An officer home from Iraq: his thoughts

I enjoyed an extended chat with a jr. US Army officer, on furlough from Iraq, about the time that Phyllis Bennis here gave a stimulating guest comment that questioned the Obama Administration agenda in Iraq.
I too was sensing something awry when the WaPost Outlook section last Sunday had three separate neoconservatives (Feith, Pletka, & Scheunemann) praising “Obama’s Plan for Iraq,” presumably because it seemed to place more emphasis on “finishing the job” and equivocating on the withdrawal timetable.
On the other hand, I’ve often wondered how simply withdrawing US troops necessarily will “end the war,” especially with the multiple worm cans festering in northern Iraq. (That of course is not an argument in itself for staying, just a “grounded” check.) In any case, I am encouraged that the violence is down considerably, even as we debate the various explanations.
With such questions on my mind, I was eager to listen to this young officer current impressions. He’s been there less than half a year, ensconced in one of the large army bases near the Baghdad airport. I present here a few of his observations, without my own “spin.” For his sake, I am not going to mention his name or unit, save to say that his comments were “candid” and, as far as I could tell, unconcerned about command ramifications.
Biggest complaint: While he did frequently mention cold showers (which beats being electrocuted by one of the notorious KBR showers!), his primary gripe was about sheer, raw boredom. The army keeps him “busy.” As a young engineer-in-training, he puts in 13+ hour days , 6.5 days a week, but his duties seem largely dominated by bureaucratic “make work” the army notoriously can create to fill space. (For effect, he mentioned that his drudge work had included warehouse inventories at the massive Abu Ghraib complex.)

He conceded that “boredom” beats fear. But he also lamented that he had been trained for six months before deployment to deal with intense situations of adrenaline rush — and his service thus far had been anything but.
Such boredom potentially creates problems among “edgy” troops. Unlike other wars, US soldiers, at least currently, rarely take in-country leave, and they are generally kept away from the civilian population. Never mind a recent Rosetta Stone Arabic program designed just for soldiers, few have the time, and there apparently is little encouragement to learn it.
I also hadn’t previously heard about “general order #1” — no alcohol for soldiers anywhere in theatre, and it’s apparently enforced. (He wasn’t complaining in having given it up himself — he’s lost nearly 50 pounds since being activated a year ago.)
The Surge?: I was particularly interested in his thoughts to explain the “lack of excitement” — or the lessening of violence in Iraq. As this young officer went to Iraq generally “gung ho,” believing in the mission, I anticipated he’d be crowing about how “the surge worked.” To the contrary, he soberly mentioned that “the surge” rarely comes up much among junior and mid-level officer types. They apparently realize it’s a poltiically loaded PR term, one implying that increased troops alone accounted for the lessening of violence. It’s far more complex than that.
The numbers may have helped, but they were less important in themselves than a change in tactics, technology/equipment, politics, and “attitude.” I’m only summarizing here his main thoughts:
Technology: Once the decision was made, as he put it, “not to cut and run” when faced with mounting casualties, then at least initially, units had to be beefed up and better protected. He credits the widespread deployment of new MRAP’s (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles) for dramatically reducing casualties from the roadside bombs (IED’s & such).
Likewise, he cited a qualitative and quantitative improvement in unmanned aircraft (drones) that monitor highway security, track possible insurgent movements, and “take-out” threats remotely as making it far more difficult to plant IED’s along major highways. (Those drones give me shudders, sounding too much like inhuman computer gaming, but I recognized his point about their “effect.”)
Respecting Allies:
While he only lightly mentioned the strategy to work with various local Arab tribal leaders, of co-opting relative moderates among previous insurgents, he did marvel at how common it had become for US soldiers, at least in his experience, to cooperate with, and even defer to, Iraqi Army units.
He was aware of once common accounts that belittled the performance, unreliability, and even fickleness of Iraqi units. Yet he cited a conscious decision in 2006 to provide regular Iraqi Army units with top of the line equipment, including MRAP’s, night vision equipment, and weapons. Furthermore, the risky decision was made that “we” had to trust “them” at some point to contribute to their own security, or the game would never be won. That had to include assurances to the Iraqis that it was still their country, and that the US has no long term designs.
The strategy of “trust” has apparently paid off, though my young officer friend did admit that it has created anxiety problems for his own men (and women), over half of whom had been deployed to Iraq three years ago. They well remembered their experiences then — and they had been trained precisely to expect the worst, to not trust Iraqi units they might encounter, for fear of betrayals in a crunch, collaboration with the insurgents by night, or the suicide bombers therein.
I’ll be watching for more reports that examine how the strategy to “trust” and “respect” Iraqi military counterparts changed the dynamics of this war. Putting this differently, he seemed to be suggesting that the idea took hold that you built meaningful trust by engaging your allies as equals, like you respected and needed them; that actions spoke loudest.
My officer friend did have rather comical impressions about dealing with Iraqi contractors. While he was surprised by the high levels of technical education among them, he was also a bit flummoxed by the ingenuity and brazenness he frequently encountered by would-be contractors and their tendency to carry multiple identification cards.
Iraqi Pride: The one theme I heard most in his comments was a genuine admiration for the “pride” he was witnessing among Iraqi military units — something he had not expected to encounter. Part of this was just by behavior, of units staying together, of manning lonely posts along desert highways, of maintaining their equipment in top order despite harsh conditions — even painting them with bright unit colors.
All this raises the suggestion that something fundamental has been changing…. and favorably. If so, that would lend further weight to arguments that we can expedite, rather than drag out, the withdrawal of US forces.
Addendum: When I asked about various other matters of Iraq concern, he did not have much first-hand basis for confirming or denying them. He has been regularly briefed about potential issues to watch, including sectarian dynamics, rivalries among major factions, and Gaza spillover. Yet thus far, he didn’t seem too concerned about them. The next big challenge he saw was the increased area responsibilities his command would take on, after the pending British withdrawal was completed.
Before he left to go back to Iraq, I hazarded asking about if he thought what worked in Iraq would be helpful for Afghanistan. He surprised me again in being doubtful. First, he wondered about the capacity of the Afghan forces to take on the technical tasks of state and security building as quickly as the better educated Iraqis have done. Second, and more interesting, he noted that the current MRAP’s would not do well in Afghanistan. They’re big, bulky, and tip over easily. They’re fine for operations on Iraqi roads; they’d be less agile and subject to bogging down “off road” in mountainous terrains.

9 thoughts on “An officer home from Iraq: his thoughts”

  1. Sounds a pretty typical experience for a US soldier who never left the US base he worked on. Rumours of what he heard from the guys, who themselves didn’t know much more.
    I guess he liked the steaks and ice-cream, though.

  2. I agree with Alex – this fellow may have slipped some ‘first hand’ information and impressions to you, but they weren’t anything of the sort.
    This phrase was telling – “The one theme I heard most in his comments was a genuine admiration for the “pride” he was witnessing among Iraqi military units — something he had not expected to encounter”.
    This is a standard reaction for people who are thrust into a new, strange country. First, wonder; then an attempt to get to grips with the local people positively, then a long period of disillusionment, and, after that, a very long. slow climb towards understanding their culture, and treating them as your equals.
    This fellow’s only in the first 6 month stage.
    Most Iraqis joined military units because there were no other jobs. Of course they have to show ‘pride’.
    So does any collaborator with the invader in any war

  3. Easy arm-chair pot-shots to be sure. As I noted, he has been there only a few months, and of course, there are great limitations to what he can see or comprehend. Yes, he’s just one junior officer tied to one large base.
    That said, I wouldn’t have bothered posting his anecdotal comments if I didn’t sense something rather different from standard previous accounts. As I knew him before he went, I can say he knows a bit more about Iraq than most newbies in Guard units. I also didn’t quite explain (nor will I) his basis for observing Iraqi unit performance, suffice to say that he does “get out,” does inspect and monitor, and does get daily intel briefings….
    I also still think it striking his concerns about his own unit members who’d been to Iraq “before” — and who have been profoundly un-nerved by the present common reliance upon and intermingling with Iraqi counterparts. (something that would have produced nightmares on previous deployments)
    As for Iraqi units and “pride,” nothing “of course” about it — again, recall the common reports we heard several years ago, of troops routinely going awol, equipment being “lost,” poorly maintained, etc.
    My contact knew of those problems, (and many others) and yet overall, he’s thus far been impressed – professionally.

  4. Straw man argument. No one has argued that peace would instantly rein if US troops were withdrawn. What has been argued is that the US presence was the primary CAUSE of violence in Iraq. No one has said that Iraq would instantly turn into a Garden of Eden if we left. And I think the course of the occupation has shown that the insurgency rose in response to the US not leaving, and lowered as the US showed signs of leaving.
    Regarding the surge, I am sickened by the attitudes of lefty pundits, who choose to buy pro-war propaganda. The surge raised the level of violence, and it was the payoffs to militias and other changes in tactics that ultimately SEEMED to calm the violence down. But even there we don’t know for sure, because everyone is choosing to rely on official statistics, which are notoriously unreliable, and everyone is choosing to ignore the refugee problem. So far as I know, they have not returned home, and I think this is an indication that, AT BEST, the US has simply put a cover on the violence in Iraq.
    Would the history have been different had the US pulled out quickly, perhaps being replaced with a UN peacekeeping force? I think so. And I think it’s still true now that a US pullout is the single most important key to peace. As far as sectarian violence is concerned, that is a separate issue that needs separate analysis.

  5. Thank you for the reporting, Scott. The comments of individual persons serving in any military/diplomatic assignment do have value, although we always require other sources of information in order to establish context before we can properly evaluate the over-all significance of such testimony. For example:
    In an Associate Press article in today’s Huffington Post entitled: “12K US troops to leave Iraq by fall; bomb kills 32,” I easily spotted a cat-out-of-the-bag remark by Maj. Gen. David Perkins to the effect that “insurgents appear to be stepping up attacks to derail recent progress by the Iraqi government in holding provincial elections and in reaching a new security agreement with the United States” [boldface for emphasis, mine].
    Here we can see clearly that the U.S. military still clings to the intention of staying in Iraq indefinitely (no matter what their commander-in-chief, President Obama, has promised America and the world about 2010 and 2011) by simply forcing the hapless Iraqi “governmeent” to void the so-called Bush/Maliki “Status of Forces Agreement” (never ratified by the American Congress) in the hopes of coming up with some as-yet-unspecified “new” “security” agreement that ostensibly our vaunted Visigoths will feel more like honoring than the current one they detest and seek to undermine at every opportunity.
    As well, I noted another rather revealing passage about yet more “U.S. trained” Iraqi troops. To wit: “Iraqi and U.S. forces sealed off the scene [of another successful suicide bombing of police recruits] allowing only ambulances and fire engines to enter. Nervous Iraqi troops fired in the air to prevent onlookers and reporters from getting too close. They accidentally shot at a fire engine but no casualties were reported, according to witnesses” [boldface for emphasis, mine]. These types of illuminating (if embarrassing) reports remind me so much of what Ehud Barack (the Aparthied Zionist Entity’s current Defense Minister) told Seymour Hersch in an interveiw some four years ago: namely, that “The only thing the Americans can train the Iraqis to do is kill Americans. How stupid can they be.” So much for the valued opinion of our “stalwart ally,” as President Obama likes to call the A.Z.E., America’s pet parasite in perpetuity.
    I could continue with this comparative analysis of personal vs policy perspectives, but I’ll leave more of that for later. For now, I’d only like to recall an expression that the local Arabs used to employ in reference to the heavily armored Christian knights who invaded their homelands eight hundred years ago: “The terrible worm in his iron cocoon.” I think of this apt metaphor every time I read of yet more heavily armored Orwellian cocoons (like the Mine Resitant Ambush Protected Vehicles) that so clearly isolate our terrible, threatening worms from the people and culture of a land that will never accept their infidel infestation.

  6. Easy arm-chair pot-shots to be sure.
    So how do you know that, Scott? That is a completely unjustified personal attack. As it happens, I have a lot to do day-to-day with Iraq.
    The point I was making was that there is such a wide chasm between Iraqi Iraq, and the American experience of the troops there, that a slight development in US attitudes really doesn’t mean very much. There is such a profound ignorance, and your witness doesn’t look much better placed.
    What he has to say is not uninteresting, mainly in what US soldiers think about what the Surge meant, though they’re far from understanding correctly. I wouldn’t expect them to have an unbiassed point of view.

  7. Here we can see clearly that the U.S. military still clings to the intention of staying in Iraq indefinitely (no matter what their commander-in-chief, President Obama, has promised America and the world about 2010 and 2011) by simply forcing the hapless Iraqi “governmeent” to void the so-called Bush/Maliki “Status of Forces Agreement” … in the hopes of coming up with some as-yet-unspecified “new” “security” agreement
    Why not say, Michael, the truth that there is a conflict between the “generals” and Obama over the future of the Iraq occupation?
    So who’s going to win, then? Automatically the generals, you think? I should think Obama is showing them the figures on the economy, and saying, no way.
    And don’t think the Iraqis can just be bought off, either.

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