[July 19, 2020] Sixteen years ago, I made the biggest moral compromise of my life. I always thought my character was solid, but on this date, during wartime, I began to think otherwise. It’s easy to make the right decisions when choices are black and white, where there is no complexity, and no one’s life is in danger. But reality has a way of sneaking up on us and forcing us to adopt responsibility.
It was still early in the Iraq War and the occupation of a once-proud nation. The year was 2004 and more than a year after the fall of the capital, Baghdad. Our Coalition bases provided a haven for daily patrolling to keep the population safe and secure was making progress. Violence from several disaffected Shia Insurgent groups was killing both civilians and Coalition forces.
Our Engineers were to improve our physical infrastructure to reduce the probability of a successful suicide attack. Vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), aka car bombs, was something new and very deadly because a lot of explosives can fit into a car. Near one of our bases was a major road that ran alongside one of our base outer walls. A VBIED attack would easily crush the wall and allow insurgents to storm inside with deadly consequences.
My job? Move the road. Only by doing so could we ensure that American soldiers would not die. Time was of the essence. The problem? A local Amanat administered the City of Baghdad, similar to a mayor but with city management and engineer responsibilities. We needed his permission to move the road, and he was not about to give it to the Americans. Several senior officers had attempted to persuade him, and he agreed to their requests. He would be taking his time, and it would be several months before a decision.
A senior Iraqi architect worked for me designing buildings, roads, bridges, and other similar structures. I asked him if he would speak to the Amanat and allow us to move the road. The engineering to relocate the road was relatively simple, and we could do the work in about a week. We got a reply that the permission depended upon a $20,000 bribe. Bribes in Iraqi culture were simply a matter of doing business; U.S. Law and our military codes of justice prohibit bribes.
My dilemma was clear. Pay the bribe, or possibly get soldiers killed.
I asked my Iraqi employee what he thought of the standoff. He said that the bribe was the only way to ensure success and have the road moved. Of course, $20,000 is a massive sum of money, especially in a warzone. I decided to pay my employee architect a $20,000 “consulting fee” for services rendered. That money paid the bribe, and I got approval for the project that same day. My Commander was shocked that I could get approval so quickly. I never told him how I did it.
This moral compromise still sits on my conscious. Did I save the lives of soldiers? Yes, probably. Did I violate the basis of the law? Technically, yes, and I did violate both the wording and intent of the law. What would I do today? Yes, I would still do the same thing.