It is always a quietly thankful moment when you see a guy who has been wounded or who you think was wounded and he turns out to be ok. Mike was actually embarrassed about the whole thing and shrugged off any mention of it as he feels like he is not "doing enough" right now.Having worked alongside some of Uncle Sam's Misguided Children I would have been amazed if their response had been anything else.
We only were able to talk for a short time and I swear that within a few minutes I had forgotten about the whole thing until we shook hands when I had to go. He turned to leave and I saw the zipper of staples on the back of his head. He was going back to work.
You would be very proud of the Marines as they have been able to switch gears from intense offensive operations back to what we call "stability operations." Stability operations simply translates to getting out into the countryside and teaching Iraqi Police and soldiers how to do their jobs. More importantly, our priority is just making contact with them and trying to instill a sense of confidence and pride in what they are doing. As I have shared with you over the past 15 months or so, it is hard to imagine trying to establish a police force or "national guard" (the equivalent of what we are working with) out of a population that has never even seen such entities as we understand them. If you said National Guard in Missouri, most people would think "the guys who show up when there is a flood, blizzard or tornado to help people." Or maybe after 9/11, that guy at the drug store who left for Iraq for a year as part of an engineer unit.
Here, they simply have no paradigm of what such a force is. We have to sit down and go over the most basic principles of protecting the people by being there to help when there is a crisis on one hand and getting out on night ambush to keep the muj out of the village on the other. As a whole they did disintegrate or worse during the April fighting. I have heard a lot of false exaggeration about the fact that the Iraqi Army would not stand and fight with the Marines in Falluja or the Army in Baghdad. Nonsense.
I could tell you stories of individual heroics of Iraqi soldiers. One specific example is of an Iraqi SgtMaj who came into our lines during the first days of fighting in Falluja. He made his way through the mujahadeen and risked being killed by us to tell us that he was concerned about the ICDC (Iraqi Civil Defense Corps) armory in town. He knew it was only a matter of time until the muj went for the armory to take the weapons. Honestly, I would have thought that they had already done it as the police stations and every other good piece of ground seemed to be occupied by the muj by that time. In short, he wanted to let us know that he was going back into the town to get the weapons. The Marines asked him if he wanted us to help. No. He only wanted us to take the weapons from him when he came back through. This guy took a couple young Iraqi soldiers with a truck and drove back through our lines into the hornets nest of Falluja. He went to the armory, emptied the weapons and ammo stored there and brought it back out through the fighting to us. We expected him to want to stay with us or to move on to Baghdad or some other safe area. He refused and stated that he was going back into the city as that was where his duty was. Not a coward by even the most cynical standard.
We had a group that showed up shortly thereafter. You have probably heard about them as they came out of Baghdad and on the way were ambushed a couple of times. By the time they made it here only 200 of 700 were in their ranks. I know that the public story is that they folded after a couple of days of fighting and disintegrated. They actually made it through three days of fighting. Not just taking a few rounds, they held through accurate machine gun fire, mortars and multiple assaults. They also moved forward and occupied positions on the Marines' flanks. After three days, we pulled them out. The Marines will tell you that they did a hell of a job.
The Marine Corps has been around for 230 years. We have many battles and history under our belts that instills in the Marines a profound sense of duty and tradition. Further, the culture has made peer pressure into a positive art form. Words like "selflessness" are not only used but are taught to every recruit. Show me another place in our society where a 20 year old guy worries more about letting his buddy down than his own well-being. This is true across the board. There are probably a few other places left that instill this but not too many where it holds together when the rubber meets the road.
The Iraqis had none of this going into Falluja. In fact they had and continue to have just the opposite. They live in a world of terror. For decades, Sadaam played one neighbor against another, one tribe against another, one sect of Islam against another and one race against another. Therefore there is never a sense of safety to the Iraqis even within their own tribes. Here if you join the police or the army, you are eventually approached by the terrorists and threatened. If they think you are a leader, they tell you that they will kill you and your family. The orders are simple, look the other way when you are on duty and leave when the terrorist show up. If you don't they will kill you and probably your family.
Imagine that young guy who joins the ICDC or police. He may be somewhat of an idealist when he gets out of our initial training but when he shows up to his unit, the muj have already infiltrated it and immediately make it clear that there is no hope of survival if he does not do exactly what they say. For good measure and effect, they regularly assassinate Iraqi policemen and soldiers just to make it clear that they will kill them on a whim. The guys that were in place prior to April lived in that world. We are working against it still. Without the tradition and culture of the Marine Corps and constantly thinking that their very presence next to us may get their families killed, I am amazed they made it for an hour much less than three days. We decided to pull them because this place needs young patriots. It does not need us to put them into a position where they will be ground down in intense combat or maybe to be killed when it is over. Hopefully they can be a nucleus for tomorrow's leaders. Time will tell.
In another email, I will share with you what I think is going to happen this summer. It will be a tough pull. However, we are prepared. We get reports of impending muj attacks on Marine positions and I am amazed at the universal response - "Good, that means we don't have to try to find them tonight."
There is plenty of fight left in the guys. On a lighter note, the Iraqi people are coming back more and more to approach the Marines. When they are in private, they regularly tell us that we cannot leave and that they "need" us to stay. Of course they cannot say that publicly for reasons above.Mark "Troops home by Christmas" Latham, please note.
I will close with something that was on my mind this morning when I punished myself by watching CBS news. I saw the anchor come on and just before he spoke, I told my rack mate "Lets see what the opening line is going to be...." Sure enough before he said anything else, he said "It just keeps getting worse and worse...." Yes, he was talking about Iraq. Honest to God we laughed at him. I'm not kidding. It is getting to the point where the Marines are getting past their anger at the talking heads and are laughing.
...we are now in a life and death struggle with an enemy who wants nothing more for us to leave so that they can bring their own brand of terror to the same people. Our biggest failings have been that, as a coalition, we have not been able to overcome our own-ham handed actions and horrible mistakes/crimes and simply convince the Iraqi people that we do in fact want to leave them a free and prosperous country where there is hope. The most successful way to do that is to continue to go out and show them every day and not to cut and run. And you know what? It is working. People are coming to us and talking to us even in the face of Abu Garayb and in the real threat of their own death.
Inside this country right now, there are extremists who have set up courts where in one room, they try Iraqis and in the next they kill them minutes later. Not fantasy - reality. Again, the death sentence? Accepting payment for damage we have done in fighting or in an accident. Taking a job working on a coalition base. Having a brother who has done his job in the police or ICDC.
Are people so naive as to think that if we left, things would get better? The country would implode and thousands of people would be killed.
When the dust settled, a more dangerous Iraq would emerge and we would be even more hated throughout the world. It is that simple. We came here to help these people and at the same time to make the world a safer place for free people everywhere. If we leave too early, the people will suffer horribly and the world will have taken one giant step backward. Maybe we are slow on the uptake but it is pretty clear here what the right thing to do is and it is not to abandon the people to the terrorists.
I understand that some people are simply frightened by the violence - for good reason. To them I would say, hang in there. I see people every hour of every day that make me sure we are strong enough to be successful. To people that say our agenda is anything other than what I have written, I say that it does not matter because the young men and women doing the heavy lifting are doing it for the right reason and at the end of the day, the Iraqi people will benefit. They may never like us while we are here as there are thousands of years of culture that separate us. The fact that we are not popular does not change our moral obligation.