Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September posts

September 6, 2006

I have been back from Iraq for over two years and I believe that I have come closer to digesting the experience. I haven't spoken out a lot publicly about the war since I returned but I have decided to now. I believe that I have something useful to contribute to the debate, and the recent publication of my book and the introduction of this web site has given me an opportunity and a platform to add my three cents to the discussion. At my decrepit age of fifty-two, I have finally decided to join the blogosphere.

As Ward Bond, playing an Irish Catholic priest in the fabulous The Quiet Man, said in the opening to the movie, Let's begin at the beginning. In the traditional media and Internet postings the din of the debate on Iraq revolves around people trying to answer two fundamental questions: Why Are We There? and What Do We Do Now? I call these Question #1 and Question #2.

Unfortunately, a great part of the debate has devolved to people providing detailed answers to the wrong question. Mostly, people are providing Question #1 answers to Question #2.

I am old enough to remember the debates over the war in Viet Nam. When I returned to graduate school in the early eighties they dragged out many of the same arguments over the war in El Salvador, and the U.S. participation in that conflict. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't much of a war, but there also wasn't much to the arguments. The point that I want to make about Viet Nam is that by 1969 there wasn't much arguing going on: both sides were just basically shouting at each other. So these are my ground rules, a Lessons Learned from the sixties. First, criticism of the conduct of the war does not mean that you are a treasonous, blame-America-first Communist. Secondly, support of the war does not mean that you are a fascist who enjoys watching babies getting bombed. Unfortunately, and this is NOT an exaggeration, my two previous examples describes the destination to which the Viet Nam war debate arrived. I plan to keep a civil tone, and leave the shrillness to others. When I return, I will begin the (lengthy) discussion of Question #1 and Question #2.

September 7, 2006

Had we but world enough and time, this coyness lady were no crime, said the poet to his mistress. We have "world enough and time," so I will digress for a moment. Yesterday's posting brought up the war in El Salvador and reminded me of when I was a columnist for the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, during my long ago graduate student days in 1981. One of my columns, which I have excerpted below, will give you younger folks some perspective on the great issues of the day that we have discussed, are discussing and will discuss.

Excerpt from my Reflections column in the Florida Alligator in 1981:

UF has changed from 1975, when I left on a six year sabbatical, and last August, when I returned to enter the wasteland of higher education. The debate over Vietnam has been replaced by the debate over El Salvador. But, whereas the argument over El Salvador has just recently reached the stage where rhetoric overwhelms all fact, by 1971 the debate over Vietnam had passed that stage by about three years. Of course, like everyone else, we had our riots. In spring of 1972, Nixon decided to coax the enemy to the bargaining table by mining the harbors of Hanoi and Haiphong and bombing the hell out of whatever was left of North Vietnam. The UF campus, which had slumbered peacefully through the Tet offensive and the invasion of Cambodia, suddenly sprang into life. The local anti-war leadership, defeated and dejected after beating a dead horse for six years, was overjoyed that they could finally break out their microphones and chant their slogans to a crowd of more than 10 people.

The brave students seized 13th street in front of Tigert Hall and waiting gamely for the enemy to arrive, which they shortly did. A weak attack by a fire truck spraying water and then a tear gas grenade was easily repulsed by the students (they threw the grenade on top of the fire truck). The enemy retreated, the students cheered, and then settled down to a game of Frisbee. Meanwhile dark clouds were gathering as, unbeknownst to our heroes, every red-neck sheriff and policeman for five counties was called to Gainesville for the counterattack, which took place just after dark.

Guerrilla war ensued when the students realized that the policemen were prevented from entering the campus. The students began to launch forays into enemy lines as the policemen, like Marines on a firebase, waited doggedly for the next assault. The students would drag a bench onto University Avenue in front of Murphree Hall, wait for a squad car to respond, and then pelt the officers with rocks when they arrived. Reinforcements were called, tear gas was fired, and the students would retreat into Murphree Hall until the next round. All this came to an abrupt halt when a tear gas grenade (accidentally?) landed in a first floor stairwell and smoked everyone out.

I watched all these proceedings, quite safely, from the roof of what is now Goering's Book Center. This not only looked like the movies, it bore a remarkable resemblance to the evening news of the last few years. So this is college life, I thought.

So this is college life. Unfortunately for these students, the war ended in a year and they had to return to more mundane things like studying. Today's freshman has no such mission or sense of purpose to guide his life. Oh, he has the environmental movement and the anti-nukes, and El Salvador is beginning to have possibilities, but nothing to offer him full commitment. Maybe Reagan will send the Marines into El Salvador. Wouldn't that be great? Then the old megaphones could be dusted off and the never ending battle for truth, compassion and justice could be continued against the Gainesville police, just like in the days of old. Who wants to study anyway?

September 8, 2006

Why are we in Iraq? Where do we go from here? I call these Question #1 and Question #2. Question #1 has been hashed over for years, and in fact was answered to my satisfaction in the 2004 Presidential election. Many commentators, politicians and citizens who disagreed with the decision to invade, when confronted with the choices of Question #2, respond with their answers to Question #1. The debate over the decision to invade is interesting from an historical perspective, but is essentially irrelevant when trying to answer Question #2.

The situation in Iraq and the Middle East is extremely complex and I don't pretend to know all the answers. My area of expertise is Latin America, a region where I know the culture, can speak the language and to which I have traveled extensively. But in 2003 and 2004 I received a doctorate level crash course in Iraq and the Middle East, and since I returned I have listened to a lot of people who have never been to Iraq, never met an Iraqi, never read a book about Iraq and have ever never been to the Middle East spout their opinions about this war on television, radio, newspapers, sidewalks and in office buildings. I believe that I can can provide better insight than they can. Hence, the reasons for these words that I am typing right now.

Although the public discussions about Iraq have focused on the aforementioned Question #1 and #2, for some time now I have been more interested in a third question. This question first arose in my brain when I read the invasion plan in 2002, cropped up continually during the year that I spent in Iraq and Kuwait, and has been the single-minded focus of the many books and articles that I have read since I returned. This question has gradually evolved through time. Initially, when I read the invasion plan, my question was - What is the plan for the occupation of the country after the invasion is completed? When I arrived in Iraq - still without a plan of occupation - the question became; How are we going to govern this place? When I left Iraq the question became - Why wasn't there a plan? In the two years since my return I have gathered bits and pieces but no definitive answer to this question.

In the subsequent days and weeks I hope to present here what I know and what I have learned. In this area I have specific personal knowledge and can make a contribution to the debate.
September 11, 2006

The five year anniversary of the events of 9/11 is very emotional for me because, like so many other people, the events of that day had a powerful effect on my life. If America had not been attacked on that day then I would not have gone to Iraq. I am in the midst of completing a novel that was inspired by the experiences that I had in the war. I want to quote here from a portion of the manuscript of that novel because this portion is very autobiographical, and very relevant to today's anniversary.

Herewith, an excerpt from the manuscript to "The Lion of Babylon", my novel on the war in Iraq:

As the helicopters flew northwest toward Baghdad, Nate looked below and saw, instead of a lifeless desert, a flat land of green, planted fields fed by canals with water that reflected flashes of light from the afternoon sun. Ahead lay the big city that, as of five days before, was under new management. As the buildings of the city passed below them, bisected by the Tigris River, Nate and Sam exchanged glances.

Bagram, Bogota or Baghdad, Nate said to Sam and Sam nodded.

In December of 2001, Nate, Sam, and Chuck Warren had been together in Pensacola for their monthly weekend Reserve meeting. As they did every Saturday night when they were together, they assembled on the second floor verandah to drink whiskey and smoke cigars and discuss the affairs of the world. The affairs of the world had changed dramatically from only a few short months before, when Nate had stood by the ocean at New Smyrna Beach watching the Fourth of July crowd enjoy the bright Florida sunshine. With an unusual prescience, watching his children playing in the surf amongst the holiday crowd, Nate had foreseen how fragile it all was. They were secure and unmindful of the horrors of war, and he said a prayer of thanks for the long peace that had lain over him and his country. After twenty-six years of preparing for war in the active Army and in the Reserves, he was reaching the end of his military career without having to use the skills and knowledge that he had long accumulated.

As the three Colonels sat on the verandah in the cool December evening, filling and refilling their glasses from a bottle of Scotch, with visions of September eleven fresh in their minds and war ongoing in Afghanistan, there was no talk of peace. They had all been in the military long enough to detect the signs, to feel the shudder as the Army, like a great, dormant beast, trembled and stirred and prepared to spring. Like the onset of a great flood, they could feel the waters rising and they all knew that in the coming year they would be swept up and carried away. The only question was where.

It's going to be Colombia, Afghanistan or Iraq," Nate had announced. Bogota, Bagram or Baghdad." And his friends had all agreed. And Baghdad it was. The one consolation in Nate's mind was that if he had to go to war, at least he was going with his friends.

That was one of my consolations of my trip to Iraq: at least I went with friends.

September 13, 2006

The question that puzzled me the entire time that I was in Iraq, the answer for which I have been pursuing since I returned (over two years) is: why didn't we have a plan for the occupation of the country that we were invading and occupying? I can speak from first hand experience when I tell one and all that there was no plan. A clear explanation as to why there was no plan continues to evade me.

Any number of people can provide various flippant answers to this question. I don't want a snide, condescending remark about Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as an explanation for why what happened happened. We could have avoided, and I also speak from first hand experience here, a lot of past and currrent problems if we had a plan of occupation.

When I arrived in Kuwait from Ft. Bragg on March 21, 2003 I actually had a plan of occupation in my footlocker. The plan was 100 pages long, was dated December 1944 and was the culmination of two years of work by a lot of smart people. This plan was for the occupation of Germany. I read the plan. It was a good plan. It worked. As I was to discover in the next ten months, this plan addressed and provided solutions for many of the problems that we were to face.

I have read "Plan of Attack" and "Cobra II" and James Fallows articles in the New Yorker and an interview with Douglas Feith (one of the Pentagon's neocons) and a lot of other varied sources but the answer to my question is not there. These books and articles have a lot of explanations but not answers. I first looked at the Operation Plan for the invasion in November 2002 and I said, "Holy shit." This was not going to be a namby-pamby Clintonesque Somalia/Bosnia/Kosovo type military operation. The mission statement had a lot of good action verbs - INVADE, REMOVE the regime, OCCUPY the country. The last verb got my attention because I was in the Army Civil Affairs branch and military government is one of the missions that we are trained for. In fact, I thought that this was my sole reason for participation in this great historical event.

But the question I asked in November 2002 after reading the invasion plan was: where is the occupation plan?

September 18, 2006

I arrived with my unit in Kuwait on March 21, 2003 and eventually made it forward to the Marine Expeditionary Force Rear Headquarters at Camp Commando by March 26, 2003. There I linked up with my good friend Colonel Larry West, who had been there in Kuwait since January as the leader of our advance planning element. Supposedly, Larry was supposed to be planning the utilization of our Army civil affairs unit with the Marines.

Naturally, when I linked up with Larry I was eager to find out what the Marines had in mind for us. Unfortunately, a lot of planning had been done with the expectation that we were going to arrive before the war started. But we didn't. The war started on March 19 and we didn't even get to Camp Commando until March 26, so the Marines started the invasion without us. Damn Marines.

One Marine in particular, General Mattis, the Commander of the First Marine Division, wasn't too interestefd in Iraqi civilians, civil affairs or the challenges involved in the occupation of a large Muslim country. I think that he read the mission statement (INVADE, REMOVE, OCCUPY) and didn't get back past the Invade part. The attitude of a lot of Marine officers was: "We don't do occupations. That's the Army's job."

General Mattis believed that his job was to get to Baghdad as fast as possible. Don Rumsfeld had the same idea. Consequently, General Mattis didn't EVEN want anyone stopping to deal with Iraqi civilians or their petty problems. The word was "Haul ass, re-gas and bypass." And that was what they did. I spoke to one of his battalion commanders in Najaf in June (he had Tariq Aziz's United Nations ID card in his pocket.) This battalion commander spoke about how he walked through the campus of Baghdad University, realizing that he had reached his final objective, and thinking to himself, "What do I do now?"

What do we do now indeed? There was a lot that needed to be done, but no plan had been developed. The Marine plan was to capture Baghdad, load on their ships and go home. The Marines weren't able to execute that plan either.

September 21, 2006

In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the Marine planning chief in Iraq wanted to start talking about the plan for the occupation. Colonel Larry Brown, the Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Officer, or G-3, overruled that suggestion. The planners had stil not finished exploring the umpteenth variation and possibility of the initial invasion plan. The Marines didn't appear worried about the occupation because Central Command in Quatar wasn't worried about it and Don Rumsfeld wasn't worried about it.

I was worried about it. It was my job to worry about it but the Generals didn't seem concerned so I kept my mouth shut. Hell, I had never been in a war before. I had never even been in Iraq before. I spoke Spanish, for God's sakes. What did I know?

Looking back on it now, I had the right concerns. I was asking the right questions. Nobody was ready to listen. The Marines were ready to take Baghdad and go home. None of the headquarters above them were asking the tough questions about the occupation. The commander and operations officer for my civil affairs unit worked for the Marines and weren't prepared to argue with a three star general, even if they disagreed with him. Which they didn't. Which argument were they supposed to make, that the work had just begun, or we did our job and it's time to go home?

Three weeks after I arrived at Camp Babylon in Iraq a discussion about preparations for returning to Kuwait to return home was first brought up. What? I asked. Go home? We just got here.

Litte did I know that we were going talk about going home almost constantly for the next five months. General Sanchez finally killed all that talk in early September, 2003 when he told us all that we were going to be there 365 days BOG, boots on the ground. We were busy occupying then.

Without a plan.

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