Listening To The People On The Ground

While the folks in DC tussle over whether the Oh-So-Very-Important words of General Petraeus will be delivered publicly or in a closed-door session, and whether the White House did or did not want it to be closed, a number of experienced soldiers have spared us the bother.

In what may for them be a career-limiting error, they have joined together to publish an op-ed in the New York Times. It is clear and refreshing in its honesty and willingness to confront the complexity of issues in Iraq. Particularly when set against the raft of statements from politicians and others who’ve dropped in for a few days of high-level military briefings, the words of these infantrymen and non-coms at the end of a 15-month deployment have a powerful credibility.

Read the whole thing. Here are some samples.

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.

As for the political situation,

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. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

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.

We could listen to the perspective of these men on the front lines, confront the contradictions in our policies and change our approach. Or we could accept the reports from Brookings Institution fly-bys on what the brass told them, and brave words from Senators who travel with armored vehicle escorts and helicopter cover.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, this op-ed won’t just ‘disappear’, but will become something for the cable-news talking heads to furrow brows over. Maybe some will be prompted to demand that the decision-makers in DC, even if not the Decider himself, actually listen to the people on the ground.

7 thoughts on “Listening To The People On The Ground

  1. A powerful statement. It’s amazing that such a clear insight and analysis to the situation in Iraq should come E-5’s and below. They nailed it!

    Now we just have to wait for Davy* to weigh in and tell us that freedoms on the march, and that they hate us for our freedoms.

    *Davy wrote the book on counter-insurgencies..for you who don’t know..and he also has a PhD.. which means there is no need to trouble ourselves with anxiety because it’s like being securely embraced in daddy’s loving arms.

  2. Except for the fact that the Iraquis had a better-developed society to start with (electricity, sanitation, etc.), they could be writing about Vietnam during my second tour (’69)…

    Don’t the French have a saying about that?

  3. Does anybody know who made the decision to disband the Iraqi army?

    Does anybody know who compiled the list of fired US Attorneys?

  4. The neocon war initiative was destined to run up against the grass roots. It was inevitable. They were able to lie their way into the war, defeat and army, install a government, and market the dismal results as progress but they cannot seduce or coerce the general population into acceptance of the US presence.

    Bush got one thing right, that’s for sure. Iraqi’s want freedom, but according to their own definitions, which at the present time seem to be “free of the US occupation.”

    They thought this would be easy…a smoothly transitioned change of management of sorts. It was to happen with the same ease with which Bush was able to gain the power of his office, as the doe-like, malleable population watched on with mouths agape. The Iraqi’s we a little less malleable and accepting than were Americans.

    Iraq turned out to be more difficult, didn’t it? The peculiar combination of ignorance and hubris remidns one of children learning about electronics by disassembling the family tv set or learning entymology by pulling the legs off an insect. They were bound to fail.

    The Dems will inherit and continue this failure if they believe their only options are to continue with the top down approach. Untested to date, a bottom up approach of gradually lending support ot emerging social structures that communities are relying on for security would be a start. Second would be investment in their infrastructure and utilities rather than a campaign of bribery which might work with a few at the top, but has obviously fallen short when it comes to results.

    That would be a marked deviation from the Bush approach of installing just a few at the top and then selling it as a job well done. Any troops that remain would serve an necessary function of preventing various factions from annihilating one another.

  5. From what I recall, L. Paul Bremer was the person who made the decision to disband the Iraqi Army.

    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.”

  6. There is no shortage of these accounts from the bottom where there is less reason to suspect political agenda or face-saving measures.

    In particular, Chasing Ghosts by Paul Rieckhoff is one. Rieckoff served in a unit that acted as liason with the Iraqi communities, giving him a distinct vantage point from which perspectives rarely seem to bubble to the surface or make a dent in the apparently empenetrable wall around media.

    Paul Rieckhoff founded and is Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). A non-partisan non-profit founded in 2004 with tens of thousands of members in all 50 US states, IAVA is America’s first and largest Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ group.

    Honored by Esquire as one of “America’s Best and Brightest” in 2004, Rieckhoff has appeared on hundreds of radio and television programs.

  7. The propaganda war to validate The Surge ™, which is to climax with Petraeus’ September report, has been underway for several weeks or months now.

    After supposed Iraq War “critics” O’Hanlon and Pollack returned a couple weeks ago with glowing reports of The Surge ™ the mainstream media dutifully broadcasted the line that these former “critics” were now behind The President. Glenn Greenwald immediately debunked the notion that these two were critics at all, here.

    This wasn’t the only attempt to mislead the public in preparation Petraeus’ report, there have been others occurring this summer as part of a campaign to mold public opinion. I’m reminded of Andrew Card’s famous statement about rolling out a new product in the fall…

    And so it’s heartening to read of this op-ed piece by men on the ground. One can only hope that others who know the truth are prepared to also come forward to fight for the truth in this propaganda war, as these men courageously did. Let’s hope that Congress will be shamed by these brave guys who risked their careers, and get serious about stopping this war.

    OT – Bumper stickers seen recently:

    Draft Young Republicans

    George W Bush – Creating the Terrorists Our Kids Will Have to Fight

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