8 Things I Learned as an American Governor in Occupied Iraq

Imagine you were suddenly dragged out of your day job and told you had to travel to another country and rule over it for an indeterminate amount of time. Most folks would curl up in a little ball and try to cry out the responsibility; others would cackle maniacally and buy a white cat to stroke during monologues. Lt. Col. David Couvillon did neither of those things. He was a Reserve Marine officer, activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom and eventually tasked with governing the Wasit Province of Iraq immediately after that country's government retired to a spider hole at the behest of a whole bunch of men with real big guns. Thrown straight into the deep end while holding an anvil, Couvillon quickly discovered ...

#8. The Job of "Governor" Comes With Precisely Zero Training

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Much of military life is defined by training. That's a key difference between professional soldiers and militia kooks who play with AR-15s like toys. In 2003, the United States found itself in possession of one Iraq, slightly used. In the interim between "utter collapse" and "free elections," schools still needed to run, roads needed to continue to be roads, and homes needed power. This necessitated a government, and governors. Here's how David Couvillon found out he was going to be one of them:

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"We mobilized in February of 2003 and [were] assigned to Task Force Tarawa. I organized our rolling stock into a convoy to a place called Al-Kut. I got off the first airplane and went looking for General Natonski. He said, 'Col. Couvillon, I'm glad you're here.' I knew something was wrong because he pronounced my name right. 'You're the governor now.'"

Erik Ogan
"Here's your official governor's hat."

"Normally in Marines we get direct orders: 'train to this level' or 'take this hill.' Here's the order, and your expectation. So I asked, 'What does that mean?'

"'You're the governor; anything that happens is your responsibility.'"

Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images
"I know I didn't pay my power bill, but that's the colonel's job now."

"'I get that, but what do I do?'

"'Anything that happens, you're responsible for.' That was the extent of my training."

#7. It Includes a Vast Amount of Power

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The David Couvillon we talked to is a genial war gamer with a passion for history, but he found himself in a position few men in the 21st century have ever held (even fewer of those people held it against their will). We asked him the extent of his powers as governor:

"Are you familiar with a Roman imperator? Absolute. My guys joked they'd get me an SPQR standard to hang outside my tent."

Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"Haha, good one, guys. But seriously, Captain Brutus, would you mind standing a little further away?"

This might sound like the sort of power that could go to one's head, but it also came with a ball-shriveling amount of responsibility:

"We needed to make sure there were no armed forces in the area that could make the people afraid or engage my Marines in combat. Second priority was establishing logistics for food and fuel, as well as potable water. There was health care, getting kids back in school. Garbage needed cleaning, and that included ordnance from the invasion and stockpiles left by the Republican Guard."

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Stock isn't the only kind of pile they left.

Basically, Couvillon found himself responsible for security in a place where roadside bombs were more common than truck stops. He also had to gain the trust of the people -- the same people his fellow soldiers had just invaded the holy hell out of. And to do that ...

#6. When in Doubt: Mustaches

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One of the most important things you can do before traveling to any country is study up on the local history and customs. It's how you avoid accidentally eating foods made from testicles or rotting fermented fish. And when you're occupying a nation, it helps make them shoot at you a bit less than usual:

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Cutting the amount of bullets heading towards your face is moderately more stressful than helping your manager reduce shoplifting.

"I went and hired an interpreter off the street, and this guy got me out of a LOT of trouble. Tremendous young man, and I stay in touch with him today. When I was in Desert Storm, I'd read the Quran cover to cover, and I still haven't even read the Bible. I'm no expert, but I made a point to try and understand as much as I could. I started gathering info through the Internet and through books. And when I got there, Iraqis gave me books on Islam and the culture."

Couv quickly learned that all guns were not created equal. For example, "Note pictures of Iraqi police now and in the past: They have AK-74s now, they don't carry pistols. To them a rifle is more of a hunting arm than a weapon."

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But when we go squirrel hunting with a Kalashnikov, suddenly it's all "reckless endangerment" and "felony firearm charges."

Meanwhile, handguns, which we see as much less threatening than handing out machine guns to our beat cops, were a symbol of Saddam Hussein's brutal government. When the secret police come in the night to put a bullet in your head, they do it with a pistol:

"And they are famously poor shots with a rifle. So when we were putting together our police force, we tried to give them arms training. And it was REALLY difficult to make them accurate at 50 yards. Normally you start teaching the prone firing position. But the culture in that part of the Middle East teaches that lying on the ground is a supplication thing. The concept of looking over the sights was hard, too; they liked to spray and pray."

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"Please take the hood ornament off your front sight."

Oddly enough, facial hair turned out to be a key part of gaining local respect, as it should rightfully be everywhere on the globe:

"One thing I learned in Desert Storm: If you didn't have facial hair in Iraq, you had no wisdom. So I asked my Marines to grow mustaches and 70 percent of them did, and it paid dividends. I also told them not to wear sunglasses, because Iraqis like to look you in the eye. We were visitors in their culture, not conquerors."


But just think how much more Alexander could have accomplished had he grown a killer 'stache.

Couv's decision to be properly haired paid off big time. He recalled one meeting early in the occupation:

"When I walked in, of the Americans there, I was the only one with facial hair. And when I walked into the room, even though my colleague was 6 foot 6 inches and a general and I was just a lieutenant colonel, the Iraqis deferred to me. One thing I tried to push on my Marines is that Iraq was not our country and we needed to pay attention to what these people wanted."

And it just so happened that they wanted mustaches.

#5. People Everywhere Love Porn -- Some, Too Much

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Fun Fact: Saddam Hussein released all of Iraq's prisoners before fleeing power. So the new regime found itself dealing with a little bit of a crime wave:

"At the time Al-Kut was like the Vegas of Iraq: whorehouses, porn theaters, bars. All under cover, of course, don't get me wrong."

Couv's men were reservists, and that meant they had actual professions outside of the military.

George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty
"Putting myself in insane danger all around the world is a part-time gig. My real passion is office work."

"I had some police in my battalion, and I put them to work training the Iraqi police and making those overt criminals ... at least operate underground. So we shut down some movie theaters, raided a couple of places.

"There was one porn house. Someone had brought a hand grenade in a paper bag, and it fell through the paper bag and exploded in the house. It started a riot, and we had to clean that up. There was gun running going through the province to arm terrorists, so we took operations against them. One thing I made [...] known was that if an Iraqi did something against an American, I brought them into our military justice and prison system. If they committed an act against another Iraqi, we put them through their own judges and jails."

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If it was against both, they King Solomoned them.

Couv's efforts probably bummed out a lot of Iraq's porn-and-hand-grenade aficionados, but they helped make Wasit into one of Iraq's safest provinces.

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