A Organizer's Tale
On August 1 I received a copy of Hillary Clinton's undergraduate thesis which was purportedly based on the theories of organizing guru Saul Alinsky. But reading Michael Yon's dispatch Bread and a Circus, Part II of II makes it clear that it is really some commanders in Iraq who have mastered Alinsky's theories. Here's the situation: American troops have just beat the living daylights out of al-Qaeda in Baqubah. That's the kinetic battle. It is the figurative day after and now it becomes obvious that grub in Baqubah is running low. The problem lies getting the Sunnis of Baqubah to drive trucks across the uncertain sectarian landscape to the capital, past any lurking IEDs and suicide bombers, to get the food from government warehouses in Baghdad. LTC Johnson's challenge, however, is not how to make it happen, but to motivate the Iraqi officials to make it happen. That's a subtle and critical difference. Alinsky would know. Yon describes how it was done.
After the trucks were organized into a convoy, LTC Johnson's first challenge was to identify real leaders who could take the convey through. The official leader was the Baqubah mayor but, although a decent enough fellow, it was soon obvious that the Mayor was a somewhat timorous character. So the first thing Johnson does is look out for Iraqis who rise to the challenge. He found an inspirational leader in an Iraqi nicknamed "Tonto", after Johnson nearly shot him.
That morning, still in Baqubah and trying to get the convoy organized, a truck driver had approached us with intention in his eyes. LTC Johnson closed on the man whom he suspected was a suicide bomber. My video was running as Johnson drew his pistol. If a bomb had detonated, Johnson and a few others would have definitely been killed. I might have survived—although in no condition to write these words—but had I, it would have been solely due to Johnson and the others having closed space with the man. But they actually risked their lives not to save mine, but his: they could have shot him from a distance of perhaps even 10m farther, but it happened so suddenly they just moved straight in. That was courage.
As it happened, the man who had closed space with us was simply an Iraqi coming forward to help start the convoy rolling. The Iraqi man—I’ll call him “Tonto” because he’s still in the thick of the war—owned some trucks and wanted to get his business going. Guts and capitalism make an impressive combination.
In the weeks ahead, Tonto would become a key figure in rallying courage and can-do among some of the more tentative leaders in Baqubah. Whenever LTC Johnson was having problems raising enough of either, I would hear him say, “Where is Tonto!” (Only, Johnson would use Tonto’s real name, and might spice-in a colorful turn, as in: “Where the xxxx is Tonto?! I need him! Call his mobile!”) Tonto looked like he might weigh 120lbs if he had just eaten and his pockets were full of sand. But he was a talisman for summoning courage among his fellow Iraqis.
At critical moments, when the fear of driving over the next hundred yards of concrete or the prospect of staying in a Shi'ite controlled area unmanned the Mayor, LTC Johnson would ask his informal leaders to take point and by their example, drag the timid officials along with them. But -- and Alinsky would understand the point well -- the American LTC was careful not to openly shame the Iraqi official. When the convoy stopped for the night, an occasion certain to jangle the Mayor's frayed nerves, Johnson had an inspiration.
...LTC Johnson wanted to stay and guard the Iraqis, but the owners of the garage did not want Americans staying overnight there (thankfully), and so we headed to Camp Liberty in Baghdad. LTC Johnson asked the mayor if he wanted to stay on base, and after some thought, he came with us. This was tricky stuff Johnson was trying to pull off and I was getting lots of education as he would often clue me in to what he was trying to do. He was keeping the prestige of the mayor intact by taking him with us, and if the mayor’s courage lasted until the morning, Johnson needed to make certain the mayor demonstrated it in front of people.
At length the convoy from Baqubah arrived at Baghdad ministry headquarters which controlled emergency food relief supplies. All thoughts of IEDs and snipers vanished. The problem now at hand was how to persuade the officious Shi'ite that a bunch of no-account Sunnis escorted by LTC Johnson should be entitled to food from the warehouse. There ensued one of those multi-way shouting matches, punctuated by frantic hand gestures, featuring several officials, some women and an American officer fluent in Arabic, which if filmed would be a scene out of slapstick comedy were it not so serious.
The manager began throwing down a long series of bureaucratic tripwires, booby traps and obstacles. He cited that he had no authority to issue the truckloads of food. Authority would have to come from higher. LT David Wallach, whose Arabic is fluent, sometimes took the conversation himself, while LTC Johnson would sit back and scan over the people, sizing up the room. Other times LTC Johnson took the lead, but initially the mayor of Baqubah still seemed intimidated (the mayor told me earlier that if he went to the Ministry without Americans, he feared he would be murdered), and would not interject much. The Shia bureaucrats were dug in, and effective arguing solo and in tag teams. More bureaucrats joined the fray. We spent much of the day there, and later we learned this man was an Iraqi Army veteran from the Saddam era. The gesticulations got more pronounced. Exciting even. It was like a play. The flying hands reminded me of Rome.
Al Qaeda’s efforts to propagate the civil war run far deeper than merely bombing mosques and murdering busloads of people. By seizing the warehouse in Baqubah, they had used the food as both a political and economic tool. The bureaucrats seemed unreasonable and unhelpful, as if they had declared their own war on Baqubah. But what even we did not know was that warehouses and silos in and around Baqubah were in fact loaded with grain, flour and uncounted tons of sugar. Al Qaeda had stolen it, apparently to dump it or sell it or feed their minions, but Operation Arrowhead Ripper interrupted the plans. This was a perfect argument. The bureaucrats were right: Al Qaeda had practically owned Baqubah, and was murdering Shia (and Sunni) directly or indirectly, literally by the thousands around Iraq. Why ship food out to Diyala Province to the hands of the enemy? So this was perfect for al Qaeda; they were trying to start a civil war, and because the Ministry will not help with the shipment, it looked like it was the Shia who will not deliver to Sunni.
But Alinsky would have insisted that the real problem in every circumstance is not how to follow the bureaucratic rules but how to use the occasion to create grassroots leadership. LTC Johnson must have known that unless he could motivate the delegation from Baqubah to twist the tails of the Baghdad bureaucrats he would have suffered a defeat nearly as bad as that on the battlefield. He would have destroyed the town's faith in the workings of civil government.
That’s when LTC Johnson said he was not leaving Baghdad without that food. Doors will open one way or another. ... Johnson pointed to me [Michael Yon] saying that he brought the press along so that the world would see them for what they were: either heroes or villains. Perhaps other writers might have been offended, or felt used, but Johnson was simply telling the truth, and nothing disarms basically honest people more than shameless truth-telling. In any case, the camera was working. The bureaucrats were not simpletons. They never told me to turn off the camera. To their credit, they were duking it out in front of God and everyone.
And with that, the spell was broken. Every side snapped out of the bureaucratic trance they were under and the papers started to get filled out. The warehouse doors would be opened and Baqubah would get its food. But more importantly, everyone from the Mayor down on to Tonto felt a sense a pride in what they had done. They had seen the Elephant and they had not run. Later that day they all sat around telling each other the stories of their lives.
Hours passed by. We were on the edge of Sadr City where we could get flattened. As the paperwork oozed forward, we ended up sitting with the bureaucrats, listening to war stories from when they had been in the Iraqi Army. One showed us scars from a mortar, the other said he spent years as an Iranian prisoner.
We few, we Band of Brothers.