Monday, June 06, 2005

Tunnel Vision

“Iraqis always seem to have lots of guns in their houses.” A U.S. Army colonel was making reference to how prevalent gun ownership is in Iraq. We were meeting with him in his office in the Green Zone. Draped across his high back chair was an ornate leather holster with his service revolver.

“Our young technician can barely keep up with the demand.” The colonel described the work of a sergeant who is an expert in constructing artificial limbs. The colonel said proudly that no one in Iraq has the equipment or expertise that this young man has. Yet there did not seem to be an acknowledgement of why there is such a demand for artificial limbs in Iraq at this time.

“The Iraqi NGOs we work with have a lot of trouble developing a level of trust between them.” He noted that when his office organizes a conference of NGOs in the Green Zone often they don’t want to follow the set agenda but need to express their lack of trust for the U.S. military and for each other. Yet he failed to mention the years of totalitarian rule by Saddam followed by two years of anarchy, neither of which would tend to develop trust in any institutions.

“All of us took a nine hour seminar on understanding Iraqi culture when we got here a year ago.” The colonel said his unit would be going home at the end of the month after a year in Iraq. As is the case with many U.S. military and civilians working in the Green Zone, the colonel said he has never set foot on a street in Baghdad. He has never been inside the home of an Iraqi family nor has he seen any of the historical or cultural sites of the country.

It would seem easy to characterize the colonel as hypocritical and bigoted. I am not the greatest judge of character but I kept having an image of him on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon holding up a tube from a roll of paper towels and describing what he saw. We are all finite creatures with a very limited field of vision. But what I do (and it is my sense that the colonel does this also) instead of opening up my field of vision to include things that I don’t understand or agree with is to make my field of vision even narrower. “Out of sight, out of mind” is an old saying that seems rather apt in this case. The colonel seemed very confident that the vision of the world he described was an accurate and complete one. And this was true. Within his extremely limited world-view, his vision was indeed clear. But what about the vast universe he was not seeing? What about the vast universe I’m not seeing? How do we all expand our vision to see things we don’t want to see? How do we stop putting “out of sight” things we don’t agree with? I wish I had an answer but I don’t even know where to start.

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