Richard Reeves

Why Americans Aren't Trusted

DALLAS -- One of the darker pages of American history was illustrated by film of South Vietnamese, many of whom had worked for the American military or diplomatic corps for years, desperately trying to get into the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and being pushed and batted away by Marines as the last Americans climbed to the roof to escape the advancing North Vietnamese troops by helicopter.

The South Vietnamese left behind, betrayed, thousands of them, from translators to cooks, were executed or sent to "re-education camps" for years. Many, with their families, died at sea trying to get away in small boats.

The United States had the military power to send hundreds of thousands of troops to a place they knew nothing about and did not speak the local language. We hired more thousands of locals, in effect taking their lives in our hands -- and their blood on our hands.

It was inevitable in a losing war. The same kind of thing has been going on through human history -- and has often led to more wars, seemingly endless civil war. The war that broke apart Yugoslavia was one with men massacring others because of the sides their families took in battles centuries before.

We, of course, were meant to be above that. American exceptionalism was partly based on the fact that we had only one revolution and had what seemed to be enough land and resources to absorb the poor and wretched of the Earth without war.

And now the same thing is happening in Iraq -- and will happen in Afghanistan when we leave friends behind. There is a high price to be paid -- usually by locals -- when superpowers, from the Romans to the Ottomans to us, try to protect their empires by fighting on its borders.

This is how one part of the story was told as early as 2008 by Anna Badkhen in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Baghdad -- Neither his parents nor his siblings know he works for the U.S. Army. It's bad enough that he wakes up each night around 2 a.m., the hour his armored convoy was hit by a roadside bomb several months ago. He doesn't want his family to have the same nightmares.

"The 23-year-old translator, who goes by the name Travis, is intent on protecting his loved ones from Iraq's sectarian militias, which consider anyone who works for the Americans as traitors. He is also well aware that translating in Iraq has become one of the most dangerous civilian jobs in the world."

"Since the war began five years ago, at least 200 Iraqis translating for U.S. troops have been killed, most of them in targeted killings, according to L3 Communications, a New York company that supplies some the 10,000 interpreters hired by the American military."

There was a program to provide visas for translators to emigrate to the United States if their lives were in danger. And their lives are in danger. In Army legalistic talk, it reads like this:

"If you filed a petition for special immigrant status as an Iraqi or Afghan translator/interpreter before Oct. 1, 2008, U.S. law authorized the continued processing and adjudication of your application, even though the annual limit of 500 visas had already been reached. This law allows us to continue the processing and scheduling of your case if it is currently at the National Visa Center (NVC). You do not need to provide any additional documents or meet any other eligibility requirements as long as you meet the requirements for this SIV program. You will be contacted by NVC with further information."

Then this: "You should NOT make any travel arrangements, sell property, or give up employment until and unless you are issued a U.S. visa."

And whatever the words mean, the program doesn't work. Applicants have to go to Jordan for an interview with the State Department, they have to have a general's signature on their papers, and there are not enough people to process the papers in either Amman or Washington. So far, only a few hundred visas have been issued. The Americans' friends and protectors in Iraq and Afghanistan are almost certain to end up as a new kind of collateral damage.

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