On Listening Well in Combat and in Peace

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By Sulaiman Murad with Phip Ross

During my four-and-a-half years in the service of the U.S. Army as an interpreter, I met hundreds of different interpreters from diverse communities all over Iraq. I forged close and lasting friendships with many of them. I spent long days and nights sharing stories about our sometimes funny but often difficult situations during our missions with the army. So in the first months after arriving in the United States I decided that those events should be written about for the American people in a book to let them know what was going on with their soldiers outside of their country.

In my modest book I have written with fellow Nebraskan Phip Ross, “Far Beyond Words: Stories of Military Interpreting in Iraq,” I sought a place to share, proudly relive and also dispel some of my most painful experiences and those of my friends who worked as interpreters with U.S. forces. The difficulties from the beginning to the end of the book’s pages show that working as an interpreter during Operation Iraqi Freedom was well worth the torment of my decision. Yet the work had serious consequences for so many of us, clearly.

Many of the stories gathered here were gathered from among new Lincolnites, as many of us interpreters and our young families have been settling here in Nebraska during and since the war. Other stories, like my friend Ricky’s, are shared in their honor, as many hundreds of interpreters were killed in combat or in acts of terrorism. Indeed, many of us interpreters are Yazidy, a small ethnic minority persecuted for centuries, and many of our Yazidy families still in Iraq are threatened for their sons’ services to democracy and proudly aiding the U.S. military mission.

I am sure that the reader will acknowledge the important message: the U.S. armed forces should pay greater attention to interpreter issues when it conducts missions on foreign soil, such as the defective methods by which the subcontractors select and hire interpreters. Soldiers should not just be prepared and trained in the tactics and techniques of modern warfare; they also should be more educated about the world in general and specifically the country in which they work, because they will inevitably be asked to do more than just point a gun, pull a trigger and operate a Humvee under duress.

Although we focused most of the book on the mistakes of the translators, I would be derelict, if not disrespectful and unfair, if I didn’t mention the remarkable role many interpreters had in preventing disasters and saving the lives of their countrymen and U.S. soldiers, as well as acknowledge the deep respect and gratitude we have for U.S. servicemen and -women.

As I reflect on the stories, however, the real emphasis seems to be on how an interpreter’s private life and his background affect his job and his life.

I was very affected by losing one of my friends right in front of me, and I included the story in the book. This very personal chapter explores the details of the day a suicide bomber breached an American line of security and detonated a bomb inside one of the most secure locations staffed by the United States in Iraq at the Rabiah Port of Entry between Iraq and Syria in the northwest.

One can read such tragic stories and others that draw only a shake of the head in disbelief with a critical eye toward military operations. But one could also see perhaps that these stories suggest how difficult simple communication is between people even in peaceful situations who speak the same language. Meaning and intentions can get lost without close listening, patience and many questions regarding context.

I believe the stories in “Far Beyond Words” can be an important addition to the history of the U.S. Army in Iraq. But it is my hope that no more military interpreters will ever be needed and that this book can shed light on simply listening well to one another across cultural, age and class differences.

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