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September 29, 2009
The war the times forgotBy Greyhawk
Whether you support or oppose the effort, whether you believe we've won or lost, one thing is certain about Iraq: it's a country with 130,000 U.S. troops who aren't in Afghanistan, and plans are for it to stay that way. "Why is that so," you may wonder, "with Afghanistan falling apart and only half that many troops there?"
A short answer yesterday: You'd think the battlefield with the greatest number of U.S. troops would get the most attention, but the one with the greatest need for troops has made everyone forget Iraq altogether. But not "everyone" has forgotten Iraq. Those who decide where troops go know exactly where they are.
And those of us who've been there find it harder to forget.
John Burns, on Iraq: "As for where the balance lies in all this -- whether it has in any sense been worth it -- that's an issue for history..." And that is certainly true. Somewhere in that history should be an acknowledgment of Burns' contribution to its documentation.
There are lessons to be learned from his experience. In the earliest days of the war he was involved in developing and propagating one of it's most enduring myths - the museum looting story. Even though his original story warned that "what officials told journalists today may have to be adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light" that didn't stop his paper from running an op/ed declaration within days: "The American and British forces are clearly to blame for the destruction and displacement of its cultural treasures." The fuller picture did "come to light" (mostly due to the efforts of one Army Colonel), but was deemed less newsworthy than the stunning original story, and for most Americans few adjustments have been made to the preliminary reports to this day.
But by late 2003:
The Times reporter, John Burns, says that he changed the more conservative figure after talking that evening to reporters in the hotel who had spent the day witnessing terrible scenes of chaos. "We were disposed to believe the worst," he recalls. "We were tremendously distraught, and passion got the better of us." Other reporters on the scene have sympathy with his decision. "A lot of us got swept up," says Glauber. "There was an emotional punch to it all because the looting [in Baghdad] was indiscriminate and indescribable." To Burns's credit, both versions of the story warned lower down that "a full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months."
In February 2007, Burns' earliest days of the surge commentary on Iraq was extraordinary for the times:
And his commentary today is (as ever) worthwhile.
As for where the balance lies in all this -- whether it has in any sense been worth it -- that's an issue for history, and for the peoples most deeply impacted by the war: Iraqis, first of all, and Americans, who will no doubt come to a more settled view over the longer term, once we have a clearer sense of Iraq's future trajectory. That, of course, remains profoundly uncertain. What does seem fair to say is that America, by deposing Saddam and opening the way for Iraq's fractious ethnic, sectarian and political groups to settle their differences not by the gun and the garrote but through the give-and-take of parliamentary democracy, has opened the door to a better future than was in prospect before 2003. Whether Iraqis will walk through that door is now a matter for them; American influence, though far from spent as long as 130,000 United States troops remain the guarantor of last resort against any near-term return to dictatorship, is waning by the day, and the government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has shown, in numerous ways in recent weeks, that it feels ever more at liberty to ignore American advice and urgings on hot-button political and security issues.
That's an excerpt, much more to consider in the full piece.
But a few points worth noting - "In any case, America's choice has effectively already been made -- to withdraw from Iraq on the Obama schedule, by the end of 2011, and refocus the American effort in Afghanistan." It may be the Obama schedule in the sense that he "owns" it now, but like the entirety of the Iraq war it is a legacy from his predecessor. From all indications, Obama is determined to stay the course.
So "130,000 United States troops remain the guarantor of last resort". This is not a figure established by the SOFA, which required only that combat troops leave the cities by June 30 and all troops depart the country by the end of 2011 - and leaves those sorts of specifics to be determined. As for what makes a "combat troop" a combat troop - well, that's got less to do with whether or not they engage in combat than most might think.
But given that gains are indeed fragile and reversible, it seems certain that should the U.S. reduce troop levels in Iraq prior to the January elections, then that action could be seen as questionable in light of any violence occurring with those elections. Conversely, it's unlikely that any lack of violence should be credited to the continued presence of 130,000 U.S. troops - But to whatever degree it might be, "credit" will not be the term used.
The reality will likely fall in the middle, and be reported as some violence in spite of US troops. But what if violence were extreme - that in spite of the efforts of US troops (who, it might be imagined, would be performing some sort of election-day "quick reaction" role in conjunction with Iraqi forces rather than a visible presence of Stryker vehicles ringing polling centers) violence reaches a point where the elections are discredited - or worst case voting in meaningful numbers becomes impossible? That seems unlikely, but what, exactly, would the US response be to "backsliding in the security gains that began with the 2007 troop "surge""? The argument that "we're here to prevent violence" becomes absurd if followed by "and if violence occurs we'll leave."
The reality is and always has been that resolution of the Iraq war - other than the initial invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein - has always been a combination of military and political. Counterinsurgency doctrine calls that an 80/20 ratio - with military on the low side - but that doesn't mean there aren't days when the military must contribute 100%. The 80/20 rule is a point Harry Reid famously misused to undermine support for the surge in its earliest days - but regardless of the ratio (which in those days was probably 90/10 with the military on the big side - if not 100%) by the Fall of 2007 the trajectory of the military part was clear. By the summer of 2008 that should have been obvious to anyone - but no one was paying attention.
Likewise no one is paying attention to Iraq now - as Afghanistan dominates the headlines. But with each Brigade Combat Team (actually, they're called "Advise and Assist Brigades" now) that deploys to Iraq this Fall and Winter a strong and clear message will also be sent about which battlefield matters most.
And that "central" doesn't mean "important" after all.
Postscript: Earlier this year you may have heard that President Obama had diverted brigades originally tapped for Iraq to deploy to Afghanistan instead. That's true, but what didn't make the news was that a few days later other brigades replaced them in the Iraq rotation. Amazing, the sorts of things that don't make the papers these days, isn't it?
Next: Back to Iraq
Posted by Greyhawk / September 29, 2009 5:32 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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