This past week, EPIC attended a conference at the George Washington University entitled, “The Encounter: Americans, Iraqis, and a Decade of War.” This full-day conference was a discussion between Iraqi students, American veterans of the war, and academics of the field who discussed their experiences in the war and the prospects for the future of US-Iraqi relations. I was able to attend the first two panels of the conference, which discussed the US Invasion, the initial occupation, and the sectarian conflict in Iraq 2006-2007. These panels included stories from both Iraqis and American veterans, thus giving a well-rounded perspective on these issues.
The US Invasion and Initial Occupation
This panel featured Abdulameer Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist, Ahmed Fahad, an Iraqi student, and Katie Hoit, and US veteran of the war. One thing in particular that came up during the discussion was their first impression of the war. For Hamdani, he was initially excited about the invasion. He spoke about how Iraqis had been struggling against Saddam Hussein for decades, and he believed that the US troops would free them from Saddam. However, his initial encounter with US forces was not quite what he had expected. Soon after the invasion had begun, he went to work at his museum in Nasiriyah one morning to find that American soldiers had taken over his museum and were using it as a shelter. Initially, Hamdani was angry with the seizure of the museum by American soldiers. However, as time passed Hamdani came to realize it was for the best.
Sectarian Violence and Conflict in Iraq 2006-2007
For this segment of the conference, the panelists were Michael Kothakota and Jake Cusak, both US veterans, and Jabbar Jafar, an Iraqi from American University. A large portion of this panel was spent talking about relations between Iraqi citizens and US troops and cultural sensitivity during the war. Kothakota made some very insightful comments about this issue, speaking about how it was sometimes very difficult for him and other soldiers to build relationships with the Iraqis they worked with at first. He spoke about how Americans sometimes have a tendency to hold others to our own cultural standards, which can make it difficult to understand people from different cultures. However, Kothaka emphasized that his relationships with the Iraqi citizens he worked with eventually blossomed, and that he considers the Iraqi people to be his brothers and sisters.
The Importance of Cultural Understanding
The most important lesson that I took away from these two panels is the importance of trying to create a mutual understanding between Americans and Iraqis. This can be extremely difficult, especially when you consider our differences—language, culture, and politics—which have the ability to create barriers. Given the long history of the occupation, it can be difficult for us to not have preconceived notions about one another, and sometimes this can be an obstacle towards building a lasting and constructive relationship. I’ve experienced this firsthand. During the semester I spent working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan, one woman’s first reaction upon finding out I was American was to simulate gunfire. Following that, I found myself feeling uncomfortable when I spent time with her, and I was never quite sure how to act around her. However, I knew that it was important to build a good relationship with her and, hopefully, change at least some of her conceptions about Americans so that there would be less of a barrier between us.
In the coming years, as Iraq continues to recover from years of war, it is crucial to build a strong and long-lasting relationship between the United States and Iraq. However, a vital part of this relationship will be a mutual understanding and respect between our two countries from political officials to the average citizen. We will not be able to successfully work together unless we have a solid grasp on each other’s point of view. Thus, it is important for us to drop whatever preconceptions we might hold and work to create a renewed mutual understanding for a better partnership for the future.