Putting a Human Face on the American Military Presence in Baghdad

What happens when Sgt. 1st Class Michael "Duke" Duquette goes out to meet his neighbors.


Sgt. First Class Michael Duquette, 47, relaxes outside a black market fuel depot in Baghdad, Feb 15, 2008.

Michael Duquette, 47, examines documents, a cell phone, a pistol and body armor plates, captured from an Iraqi man at a checkpoint near a mosque in Baghdad, Feb 15, 2008.

BAGHDAD—Michael Duquette speaks with the slow and methodical cadence familiar to most old New England Yankees. He sports a salt and pepper mustache and uses silence as a soft cudgel to manage a conversation. While some of the more impetuous young infantry lieutenants will badger people into telling them something, even to the point of putting words into their mouths, Duke holds back. He lets the Iraqis fill the intervening silence with their thoughts and worries. It's an old trick—pause long enough, and someone will step in and say something, say anything to break the uncomfortable silence.

The 47-year-old sergeant 1st class from Lawrence, Mass., has been in the Army nearly 20 years, but before that he worked installing fireproofing in newly built Boston skyscrapers. The men under his command—tonight it's a platoon of infantry soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 101st Infantry Division—call him Duke.

When Duke enters a large house in one of the formerly wealthy neighborhoods of Baghdad, he does so with a purpose. Tonight, it's nothing more than to greet the neighbors, hear their concerns, and provide a human face to the American occupation of Iraq's largest city. "I can't fix your sewer, give you more electricity, or make fresh water run out of your taps," he tells the Iraqi interpreter. "Let's get that clear upfront." He waits for the translator to finish and then pauses, allowing his hosts to size him up.

"What's troubling you the most?"

The three middle-aged Iraqi brothers, who have welcomed the soldiers into their living room, don't say much. Security, of course; they don't like the newly displaced residents moving into nearby streets, the power station that gives the house only one hour of power per day. Duke nods and says nothing. The Iraqis look at each other and say nothing.

"Security is really a problem," the elder man says in broken English. Duke nods and says nothing. The man hesitates, fidgeting in the silence. "I am not afraid of anything, but my wife and children are scared of being shot or blown up at the markets."

Duke nods.

There is another long pause. "How long have you lived in this house?" one of the soldiers asks, seemingly trying to fill the silence himself.

"Two years," offers one of the brothers, who ask that their names not be used in this article and their pictures not be taken.

Duke nods.

More silence and more shared glances.

"Actually, we've lived here in this house only for two months," says the middle brother. "We were kicked out of our last house by a man in a black mask." That's code for the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia known to intimidate Sunni residents as part of the endless ethnic reshuffling plaguing many neighborhoods in the country.

The younger brother, an engineer, rises and turns off the WWE professional wrestling program that's been playing on the television. "This isn't our house," he says, "but we do pay rent."

Duke nods.

More silence.

"You know, disbanding the Iraqi Army was a big mistake," says the elder brother cautiously.

"It put a lot of people out of work," Duke offers. And suddenly, it's as if conversational candor has received the Duke's stamp of approval.

The Iraqis begin to talk, at length and all at once. The translator can barely keep up.

"The unemployment is the reason that all these poor people are taking money to plant bombs."

"I was employed by the university until I got a call one day threatening my life and family."

"There are problems with the guards at the mosque."

Duke nods. "We are doing all we can," he says. "But we can't change the government; that's way above my pay level," he says, pointing to his sergeant's strips.

The three brothers nod in understanding. "The government is beyond our control too."

The conversation continues, with the men sharing their fears about the state of the few square miles they all call home.

"We live at the base right up the road," says Duke, referring to Joint Security Station Thrasher, which his platoon shares with the Iraqi Army and the local concerned citizens group. "We don't like the violence either. We don't like driving around and worrying that we are going to get blown up. You guys are the only ones who can tell us who the bad guys are and where they are hiding. Remember, we share these streets too."