Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Toy Guns 
Iraqis are now celebrating the Eid holiday—a three day celebration following the end of Ramadan. It’s a very joyous and festive occasion for Muslims here in Iraq. You can tell because of all the celebratory firing. It constantly sounds like there’s a firefight going on right outside the front gate.

Shooting AK 47’s into the air is what Iraqis do instead of throwing rice. They do it all the time—especially at weddings. When we first got here—before the Iraqi Police got back on their feet, we were constantly dispatching a quick-reaction-force to the sound of a firefight—only to roll smack-dab into the scene of a wedding. It was crazy.

Well, now instead of weddings, it’s Eid—a time for Muslims to celebrate the end of the fasting period of Ramadan and renew their community ties. There’s lots of parties and family gatherings. Children get haircuts and parents dress them up in bright-colored clothing. I mean, bright colors! Older women almost always wear basic black, and don't accessorize with anything much other than a huge sack of produce on their backs. But they younger Iraqis love color combinations that westerners would consider almost garish. Dresses made of day-glow red with lime-green trims. Gowns the color of traffic cones. The little girls are darling. For some of the poorer children, it might be the only new clothes they receive all year.

It’s also customary for adults to give gifts of money, candy, clothes, and toys to children.

Unfortunately, some of the parents are giving their children toy guns.

This is incredibly dangerous.

I almost shot someone myself last July. I was going through Ar Ramadi on some mission or other, in the middle of a convoy of trucks. About 30 meters to the left side of the highway, I saw a kid—possibly fifteen years old—standing out in front of an apartment building, surrounded by four or five younger children, grinning and pointing what appeared to be an AK-47 at the vehicle in front of me.

I leveled my weapon and drew a bead on the kid’s chest. I had worked in a psychiatric ward for several years, and had learned a thing or two about what people look like when they’re intent on killing you. In this case, there was something about this kid’s expression that didn’t seem threatening. He didn’t have a wild look about him, nor did he have a tremendously hyper-focused expression of concentration on his face—with a furrowed brow and set jaw.

I knew I could hit him with the first shot at 30 meters. He was standing still and we weren’t traveling that fast. I sure didn’t want to take ANY risk with the surrounding children, though—including the risk that the SAW gunner standing right behind me in the same vehicle would open up in the same direction.

Nevertheless, the kid was pointing a weapon at U.S. troops. I couldn't ignore that.

At the very last second I saw that the weapon was a toy.

I pointed right at the kid and gestured for him to lower the weapon. He did.

I have no idea how I processed all that crap in three or four seconds.

I always travel with my weapon on ‘Safe.’ Somewhere along the line, I flipped my selector switch from ‘Safe’ to ‘Semi.’ I can never remember doing that. I just look down right after a near-contact like that one, and there it is. Spooky.

Well, now there’s a bunch of kids out around Ar Ramadi with toy guns. They don’t have orange barrels, here, either.

Our battalion supply officer ran into a child with one out on the road today, and went through the exact same experience I did. He didn’t fire either, thank goodness.

Later today, when he briefed what he saw at a command and staff briefing, another officer made a comment: “You should have shot him, anyway.”

The battalion commander stood up, and read him the riot act in front of everyone. “I don’t care if you were joking or not, you do not make jokes about that! If you shoot a kid, and it’s just a toy gun, so help me, you’re going to jail.”

Good deal. I'm glad the boss put his foot down about that. The officer was joking. But the commander has a responsibility to set a climate for his unit. You cannot tolerate even a hint of a cavalier attitude towards human life. There's enough killing around here as it is. The leadership has to be extremely careful to control it from the top, by letting subordinates know, in crystal clear terms, where they stand.

Nevertheless, there are some jumpy troops out there these days. And with children out there sporting toy guns as if they were stickball bats, we have a tragedy waiting to happen.

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