Bending the Third Rail
Because We Should, We Can, We Do
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Salon has a short essay today that is the perfect metaphor for the American experience in Iraq.

American soldiers, it seems, decided that it would be a nice "hearts and minds" exercise to hand out soccer balls to the young people of Iraq that follow their humvee's. Since all the kids play soccer, this seems like a good idea. Except:
At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Reppenhagen and his fellow soldiers encountered a five-ton truck stacked with large cardboard boxes. They began to unload the truck and open the boxes. There were maybe 50 soccer balls in each box. But the balls had not been inflated. They were all flat. Reppenhagen scoured the boxes. No pumps. What was worse, nobody had bothered to pack the needles to inflate the balls.
No problem right? Just go to the engineers and mechanics who have pumps ... right? After all, the U.S. military with a $600 billion plus budget ought to be able to pump up a few soccer balls ... right?
"They tried to pump them up with tire pumps," Reppenhagen said. But the mechanics had the equipment to inflate Humvee tires, not soccer balls.
Uh oh. What now? Sheesh, the commander-in-chief is a bicycle rider, don't you think he could spare a few pumps?
Frustrated, the soldiers asked their commanding officers what to do. [probably their biggest mistake] None were sure. They kept calling their own superiors. Cassidy suggested that they order pumps and needles, which would arrive in about two weeks. The battalion colonel quickly tired of the whole discussion and said he wasn't about to requisition soccer ball pumps. "He decided this was a waste of time," Cassidy said. "His thought was, 'Iraqis should be grateful.' Not, 'They will be grateful' -- 'They should be.'" Finally, the lieutenant commanded the troops to deliver the balls to the children. "He was pretty much like, 'Shut up and hand out these soccer balls,'" Reppenhagen said.
Being good soldiers, they did just that going through the streets and tossing out flat soccer balls to the kids .... hundreds of em'.
When the Humvees began to retrace their route back to the base, the futility of the operation was becoming painfully clear. "Kids were wearing these soccer balls as hats," Reppenhagen said. "They were kicking them around. They were in trees. They were floating in canals. They were everywhere. There were so many soccer balls."
When an army spokesman was asked about the incident, he had this to say:
"America is filled with veterans who know that this comic view of soldiers dumbly following orders is completely without basis and almost laughable in its propagation of stereotype," Kubik wrote. "Soldiers are Americans, not automatons." He added: "To focus on the air in the balls, or lack thereof, undermines the American spirit of generosity and completely misses the point of giving."
I think that sums up the whole experience. Or maybe the American soldier who was frustrated by the whole thing while trying to do the right thing sums it up the best:
"On the way back, kids were throwing rocks at us," he said. "I assumed it was because we gave them deflated soccer balls. Maybe if we had given them inflated soccer balls, they would have been out playing soccer."