May 2, 2012
Only the flies stirred on Market Street. It was June 2006 and downtown Khalidiya was deserted. The summer heat had come in with the wind, as if the door of a giant oven had opened. Average high temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon, with occasional spikes to 120 degrees. The withering sun drove most people into the houses of wealthy friends with air conditioning—people in legion with insurgents.
Market Street was one of the most heavily mined alleys in Iraq. The going rate was $70 to plant a mine, double that if the bomb killed a jundi or American. Staff Sgt. Robert Blakley wasn’t worried about bombs as much as snipers. Five months earlier, just down the road, he’d felt a dull thud in the trapezius muscle above his collarbone.
Some kid hit me with a rock, thought “Doc” Blakley, the team medic. Odd. Kids like me.
An insurgent shooter nicknamed the Sadiqiya Sniper had tried to turtle him, aiming for the gap between his helmet and body armor. The bullet burned clean through his trapezius. Blakley had refused evacuation. Jundis crowded around to watch him stick a Bacitracin-laden Q-tip through the wound when he was dressing it. They clucked their tongues when he pretended to faint.
May 1, 2012
Can the United States Build a Foreign Army?
After a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military advisers are now the centerpiece of American military strategy. They may have the hardest job of all.
This article is the first of three excerpts drawn from Owen West’s book, The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq.
Hunched over the steering wheel of his Humvee, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Chris Watson, 26, cursed. His was the last of four vehicles in a tiny convoy headed into Khalidiya. Watson turned on the wipers to brush away the dust stirred by the heaving troop carrier barely visible 10 meters ahead.
Through his scratched bulletproof windshield, Watson could see a dozen Iraqi enlisted soldiers, jundis, packed tightly against the troop carrier’s sandbagged walls, their AK-47s swaying like cattails as the big vehicle heaved. Two jundis were perched dangerously on the tailgate. The Iraqi privates were either too junior to claim shelter against the leaking sandbags or too fatalistic to care if they lived.
April 5, 2012
Can General John Allen save Afghanistan? Wrong question
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
In late August 2011, General John R. Allen visited a base built atop the ruins of a 19th-century British fort here. Allen, an avid historian, grasped the irony of the setting. Over the previous 150 years, two British armies and one Russian army had left Afghanistan in frustration. Now Allen was in command of the fourth army to leave. He is the last NATO field commander, charged with extracting 140,000 international troops from combat while fighting a war with an uncertain outcome against an enemy with a certain sanctuary in next-door Pakistan.
By this year’s end, Allen must reduce his U.S. force by a third without conceding populated areas. He must place Afghan battalions with uneven leadership into the breach. And he must shore up a defense-in-depth to ward off attacks launched from inside Pakistan. The decisions of John Allen, age 58, a courteous gentleman from Virginia who is virtually unknown to the American public, will greatly affect whether Afghanistan holds together or descends into chaos.
On our flight to Helmand, he explains to me what he calls the “force vectors” determining success or failure. One vector is time. President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from combat by 2014. By this year’s end, U.S. troop strength will drop from roughly 100,000 to 70,000.
The Wall Street Journal
January 13, 2012
Last month I was running the Central Park loop when a runner wearing a U.S. Marine Corps shirt approached. I alerted the two boys in the jog stroller and my eldest, who met this world with a father in Iraq, shouted, “Semper fi!”
The man saw the emblem on my visor and said, “You hear about Doug Zembiec?” If most Americans have six degrees of separation, Marines have no more than two. I nodded and stopped my watch. But all he managed to say was, “That one hurt.” Then he plunged down the hill toward 72nd Street, cutting his own path against the flow.
I tried to make sense of it. Not the encounter but the sheer madness of the surroundings. Runners were chattering about school applications and subprime predictions. Yet most of them told pollsters that Iraq was the single largest anxiety in their lives. Like the majority of the nation, they were exhausted by a war in which they had no role. And they wanted out.
It was 65 degrees in August in Manhattan, about 65 degrees cooler than the temperature in Doug Zembiec’s helmet as he approached a Baghdad target house in 90 pounds of equipment. He and his team wanted to be remembered for how they lived and how they helped others live. Inside was a group that cared only how it died.
September 1, 2011
FOREIGN AFFAIRS September/October 2011
Bing West is the author, most recently, of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan . He is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and a former combat infantryman in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the decade after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. movie studios released more than 200 war movies. During World War II, 65 percent of Americans saw at least one movie a week. Theaters showed newsreels with patriotic music prior to the feature film, delivering both information and entertainment to the American public to boost the collective commitment to winning the war.
In the 1960s, weekly movie attendance fell to less than ten percent of the population; television became Americans’ principal entertainment medium, as well as their window onto the war in Vietnam. And as the war escalated, so did the negative tone of the nightly broadcasts: this was the era of network television news that stressed, “If it bleeds, it leads,” an attitude that, in contrast to the movies of the 1940s, helped erode public morale.
February 9, 2009
The New York Times
GENERALS are scolded for preparing to fight “the last war,” but if President Obama intends to keep his promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, he would do well to study President Bill Clinton’s attempt of 16 years ago.
The Clinton argument, based largely on protecting the civil rights of gay troops, was systematically dissected by senior officers and legislators, who focused on how the presence of homosexuals could affect combat readiness. Generals circulated videos made by conservative groups depicting “gay agendas.” Senators brought television crews into cramped berthings. Congress reached a bizarre compromise: a law rendering homosexuality incompatible with military service, but allowing gays to serve under a closet-friendly “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The lesson for President Obama is that this fight is not about rights, but about combat readiness. This is a propitious moment for seeking change: a nation at war needs all its most talented troops. Last year the principal architects of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” former Gen. Colin Powell and former Senator Sam Nunn, said it was time to “review” the policy.
That’s a polite way of saying they’ve changed their minds. So have many of us who wore the uniform in 1993 and supported a policy that forced some of our fellow troops to live a lie and rejected thousands who told the truth.
The New York Post
February 29, 2008
AS a Marine, I was taught never to leave a comrade-in-arms behind on the battlefield. But that’s exactly what the State Department is doing to men and women who’ve sacrificed everything to help our troops – our Iraqi interpreters.When I last left Iraq 12 months ago, I promised to save two “terps” marked for assassination. Last month, I received a desperate e-mail from one of them: “Sir my situatione is so bad naw please save my life. Please help me sir.”
A year after making my promise, I’m deeply ashamed that I haven’t completed the mission. And I’m not alone: To help “their” terps, Marines and soldiers across the country are battling a bureaucracy that is at times more maddening than the Iraqi insurgency.
Shunning those who risk death to help us deliver freedom is un-American.
On my second tour in Iraq in 2006-7, I was posted to an obscure town outside Ramadi to advise an Iraqi battalion. They were hardy soldiers with a hard mission – roadside bombs were commonplace in the area. My team couldn’t have functioned without our two interpreters, who I’ll call Alex and Reyes.
Soon after a childhood friend accused Alex of collaboration for serving as an interpreter, his brother was tortured to death in a dump. His father disowned him.
The New York Times
June 15, 2007
WHILE waiting to see if the Iraq surge strategy pays off, President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have shown Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the door and brought in Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as the new White House “war czar.” Well, they can shift senior leadership all they want, but unless they give our troops patrolling the streets the tools they need, our leaders are going to see this strategy fizzle.
Part of the problem was that when the military surge was announced, it became commonplace for officials to assert that political compromise, not military force, would determine the outcome of the war. This vacuous idea would startle George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, to mention only a few unlikely bedfellows who forged success during an insurgency.
Buying time with American lives is not a military mission. No platoon commander tells his soldiers to go out and tread water so the politicians can talk. The goal of American soldiers is to identify and kill or capture the Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents.
What is keeping them from doing so? The war in Iraq would be over in a week if the insurgents wore uniforms. Instead, they hide in plain sight, and Iraqi and American soldiers have no means of checking the true identity and history of anyone they stop.
May 1, 2007
The New York Times
WHEN the civilian hierarchy fails them, soldiers tend to seek solace in Clausewitz’s observation that war is an extension of politics. But in 2005 and 2006 the reverse was true in Iraq: the battle churned in place, steadily eroding the administration’s credibility and America’s psyche, while most politicians stood on the sidelines, content to hurl insults at one another until the battlefield offered a clear political course.
What was most remarkable, however, was the military’s inability to grab the reins and articulate a realistic war plan for Iraq. At home, recruiting, supply and deployment crises were solved; but in Iraq the generals continued to offer assessments of the fight that were as obviously inaccurate as those trumpeted by the politicians. The goal was to put Iraqi forces in the lead, but as a consequence, large-scale battlefield adaptation was scarce.
Today the civil-military relationship has righted itself, yet soldiers like me who believe that Iraq can be stabilized face a bitter irony. On one hand, the military is finally making meaningful adjustments to the complex fight. On the other, the politicians are finally asserting themselves. The tragedy is that the two groups are going in opposite directions.
Most Americans who have served side by side with Iraqi units, especially those of us who have been advisers to Iraqi companies and battalions, believe that significant numbers of our soldiers will be needed in Iraq for another decade. This timeline is about average for a classic insurgency, and optimistic for one so muddied by tribal feuds and religious hatred.
May 29, 2006
NEITHER party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.”
So said Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, describing a war that put 11 percent of our citizens in uniform and had by that point killed nearly one of out every seven soldiers. That his words are relevant again now is a troubling indicator of our national endurance.
We are at the outset of a long war, and not just in Iraq. Yet it is being led politically by the short-sighted, from both sides of the aisle. The deterioration of American support for the mission in Iraq is indicative not so much of our military conduct there, where real gains are coming slowly but steadily, but of chaotic leadership.
Somehow Operation Iraqi Freedom, not a large war by America’s historical standards, has blossomed into a crisis of expectations that threatens our ability to react to future threats with a fist instead of five fingers. Instead of rallying we are squabbling, even as the slow fuse burns.
One party is overly sanguine, unwilling to acknowledge its errors. The other is overly maudlin, unable to forgive the same. The Bush administration seeks to insulate the public from the reality of war, placing its burden on the few. The press has tried to fill that gap by exposing the raw brutality of the insurgency; but it has often done so without context, leaving a clear implication that we can never win.