When a phrase is constantly used over time to the same audience, it ends up losing some of its original significance. So when we first got wind of the “coalition” the United States put together to help with military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, most people probably pictured a combination of military personnel from various countries. As time goes on and the war on terrorism increasingly becomes equated with the Bush Administration and not any international effort, one can be forgiven for forgetting that the title “Coalition Forces” (or its military moniker CF) actually does mean there are many countries that have troops stationed overseas in support of the current war effort. True, they may be token troops, meant to do little beyond showing nominal support for the United States, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from them.
Walking the grounds of the larger and more established “American” bases in Iraq is actually quite an international experience. The most multicultural is, of course, the International Zone (IZ) where you will find a veritable cornucopia of CF (you can now use this acronym to impress your friends!). At the U.S. Embassy, one can hardly walk down a hall without running into a South Korean or a Japanese officer; those who have been there the longest can even tell the two apart (and don’t look at the uniform, that’s cheating). Walk outside of the embassy and don’t know where you’re going? Well, you better have boned up pretty well on your Spanish because otherwise that salty-looking Peruvian guard isn’t going to help you out at all. And don’t try asking that El Salvadorian, either, because he’ll look at you the same way. Maybe try that Dane standing in the corner; they have a great education system, so you can bet he is at least bilingual.
Go into one of the chow halls, then, and see how at home you feel with all the American troops there. Wait a minute; it’s nothing but Eastern Europeans! There’s a sea of baggy eyes, dark hair, and five o’clock shadows as far as the eye can see. There are Estonians, Georgians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Latvians, Lithuanians, Polish, Ukrainians, and even Slovakians. Granted, all these guys are from an area smaller than California, but they are here anyway, making life more interesting for a bored American who enjoys people watching. Well, in that regard, you could do better than this group, as they tend to always look like they’re ready to shoot themselves, even when they’re laughing uproariously; it’s an interesting talent shared by the whole bunch. For entertainment value, you would probably find their animated conversations more than make up for the melancholy appearance. Humor is more than skin deep.
Moving around in the IZ you see an even wider range of nations: of course everyone knows about the British; they are pretty much old hat now, and who is seriously impressed by those accents anyway? Maybe you’re in the mood for something a little spicier, kind of like the British but with some kick? How about watching Australian female troops swimming in the outdoor pool at Al-Faw palace? Well, not so fast: in order to go see the beautiful women from Down Under, you should probably do a little research on the Pacific Islands first-unless you’re a U.S. Marine who knows the secret handshake-because those Tongan Marines are a pretty selective bunch. That’s why they guard the only entrance into Al-Faw and its lovely lakefront property.
Get away from the cosmopolitan center of Baghdad and — at least on base — things do become a lot more familiar. Almost everyone is a contracted American employee, soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. But one group sticks it out in harsher conditions, ready to guard posts without the creature comforts available to the others: Ugandans. For Marines stationed most places in Al Anbar province, the Ugandan guard is a familiar sight: unfailingly friendly, polite, and totally at ease with the insurmountable language barrier. As long as you have your ID and have cleared your weapon, then you are “good to go, sah.” Chow halls, gymnasiums, ammo dumps, gas pumps, it doesn’t matter: these guys will guard anything, and with a smile. Pretty soon you’ll have your favorite Ugandan and you probably have a name for him (I guarantee he has one for you). So every day for however long you’re in country, the two of you will exchange pleasantries, sharing untranslated stories communicated through rudimentary sign language combined with a strange form of charades. They definitely help pass the time.
You could always be the guy who just ignores everyone who isn’t American and walks around with his head down, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, try to get in on the latest news about Bosnian football scores or recipes for Latvian cuisine, maybe learn a little bit of Japanese from an expert; if all else fails, at least reach out and befriend one Ugandan security guard and name him “Chester.” It’s the least you could do.