Babylon By Bus

No, not the live album by Bob Marley (with the cool map graphic on the inside album sleeve showing a Syracuse tour date). This is a book by Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann about their experiences in “Mission Accomplished-era” Iraq. Check out this cool excerpt from Outside magazine

Two young guys in post-war, early occupation Iraq. Are they with the military? Foreign Service? A respected NGO? No, they were the guys who sold the “Yankees Suck” t-shirts outside Fenway Park in between adventures traveling and playing high stakes poker. These guys bluffed their way into Iraq and within a couple of days talked themselves into a job establishing a network of indigenous not-for-profit charities in the “new Iraq.” Their story is an interesting microcosm of the problems facing the United States in their sad attempts at nation building in the Middle East.

While well-meaning and full of entrepreneurial spirit, the guys don’t speak the language, have little knowledge of the history and customs of the country and have no real plan on how to set up a non-profit sector (and no superiors with any real interest in planning.) However, they are blessed with the ability to relate to people, are totally free of any ideological/political baggage and are unconcerned about how to take credit for their activities.

Their party hearty spirit and thirst for adventure allowed them to meet a wide variety of people–government officials, military personnel, press folks, NGO employees and assorted drunken ex-pats and shady characters. As such, you get a much more in depth look at what is going on in Iraq than some more traditional press accounts. They give a terrifying portrait of the private “security” forces: beefy guys pumped up on steroids and drugs, out of control at all times, whether it’s shooting at convoys or starting bar fights. While they run across some stock military types that seem right out of central casting, they also highlight the work of what they call the new breed of military officer: highly educated, resourceful, helpful and dedicated. Many of the officers are so dedicated because they realize what a mess our country has made of this situation and feel obligated to make amends, somehow.

While the guys may be short on political analysis, they do manage to ask a number of pertinent questions and accurately assess the problems they themselves caused in Iraq. They wonder why nation building and the promotion of democracy is being done by the military, an organization that seems to be ill-suited to the task and often inflames the ire of those we are trying to help. They also acknowledge that the activities that they undertook were actually counter-productive.

Through their connections, they located small charitable groups around Baghdad and helped them distribute supplies donated from the United States. The guys realized, largely after their time in Iraq, that most of these groups were religious groups and the aid they supplied helped strengthen their reputations within the community as power brokers. The guys didn’t establish a network of Iraqi run NGO’s, but rather helped to exacerbate the tensions that exploded into all-out religious civil war shortly after their departure.

The book ends when they were forced to leave Iraq under a death threat from religious groups trying to muscle in on their program. The widespread violence and death of friends and colleagues turns the guys from young kids on a rollicking adventure into much more thoughtful individuals–although they do manage to get arrested in Jordan immediately after leaving Iraq, possibly their way of dealing with the enormity of what they’ve experienced.

The guys maintained that watching the Red Sox horrible loss to the Yankees in the 2003 playoffs was the catalyst for their adventure. The good news is that the guys did make it back to Boston in time to catch the Red Sox’ playoff and World Series victories in October 2004. Now I’ve just got to locate one of those “Yankees Suck, Jeter Swallows t-shirts!”


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