Lessons from Baghdad to L.A.

As the mayoral election approaches I'm reminded of the miracle and fragility of democracy in Baghdad

By Luis Vega
Published on LatinoLA: May 1, 2005

Lessons from Baghdad to L.A.

Being in Baghdad during this intense period has placed in sharper focus the big political changes Los Angeles is also going through today with the mayoral election. Changes that in a representative democracy as ours we are able to undertake in relative tranquility. War makes you more appreciative of the gift of peace.

Different religious sects, competing ethnic groups, powerful business interests, minorities savoring the possibility of a leadership role, established groups who resist change, fear of the unknown, talk of power sharing, voter block building, a search for legitimacy, for social acceptance, for positive change; this is the new reality of Los Angeles and Baghdad.

Iraq is just starting the difficult journey of social struggles young America has faced and imperfectly conquered. Democracy is never easy, as we know.

I've been in Baghdad for a few weeks, with only a few more days to go before I return to my work center in Bahrain. From there I should be able to travel to different locations in the theater to work on special projects. I am working with the turn-over process. As new fresh troops come to replace the old. Well, as soldiers who have been here before twice before return, and the ones leaving know they will be back again. Now I am one of them.

Once you are here and personally witness the progress, you feel invested in the mission's success. That's why many of us return.

In Baghdad I was amazed at the idea of living in the hollow shell of one of Saddam Hussein's many palaces, his favorite: Radwaniyah. A palace with no running water, no furniture, no luxuries, and no servants. Paris Hilton would not be happy. But a majestic building that still commands your attention by its sheer size, its classic Middle Eastern architecture, its black and white marble floors, its impressively hand-carved wood doors - some taller than 15 feet - and the knowledge that world history was made and walked these same corridors once.

A monumental reminder of how even huge distant palaces, fortresses, surrounded by thick strong tall walls and hundreds of armed soldiers do not keep an evil tyrant protected from the outside world forever. It is a humbling experience. A reality check.

Whether one agrees or not with the decision to invade Iraq, it's impossible not to see the the bright light of hope in the eyes of the many Iraqi soldiers we train inside this compound. They know this is their country not ours, because we tell them. The Iraqis are proud people who proved to be courageous when they came out to vote freely for the first time in their lives - in spite of horrendous threats. And millions voted for freedom without fear.

Do not get me wrong, there still is danger out there.

Recently I realized we are not too far from Abu Ghraib prision, only a few miles away really. From my room at the palace I could hear the explosions, they resonated in the walls, the lights and smoke of the flames could be seen in the distance from my window. Immediately military helicopters went up in the air, just like those in "Black Hawk Down" to defend our positions. To defend us.

The sporadic recent insurgent attacks lasted a few days, and temporarily closed the airport. One of my reservist colleagues from San Diego, I learned yesterday, was inside the prison when it all happened and could not leave. That's the luck of the draw, in a war zone.

He made it back fine. Now I am ready to leave Baghdad in a few days, so I made sure to tell him to be safe, and gave him a hug - in the middle of the cafeteria - it is the least I can do, for a friend.

As the mayoral election in Los Angeles approaches I am reminded of the miracle and fragility of democracy in Baghdad, and the strength and resistance of democracy in Los Angeles, when we vote.

The Iraqi election was a lesson, to the whole world, that Iraqis truly value freedom and are willing to risk their own lives to earn it. Freedom historically is earned, not given. They are admirable. The mayoral election in Los Angeles will be a lesson, to the whole world, that in America we create harmonious and peaceful multicultural communities because Angelenos showed their personal commitment - at no risk - to democracy simply by taking the time to support our representative form of government with their vote.

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