Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Plain language and the military

One of the first actions that Charlie Crist took upon taking office as the Governor of Florida was to sign an Executive Order that established his Plain Language Initiative. Acronyms and legalese were ordered to be stripped from public documents. In the world of emergency management, where I work, we were particularly prone to acronyms. As we now write new procedures we take extra care to ensure that no offending acronym slips into a document through force of habit.

Although these offending terms are ruthlessly excised from all written materials they remain a part of our vocal communication. Thus, the acronyms are quarantined in a special section in each document so that the newly arrived to the emergency operations center can translate the speech of the natives. I even made two posters listing the most common acronyms and placed them prominently in my work room at the emergency operations center so that the newbies could understand what we are saying.

Much has been written of the jargon studded language of the military. The term "pentagonese" was even coined to describe this disease but the affliction is not confined to the United States military. When I was assigned to the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium at the beginning of the Bosnia operation I was sent to attend a staff meeting. The SHAPE staff is composed of representatives from all the NATO countries. I was the first to enter the meeting room and saw that, in typical military fashion, place cards had been set in front of each chair to indicate which organization in SHAPE the occupant of that chair represented. I examined each of the twenty two place cards in the room and only recognized the one for my own organization. The language of the headquarters was English but the many terms used, and which I had to learn, were unique to the organization.

I found that in the military the closer one gets to the common soldier the plainer the language. The staff officers at division headquarters speak a special jargon but the sergeant's instructions to the private are in clear English. At the front line the Army puts a premium on clear, simple instructions. In combat, or even in exercises, miscommunication can kill.

Plain language can and does reside in the military. One simply has to look for it in the right place.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

OBL and the 2008 election

OBL and Al Qaeda have a vested interest in the candidates and the eventual winner of the 2008 campaign for President of the United States. The question is: who would they want to win, and what actions are they planning even now to influence the outcome of that election?

Osama tried to influence the 2004 election, and may even have succeeded. He released a video tape four days before the election, and several pundits asserted that this video helped Bush win. After the election, FOX News reported that John Kerry blamed the Osama tape for his loss.

OBL is many things to many people but all would agree that he is very intelligent and shrewd. His release of a tape four days before the 2004 election in which President Bush was attacked for his response to the 9/11 attacks was designed to achieve an emotional reaction in the American electorate. The timing was critical because little opportunity was given for any rational discussion of OBL's statements before the voting was conducted.

The fact that the tape criticized Bush was taken at first by some pundits to mean that OBL was promoting Kerry. On reflection, and after the election, the tape was seen to be pro-Bush. OBL must have known ahead of time that the American populace would react in a manner directly opposite to his stated intent. I believe that he knew this, and I believe that his intent was to get Bush reelected.

Why would he want Bush reelected? The argument can be made that OBL has been trying to provoke the United States since the first World Trade Center attack. If this was his intent, and he has so stated, then with the attacks of 9/11 he succeeded. President Bush responded to this provocation by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. OBL's strategy was to provoke the sleeping giant in the hope that his response would awaken and unite the Muslim world to OBL's vision of a new Caliphate.

Some have argued that Bush followed OBL's strategy as designed, to the Western World's universal detriment. The way this argument goes, the U.S. military actions in the Middle East have turned the Muslim world against us. More and more Muslims are rallying to OBL's banner. If we had not "overreacted" to the Al Qaeda attacks the World would still love us. The way to deal with the Al Qaeda terrorists is through law enforcement and the courts: arrest them, read them their rights and then put them on trial. If they go free, well, at least we have the self satisfaction that we protected their rights.

Not everyone agrees with this argument. My view is that we weren't that popular in the Muslim world before 9/11. The escalation of attacks by Al Qaeda was going to get worse if we continued to ignore them, not better. Assuming we were able to actually locate and arrest these terrorists, their trials would be security nightmares and propaganda bonanzas for OBL and his minions. The better solution is to take the fight to the enemy.

Would OBL rather face Hillary or Rudy as an opponent? A better question is whether he would rather face a Republican or a Democrat. His preference for a candidate will dictate his choice of actions. He has displayed a tendency for the dramatic. The most drama and the most impact would be some kind of action immediately prior to the election. He has already released a tape prior to the previous election, so the drama of this action would be lessened.

A better option for him would be a well planned, coordinated attack: his specialty. The attack would be immediately before the election. To execute such an attack the planning would even now be underway.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veteran's Day 2007

On this Veteran's Day 2007 holiday I spent two and a half hours helping Colonel Bear cook sixty pounds of bacon for the annual Veterans breakfast at the American Legion Hall in Tallahassee. Because the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 2007 fell on a Sunday, by Act of Congress we celebrated Veteran's Day on Monday November 12th. Almost 300 Veterans and their families came together for a traditional military (and Southern) breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits smothered in sausage gravy.

Colonel Michael Whitehead, in Kuwait in April 2003, preparing to enter Iraq.

We cooked the bacon outside on propane burners in iron, deep fat fryers bubbling with oil that Colonel Bear provided. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Calvin A. "Bear" Winter was the chief bacon cook and I was one of two assistants on duty. I had a variety of tasks to perform but the most important, and the reason that I volunteered myself for this duty, was to listen to Colonel Bear's stories about his military career.

Some of his most interesting stories came from 1952 and the six weeks he spent under almost continuous direct and indirect fire on a bone cold, freezing piece of ground called Heartbreak Ridge. By continuous fire I mean he never left that hole for six weeks for fear of being killed. The particular hole in which he resided was important because it provided him with an uninterrupted view of the movements of the Chinese Communists to his front. He used a radio to relay his observations to an array of artillery battteries to his rear. The timely and effective artillery fires that he called down on the Chinese made them all the more determined to get him out of his hole. Spending six uninterrupted weeks in a hole brought to my mind certain unavoidable issues of sanitation and I asked him about that, while we stood there cooking the bacon. He told me that he honestly didn't remember how he solved that particular problem (one of many, I'm sure, that he encountered, but he did). Like many veterans, Colonel Bear's uncertain memory helped him in this and many other ways.

When the breakfast was over, I delivered John and Betty O'Farrell to the American Legion float so that they could ride in the Veteran's Day Parade. Although they were both WW II veterans, neither had been in a Veteran's Day parade, and they both participated at my invitation. John fought in the Battle of the Bulge and Betty was an Army Nurse. I told them the Parade would be a moving experience for them, and when it was over they agreed. To watch the crowd on the side of the road rise and give us a standing ovation as we passed by brought tears to our eyes.

Before the parade I looked for and found a Viet Nam veteran that I had first met at last year's parade. His name is Jerald Collman and he was a graves registration officer in Viet Nam. In this and many other wars, the bodies of the fallen in the field were placed intact, or in pieces, into black bags and delivered to graves registration units, where they were prepared for the journey by air back to the United States. Jerald told me that the Veteran's Administration has documented that the two categories of veterans most likely to receive 100% disability for Post Traumatic Stress were members of front line combat units and members of graves registration units. Jerald was granted just such a disability by the VA.

Jerald admitted to me last year that he had suffered greatly from his experience in Viet Nam. He said that he had committed to memory over one thousand names of the dead that he and his unit had cared for in the year that he spent there. Many times at night he had recited the names as he tried to fall asleep. Last year, and this year, he carried a large, thick book that listed the over 55,000 names of the fallen in that war.

Since we had spoken last year, Jerald told me that he had returned to Viet Nam and had found the slab of concrete where his unit had received and processed the dead. The Vietnamese knew and understood the significance of this piece of ground and had refused to allow any other building or structure to be built on this spot. He showed me pictures of a memorial plague that was erected on this piece of hallowed ground as a result of his visit. I asked him if he was doing any better and he said that he was, that his visit to Viet Nam had been instrumental for him in exorcising some of the demons that he had carried for so many years.

As a commissioned Army officer for thirty years I have a very clear and unequivocal understanding of the concept of duty. Doing my duty for my family, for my job and for my country are an important part of my life and how I see myself as a person. My participation in the American Legion and the small part that I play in the Veteran's Day activities in my small town are my duty. I do it for Colonel Bear, for John, for Betty, for Jerald, for myself and for all the other Veteran's out there.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

World War IV

"Are we really at war against a deadly foe or are we fighting small bands of deluded fanatics whose probability of even minor success is pitifully low?"

- Christopher Wilcox, in the Wall Street Journal

Norman Podhoretz, the neo-conservative columnist, believes that we are currently engaged in World War IV (the Cold War being World War III). The term that cropped up in Pentagon briefings after 9/11, GWOT, or the Global War on Terrorism, has fallen into disfavor. How do you wage war on an asymmetrical strategy? The new term popular in many circles is The Long War. I'm not sure what we should call it, as long as we say we're at war. Not everyone believes that.

World War IV is another name for the worldwide struggle against an Islamist, fascist ideology that is actively at war with Western civilization and particularly the leading national representative of that set of beliefs, the United States. The war began on November 4, 1979 when some friends and cohorts of the current President of Iran assaulted the U.S Embassy in Tehran and took sixty six American citizens hostage.

Even though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his friends declared war on the United States most of the country failed to notice. In the 1990s similar believers in their ruthless ideology tried to get our attention, killing Americans in the Marine barracks in Lebanon, in the streets of Mogadishu, in the World Trade Center attack of 1993, in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in Kenya, in Tanzania, and aboard the USS Cole in Yemen. The attacks on September 11 finally got our attention.

It seems, however, that some people have a short attention span.

The fact that over six years have passed without any subsequent attacks have led a number of people in our country to some widely varying conclusions. Some have concluded that maybe 9/11 was more luck than skill: Maybe we aren't at war after all. Maybe my political disdain for the current President and his inept handling of the war in Iraq means that the threat has gone away. Or better yet: never really existed.

Maybe. Maybe the ill starred war in Iraq consumed fanatics that would have traveled to the Homeland to kill Americans but didn't because there were so many nearby in the Euphrates valley. Maybe they are all nothing but a stupid bunch of ragheads who can only spell IED.

But then again what if they aren't? What if being paranoid is the appropriate reaction? What if they really are out to get us? What if we really are at war?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Good news on the war in Iraq

The good news is not that the Surge is working and the violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically. General Petraeus reported that news last month, to mixed reviews. The good news is that the Washington Post in an editorial today admitted that the General was right and his critics were wrong.

The criticism of the war will now shift from the "failed strategy" of the Surge to the failure of Iraqi politicians to resolve in a matter of days or weeks problems that were a century in the making. Calculating the interactions of the motives of all the political players and the internal and external factors that influence these players would be the equivalent of a supercomputer model that tracks the movements of a hurricane.

One can expect many commentators and talking heads in the upcoming months to provide their solutions.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Blackwater in the news

The Blackwater Security Company is one of many companies in Iraq providing security to State Department and other officials and contractors. The New York Times reported that there were 7,000 security men operating in Iraq. A Blackwater detail was involved in a firefight recently and the Iraqi government claimed that a lot of innocent civilians were killed. The Iraqis government's immediate reaction was to order Blackwater out of the country.

I had my own experience withe Blackwater when I was in Karbala. I wrote an account of this visit in my book, and I have included that account with some pictures here on my site.

This was in 2004, but I still noticed that the Blackwater people didn't have a lot of patience with the Iraqi drivers. If an Iraqi was in the way, the would bump his vehicle in the rear, causing him to move over and let the convoy by. These Blackwater guys had a tough job in a rough environment, but if I was an Iraqi I would have a problem with the way the average citizen was being treated. I imagine that the reaction of the Iraqi government is a kind of payback for the sum total of indignities that the Iraqis have suffered the last four years from Blackwater and other security companies.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath - Part 2

Rightly or wrongly, the federal government was blamed for what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was blamed for failures that were the responsibilities of state and local governments. In response to this I see FEMA, reacting to instructions from Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, preparing to assume tasks that have traditionally been within the purview of state and local governments.

There is an unfortunate moral hazard for emergency managers who prepare to respond to a disaster. This hazard is especially grave in a place like Florida, which has been subject to an inordinate number of disasters in the last decade. The better we are at rapidly responding to a disaster, the less the citizens feel like they need to prepare themselves and their families to respond.

Many who solicit aid from the government or the Red Cross or Salvation Army after a disaster aren't really in need and don't need the assistance. If they don't need it, why do these people stand in line for a free Red Cross meal? Why do they wait in their expensive cars for hours for a case of water and a bag of ice? Because it's free.

A veteran of many disasters calls it "freestuff." When the freestuff is made available human nature seems to drive everyone to the table to make sure that they get their "fair share." Whether they need it or not, many believe that it is their "right" to get freestuff when it is made available.

Some people in a disaster actually need the freestuff. They are poor. They are disabled. They are elderly. They are the weak, the ones ones with the least capacity to weather the strain of the disaster and the ones who do the most suffering. And many times the strong are able to stand in the long, hot lines to get their feestuff while the weak cannot.

For a variety of reasons communities respond to disasters in different ways. Some do a better job at it than others. In some places, like Florida, we get a lot more practice. Yet, in catastrophic events, no matter how good you are, communities and even states can get overwhelmed. In these situations, the federal government has to step in and help.

In the thorough, big budget way that the federal government goes about doing things, FEMA and other federal agencies are planning on how to take over from communities and states when they are overwhelmed. They are even planning how to take over some of the tasks performed by agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and other such agencies do wonderful work in a disaster. I can personally testify to the great deeds that these agencies perform EVERY DAY. Because if your neighbor's house burns down it's a disaster; if your house burns down it's a catastrophe. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are always there during disaster or catastrophe, no matter the size.

The work force of these agencies is made up almost entirely of volunteers. And, as opposed to the the flood of well-meaning people who arrive at a disaster to help, these agencies provide trained, organized and managed volunteers operating with a central purpose toward set objectives. Most of these people are local, trained volunteers helping their own communities.

If FEMA, at the behest of Congress and state's that want to forfeit their responsibilities decide to assume these tasks that have traditionally been done by the communities, then we all lose. No one will volunteer to do a job that FEMA will pay top dollar to perform. And outsiders, with no knowledge of our communities will be brought in to respond to our disasters. And as we stand in line to get our freestuff, we will bitch and complain about the inefficient and unorganized response to our disaster.

And we will be right.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Vadym the Ukrainian

Vadym NANYNETS, a member of the Ukrainian military mission to Iraq, mentioned me by name in an account of his tour published (in English) in the online site Welcome to Ukraine. Fortunately for me, the reference was favorable.

Vadym, along with two Ukrainian military officers, Ruslan Myroshnychenko and Dmytro Cherednychenko, worked with me at the South-Central Headquarters in Hilla. I had never knowingly met a Ukrainian before. I was surprised to find out they were Led Zeppelin fans. Vadym knew all the verses to "Whole Lotta Love."I was impressed.

Vadym was a civilian working with the Ukrainian military. In a previous post I spoke about my trip to
Abu Ghraib prison so that Ruslan could visit a Ukrainian prisoner incarcerated there. In my book I describe the incident where Ruslan and Deborah Harrison are wounded in an Iraqi ambush while returning from a trip to Baghdad. I can still see Ruslan sitting on a stretcher in the Babylon Hospital, his body armor and helmet on the floor at his feet. His shirt is off and he has a big grin on his face. There is a small bruise and a trickle of blood on his shoulder where one of the bullets had deflected off the car and imbedded there barely under ths skin. Outside the hospital I saw Vadym, obviously upset over Ruslan's wound. I could only ponder on how lucky he was.

This was Ruslan's last day in Iraq. He was due to head back to Ukraine the next day. In fact, he made it to his farewell party later that night.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath - Part 1

Two years ago today I drove into Hancock County with the responsibility of coordinating the human services response to Hurricane Katrina in the six southern counties of Mississippi. Governor Barbour had requested from Governor Bush that the State of Florida assume the responsibility for coordinating emergency management in southern Mississippi. I was one of six thousand Floridians who responded.

This was my first visit to a catastrophic disaster. I had traveled extensively in Latin America and seen a lot of poverty and misery. I had been to two war zones. But on that day in September 2005, I had never seen anything like Hancock County. The big difference, in my mind, was that these dazed and bewildered victims were American citizens. I never dreamed that what I saw overseas could happen in the United States.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath led a lot of people in our great country to a number of very definite conclusions. Many of these conclusions were derived from television images of New Orleans. These conclusions have been repeated for two years in newspaper columns, magazine articles, television shows and Spike Lee movies. The biggest conclusion was that the federal government, in particular FEMA as an organization and George Bush as an individual, was responsible for the horrible images of suffering and death in New Orleans.

For two years I have been telling anyone who cared to listen that that conclusion was wrong. As the August 2007 edition of the National Geographic makes clear, the failure of the levees around New Orleans was caused by dozens of politically driven, as opposed to engineering-based, decisions by a variety of governmental entities at all levels over a period of fifty to one hundred years.

The federal government does not deserve all the blame for the horrifying images at the Super Dome and Convention Center. FEMA made some mistakes, but the overwhelming blame for what transpired lies with the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana. Evacuation of the citizenry has been and continues to be a responsibility of local government. The evacuation plan for the city was designed and executed at the city and parish level, with some assistance by the state.

The big question for me was the holdup in bringing water and food to the victims stranded at the Super Dome and other "lily pads"around the city. I asked this question to emergency management professionals that I had worked with who were in the Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center during the crisis. They told me that vehicles loaded with water and food were ready to enter the city and resupply the lily pads. The vehicles were not sent in because city officials declared the city unsafe.

Regardless of the facts, the federal government got the blame. For the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have been developing capabilities to step in when local and state governments are incompetent and do their job for them. As these federal plans and policies gradually come to light, I can see very grave consequences. I will outline these consequences in Part 2.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq

"Political and security trajectories in Iraq continue to be driven primarily by Shia insecurity about retaining political dominance, widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status, factional rivalries within the sectarian communities resulting in armed conflict, and the actions of extremists..."
- The National Intelligence Estimate, Prospect for Iraq's Stability, August 2007

The above quote was the most enlightening portion of the NIE to me. The heart of the matter, a source of the continuing violence, a frustration to supporters and a rallying cry to critics of the war is the continued inability of the Iraqis to reach political reconciliation. The purpose of the so-called "surge" was to give the Iraqi politicos "breathing room". The surge didn't really start until mid-June (What? Even though they started talking about it last year, the troops weren't in place until June). That means the Iraqis have had, oh, say, eight weeks now of breathing room. They haven't solved all their problems yet?

Why don't they just sit down, work out their differences, and get on with their lives? Because they are all still chained to their past and unable to move forward. History, in Iraq as in the rest of the world, lays a heavy hand on a society. Prime Minister Maliki has come in for a lot of criticism lately for not acting more forcefully but he is not in a position to make anyone do anything. What instruments of power does he have?The budget? Not likely. The law? Not yet. Direct appeals to the electorate? Only when the electricity's on, and the citizenry can divert attention from their own problems.

The present Iraqi political process is strangled by the demons of their history. The Shia are like beaten dogs, staring at the open gate to freedom, but too afraid move forward and seize the opportunity. The Sunnis are like the Fuehrer in his bunker, shouting orders, with the Russian army outside. They are still deluded in the belief that they should still be in charge. And the Kurds? The status quo is perfect for them. Why should they do anything but resist change?

Something must be done to break this logjam.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The new FEMA

I traveled to Baltimore this week to attend a National FEMA conference. I was there representing the best state emergency response team in the nation. FEMA invited two representatives from each state to attend at their expense and I was one of the two Florida representatives.

A lot of the many voluntary agencies active in disaster were at the conference.There was an extremely large contingent of American Red Cross employees from around the nation. We even had state representatives from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Finally, there was considerable FEMA representation from the various FEMA Regions and National Headquarters.

The new FEMA was very much on display at the conference and I was impressed with the quality of the FEMA employees that I met. Of course, I don't think the old FEMA was as bad as they were painted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I strongly believe that FEMA was unfairly maligned by individuals and organizations who were ignorant of emergency management and the expected role that FEMA would play in a disaster.

FEMA is a small organization designed to support and not supplant state and local governments in a disaster. In my emergency management career I have worked on eighteen hurricanes. In the memorable 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, when eight hurricane struck the state of Florida, I requested and received considerable resources from FEMA. The support that I received from FEMA during this period was excellent. I was pleased with the support that I received from FEMA because I was very specific in the type and quantity of my requests and I had reasonable expectations of when these requested items would arrive.

We need to stop beating up on FEMA. The snide comments and drumbeat of negative media stories is not only demoralizing to the FEMA workforce but it has driven many veteran professionals to retire or leave the agency. We need FEMA. We will need FEMA not just in the everyday disasters but especially when the next catastrophic event strikes our country. Whether it is a major hurricane, a large earthquake or a devastating terrorist strike, the state and local governments will be overwhelmed and will need effective assistance from the federal government.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Congressional scorecard on Iraq

As required by law, President Bush this week submitted a report to Congress that scored the progress of Iraqi political reconciliation. Whether it was the oil law or de-Baathification the Iraqi politicians received (depending on which headline you wanted to read) mixed or unsatisfactory reviews. There was plenty in the report for supporters and critics of the war to use.

I find it interesting that our Congress is scoring the Iraqi parliament when their own report card is so abysmal. Popular approval of the job performance of Congress is even lower than (gasp!) the President's. An institution has to be doing pretty bad to have an approval rating lower than this President.

I have heard many speeches from members of Congress about how the Iraqi parliament needs to get cracking, not take so many vacations and pass some of these important laws. Commentators pronounce on how the Iraqi democracy is "dysfunctional", the Iraqi government is "ineffective" or Prime Minister Maliki is "inept."

Let's look at our own dysfunctional, ineffective and inept political elite. Despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth the Congress has yet to pass a law on Iraq. What about the millions of illegal immigrants in this country and the thousands that continue to pour across our borders? What has Congress done about that? What did the last Congress do about it?

What about the tens of millions of Americans who have no health insurance? And the skyrocketing increases in Medicare (13% last year)? Despite universal agreement that these issues are a problem, and despite the fact that no one is shooting at our elected leaders (yet), no laws are being passed to resolve these issues.

Considering their situation, the Iraqi parliament is doing have bad.

Monday, July 02, 2007

General Taguba, Seymour Hersh & Abu Ghraib

In January 2004 I visited Abu Ghraib prison. Even before the name became infamous in the world, the prison was notorious within Iraq. The prison is named for the town of Abu Ghraib and lies to the West of Baghdad, just off Highway 1.

Highway 1, commonly referred to in Iraq as MSR Tampa, begins in the south near Kuwait and travels north through the center of the country towards Baghdad. During my tour in the country the road was a modern, four lane divided highway similar to one of our Interstate highways. A portion of the road north of An Nasiriyah was unfinished. There the road was a dusty, gravel strewn scar through a desolate landscape that resembled the moon.

South of Baghdad MSR Tampa curves West and brushes the edge of the city on the way to Anbar province and the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The easiest (and safest) way to leave the Baghdad airport in January 2004 was to depart the back gate and jump on MSR Tampa. On that January day in 2004 that was my plan. However a Ukrainian officer who was with me asked that we stop by the prison on the way back and I agreed

The Ukrainian government wanted the officer to check on a Ukrainian citizen who was being held at the prison as a criminal. Evidently this Ukrainian was a sailor aboard a ship that called on the Iraqi port of Um Qasr. While ashore, he had been arrested for smuggling and shipped to Abu Ghraib.

The prison was one exit to the west of the airport and we arrived there in the middle of the afternoon. I explained to my Ukrainian friend that we had to be out of there in an hour in order to make it back to Al Hilla before dark. Traveling in Iraq was bad enough in the daylight without making things worse by traveling at night. The prison looked like a large, imposing stone fortress. U.S. Army Military Police were responsible for the security of the prison. I followed the Ukrainian officer inside because I was afraid his idea of "Be back in thirty minutes" might be different than mine.

Interestingly enough, Abu Ghraib is the only prison that I have entered in my life so I had liitle basis on which to compare. The cell block that I entered was dark, dingy and depressing. I waited in an administrative office with a number of MPs who appeared to be in a better mood than I would have been had I worked there.

Not all jobs in Iraq were the same. Some were more dangerous than others. Other jobs were just plain nasty. Being a prison guard in Abu Ghraib looked like a dangerous and nasty job. I spoke to an MP sergeant about his working conditions and he explained that life in Abu Ghraib was much better than it had been before, for the guards and the prisoners alike. When he first arrived at the prison most of the cells were filled with several feet of excrement. I have that comment as a fond memory of my visit.

I thought of this visit as I read the article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in which he interviewed General Taguba, the general officer responsible for the investigation of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs. As a twenty plus year subscriber to the New Yorker I have read many articles by Seymour Hersh. I read his article where he accused General Barry McCaffrey of war crimes in the first Gulf war. I also read his breathless account of the Pentagon's preparations for an air attack on Iran (Imagine!). I finally decided that Hersh was a slimy son-of-a-bitch and I wasn't going to read his articles any more. At the recommendation of an email from an Army buddy I changed my mind.

I am sure General Taguba is a fine man and is entitled to his opinion and to be heard. Some of what the general said I agreed with. On the other hand, how much of what he said did Seymour leave out? If you read the article carefully you will find that Hersh composed a shrewdly crafted smear job. He does not provide conclusive proof about any of his allegations. But he makes a lot of nasty insinuations and allegations. He harped a lot on what Don Rumsfeld did or did not know. The former Secretary of Defense made a lot of decisions that can be criticized. A lot of these criticisms are sound and important. Whatever criticisms Hersh made in this article do not fall into that category.

As I said, I have a lot of respect for General Taguba and he deserved to be heard. I find it unfortunate that he used Seymour Hersh as a vehicle for his opinions.

I read the article. I'll not read another by Seymour. He and Michael Moore have the worst kind of similarities.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Battle of Baqubah

The cable networks and the newspapers are missing this story so I want to add to the statements made by persons like Michael Yon and Bill Roggio that something BIG is happening now in Iraq.

Yesterday the largest, coordinated offensive of Coalition troops since 2003 began in Iraq. In cooperation with the Iraqi army and police, this offensive is designed to surround and destroy concentrations of Al Qaeda forces in Baghdad, northern Babil, Diyala and eastern Anbar provinces. This attack is a direct and immediate effect of placing General Petraeus in command of our forces in Iraq.

Baqubah is the capital of Diyala province and the self-declared capital of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The enemy has know that this attack was coming and they have prepared some nasty defenses against our forces. Many of our soldiers are at this moment in harm's way fighting against an extremely capable and ruthless enemy. I have no doubt in my mind as to who will win this battle. I have never been so proud of our armed forces.

June 2007 and the Battle of Baquba will be a battle for the history books.

My thoughts and prayers right now are with out brave soldiers on the ground.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Explaining Iraq

I have made numerous presentations on Iraq since my return. I have a Power Point presentation filled with photographs and I use these photographs to educate the audience on Iraq, Iraqis and what it was like for me to spend a year in a combat zone. In the three years since my return the tone and topics of my presentations have evolved.

Now, when I give my presentations, as I did two weeks ago to a local Lion's Club, the audiences want to know what I think about the war. I know that I am going to get this question, and I have given a lot of thought to my answers. As a veteran of this war I know that my opinion carries extra weight. The number of people who know anything about Iraq, much less have actually visited the country, are extremely small as a percentage of the population. I can tell the audiences are looking to me for some special insight on this very difficult and complex problem.

A lot of how I feel about the war is conveyed in the tone of my presentation. I spend some time talking about the Iraqis, and how impressed I became with their sense of family, faith and work ethic. Most importantly, I talk about the many Iraqis who personally thanked me for coming to Iraq to relieve them of the burden of Saddam Hussein. I honestly bring up the fact that I have made a very large personal investment in this war and thus have a biased opinion about whether we should cut our losses or continue with this project until the end.

To most Americans the Iraq war is a daily, depressing irritant, a constant litany of violence and casualties endured for purposes they don't comprehend on a time line that stretches into the indefinite future. This steady stream of negative news comes with very little historical, political or geographical context. Television news, particularly, is so depressing that I quit watching it.

The news events that are relayed to us are structured in many ways by our enemy. Whether you want to call this enemy Al Qaeda or Islamo-fascists or some other term, they are very skilled in information warfare.

During the 1984 campaign for the presidency, Ronald Reagan ran against Walter Mondale. Michael Deaver, an aide to Reagan, constructed Reagan's campaign appearances so that there were a lot of good television visuals: balloons rising into the air, flags streaming, dancers, etc. Lesley Stahl, the CBS White House correspondent, prepared a hard-hitting and extremely critical piece on Reagan for the evening news. After the piece aired she called a source in the White House, expecting a lambasting. Instead, he thanked her profusely. Shocked, Lesley asked for an explanation. The response: the visuals in the piece were fabulous. The moral: the viewers don't listen to what you say, they take their cue from the visuals.

There are no "good" television visuals on Iraq. The commentary or the text of the story may be good but the visual is: car bomb. Last fall, for example, Anbar province was in the news. Ramadi and Fallujah were inundated in violence. The media leaked a Marine intelligence report that said that the counterinsurgency campaign in Anbar province had no chance of success. The situation in Anbar has changed dramatically since last Fall. The Sunni tribes in the province are now allied with the Iraqi government and the Coalition against Al Qaeda and the influence of foreign terrorists. The text of this remarkable turnaround may have been communicated to the American people, but the visual for the day was: car bomb.

Senator Joe Lieberman, in an editorial on Friday's Wall Street Journal, wrote that during his recent visit to Iraq he was told that 90% of the suicide bombings in that country were generated by Al Qaeda backed groups. The fact that most of the car bombs are now detonating in Diyala province rather than Baghdad is lost on most Americans since it is all "Iraq" to them. All the visuals are still car bombs.

The "center of gravity" is the military term for the source of a nation's or a combatants power. The center of gravity for the United States in the Iraqi war lies in the support of the American public for this conflict. While the immediate target of the car bombs in Iraq are checkpoints, bridges, and police stations, the real target is the cable news cycle and the opportunity to reinforce to American viewers that the war is senseless, endless and un-winnable.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Julian Woodall

Lance Corporal Julian Woodall, USMC, was killed in action in Al Anbar province, Iraq on May 22, 2007. What made Julian different from all the other soldiers and Marines killed in Iraq this month was that I knew his father. Jerry Woodall worked for the Public Service Commission and he and I weathered many storms together at the State emergency operations center during the tumultuous 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The death of his son made Jerry as much a veteran of the war as I was.

When I returned from Iraq I experienced the age-old problem of the veteran: trying to explain the war to the civilians who remained behind. The percentage of the American popualtion who are familiar with the military is very low. Most of any knowledge that they have comes from movies or television, a dubious source at best. Much of the experience of being in a war comes from the culture of the particular sevice with which one serves. There is a rich history, language and social standards that come with each service. This culture is the foundation upon which each individuals war experience is laid. Explaining the war experience to the uninitiated is like translating from one language to another with only a tourist guidebook. A lot gets lost in the translation.

Jerry, his wife Meredith and Julian's widow Melissa entered a foreign, untranslatable world the night of May 22 when three Marines arrived at their door with terrible news. Just as I am unable to truly explain what happened to me in Iraq Jerry will never be able to relate the feelings and emotions that come with losing a child in a war. In this sense Jerry has become a veteran of the war. He has joined, unwillingly, a growing population of parents who were thrust into the same situation. They are all, we are all, veterans of this war and all wars.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The strain on the Army

Last week I got my retired Army pin in the mail. I retired from the Army Reserve in July 2005 but the recent arrival of my retirement pin is not an example of typical, Army, bureaucratic slowness. The idea of sending every retiree a pin was a decision the Army made this year. The pin is modeled on the new Army logo, a yellow-bordered white star on a field of black with "U.S. Army" below and "Retired" above. I also received a retired Army sticker for the window of my car.

I put the sticker on my car and the pin on the lanyard for the identification badges that I wear around my neck every day at work. My Army, your Army, our Army is under a lot of strain right now. Soldiers are not only serving their second, third or even fourth tour in a combat zone, but these tours have been extended to fifteen months. I know from personal experience that twelve months on the ground in Iraq and Kuwait is tough. The living conditions range from primitive to spartan. Working outside in full combat gear in the Iraqi summer desert heat reveals new levels of misery. The ache of separation from home and family gradually numbs but never really goes away. And everywhere and always the war is a steady background noise of explosions, gunfire and death.

Living in a civilian town my biggest link to the Army is the weekly "Army Times." Every week the Times has a page that lists the names and shows the photos of the servicemen and women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. This week there were a lot of photos. The faces, as always, are predominantly young.

My overwhelming reaction to this news, as I see it, hear it or read it, is guilt. The few, a pitiful few, are carrying the burden for the many. My guilt traces directly to the illogical, but real, feeling that whatever I have done to support the burden of this war, it wasn't enough. I could volunteer to return to active duty in the Army for an assignment that "meets the needs of the service" and the Army, in its current desperate straits, would probably take me. But I can't, or I won't. In actuality, I can but I don't. I have already forced my family to endure one tour in a combat zone. How could I possibly ask them to possibly endure another? I can't. Or I won't.

This burdens of this war, which I deeply believe that we can and must win, must be borne by those younger and stronger than I. I have come to accept that verdict. But I still feel guilty about it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Sunni's start to wise up

A number of things about Iraq have continued to mystify and perplex me. The first and obvious point is why Don Rumsfeld thought that he didn't need an occupation plan. The second point is why the Sunnis in Iraq continued to Iraq against their own self interest. As the media continues to cover Iraq like so many car crashes on the 6 o'clock news, more reliable sources of information indicate that the Sunnis in Iraq are finally starting to wise up.

The main gripe of the Sunnis has always been that they, even though a minority, have always been in charge and should always be in charge. The Sunni dominated Ottoman empire placed Sunnis in the bureaucracy of the three provinces that make up what is now modern day Iraq: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. When the Ottoman empire was carved up by Winston Churchill and others, the British decided that the long suffering majority Shia were troublesome and inexperienced at self government. To maintain stability, the British decided to install the very same Ottoman bureaucrats, backed up by British military might.

The 1920 Shia revolt in the lower and middle Euphrates basin against this injustice was suppressed by the British, who took advantage of their superiority in air power. History was repeated in 1991 when the same Shia in the same region were suppressed by Saddam, primarily using his superiority in air power.

The overthrow of Saddam and the installation of a Shia dominated representative government sent shock waves that reverberated inside Iraq and among the other countries in the region. The neighboring Sunni dominated states of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Turkey were shocked by the sudden ascension of the Shia to power in such a large and resource rich country like Iraq. Iraq is the only Arab country with oil and water resources. Properly guided, Iraq could easily feed the Middle East and become a large exporter of agricultural foodstuffs.

Until very recently, no oil was known to be in the Sunni dominated areas of Iraq. With known oil reserves firmly in control of the Shia and Kurds, the only hope for accessing this wealth was through a Sunni participation in a unified and representative Iraq. Since 2003 the Iraqi Sunni dominated insurgency has been operating contrary to this obvious self interest. This was clear to me even when I was in Iraq back in 2003-04.

Fouad Ajami, a Professor at Johns Hopkins, author, and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, recently provided some interesting insight into the Sunni thinking the last few years.
He quoted one Iraqi Sunni who had complained that they Sunnis had been waiting all these years for their Sunni brethren in the neighboring countries to come and save them from the Shia infidels. As if Syria and Saudi Arabia were going to invade Iraq, oust the American occupiers and reinstall the Baath party.

They were seriously deluded, but finally (Thank God! or Praise Allah, if you insist) they have started to come to grips with reality. See for the details, but the Sunni tribes in Anbar province (home of such scenic cities as Fallujah and Ramadi) have begun to band together to fight Al Qaeda. The tribes have banded together into paramilitary formations (recognized and condoned by the Baghdad government) that are engaging in pitched battles with Al Qaeda terrorist cells.

Most if not all of the Al Qaeda fighters are foreigners who have come to Iraq from all over the Arab world to kill Americans. Wherever Al Qaeda elements have taken control of cities in Anbar province they immediately established a form of Taliban fascist dictatorship. Last year, when the Sunni tribes rebelled against this form of rule internecine fighting broke out between Al Qaeda and the Sunni tribes. Initially, Al Qaeda had the upper hand, with tactics such as terrorists attacks on Sunni tribal leaders that didn't tow the line.

Finally, last Fall, the tribal leaders banded together into a military and POLITICAL organization to resist Al Qaeda and seek help from the Baghdad government and the U.S. military. The tribes were able to supply a lot of actionable intelligence to the U.S. military and this has resulted in numerous raids, disruptions of Al Qaeda terror networks of the capture or death of a number of senior Al Qaeda Iraq leaders. Recently, tribes in other Sunni dominated provinces, like Diyala, have witnessed the success of the tribes in Anbar and have created similar organizations.

Now, everything is not hugs and kisses between the Sunnis and the U.S. military. They won't ever forgive us for removing them from power and installing the Shia. At least now they are acting in their own self interest. They have recognized that Al Qaeda is the greater enemy to them. They have in essence switched sides. This is big.

Unfortunately, even if General Petraeus and the Baghdad government turn Iraq back into the Garden of Eden this summer, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi won't be happy with the results.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"The war is lost," says Harry Reid

The most polite thing that I can say about Harry is that he is grossly misinformed. Ignorance can be cured but stupidity cannot, so I will leave it to the reader to place General Reid in the proper category. I have promised myself that I wouldn't spend the rest of my life being angry at people yet Harry and Nancy continue to test me.

When I returned home from Iraq I found solace and comfort in the Memoirs of U.S. Grant. In my military career different Chiefs of Staff of the Army have published recommended reading lists for officers and I noted that Grant's memoirs were always prominently featured. The country is divided now over the war in Iraq but the divisions in the Civil War were much deeper. Not only had the southern states seceded from the Union but many people in the north, horrified at the slaughter on the battle fields, were deeply opposed to President Lincoln's war policies.

In 1863, as Grant struggled to take Vicksburg he had many northern newspapers brought to him so that he could gauge public opinion. These newspapers were full of advice and criticism about his generalship and conduct of the Vicksburg campaign. His resignation and/or relief were frequent topics of editorials. The tenor of these criticisms weighed on his military decisions as he maneuvered Sherman on a variety of different routes in an effort to get him into position to assail the city. Grant was well aware that the fate of his President and the war was hanging on the success of his Vicksburg campaign.

Field Marshall Reid has declared the so-called "surge" a failure, even though all the troops called for by this strategy are not yet in place. I have serious doubts about Harry's military judgment, whether the issue relates to tactical, operational or strategic military questions. General Petreus is coming to Washington this week to testify to the House on the progress of the war. General Petreus is a good man and well qualified to report on the status of the Iraq campaign. Like General Grant, Petreus is well aware that the fate of a President and the war are riding on his success. Whatever Harry thinks that he is doing, he is not making the good generals job any easier, or the jobs of the many American service men and women in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

New Orleans

Last week I went to New Orleans for the National Hurricane Conference. I had not visited the city since the National Hurricane Conference was held there in April 2005, four months before the city was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The view of the city from Interstate 10 on the drive in was discouraging. Reading about the city's recovery problems is very different than seeing acre upon acre of abandoned housing stock interspersed with white FEMA travel trailers. Not only was new housing not being constructed, but the old, destroyed housing was not even being torn down. Something was definitely wrong. Nothing was happening.

The downtown, Bourbon Street area looked almost the same. There were a few buildings standing forlorn with broken windows. Yet Bourbon Street still had that interesting, raw, huckster quality that some find offensive and others find delightful. The music is great if you know where to find it and the food is fabulous.

New Orleans is a national treasure and I would hate to see the city submerged by the Mississippi river or Gulf of Mexico. Although that calamity may befall the city again, the city and state governments are still arguing about how they will evacuate the hapless citizens. I listened to the responsible officials outline the problems with getting everyone out of the city in time and I was very discouraged. They seemed to think that the task was impossible unless the federal government paid for it or supervised it or, hopefully, did both. They seem to be waiting anxiously for this to happen.

Housing is scarce in New Orleans and what little there is carries a premium price. No one is building, much less tearing down, new housing because insurance is scarce and carries a premium price. No banker will lend money to rebuild a business or a home without insurance.

The state of Louisiana officials at the conference seemed to think that even though their state regulates their insurance industry the insurance problem was a national one. They said that this national problem should be solved by the federal government, presumably by using federal dollars or passing a law whereby every policy holder in the nation will promise to help rebuild New Orleans the next time a hurricane floods the city. They seem to be waiting anxiously for this to happen, too.

Louisiana, and New Orleans, suffered a terrible disaster and are faced with a number of intractable issues in trying to rebuild their city and state. While many people write and talk about the parallels between Iraq and Viet Nam, I am constantly drawn to the equally powerful parallels between Baghdad and New Orleans.

The people of New Orleans have been traumatized and no longer trust their city, state or federal governments. The Congress has approved billions in reconstruction aid for them yet little construction is happening. The finger of blame is pointed everywhere, at each other, at Washington, but never at themselves.

The same could be said for the people of Baghdad, only their situation is much, much worse. They are stil in the midst of a war.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Speaking out on the war

March 19 was the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq and I was able to use this occasion to speak out on the war in the local paper and and on our local ABC affiliate. Needless to say, I was not in favor of any retreat.

A local group called " Tallahasseans Who Believe It's Time To Come Home" organized a protest against the war on March 19. They inscribed 3,475 paper bags with the first name and age of a coalition person killed in the war in Iraq. Inside each bag they placed a candle and then placed these luminaries around a lake in a local park. As the sun set the lights made an impressive display.

All of the usual suspects were there wearing Peace Symbol T shirts and "It's Time to Come Home" bumper stickers on their backs and chests. Someone brought a truck with a large peace symbol made of lights erected in the cargo space. They even constructed a peace symbol on the ground using some of the luminous bags.

All of the usual media suspects were also there, both print and television. I walked by a man with a television camera interviewing a woman and I heard him ask her, "Do you have any personal connection with anyone in the Iraq war?"

"No, I don't," she replied, and her answer affected me greatly.

I had a lot of personal connections to the war and I thought that if they were going to interview her then they ought to interview me. I sought out the man with the camera and asked him, "Have you heard any opposing viewpoints since you arrived here?"

The man shook his head. "All of the people that I have talked to here are in favor of a withdrawal."

"Well I'm opposed to an immediate withdrawal and I'm an Iraqi war veteran."

When he heard this his eyes light up and he turned on his camera, "Would you be willing to do an interview?"

"I most certainly would."

Although I disagreed with almost all of the people around me I didn't disparage them. They were exercising their constitutional right of free speech and I told the reporter that I had gone to Iraq partly to defend their right to do what they were doing that night. The big point that I made was that few people were thinking about the poor Iraqis. In many ways we were responsible for the current situation in Iraq.

I understood the feelings of the people there by the lake. War is bad, peace is good. I agree with them on that. I saw the face of evil when I was in Iraq. I felt the breath of their hate. I feel responsible for the fate of the Iraqis. I am not so ready to abandon them. As I told the television reporter, there by the lake and the luminous bags of loss, withdrawing our forces from Iraq now would be immoral.

Plus, in my naivete, I told a lot of Iraqis that we wouldn't abandon them. Let no one take the moral high ground on me. It's not just Peace-Yes, War-No. I feel a moral obligation to defend those poor souls that I left behind. And I will continue to do so.

I returned home, wondering if the words and thoughts that I had long held and rarely expressed in public would even make the late night news. To my surprise, my comments led the eleven o'clock newscast that night. On one television station, in one small town in Florida, I was able to modify the message that the media conveyed to the public on the fourth anniversary of the war.

That made me feel good. I plan on doing it again.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

My interview with General Mattis

In May 2003 General James Mattis was the commander of the famous First Marine Division in Iraq. As a one star general Gen Mattis had already made a name for himself in the Afghanistan war. Those exploits had led him to command of the First Division, and he had led the Division, often literally, from Kuwait to Baghdad at the beginning of the war.

Gen Mattis had a deserved reputation as a tough, hard nosed Marine. A bachelor, many said that he was married to the Corps. All of us over there held this man in awe and none of us wanted to do anything to get on his bad side. Without intending to, I managed to get him riled up.

With Baghdad taken, Mattis' Division was redeployed to the area south of Baghdad. A Marine infantry battalion was placed in seven of the nine provinces (the British were in the other two). In the unique way the Marines have of conducting military operations, the lieutenant colonels who commanded these battalions were made essentially military governors with very wide latitude in how they managed they civilian populace in their provinces.

The Division gave relatively little guidance to the battalions on dealing with the millions of Iraqi civilians in their area. The one issue made clear to everyone was that General Mattis was very interested in getting the schools repaired and ready to open in the fall. The First Marine Expeditionary Force, or MEF, was the Division's next higher headquarters yet they didn't have a lot of guidance on dealing with the civilian populace either.

This was a frustrating state of affairs for me and the other members of my Army Reserve unit because we had been sent to Iraq and assigned to the MEF to assist them in dealing with civilian issues. We thought that as long as we made the trip we might as well do something.

This was not a universal opinion. Others in our unit thought that if we made ourselves useful and actually did a good job then we might be left behind when the Marines were withdrawn and sent home. We and the Marines expected this withdrawal to happen any moment.

"After all," a Marine staff officer told us, "we don't do occupations. The Army does."

Any efforts that we wanted to take in getting information about the civil populace was foiled by the First Marine Division policies restricting anyone operating in their area. General Mattis didn't want anyone from higher headquarters traveling to see any unit in his Division without his permission. In fact, he didn't really want any of us talking to anyone in his Division. The Division was sending reports to the MEF and, by God, that was all we really needed to know about what was going on.

I wasn't happy with this state of affairs. I was stuck at Camp Babylon with the MEF headquarters, unable to travel to any of the seven provinces in our area and unable to even talk to anyone in those provinces to get a sense of what was happening. Each of the Marine battalions had about a dozen Army civil affairs soldiers assigned to assist them. I had organized the training of these soldiers when they first arrived in Kuwait and now that they were deployed out to the provinces I wanted to get out there and see how they were doing. I had a great suspicion, later confirmed, that the written reports we were receiving were not complete.

After many long arguments I was able to convince our Operations officer, Dale Foster, to submit a request to the MEF staff for permission for me to take a team to the Marine battalion headquarters in each of the provinces. Colonel Foster was doubtful that the request would be approved.

It was.

In the middle of May 2003 I assembled four Hummers and 10 soldiers and proceeded on what I was to later call a Grand Tour of south central Iraq. The morning of my departure I placed a copy of the MEF orders authorizing my trip, signed by the MEF Commander, General Conway, in my pocket. Since General Conway had three stars and General Mattis had only two, I hoped that these orders would be sufficient. Still, I half expected some Marine guard to challenge me as I departed the compound, demanding to see my papers. Little did I know.

My first two destinations were Al Kut and An Nasiriyah, in the area of Task Force Tarawa. While I was in An Nasiriyah, attending a luncheon in a tent with a bunch of local sheiks, I received word that I was to call Colonel Foster immediately on the satellite phone. The next day I was due to travel to As Samawah, in the First Division sector.

When I finally got Colonel Foster on the phone his message was curt and stunning, "General Mattis has ordered that you are not to proceed to any battalion locations in his divisional area until you have reported to his division headquarters in Ad Diwaniyah and explained the purpose of your trip."

I digested this message in silence. "Did anybody tell him that I had General Conway's permission to do this?" I asked. General Conway, as the MEF commander, was General Mattis' boss.

"I don't think General Mattis cares," Foster replied. "He wants to talk to you right away."

Holy shit, I thought. If General Mattis wants to talk to me right away he can't be happy about something, and whatever he is unhappy about must concern me. I felt in my pocket for my permission slip from General Conway. In my military career I had rarely been summoned to a general's presence, and definitely had never been summoned when I was the principal object of the discussion

My convoy of 4 vehicles arrived in Ad Diwaniyah in the middle of the afternoon. The heat of the day was bad but we didn't yet realize how really bad it was going to get. The Marine Division headquarters was located in a miserable hellhole of a former Iraqi army base outside of town. I reported to the Chief of Staff.

The General had me cool my heels for an hour and then I was ordered to report to his office. I entered and gave him my best Army Colonel salute. He told me to have a seat. He made a phone call and a few minutes later his four principal division staff officers entered the room and stood behind him. I sat in a chair facing these five men, quietly anxious.

I had been in a wide and varied number of interviews in my life but this was without a doubt the most uncomfortable interview I had ever conducted. The general was a small man, with a sharp nose, and a calm, nonthreatening demeanor. He probably knew, as I did, that threats were unnecessary as I was already thoroughly intimidated. During the entire interview he never raised his force, but spoke calmly and directly.

I had spent the day going over answers to every conceivable question that I thought that he would ask. Nevertheless, his first question caught me by surprise.

"Colonel, why don't you tell me how what you are doing is benefiting me?"

I couldn't think of a good answer to his question because my trip was intended to gather information for me to do my job, and help my unit do their job to support General Conway. Helping General Mattis never entered any of the equations in my calculus, although I surely understand how that would be on the top of the General's list.

Since I didn't have a good answer for him I launched into a nervous narrative of how I had trained all the civil affairs soldiers in his sector, and how I needed feedback on how they were doing, and how Army civil affairs doctrine said this and that and blah, blah, blah, and he wasn't liking anything that I was saying.

He asked me the same question again. This time I remembered my permission slip from General Conway and I actually pointed to the pocket of my Desert Camouflage Uniform where those precious orders resided. I fell back on the true and unvarnished statement that I was operating under orders from General Conway.

The man had a face of stone and nothing that I was saying was changing one granite line on his craggy face. He did not appear impressed by General Conway's orders, or U.S. Army civil affairs doctrine or any of the other points that I had to say. Finally I figured out that I needed to shut up and listen.

"Sir," I finally said in frustration, holding up both my hands, "I'm ready to do whatever you want me to do."

Once I was thoroughly pinned to the wall, he commenced to give me the "Every Marine Commander Owns His Battlespace" lecture, which I had heard many times before. Then he gave me his "My Commanders Don't Have Time To Answer Silly Questions From Higher Headquarters" lecture, which I had also heard before.

He told me the story of a team from Baghdad that had shown up in his area without notifying either the Division or the local battalion commander. They had gotten in trouble with the Iraqis, and then had screamed for help. How could he go to some one's help if he didn't know that he was there? he asked me.

Obviously, it was a rhetorical question. Throughout this entire time I was the most earnest and studious of listeners. His staff never said a word. Finally, he let me go with a word of warning that I wasn't to do any of those things those other idiots had done to make him mad. I promised that I wouldn't.

I left the interview almost laughing with relief. War is certainly hell. Fortunately for me (and the General) I never had to speak to General Mattis again for the rest of the war.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The best news from Iraq in a year

I believe that we are witnessing another turning point in the war in Iraq. A brief review of significant events since 2003 will serve to prove my point.

The exact nature and timing of so-called "turning points" in the Iraq war are subject to the collective judgment of the historians. In my view, the first big turning point occurred while I was in Iraq in November 2003. Ambassador Bremer negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi Governing Council they laid out a series of steps that would lead to an elected, representative government.

As we read the agreement when it was released we all immediately realized the significance of the planned turnover of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government. There were many who believed that June 2004 was too early for the transfer because the Iraqis weren't ready. While there were some significant issues with Iraqi capabilities for self-government, the Coalition wasn't exactly doing a superlative job in managing the country. In hindsight, and based on my experience in dealing with many of the economic, military and political problems that existed at the time, I believe that the handover decision was correct and might even have been better if executed earlier.

From November 2003 until December 2005 the agreement unfolded generally as written although events were not reported this way in the media. News reports focused instead on car bombs, U.S. casualties and the U.S. political reaction to these events. The enemy actions during this period (as they continue to be now) were focused on degrading the American political will to fight. These enemy actions were not military successes but had the intended political effect.

The second significant turning point occurred in February 2006 with the bombing of the important Shia mosque in Samarra. For over 30 months the Baathist holdouts and the Sunni Al Qaeda cells in Iraq had struck hard at the majority Shia population in an effort to generate a Shia response and create sectarian fighting between the Sunni and the Shia. The February attack pushed the Shia over the edge and elicited the ruthless and bloody attacks on the Sunni that the attackers desired.

The rise in sectarian violence and the concurrent dramatic increase in Iraqi civilian casualties had the desired impact on the U. S. populace during the period leading to the important American Congressional elections. This wave of negative news overshadowed the assumption of power by an Iraqi government elected with a broad mandate and operating under a new constitution. New Prime Minister Maliki, appointed in April 2006, did not really have his government in place and operating until the summer. Consequently, the ability of this new government to influence events has only been felt in the last few months.

The impact of this new government on the Iraqi populace, police and armed forces cannot be underestimated. For too many years the Iraqi security forces have been asked to risk their lives for either the ever popular Coalition Provisional Authority or the Coalition selected Iraqi Interim government. The training and equipment provided by the U.S. government to the security forces, while necessary, are not as important as the will to fight and this new government has been instrumental in providing this will.

The mislabeled and misrepresented "surge" strategy recently adopted by the U.S. government has had an immediate positive impact on the ground in Iraq. This new strategy is not merely an increase in the total number of U.S. forces in the country but a change in the location and manner of their employment. Two of the brightest and most capable generals in the U.S. Army, Petraeus and Odierno, have been installed to execute this new strategy.

I believe that the confluence of these two factors, the new strategy and an elected Iraqi government, will change the outcome on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki, by withdrawing his protection of Sadr and the Mahdi Army, has caused a dramatic reduction in the level of sectarian violence. The introduction of U.S. and Iraqi forces into Iraqi neighborhoods in the capital has offered the long suffering inhabitants of that city a level of security that they have not seen in quite some time.

The big question in my mind right now is: how will the enemy adapt to these new circumstances?