An Unlikely Hero

The ideas of “the troops,” how to “support” them, and what “they want” have been kicked around like a political football for the last few years of the Iraq war, with seemingly every individual, political apparatus, and interest group claiming that they and they alone understand what the troops think, feel, want, and need, and that they and they alone can instruct their fellows about how best to act on that knowledge.

One group which is rarely afforded the opportunity to weigh in, though, is the troops themselves — inarguably the most relevant group of all involved in the debate, as it is their own success and well being which is the subject of dispute. A large part of the reason for my trip here to Iraq was to take advantage of the opportunity to interact directly with the troops, and to find out just what it is that they have to say on these topics. In the four days that I have been in theater to this point, I have had several conversations with American soldiers, on a range of topics, from morale to their opinion of the war, and from their thoughts on the Iraqi people, to their view of the probability of victory.  What I was told has been both interesting and instructive.

One notable person I spoke with was in transit back to Iraq after spending time in Germany recovering from wounds. This young officer, a captain, had been in Iraq for three weeks when he was called to respond to an EFP attack on a humvee that had killed two soldiers and grievously wounded a third (breaking both of his femurs.) Upon arriving at the scene to do his job, he was struck in the upper arm by a sniper’s bullet. The .308 round passed completely through his arm between the biceps and the shoulder, and struck a companion in the stomach. The tow truck which went to recover the injured personnel and the destroyed humvee was also hit by an EFP en route to the scene, and both occupants were also killed.

“I didn’t know where the shots were coming from,” he said, “and it’s not like we could fire back. All we could do was take cover behind the wreckage and hope to be rescued.”
The young officer and his companions were eventually recovered, and were evacuated to a combat hospital before being transported to Germany for longer-term medical attention.
Who was this young officer, you ask, and why couldn’t he “fire back”? He was a chaplain — an official noncombatant. He had hustled to the scene to administer last rites to the soldiers killed in the attack.

“I absolutely volunteered for this,” he said to me after telling this story. “It doesn’t matter what you or what I think about the way the war started or if it was right in the first place. We have people here now and I’m here to support them in the best way I can.” After spending a month in Germany recovering from his would, he returned to continue doing his best to support both the troops and the mission.

Another remarkable conversation was shared with a bespectacled captain of infantry, who was on his second tour in Iraq and had been here since just before Gen. Petraeus’s confirmation as the new head of MNF-I. We spoke at length about the war, and about the differences between his first tour and now. I asked what he thought about the mission in Iraq, and what he thought the prospects for success were. Gazing pensively at the ground, he took a moment to collect his thoughts, and said, “Well, politically, staying here probably isn’t the best decision.” He added that, given the situation at home, “winning here seems less possible all the time, even though we’re now doing what it is we probably should have been doing all along.” Moving on from that moment of near despair, he paused and glanced up, looking earnestly at me through his thick, military-issue glasses, and said, “There’s not a single one of my soldiers who doesn’t look at the neighborhood we’re in, look at the children there, and not want to do whatever they can to give these kids as bright a future as possible. We want to finish this job, and we know we can do it.”

The knowledge that the American military can win this fight appears to be shared by the vast majority of the soldiers here (and it was expressed by every one that I talked to.) This doesn’t mean that they enjoy being here — not at all. “This place sucks,” said one soldier. “Sand sucks. I’m exhausted, and I miss home.” Though these latter sentiments are as common and as pervasive as the formerly expressed confidence, they should be taken for what they mean, not twisted to suit an anti-war agenda. Living somewhere away from home for twelve to fifteen months at a time, living in conditions that aren’t exactly five star resort-esque, eating bad food, going a long time between getting showers and clean clothes, and having an opportunity to be killed virtually every day is an unpleasant situation, and can quickly grind people down.

“On camera, the soldiers are very upbeat, and say just the right things,” said a foreign embedded reporter with whom I spoke. He continued:

They say, ‘We’re here for democracy, to help the Iraqi people,’ and all of that stuff. Off camera, they still believe it, but the demeanor is changed. They are extremely tired. They can handle fighting every day if they have to, because they know in a fight they will always win. But most of it is not fighting. It is doing many other jobs, and it is always having danger. Driving roads and being hit with IEDs in the same place three days, they know it is just a matter of time before it happens to them again. They can’t trust the Iraqis — IEDs were found by the bomb squad 200 meters from an Iraqi checkpoint three times in one week. They are just exhausted.

An Army NCO with 15 years in acknowledged that “mistakes have been made” to this point, but pointed to the biggest one as being the perceived tying of the soldiers’ hands by the bureaucrats, instead of letting them act with force against those who cause violence — the only currency which many people who carry out such acts understand.

“I don’t think that any of us Americans or even any Westerners can understand the culture here of ‘you kill somebody, I kill somebody in retaliation,’ and on and on,” said an Army Specialist. “While we can keep working to secure the place, it’ll take a lot more time to do, and leaving will just create a vacuum and leave chaos here.”

“The sense I get when talking to the other soldiers,” said a public affairs soldier, speaking anonymously to facilitate total frankness and honesty, “is that the worst thing possible would be to give a date when we’re leaving, period. We all want to win, and to accomplish our mission, especially since we’ve put so much into doing it so far. To just up and leave would be terrible. I don’t know if we can win in the sense of leaving a perfect democracy here or an ideal situation in that sense — my feeling is sometimes that it might take another dictator, because the people here still don’t understand freedom the same way we do. Also, they don’t think of themselves as a nation — they think in terms of religion, sect, tribe. They follow their local or religious leaders. A dictator is what it took before to hold the place together as one country, and might again.”

I asked what effect such statements as Harry Reid’s “the war is lost,” and Nancy Pelosi’s “the war on terror is not in Iraq” have on the troops’ morale and opinions of their mission, and also pointed out the relevance of John Kerry’s 1971 statement to Congress that nobody wants to be “the last man to die for a lost cause,” and asked how that — and the fact that Congress had just passed resolutions mandating troop pullouts in five months — and asked about that affect, as well. The response was, “It’s terrible. I mean, I understand political posturing and all that but it really is terrible. If the war is lost and we need to go home, then why do we need to stay here five more months, when I could die or my friends could die before we go home? The war is either over or it isn’t; this just doesn’t make sense.” The soldier continued, “What we want is to keep helping the people here. The people at home who say these things, they don’t understand that these are people who have to live here after we leave, whatever the situation is. These people and the things that happen here aren’t real to them, and they can’t understand unless they’ve been here and seen it.”

There’s no doubt that “the troops” are exhausted, both mentally and physically. There is a marked difference in the level of enthusiasm and dedication between those on their first tours here and those on their second or third, with the latter being more fatalistic about their mission here, and chances for success, as well as simply being more burned out. Those in combat areas have to be on their guard at all times, and live with the knowledge that it is only a matter of time before an IED hits their vehicle or something similarly deadly happens. Many have lost friends and colleagues to injury or death, and know that the same may happen to them in the near future. |

The soldiers here are tired of filling the vacuum which will persist in the region until the Iraqi government, military, and police forces grow in strength and in honesty to the point where they can keep the dam plugged if the American finger is pulled out. Many attest to the superiority of Gen. Petraeus’s new strategy here, but any enthusiasm about its prospects for success are colored with a cynicism brought on by the three years previous, in which many deaths were suffered for a now-abandoned, unsuccessful strategy.

From snipers, to IEDs, to the dirty conditions, to the long days, week, and months of thankless work in a country which is still being stitched back together, there are a thousand reasons why the troops should be unhappy, and a thousand excuses for why they might be right to side with those who are calling for an immediate withdrawal. However, despite all of the negatives, the overwhelming consensus among those with whom I have spoken to this point is not a belief that we have done everything we can here, and should therefore leave. The belief amongst the troops here, as exemplified by the aforementioned infantry Captain’s statement, is that these people deserve a chance at a better way of life, and that, rather than abandon them to a fate of certain death at the hands of ruthless sectarians, insurgents, and terrorists, we should continue to do everything we can to help rebuild and secure this nation, and to smash those who would destroy what the Iraqi people are building before they can be successful in doing so.

Surrender is not an option to the American fighting force — and they know that very well. Abandoning Iraq while the mission is still unfinished is not an option being entertained by any of the soldiers with whom I have spoken to this point; rather, it appears to be solely the purview of those at home who think that they know better than the soldiers themselves what is good for them. What the troops appear to really want is to be given the support and the resources which will allow them to complete their mission — and, more than anything else, the time to do so successfully.