Essays - Summer 2009

The Devil You Know

Keeping the peace in Ramadi calls for a little moral dexterity

By John B. Renehan | June 1, 2009

He answers to “Rambo,” though he’s more of a Mad Max figure, or the William Wallace played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. His wife and brother are dead—killed, here in Ramadi, by foreign jihadists—and he will cheerily tell you he has nothing to live for and cares little if he dies tomorrow. In the meantime, though, he intends to capture (his current, Coalition-friendly practice) or kill (his prior, preferred technique) as many of his enemies as possible, and he has proven himself supremely competent at doing so. He’ll be happy to show you movies of his handiwork, which he stores in his cell phone.

He is an Iraqi police officer, although he is beholden to no particular precinct or supervisor and has no partners. His nickname comes from Americans impressed with his exploits, but he shows no particular pride in it. (To fellow policemen he is Fahed—Jaguar.) He is in fact a modest and unassuming figure, neither personally nor physically imposing, aside from the array of heavy weaponry he habitually carries on his tall, slight frame, and he possesses a discerning intellect that belies his moniker. He is an apt representative of all that is contradictory and ambiguous, disturbing and hopeful, here at the West Ramadi Iraqi Police Station, which sits at a fork in the Euphrates about 70 miles west of Baghdad. It is here that I run one of the U.S. Army’s “police transition teams,” which trains and advises the men we hope will hold the peace in this slowly transforming city when we fade out of the picture. The time is September 2007.

I met Rambo on my first day here, and by the end of that day I had decided I wasn’t morally equipped for this assignment. I had been given a grand tour of the facility, a heavily sandbagged former youth center that mostly survived the firefights, mortars, rockets, and bombs that shattered downtown Ramadi in the years preceding the “Anbar Awakening” and our alliance with tribal leaders here. A large rubble pile at one corner of the compound revealed where a truck bomb had gotten through. My tour included the room where my soldiers and I would live, the Iraqi-run jail, the restrooms (a horror of sight and smell), and the Happy Shack. The Happy Shack is a decrepit little cinderblock structure in the weeds out back where, a few weeks earlier, a group of Marines had stumbled upon an agonized man hanging from the ceiling by a ratchet strap attached to his wrists, which were themselves bound behind his waist. (Yes, like that. He had been there an indefinite period of time, but long enough so that his shoulders were utterly destroyed.) Upon his arrest by the Iraqi police he had been kept out of sight of American forces and subjected to the Iraqis’ time-honored methods of interrogating high-value prisoners—the methods they would use routinely if we weren’t here watching them. The Happy Shack is, it should be noted, painted pink on the inside.

From there I walked to an adjoining Coalition compound and ate lunch in a little plywood chow hall frequented by Americans and Iraqi soldiers and police. I chewed on cold cuts and cheese slices while a battered television played the Tom Hanks movie Big on a videocassette—one selection from a large box of old tapes that had belonged to an American family, a collection, complete with home movies, that had somehow found its way here by the riverbank. Such was the reeling surreality of a day I had begun as an underemployed artillery officer (we are trying to blow up less stuff in Ramadi these days) and ended as an adviser to thugs.

That evening I wrote to my fiancée: I need to harden myself against these men, to close off any natural empathy I may come to feel for them as I live and work among them. I will not forget who they are and what they do. I will arrest them myself and take them to the American detention facility on Camp Ramadi if I catch them reverting to their old ways. I’ll bulldoze the Happy Shack to the ground; hell, I’ll burn down the whole goddamned police station if I have to.


I haven’t burned down the building yet, and in the way of things I have become if not quite friends then friendly with many of the Iraqi police (I.P.’s) here. A lot of them are just townies, really—neighborhood guys or villagers from the sticks who were never part of the power structure, never part of Saddam’s machine, men who never took a bribe or skimmed from the coffers or loomed over a terrified prisoner under a bare light bulb. Others, nominal Ba’athists or not, made their way in the old army or bureaucracy but by whatever route, short or long, now appear to operate more or less ethically, as ethics in government is measured in this country. Many seem to be decent men. Not all, though. My trust has severe limits, and I remind my guys to never forget that some of these Sunni tribesmen were at one time entirely different from what they became after their sheiks told them, Now we are with the Americans.

What can we do, though, but work with them? This is our mission, the sort of live-in advisory mission that might tra­dition­ally be considered the proper purview of special operations forces—whose personnel might at least come to it with rudimentary Arabic skills and wouldn’t have to rely on a single interpreter for a 350-man station. But there aren’t enough special operators to create a 9,000-man police force in a year, which is what has been done here in Ramadi.

So my 18 soldiers, trained as artillerymen, have abandoned the big guns and work side by side with these I.P.’s. They train them, learn a little Arabic, joke around, eat Iraqi food, and bed down with their weapons behind a flimsy wooden door in an Iraqi building outside the base, hoping that “Ali Baba”—the Iraqis’ colloquialism for foreign terrorists—has not gotten to someone on the police force with a sweaty wad of cash. (All my guys know about the American soldiers kidnapped eight months ago, almost certainly with inside assistance, from an I.P. compound in Karbala and later murdered in the desert.) We bolster this hope by getting to know the ways of this station and this neighborhood and by maintaining relationships with these men, realizing that some of them are corrupt as a way of life, take bribes with little shame, defend abuse of detainees with an “it’s the Iraqi way” shrug—and whose alliance with Americans has saved Ramadi from continued carnage. In short, we have made them our partners.

Which means we walk a line. My promise to my guys is that they will never have to do anything, or stand by and witness anything, that they will have to carry on their conscience after we leave here. It is a promise I cannot fulfill, of course, because no ordinary person can do this job, support these men, without qualms. What I can do, though, is find limits. My first is this: None of my men will go to jail for something an I.P. did. And so we have ground rules. We Americans hold the keys to the detention center at all times, which infantilizes the I.P.’s and thus undermines our overall mission—but ensures that we control the circumstances under which they gain access to their own detainees, whether for interrogation, bathing, or simply some time outdoors. We retain the option, backed by force, to enter and examine any square inch of the facility without giving a reason for doing so, such as when we broke into the police chief’s living quarters—a place whose privacy we would normally respect—when a detainee credibly claimed that he had been taken there surreptitiously and knocked around by the chief himself. (This had occurred during a test run of allowing greater leeway with the keys. The chief failed the test.) And yet I continue to work with this man, to maintain a relationship with him, to take a meal with him sometimes, even as I work with my own chain of command to convince the Iraqi chain of command to fire him for acts like this, for tolerating worse acts on his watch, and for general corruption.

These are the ordinary compromises with reality one makes in a situation like this, and I can live with myself for making them. I can accept them because, as with all worthwhile compromises, the most probable alternatives are worse, because Ramadi today and Ramadi eight months ago are two strikingly different places, and because at this stage in the game we can do better for this city than drop artillery rounds on it. In short, I can accept such compromises because these sometimes corrupt, sometimes brutal I.P.’s are what we have to work with. Working with them, to be sure, ranges from exasperating to infuriating and is only occasionally inspiring. But they are the best hope of maintaining in Ramadi the security that must precede all politics and of allowing a decent chance that this fragile semi-peace will hold when we leave, as we will do, and probably sooner than is wise.


Empowering our former enemies, trusting the untrustworthy—these are the sorts of contradictions that soldiers aren’t ordinarily meant to deal with, that can get into their minds and start tossing the furniture. Yet my soldiers have proven adept at handling the ambiguities without suffering a “Vietnam-style” crisis of disillusionment that one might lazily suppose would result. To the contrary, they are in many respects happier out here working with these men than when we were part of an underused artillery platoon living more or less safely on sprawling Camp Ramadi, a mile and a universe away—and they have made it emphatically clear to me that they do not wish to go back there yet.

Does this reveal a moral sense numbed by war? Hardly. These young soldiers come to war with fewer illusions than those who first went to Vietnam. My guys have grown up in an era of movies and TV shows (M*A*S*H, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, China Beach, The Thin Red Line, Flags of Our Fathers, to name a few) whose central interest in war is the moral and psychological confusion it gen­erates—an era in which the conflicted, alienated veteran is an established cultural archetype. They do not come to Iraq expecting a morally clarifying experience.

Far from being numbed, their moral sense is sharpened and matured by their experience here, I believe—sharpened because they have confronted a real-life moral dilemma and have seen that no possible solution is free of cost; matured because they do not retreat from the necessity of choosing a costly solution. They do not flinch from the corruption they see or from the histories of the men who are now our allies here. They recognize the moral ambiguities—or rather, the impossibly conflicting moral certainties—in what we do, and they accept them and move on. What are the alternatives? Stand on the sidelines congratulating themselves for having the moral purity to keep their hands clean, or at least dirty in an unambiguous, conventional way? Which helps the actual Iraq, in the actual here and now, exactly how? (This was an option they were all offered, to opt out of the I.P. mission for other duties—manning guard towers at Camp Ramadi and so forth. I should add that there were more volunteers than spaces on the team.)

I corresponded recently with a group of Stanford University students whose teacher, conducting a class on terrorism, had sought me out via a mutual friend. I found them genuinely engaged and curious—and awfully young. In response to an e-mailed question about my soldiers’ attitudes toward the Iraqi people, I discussed the awful quandary my guys find themselves in every time they climb into the gunner’s hatch of a vehicle—carrying the power of death, and of life, in their hands and having to decide, with every approaching vehicle on the road, “Is this guy trying to kill me, or is he just trying to get where he’s going?” A student wrote back that she found it stunning that a soldier’s first thought, upon encountering an Iraqi vehicle on the roads of Ramadi, would be to wonder whether it posed a threat.

Mostly this is just youthful lack of empathy—the failure to place oneself in my soldiers’ position and recognize that of course they think first of the possible threat, because they are afraid of dying. But there is something larger in this small thing, the contrast between perceiving morality in systematic abstraction and perceiving it through the lens of experience. Behind the ordinary naïveté of this student’s remark one senses the first buds, soon to be cultivated by the academy, of the intolerance for complexity that marks the prim moral style of the ideologue. Such a person views the individual actors in a moral transaction as categories, not people—mere stand-ins for the groups to which they belong (big scary soldier, innocent civilian) or the principles and policies they are seen to represent. Such a person grows indignant at the suggestion that individuals might be judged as individuals, not as categories.

But I am doing the same thing, really, when I ask myself, Who is the better man, the one who swore he’d never compromise, or the one who went ahead and compromised anyway? I am thinking in categories instead of in the specifics of a situation I experienced, specifics that I judged on their merits by my own moral sense. I’m setting large irreconcilable principles against one another—“Protect the innocent civilians of Ramadi” vs. “Do not deal with thugs”—and wondering how to choose which one to violate. These questions trouble the mind whose impulse to systematize responds to a moral dilemma by stepping back from the situation and saying, “Okay, what are our first principles here?”

But this is a false dichotomy. “Protect the innocent civilians of Ramadi” and “Do not deal with thugs” are not tangible entities that can meet in a dark alley and clash. They do not describe any single decision that I or my soldiers might actually make. We act among a cascade of facts and circumstances demanding that we honor conflicting principles that cannot always illuminate day-to-day decisions. They are lodestars—but even when you follow a star, you have to navigate around some pits and boulders along the way.

I try to honor these principles in my actions, and then I compromise when I have to. When my guys broke into the station chief’s room, a Marine sergeant who had had a long friendly relationship with the chief was upset, complaining about how offended he would be. I felt that the sergeant’s relationship with the chief had skewed his perceptions, and I reminded him not to forget just who it is we are working with here. Investigating a credible allegation of prisoner abuse takes precedence over burnishing our working relationship with the chief. If it doesn’t, then what are we made of? And then, after lecturing this Marine on principles, I continue to work with the chief, for he is what I have to work with and there are other honorable goals (training his police force to protect its own people) that we pursue.

My student correspondents are young; my soldiers are equally young but differently educated. Their transit with human morality is not academic but lived, its divergent demands felt not abstractly but directly. They are not surprised at finding themselves in a moral dilemma with no clean or systematic solution, because they have not been taught to expect otherwise. Like most people who have lived a life, they understand instinctively that honoring one moral mandate often demands dishonoring another, and that this is quite natural—that this is, in a word, life.

So they learn to cope with complexity, which Iraq has in surplus. They achieve a breadth of perspective denied those ideologues who see in this war a moral simplicity: a plainly noble liberation; a horrific imperial rampage. They believe, to varying degrees, or don’t, in the worthiness of our errand here. But to the extent they choose to approve or disapprove, their belief is not an ideology that seeks to bend all realities before it. It is simply an opinion. They see clearly the moral consequences, good and bad, large and small, of what we do here, and they do not avert their gaze. Their sense of self and the universe is not upended by these contradictions, because their own measure of individual moral worth is not based on conspicuous contemplative allegiance to abstractions, but simply on how they, as individuals, behave in the circumstances they find themselves in. This is wisdom. The military function requires soldiers to be doers, not contemplators. The irony is that, sometimes, to properly contemplate one must first do.

None of this is pretty. But there is no pretty way now to get Iraq from point A to point B. Therefore I am glad to have this mission, warts and all. We are doing necessary work that no State Department emissaries, no nongovernmental organization can do better. So I am right where I want to be. And the large questions of policy, of the final merit of this enterprise, are gloriously irrelevant to our present activities here. My soldiers are here, now, in the Iraq that they have been dealt, and they are trying to do something to help. What else do they, do we, need to know?

The Marines who work with me do not trust Rambo. I do. Or rather, I have chosen to trust him, because my job demands that I choose certain men here to trust. I do not know what he did in the past, or to whom—or to Americans. But I know that today he is here, whispering in my ear, telling me where a gap that a man might sneak through has appeared in my perimeter, or which I.P. officer to watch out for. And I know that tonight, as I type this, he is outside in the neighborhood; as we sleep here, he will be out there all night, in the dark, lurking, doing his thing, being Rambo, making everyone who lives in this station safer. At least I hope so.

It has been rumored that he was at one time a Coalition high-value target (like other of our present colleagues). It is conceivable that soldiers or Marines once died by his hand. But when I leave this place, I plan to give him as a gift a vial of sand I collected from Omaha Beach in 2004. This is the extent of my moral horizon at the moment, and anyone who finds this shocking has not stood in my boots, or in those of my soldiers.


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