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Mideast edition, Thursday, August 16, 2007

A noted feminist author once wrote that men and women come from two different cultures, and that their life experiences are also utterly different. It’s not unlike the melding of cultures within the sandstone walls of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where the sensitive demeanor of the State Department coexists with the indelicate temperament of the military.

Most embassies have their requisite military attache; however, the sheer scale of the diplomatic and military contingent in Baghdad has forced these two cultures together to a degree never before seen.

I’m not suggesting an air of open hostility permeates the building. By and large the two worlds rarely interact, except further up the ladder.

The former Republican Palace, which temporarily houses the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, is an understated yet dignified building positioned along a bend in the Tigris River. Beneath its splendid ceilings the State Department and the military labor in their own separate worlds behind unsightly, plywood partitions haphazardly slapped into place when the building was first occupied by the invasion forces.

I’ve found that the younger members of both the State Department and military are the most likely to have an attitude toward one another. The preppy young functionaries of State occasionally murmur their displeasure over having to occupy the same space with, what they consider as the boorish, tobacco-dipping soldiers; while the young enlisted are prone to deride the soft, whiney civilians.

It’s where the Atlantic Monthly meets Maxim.

To members of the military, civilians appear downright dorky in Kevlar and protective vests. There is no more genteel way to say it. Aside from gun-toting private security guys, most of whom came out of a military or police background, civilians in body armor look as absurd as accountants in football gear.

One of the complaints heard among soldiers has to do with the workday habits of State Department employees — although by any normal measure these workers log incredibly long hours. Military personnel routinely put in 14- to 16-hour days, noting their counterparts at State might put in a 12-hour shift, then see fit to come in late the next day. They are also quick to point out that when a task calls for 10 people, the military produces 10 people, whereas the State Department has experienced nagging difficulties in fully staffing its teams.

Exemplifying the military mind-set toward the State Department personnel is a flier stressing safety tips during a mortar attack. It features an illustrated picture of an individual taking cover beneath a table. Pieces of ceiling are crashing down all around. Alongside the character someone, most likely a member of the armed forces, has scribbled a word balloon that cries out: “I’m a civilian and I’m so scared!”

It’s during such attacks that one seeks refuge in the small, reinforced concrete bunkers scattered across the embassy grounds. Crouched in the tension-filled edifice, one understands what Alfred Hitchcock meant when he said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Here the differences between the people huddled together are not so pronounced. Here, regardless of age, rank, gender and occupation … all are so mortally equal.

John M. Rosenberg, a Washington, D.C.-based political and foreign affairs writer, assisted Multi-National Force—Iraq with media issues. In 2004-’05 he served as Pentagon historian, detailing the Iraq reconstruction effort.

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