Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Iraqi Conflict

Willy Stern (a relative of this blogger) has recently returned after a stint in Iraq embedded as a journalist with the First Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. His embed was co-sponsored by two running magazines, Runner’s World (U.K.) and Marathon & Beyond. Stern’s thoughts on the conflict follow.

You want the shirt off my back too?

I’m crammed into the back of a C-130 cargo plane flying into BIAP, Baghdad’s international airport. There are 50 others in the cargo hold with me, mostly soldiers, and two pallets of equipment. The temp is 124 outside. Inside the plane, there is no A/C. I suspect it’s 130 degrees, maybe more. U.S. Army regulations require that we wear long pants, long-sleeve shirts, body armor and a Kevlar helmet on these transports. We are packed in so tight that the soldiers on either side of me have their bodies crushed against my side. We are allotted exactly 20 inches of butt space per person on the bench. The female soldier across from me has her knees in my crotch. My knees are shoved up against her thighs. Rucksacks sit heavily across laps. The heat is unbearable. The soldiers all have brought large bottles of water. Some also have camelbacks. I have no water and am sweating profusely. The flight time is around 1 hour and 20 minutes, but if we take ground fire, it could be far more. The soldier across from me and to the right sees that I am dehydrating quickly. He pulls out a water bottle and offers it to me. We’re all wearing earplugs. There’s no way to talk over the roar of the engines. But he hand-motions that he has more water in his ruck. I reluctantly take a swig and hand it back. He insists I keep it. Over the next 90 minutes, I slowly drain the bottle. He declines repeated offers to share. It isn’t until we are close to landing that I realize he has given me his only water bottle.

Only some “quagmires” get reported

Three thousand seven hundred and forty-six American soldiers have been killed since the Iraqi conflict started in March, 2003. Every death is a tragedy. Over the same time period, Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that around 75,000 people have been killed on roads here in the U.S. by drunk drivers. That’s about twenty times as many as the Iraqi death toll for our soldiers. Yet, Sen. Kennedy and his ilk are only concerned about the deaths in Iraq. To be sure, it’s not a perfect apples-to-apples analogy. Still, the mainstream media can turn any situation they choose into a crisis, whilst ignoring others. If we were forced to read the daily death counts from drunk drivers on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, then the “quagmire” of drunk driving would be a national crisis too.

Should we trust Gen. Petraeus?

Last week, I spent 2 ½ hours with General David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq. I met him at his Baghdad residence. (I can’t disclose the location for security reasons). We went for a 5.7-mile run and then did a 90-minute workout together at an improvised gym next to his office. We talked of many things—his family, his years at Princeton, the novels of David Ignatius, his favorite run at Fort Leavenworth, the proper technique for push-ups, the building of the Panama Canal, his philosophy on management and hiring, the time he got shot through the chest, his fastest marathon (sub-3 hours), even his fears, hopes and dreams. (That story will appear in one of the magazines that sent me to Iraq.) But I can say this: Like many of you, I’ve spent the last two days watching, Rep. Lantos, Sen. Biden, et alia, desperately and crudely try to impeach the credibility of Gen. Petraeus. I understand the peculiar and mean-spirited nature of partisan politics and posturing as well as the next guy. Nonetheless, these attacks are just plain wrong. They say more about the attackers than the attacked. Petraeus has his faults; he is off-the-charts competitive, way too intense and focused in the extreme. But he is man of uncommon integrity. He could no more lie or deceive Congress than he could rob a bank. I asked him, in front of several senior members of his staff, when was the last time he talked to his wife. “It’s been a few weeks,” he said, clearly sheepish at the lack of communication. But he told the truth. That’s who he is—rock solid and honest to the core. Anyone in the U.S. Congress who thinks Petraeus is capable of deceit either doesn’t know the man or is willfully lying. (Petraeus did say he was in daily email contact with his better half.)

What about that op-ed from the soldiers in The New York Times?

As most of you know, on Aug. 19, 2007, The Times ran a fascinating op-ed piece, “The War As We Saw It, in which seven active duty soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division expressed strong skepticism about “recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable.” To anyone remotely familiar with the Times’ anti-war, anti-military bias, this op-ed was no surprise. But imagine this: Imagine that The Times ran a story on sales at Wal-Mart, in which they only quoted seven Wal-Mart employees, and that each of these employees worked a cash register at the check-out counter at the same Wal-Mart location. Imagine further, that The Times’ editors decided to place more validity on this very narrow sales analysis than they placed on the tallies from the executive vice-president at corporate headquarters who is seeing system-wide revenue numbers. The Times would never do it because it’s not responsible journalism. But the analogy holds. No doubt, the reality on the ground for these seven brave soldiers—two of whom have since been killed—is that Iraq is a big mess. But their experience is in no way indicative of what is going on across Iraq. Only the general officers, high up the chain of command, can see the big picture. Sadly, for The Times editors, the big picture indicates that we are winning, and The Times editors simply cannot have that. My sincere condolences, by the way, to the families and friends of the two fallen soldiers.

Is the surge working? Depends who you ask:

CNN loves to stick a microphone in an enlisted man’s face to hear his impression of whether the surge is working. That makes for compelling TV, and is a clever way for the network to pursue its anti-war agenda. But it’s not honest reporting. It’s a cheap trick. That soldier has an extremely narrow view of Iraq. After two weeks in Iraq, my unscientific survey indicates that 95% of officers believe that the surge has been effective and that conditions are improving—at least in some areas. By the same token, 95% of the enlisted ranks—the frontline soldiers—disagree. These are the grunts who are leaving the relative security of the bases, going “over the wire,” and putting themselves in harm’s way. They tell me that there’s still a lot of “activity” out there, soldier-speak for getting shot at, or risking getting blown up by an IED. So who is right? To be sure, my suspicion is that few get promoted in the U.S. military by sending up a report indicating that his/her unit just isn’t able to complete the mission. Still, the soldiers are being sent to patrol the hot spots; it’s no wonder their boots-on-the-ground thinking is that the war is a mess. That is their reality. The officers read daily reports about all sectors under their command. If Gen. Petraeus and his senior staff say conditions are improving, I’d trust them far more than the grunts.

How safe is it?

That’s the question I am most often asked in communiqués with folks back home. People are getting killed here, both citizens and soldiers. Most trouble comes in one of four forms: (1) soldiers leave the safety of the base, go “over the wire” on patrol and get shot at by the bad guys; (2) The bases are subject to frequent indirect fire. That means the enemy lobs, however inaccurately, mortars or rockets up over the protective walls onto the bases; (3) Convoys are hit by an IED or EFP; and, (4) Accidents. Two helos crash in a sand storm or a Humvee rolls. But these are mostly things you read about, not experience. The mainstream media cover them all, giving the impression things are far worse than they are. Imagine if you lived in Norway, and every day there was an article on the front page of the Oslo paper about the latest violent crime in Nashville. A murder tonight. A rape the next night. You’d think Nashville was far too dangerous to visit. But who do any of us know who has actually been a victim of violent crime in Davidson County? Our troops are winning the war on the ground but getting undermined at every turn by the western media.

Media bias in Iraq? I’m shocked…

The two journalists are from The Daily Telegraph in London. It’s 4 in the morning and we’re waiting for a C-130 transport. They have a swagger about them that comes from having done three earlier tours in Iraq. The shooter is chain-smoking something that smells nasty, but he doesn’t say much. The British scribe is talkative. He’s explaining how to manipulate the “PAOs”, the Army personnel tasked with looking after journalists. “We’re here to show that the surge isn’t working. But we tell the PAO that we want an update on the surge. So he’ll get us some colonel who will feed us the party line. We smile and write it down. Then we’ll embed with a unit for a few days, do a patrol and get the quotes we need from the front-line soldiers. It’s an easy story.”

Who says public service is dead?

It’s 2:17 a.m., and I am in a holding area at a military base in Baghdad, waiting to ride in a Rhino (essentially an armored bus) to take me down to the International Zone. I fall into conversation with a reservist, an enlisted man, who helps the U.S. Embassy do projects with the locals. I need help figuring out how to open and prepare a MRE, the “meal ready-to-eat” that soldiers subsist on in the field. He recommends the chicken, since they are best to “rat-fuck.” That’s the Army term for combing through the MRE contents and picking out the best items. The chicken MREs have both M&Ms and pumpkin bread. Some hour into our conversation, he lets on that in civilian life, he is an attorney with a fairly powerful job in Washington D.C. He volunteered for the gig in Iraq. “Nobody at the State Department would take it. Too dangerous. I thought it was the best way to serve my country.” He rides around in the back of armored Humvee and gets shot at sometimes.

Need a taxi?

I flew over the Red (i.e., not safe) Zone of Baghdad yesterday in a Blackhawk helicopter. It’s a sprawling, ugly city. But what I saw below was the epitome of normalcy. Taxis were trolling for passengers. Lots of cars and pick-up trucks were on the roads. Washing was strung out on lines in the backyard to dry. Shops were open. Men were out sweeping the streets. Sure, the electricity only works a few hours a day. Sewerage is a problem in some parts of the city. Many doctors have fled to Jordan and Syria and the hospitals are barely functioning. It’s a mess out there. But these Iraqis are resilient people. It was clear from the air that life goes on.

What’s a Rhodes Scholar like you doing in a place like this?

I went for a run the other day with the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Iraq, David H. Petraeus, and some of his senior staff. Gen. Petraeus has a Ph.D. from Princeton. His legal advisor, Col. Mark Martins also was along on the run. Col. Martins is a Rhodes Scholar with a Harvard Law Degree. Petraeus’s aide-de-camp ran too. He has a Duke MBA. They are all very fast. More to the point, these are also impressive human beings of superior intellect who share an unfaltering commitment to serve their country. What was John Kerry thinking?

Well, there is the Geneva Convention, for our side anyway…

We’re in a shower trailer at the transit camp at Striker in Baghdad. I’m drying off after my shower. There’s one other soldier in the trailer, a 19-year-old kid from Alabama. He’s shaving what little facial hair he has. I ask him where he’s been. He’s down from one of the smaller FOBs (forward operating bases) up north. “I’m an MP. I guard the captured enemy. We had 61 of those fuckers at our FOB. My unit is tasked with looking after them. We give them three square meals a day and they get a Koran. They get A/C too but we make them sleep on the floor. My buddies and I talk a lot. If we was (sic) captured by them, we’d be dead. And we’d of wasted these guys too if they’d let us. I would have fuckin’ killed every one of those fuckers. But that’s not how we do things in the U.S. Army.”

The next generation IEDs

IEDs have gotten much press coverage back in the U.S. But the term on everybody’s lips here is EFPs. These are “explosively formed projectiles” that spew copper that is so extremely hot that these devices can penetrate armored vehicles. True or not, soldiers believe, and tell horrific stories about, EFPs that have gone right through Humvees, Bradleys, Strykers, even tanks. The widespread belief here is that are coming in from Iran. It’s unclear to me that the Army has found an answer for them yet. Another sign of a vicious enemy that is quick to adapt in the field.

Shot once, in the back of the head

He was 19 when they came to get him at his apartment in one of the poorer districts of Baghdad. They took him out into the street, made him kneel on the ground, then shot him in the back of the head. His crime? He worked as a janitor at the U.S. Embassy complex in the International Zone. He was, in the eyes of the insurgents, cooperating with the infidels. That’s why he was murdered. I’m not sure what the best path is to a secure, democratic society in Iraq. But of this I’m certain: If the U.S. pulls out in the near future, it would be a death sentence to all the brave Iraqis who are currently working side-by-side with the Coalition Forces to build a better Iraq. I wonder if Harry Reid really wants those deaths on his hands.

Shoot that generator!

According to the “psy-ops” people here—those who debrief captured enemy—the goal of the mortars and rockets which get lobbed regularly onto the military bases here is not to hit the dining facilities, where dozens could be killed (we eat in clusters). No, they captured enemy say they want to knock out the generators, in effect killing our A/C units and ability to cook, wash, etc. That way, they think, we’ll be as miserable as they are. It’s hitting 115-120 degrees here pretty regularly.

Scrub those hands!

I cannot get over how clean these soldiers are. They are required to scrub their hands thoroughly before every meal. They do so willingly, as well as every time they are finished using the latrine. Not the cursory clean you see back home in public restrooms. From high-ranking officers to the lowliest of enlisted men and women, they scrub hard and well for 10-15 seconds. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher would be proud.

You get a line and I’ll get a pole, honey

Baghdad is hot, sticky and barren. Everybody has a sniffly nose from the constant sand and dust. There is no wildlife, save the occasional wild dog or—in the desert--camels. But Saddam had dug out several artificial lakes and canals near Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Hundreds of troops here must cross a small footbridge over a canal three times a day on their way to the dining facility. There are many fish (carp, I’m told) and a few eels and turtles in the water. Soldiers will often take a piece of bread after supper, stop on the bridge and feed the fish. It’s a tiny connection to some sense of humanity in the craziness of this prolonged war.

Pssst. Wanna’ great deal on a Harley?

Just outside the d-fac (dining facility) at Camp Liberty next to the Baghdad airport, there are posters advertising Harley Davidson motorcycles for sale. For $14,791, you can buy a “Night Rod” Harley. Shipping is included. Soldiers orders books off; one soldier said a book got to him in Iraq four days after placing the order. At the PX (post exchange), you can buy darn near anything. A 21” flat screen TV from JVC goes for $159. There’s a fairly decent selection of Rosh Hashanah cards too—far better than at my CVS in Nashville.

A hard case

He’s the platoon’s master sergeant, an enlisted solider, with 22 hard years in the U.S. Army. He is crusty, old school, by-the-book and could care less what you think of him. He’s having trouble adjusting to the new Army, including his boss, a female lieutenant. He despises the media—thinks we tend to be lazy, left-wing scumbags who only write negative stories about the Army. He’s been away from his wife and daughter a lot the past two decades. He doesn’t complain.

Clearly, he doesn’t care for me, yet another media guy passing through Iraq for a few weeks and sounding off like an expert. In two days, he’s barely acknowledged my existence, except to chew me out for possibly violating “opsecs”—meaning doing something which runs counter to operational security that could put his troops at risk.

A few of his soldiers are trying to convince me to hop on a convoy run with them through the “red” (i.e., unsafe, unsecured) zone outside Baghdad on Friday to drop off a generator. I’m chewing it over.

The first sergeant suddenly chimes in. “Don’t do it. We have to go. You don’t. Life is too precious, son.” I didn’t even know he was listening. Or cared.

From Booz Allen to Saddam’s palace

I’m making conversation with the 1-star general’s “XO”—a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy who sits outside the general’s office and runs the show. We are in one of Saddam’s former palaces; there are gold-inlaid bidets in the bathroom. I’m early for my appointment with the brigadier general; his executive officer is graciously filling the blank airtime. He’s got a bum knee, and can’t run, which is frustrating him. It finally comes out that he is a reservist who graduated from the Darden, the business school at the University of Virginia, a few years back. Since then, he’s been humping it for Booz Allen Hamilton; he’s a management consultant in the firm’s Washington D.C. office. He volunteered for duty in Iraq. He is working 80- and 90-hour weeks. This decision will set back his path to partnership at Booz. He believes service to his country in time of need is more important.

Those naughty, rule-breaking Jews

In an effort to be sensitive to the local Muslims—only some of whom are trying to kill us—all U.S. military bases here forbid porn and alcohol. They take the ban seriously. Not so the Jews. I showed up at 1830 last night for Shabbat services in a mini-chapel over at Camp Victory. The Army had flown in a baby-faced reservist rabbi—the ever-smiling Rabbi Mark Sachs—from Pittsburgh. The nine of us in Rabbi Sach’s Baghdad “congregation” that night sat in desk chairs that we had arranged in a semi-circle around our preacher. M-16s and M-4s lined the back wall. Those in attendance included a top executive with Kellogg, Brown & Root (the contractor that performs many non-military services here), three enlisted guys, and one female (a commander in the U.S. Navy). Afterwards, someone went into the backroom and came out a case of kosher red wine. I guess Jewish customs trump Muslim ones. Our final prayer was in celebration of the United States of America. I couldn’t take notes (the rabbi was orthodox and they have some sort of prohibition about using writing instruments on the Sabbath). But there was a line in there where we all prayed for the president of the U.S. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a rabbi say a single nice word about President Bush.

Are we playing laser tag, or trying to kill terrorists?

Before riding a convoy through the Red Zone, the convoy commander gathers everybody—including a visiting journalist—around to go over the mission. We congregate around the hood of an armored Humvee in the 115-degree heat. All but two of the soldiers are smoking or dipping. The sergeant spends a fair amount of time on the rules for “escalation of force.” That means how the soldiers can respond if they sense trouble. If a vehicle approaches, they must first issue voice and hand commands, indicating the vehicle should stop. If that doesn’t work, they can “lase” the vehicle, that is, shine a green laser light on the vehicle. If that doesn’t work, they may shoot non-lethal rounds. If that doesn’t work, they may try to disable the vehicle. Finally, if all else fails, they can, in his words, “shoot the motherfuckers.” It’s clear that some of the enlisted guys think these multiple cautions are ridiculous. They believe that these rules are driven by risk-averse officers high up the chain of command who are fearful of bad press if something goes wrong. I agree. The enemy isn’t playing by these rules or worried about getting hammered in The Washington Post.

How much does the U.S. taxpayer shell out per fact found?

I was at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad the same day as Sen. Joe Biden. I actually preceded him by about 45 minutes in the TV studio where he gave his obligatory, “I’m here in Baghdad and…” press conference. The soldiers despise this sort of grandstanding and with good reason. Politicians (on both sides of the aisle) spend a lot of taxpayer money coming to Iraq—typically for 24-to-48 hours—on these so-called fact-finding missions. They stay in the Green Zone, do a photo-op, a meet-and-greet with a few soldiers from their home district and needlessly tie up a lot of personnel here. It’s hard to fathom how they could learn anything of value. But they’re awful good at then calling a news conference and saying, “Well, I was in Iraq last week, and I can tell you that, blah, blah, blah.” They use these trips not to fact-find, but to try to give legitimacy to their own views. Sen. Biden, with his superficial anti-war rhetoric, is one of the worst. Well, I did hear about one Congressman from Washington State who actually changed his mind after one of these visits. He went from anti-war to pro-war. I wish somebody at the U.S. Embassy could remember his name. A true rarity: A politician with an open mind who is trying to educate himself.

The Olympian

I met a major this morning in Baghdad who was on the U.S. shooting team at the Olympics after college. He was three points off the bronze. After some prying from a visiting journalist, he finally acknowledged that if three of his 9s had been 10s, he’d have been on the metal stand. It’s clear that he doesn’t think much about it now. Like everybody else over here, he’s trying to accomplish the mission. He sits in a swivel chair at a desk. He was a world-class athlete not long ago, but unlike Michael Vick, et alia, doesn’t have an ounce of self-promotion about him. He’s devoted his life to serving his country.

How many Poles does it take to design a military uniform?

Every soldier in the U.S. Army in Iraq must be in uniform at all times, except in the privacy of his/her hooch. The standard uniform is high desert boots, long pants, undershirt, and long shirt. In the brutal summer heat, that’s a lot of clothing. Throw in a Kevlar helmet, armored vest, 40 pounds of equipment and a M-16. They get awfully hot. Not so the Polish soldiers. They have a uniform which is, essentially, shorts and a t-shirt. These Poles are much envied, for their uniform anyway.

Tiger Woods had better watch out…

I had dinner last night with a retired U.S. Army colonel. He is now a consultant for CBS Radio, doing on-air commentary. The colonel had spent the previous afternoon hitting golf balls at a range some outfit had built at Victory Base Complex, next to the Baghdad airport. Who’d a thunk?

Hey, wanna’ make $67,000, tax-free?

She was a waitress back home in Texas without a high school diploma. She heard about well-paying jobs in Iraq from a friend. She went to the KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root) website and filled out an application. Now she has a cushy job helping out at the fitness center at one of the U.S. Army bases outside Baghdad. KBR pays her $67,000, tax-free. She hands out towels to soldiers who stop in to pump some iron and relieve stress. These are the same soldiers who are going over the wire daily, putting themselves in harm’s way. Most of these enlisted men and women make less than $25,000. The mainstream media seems obsessed with the fact that KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, which Dick Cheney used to run. That connection is, of course, irrelevant to KBR winning contracts in Iraq. The media would do better to focus on the huge pay disparities between the skilled soldiers, who put their lives at risk, and the unskilled contractors, who largely stay safely on the bases.

Are you crying?

He’s spent the last 15 months in an elite U.S. military unit in Iraq, although I’ve promised him I won’t identify him or the unit by name. It’s around 3 a.m. and he’s sitting alone at a picnic table at a military base eating a Big Mac. I can’t sleep either and join him with my 6-inch meatball sub from Subway. Yes, outlets for these fast-food restaurants are open all night on some bases here. After telling me he doesn’t trust anybody in the media, we make small talk. Finally, he has this to say, “I had a broken bone in my lower leg, but I hid it from the doctors so I could ship out with my unit. It hurt like hell. I couldn’t run without pain. But I wasn’t going to let my buddies down. They are my family now. We’ve been threw a lot of shit together. Some of them aren’t coming home.” This is followed by a long silence when it’s clear he’s trying not to cry. “That’s it. These are the best people I know, but it’s all gone to shit here.” My guess is he was 20 years old, tops.

Update: Thanks for the links from Liz Garrigan, Luke Froeb and A.C. Kleinheider.

Update 2: Just added the last vignette, "Are you crying?," which had been inadvertantly omitted.

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