Helicopters on the Roof

A look at war correspondent Michael Yon and his new book  Moment of Truth in Iraq.

“[S]ave one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go . . . . [T]ake one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.”
— Major Michael D. O’ Donnell
after the battle for Hamburger Hill,
May 10th – 20th, 1969

My dear late friend and mentor Bill Buckley pronounced our effort in Iraq “failed” just over two years ago and counseled the “acknowledgement of defeat.” I was on the verge of agreeing with him but I wonder what he would think now.

I cannot be the only person who has noticed that we’ve not lately seen a video of a hostage having his head slowly sawed off. Even those depraved knuckleheads have figured out that their movies are bad PR.

Remember when the Iraqi police forces rivaled the Keystone Cops except that they had real loaded guns? Remember when the new Iraqi Army could have served as extras on the set of Abbott & Costello’s Buck Privates? The press wallowed in reporting on them and I winced when they did, because I knew they were right. We don’t hear much about them from the mainstream media these days, do we? Do you wonder why? It’s because the police forces have improved vastly, although they still have a long way to go, and because elements of the army now have “excellent fighting” capabilities.

They fight alongside us, and they emulate us. Iraqis admire strong, just, humane leaders, and they want to be like them. The American soldier is the most feared person in the world, but the good ones, and most of them are great ones, are kind and compassionate as well. As my wife has observed, “Americans do something very right in raising male children.” They patrol the streets with pockets stuffed with candy and will actually postpone a mission to help an injured child. They treat detainees decently. Despite heat and violence and the constant threat of death many of them do calisthenics voluntarily. In Saddam’s army officers hung back, waiting for the low rankers to fall first. Our officers lead patrols, out front. All these attributes of our soldiers are now seen in increasing numbers of Iraqis because they like what they see us doing. Our GI’s are the spiritual grandsons of the kids who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc.

Michael Yon took a strange route to becoming a war correspondent. He joined the army to get money for college, became a Green Beret, and learned German and Polish. He established a business in Poland, segued into journalism and photojournalism, and had no desire to become a war correspondent. He investigated cults and infiltrated at least one. He found an isolated group of cannibals in India, of all places. Constant entreaties from friends and army buddies failed to persuade him to go to Iraq until one told him emphatically, “It’s your duty.” He has now been embedded with our fighting forces in Iraq longer than any other reporter in the world. He ranks with Ernie Pyle as one of the best combat journalists ever.

He is neither cheerleader nor scold. I cannot tell from his book whether he supported the war at the outset. He is unfailingly objective and has angered the army brass more than once, although General David Petraeus, who he admires without qualification, calls him Mike. He does not pull punches.

“[W]e made huge mistakes early on and now we pump blood and treasure into the desert to pay for those blunders. We failed to secure the streets and we sowed doubt and mistrust. We disbanded the government and the army and we created a vacuum. We tolerated corruption and ineptitude and mostly local talent filled the ranks of an insurgency.”

I lay this disaster at the feet of President Bush and, especially, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but that’s blood under the bridge. Yon observes that things are markedly different, and much better. US Army officers, mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels, are regarded by many Iraqis as their “mayors,” and they know how to run a city. Their units and posts back home are cities unto themselves and the transition has been easier than one might think. In one day they can lead a patrol, supervise the destruction of a roadside bomb, engage in a firefight, and have tea with local sheiks and ordinary citizens in their homes to discuss problems and hammer out solutions — sometimes all of that more than once in a day.

Their courage astonishes this Vietnam veteran and retired army officer. One story only.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla personally led a patrol hunting a terrorist who had just shot one of his men — but only after using his satellite phone to tell the soldier’s mother that he had been wounded but was OK. The mounted patrol turned into a foot chase through urban streets. Suddenly, Kurilla was shot three times from an open doorway. His femur was shattered. He could not stand or crawl, let alone walk or run. He rolled and came up shooting from a sitting position while more rounds slammed all around him. Two young, inexperienced soldiers behind Kurilla froze and failed to come to his aid, waiting for back-up. Then Command Sergeant Major Robert Prosser appeared and ran straight into the building, firing. The terrorist decided to shoot his way out and he and Prosser came face-to-face. Prosser shot him three times, but not mortally, and ran out of ammunition.


Yon was furious at the soldiers who hung back. He broke The Rule. He threw down his camera, grabbed an M-4 rifle, begged a magazine, and ran into the darkened room shooting. His third shot punctured a propane tank which, jet-propelled by its own fuel, nearly decapitated him as it sailed out the door and into the street, leaking its own toxic and flammable cloud. One more shot fired and it would have exploded near Kurilla. Prosser was struggling with the terrorist on the floor, trying to strangle him with blood-soaked gloves that kept slipping off his throat. He ended the engagement by slamming the man’s head into the concrete floor, and dragged his prey out the door.

Kurilla stopped giving instructions and barking orders only after being administered two shots of morphine. A few hours later from his hospital bed he could see the terrorist resting in his. “That’s the difference between the terrorists and us,” a chaplain said later. As this book went to press earlier this year Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla was on his way back to Iraq for his fourth deployment.

“Al Qaeda has lost Iraq,” writes Yon. Insurgents need the support of the local population. Many of us still think of al Qaeda as well-disciplined, dedicated religious fanatics. In fact, they are degenerate lunatics, a cult of death worshippers, viewed by the citizenry as “less than swine.” Their social skills extend to knowing “how to kill people and break things.” When al Qaeda takes a city they don’t know how to dispose of sewage, get the water flowing and the lights back on, and they don’t care to try. They use their ample leisure time lying around drunk or drugged, using prostitutes, raping women and boys, and decapitating the locals, including small children, who irritate them. They are “animals,” “wild-eyed with greed.” When they take a rural village they slaughter the livestock before having their depraved way with the citizens. One of them is a valuable informant on an intermittent basis. He is a homosexual and when one of his al Qaeda hook-ups angers him he passes along just enough information to get him killed or captured.

We can claim most of the credit for improvements in Iraq, but not all of it. It’s easy to say but almost impossible to believe: Iraqis of various faiths and sects are beginning to get along and think of themselves as Iraqis first. Thousands of Christians fled the Dora District of Baghdad when it fell under al Qaeda’s tyrannical heel. Their church had been bombed. Recently their former Muslim neighbors rebuilt it and invited a bishop to offer the first mass. The church was packed with Muslims — and the American GI’s who had secured the streets — who wanted photographs of the service taken, hoping that the Christians would see the photos and come home.

What we need to do to succeed in Iraq is keep on keepin’ on. But the war won’t end soon. Al Qaeda is keeping its demented eyes on November and the two Democratic candidates who can find little to disagree about except how quickly we can abandon another nation and repeat the final tragic act — helicopters lifting off from the roof of our embassy, this time with Iraqis clinging to the skids. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few million of their dinars found their way surreptitiously to the DNC.

Yon writes: “We can win this war. And if we do, it will be a victory of the same magnitude as the fall of the Soviet Union.”