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Steve Hansen: Iraqis abandoned by U.S. as their country falls

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Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 12:07 am

What’s it like being an Iraqi soldier in the northern part of that nation? It might resemble something like this:

You’re a young man in his early 20s. You’ve joined the army not for political reasons, but survival for yourself and family. The military offers a regularly paid salary in a devastated economy — brought about by a conquering country located thousands of miles away.

While you are no fan of the former dictator, Saddam Hussein, there is reasonable doubt that the present regime is any improvement. Sectarian violence dominates the landscape on a daily basis. Life is lived for the moment. You and members your family may be alive today but needlessly gone tomorrow.

Since you’ve chosen to side with the victors, you believe the job as a soldier can’t be that dangerous.

But almost overnight, things changed. A group of insurgents known as ISIL — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — has conquered more than one-third of your country in just a few days.

Now you find yourself in a shallow ditch joined by a small number of comrades. Corrugated tin, propped by 4-by-4s, provides some shade from the sun. To your left, just a few yards away, is a more fortified adobe building containing another half-dozen men.

Rumors are flying that the small town you and other military personnel are ordered to defend may be the next to fall. It’s a place few people in the West know.

As you look toward the horizon from your location, you realize it’s an unusually beautiful day. Temperatures are just above the century mark. Winds are calm. A small group of lavender flowers bloom a few yards away. They are late for this time of year. These thoughts suddenly bring a new appreciation for life itself. There are hopefully many healthy years ahead, and this is not a day you choose to die.

Friends in the building shout encouragement for you to join them. They say it offers more protection. But you hesitate and think about a possible mortar attack. A direct hit would cause the meager fortress to cave. Dying by suffocation does not seem to be a good way to go. You prefer to take chances in a location where a close hit would end life instantly.

But there is hope. Squads several hundred yards in front of your position offer a first line of defense. A machine gun and other small arms are all you and your friends have. Unfortunately, there is no artillery support. Now that the Americans have left, there is no air power either.

In case your squad is overrun, you mentally rehearse the possible outcomes. The first thought is to run — to somehow escape. But this wouldn’t be feasible because of a tall concrete-block wall behind your location. During an attack, the only way out of this situation would be to move forward.

Next, you consider surrender. However, you’ve heard stories about these ruthless people and what they can do — including cold-blooded murder, torture and decapitation.

There is only one option, and that is to take a stand — no matter what the consequences.

As midmorning approaches, you hear nothing from the first line of defense. Rumor has it that your comrades have thrown down their weapons and run away. It doesn’t take long before the sounds of small arms fire, battle cries and shouts from the enemy are heading right in your direction.

There is no time for prayer. You fire a few shots with your M-16 rifle, but it is too late. You do not want things to end like this. There is tremendous pain, but it’s not from flying bullets. It’s the heartache that comes from giving up your newly recognized precious life, abandoning a loving family and being totally powerless to do anything about it.

The last thing your memory recalls are flashes of light from AK-47 assault rifles — clutched in the hands of insurgents as they charge your position. Suddenly, things turn dark, black and void of any perception.

When the sounds of gunfire grow quiet and the dust clears, the lavender flowers on the battlefield remain. They continue to bloom as they have for thousands, perhaps millions of years.

In the meantime, similar flowers grow half a world away on another continent. But this time, the atmosphere is completely different. There are no worries about imminent death and mayhem. Instead, these plants are surrounded by other human thoughts. On this particular day, the narrative revolves around World Cup soccer, legalization of a hallucinatory drug and the metamorphosis of same-sex marriage.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and former Army civil affairs officer.

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