Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Iraq War Through a Soccer Ball Prism

This Catch 22-like story from Salon (free if you view a 30-second web ad) is hilarious and heartbreaking. The set up: to capture Iraqi hearts and minds and pave the way to getting good intel about insurgents, an Army battalion (with our narrator, Garett Reppenhagen) is ordered to deliver soccer balls throughout the towns they were guarding.

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.

Resourceful soldiers that they were, the men carried some of the balls to mechanics in the motor pool. "They tried to pump them up with tire pumps," Reppenhagen said. But the mechanics had the equipment to inflate Humvee tires, not soccer balls.

Frustrated, the soldiers asked their commanding officers what to do. 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.

It seemed crazy. "We were so pissed," said Reppenhagen. But orders are orders. When you are told to hand out flat soccer balls, you hand out flat soccer balls. So the soldiers who served in 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment piled the flat soccer balls into their Humvees. Driving through the Sunni Triangle's war-torn towns, they tossed the deflated balls to children, who crowded the sides of the roads, running beside the canals and lush greenery that lined the banks of the Diyala River. "Kids were swarming us," Reppenhagen said. "We went to a couple of schools and delivered stacks of them. Everybody we saw got a flat soccer ball."

Which, of course, the kids quickly figured out. Pretty soon, Reppenhagen recalled, "They were like, 'What are you doing? What are we supposed to do with this?" 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."


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