8 Things I Learned as an American Governor in Occupied Iraq

#4. Undisputed Rulers Get Surprisingly Little Overtime

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Mornings for Lt. Col. Couvillon started at 5. Nights ended at 2, leaving him a solid three hours of sleep to run his province on. His job wasn't just walking around with soldiers and looking fly as hell in a Humvee:

"I set up border patrol, police, negotiated two trade agreements with cities in Iran. Set up immigration rules and regulations. I had no experience; I just had to do it. I reached out to other people, asked for info ... I called the mayor of my hometown and asked, 'Hey, do you have any government documents I can translate to use as a starting point?'"

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It was basically legislative Mad Libs.

"We set up two television stations, two newspapers. I went on TV twice a week and held a call-in show so people could ask questions. The most common question was 'When do we get to vote?'"

Here Couvillon ran into problems with his own government, because there is absolutely no scenario that rampant bureaucracy cannot make worse.

Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"Sorry, this permit to establish a foreign democracy is only for countries north of the Mason-Dixon Line."

"We broke them away from Saddam, set up a new government in Baghdad, and said everything had to go through them first. So they asked, 'Well, what's the difference between then and now?'"

#3. Democracy Is Hard When You're Used to Dictatorship

Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images

Couvillon said, "The Iraqis didn't really have experience conducting meetings. When you and I go to a meeting, there's an agenda, you follow it, call for a vote ... well, in Saddam's time, you had whoever was the leader call people together and then tell them what to do. And if you disagreed, you wound up in a hole in the desert somewhere."

The United States government has had some ... optimistic projections for how quickly democracy would take hold in Iraq. But Saddam came to power in 1979, which meant a whole generation of Iraqis grew into adulthood viewing the government as "those guys who murder anyone who looks funny at them."

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"No, seriously, this is just what my face looks like!"

"When I first started holding votes, everyone would look to who they presumed to be the power in the room and wait to see what we said. I had to say, 'No, you have to go with what YOU think is right.'

"I went to one meeting ... it was a writer's union. Authors and poets and journalists; they decided they wanted to have an election. Well before the leader had been appointed by either the governor or Saddam. Now, arguing and rhetoric are an art form in the Arab world. Being wrong or right isn't as important as the argument ... So they'd go back and forth, and in this particular meeting they argued back and forth about who they wanted to be the leader; not by name, but 'I want someone tall,' 'I want someone with a beard,' etc. Finally, I asked, 'Who are you going to vote for?' And none of them wanted to say, because they were afraid to step up without sanction from me."

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"Fool me once, shame on you, because I will probably be too dead to be fooled again."

"I said, 'No, you can't do that; whoever you elect, that is the person I will work with and sanction.' So finally I got three people to run, and we ended up having a runoff. And then they elected a gentleman: He was a poet. Poetry is huge in Iraq."

He went on to establish Couv's Rules of Order, a modified version of Robert's Rules of Order, geared around the peculiar difficulties of a country full of people used to their government shooting first and then publishing baffling romance novels instead of asking questions.

"The first rule of order was: no weapons in the meeting. No pistols or rifles. They were always armed. Carrying arms became a status symbol, particularly the Kurds: Their cultural belief was to always carry some sort of weapon."

#2. If You Don't Want to Be Treated Like a Despot, Don't Dress Like One

Eva Braun via Wikipedia

Iraqis were used to being ruled over by a dude who dressed like a G.I. Joe home for Christmas:

AP via BBC
"About this long, only thicker."

Couvillon wanted to make a different impression, although we're sure his choice in sweaters was equally festive:

USMC via US National Archives
His mustache was vastly superior.

"I went around with my firearm concealed. I didn't wear my helmet or a flak jacket. I wore a regular camo uniform and appeared to be unarmed. This showed the people that: 1) I wasn't afraid and 2) I didn't need a weapon to guide them.

"I'd do stuff like go get a haircut and a straight razor shave in town; people would be crowding in. I wanted to project that image of someone willing to meet them on their own terms."

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The drastic reduction in genocides helped as well.

"One thing I insisted: when my Marines were on patrol and they saw kids, for them to interact with the kids. Give them coloring books, toys. If you're a parent and you're seeing me be nice to your kids, it's kinda hard for you to have that immediate hate for me. That was one way we inculcated ourselves. When you see a Marine in full battle gear, it's a pretty intimidating sight. So I gave my men the opportunity to go without helmets or flak jackets. The idea was to be as non-threatening as possible when we didn't need to be."

That might sound counterintuitive, but it worked.

Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"You want to play Monopoly with them? Are you trying to incite an uprising?"

"When we first got into things, there were Republican Guard and Iraqi units in the area. As things went along, we had criminal elements as well as terrorists. Several of my Marines and soldiers were wounded. But none of them were killed; I'm very, very proud of that."

#1. Sometimes Bureaucracy Is More Dangerous Than Terrorism

Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing/Getty Images

"I became the paymaster for all government workers in the province. They were owed $25 a month per individual. Well, Baghdad in its infinite wisdom sent us pallets of cash, $20 bills. Thousands upon thousands of them. They sent NO FIVES OR ONES. So how do I pay someone $25 with two $20s? They suggested every fourth person ... pay them an extra $20, so they could go into town make change and give it to the other three people."

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That turned out about as terrible as it sounded:

"After the first few hours of fights and knifings, I stopped that and cut back their salary to $20 a month. What else could I do? The American administration did a lot of stupid stuff. We were our own worst enemy. Here's another: It came down from Baghdad that Iraqi wheat did not meet U.N. health guidelines. So they cut off the wheat harvests, told us to burn it in the fields. We're trying to find jobs for everyone, and then this happens. The farmer makes no money, truckers can't make money, granaries can't make money, flour mills can't make flour, bakers can't make bread. The whole infrastructure breaks down."


"Hey, hey, everyone, put that manna down. God's bakery is not up to code."

"I screamed and hollered and yelled: 'Iraqis have been eating this wheat for thousands of years!' The Iraqis were coming to me and saying, 'Look, we've been through this with Saddam during the economic sanctions; the U.N. flour doesn't hold together, we can't make our bread the way we like.' So I told them we needed to let the Iraqi flour through, because people without jobs feed right into the terrorists. So I said, let's bring in people to help them clean up the process, rather than burn it in the fields."

Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
"Yeah, I guess that makes more sense. I mean, we already bought new flamethrowers,
kinda wanted to use them ... but, no, you're right."

Lt. Col. Couvillon credits most of his success to the forcibly mustachioed and occasionally unarmored Marines under his command, as well as the unbelievably ballsy Iraqi volunteers who risked pissing off insurgents to help turn their province back into a decent place to live:

"It was catch as catch can, thinking on your feet. Not only me, but my Marines, sailors, and soldiers. I really think I invited in my command the thought that we weren't there as conquerors. We were there to help. I wanted to make sure that Iraq was for Iraqis, not a 51st state."

Robert Evans runs Cracked's personal experience article team, and you can find more of his work right here.

Related Reading: Cracked talks to people all over the world with unique experiences, including a man who escaped the hermit state of North Korea. We spoke with some of your local garbagemen about how much they learn about you, and talked to Ukrainian rebels about overthrowing their own government. Have a story to share with Cracked? Message us here.

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