Battle for Hearts and Stomachs

Young boys are the same the world over. In no other demographic slice of humanity do you see such an interesting mix of innocence, persistence, and bravado. Well, “interesting” is probably the wrong word; something more along the lines of “dumbfounding” is closer to the truth. An internal war between self-preservation and instinctual curiosity rages inside their prepubescent noggins, much to the chagrin of parents, teachers, and, in Iraq, soldiers and Marines.

Yes, we all love the PR pictures where the guy on patrol — looking very impressive in his full-combat load, M-4, and high-speed sunglasses — hands out chocolate, soda, soccer balls, abstinence pamphlets, books on the best restaurants in Venice, or whatever he happens to be carrying at the time. And that’s great; those everyday expressions of humor and compassion go a long way toward showing Iraqis how much our deployed troops and families back home care. But that “aw, shucks” picture tells only a part of the story.

Children are annoying sometimes. Other people’s children tend to become irritating even faster than our own flesh and blood. And, of course, children of people who may or may not have shot at you recently occupy their own little niche with appreciably less leeway than other kids. One would assume all these children pick up on vibes sent out by the adults around them, eventually learning to hold off or quiet down when they hear a certain tone of voice or recognize other signs of exasperation. And similar warnings given by guys wearing body armor and carrying large direct- and indirect-fire weapons would be heeded even more readily. But, then again, when you’re not in school, have no TV, and are bored out of your little skull, those mental warning lights maybe don’t seem so bright after a while. This poses a novel problem for many troops, often with interesting results.

Take “Simon,” your typical Iraqi kid, for example. His 11-year-old frame stands a majestic 4 foot, 2 inches and weighs all of 70 pounds. He wears pretty much the same outfit every day: sandals caked in dust, an ill-fitting pair of brownish shorts, a faded yellow T-shirt with short sleeves running halfway down his skinny forearms, and occasionally he gussies himself up with a fashionably frayed Nike hat. He is daring, cunning, and cocky as hell. Oh, yeah, worst of all, he’s bored; incredibly bored, all day, every day. There is no iPod, no Facebook, and no World of Warcraft (sadly, there is its nasty older brother, real war). But Simon makes do; kids can find entertainment just about anywhere.

He knows a veritable smorgasbord is harbored with the Marines stationed at a guard tower near his home. A roving sentry drops off food there pretty regularly while they are on duty, which is all the time. Simon also knows the guards tend to bore quickly when scanning the sleepy nearby town with binoculars. What does he have to do to snag some good food or something to drink? The answer is simple: merely out-wait his well-armed benefactor.

Simon begins by positioning himself a comfortable distance away from the perimeter; no sense tripping any of the sentinel’s mental alarms. Better to play it cool at this point, otherwise he risks starting off on the wrong foot. He creeps cautiously up the only dirt road leading toward the tower and lets loose with his opening salvo: “Mister! How are you?” This comes out sounding something like “Mistah, how arra joo?” and — although perfectly understood by the guard — yields no response. The Marine knows not to respond quickly; if he does, then dozens of kids will pop out of the woodwork and swarm him, an unacceptable security risk. Instead, he waits, slightly more alert now to any other distractions.

Having made the first move, Simon sits back on his haunches and traces figures in the dust; he also knows not to expect much from the first round. This is a delicate dance, after all, and he is the one leading. After about two minutes or so without a response, Simon stands back up, shuffles a few feet forward, and shouts out the same question. Despite the Marine’s silence, the cycle continues to repeat. After close to a half-hour of this game, Simon now stands within 30 meters (i.e., obvious earshot) of the post. Finally his juvenile patience begins to wear thin and he stays standing after each call, head cocked slightly to the right, left hand resting on his hip. That he doesn’t leave after the initial dust-drawing phase lets the guard know this kid means business.

As the cyclic pathos unfolds, the Marine calculates a few factors in his head while ostensibly continuing to watch out for suspicious behavior. What is the status of his provisions? How many hours left does he have? Is he really that hungry or thirsty at this point? Is it hot enough that he will be later? These considerations are weighed against one another and then the current emotional state is factored in; an intense process, yet he betrays no sign of these machinations. On the surface, a stern countenance gazes outward and ignores the boy’s shrill hail.

After close to an hour, Simon defiantly stands in the harsh haze of the mid-afternoon sun, repeating his call with flagging enthusiasm. The Marine is that much closer to getting off and all the happier for it; his perception of time speeds up as he rounds this shift’s final mental corner and hits the home stretch. Soon he will be back with the other guys, no flak jacket on, maybe even in an air-conditioned building! His mind leaps from happy thought to happy thought, each one lightening his burden slightly. Even so, he is stiflingly hot, drenched in sweat, and very aware of his blood circulating, particularly through his armpits; something about the way the body armor sits. Slowly he shifts his body weight, feeling the soreness in his shoulders and lower back, and pauses to exhale slowly. Behind dark sunglasses, his eyes swing toward the small table where the logbook and his gear are laid out. Simon’s cry, now bereft of hope, echoes across the dead space between them.

A can launches out into the air, spinning end over end and flashing in the sunlight. Simon reacts without thinking, catching the prize in close to his body, almost caressing it for a moment before wiping off the condensation with his shirt. He moves to pop the top, thinks better of it, looks up at the impassive guard for a moment, and quickly turns around, sprinting off to a safer place. The Marine wipes the sweat off his forehead, picks the binoculars back up, and resumes scanning the horizon, the faintest hint of a smile on his face.

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