Nov 29, 2005

The Iraq story: how troops see it 

This comes from yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor and is a must read if you want to understand the reality of the day to day situation in Iraq. As I am unfamiliar with how long CSM archives their online articles, instead of just giving you a link and a quote I now present you with whole thing.


By Mark Sappenfield - Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BROOK PARK, OHIO - Cpl. Stan Mayer has seen the worst of war. In the leaves of his photo album, there are casual memorials to the cost of the Iraq conflict - candid portraits of friends who never came home and graphic pictures of how insurgent bombs have shredded steel and bone.

Yet the Iraq of Corporal Mayer's memory is not solely a place of death and loss. It is also a place of hope. It is the hope of the town of Hit, which he saw transform from an insurgent stronghold to a place where kids played on Marine trucks. It is the hope of villagers who whispered where roadside bombs were hidden. But most of all, it is the hope he saw in a young Iraqi girl who loved pens and Oreo cookies.

Like many soldiers and marines returning from Iraq, Mayer looks at the bleak portrayal of the war at home with perplexity - if not annoyance. It is a perception gap that has put the military and media at odds, as troops complain that the media care only about death tolls, while the media counter that their job is to look at the broader picture, not through the soda straw of troops' individual experiences. (Side note: Has anyone in the media noticed that when you combine a whole lot of soda straws and look through them all at the same time, you can pretty much see the whole damn picture? – Mike)

Yet as perceptions about Iraq have neared a tipping point in Congress, some soldiers and marines worry that their own stories are being lost in the cacophony of terror and fear. They acknowledge that their experience is just that - one person's experience in one corner of a war-torn country. Yet amid the terrible scenes of reckless hate and lives lost, many members of one of the hardest-hit units insist that they saw at least the spark of progress.

"We know we made a positive difference," says Cpl. Jeff Schuller of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, who spent all but one week of his eight-month tour with Mayer. "I can't say at what level, but I know that where we were, we made it better than it was when we got there."

It is the simplest measure of success, but for the marine, soldier, or sailor, it may be the only measure of success. In a business where life and death rest on instinctive adherence to thoroughly ingrained lessons, accomplishment is ticked off in a list of orders followed and tasks completed. And by virtually any measure, America's servicemen and women are accomplishing the day-to-day tasks set before them.

Yet for the most part, America is less interested in the success of Operation Iron Fist, for instance, than the course of the entire Iraq enterprise. "What the national news media try to do is figure out: What's the overall verdict?" says Brig. Gen. Volney Warner, deputy commandant of the Army Command and General Staff College. "Soldiers don't do overall verdicts."

Yet soldiers clearly feel that important elements are being left out of the media's overall verdict. On this day, a group of Navy medics gather around a table in the Cleveland-area headquarters of the 3/25 - a Marine reserve unit that has converted a low-slung school of pale brick and linoleum tile into its spectacularly red-and-gold offices.

Their conversation could be a road map of the kind of stories that military folks say the mainstream media are missing. One colleague made prosthetics for an Iraqi whose hand and foot had been cut off by insurgents. When other members of the unit were sweeping areas for bombs, the medics made a practice of holding impromptu infant clinics on the side of the road.

They remember one Iraqi man who could not hide his joy at the marvel of an electric razor. And at the end of the 3/25's tour, a member of the Iraqi Army said: "Marines are not friends; marines are brothers," says Lt. Richard Malmstrom, the battalion's chaplain.

"It comes down to the familiar debate about whether reporters are ignoring the good news," says Peter Hart, an analyst at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a usually left-leaning media watchdog in New York.

In Hit, where marines stayed in force to keep the peace, the progress was obvious, say members of the 3/25. The residents started burning trash and fixing roads - a sign that the city was returning to a sense of normalcy. Several times, "people came up to us [and said]: 'There's a bomb on the side of the road. Don't go there,' " says Pfc. Andrew Howland.

Part of the reason that such stories usually aren't told is simply the nature of the war. Kidnappings and unclear battle lines have made war correspondents' jobs almost impossible. Travel around the country is dangerous, and some reporters never venture far from their hotels. "It has to have some effect on what we see: You end up with reporting that waits for the biggest explosion of the day," says Mr. Hart.

To the marines of the 3/25, the explosions clearly do not tell the whole story. Across America, many readers know the 3/25 only as the unit that lost 15 marines in less than a week - nine of them in the deadliest roadside bombing against US forces during the war. When the count of Americans killed in Iraq reached 2,000, this unit again found itself in the stage lights of national notice as one of the hardest hit.

But that is not the story they tell. It is more than just the dire tone of coverage - though that is part of it. It is that Iraq has touched some of these men in ways that even they have trouble explaining. This, after all, has not been a normal war. Corporals Mayer and Schuller went over not to conquer a country, but to help win its hearts and minds. In some cases, though, it won theirs.

Schuller, a heavyweight college wrestler with a thatch of blond hair and engine blocks for arms, cannot help smiling when he speaks of giving an old man a lighter: "He thought it was the coolest thing." Yet both he and the blue-eyed, square-jawed Mayer pause for a moment before they talk about the two 9-year-old Iraqis whom members of their battalion dubbed their "girlfriends."

The first time he saw them, Mayer admits that he was making the calculations of a man in the midst of a war. He was tired, he was battered, and he was back at a Hit street corner that he had patrolled many times before. In Iraq, repetition of any sort could be an invitation of the wrong sort - an event for which insurgents could plan. So Mayer and Schuller took out some of the candy they carried, thinking that if children were around, perhaps the terrorists wouldn't attack.

It was a while before the children realized that these two marines, laden with arms to the limit of physical endurance, were not going to hurt them. But among the children who eventually came, climbing on the pair's truck and somersaulting in the street, there were always the same two girls. When they went back to base, they began to hoard Oreos and other candy in a box.

"They became our one little recess from the war," says Mayer. "You're seeing some pretty ridiculous tragedies way too frequently, and you start to get jaded. The kids on that street - I got to realize I was still a human being to them."

It happened one day when he was on patrol. Out of nowhere, a car turned the corner and headed down the alley at full speed. "A car coming at you real fast and not stopping in Iraq is not what you want to see," says Mayer. Yet instead of jumping in his truck, he stood in the middle of the street and pushed the kids behind him.

The car turned. Now, Mayer and Schuller can finish each other's sentences when they think about the experience. "You really start to believe that you protect the innocent," says Schuller. "It sounds like a stupid cliché...."

"But it's not," adds Mayer. "You are in the service of others."

For Mayer, who joined the reserves because he wanted to do something bigger than himself, and for Schuller, a third-generation marine, Iraq has given them a sense of achievement. Now when they look at the black-and-white pictures of marines past in the battalion headquarters, "We're adding to that legacy," says Schuller.

This is what they wish to share with the American people - and is also the source of their frustration. Their eight months in Iraq changed their lives, and they believe it has changed the lives of the Iraqis they met as well. On the day he left, Mayer gave his "girlfriend" a bunch of pens - her favorite gift - wrapped in a paper that had a picture of the American flag, the Iraqi flag, and a smiley face. The man with the lighter asked Schuller if he was coming back. He will if called upon, he says.

Whether or not these notes of grace and kindness are as influential as the dirge of war is open to question. But many in the military feel that they should at least be a part of the conversation.

Says Warner of reaching an overall verdict: "I'm not sure that reporting on terrorist bombings with disproportionate ink is adequately answering that question."

Full HTML version of this story which may include photos, graphics, and related links


Nov 17, 2005

Of Willie Pete and Italian Commies 

Now, I’m not in the artillery, but I know some arty guys, and am the son and nephew of quite a few cannon-cockers. And I can assure you of the following: white phosphorus – for lack of a better term – is the shiznit.

“Shake and bake” is to the artillery what “snake and nape” used to be to the air wing before we decided to hamstring ourselves and find friendlier ways to kill people. And any Italian Communist who has a problem with that can go straight to hell. Sorry, but we have yet to invent the Nerf missile with armor-piercing/bunker-busting capability.

This recent attempt at causing public outrage is being spearheaded by quite the motley crew of jackassery: Italian commies, jihad-media, and a former soldier who I seriously doubt the credibility of (he has been labeled a Marine in some media reports, but by his own admission on his blog he is not). Besides, anybody who thinks that WP is “the modern-day napalm” needs to think again… THIS stuff is the modern-day napalm. As far as I know not a single canister has been used in OIF. Afghanistan to dig some Taliban out of Tora Bora maybe… but, I digress…

The overall allegations are pure lunacy to begin with. If there are cameras around, you can’t shoot one confirmed enemy combatant with an M-16 who may be going for an IED to kill you and your squad without unleashing a media firestorm. But we’ll drop a “Battery Three” on SCORES of civilians with WP and HE/VT from M198 howitzers and think we can get away with it even though it’s the SINGLE MOST HEAVILY MEDIA COVERED BATTLE OF THE WHOLE WAR. Sure… we can pull that off. Add 200, left 100, FIRE FOR EFFECT! Idiots…

Right now there are Marines fighting and dieing in Operation Steel Curtain up north. The towns they are in now are much like Fallujah was last year. By which I mean, they are largely empty of civilian presence and the only people around are the ones who want to kill Americans and/or die trying. We’ve dropped 500lb laser and GPS guided bombs, shot Maverick and Hellfire, rolled in the tanks and put 120mm high explosive rounds into buildings full of bad guys... GOD FORBID we smoke the bastards out with a little Willie Pete. Couldn’t do that. Might be painful for ‘em. But put the GBU-12 right through the roof of that building… See? MUCH more humane.

I’m not going to go as far as saying that removing WP from our stockpiles would severely hamper our ability to conduct battle. I will say that if we don’t have it as an option, there are a handful of situations where many good Americans will die trying to clear an area door to door and hole to hole when a couple rounds of WP followed by air-bursting high-explosive (a “shake and bake”) could have done the trick. Why should we limit ourselves? Because Italian commies said so? Because one disgruntled soldier claims to have seen something that nobody else saw? I think not.

If you had any idea how much we, the US military, already limit ourselves due to “collateral damage” concerns, you would be shocked. But it’s all part of the “touchy-feely” approach that is required when you are trying to – in the end – reconstruct a country instead of just blast the crap out of it. There are plenty of reasons to take off and nuke the place from orbit, just to be sure (to steal a line from Aliens). Plenty of reasons to do it, and just one not to: we’re Americans, and that’s not how we do business. If we actually DID all the crap we’re accused of doing, the Mongol hoards of Genghis Khan would look like chumps. So cheer up Italian Commies... if we lived up to your expectations, YOU would be next.

Nov 10, 2005

We don't use a crutch 

Happy Birthday Marines, and greetings to you all from Iraq! Though my absence from the site has been prolonged, I assure you, it has not been without reason. We’ve set up shop and gotten to work about the business of combat. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you about the toils of war and the horror of it all. In my particular case, “the business of combat” looks a hell of a lot like paperwork.

I’m currently at what may very well be the single most secure base in the country, and have only heard one shot fired in anger: a rocket about two weeks ago that sounded like someone dropped something heavy on the concrete outside. This ain’t exactly what I thought a war would look like, but then I don’t know what I expected. I have a job that doesn’t require me to go outside the wire and the biggest gripe you can really have on base here is that they only have three flavors of Baskin-Robbins available at a time in the chow hall… I am not making this up. The place is nicknamed “Camp Cupcake.” In fact, it is often joked (only half-joked, really) that most of us would gladly let someone drop indirect fire on our pos once a week for conditions like this at CAX.

It’s not all that different from working in southern California actually, except that coming out of Subway (yeah, we’ve got one of those here too) you see Humvees with bullet holes in them. When you hear about the IED that hit that convoy, it happened three kilometers away, not 30,000. When you read about the missile that was shot at that aircraft, you know the guys it was shot at and probably were face to face with them an hour ago.

Right now, Marines and soldiers are doing their jobs in places like Husaybah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. They’re finding cars full of explosives, houses full of explosives, even trash full of explosives, all designed to kill Americans or anyone who works with Americans. The good news in all this is that these Marines and soldiers are very good at their jobs. You can call it paranoia if you want to… but that doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to get ya. IEDs – the weapon of choice – are everywhere. But due to the vigilance, experience, and professionalism of the kids (yeah, KIDS) that are out on the convoys and patrolling the towns, injuries are kept to a minimum. Things are not doom and gloom out there on the streets, whatever the news says about casualty counts be damned.

And so, today, 230 years after it was formed, the Marine Corps continues to fight the enemies of freedom. Marines remain ready to lay their lives down for the cause of liberty. Marines continue to do the job they were trained for. And Marines retain the pride of knowing that no other organization of people in the world – friend or enemy – will ever surpass the fighting spirit, the esprit de corps, or the pure tenacity of the United States Marine Corps.

You may say I’m biased. You may say I’m jingoistic. You may say I’ve swallowed the kool-aid.
You may say whatever you want.

Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

230 years young. Semper Fidelis, Marines.

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