BAQUBAH, Iraq – Upon enlistment, every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman in the United States takes an oath to protect the Constitution against foreign and domestic enemies. So what does that mean when the service member does not always enjoy the freedoms he or she has sworn to protect? This question is fundamental to every soldier working the streets of Iraq.
As a photographer for The Minnesota Daily during the fall of 2002, I covered many student anti-war protests even as my reserve unit geared up for its deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While I did not always agree with the rhetoric of these protests, I respected and appreciated the students’ and activists’ right to speak freely with full protection from the First Amendment. Being a civilian at the time I was free – if so inclined – I could join or oppose those protesters in whatever peaceful way I saw fit.
As a soldier, I do not enjoy those same freedoms that I protect. I could face military consequences if I freely speak my mind. I understand the situation, though, and know it is necessary for the military to function in the way it does.
In Iraq, I have had the pleasure of witnessing numerous peaceful assemblies as the Iraqi people begin to exercise and experiment with the rights that all Americans enjoy. I realized people have protested everything from poor water and electrical service to the lack of pensions for soldiers.
There was a group that came to our gate every week to demand the release of a local sheik, regardless of the fact that he was nowhere near our location.
It made me feel like we had truly done something for these people – they were able to take advantage of their newfound rights to assemble peacefully and speak their minds without fear of reprisals in the night.
Under Saddam Hussein, the standard punishment for speaking out against the regime was having your tongue cut out. People caught listening to music or speeches contrary to Saddam’s agenda often lost an ear.
Almost everyone I have talked to here has a story about the abuse they suffered personally or how a friend or family member suffered at Saddam’s hands.
The night after coalition forces found Saddam hiding in a hole near Tikrit, I was standing guard on the roof of the Baqubah Government Center, as I have for countless nights over the last eight months, when gunfire erupted two or three kilometers to my south.
Gunfire at night is not an unusual occurrence as the tradition here is to fire your AK-47 in the air as a celebration. In Iraq, wedding guests spray bullets skyward in much the same manner as we would throw rice or blow bubbles.
As the shooting spread and the laser lines of tracers began to work slowly toward my building, I began to get a little worried. I also wondered if maybe they were celebrating the capture of Saddam.
When his sons Udai and Qusai were killed, about 30 people died in Baghdad and 70 were wounded, all from falling bullets. So I tightened my helmet a little bit and hunkered down to wait it out.
A few minutes later, my partner on the roof uttered an exclamation relating to the sanctity of feces and pointed south down the road. Through my night-vision goggles I saw a crowd of about 500 Iraqis parading down the street and spilling out of open-backed trucks.
They chanted in Arabic and my chest swelled a little as I assumed they were celebrating the capture of their deposed dictator. Then I saw the
uneasy looks on the faces of the Iraqi soldiers with whom I work and the disgust in the eyes of our Iraqi national translator.
That is when I realized that these people were professing their love for Saddam and chanting anti-coalition slogans. My chest deflated and a flash of anger quickly replaced my pride. For a brief and illogical moment the thought crossed my mind that we could quickly solve many of the problems we have had in Baqubah by engaging this mob of people.
Then I realized that this was not terribly different from covering the anti-war protests on campus. Granted, the protesters on campus were unarmed and relatively harmless while this mob was potentially armed. The similarity lies in the fact that in both situations I was struck by the challenge, opportunity and honor inherent in the exercise and the protection of our First Amendment rights.
It is a challenge U.S. soldiers in Iraq face daily, but one that citizens at home need to observe and meet in their daily lives.
Martin Ludden is a former Minnesota Daily photographer. Send comments to [email protected]