A Flowershop in Baghdad is an inspirational story about American exceptionalism as seen through the eyes of an USAF Major stationed in Iraq. Retired veteran Michael Banzet, a self-proclaimed “wise-ass,” started out at the lowest rank, but after earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and a master’s in aviation science, he rose to the rank of Major to eventually do what he loves – fly jets as a USAF pilot. He volunteered to go to Iraq to help the Iraqis build a solid, dependable, and accountable Air Force – which turned out to be a tall order given the dysfunctional military culture that developed over the years under Saddam’s brutal dictatorship.
The older Iraqis had been conditioned to do as little as possible and be accountable for as little as possible in order to stay out of trouble. Sycophancy, incompetence and corruption were the order of the day and sometimes it was hard to teach the old dogs new tricks.
Banzet had better luck with the young Iraqi men he trained to be the next generation of Iraqi Air Force pilots. He worked hard to instill in the young cadets the values of the USAF; discipline, honor and leadership.
Published in 2012, the book mixes humor with tragedy and is particularly relevant now in light of recent events in Iraq. So much hard work, sacrifice, and good will on the part of so many brave men and women – American, Iraqi, British, and many other nationalities – has been squandered so the current president could keep a campaign promise to his left-wing base.
Banzet likes to remind the reader of the large coalition of forces that fought along side us in Iraq – although Obama and members of the Democrat media complex persist to this day in telling the lie that America acted unilaterally in Iraq.
Just this Tuesday, in fact, during his speech before the American Legion at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the president said, (obviously in reference to Iraq), “history teaches us of the dangers of overreaching, and spreading ourselves too thin, and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.”
Then he took credit for bringing the troops home “because it was the right thing to do!” And the vets reacted to this with thunderous silence. Maybe they know what Banzet knows.
Some of the Iraqis he worked with, had been members of the Ba’ath party during the Saddam Hussein years and were officers in his Air Force. His new friends had fought against us during the Gulf War, not that they were fans of Saddam Hussein, or sorry to see him go.. Others lived in areas that were sometimes mortared by the Americans. There were near misses, and sometimes houses blown up. Yes, the Americans occasionally made mistakes.
In spite of all that – do you know how the Iraqis referred to the so-called “American imperialist warmongers”?
“The friendly side.”
The not-so-friendly sides included horrific terrorist groups like al Qaeda in Iraq (the pre-curser to ISIS) and militants like the Badr Brigades. Most Iraqis wanted nothing to do with the terrorists. They were glad the Americans were there to protect them.
In one very effecting vignette, Banzet described a day he went to work and found the office in a state of panicked chaos.
“Most of the guys were on their phones, urgently talking,” Banzet remembers. Worry creased their faces as they talked to loved ones at home. He asked what was going on and was told, “there are bad things happening in the neighborhoods.”
Asad had gotten off the phone, but Wahid was still calmly, forcefully directing someone. Asad looked at me, pain in his eyes, anguish on his face, and his English eloquence failed him. “They took someone and now Nassera says that she hears guns coming down the street.
Some men had broken into a home and abducted the cousin of the owner. Banzet left the office to brief an American intel officer about what was happening, and see if he had any ideas. When he got back to the office – the room was noticeably calmer. It turns out, hummers were involved. That ruled out some of the more barbaric terrorists. But one of the Shia militant brigades was known to use hummers, so there was still a great deal of concern, and Banzet went back to talk to the intel guy. When he returned the third time, he said it was like walking into an episode of the Twilight Zone.
The guys were back at work, typing on the computers, drinking tea, and chatting.
The completely bewildered Banzet asked Assad what was going on.
“I’m sorry my friend. It was the Americans,” he grinned, clapping Banzet on the shoulder and returning to his work.
In another poignant vignette, Banzet gives his Iraqi friends – formerly officers in Saddam’s Air Force – a tour of “Flintstone Village” – the bizarre playground resort outside Baghdad that was built by Saddam Hussein for his sons Uday, Qusay, their children, and other elites. During the Saddam era, most Iraqis were not allowed to look at or even mention the place for fear of getting shot.
His friends were appalled by everything they saw, and their visceral reaction to the resort took Banzet by surprise. Although the workmanship of the buildings was shoddy, the entire place – which includes a never finished “Victory over America” palace – clearly cost millions upon millions of dollars.
Still, Banzet wasn’t sure he understood why they were reacting with such disgust.
“Do you know when these things were built, Mike?” his friend Wahid asked exasperatedly.
It turns out that the Flintstone Village was built during “the seasons” – when things got very bad for most Iraqis. Banzet was perplexed. The “seasons”? After further prodding, he figured out what they were talking about: the UN sanctions.
As you may have guessed, the “Flowershop in Baghdad” is a metaphor for the American mission that was planting the seeds of a new democracy in difficult, but not completely infertile soil.
But it also has a literal meaning as Banzet endeavored to help the gentle and timid Samir – one of his Iraqi friends – who had always wanted to grow flowers.
Banzet found a small plot, and helped Samir weed and till the soil, preparing it for the seeds his wife had sent over. After planting the seeds, Banzet backed off, and let Samir do the rest of the upkeep on his own. But Samir turned out to be a very poor gardener, indeed. He forgot to water so the soil became dry and cracked. Weeds soon crept back in, choking out the flowers. The flower garden failed.
Perhaps Banzet had left him on his own too soon.