Sunday, November 26, 2006

A holiday in a combat zone

Thanksgiving, or any holiday spent overseas,especially if in a combat zone, is an especially poignant one. On these occasions the bonds between military men and women become especially strong because the absence of our families reinforces the sacrifice that we are all making. During these times the people around you become family because they are all you have, an inadequate but necessary substitute to making the daily journey to the end of your tour. I did not necessarily like all these people but they were my substitute family.

Now that I am home with my family during the holidays I feel a new and special poignancy for the service men and women overseas, many of whom are in harm's way. Somehow, though I don't even know them, I have a bond with them, too. When I give thanks for the many blessings that I have, I say a prayer that they all may return home safe.

Holidays were an unusual hardship when I was in Iraq. Like leftover grains of sand in my pocket, I carry little pieces of that hardship with me with during holidays at home. I remember. Or maybe I just can't forget.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Don Rumsfeld and the war

Based on my personal experiences and first hand knowledge of events during the buildup and first year of the war in Iraq I sincerely believe that Donald Rumsfeld was responsible for the problems that developed during that first year: problems that are affecting us to this day.

Persons other than Don Rumsfeld made critical mistakes but he took control of the planning for and execution of the invasion and deliberately excluded the Department of State and other agencies from any significant participation in the planning for or execution of the occupation. I can't say that greater DOS participation in the occupation would have improved the results but they could hardly have made them worse. The occupation was begun with minimal planning or preparation. As a result the military forces in Iraq were left to occupy the country with little guidance from the political authorities that had ordered the invasion.

As an Army colonel working to assist the Marine forces in the occupation of the southern half of Iraq, I had direct access to the planning documents and had personal knowledge of their inadequacy. I watched as the Marine commanders tried to govern a large, populous Arab country through trial and error and improvisation. They did the best they could under the circumstances. We all did.

When I left Iraq I was convinced that Rumsfeld was to blame for the fundamental problems that we faced and have continued to face. From all acounts, Rumsfeld is a brillant, extremely hard working, experienced and capable administrator. He believed (and still believes, for all I know) that he did the right thing. I believe that he should have been removed years ago, and for that I hold the President responsible.

Now that Mr. Rumsfeld has been removed from the post of the Secretary of Defense I hope that he will write a book that explains to us all why he took the actions and decisions that he did. In particular, I want to know why he didn't apply that brillant and capable mind to ensuring that there was an adequate plan for the occupation. My great fear is that his book, if it even comes, won't adequately address that question.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Veteran's Day

On Friday I marched in my first Veteran's Day parade.

Because the 11th fell on a Saturday, Leon County and the city of Tallahassee held the parade on a Friday when everyone was off for the holiday. The assumption among large numbers of people in Tallahassee was that the parade was moved to accomodate the Florida State football game. I don't believe this to be true, but it is hard to change public perception.

I found the whole experience to be very emotional. The WW II and Korean veterans rode on a float while the Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans walked. I helped a 97 year old WW II veteran out of his wheelchair on on to the float. He had recently decided to join my American Legion Post. We gave him a discount.

By the way, I was recently appointed Finance Officer of American Legion Post 13 in Tallahassee. I think no one else wanted the job.

The parade was short but memorable. As the float moved forward, and I walked alongside handing out little flags to children, the citizens of the county who came out to see the parade arose as if in a wave on both sides of the street and gave us a standing ovation. Several times I had to pause and wipe the tears from my eyes.

There were some Viet Nam veterans there who really appreciated the love. They had waited a long time for this kind of response.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Demons in the water

People I know or meet who understand that I have been to Iraq almost never ask me about the war. A river of understanding divides us, but I keep trying to throw pebbles of knowledge to the other side. I believe that they think there are demons hidden in the water, and their questions might rouse them. I have tried to bridge this river with a novel, and 85,000 words have carried me half way across. I hope to have the bridge finished by next year.

In the meantime, I thought about writing an essay on how I feel about the war. Words, sentences and paragraphs came to me in solitary moments. I finally decided to write some of them down, but I didn't like what I read. I always seemed to be taking a fire hose to a candle. Or the negative demons would rise from the water. But I didn't want to go that way. I knew that the essay had to be positive. Nobody wants to hear the complaints, real or imagined, of a fifty three year old man.

From the moment that I left Iraq on February 28, 2004 and unloaded my weapons at the Kuwaiti border, I have struggled to communicate what I learned there and how the experience of being there has changed my life. For this reason I have hesitated to speak my mind, but I made a promise when I was in Iraq, and I want to come forward now and speak what I believe.

I believe in the Iraqi people. I did not believe in them when I arrived in Iraq but I believed in them when I left. I had few occasions to meet the sullen and suspicious Sunnis of Ramadi. I spent most of my time among the majority Shia in towns like Hilla, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala and Kut. The more that I came into contact with these people the more I was impressed with their industriousness, piety, courtesy, and sense of family. The most enduring memory for me is not of an Iraqi with his fist held high in anger, but of an Iraqi family, the mother in full length abaya carrying a baby and the father, walking ahead in a white dishdasha, and holding a small child.

I cannot forget the Iraqi woman who came forward, despite great personal danger, to lead the women’s rights center that we created in Karbala. I shared with her a picture of my family that I carried in my helmet. She gave me a postal card of Karbala to give to my daughter. I think of this woman often, and I do not even know her name. When I think of the sacrifices that I made, and the sacrifices that my family made, I believe that they were made for this woman.

I believe in the Iraqi people. I believe in the message of the Iraqi woman that I saw in the streets of Hillah. She looked at me, an American soldier wearing a helmet and body armor, and carrying a loaded weapon, and wasn’t afraid. If she had been, she would not have lifted her baby’s arm to wave at me.

Many times when I was in Iraq I was thanked, often by grown men in tears, for helping to remove the terror and the horror that had beset these men’s lives for over thirty years. And I promised them, each one, that this time we would see the job through, that after awakening them from their nightmare we would lead them to the democracy that they deserve. When I made that promise, I believed what I said. And I continue to believe it today.