Climbing up those steps brought the full weight down on me.
Once outside on the flat rooftop our squad leader calmly said, “Spread out along the wall. Put the 240 [machine gun] over there in the corner. Kneel down and stay down.” We did not hesitate. The rooftop’s outer edge was graced with a wall standing roughly three feet high with a foot or so of thickness. The view was impeccable—nearly everything in front of the building was visible from this vantage. The building’s height allowed me to see the endless rooftops in front and to the sides of our position. Each one of the roofs looked the same in the distance, all except for the few minarets that reached up to the sky.
Down below, the nature of the crowd had taken on a new form by this time. They were no longer tentatively listening to the mayor on his car. Something had agitated them. Later I was to learn that someone had taken down the Iraqi flag flying over the building and replaced it with that of an American flag. Raising our own flag over the Iraqis below altered their perception of why we were here. In their eyes we were no longer liberators but conquerors. Our commanding officer had underestimated
the Iraqis’ steadfast sense of nationalism. Many, if not all of us, associated the Iraqi flag with the rule of Saddam Hussein and by removing the flag it represented removing Saddam. The Iraqi people, however, did not make this correlation; their flag represented not only the government but also themselves. Removing their flag represented removing their identity.
A chant started from somewhere within their lot and continued to grow in amplitude until we could no longer make out any other noise around us. Their individual actions had become synchronized. Shouts rang out and fists were raised into the air simultaneously. Their change of heart had also changed mine. Without the knowledge of the flag swap, I felt they had tricked us, and I no longer felt the desire to be a friend to these people. Their goodwill prior to this had manifested a false sense of security within me, and their rowdy actions were making me nervous; they were making us all nervous.