Not even the U.S. military is strong enough to conduct operations single-handedly. Beyond the various other nations that play their part in modern coalition-building, countless local governments, institutions and personnel work in cooperation with the U.S. government, Pentagon officials and military personnel on the ground.
More and more, Washington outsources to private contractors, entrusting logistics, security, construction, communications and even surveillance to private companies. Many of these contractors are former military and government employees, often hailing from across the world. Many take the same risks that regular combatants do. For some who lack the support networks that undergird any contemporary military, the risks are greater.
Then there are the indigenous military and security forces that are key to restoring order in any troubled or divided land: police forces and militaries of all types, appointed to work in concert with U.S. and coalition personnel, predictably under stress and adversity. Though woefully under-equipped and often poorly trained, these unsung uniformed individuals run the same gauntlet that deployed Western forces do. Unlike visiting forces, however, for indigenous personnel the fight is typically existential — their tour of duty will often last as long as the conflict itself does, and longer. As we have seen in the Middle East and elsewhere, conflict resolution can take decades, assuming that one fight does not simply transition into another.
There is another equally underrepresented cadre of dauntless people who work with coalition forces for the betterment of the mission. Military interpreters form the backbone of any counterinsurgency or peace support operation. Once the shooting war ends, if a military cannot express itself on the ground or establish a meaningful dialogue with the local population, then it might as well not be there. The United States and other militaries have learned this lesson the hard way. Although most militaries now run dedicated language courses to develop proficiency in personnel with the right aptitude, there is no substitute for native speakers who understand the culture, customs and environment better than any foreign soldier can. Interpreters are an indispensible part of any military intervention. As more than one senior officer has commented, on or off record, good interpreters are worth their weight in gold. The work is not easy. Any second spent assisting "occupying forces" is a moment that could get them killed because of their inherent value. This in itself makes them targets, and their families as well.
It should be well known that Stratfor has a profound gratitude to and appreciation for every military veteran on its staff. What may not be widely known is that we also are fortunate enough to have individuals who have worked alongside coalition forces in Iraq and in other conflict zones. On Memorial Day, we would like to share some of their experiences.
Before being attached to the U.S. Army, I mainly worked with private contractors. It was a good experience, but we were simply colleagues at the end of the day. I did the job I was paid to do, and they did theirs. Working alongside actual American soldiers, though, I felt like I was part of a family.
Being a military interpreter isn't exactly a normal job. The dangers are very real. Deployed with the troops, on foot or in vehicles, we faced life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Gunfights were commonplace, the threat from snipers was extensive and improvised explosive devices seemed to wait for us around every corner. But strength can be found in adversity, and we all shared a bond that ran deeper than simple friendship. If we got hit or ambushed, no one thought about just protecting himself; the instinct was to protect everyone else first. I had a friend, also an interpreter, who died doing just that. Without any thought for himself, he jumped on a grenade that was thrown at a patrol, saving the lives of the men around him.
We were all exposed to risk. Many good friends did not survive the war. I know for a fact that without the efforts of the people I worked with, I wouldn't be here now. We were from completely different countries, had very different cultures, but that didn't matter: We all worked as one team with a common purpose. As in any organization, there were some people who weren't friendly, who didn't want to know you, who were even racist. But you knew that when the chips were down these people would still sacrifice themselves for you, and you for them.
Being a military interpreter is also not a job you can easily walk away from. One day, on my way home, I was subject to a kidnapping attempt. Knowing the fate that would await me if I were abducted, I fought back. In the melee, I was shot and left for dead. I recovered, and when I returned to work a month later, it felt like a family reunion — we were all excited to see each other. The experience opened my eyes, though, and I realized I would never be entirely safe. After I got shot, the soldiers I worked with did everything they could to protect my family and me, even helping us with our refugee paperwork.
Sometimes I look at Iraq right now and think what we did is all gone, but it isn't. Sure, the situation is bad, but it doesn't mean the sacrifice was for nothing. There's a reason every friend or family member hasn't left: One day things will get better. It wasn't for nothing. We did something, and it's real, and it's still there.
I want to say thank you to everyone who helped me come to America, and also to the people we lost. It's hard to think about the people who are gone, but without them the situation would be very different. After the United States pulled out, it was extremely dangerous because the names of all the interpreters were handed over to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. I don't know what happened to lots of my friends who were also interpreters. Many of them didn't have enough money to leave, so they remained behind.
I assumed that all of the United States would be like this, in terms of the level of caring. But it's different. Nothing compares to the intensity of the army. I made friends for life, and I know that I could still call the people I was closest to anytime if I needed help.
It is one of the best jobs I've had. I will never regret doing it.
Currently working in Stratfor's intelligence collection team, Ali was born in Iraq and worked alongside U.S. forces in Baghdad as an interpreter. He now resides in the United States.
I often think of Reza around Memorial Day because I have no idea if he is alive or dead. He led the Afghan team attached to my platoon on my last deployment. He was tall for an Afghan (imagine my surprise when I first met him and tried to project authority and competence as he loomed over me). For four months we worked together in and around Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province.
At the time, nighttime raids were becoming increasingly controversial and politically charged. The solution from on high was to gradually phase in an Afghan presence, with the intent of mitigating the growing local outrage. Having a small contingent of indigenous partners attached to our platoon during missions became mandatory. We hated this idea. Needless to say, there was an inherent tension in our working relationship.
There was no friendship that bloomed, cutting across cultural gaps and lasting for a lifetime. Reza and I were professionals in our fields, serving our respective militaries. To him I was likely just another in a long series of rotating faces. He was there to soften the cultural schisms that arose from interacting with the locals. For me, he was a potential liability if I did a poor job of meshing him into my platoon. Even within specialized units, platoon and squad tactics can vary wildly based on preference and experience. Missteps between tenuous partners can lead to mission failure, or worse yet, get someone killed. But we had no especially bad encounters during our deployment, which was testament to our success working together and getting the job done. If we played our parts well, then things generally went without a hitch.
After leaving the military, I reserved Memorial Day for the U.S. soldiers I served with who had lost their lives. The day is set aside for that very purpose. But as the years have passed, I increasingly think about Reza and those like him. With each passing year I wonder if he became another casualty of a war that persists to this day.
Besides a few leftover pictures, my clearest memory of him is from one very screwed-up mission. We had driven up into the mountains, chasing a thin lead on a high-value target. The weather looked like it was about to turn nasty at any moment, but it continued to hold off. The road we traveled clung to the side of the mountain and tracked a deep river gorge that fell away sharply. About 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) out from the objective, the fifth of seven vehicles broke through the road (luckily on the uphill side) and split the convoy. Because of the various spacing factors and communications delays that are natural to these things, the Rubicon had been crossed. The part of the unit that was still mobile pushed on to the target.
Reza and I were in the sixth vehicle. As the occupants disgorged from their rides to help with recovery and pull security, it became evident that my indigenous team should be on target. So we started to run the last kilometer. The weather finally turned, and the rain came pouring down in sheets. Our radios and night vision goggles shorted out or became useless in the adverse conditions. Shortly thereafter, we located the rest of the vehicles easily enough further along the road. But what was once a dry streambed had flash flooded into a swollen creek plunging over the road and off the mountainside into a spectacular waterfall that ended at the bottom of a gorge.
I was feeling single-minded and driven by purpose that night, and I started to wade across. I am not very tall. Thank God that Reza was and that his team followed me, as always. It was underwhelming at the time, but he anchored me and drew me back to the bank before I was dumb enough to plunge over the side. He lectured me a bit in broken English about what I assume — it was hard to hear and I was distracted — were the dangers of flash floods. And that was that.
I hope Reza and the remainder of his team are still alive. But in case he or they are not, I want to say thank you. Your service and partnership were appreciated then, and they still are. You are remembered.
Paul Floyd is Stratfor's Director of Analyst Operations. He served eight years in the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, deploying multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving the service at the rank of Staff Sergeant in 2011.