part of the story of modern Iraq and that no movie or text can truly convey that. It’s not all negative, but it’s an inextricable part of it. Fundamentally, I’m left with a major recognition of my own limits in understanding the full scope my subject.

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