View Full Version : Moment of Truth in Iraq

01-09-08, 07:12 PM
Moment of Truth in Iraq

In January 2007, growing doubts I had about our ability to stave off an eventual genocide in Iraq were intensified by our failure to competently manage the media battlespace. Within the military I sensed a growing censorship and was myself denied access to the battlefields in 2006. After months of fighting with Army Public Affairs for access, they relented, but only due to public pressure following the publication of an article in the Weekly Standard. An expanded version of the article “On Censorship” was published as the dispatch “Al Sahab—the Cloud” on my website. The article was blunt; by then I’d been fighting for about six months to re-embed with troops.

In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda’s media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have “journalists” crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an “embed” media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.

Many blame the media for the estrangement, but part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn’t manage the media so much as manhandle them. Most military public affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, but it takes only a few well-placed incompetents to cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.

Before returning to Iraq, I flew to Vietnam and Cambodia to visit war museums. Interestingly, the Vietnamese and Cambodians alike were friendly toward Americans. I found similar friendliness in neighboring Laos some years ago: we nearly bombed Laos into oblivion. Huge fields of craters still exist and people are still being killed by our old bombs, yet they treated me well. But on this trip, especially when I stopped at a Cambodian museum/memorial on the site of a former “killing field,” it was impossible to shake the dread that history might be revving itself up for a repeat genocide in Iraq, something I wrote about in the dispatch “No Darker Heart.”

After the monsoon rains abate, the draining earth offers up fragments of clothing, human teeth and bones as final testimony of the restless, wronged dead. Murdered on this now sacred ground, thirty or more years ago, they are among the millions of souls sacrificed to a fevered ideology that was completely broken only a decade ago. The remains that seep up through the mud under my feet in this Killing Field are from a different war, but they echo a mournful reminder of how jarringly common it is for societies at war with themselves to descend into madness. Death squads under holy orders, suicide bombers in mosques, machete-wielding mobs in Rwanda, industrialized gas chambers in Europe, fire-breathing Janjaweed militias in Darfur, and here the tree named for its function as “killing tree against which executioners beat children.”

By December 2006 I was back in the Iraq war. Within couple of weeks, I was quite literally helping to pick up American body parts and carefully putting them into body bags. By then, enemy bombs were even more sophisticated and bigger than they had been in 2005. There was the Iraqi civil war, full on in parts of the country, and trending in the wrong direction, and waning patience at home in the United States and Great Britain, especially with politicians long on slogans and spin and short on solutions. Americans and Brits had never gotten consistent balanced coverage of the war, and without that context, the daily drumbeat of the death tolls, followed by the same empty barrel analysis was becoming deafening.

If the violence could not be contained, most people in America and Great Britain would likely lose patience, and force the withdrawal of troops, leading to genocide and regional chaos with global implications. Al Qaeda would score a strategic victory. In this scenario, the Mother of All Mistakes would be followed by a century of negative consequences, because violence would likely devolve into genocide on a scale similar to or worse than that seen in Cambodia; and because the Sunni/Shia fault line snakes throughout the Middle East, the chaos might catapult the region into war.

If we catastrophically lost the war—for instance, if we rushed out of the country and it descended into genocide—likely many generals would point at politicians who would point at the press who would point at politicians and generals. There would not be enough fingers to fulfill all the pointing requirements. All while blood filled the rivers. No revision of history would reverse the incidents in which more than thirty thousand of our finest young men and women were wounded or killed while making our country less safe.

The same truth holds for the uncounted thousands of Iraqis who died for one of our flawed decisions only to then have the value of their lives diminished by another. The only gains to come of this complete loss would be the swollen ranks of a reinvigorated al Qaeda.

The impulse to withdraw the troops is understandable, especially once the media that had written off Iraq began to focus instead on the inexcusably, unacceptably poor way this war was managed from the start. Truly, 2003 and 2004 were first-order fiascos. I’ve twice read the book Fiasco by Tom Ricks and found it accurate from my perspective as a witness to the aftermath. That we created the conditions for the complex insurgency to follow is a fact. There is plenty of blame to go around for that: some politicians and generals made severe errors, but then so did some in the press. Cases like Abu Ghraib needed to be reported, but not blown to such enormous proportion that the reporting itself became a kind of recruitment campaign for terrorists. Clearly none of the key voices were singing off the same sheet of music and the audience can’t be blamed for covering their ears and grimacing when what should have been close harmony sounded instead like cats mating underwater.

In America, the photographs and reports made many people shake their heads and say, “That’s not who we are. That’s not what America stands for.” Across the Muslim world, the photographs stoked the fires of radical fundamentalism and swelled the ranks of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But in Iraq, it wasn’t the news reports about Abu Ghraib that did the real damage. The torture itself had already done that almost a full year before someone leaked photographs of it to the press.

In late 2007, when I was in Mosul, LTC Eric Welsh told me about a former al Qaeda leader whom he had persuaded to turn against al Qaeda. It was not an easy task to convince the man to become an informant because he did not trust Americans. The Iraqi man told LTC Eric Welsh that although he hated al Qaeda, he hated the Americans more. Why did he hate Americans? Because we had tortured him at Abu Ghraib.

Media coverage of the war drew to a conclusion in many ways from that point forward. For most of the next two years, stories that illustrated the decline in security and unraveling of progress on the ground were widely reported, while those showcasing the pockets of progress, especially among the Iraqi security forces, were increasingly rare. So much so that when I finally succeeded in getting back into Iraq in late 2006, even I was truly amazed at the progress that had been made across Iraq with the training and management of Iraqi Army and Police forces.
There’s only a small group of writers who honestly spend enough time in Iraq to make serious claims based on firsthand accounts. But I’ve seen the Iraqi Army with my own eyes. I’ve done many missions in 2005 and 2007, in many places in Iraq, along with the Iraqi Army: please believe me when I say that, on the whole, the Iraqi Army is remarkably better in 2007 and far more effective than it was in 2005. By 2007, the Iraqis were doing most of the fighting. And . . . this is very important . . . they see our Army and Marines as serious allies, and in many cases as friends. Please let the potential implications of that sink in.

We now have a large number of American and British officers who can pick up a phone from Washington or London and call an Iraqi officer that he knows well—an Iraqi he has fought along side of—and talk. Same with untold numbers of Sheiks and government officials, most of whom do not deserve the caricatural disdain they get most often from pundits who have never set foot in Iraq. British and American forces have a personal relationship with Iraqi leaders of many stripes. The long-term intangible implications of the betrayal of that trust through the precipitous withdrawal of our troops could be enormous, because they would be the certain first casualties of renewed violence, and selling out the Iraqis who are making an honest-go would make the Bay of Pigs sell-out seem inconsequential. The United States and Great Britain would hang their heads in shame for a century.

Alternately, in an equation in which the outcome is a stable Iraq for which they (Iraqi Police and Army officials) are stewards, the potential benefits are equally enormous. Because if Iraq were to settle down, and then a decade passes and we look back and even our most severe critics cannot deny that Iraq is a better place, a generation of Iraq’s most important leaders would have deep personal bonds with their counterparts in America and Great Britain. This could actually happen. The ultimate irony is that many of those same people who would have gotten the blame likely would be getting the credit. But somehow I doubt there’d be as much of a circle-point to share the glory.

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