Op-Ed: Engineering the Peace

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Talley turned a Shiite slum into a peaceful place to live

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Here’s the harsh reality of modern warfare — it takes a great deal of complex and demanding engineering to design weapons systems that seek out and destroy our enemies. And frankly, technology tends to advance fastest in times of war, but that’s a rather sobering achievement when you consider the cost.

But what if wartime technology could deliver immediate, life-changing benefits to people in war zones who may not support our vision of the world? Would we have a new “weapon” in our arsenal to create a durable peace?

There’s a remarkable human interest story playing out in Iraq, thanks to an engineering professor who is also a brigadier general in the Army Reserves. Jeffrey Talley just came back to civilian life as an educator and researcher after a tour of duty in Iraq as engineer for Multi-National Division - Baghdad. He’s being credited with making Sadr City — a Shiite slum and one of the most dangerous sections of the city — a more peaceful place to live. He didn’t do it with laser-guided automatic weapons or smart bombs. He did it with a functioning sanitary system and safe, clean buildings for school children.

In May 2008, much of Sadr City had been reduced to rubble, roadside bombs and raw sewage after long months of intense fighting between Iraqi security forces and the militia of extremist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. That’s when Talley set up Task Force Gold, a military unit designed to take on the job of cleaning up the debris of war and the physical decay that had piled up over three decades of neglect.

In Talley’s mind, his job was to “engineer the peace.” It was an extraordinarily simple idea, but a huge and dangerous job — combine his soldiers and engineers with Iraqi contractors to bring back the basic services of water, sewage and electricity, and restore the schools and hospitals. Do that, and people will begin to turn away from the militias, he thought.

What Talley was doing was showing the residents of Sadr City what life could look like. He was giving them hope, even as he was giving them flushing toilets and a functioning marketplace where they could safely buy food. If they could choose to start a business and improve their communities, he thought, they could choose to support the government of Iraq and a different way of life to the alternative of supporting the militias.

The strategy turned him into an instant target with a price on his head, because militia leaders knew Talley’s success would mean their failure to reclaim the area. But eventually, the residents of Sadr City began to buy in to Talley’s approach, because their lives were actually getting better. In fact, the number of acts of terrorism and violence dropped precipitously in this most dangerous region of Iraq.

“People who historically were neutral or anti-coalition forces started to see that maybe this way ahead is a positive one,” Talley said in December. “They all started saying 'no’ to the militia, and 'yes’ to progress and to peace.”

So, yes, engineering does play a vital and necessary role in defending our nation against those who would do us harm. However, with the foresight and boldness of Jeffrey Talley, we have learned that engineering can also be a powerful weapon for creating peace out of despair — a hard lesson that each generation must relearn for itself.