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Making Sense Of The Election From Baghdad

Capt. Nate Rawlings has spent the past six months stationed in Iraq. In the essay below, he discusses what it was like watching the election results from his base in Baghdad. You can also hear him talk about Iraqi reaction to Barack Obama's victory with Alex Chadwick, in the audio above. Do you have a question for Nate? Send it through this form.

Election Day dawned in Baghdad as many previous days, with an early morning patrol brief. About 6 a.m. I checked the headlines online, just in case anything earth-shattering had changed on the final day. Throughout the past month, I had been waiting for the "October surprise," that final jab or revelation that would steer the fate of the electorate. But it never came.

I headed to our vehicle line to receive the day's mission from our company commander. I was augmenting our mortar platoon as a vehicle commander with the mission to conduct a convoy moving staff officers to another base for a large briefing. The mission kept us out in sector most of the day, and by the time I helped my crew break down the vehicle and carry our .50-caliber machine gun into the arms room, the polls had just opened on the East Coast. The broadcasters on CNN reported that the increased turnout might create massive polling problems in key states, but that early voting was proceeding smoothly.

I caught up on paperwork for the rest of the evening, working in our logistics shop to take advantage of the television with a satellite hookup. I worked late into the night and returned to my hooch around 3 a.m, just as the first exit polls were beginning to be broadcast.

My roommate Capt. Brian Kalaher, our battalion's support platoon leader, persuaded me to grab a couple hours of sleep and promised to wake me if anything drastic occurred. As the Boston Globe Web site called each state for one of the candidates, Brian called out the electoral count.

"McCain's up, 7-3," he called a mere 30 minutes after my head hit the pillow.

"Thank you," I replied, hardly even waking up. At first it appeared that Sen. McCain would make it a contest, but by the time Brian woke me up at 7:30 a.m. to go to my morning meeting, it was all over.

Initial reaction among soldiers was mixed, but largely optimistic. Military communities tend to be fairly conservative, but in the weeks leading up to the election, many soldiers told me they were voting for Sen. Obama. Most of these soldiers were serving their second, third and, some, their fourth tours in Iraq. While they knew that Sen. Obama advocated a troop increase in Afghanistan, they were willing to bet that a troop drawdown here would at least slow the rate of deployments and allow them more time with their families and children. I encouraged the soldiers to look beyond the tag lines for each candidate and support the person they felt would best repair what is broken in our country. A surprising number of my troops told me that person was Barack Obama.

The first soldier I saw after our morning staff meeting seemed incredibly excited.

"Sir," he said, "With Obama as our new president, does this mean that we'll be home by Christmas?"

I informed the soldier that, unfortunately, President-elect Obama would not be sworn in until Jan. 20.

"Oh," he said. "Well, that'll probably mean that we'll head home about when we were supposed to anyway, right?"

I told him that I thought so. Surprisingly, he didn't seem that disappointed.

Every day I can get online I read the daily Doonesbury comic strip by Garry Trudeau. Doonesbury is also featured in Stars and Stripes, the newspaper available free to military personnel while deployed. I have always thought that Doonesbury is so popular among the troops because Mr. Trudeau captures the hilarious and tragic nuances of military life more accurately than most writers of any medium.

The comic that ran the day after the election featured three soldiers watching the election returns on a tiny television from a remote outpost — a scene similar to our own. When the television commentator calls the race for Barack Obama, the black soldier expresses his feelings with a resounding "Hooah!" One of the white soldiers watching with him also expresses his elation at the news, while a second white soldier says, "He's half white, you know." The black soldier responds, "You must be so proud."

I laughed at Mr. Trudeau's depiction and marveled at how similar it was to the scene here. Throughout the day my soldiers debated the selection of a new commander in chief, how soon they thought troops would be diverted to Afghanistan, and whether Obama's victory would mean we would come home sooner or later. Many soldiers marveled at the election of a president that, regardless of their race or background, they could claim as their own.

As the celebrations continued in cities throughout America and conservative pundits began the post-mortem analysis to prepare for the next election, soldiers scattered to their various posts. They climbed up their guard towers and into their Humvees, ready to begin another day and execute their duties until the new commander in chief orders them home.

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Nate Rawlings