During the early days of OIF, I was listening to CNN describe the battle for Najaf, and literally sat up when I heard the story you’re about to read. Many months later, I found the details of the day in an excellent book, “Banking on Baghdad“, by Edwin Black. Most of what follows comes from that book.
Despite what some would have you believe, the world looks to the United States as an example of what a country should be. The United States was, is, and always will be the shining beacon of human dignity that illuminates the path to liberty for the rest of the world. Therefore, by extension, the world looks to you â€“ those serving our country in uniform, as the bearers of that beacon.
The story of LtCol Chris Hughes is the manifestation of what you represent.
This is LtCol Chris Hughes, U.S. Army. In April of 2003, LtCol Hughes led soldiers from the 101st Airborne toward Najaf, one of the holy cities in Iraq, to secure the town and protect two things: the Ali Shrine, the purported burial site for Noah and Adam; and the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a Shiâ€™i cleric who had been put under house arrest by Sadaam Hussein.
As he and 200 of his men approached the Ayatollahâ€™s home, conditions were perfect. The Ayatollah knew they were coming, and the crowd was friendly.
But suddenly everything changed. Unknown to him, Baathist agitators had begun to circulate the claim that the Americans werenâ€™t there to protect their religious leader â€“ there were there to invade the mosque. In a matter of seconds, the friendly crowd became angry, shouting, â€œIn city â€“ yes. In city â€“ OK. Mosque â€“ NO!â€
More people gathered. The crowd began to surge toward the troops. Rocks began to fly. Hughesâ€™ troops, who hadnâ€™t slept in two or three days, were tense and armed to the teeth. A bloodbath seemed imminent.
Everyone knew that Hughesâ€™ response would color the way the Iraqis would view the American forces from that day on.
So what did he do? In the midst of all the agitation, he raised his rifle upside down, to indicate that he had no intention of firing it.
Then, he told his men to â€œTake a knee.â€ They must have wondered what in the world he was doing, but they trusted him. And 200 soldiers took a knee.
Then he told them to lower their weapons â€¦and SMILE. And they did. The crowd quieted, and some began to smile back.
Finally, he told his warriors to back up, turn around, and walk away. As a last gesture, he placed his flat hand against his heart in the traditional Islamic gesture meaning “peace be with you”. He said, â€œHave a nice day,â€ and walked away. Have a nice day. After 7000 years of domination and terrible suppression by invading army after invading army, the American military told them to have a nice day. Later on, once the confusion was cleared up and the agitators were removed, they entered Najaf peacefully. Mission accomplished.
Remarkable leadership. Remarkable awareness of what the military represents to the rest of the world. Remarkable courage and presence of mind in an inflammatory moment in time.
LtCol Hughes is our hero of the week.