Sadly Missing From Media's Iraq War Roundup: U.S. Troops' Humanity

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has come the barrage of media features and Monday-morning thumb-suckers on America’s near nine-year experiment in planting the seeds of democracy—social as well as political—on hard ground and amid chronic convulsions of violence.

What was accomplished, what worked, what didn’t, was it worth the cost in life and treasure, what may lie ahead for Iraq, the region and the United States?  The questions are natural and legitimate.  The war that ousted the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, along with its aftermath, have profoundly affected Iraq as well as the United States, and will do so for decades to come, directly and indirectly.

But few questions can be definitively answered yet.  Some won’t be sorted out for some time.

What do we know?

The liberation of Iraq, the resulting insurgency, sectarian wars and terrorism resulted in nearly 4,500 U.S. deaths and some 32,000 injured; more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths; and more than 300 deaths among troops of non-U.S. coalition forces, according to figures from iCasualties, an organization that keeps track of the body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The financial cost to the United States: more than $800 billion.  And in the aftermath, here are the facts on the ground:
—Following the removal of Saddam Hussein, the disbanding of the Iraq military by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, effectively removed the main counterforce to Iran and its regional ambitions.

—Successful removal of the Saddam dictatorship took the lid off sectarian hatreds, which were exacerbated and exploited by extremists, and which led to a sectarian war, pitting Shiites, the majority of the population, against Sunni Iraqis, who had dominated the politics and reaped economic benefits under the Saddam regime.  That conflict remains, although so fare without a return to the mass slaughters of 2006-2007.

—Shiites now dominate the country’s elected government.  Some, such as President Nouri al-Maliki, are influenced to one degree or another by Iran.  Sunnis are restive over their new marginalization.

These factors are easily discernible, and appear frequently in the tsk-tsk wrap-ups in newspapers.  So too anti-American celebrations in Fallujah, scene of bitter fighting between U.S. Marines and insurgents and terrorists in 2004; vox pop (voice of the people) quotes of satisfaction—sometimes balanced with expressions of anxiety—at seeing the backside of U.S. troops; American writers’ rehashes of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison.

What’s missing, and what’s saddening to anyone who has spent months in far-flung outposts and villages with U.S. troops, has been the failure—whether through ignorance, design or plain difficulty in explaining—by the media to mention the accomplishments of the troops over the years.  The successes don’t fit easy measurement, but may very well have an impact too, at least with some of Iraq’s people.  These are the things of counterinsurgency hearts-and-minds efforts.  Americans just being Americans.

Take, for example, J.J. Dill, who in 2007 was a Marine Corps colonel in charge of troops in Hit, a town in Anbar Province, birthplace of the “Sunni Awakening” that saw Sunni insurgents turn their guns against al-Qaeda and join forces with their previous enemy, the Americans.  Dill, whose troops called him “The Sheik” when out of earshot, mastered Iraqi customs and some of the language, deciphered the nuances of horse-trading, Iraqi-style, and was instrumental in turning alliance into friendship.

He got his moniker because he took to wearing native robes—at the insistence of his hosts at meetings—and for his mastery of Iraqi greetings, cheek kisses and all.

First Sgt. Conrad Gonzales and Lt. Todd Looney, of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment, worked hearts-and-minds in a slightly different way.  When not engaged in gun battles around Sadr City in Baghdad against Iranian-backed shooters, they’d chat and banter with teenagers about sports, about the lives of Iraqis living in the U.S., and about the Iraq Army side of Sadr City.

In the evenings, they and their comrades would sometimes visit an Iraqi cafe, shrug off their body armor, and play cards with Iraqis, drinking tea and smoking from hookahs.

“I tell everyone:  Americans, Sunnis, Shiites are welcome here,” the cafe owner said.  The troops’ reception by customers underlined that sentiment.

True, the visitations sometimes had an intelligence-gathering benefit, but they also gave the Iraqis an opportunity to see Americans as people, not just uniforms.

In Diyala Province, soldiers settled inter-village disputes, weeded out sectarian extortionists from police forces, repaired damage to schools and homes, and opened medical clinics.

On the Syrian border, Iraqi guards knew they would get proper food allotments for at least several weeks after a Marine Transition Team visited.  The Marines knew the Iraqi commander was working a scam on food and simply blackmailed him.  Rotten vegetables and no meat would equal a high-level investigation and charges.

A widow of a murdered Sons of Iraq commander, a sort of neighborhood-watch organization, in Samarra was regularly visited by a platoon from the 101st Airborne, which would bring food for her family and play with her children.

Small, struggling businessmen and shop owners around the country were assessed and given grants to expand their enterprises—on condition that they would hire neighborhood workers.

Schoolchildren received supplies.  And the list of officially sanctioned and independent actions goes on and on.

In stories coinciding with the departure of Americans, much has been made of the long memory of Iraqis, and how they won’t forget the violence, recalling things such as American troops breaking down doors to find terrorists.

And that’s correct.  Iraqis do have long memories.  And some will also remember good works, the moments too often ignored in media reports.  They may not publically express it so as not to draw attention to themselves, but remember they do.

The positive doesn’t necessarily erase the negative.  Bad things happen in war, but the small yet big-hearted acts shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant.

“I have a neighbor at home who grew up in postwar Germany,” said Sgt. Ted Vytlacil, who in 2008 was a 57-year-old volunteer reservist with a psychological operations outfit in Baghdad.  “He always talks about the kindness of the GIs.  “I hope when we are long gone, there will be Iraqi children who remember the same.”

Amen, brother.  Amen.