Once the mermites were stacked away the Soldiers who weren’t manning positions settled into a satisfied torpor, and several rooms filled with soldiers sprawled out like vagrants. Security is far and away the most critical element in a defense, but that duty also shares the distinction of being one of the most onerous. The difficulty with pulling guard doesn’t stem from any physical exertion; in fact it’s quite the opposite. When you stand guard behind a fortified position your awareness collapses down into a single lonely arc. As the hours wear on focusing on the same narrow shard of earth starts to weary the eye and numb the brain. Although you won’t read it in any book there are thousands of techniques to wile away the time. The techniques are passed down from Soldier to Soldier, forming a oral tradition that a Zen monk would envy.
But however apt the technique, over time it becomes increasingly difficult to remain focused and alert. An hour or two after the off shifts had settled into sleep I walked between positions to check up on the Soldiers. The moon glittered in the winter sky like a silver lantern, and it drenched the area with its cool light. As I settled into each site there would be a short whispered exchange and then the troop on duty would point out the highlights of the last few hours. They would point out the houses with generators, and note how often the occupants would slip out their doors to refuel their growling engines. They would point out the packs of haggard canines, and point out their pack hierarchy as if they were safari guides describing mysterious denizen of the African plains. Each conversation was carried out in soft whispers, despite the fact that our positions were unmistakable. Our subtle conversations weren’t based on tactical necessity, they just seemed appropriate in the silvery light of a desert moon. After a few hours I returned to the pink classroom that served as our CP and settled into a restless sleep.
The next morning announced its arrival with waves of burnt orange that seemed to crash against the horizon like waves breaking on a reef. The fiery light of dawn leeched into the Eastern sky like dye spreading in a still water, and eventually the colors condensed into the bright eye of morning. The soft light did little to improve the local aesthetics, the area around our position still seemed raw and unfinished. The one and two story homes in the vicinity were in various stages of decay, and they all shared the same general look of disrepair. The slipshod appearance had little to do with economic prospects, there were several glittering cars sitting outside some of the careworn buildings bearing testament to their owners financial acumen. There just seemed to be an unspoken agreement that the aesthetic qualities of a home were secondary to convenience.
As the day wore on the driving ban went into effect, and as it did the streets started filling with laughing kids playing riotous games of soccer. The kids would carry out random pieces of garbage to serve as goals, select their teams, and start boisterous games back and forth along the empty asphalt. We conducted several dismounted patrols with the POB soldiers to secure the local area, but other then the children playing soccer the area seemed strangely vacant.
The highlight of the morning was watching the antics of an midget donkey just outside our security perimeter. Physically the donkey was a rather plain animal, standing a shade higher then a Great Dane. But it wasn’t the donkey’s small stature that attracted so much attention, it was the creatures ridiculous displays of territorialism. It didn’t matter what wandered into the little donkey’s patch of dusty earth – if it came into range the bitter little animal bared its ridiculously blunt teeth and charged like a Spanish bull. The little animal seemed to lack any real maliciousness, choosing to butt its victims instead of trampling them under it gangly hooves, but that just made its ridiculous attacks all the more amusing. Regardless of whether the victim was a chicken, a stray dog, or a small child the donkey’s tactics remained the same. As the prey approached the donkey would bow its head and act like it was grazing on the dead underbrush. As the target drew closer the little donkey would bend its knobby knees as if it were attempting a feeble imitation of a jungle cat. When the victim was in range the donkey would make an ungainly leap into the air and clumsily gallop towards its cross species rival. I can think of no less fearsome sight then a temperamental midget donkey, but somehow the little animal managed to ward off all rivals.
By the afternoon the election officials arrived in a sputtering column of ancient cars and trucks. As they stepped out of their vehicles they nervously scanned the area, their heads craning about like a frightened herd of elk. As they took in their surroundings their gaze seemed to settle on the array of armored vehicles and weapons ringing the compound. Their eyes darted from vehicle to vehicle and from position to position, and as they did their nervous ticks dropped away like a winter coat. Emboldened by the unyielding forces deployed around them the election officials started to download equipment off the overburdened trucks. For almost an hour a steady stream of material spilled into the school, and when they were finished the lower floors were awash in cardboard boxes. The officials took a few moments to rest in the wide hallways, and for the next few minutes they splayed out across the haphazard array of cardboard. Eventually one of the lead officials got them all moving again, and the motley assortment of workers started setting up the polling site. I found it mildly ironic that the cardboard boxes were filled with… cardboard. The officials took the folded sheets of cardboard and quickly slotted them together into individual polling booths. It was a little like watching a display of origami writ large, and it was repeated over and over until several classrooms were lined with cardboard booths the size of an Egyptian sarcophagi. It was strange to think that in these narrow boxes, little bigger then a child’s play fort, the next chapter in Iraq's history would unfold.
After all the preparations were complete the election officials gathered into a small room and drank steaming cups of tea the rest of the afternoon. The officials didn’t share any common uniform, they were dressed in a mixture of western and traditional garb. In fact the only evidence they were election officials were the laminated identification cards each official wore around their neck. If you squinted your eyes to blur the bright identification cards they could have passed for a random gathering of friends chatting about old times. As I watched them casually rest behind our curtain of security I had to smile, their lackadaisical posture was proof positive that our mission was succeeding. During the last two elections the election officials flatly refused to show up for fear of their lives, but now they were lounging around the election site without a care in the world.
As the sun settled low in the sky I breathed a sigh of relief, our second day had passed without incident. All that was left was the big day…the day Iraq would become a true democracy.