22 February 2009

Ditches and paranoia

I made a trip out today to look at my favorite ditch.

Pretty impressive, isn't it? Fortunately, this time, the pipe was in the ditch and one of the contractor's guys showed up with a shovel before I had to crawl down in there to verify it.

It was the first trip out there with our new manuever guys, and it was the usual adventure. See, during all the trainups to coming over here, the Army devotes significant time and effort to preparing Soldiers to survive in a combat environment. This is, of course, a Good Thing. Hooah, surviving.

The downside is that nobody really prepares these guys for the situation as it normally is on the ground. That is, very intensely not house-to-house combat.

I understand force protection, and I'm a huge fan. But we're really not at the part anymore where inspecting a water line should involve cordoning off a small village and racing around like it's Fallujah 2005 on a smaller scale.

Why, said the young leader of the grunts, are the people not coming out to talk to us?

I am the very picture of saintly diplomacy, but I was so deeply annoyed that I couldn't say anything and, instead, just looked at him, at the trucks squatting in the road, and at his dudes circling around houses.

Not getting my hint, the leader then finally cornered a local man who hadn't run back inside quickly enough and asked.

Because you are scaring them, the terp explained. He says your Soldiers are running and it makes the people of the town nervous.

It's a hard thing for a tactical-level leader to grasp, this weird combination of war/not-war we've got going on. But it can't be ignored - although the war occasionally shows up and needs to be handled appropriately, that's not what's happening the majority of the time. The vast majority of what's going on right now is low-key. It's us, with our Iraqi Security Forces partners, hanging out in our towns, chatting with people not like interrogators and targets, but like neighbors with a language barrier. It's Soldiers not tromping through folks' vegetable gardens and startling them in their yards, but instead kicking a soccer ball around with the local urchins.

It's not the best for force-protection; we're much safer if we occupy the bejesus out of a given area and don't let anyone approach. It's not as sexy as kicking in doors, but it's what the situation requires.

The good news is, the new guys are slowly figuring it out. Within a week or so, they'll relax a little and figure out when hiding locals is a bad sign, and when hiding locals means we scared them. They'll accept the tactical risk of having a security team and a playing with kids team.

But wow - that first week is frustrating.