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 ...
The Job of "Governor" Comes With Precisely Zero Training
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:
"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.'"
"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.'"
"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."
It Includes a Vast Amount of Power
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."
"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."
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 ...
When in Doubt: Mustaches
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:
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."
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."
"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.
People Everywhere Love Porn -- Some, Too Much
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.
"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."
If it was against both, they King Solomoned them.
Undisputed Rulers Get Surprisingly Little Overtime
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?'"
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.
"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?'"
Democracy Is Hard When You're Used to Dictatorship
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."
"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."
"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."
If You Don't Want to Be Treated Like a Despot, Don't Dress Like One
Iraqis were used to being ruled over by a dude who dressed like a G.I. Joe home for Christmas:
"About this long, only thicker."
Couvillon wanted to make a different impression, although we're sure his choice in sweaters was equally festive:
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."
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.
"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."
Sometimes Bureaucracy Is More Dangerous Than Terrorism
"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."
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."
"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.
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