Monday, May 22, 2006

Two Small Causes for Optimism

Following Shane's death, the last week here has been pretty depressing. The random nature and magnitude of such a tragedy almost seem capable of overwhelming the faiths that lead us to pursue noble causes and to justify hardship and sacrifice.

Yet two recent scenes since that IED attack, as trivial as they appear in the grand course of this conflict, come to mind and allow me maintain my optimism for Iraq, its people, and our mission here.

First, as I noted earlier, two weeks ago I went up to Erbil to attend the inauguration of the Kurdish Regional Government. To get from the International Zone to the Baghdad Airport, we traveled via helicopter over the same neighborhoods I saw from above last year while in Iraq with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Almost exactly a year later, the raw sewage that had lined the streets in many neighborhoods was gone. Multiple satellite dishes crowded the rooftop of every house and construction on new buildings was visible. And whereas last year there was hardly any traffic on the street, now there was that frustrating indicator of economic activity -- a traffic jam -- visible below. (Sunday is obviously not a holiday in Iraq). In other words, rather than being on the brink of civil war, as so often portrayed in the media, the Western districts of Baghdad appeared to be on the brink of normalcy.

Second, while visiting Shane at the Combat Support Hospital in the IZ, I made a dash back to my trailer to get a pair of eyeglasses for him to borrow so that he would not be blind throughout what was expected to be a short stay in Germany. It was about 95 degrees outside and sunny, and I was sweating profusely from trying to run despite the additional weight of my body armor. On my way back to the hospital, I came across a group of Iraqi soldiers lying on the sidewalk outside one of Saddam's palaces, clinging to its concrete wall for the meager shade it provided. As I huffed past, one of the Iraqis called out to me: "American."

I turned and looked back. He stood up and put his hand over his heart (an Arabic gesture of friendship), and said "Thank you." He didn't know anything about me other than my rank or nationality, and he certainly didn't know that I was running to see a friend for the last time who would eventually lose his life defending Iraqis' freedom.

Neither of these moments will do anything to ease the Mahaffee family's pain, or to justify the apparent senselessness of his (or 2,400+ other soldiers') death. But they did demonstrate that Iraq is making progress despite the continuing violence, and that there are Iraqis who appreciate the sacrifices U.S. servicemen are making.

These moments provide a small glimmer of hope in a week filled with sadness.