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.