While most Americans think of oil when they think of Iraq, the average Iraqi depends on farming rather than fuel for their livelihood. Bernstein, like many bases, is surrounded by farms. On occasion, tracer rounds from the firing range, or illumination mortars will fall into the local fields causing fire damage. The military will then pay the farmers for their lost crops.
I recently went out with 4th platoon to meet with a group of farmers whose fields had burned. Negotiating with the farmers was complicated. Aside from the language barrier (which is eased although not fully eliminated by the use of interpreters), there are different units of measure: the local farmers use “donum” (I am guessing the spelling) rather than acres as units. And then there is a certain level of dishonesty/greed. For the farmers, having their fields burned by the Americans is like hitting the lottery, and so they try to stretch their damages out as far as they can. Even after the fields have been measured by the odometer in Humvees, and the burned area has been found (generously) to extend about .6 kilometers, the farmer will look you in the eye and tell you that the damaged field is 1.8 kilometers long, a number which later became 18 kilometers. After much discussion, Lt. Naum, with the assistance of Sgt. Mattocks and Spc. Barrett (both of whom have farming experience), was able to get the farmers to agree both to a price per donum, and to a number of donums destroyed. When he multiplied out the cost times unit to arrive at a total, however, the farmers balked. When asked in the alternative how much it was worth, they began an endless loop of saying how many farmers owned the field, and how poor they were. This went on for some time, with troopers asking the simple question of how much they would get if they took these crops to the market, and the farmers responding that there were six farmers who owned the land.
It is worth noting that the farmers were really entitled to very little. It appeared that most of the fields in the area had already been harvested, and so it was difficult to establish any actual damages. (Those readers who are lawyers or are in law school should recall fondly the “Stacks and Flax” cases arising from crop damage during the early days of the railroad.) Indeed, I quipped to Lt. Naum and Sfc. Hutton that under Chicago economic theory, the farmers owed the military money, because they had received a net benefit in the form of fertilizer for next year’s crops—a true enough statement that nonetheless would do little for the hearts and minds. Sfc. Hutton joked that the farmers should learn about eminent domain, in which the government seizes property and compels the party to accept bare minimum market value for the seized land. In what was the line of the day, he recognized that we wouldn’t do that, of course, because the US government only does that to its own citizens.
After lengthy negotiations, Lt. Naum said that unless they would actually name a price—something they had refused to do—in two minutes, then he was leaving. He set his stopwatch, and sure enough, the farmers finally were able to get past reiterating the number of farmers and respond with a price which was remarkably close to the offer price. The exchange reaffirmed something I had found down in Baghdad, which is that the education system in Iraq was so broken that many Iraqis have trouble with simple math. When the parties agreed to the unit cost and number of units, it should have been obvious how much the total would be, but they were clearly surprised when the magic of multiplication revealed it to them. What is true of math is also true of reading and writing. When a recent class of ICDC recruits was interviewed about their skill levels in various areas, approximately 80% attested to being illiterate.