From Armed and Curious:
"This is a different Iraq then the one I left two years ago in so many ways. I am constantly surprised this trip when something subtle points to such an obvious change. It is often only much later that you recognize the measure of what you have witnessed and often it’s the absence of things such as explosions and small arms fire in the distance that point to the progress having been made.
Then there are times when the change hits you across the forehead like a 2x4. Yesterday I found inspiration in the tears of joy on hundreds of faces at the graduation for the Iraqi Military Academy at Rustimiyah as 252 young men graduated from the one year course of instruction and were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the Iraqi Army and Air Force.
From the moment we arrived with a herd of media to assist the Iraqi’s in handling the event you could feel an electric air of anticipation in the atmosphere of the gymnasium. The cadets patiently stood in formation while subtly itching and squirming to get it over with. The stands were overflowing with their families and friends frantically waving as they spotted their sons, brothers and friends in the formation.
No one complained as the gym heated up in the desert afternoon as we awaited the arrival of the Minister of Defense and General Petraeus. Their helicopters hit the helipad and the ceremony kicked off with a bang as the entire corps of cadets sang the Iraqi national anthem, which on its own is a powerful song, but when sung by almost a thousand young soldiers at the tops of their lungs with joy and pride you can’t help but feel a chill along the back of your neck without needing to understanding a single word.
As soon as the formation marched forward to the graduation line the candy started raining down. It is an Arabic tradition to give sweets at joyous occasions and at the military academy graduations this has taken the form of handfuls of candy being flung from the stands by women at the cadets and all of us gathered on the floor. I have never seen such huge smiles on Iraqi faces in my five years here. One wonderful older woman had a huge purse which she emptied at all of us on the floor before giving me a wink and transitioning to a basket at her side with another barrage.
Everyone waited patiently through the speeches where Minister of Defense Abdul Qadir told the young men that the most important medal they will ever wear on their chests was the trust of all of the Iraqi people and General Petraeus exhorted them to lead the new democratic Iraq with their proud example.But with the last note of the second playing of the national anthem absolute mayhem broke out. The crowd poured out of the stands as my team and I desperately tried to extract the media from the crush. Everywhere around us men and women alike were crying and grabbing their sons before pulling their cadet epaulets off their shoulders to put the single star of an Iraqi Army or Air Force 2nd Lieutenant in its place.
The Iraqi Army band played a series of songs which were often no more than a pounding of drums while families danced in circles around their boys or the graduates hoisted their buddies on their shoulders to bounce and cheer in unison. I watched a poor little four year old boy in the tiniest suit being held aloft as at least 20 new officers danced and cheered “Victory for Baghdad” over and over and handed him from one to another wet faced man.
We all just sort of stood there and soaked up the energy and passion. This is where Iraq is today. These families, rich and poor, Sunni and Shia, young and old were overcome with pride for their sons becoming officers of the new Iraq.
It wasn’t because they would be getting a regular pay check. Not because there is nothing else to do. These men have committed themselves to building a new democratic Iraq and the sheer joy and pride of their families tells even the most jaded observer, including a couple of veteran western journalists in my group, that something has shifted here that can’t be ignored.
You could not stand on that hot gymnasium floor covered with crushed candy and dancing Iraqis and not be inspired.
I haven’t shaken the chill up my spine even today."
Thursday, July 17, 2008
From Armed and Curious: