Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Iraq War As Seven Enlisted Men See It

An op-ed in today's New York Times, written by seven NCOs assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, is causing a bit of a stir in the blogosphere. Here are excerpts:

VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.
[...]
Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.
[...]
Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. ...

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

This piece has been up on Memeorandum for several hours, but so far the response on the right has been anemic. Not surprising, says John Cole:
While these guys are in the 82nd Airborne, you can see that what they write is sure to infuriate the patriots in the 101st Chairborne. I wonder if they are going to have the nerve to ratchet up the smear machine against these guys. They have their names. Do they have the balls? I am betting that since they don’t, they will choose route #2- ignore the op-ed completely.

I think it's particularly notable that these enlisted men mentioned Iraq's massive humanitarian crisis, since no one else ever does. Indeed, Juan Cole is the only blogger I've read who even noticed that they mentioned it -- in the sense of being struck by it -- which is revealing in itself. But then, Prof. Cole is an expert on the Middle East, and being fluent in Arabic, he has access to more authentic sources of information on Iraq than the civilians in the Pentagon or the talking heads on right-wing talk radio or the policy wonks in Washington, D.C.:
This essay describes an Iraq I recognize from reading the Iraqi newspapers every day and watching Arabic satellite television. It has the Byzantine political intrigues, the seedy militiamen, the back-stabbing and deal-making, the electricity-deprived tenement dwellers baking in the August sun, the 4 million homeless families, the incommensurate political goals of the factions. It does not depict 'a war we could win.' [...]

Thanks to Chief for the link.

2 comments:

george said...

What I find so significant about this Op-Ed is the ranks, or pay grades, if you will, of the authors. These aren’t policy wonks with PhDs. Or even masters degrees. The authors are at the heart of the Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) corps. Four are E-5 sergeants and two are E-6 sergeants. These are significantly high enough enlisted men that they lead troops. Staff Sergeants and sergeants would have a title of Squad Leader and, depending on the type of unit be responsible for from eight to sixteen subordinate soldiers.

These soldiers are not commissioned officers wanting to make sure everything has the right spin so as to not put future promotions in jeopardy. These soldiers have the freedom to “tell it like it is.”

Vigilante said...

Do a content analysis of these soldiers' statement. The word occupation appears multiple times; the word 'war' appears only once in the context of civil war. But when Cheney finishes writing Petraeus's report, it will be war, more war, and all war.