I have a nicely aged six foot cedar fence that runs across the back of my house. The backyard extends around 25 feet from the back of the house to the fence; the fence’s length along the back of the lot is close to 100 feet. The back fence, it keeps things out and keeps my dogs in. The north side connector fence is a cyclone fence, see-through and lacking in privacy.
When I moved to this house in May, I was overjoyed to have a fenced backyard; it’s not so much a normal thing to find a rental with a fenced yard and even less regular to find a landlord who allows pets. But I didn't see the long view. It took two days for me to realize that a mere fence wasn’t enough to muffle the noise level of my multiple dogs yodeling with the dogs next door.
Two Weimaraners and a large standard Poodle live beyond the boundary to the north. A pattern developed rapidly. One purposeful, flirtatious light "woof" from one of my Pomeranians, and a high octave, low bass cacophony ensued. All dogs, both sides of the fence, would surge to the cyclone fence, race up and down the line and bark their mad furry heads off. Deep, throaty near-baying from the Weimaraners and challenging ruffs from the Poodle. On my side, indistinguishable by individual dog voice even to me, a multitude of yips, barks, yelps, whines, growls, nasty vicious small dog barking. This raucous communication, if untended (which it rarely was), could go on for an hour.
Heck, I have invoked the word "surge" now, and a year and a half ago as well...
I gave the breath,—and thought it not amiss,
I gave the breath to men,
For men to slay again.
Josephine Preston Peabody
I think that then I touched too lightly on the surge as days wound down to a goodbye for my then son-in-law, scheduled to leave for his second Marine tour to Iraq in April 2007. It was his second departure, second tour, just a few weeks prior to his 21st birthday. His tour is over, his active duty finished. The days in the Anbar surge back on occasion - maybe for him in his dreams; for the rest of us in random thoughts of potential violence and ever-resonant stress.
In Iraq, we’ve germinated no political solution. We’ve built walls.
Success? Defeat? Maintenance? What, really, is the long view? Not victory, never victory. Democracy will not succeed in this place and we have not seeded the ground of Iraq with liberty. We have given Iraq the choice/no choice of division along religious lines previously blurred by a succession of petty tyrants. These walls we put in place are unstable, shabby levees against centuries old sectarian violence.
We may have added more boots back into the dust of Iraq, but the walls only delay the violence, and yes, the solution.
We’ve laid no groundwork for reconciliation; we arm both sides – Sunni and Shi’a.
We reconstruct little that doesn’t get destroyed in each new cycle of violence; five years past the invasion and most Iraqis are lucky to have two to three hours of electricity. In a country where the temperatures are well above 100 Fahrenheit, Baghdad citizens and shopkeepers may have a hour or two of light but the upshot is that they pay an astronomical price for the tiny power they have, a dearer cost than what they paid for a full day’s worth prior to the US invasion. With no margin of profit. With no guarantee of security. With no proof of life.
I learned long ago when starting a construction project that the essential elements are not always know-how or the building materials. It’s the tools used and the intent of the builder.
The US has the intent, the materials and the know-how. In fact, we are turning Iraq green. Must be an inside contractor joke. The military undertook a project this last year to install solar street lights in towns such as Ramadi, Baghdad, ostensibly to improve security. However, the lights, at $6200 a pop for bullet-proof models, are "nothing more than a glowstick atop a shoddy fifteen foot pole".. The solar street lights the Iraqi government is busy installing are cheaper at $1000 to $2000 a piece, but are of little use in illuminating anything inside residents’ homes or stores along the street. The light cast on the street is inadequate at best.
Iraqis have a saying: "A burning fever is better than death."
In regards to a little peace and quiet and my own little fence, I pondered for a brief moment, "what would Cesar do?", and evoked a guilt that must lurk in the mind of any hapless dog owner forced to watch The Dog Whisperer by family members who believe there is the "alpha" human.
I built another fence. Scrounged Craigslist for cheap wire mesh, hit Lowe’s hardware for fir boards and four 4 X 4’s and four bags of QuickCrete. My intent was to establish a buffer between my new small fence and the north side connector between the back fence and my house, decreasing the dog run area to three quarters of the yard. A demilitarized zone to mute and expand that breadth separating the hoards of canine noses that raced intimately against each other along the cyclone grid.
Materials are important and I will not use fir again if I build another fence, because fir splits too easily and is weak. I knew this, but fir was cheap and moving had drained my funds. Hammer, power drill, skillsaw, tape measure, small gauge wire mesh, inch and a quarter wood screws, two triangle hinges and a latch. A shovel. No level (still packed in a box), so I had to make do with a drop-line (chalk line, okay). My sight lines are imperfect.
The 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Osama's territory, is handing out $32 million to Iraqis in the district, including $6 million to build the towering walls that, in the words of one U.S. officer, serve only to "make Iraqis more divided than they already are." The Myth of the Surge
The fence is nearly done. I have some cleanup to do and maybe I’ll stain it. The noise level is down 60% percent on most days. The fence is temporary, imperfect, not matched to the surrounding yard. For the purpose of buffering against the dogs on my northern border, it will do.
In Iraq, our most magnificent achievement of the surge, in fact perhaps the one remaining monument that will stand as evidence that we were there, long after our physical presence in Iraq has ended (if ever), is the construction of walls. Embassies and buildings may change hands. A future generation may not remember the origin of the buildings that once housed the US occupiers.
The guards at the checkpoints will change, but with the builder lies the blame of construction.
Along the country roadside, stone on stone,
Past waving grain-field, and near broken stile,
The walls stretch onward, an uneven pile...
Who placed the stones now gray with many years?
And did the rough hands tire, the sore hearts ache,
The eyes grow dim with all their weight of tears?
Or did the work seem light for some dear sake?
Those lives are over.
All their hopes and fears
Are lost like shadows in the morning-break.
Julie Mathilde Lippmann
A month ago in mid-June, the land behind my cedar fence at the back, and to the east, became a construction area. Construction workers in hardhats and operating big cats and bulldozers started a tear down of an old elementary school, beginning each weekday at 7 AM. This project is anticipated to take another three years before the ribbon is cut on a new combination high school and middle school. Right behind my house. I often go to sleep around 2 AM to 3 AM on weekdays; sleep has become a weekend luxury.
Devastated by five years of clashes between American forces, Shiite militias, Sunni resistance groups and Al Qaeda, much of Dora is now a ghost town. This is what "victory" looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily. House after house is deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open and unguarded, many emptied of furniture. What few furnishings remain are covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq. Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush's much-heralded "surge," Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood. Apart from our footsteps, there is complete silence.
Fences. Walls. What we keep out, what we try to hold off, what makes us feel secure. What protects us, what imprisons us. Where is the line?
The cedar fence does little to mitigate the busting, breaking noise and nothing to delay an insurgence of dust into my house, or halt the field mice who flee in terror to my yard. I have a fear that the bulldozers, in their rough and agile square dance on the 45 degree slope, might lose balance and crash down into my yard or worse, into my bedroom. When I first wake in the morning (Good Morning, destruction), I move to the back deck with my coffee and am immobilized by the activity – suspended by all the possibilities of what this means for the next three years.
Then I let dogs out. They bark and bark.
Berlin Wall, 1986 "The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down."
July 24, 2008
(Title and excerpts from "The Mending Wall" by Robert Frost)