Yesterday, I traveled with the 3d platoon to Tikrit—my second visit to Saddam’s old home town. It struck me what a scenic city it is, resting right on the Tigris, and featuring enormous palaces with sprawling balconies which reach out toward the water.
Not long before we left Tikrit, a firefight broke out just outside the base. It gathered in intensity, until it sounded like mortars were fired. The insurgents tend to fire mortars from the other side of the river in a marshland area, because it is hard to patrol. The base has a simple but effective response: they place Abrams tanks at the perimeter of the base, with optics that can fix on a target 3000 meters away. Then, they unload the 120 mm main gun—which they did in this firefight. The firefight ended before we left, and we traveled back to FOB Bernstein without incident.
Several weeks ago, a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp (ICDC) was overrun by bandits. In addition to attacking the Coalition and the ICDC, the bandits had been destabilizing the roads south of Kirkuk and Tuz by committing acts including, well, highway robbery. Soldiers from Echo 196 subsequently were able to locate four of the bandits, who were heavily armed with mortar rounds, rocket launchers, and AK-47s. A firefight ensued, in which a medic was injured, and all four bandits were killed--three by Apache air support. This is a high-tech war, and so I have been able to see digital images of the results from the battlefield. The pictures reveal the realties of armed conflict, and as one soldiers suggested, will remain burned in his mind long after he returns home. Talking to a group of soldiers about the raid, they credited Sgt. Perry Hamilton of 3d Platoon with what they thought was the most honest explanation of the troop’s feeling about the battle: it was not that the platoon wanted to kill them, but that under the conditions of the firefight, it was either us or them. Of course, in the larger scheme, the need was equally urgent, because these bandits were directing their attacks not only against the Coalition, but against innocent Iraqis who they terrorized on the roads. Following the attack, a funeral was held by a village in the south for the four bandits. In addition to being the home of the brother of one of the bandits, intelligence suggested that the village housed a significant number of anti-Iraqi forces and substantial weapons caches. So early on Thursday morning, the unit with which I am embedded joined a large cast in raiding the village.
When the order came down for the mission, Lt. Spears of 3d platoon gathered his men together to give them an overview of the mission. Spears is a veteran of Desert Storm who frequently jokes around with troops, but today it was all business. He warned them that the road they would be traveling down had not been used in some time, and was expected to be loaded with IEDs. The village they would be hitting was thought to hold some pretty bad guys, and a lot of weapons, so they should be ready for anything. I was standing next to Sgt. Ward, who was active duty for 17 years before joining the Guard. He noted how quickly the crowd of troopers, who began by joking, became quiet and serious once the briefing began. I noted how quickly the look their eyes changed—grew more stern, concerned, and serious—as the reality of the mission sank in.
The operation was largest I have witnessed to date. The raid was to begin with an air insertion of troops by Blackhawk helicopters, followed by a large ground component. But as the vehicles were staged late Wednesday night, lightning began to appear on the horizon—no rain, just lightning and gusts of wind. We subsequently received word that the Blackhawks were a no go due to weather, but the mission would continue as a ground assault.
I rode in an up-armored Humvee with some civil affairs (CA) guys in a convoy that included both Army Humvees and ICDC in Nissan trucks. Prior to leaving, the CA guys gave me a quick tour of the vehicle, which, like most pre-mission briefs, basically constituted a description of what to do if things go wrong. Accordingly, they gave me instructions regarding how to hail a medevac, showed me where the spare ammo and the medical kits were, and, if all went wrong and we were overrun, they gave me instructions to use the phosphorus grenade in the vehicle to melt the sensitive equipment.
The drive to the village was conducted lights out on a night that was forecasted to have zero illumination. The soldiers all wore night vision goggles, while I stared out at the passing blackness. (Before leaving, I had a chance to check out the night vision, and how it works together with the laser sights on the M-16s. When you are wearing the night vision, you can see the path of the laser, as well as a detailed, enhanced target. Very cool.). While the night vision goggles (or NODs) are effective, even the soldiers had trouble seeing this night given the lack of illumination. The paths (not even exactly dirt roads) we were taking were in ill-repair, and seemed to disappear into farmers’ fields. The vehicle I was riding in was part of the convoy assigned to create an outer cordon, and to block a road that might have served as an escape path from the village. In the pre-dawn darkness, it was nearly impossible from our vantage to make out what was happening in the village, so we listened on the radio as the raid progressed. Overhead, Apaches circled providing air support, and stirred up clouds of dust on the ground. As first light peaked above the horizon, it became possible to see some of the other air power that we had been hearing for hours—F-16s performing recon and an unmanned drone making repeated passes.
After a couple of hours of quiet, shots rang out from the village, prompting the soldiers in the vehicles around me to prepare in case these were the opening volley by the anti-Iraqi forces in response to our presence. But then word came over the radio that the shots were fired at a charging dog. Soon thereafter, it became apparent from the chatter over the radio that the village was all but deserted. The civil affairs unit was called in to assess the water system and other needs of the town, and I went with them. As we walked through the streets and past the mud huts, there was an eerie silence. There were more chickens roaming the streets than people. When we reached the center of the village, we found the muqtar chatting with Lt. Col. Miller. We were able to discern that the anti-Iraqi forces had fled the village sometime following the bandits’ funeral. Now that the military objective was achieved, the civil affairs crew could begin their task of assessing the water and power needs of the village. The contrast between these Army functions is stark, and is illustrative of complexity of the military mission in Iraq: in one minute, the village is surrounded by ground forces and is being flown over by F-16s and Apaches. In the next, the soldiers are meeting with the muqtar to make sure that there are enough wells, electricity, and school supplies in the village.
The fact that the raid did not yield any bad guys is also worth noting. This area had been prone to flare-ups of anti-Coalition activity, but after a series of raids, has begun to quiet down. Contrary to the perception of many people back in the states, violence is not constant or ubiquitous in Iraq. The danger lies in the terrorist nature of the attacks. At any time, on almost any road, you could encounter an IED or enemy fire. You are not likely to be attacked, but you must be prepared.
James Dunnigan notes: "The U.S. Army, which is taking the bulk of the casualties in Iraq, is still getting more volunteers than it needs. Standards have remained high, but the numbers needed have gone up as well. With over 6,000 casualties in Iraq during the last year, the number of new troops needed this year has been increased from 72,000 to 77,000. Most of the wounded troops return to duty, but all are out of action for days, or months, or forever in the case of the dead and crippled. This is all uncharted territory for the army, as it has been over 150 years since it was in a long war with an all-volunteer force."
Charles Krauthammer explains that the panic that has set in, even among some of Bushs supporters, over Abu Ghraib, is unseemly at best. Our objectives are being achieved. TGhere is no reason for Rumsfeld to resign. Oh, and isnt it interesting that Janet Reno didnt resign over Waco (where over seventy people died), even though she took full responsibility?
The Belmont Club considers our current victories against Sadr’s militia, the President’s executive order against Syria, and the real meaning of the Rumsfeld/Myers trip to Iraq (they flew on the same plane for the first time). Something is up. It has less to do with the prison scandal, and more to do with some strategic possibilities resulting from our recent victories in Iraq and the region. Pay attention, and don’t let the Abu Ghraib post mortem confuse you.
Victor Davis Hanson has a few choice words to say about Americans’ capacity for cannibalism (I used to call it self-flagellation): "The idea that anyone would suggest that Donald Rumsfeld — and now Richard Meyers! — should step down, in the midst of a global war, for the excesses and criminality of a handful of miscreant guards and their lax immediate superiors in the cauldron of Iraq is absurd and depressing all at once." He goes on the explain what he means. And then this:
"One final jarring scene from the televised spectacles was the image of the lone, beleaguered Joe Lieberman calling for patience and sobriety, and worried about our troops in the field and the pulse of the war. This decent and honest man reminds us of what the present party of Ted Kennedy and Terry McAuliff used to be. The confidence of a Truman, JFK, and Scoop Jackson — caricatured now for dropping the bomb, a fiery "pay-any-price" speech, and heating up the Cold War — is now nowhere to be found." Read the whole thing. Also see Senator Lieberman on why Rumsfeld must stay.
The Economist gives a short and optimistic reading to the surprising outcome to the elections in India. It seems as if the Congress Party will have to ally with parties on the Left, including the Communists, and yet it there is reason to think that the free market reforms of the previous administration will be continued. We should also pay attention to the new governments view of the recent opening to Pakistan.
Last week over at ZenPundit, Mark Safranski offered an interesting suggestion about what was really going on at Abu Ghraib--that the photos were staged and deliberately leaked so as to demoralize our enemies in the Middle East. As he puts it:
the shocking pictures, for all their political fall out, remediate a deficit American forces suffer in a narrow military sense - outside of actual combat engagements, we are not much feared because by and large we do not commit the usual litany of atrocities of an occupying army.
I’ll admit that it seems far-fetched, but it fits in well with the revelation that the most gruesome photos that have appeared so far--the ones showing actual rape--have turned out to have been doctored. Furthermore, it is perfectly consistent with what Pfc. Lynndie England has claimed: that "I was instructed by persons in higher rank to stand there and hold this leash and look at the camera." Finally, there’s no denying that American casualties have dropped off noticeably since the release of the photos.
Now, assuming that the hooded figures appearing in the photos were actually prisoners, and not, for instance, paid actors, this still raises serious ethical questions. Unfortunately Jeff Tiel, our resident military ethicist, is away in Florence--I’m sure he’d have some interesting things to say on this matter.
Last night there was a major raid launched from Bernstein. My time on the internet is short, so I will describe it late. Suffice it to say that there were a lot of birds in the air and vehicles on the ground, and most importantly everyone made it back safe and sound.
I almost missed this one in todays Los Angeles Times, "Sex and the Asian man."
Sometimes a story becomes a parody of itself; this may be one of those. Here is the first paragraph to give you the flavor of the thing. Read on at your own risk, laugh or cry, as you will.
"Wanting to know what the mostly Asian American class considered desirable, professor Darrell Hamamoto asked: What posters are on your bedroom walls? After an uncomfortable silence, Hamamoto got the names he expected — celebrities such as Brad Pitt. There wasnt an Asian among them, which reinforced what he has long believed: that clichés and stereotypes about Asian men have rendered them sexual afterthoughts.
You arent creating your own images, the 50-year-old Japanese American told the UC Davis class. Make your own movies. You have to take it into your own hands. Like Hamamoto, hundreds of Asian American men are writing books and poems and creating websites in hopes of redefining themselves by combating the enduring notion that they are sub-masculine. Many are offended that Asian men are projected as power players when it comes to intellectual intercourse but bystanders in the world of romance."
The New York Times has a useful electoral map and accompanying article about the battleground states. To see the map, click on "Graphic: Mapping the Campaign" on the right. Print and file, useful and clear.
There is much hyperventilating in the upper levels, the media and in some political circles, about the effect of the Abu Ghraib revelations on our work in Iraq. Indeed, some people seem to be in a panic. The war is lost, if not militarily, then politically. We cannot possibly win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. It is all over but the details, etc. I think such reactions are over the top. CNN talking heads (Aaron whats-his-name is an example) are already calling the prisoner abuse photos the "iconic moment" in this war (i.e., iconic in the same way that we saw a South Vietnamese soldier shoot a Vietcong in the head, only later did we find out that the man had slaughtered his family); this is an attempt to be clever and sophisticated the way the ideological literary critics are: They talk around the text (in this case reality) by ignoring it. And today Muqtada Sadr--the guy who has caused mischief, but is losing at every turn he lost a couple dozen men today in Karbala--called Iraq Americas new Vietnam. The elite press loves this stuff, dont they? Well, the slaughter of Nicholas Berg is also affecting the discussion, at least on the lower levels where most of us citizens live. Even though CNN will not show the beheading (and I dont think they should) they beat the drums that every other photo from Abu Ghraib be shown, regardless of how many lives it may cost! This slaughter of Mr. Berg reminded us that although what was done to the prisoners was both wrong and illegal--it has been investigated by our military and dutifully reported, and the law will take its course--the enemy is capable of acting in this horrible way as a matter principle. This reminds those of us who do not live in the Washington beltway why we fight, and why we must win. Seeing the Twin Towers in flame has the same effect; thats why CNN doesnt like showing it. Well, those in the upper levels are once again misreading both the capacity of those of us on the lower levels to understand our purposes and policies, and the passions--not excluding righteous indignation--that we are capable of; in our quiet way, of course. Let them misread us at their peril. My guess is that Bush has a much clearer sense of these matters than he is given credit for; he will not panic. The regeneration of Iraq will continue and Rumsfeld will not be pushed out; and let John Kerry run against Rumsfeld if he likes, and see where that takes him (and announcing that he would like to have Senator John McCain as his secretary of defense isnt going to help him; nice try though). In the end, the citizens on the lower levels will make their opinions count, and the smug Aaron whats-his-name can continue to bloviate and be paid handsomely for it, and be ignored.
The Belmont Club has a thought about the media and the connection between Abu Ghraib and the murder of Nicholas Berg. And William Safire explains that the real world in Iraq is moving along at a pretty good clip, and there is no need to panic. Nice piece, read it.
In case you missed it, here is the Reuters story about Nick Berg, an American contractor who was beheaded on video by a man identifying himself as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi is the Jordanian Al Qaeda operative who previously issued a memo encouraging terrorists to use the American occupation pre-June 30th as a pretext for launching terrorist attacks in Iraq.
I am travelling, currently sitting in a hotel room in California finishing reading term papers (this should be combat pay!). I came to attend a funeral of a friend of mine (and the Ashbrook Centers). Brad Mishler passed away a few days ago, and the services were yesterday. He was buried next to his wife at La Verne Cemetery. They were both very fine people, both lovers of things beautiful and noble. They appreciated various forms of human excellence, especially in art and in politics, nowadays a seemingly uncommon juxtaposition, but not in their mind or mine. I valued their friendship and their support, and I will miss them. Because of this, and other meetings, I will be on the road for another week, so expect me to blog only a little, from time to time. Now, back to the term papers!
Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times run articles on Steve Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Cambone testified this morning with Gen. Taguba, and I happened to see only some of the proceedings. It is clear that Cambones attempt to get tactical intelligence on the ground (as opposed to the more strategic and broader intelligence sought by the CIA) will be an issue in this attempt to get to the bottom of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I excpect him to be on the hot seat because the question will be whether or not he instructed his people to be aggressive, and thereby leading prison guards to do what they did. At the moment, it looks as though the guards were acting on their own. Because of his close relationship to Rumsfeld, the purpose of his office, and the kind of infighting that goes on in Defense (and with the CIA), you can expect to hear more about him and from him in the coming weeks.
Here is my latest article about some victims of Abu Ghraib, and here are some pictures of the victims. Recent polls are showing a 12 point drop over the last two months in support for the Iraq war, with many wondering whether we should have come at all. We must not dismiss the abuse which occurred. We must treat it seriously. But we must also not lose sight of the change that has been made. One of the commenters on this blog resorted to moral equivalency, suggesting that we had done all the horrors of Saddam. Were he to leave his ivory tower and come to Iraq and actually say that to an Iraqi, the locals would laugh at him. There is no doubt that the Iraqis are angry and disheartened by the pictures, but they know the horrors of the previous regime. This is not to use the worst to in any way justify the bad--but when people make statements suggesting that the current situation in Iraq is no better than the prior regime, their imprudence should be checked by the painful realities of the former regime. And, to emphasize the point of my article, the real difference is that our leaders view the abuse with horror because it violates our principles--in the prior regime the abuse would have been looked at with disdain by the leader because it was not on a grand enough scale.
A major part of the mission for the soldiers here in Tuz, as well as in other areas I have visited, is meeting with the local religious, tribal, and political leaders to discuss the concerns and needs of the locals. When you visit an Iraqis home, local etiquette demands that they offer you at the very least something to drink, and very often something to eat. The food is often quite tasty--chicken and lamb, and a variety of vegetable garnishes. But the food is grown and prepared and very unsanitary conditions. The soldiers therefore eat the food to be polite, but do so at the risk of "Saddams revenge." Lt. Naum is the latest victim after having lunch at a local village two days ago. As he put it, "the two biggest dangers in Iraq are RPGs and lamb."
In the Wilson Quarterly Francis Fukuyama reviews Bruce Caldwells recent intellectual biography of F.A. Hayek. As Fukuyama notes, the author correctly reminds us that Hayek did not only reject socialism, but also the pretensions of positivistic social science:
But Hayek also offered a far more profound critique of the limits of human reason, which extended to the models that would come to underlie postwar American neoclassical economics and, thus, the economics that we teach university students to this day. Caldwell explains that a constant theme in Hayek’s writing—from his early critique of “scientism” in his “Abuse of Reason” project to his last published work, The Fatal Conceit (1988)—is a critique not just of real-world planners but of positivist social scientists who aim to turn the study of human behavior into something as empirical and predictive as the physical sciences.
Indeed, in this sense he was as critical of fellow free-market economist Milton Friedman as he was of John Maynard Keynes.
A number of the men in the unit I am embedded with made their way to Kirkuk today, which provided them with an opportunity to visit the PX (a military store which carries everything from food to electronics), and to load up on some of the comforts of home. Sgt. Hutton returned with what is for this area the latest copy of Newsweek, featuring a cover comparing the latest conflict to the Vietnam War. The heavy-handed drumbeat in the issue was astounding. Even the movie review of The Alamo included language about how strange it was to watch a movie about American military defeat while our soldiers are beleaguered in Iraq. The guys, who were reading particularly ridiculous passages aloud, had great fun with this: "Hey Sergeant, you feeling beleaguered?" They also had no tolerance for the ignorance of the reporters. When a graphic showed a region, and had a statistical breakdown of population by Sunnis and Kurds, they quickly noted that many of the Kurds are Sunni. The proper distinction would have been between Kurds and Arabs. The whole episode provided yet another stark contrast--the "quagmire" drumbeat of the media, contrasted with the more buoyant reality on the ground.
My article about a Christian church in Baghdad is now online at NRO. I did a brief interview with Bill Bennett this morning. I say brief because the weather--in particular the wind--was not cooperating with my satellite phones clarity. What conversation we were able to have was good, so I hope to do the show again soon--weather permitting. Finally, I spent most of the day putting together some thoughts on Abu Ghraib. I have submitted the article, so you should see it relatively soon.
ABC News wonders why, in spite of the deluge of bad news coming from Iraq, the president continues to enjoy a slight lead in the polls. They suggest the following reasons:
1. Hes keeping the conservative and Republican base happy — and were making the necessary distinction between the roots of the grass and its tippy-tops. The Presidents support among the faithful remains quite strong.
2. A gradual, inarticulatable, unpollable sentiment among most Americans that enjoys the feeling of being at the top of the heap, disregards potshots, favors the exercise of unilateral power, distrusts entangling institutions, and isnt quite sure what the alternatives are. American exceptionalism is still a fundamental creed — and this President embodies it.
3. The failure of President Bushs opposition to come up with a credible alternative to Iraq. By credible, we mean widely accepted and comfortable to the masses. This tracks with a general and enduring split among Democrats and left/liberal progressives about the nature and aims of American power.
4. Wars (in Iraq and versus terror) provide for now a floor and a ceiling on the presidents numbers. And no domestic terror attack since 9/11 is arguably the administrations largest unalloyed, if untrumpeted, success.
5. An unvetted (bubble-benefited) Democratic nominee who has yet to find a voice that comforts while it enervates. And who may, by dint of the possible death of the jobless recovery (see the WSJs ed page) have lost his best issue. Lets see how the national and local breakthrough on his health care message goes this week.
6. Masterful message massaging and communications work by the Bush-Cheney re-election team.
7. A country that views political developments through two increasingly sharp cultural lenses — perhaps (checking the back of the envelope here … ) 42% Red to 39% Blue.
8. News cycles that speed up, chew over, and swallow both the good and the bad and then take a bite of something else — leaving little time for reflection or news to "sink" in to the national consciousness. And then theres the general disconnect between what the media wants (i.e., a Bush apology during the press conference) versus what the public seems to want (reassurance that things are going to get better and the course were taking is the right one).
9. The First Lady, the personal likeability, and the Bush Brand in times of adversity.
Were he still alive, yesterday--May 8--the brilliant economist F.A. Hayek would have turned 105. Hayeks 1944 best-seller The Road to Serfdom played a major role in turning the intellectual tide away from economic planning.
Just to be provocative, I urge you to read this excerpt from his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative".