Long noisy columns of American tanks and armored vehicles rumble through Baghdad's streets all day and all night. American sons conduct body searches at checkpoints shrouded in razor wire. I strain my neck up to see the sky whenever I hear the monotonous chop-chop of the helicopters above.
I keep telling my driver never, ever pass the ubiquitous American Humvees. They have names like “Hustler” or “Ghost Rider” stenciled on them, like they're some American teens' hotrod.
I tell the driver to keep a comfortable distance from the Humvees, each equipped with a mounted machine gun and a nervous 20-year-old from Kansas or Georgia holding onto it for dear life.
My driver doesn't understand why I'm so careful, he doesn't know anything about 20-year-old kids from Kansas or Georgia. And besides, to him, I'm as much a part of the invasion as the soldiers.
And he's right. Maybe I am.
“Occupation” is an ugly word, but it's the one that immediately comes to mind when you've spent some time in the new Baghdad. The American rulers here even recently changed the name of the organization running the country from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs, or ORHA, to the office of the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. But I like to call it OCPA, as in “We gonna oc'pa your goddamned country.”
I wonder whether Mr. and Mrs. Minivan back in the states know that American teenagers from Cicero, Illinois and Shaker Heights, Ohio and Midland, Texas and Macon County, Georgia wearing flak jackets and holding M-16s are now directing traffic in the streets of Baghdad.
I wonder if they know that Paul Bremer, leader of the occupation authority, is going around Baghdad playing soccer with children for the television cameras, cutting ribbons like he's president.
I wonder if they think about what it means that Americans soldiers are trying to enforce gun control in a foreign land. Do they realize how radical a plunge the US has taken? I wonder if they just can't be bothered, too concerned with the kids' summer break or the NBA finals to give a hoot about what this all means.
For Iraq's 5 million or so Sunni Arabs – who enjoyed economic and political privileges under Saddam — it's clear what occupation means: humiliation, defeat and rage. Though the Americans like to make World War II analogies and think of themselves as liberators freeing the country of a hated dictator, the Sunnis view the Americans with burning resentment, something like how the French must have viewed the occupying Nazis.
It's the Sunnis that are ambushing American soldiers. It's they who have holed up in mosques, daring Americans to enter and search for weapons. It's their sons who will wind up joining violent groups like al Qaida dedicated to launching suicide bombs.
Iraq's 15 million or so Shiites – defeated, humiliated and enraged by Saddam for over two decades – the occupation has given them the opportunity to take control of the country in which they are the majority.
At first the Shiites were as vocal about getting the Americans out of Iraq as the Sunnis were. Alas, the Shiite moment of radicalism peaked 24 years ago in Tehran, and when even the most anti-American, anti-Western Shiites see their talented nephew getting promoted to dean of the school of arts or a cousin being hired to help out as a translator for the Americans, they make temporary adjustments to their worldview.
The Shiites never advanced far in the Baathist order, and now they're reaping the benefits of their alienation from the previous regime. Even their most committed Islamists are keeping quiet. They're instead focusing on grabbing control over schools, starting health clinics and taking over local seats of government, much like the Christian right does in America.
For the dominant Kurds in the north of Iraq, occupation has meant an opportunity for a little payback. The Kurds, once confined to their Switzerland-sized autonomous enclave, have by some accounts doubled their area of influence. They were once the most oppressed and brutalized of Saddam's people. They placed all their chips on America and they won. Predictably, they're not being very gracious in victory, as they go about looting Arab villages and kicking people off of “Kurdish” land.
Then there are the Americans. The sight and sound of people from rural America in east Arabia still startles me. My Midwestern consonants sometimes give me access to the Sergeant or Private or Lieutenant's uncensored thoughts. Most soldiers – stuck doing guard duty or conducting foot patrols in the unbearable heat and violent sun– hate it, and troop morale is at a low: “Goddamnit I hate fuckin' Eye-raq and fuckin' Eye-raqis. I just wanna go home!”
The other Americans here come with exotic titles: consultant, attache, contractor, adviser, from Tony Blair's office, from the Pentagon, from the White House, special liaison to deputy blah-blah-blah. There are about a thousand of them.
There are the fresh-faced young, ambitious Republicans with degrees from large state universities, who found their way here. There are the State Department specialists who speak Arabic and Farsi fluently and know more about the region than I'll ever know. There are the jaded ex-Special Forces turned private spook for hire.
Get 'em by the beautiful pool in the hotel, wait for them to finish a couple beers and they might speak candidly about the American presence here. Some, they say, some of the good, smart ones have packed up and left already, frustrated that they couldn't do anything to help rebuild Iraq.
It's all slowed by the bureaucracy. It's all in the hands of politicians handing out favors and contracts. The Americans will leave here after 12 to 18 months, they hope. The Americans won't leave for 100 years.
In contrast to the soldiers, they all seem to love being here actually. They complain about the mosquitoes, the heat, the lack of air-conditioning. They all stay in the Republican Palace grounds – the massive sprawling complex used by Saddam — separated from the rest of the country by high physical walls and huge cultural gaps. But they all seem to think they're performing a good deed by being here.
Many bring up the World War II parable, how the US military went in and liberated Europe and ocpa'ed Germany and brought freedom and democracy and McDonald's. Those Krauts wound up loving Uncle Sam! But I think the World War II analogy misses two crucial points:
Germans hated the US at first. They may have hated Hitler, too. But they resented having foreigners on their soil. It was only when the Cold War heated up that the Germans warmed to America: as bad and uncivilized as these naïve Americans may be, they're still not nearly as bad as the Red Russians who want to conquer us.
Also, the US poured nearly $12 billion (that's in 1947 dollars; right now that's probably $12 trillion) of reconstruction money into rebuilding Europe as part of the Marshall Plan. In Iraq, instead, it seems America is obsessed with trying to find ways to make money, handing out reconstruction contracts to US firms, and then proposing wacky self-financing schemes for rebuilding Iraq. So I guess that means Iraqi oil will be sold to come up with cash to pay American companies to rebuild Iraq.
There's this section of Baghdad where many of the towering, Stalinist government offices are located. You drive through and it's like a scene from a Godzilla movie or footage from Hiroshima: all the government buildings — the ministries of health, higher education, defense, telecommunications, transportation — have been burnt, looted or bombed into oblivion. Only their steel girder frames remain. Iraq's museums, theaters and universities have also been torched and looted by vandals and criminals.
But amid these ruins, one building stands out as so pristine it's surreal. Protected by phalanxes of US soldiers since the very first days of the occupation, it actually seems to gleam amid the apocalyptic landscape. It is, of course, the Ministry of Oil.