When you drive Highway 10 across the new bridge near Fallujah, Iraq, as I did a few months ago - the one next to the old bridge where horrific scenes unfolded three weeks ago - you may allow yourself a bit of wonder. This is the Euphrates River, Mesopotamia, the region of Ur and Babylon, the cradle of civilization. Then you start watching. As a foreign civilian, you are a "soft target." The resistance in Iraq is not just trying to kill soldiers. They are also coming after you.
You can't rely on the United States Army to protect you. It has its own problems. And although you may be in an armored car, it may not protect you from a roadside bomb. You must find comfort elsewhere.
Our company, an American consulting firm, has about 15 foreign civilians in Iraq who are helping to rebuild a shattered country. They came for all kinds of reasons, from patriotic to financial, but they have a common link when it comes to day-to-day peace of mind: They subsume their own interests into what's good for others.
J, the American boss (I am disguising names for security reasons), is a large man. He moves slowly, as if nothing in the world is worth worrying about. He has a family back home in the States, so his first concern may be his own safety, but he doesn't show it. He listens patiently to all problems, no matter how busy he is. When people get angry with him, even when they insult him, he doesn't return fire. "You have to be able to take it and shake it off," he says. He is determined not to let any meeting pass without at least one laugh. To him, a united staff with high morale is ultimately what will keep everyone sane.
C, the craggy Australian, is incapable of whispering. It's just as well. When she's in a room everyone knows it, because within 10 minutes she inevitably has tried to fix something. She gives clarity to the group. She cuts through a problem to its core, and pity the person who lets his or her ego get in the way. She believes that no one's self-interest is worth accommodating if it gets in the way of what's good for everyone.
What's good for everyone, she insists, is the truth.
The American director of operations is T. He treats the boss and the Iraqi driver with equal patience and mild amusement. He seems soft when you first meet him. His voice is soft. He hardly moves when he talks. But softness can be a strength in Iraq. It deflects stress. "I'm not here to save my own behind," he says. "This country and its people have wonderful potential." When he focuses on solving a problem, others feel calm and ready to cope again.
Z, the quiet Iraqi-American, notices the little things, such as the young boy searching a pile of garbage in Baghdad who finds a whole apple, picks it up, and just stares at it. It makes her sad to see her native country in such trouble. "I can go back to normal life in America," she says. "Iraqis can't." For her to trust you, "You have to prove by your results that you're here to do good," she says. Her contribution to the group is patient watching, watching for the things that show progress for her people and therefore success for everyone.
And then there's M, the Egyptian economist. She is everyone's good friend. When she talks with someone, she doesn't just converse. She commits her whole being to the interchange. Even when she's down, she tries to keep others up. She is bright-eyed and small, appearing too innocent for such a rough place. But her innocence gives her strength. "A person who does well here finds the good things in life," she says. Even when she's worried, she won't let her emotions get in the way of her joy. "If you live your life always afraid," she says, "you'll never live at all."
Iraq may be a maelstrom of violence now, and depending on your point of view foreigners may be causing more problems than they are solving. But that isn't the only reality here. Humor and honesty, gentleness and joy are in the country, too, and many of the civilians who have come to help bring those qualities to the task.
Ultimately, it isn't military firepower that will make Iraq safe. It's the idea, believed by Iraqi and foreigner alike, that there are interests beyond self-interest. The mental state of a few people may seem irrelevant in the grand scheme of global politics. But when you're in Iraq, your thoughts make a big difference in how secure you and others feel.