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Works and Days

Observations about the war

October 6th, 2007 - 4:36 am

Last week’s quiet

I just returned to Kuwait, and have been in Iraq visiting forward operating bases in Anbar and Diyala provinces, as well as suburbs of Baghdad the last week, hence the recent silence on this blog given sporadic internet facilities in Iraq. I hope to post a series of observations. But for now here are a few initials impressions from my second visit to the country. (Please excuse the typos, writing in haste from Kuwait City)

Better News?

Almost all the Marines and Army units I visited from Ramadi to Taji to various hot spots in Baghdad and Diyala believe there has been a sudden shift in the pulse of battlefield. Sometimes without much warning thousands of once disgruntled Sunni have turned on al Qaeda, ceased resistance, and are flocking to join government security forces and begging the Americans to stop both al Qaeda and Shiite militias.

Commanders in the field are cautious. They know that if the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad stays vengeful for decades of past suffering at the hands of Sunni Baathists, the reconciliation will fail. So thousands of American officers are desperately pressuring ministries to start distributing the vast wealth of Iraq’s $80 a barrel oil revenues to Anbar and Diyala before the Sunni revert back to insurgency.

The U.S. military

The brilliance of U.S. army and marines officers has not been fully appreciated. I met scores with PhDs and MAs, from Majors to Colonels, who are literally all at once trying to defeat al Qaeda gangs and Shiite militias, rebuild government facilities, arbitrate tribal feuds, repair utilities and train Iraqi army and police. As was true of the last trip to Iraq, I am left with three general impressions about the military.

(1) Our army and marines are far too few and overextended. The United States must either radically increase the size of these traditional ground units or scale back its commitments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Through constant rotations, we are literally burning out gifted officers and lifetime professionals— and will lose their priceless expertise if they begin, as I fear, retiring en masse due to the sheer exhaustion.

(2) There is more optimism about success among the battlefield soldiers than present with analysts in Baghdad. The sudden decrease in violence has left many units stunned that Iraqis who used to try to kill them are suddenly volunteering information about terrorists and landmines, and clamoring to join the joint security force. Usually those behind the desk are the optimists, the soldiers who die the pessimists. But instead there is genuine feeling on the front that after four frustrating years of ordeal, at last there are tangible signs of real, often radical improvement.

(3) As a supporter of some four years of the now unpopular effort to remove Saddam and leave a democracy in his place, I continue to have only one reservation, albeit a major one. The U.S. soldier in the field is so unusually competent and heroic that one comes to despair at the very thought of losing even one of them. As a military historian I know that an army that can’t take casualties can’t win, but I confess after spending 16-hour days with our soldiers in impossible conditions one wonders whether the entire country of Iraq is worth the loss of just of these unusual Americans. I understand both the lack of logic and perhaps amorality in such a sweeping statement, but feel it nonetheless out here.

The complexity of the effort

The military is pulling out all the stops. Some examples. They have flown Vietnam-era veterans to lecture on counter-insurgency in their school at Taji, in addition to clinic psychologists and veterans of recent wars from Panama to Afghanistan. The problem is now not too few interpreters, but too many trying to join us. Some of the best are Iraqi-Americans, who know American idiom and deeply appreciate being an American.

Hundreds are working on IEDs, not just counter-technologies and aerial surveillance, but sophisticated methods of learning how they are made, how the bombers function, and how they are paid and maintained. Thousands of other reserve and retired engineers have come to Iraq to build and advise Iraqi contractors. I met a fascinating engineer in his mid-fifties who volunteered to return to the Marines and is now supervising the reconstruction of the governmental center in Ramadi.

Again, they are trying not just to defeat the insurgency, but to literally take Iraq from its primordial past to the twenty-first century within four years. A Herculean Task.

Mythologies

A common slur is that Halliburton is looting the treasury and contractors in Iraq are greedy profiteers. I again found the opposite to be true. Thousands of construction personnel build bases, road, and Iraqi facilities, sometimes under fire, but living with the notion of shelling or shooting any minute. I consider them more likely under- rather than overpaid.

Iraq is not a poor country. Flying over the Tigris-Euphrates valley (I speak now a farmer) is unlike anything in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The soil is rich, the water plentiful and the dry climate perfect for intensive agriculture. That the country in theory within a year or two could pump well over three million barrels of petroleum a day, gives some indication of just how badly Iraq has been run the last forty years to screw up such natural bounty of a country—the Baathist-terror state, the attack on Iran, the massacres of Kurdish and Shiite innocents, the 1991 Gulf War, the no-fly zones and UN embargo, et al.

Next posting…

Hope to leave Kuwait tonight and post more on Iraq—some thoughts on our chances of winning, the nature of our colonels in the field, an interview with General Petraeus, the real Al Qaeda (or what Sunnis who once joined them now say about them) and other observations. .. Again, excuse the typos, since I write in haste.

Postscript

Hope to post tomorrow. One final thought. I must emphasize that we as a country have to support those in the field of fire. They believe not just that we can win by securing Iraq, but that they are doing a moral good by giving millions a chance of something quite different. Whatever one’s views on the war are, it seems to me morally reprehensible that anyone would slander an American soldier, whether comparing them to terrorists or their General to a betrayer. We have a very rare precious resource in today’s military that really does represent the moral upper crust of American society, and as long as it is engaged, we need to support it. We may come to the day that the military itself thinks victory is beyond our resources or not worth the cost, but from what I saw this week, as in 2006, we are not there at that day yet by a long shot.

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