Tuesday, August 07, 2007

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.


Blogger amr said...

We few, we Band of Brothers. Ah, the common thread emerges. Men who fought for Saddam and men who fight with Americans and the Americans themselves. Men of honor, they have a bond that can overcome the divisions that separate them. Another light flickers in the darkness of Iraq that few in America see.

8/07/2007 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is OFF-TOPIC.

Speaking of Hillary and "motivating others" I happened to go to the ACLU site to offer my tuppence about their views on wiretapping in the ongoing war on Islamofascism.

When I clicked the "feedback" hyperlink (I looked for it in "Search"... there's no immediately obvious way to provide input to those-who-were-born-smarter-and-more-moral-than-the-rest-of-us...you have to dig into it the back way) here's what I got

We're sorry. The page you are looking for could not be found. You may have followed a bad link, used an outdated bookmark, or it may have moved to another part of the ACLU.org website.

Similarly, the page called FORUM is under construction.

I guess it's hard to waste your time listening to free speech is your main job is to defend it.


8/07/2007 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I often wonder how our "know it all" executives in this administration fail to sense the need to really, and I mean really inform the American citizens of those realities that operate in Iraq. I wonder, though not as much, the decision making process our media has made in leaving behind such stories.

What a major disconnect! It is within this disconnect that the American people are getting fleeced!

We are being fleeced in more ways than blood, monies, and ethics. Why? Why do we find ourselves starving internally? For the truths that we should know, why are we denied access?

Looking for real leaders in Iraqi towns recently set free is real, yet here, in America, where no fighting for freedom has occurred for over 140 years, our leaders squabble over issues of turf while our ship prepares to take on perhaps too much water.

Are we looking for real leaders? I sure hope so. I've got a list of characteristics just waiting to get checked off.

8/08/2007 03:36:00 AM  
Blogger antithaca said...

I dunno. I'm not entirely sure what to make of Yon's tale. Wasn't it the intervention of LTC Johnson and the free press that broke the bureaucratic stranglehold?

Won't both of those things disappear when Johnson's unit leaves town next week/month/year?

I'm enchanted by the acts on the part of the American military in this case but...dispirited by the acts of the Iraqis. What am I missing?

8/08/2007 06:57:00 PM  
Blogger Derek Kite said...


I suspect that the people involved, on both sides, have no idea how to do this.

Somehave said that the biggest mistake made in Iraq was assuming that there was a there there. There was no state, not structure of state. Only a thugocracy. This is what happens after 30+ years of rule by a despot.

I suspect it will take at least a generation to build Iraq.


8/09/2007 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger antithaca said...

Well Derek, I'm not ready to go that far. Although your view may (or may not) be true.

The citizen from Baqubah did end up establishing at least some sort of relationship with the officials at the ministry. Will it persist? Grow? Who knows...

Maybe this was a "one shot deal" enabled only by the presence of Americans in uniform and a camera or, maybe they just needed to make the officials realize the Al Qaeda WAS gone and they wouldn't be sending their food to feed terrorists but, Iraqis.

Maybe Yon will be able to follow up. Maybe we'll see a report in 3 months that Baqubah hasn't had food from Badhdad in months. Who knows.

8/09/2007 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger emjay in VA said...

This episode, and the comments, lead me to consider again just how difficult it is for a Stalinist political/economic model to deal with the alternative models. How many times have we read of the Russian thugocracy which shadows, and sometimes dominates, the overt governmental agencies? Why isn't the uproar in the old USSR ever cited in the US press as the baseline for comparing and understanding the Iraqi problems? And for Mike, whether or not things are different because of this incident, is impossible to say - but at least the effort was made. Perhaps this is an instance when the journey is of greater import than the destination. Only time will tell, but will we, the people, give time some time?

8/09/2007 07:32:00 PM  

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