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August 23, 2010
When did the actual last combat brigade return from Iraq?By Greyhawk
(Introductory note: Marines and fans of Marines click here. End of story.)
Here's a very brief clip:
The Pentagon is letting NBC make the announcement for them... I'm not sure if that line of dialog adds or subtracts to the degree of realism they've been able to inject in this program. Keeping with the theme of the earlier episodes it looked like news programming, but it's less Edward R Murrow and more a direct descendant of the format used by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. But times have changed - perhaps in part due to the power of video, in our modern era as many as 25% of Americans believe this is actually real - I don't think that many were taken in by Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast. It probably helps that NBC wasn't the only media outlet participating, although how - even in the dull summer re-run season - the producers, whoever they are (not the Pentagon, who like TV "news" reporters, follow orders) managed to get so many different networks to coordinate and carry this is beyond me - I'm impressed.
Though certainly some logistic aspects were easier than others. For example, as with most months over the past seven years of the now twenty-year long war, there actually was an American brigade leaving Iraq last week (and our humble thanks to those men and women for a year sacrificed far from friends and family - and a job well done), so at least the networks didn't need to hire a cast of thousands or obtain military vehicles for this mini-epic. And though some might say participating in this drama somehow diminishes whatever that very real brigade actually did accomplish in Iraq over the past year, I disagree. (And besides, they're hardly the first unit in history to have to play along with a dog-and-pony show.)
More on that in a future post. For now, watching this show raised a question in my mind: when did the actual last combat brigade return from Iraq? There are probably several specific units that could claim the title. (Among the contenders is the very brigade featured in this work of fiction - who actually did a tour back during the combat phase of OIF, too; in fact, most of the
For our purposes we can use the Brookings Iraq Index American casualty (more specifically, death) figures as a good enough definition/indicator of American combat in Iraq. A grim tool for a grim purpose - but here's their basic chart.
You can click these images for a larger version in a popup window. It's tempting to simply draw a line through October, 2007, as a clear point with a distinct before and after (because it is - here's how I described it from Iraq in October, 2007) - but we can look a bit closer here.
Above, same chart - but I've added boxes that I believe separate the war in Iraq into distinct phases. We could make further divisions, but this one will do for our discussion.
From the left to right - the small area at the edge is the period from the ground invasion in March, 2003 to the "end of major combat operations" - as I believe President Bush called it - in May of that year. The next period takes us to about the one-year point from the invasion - call it the "low-level insurgency phase," or substitute "growing" for "low-level" if you prefer. The first "Ramadan spike" is evident, (there was one every year until 2007 - they aren't obvious on Western calendars) but there's a clear difference from that period to the next phase, the three years and five months from April, 2004 to September, 2007. This is undeniably the period of heavy American combat in Iraq. (Although that's Iraq-relative - some term other than "heavy" might be used by those who fought in Vietnam and earlier wars.)
The end of that phase is obvious - but as we move to the right of that previously-cited October, 2007 line the distinctions become increasingly less clear...
...although with an exception for the Basra and Sadr City operations in Spring, 2008 the trend was steadily downward. By October, 2008 another definite step is evident, beyond which broad characterization of Iraq as an American "combat zone" becomes more difficult to make. The largest spike in death toll for this later period (in May, 2009) was due to an increase in non-hostile fatalities (though that figure includes the murder of five soldiers by a fellow soldier that month).
But an earlier event in this period actually established the next step down. In November, 2008 the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States (under negotiation for much of the previous year) was concluded. Among other points on the drawdown timeline it defined was the July 1st, 2009 deadline for removing all American "combat" troops from Iraqi cities. The drop in the American death toll from that point is now plain to see. (And the time following that drop is the period during which the brigades now returning home deployed.) American influence over events in Iraq fell accordingly from this point, too - those who believed democracy and self-determination for Iraq were among the goals of Operation Iraqi Freedom would likely (if cautiously) welcome that development. (On the other hand, those who were concerned that a change in US administrations would have some impact on this process should be relieved to note there's no real distinction to be made on our chart in January, 2009 or immediately thereafter.)
That's the quick review of when Americans were in combat in Iraq. Now, when did the last US combat brigade return from Iraq? We've got to look at one more important point before answering. The close-up view below highlights the period commonly called "the surge." (The box with the dashed outline indicates the period during which the troop levels increased.) Obviously that's the period when the death toll plunged (many of the people who denied it was happening at the time would insist that's a mere coincidence today) but for our current discussion "the surge" period only matters for one reason - tour length.
It was never shown on the "Iraq War TV show" - or even mentioned in the many books that have been written about "the surge" - but there were no additional combat brigades sent to Iraq at this time. (And this was a time when ratings for the TV show were high.) The increased troop levels were accomplished not by adding brigades (they were all already there or scheduled to deploy anyway) but simply by extending tour lengths from 12 to 15 months, as explained here at the time. (This non-trivial point, like so many regarding Iraq, is crucial - though absent - in any discussion of Afghanistan today, but that's a topic for another post.)
Army units deploying during the time outlined by the solid red box in the chart above were scheduled to serve fifteen months in-theater; units deploying after July, 2008 did so with the requirement reduced back to twelve. So, any units that deployed during that "hottest" period in Iraq had come home by December, 2008. (By late 2008 things had cooled in Iraq enough that some even came home early - if not to national TV coverage - with replacement units sent to Afghanistan instead.)
So, if you think that "September, 2007 was the last month with real combat in Iraq," then it follows that the last "combat brigade" came home some time before December, 2008. That's a fair point, but reasonable arguments can be made for a later date. While the Oct 07-Sep 08 phase was conducted with a dramatic reduction in casualties, there's no denying some degree of combat was ongoing, and some brigades experienced combat in Iraq at the time - even though the Iraq TV series by then was on hiatus in America for the election year.
Some might argue that accurate coverage of America's wars at the time could have helped Americans ask the right question of those diverse candidates - but while periodic television "specials" appeared whenever combat did occur, at least one US "surge" Division whose tour of duty spanned the two phases of the operation produced their own video detailing how they had transitioned from combat ops to a support/rebuilding function through this time.
The last of the brigades to deploy to Iraq in the phase ending in September, 2008 were back home by October, 2009. But few returning at that late point would make the claim to have "seen a lot of combat" in Iraq. However, veteran brigades from the actual combat phase had actually been home long enough to deploy again in 2009 (in the case of last week's brigade, almost long enough - but that's another story...) and as mentioned previously, they make up the bulk of American forces in Iraq now.
For a second look - here's a graph of American deaths in Iraq constructed from the numbers kept by icasualties.org. While the line we tracked on the Brookings chart depicted all American fatalities, this one only includes combat deaths - hostile fire, IEDs, etc.
There are differences on the right side of the chart - not surprising for a period when non-combat deaths made up a much larger percentage of the total compared to the combat phases of OIF. The step down in 2008 actually occurred three months earlier - but in the period when Army brigades were serving 15 month tours, so the September, 2009 date for any units returning that might have served in that period remains unchanged. In addition, any case to be made for two distinct post-Jun '09 phases in the previous chart evaporates here.
Here's the average number of American combat deaths/month in Iraq for those respective phases:
The bottom line: unless you want to stretch the definition (or play word games - but see final paragraphs here) the last American combat brigade came home from Iraq long ago.
Worth repeating: that might have been 4/2 Strykers - here's a story comparing their current tour with their last. And I agree with the message President Obama sent to the White House email list marking their latest departure from Iraq: "I hope you'll join me in thanking them, and all of our troops and military families, for their service."
But if you're wondering why now? - the answer is simple. "Mr. Obama released a restrained written statement," as the New York Times described his email last weekend, "and made a one-sentence reference at a pair of fund-raisers."
...the White House wants to find a way to mark the moment and remind voters just two months before midterm elections that he delivered on his vow to pull out combat forces. Mr. Obama plans to make a high-profile speech on the drawdown next week, and aides are discussing whether to have him meet with returning troops. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Indianapolis on Monday.
Following his speech on the topic earlier this month the New York Times reported that "Mr. Obama has adopted Iraq as a relative success story, and aides said he and other administration officials would hold several events in August to honor returning soldiers and promote the drawdown." More:
The notion that Iraq would be the political selling point while the "good war" in Afghanistan is now the sour note underscores how much has changed since Mr. Obama began his presidential campaign.
Perhaps that's easier to understand if we take a quick look at the icasualty reports for both wars.
The AP adds that "The schedule reflects a White House eager, with pivotal congressional elections approaching, for achievements to tout, especially in areas with the emotional significance of the Iraq war." So the short answer to "why now?" is easy: it's hoped that this can help convince that 25% of Americans who believe what they see on TV is real to contribute cash and votes to Democrats. In that regards, the Iraq TV show has yet to break from its seven-year (or is it 12-year?) theme.
The plan was not concocted overnight - it was over a year in the making, and pulling it off required shortening the between-tour dwell time for 4/2. More on that topic in a follow-on post. We'll close this discussion with a final caution to those who would play word games with terms like "combat". Fortunately, during their now-completed tour, "the last combat brigade in Iraq" had no combat deaths, though they did lose one soldier to "injuries sustained during a non-combat related incident." But other units have been less fortunate. On the very day 4/2 handed over control of their last outpost to Iraqi forces and began their departure, "Spc. Faith R. Hinkley, 23, of Colorado Springs, Colo., died Aug. 7 in Baghdad, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked her unit in Iskandariya, Iraq."
So another possible answer to the question posed in the headline of this post is "they haven't yet." (But as a guy with friends deploying there next year, I hope that's the wrong answer.)
Next: The Theater of War
Posted by Greyhawk / August 23, 2010 12:10 PM | Permalink
Continuing a discussion begun here. Here's our combined Iraq "violence chart" from the previous entry (click the graphic for a larger version): Two points can't be denied: Enemy attacks ("security incidents"), along with deaths of Iraqi civilians and A... Read More
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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Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com