In the interests of full disclosure let me say that I have admired Oliver North (Lt.Col., USMC, Ret.) since that day just over 19 years ago when he was indicted on 16 felony counts in the Iran-Contra non-scandal. When a reporter asked him about the possibility of a plea bargain North famously replied, “This Marine pleads guilty to nothing!” Lawrence Walsh used the shotgun technique favored by incompetent and overzealous prosecutors on North and others — fire enough buckshot and you’re bound to hit something. North was convicted on three counts which were overturned on appeal in little more than a year. Walsh went whining to the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to have the convictions reinstated. The Court told him to hit the bricks (i.e., certiorari denied). Oliver North is one Marine who has kept his honor clean.
He is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a veteran of down-and-dirty combat in Vietnam — Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He now hosts Fox’s “War Stories.”
While retired generals, “armchair admirals,” and other assorted talking fatheads were predicting months of fierce fighting and perhaps tens of thousands of allied casualties in the 2003 battle for Baghdad on CNN and other dubious “news” outlets, the U.S. Marines weren’t paying attention. North knows that because he was with them as a reporter for Fox News. At occasional halts Marines would sometimes pick up these broadcasts, shake their heads, and laugh. Another report had our troops stopping their advance because they had outrun their supplies and were short of everything: ammunition, food, water. North grabbed two handy Marines and asked them on camera if they were hungry, thirsty, or short on ammo. They replied that they weren’t and he asked them if there was anything they did need. One Marine responded, “Send more enemy, sir.”
The courage, compassion, tenacity, and quiet self-sacrifice of our troops overwhelm me. At the midpoint of a seven-month deployment 116 Marines in the battalion North covered had been wounded badly enough to earn a ticket home. Seventy of them chose to stay in Iraq. (Are you listening, John Kerry?) After a firefight our casualties were triaged. A young Marine who had a visible hand wound was among the last scheduled to be treated. North noticed that he was barely conscious and tried to help him stand up. He’d been sitting in a pool of his own blood. A corpsman ripped open his flak jacket and saw that his intestines were bulging out through a stomach wound. “Why didn’t you say something?” asked North. He replied, “The other guys were hurt worse than I am.” Navy SEAL Stephen Toboz lost a leg in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a friend. Fitted with a state-of-the art prosthetic, he returned to Iraq. Now retired from the Navy he trains SEALS as a civilian instructor.
“Saddam City” is on the outskirts of Baghdad. About a million people “lived there in a group of crumbling, multistory, Soviet-style apartments without running water or functioning sewage systems.” As our offensive advanced through the area North wrote:
“It’s worse than anything I’ve ever seen in Calcutta, Haiti, or Bangladesh —
teeming with naked children, their stomachs distended from malnutrition,
raw sewage running in the streets, and piles of trash. Some of it is
smoldering with a stench that is enough to make even the troops we’re
with — who haven’t had a bath in weeks — smell good. Despite the con-
ditions, or maybe because of them, the streets were lined with thousands
of waving and cheering Iraqis. Ragged children splashed barefoot
through puddles of stinking effluent, chasing our convoy. Within a mile
or so the Marines gave away every morsel of food in our vehicle.”
And simple endurance: temperatures up to 130 degrees in the summer with men hooked up to intravenous fluids before and after patrols; in northern Iraq, the cold of winter. And everywhere, unpredictably, sandstorms of “Biblical proportions” that can shut down operations for days as sand and dust infiltrate everything — weapons, vehicles, generators, electronic equipment, food, water.
The transition from our lightning-like conquest of Saddam’s conventional forces and his overthrow, capture, and execution to a society on the verge of civil war has been chronicled endlessly. A sure sign that we, and the Iraqis, have turned things around is the fact that we see more of Senators Obama and Clinton on the nightly news than we do of reports from Iraq. Three free elections have been held. Cities that were nightmares of chaos and brutality have been pacified, elected governments installed, effective truces between competing factions have held. The Iraqi Army and police forces have become effective. Yes, we nearly clutched defeat from the jaws of victory. We disbanded the government and the army and the de-Baathification program was an error even more serious than de-Nazification was in Germany. As General Patton is supposed to have asked when he was Military Governor of Bavaria, “Who’s going to deliver the mail?” Many Baathists were low-level civil servants trying to keep their jobs, not political junkies or fanatics. While the media and left-wing journalists clamor for “a timetable” few seem to remember that it took four years after the surrender of Germany to install a free, independent, democratic government; and nearly seven in Japan. Let’s not forget that 14 years passed between the firing of “the shot heard ‘round the world” and the ratification of our Constitution. The Iraqis have made astounding progress for a people who have no tradition or even knowledge of representative government.
But this superb book, with about 250 excellent photos, is more about the men and women who serve there than it is about politics. For them Oliver North has unqualified admiration. Yes, there have been aberrations, such as Abu Ghraib. But when our troops commit crimes they are investigated, court-martialed and, if convicted, punished, while our media linger salaciously over the incidents. Our enemy gets a virtually free pass on rapes, torture, and beheadings. One anonymous Special Operations soldier described them in these words:
“The thugs we’re fighting in Iraq aren’t, for the most part, organized
soldiers. They’re mostly criminals and cowards. They talk real tough
when they’re strutting around on television with their guns and their
buddies behind them. But kick in their door in the middle of the night
and stick a gun in their face, and they cry like little girls and wet
Remember the Koran that one of our interrogators flushed down a toilet in the presence of a prisoner? Riots broke out all over the Muslim world in protest, but it never happened. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker eventually wrote, “We regret that we got any part of our story wrong and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.” But by the time this mealy-mouthed retraction appeared in print “scores of Muslims . . . had been killed and wounded in the melees.” (The Koran is a big book. I own one. Did any of the geniuses at Newsweek pause to wonder just how one could be flushed down a commode?)
Amidst the discouraging controversies and the slanted or flat-out incorrect news coverage our troops soldier on, courageously and humanely. They risk and sometimes sacrifice their lives for one another, and for innocent civilians. At the base of the Marine Corps Memorial depicting the flag raising on Iwo Jima are engraved the words of Admiral Chester Nimitz: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
It still is.