"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Back in black? Nope. Back in the saddle? Sort of. Back in the USSR? Definitely not. Back in Iraq? There we go...

I was starting to think we'd never actually get here, but after a few more trials and tribulations, we finally made it. Of course, given how this trip started, our final effort at flying back to Mesopotamia was conducted to the same soundtrack of clown car music that scored our week in Kuwait. So after seven days of sitting in the few dusty square miles of lovely Camp Virginia, we finally got the word that we'd be launching out around 2 p.m. the next day. Our deliverance seemed at hand, and so the next day at noon we gladly piled into our buses and bade our temporary home a final good-bye; or so we thought. We got to our departure airfield on time, unloaded all our gear and palletized it for transport on the cargo plane, and then shuffled into our holding tent to await our departure brief. When the briefer came to give us our timeline, our suspicions were aroused when the first words out of her mouth were not, "Get ready to load in four hours and don't be late," but "these times will probably change once or twice before you actually load." Great. So four hours later, we got our update, which, sure enough, pushed our load time back another four hours to 2300, for a departure of 0100. Yahoo. So the sun went down, night crept upon us, and we waited, and waited, and waited in a stifling holding tent with chairs seemingly designed by Saddam for use in his re-education camps (did I say death camp? I meant happy camp...). Then, a couple of hours before we were supposed to load, word came down that - big surprise - our flight had been cancelled. There were mutinous mutterings amongst the ranks as we unpalletized all our luggage, loaded it back on the truck, and got back on more buses to head back to Virginia, where we wouldn't even find out if we'd been rescheduled until a day later. At midnight we collapsed back in our tent on the glorious cots we'd spent a week on, cursing whatever Jonah we had among us whose sins condemned us to limbo in Kuwait.

But no, the story was not over yet. Half an hour later (just as I was happily drifting into deep sleep, by the way), a corporal from TransCom burst into our tent announcing that we'd been placed on another flight for that night; and we were leaving in two hours. You can't imagine the jovial atmosphere that pervaded our squadron as we packed our seabags, loaded them onto the truck, and got on buses for the third time that night. When we returned to the airfield we'd left not an hour earlier, I was pretty sure our gunnery sergeants were going to pistol-whip the contractors who were supposed to load the pallets, in their determination to make sure we made this flight. Finally, around 0330, we went wheels up and landed in Al Asad a short time later. And, once we'd unloaded, checked in, got to our quarters, changed, showered, and ate, what was the first thing that Iraq greeted us with? A day-long sandstorm. Ah, it was like I'd never left.

However, our ordeal is over and now we're integrating into the squadron we're replacing as we get ready to assume the mission. And I won't say that our various bus trips and layovers that day weren't productive. On the contrary, I finished up Bing West's No True Glory, the account of the Marines' two battles for Fallujah over the course of 2004. West is a no-frills combat writer, and he delivers the story of how the Marines were first ordered to take Fallujah after four contractors were murdered there - against Gen. Conway's advice and with little time to prepare - then pulled back just when the end was in sight, turned the city over to the insurgent-friendly Fallujah Brigade, and finally commanded to assault the city again in November, with clarity, insight, and no shortage of admiration for the astounding courage and perseverance of the Marines given this difficult task.

In Fallujah, the military found the brutal urban combat it strived to avoid in the initial invasion. Based on the understandably emotional response of the president and senior military and CPA leaders to the desecration of four Blackwater contractors, the Marines in Anbar were ordered to immediately enter and pacify the city without adequate time to prepare a solid plan or stockpile the weapons and supplies necessary. Nevertheless, the Marines surrounded the city and pressed in from all directions, pushing back and squeezing the insurgents into a smaller and smaller pocket. But thanks in great part to sensationalist reporting from al Jazeera that greatly inflated the number of civilian dead (and went lazily unchallenged by American and international news outlets), along with grandstanding by various Iraqi and Arab politicians, the Marines were ordered to stand down when they estimated they had only 48 hours to go before successfully completing their mission. When city elders claimed that they could control the city if only the Marines stayed out and left Fallujah to its own devices, Gen. Conway agreed to let them try, and supported the creation of the Fallujah Brigade, a local security force led by former regime generals.

But as months passed, the Brigade was co-opted by insurgent forces led by Zarqawi, and managed to intimidate the local police and National Guard to the point that Fallujah, far from being self-regulating, turned into a terrorist stronghold and major exporter of violence throughout the province. So, immediately after the 2004 presidential election, the Marines were again ordered to secure the city. This time, Iraqi politicians, threatened by the bloody monster their intrasigence helped create, were silent; and the Marines were given time to build up their logistical base and create a solid plan of attack. In the final assault, five battalions pushed down from the north, systematically clearing every building in the city (tens of thousands of them), and attacking the insurgents wherever they stood and fought. The insurgents were no dummies; they used the tried-and-true guerrilla tactics of ambush and hit-and-run to bloody effect. Marines were often engaged by point-black rocket and machine-gun fire from houses right next door. It was the bloodiest battle fought by Marines since Hue City in 1968, and had much the same result; ultimate victory, but at the cost of many Marine lives and the destruction of much of the city. Fallujah was by no means completely pacified; but Zarqawi had lost an imporant base of operations, and the U.S. had demonstrated to the insurgency that it wasn't afraid to bloody its nose in order to destroy her enemies. The great tragedy is that we failed to complete this objective the first time, and instead waited several months - while the insurgents fortified the city and took countless innocent lives across Iraq - to do what was necessary. It's a good cautionary tale about how emotion and politics can result in tactical and strategic decisions that ultimately cost more lives down the road than might have been lost by following through right away. It's well worth reading to get a sense of modern urban combat, the incredible fortitude and courage of Marine grunts, and the depravity of the insurgents they faced.

And speaking of insurgents, depravity, and Zarqawi, I spent my night-transition day yesterday reading How to Break a Terrorist, by Matthew Alexander, in one sitting. Alexander (a psuedonym) was the senior interrogator on the team tasked with one thing, and one thing only: finding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and capturing or killing him to stop the spasm of violence he was inflicting on all Iraq. Alexander says that he and the team he brought with him were part of a 'new breed' of "gator" that shunned 'old-school' techniques of force, control and physical coercion, and relied instead on rapport, understanding, and psychological ploys to get the information they wanted out of recalcitrant terrorists. Alexander turned himself into whatever he needed to be - a father, a husband, a curious theologian - to build up trust with captured insurgents and try and climb the terrorist hierarchy to Zarqawi himself. He stroked egos, used family ties, and cut fake deals with remarkable success. The interrogation that ultimately led him to Zarqawi is the stuff of thrillers: with literally only a couple of hours until a suspected major player is taken out of his hands, he plays on the man's pride to get him to reveal the link between himself and the terrorist mastermind. They track the link - Zarqawi's spiritual advisor - 24/7, until one day he drives to Zarqawi's house for a meeting and two 500-pound bombs end his reign of terror. Alexander's thesis - that rapport and sympathy are both more effective and more moral than physical coercion - seems fulfilled by the success of his methods. I was left by one lingering thought, though; and granted, while it involves the ultimate 'nightmare' scenario, I believe it's worth pondering. These new methods worked, but they took time. The information gleaned from one terrorist, which led to the next, and the next, took weeks and months to finally bring Zarqawi to justice. All the while, Al Qaeda in Iraq engaged in its campaign of suicide bombings and mass murder. If one could go back, say, to the days just before the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarrah - before Zarqawi ignited his civil war - and know that we could kill him before he ever got started, but it required one hour of physical coercion rather than weeks of talking and talking; would we do it? And if you said no, would you be able to look in the eyes of the families of those hundreds of dead civilians and soldiers and say sorry for your loss, but really, it's better this way? Worth thinking about.

Well, I'm done here for awhile. Due to more restrictive network settings this time 'round, I may not be able to post with as much frequency, but I'll do my best. In the meantime, before I post again: someone explain to me the episode of BSG I just watched, the one where Anders magically remembers everything and tells the whole Cylon story in twenty minutes. Please: what the hell just happened????


Winefred said...

We're still on season two of BSG. Don't give it away, or at least mark posts with a BSG spoiler alert. Let's see -- is there anything else you can do for me in your copious free time.....?

Brendan said...

Dunno the fastest way to let you know, but I selected Tailhook today!

Anonymous said...

I'm watching this on a time delay (ie I haven't watched real television in about a month). I have theories as to what's going on but I'm still pretty confused (that and I respect the no BSG spoilers legislation regarding this blog). Good to hear from you man and keep up the posting.

Cincinnatus said...

Well fair enough BSG fans, no more spoilers from me (though I think I was sufficiently vague in this post. I'm just confused in general on what's going on). Though I may have to wait awhile before I even get to watch the next episode, since our shared drive only gets updated in fits and starts. It's been almost two weeks and there's still an episode that's aired which hasn't been posted yet. Between that and the fact that they haven't updated ANY episodes from this season of Lost, you guys probably have time to catch up!