"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"
- Edmund Burke
As our vehicles came around the sharp corner we ran into something wholly unexpected, a neat row of rock and brick that sprawled across the road. The impromptu roadblock had a strange castaway symmetry to it; it brought to mind long summer days spent building little dams in the local streams. As the vehicles lurched to a halt I could feel a wave of frustration flare - we were on our way back to the FOB after an extended mission and everyone wanted to get back.
I looked around for a long minute, taking in this sudden change in circumstance. The HMMWVs could hurdle these barriers with ease, but there was something slightly ominous about this thin string of material laced across the road. Any doubts that this was a warning were extinguished when we traced the snaking asphalt street to the horizon. The road itself was just a black strip bordered by tottering one room huts made of loosely stacked brick, the swaths of dilapidated homes bordered by wide fields of debris and high clumps of burnt weeds. But it wasn’t the terrain that set our nerves on edge, it was the utter lack of life. No cars were driving down the road, no children were playing in the fields, the homes sat as vacant as dead and lidless eyes. This strip of land was completely and utterly deserted. Instead of pushing through the thin line of rubble the lead HMMWV heeded the warning and pulled back to a safe position with the other vehicles. As we set up security all eyes scanned the area for anything out of the ordinary, but on this side of the roadblock everything seemed tranquil. The roads still hummed with traffic and old men lounged under dusty straw porches. As the dismounts moved into position a middle aged gentleman working on the corner started to smile and then slowly walked towards our cordon. As he approached he started chatting with our interpreter, and for a few moments we impatiently waited to here what was transpiring. When he had finished the terp turned to us and said “this man’s family put up the roadblock to protect you from the insurgents, they planted a large bomb on the road ahead”. After several rounds of question and answer the full story started to emerge.
Sometime that morning the AIF had planted a large IED on the road and scuttled off to watch the aftermath from afar. In that moment the locals had a choice to make, let the Americans stumble into a trap and watch the carnage from their front doorsteps, or risk the wrath of the AIF and try to warn us. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for these people to turn their backs on us and watch while our patrol spilled its blood on this sullen stretch of road. But to these people we weren’t strangers or occupiers, we were allies. They remembered all the times their children would run out to catch handfuls of candy as our patrols passed. They remembered our vehicles stopping to pass out supplies, and staying to talk with the sheiks. And because of that they refused to leave us to die like stray dogs in the street. As soon as the IED was in place the neighbors set to work to foil the AIF. Fathers and grandfathers on both sides of the street labored to set up roadblocks to warn us of the danger, while their families moved away from the lethal IED. Once the walls of stone were in place to ward off traffic they made an anonymous call to our headquarters to let us know there was a grave danger to our soldiers.
A few minutes after they finished their labors my
patrol turned onto their road, and finding it blocked we set up a security
position. Had they done nothing our patrol would have been gutted. Instead we were able to screech to a halt out of the kill zone.
An hour later as I watched the EOD robot defuse the giant IED I felt a cold shudder run down my spine. Brave soldiers, myself among them, had almost lost their lives on this empty stretch of road. The only reason we didn’t was because equally brave Iraqi citizens refused to bear witness to our destruction. Thank God .