Baghdad Calling
U.S. troops make the case for courage.


Second, the enemy — including the Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists — is progressively splintering into smaller sub-groups.

“This is often reported in the media as a bad thing — an unknown force being broken up into many unknown forces,” says Nichols. “Fact is, breaking up a larger force into smaller ones is what you want to do.”

Breaking up forces is in fact a textbook means by which a superior military force destroys an inferior enemy force — dividing and conquering. And in Iraq, some of those splintering subgroups are now providing intelligence to — and cooperating with — coalition forces.

Third, an increasing number of Iraqi civilians are providing the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces with information about the enemy that is being processed into solid intelligence.

Fourth, Coalition forces are increasingly “driving a wedge” between the insurgents and the general population. And more and more insurgents are turning against the sectarian violence-instigating terrorists.

And lastly, as I discussed at National Review Online’s military blog, “The Tank,” while I was in Iraq, one of the most effective elements of General David Petraeus’s strategy is his approach to a given area of responsibility (AOR).

Petraeus’s predecessor, General George Casey, would have his subordinate commanders move their forces into an AOR, kill, capture, or run the enemy out; bring in some infrastructure for the community; and then leave. It worked to be sure, but only temporarily. The enemy almost always came back.

Petraeus’s approach is to do those things, but never completely leave. His commanders are responsible for ensuring their AORs are progressing. And U.S. soldiers are staying. In Sadr City for instance — as dangerous as it is — U.S. soldiers are living there, bunking side-by-side with their Iraqi counterparts.

Despite the frustration with both the partisanship on Capitol Hill and the mainstream media’s inaccurate portrayal of the realities on the ground in Iraq, Nichols contends military morale is good. “It’s because of the tremendous support we receive from the American people,” he says. “A lot of that support comes from the leadership of Vietnam vets and others who have created a kind of ‘support the vets’ movement.”

Iraq is dangerous. The war is difficult. Nobody is pretending otherwise. But even in the face of last week’s horrific bombings, progress is being made both in a tactical and strategic sense, as well as in the winning of hearts of minds. And no one knows this better than the troops on the ground.

What about polling that suggests otherwise? Polling — frequently with loaded questions and skewed targeting of those to be polled — can often be a less accurate measure of consensus over a period of time than hard numbers realized in signed petitions, and recruitment and retention numbers (incidentally, recruiting and retention remains high and almost always exceeding goal). And as far as the recent Military Times poll (see “Webb vs. Facts”) which showed “a somewhat higher than marginal disapproval of the way the president ‘is handling the situation with Iraq,’” only nine percent polled were Marines, yet Marines compose over 12 percent of the U.S. armed forces, and much of that percentage is directly involved in the fighting in Iraq. Also those polled from all services had to be subscribers to at least one of the Military Times’s newspapers.

Nichols says the Military Times poll was not an accurate measure of how troops actually fighting in Iraq feel.

“Obviously Appeal for Courage can’t pretend to speak for all servicemembers, and our experiences can’t cover all of Iraq,” Minnesota National Guard Staff Sgt. Dave Thul, currently serving with the U.S. Army’s 34th Infantry Division, tells NRO. “But with the lieutenant in Baghdad and myself in Al Anbar province, we do have the two most volatile areas of Iraq covered. And what I can tell you from Anbar is that this is no longer the ‘wild west’ the media reported on even just six months ago.”

Thul serves as a committee-member with Appeal for Courage, but his primary duty is convoy escort. He frequently travels the roads from the east end of Al Anbar all the way to the Jordanian and Syrian borders.

“While I can’t go into specific intelligence, I can tell you that the number of IEDs — by far our biggest threat — have dropped dramatically in the 12 months I’ve been here,” Thul says from his post in Al Asad, Iraq, just north of Ramadi. “Whereas it was once common to find two or three IEDs everyday by my company alone, we now have entire weeks where we have found none.”

Thul says the “the quality” of the insurgents he and his fellow soldiers have encountered, has dropped. “Where we once encountered IEDs that were well hidden and elaborately constructed, we now find most of the IEDs before they can be detonated against us,” he says. “They are hastily emplaced, poorly if at all camouflaged, and some don’t even detonate.”

Thul is also seeing a much greater Iraqi police presence in Anbar, as well as civilians flagging them down to tell them about weapons caches and suspicious men and activity in the area.

“These are the types of things that just aren’t being reported back home,” he says. “But to hear the media and some politicians talking, you’d think the war was already lost and that the entire country is burning.”

Like Nichols, Thul hopes Appeal for Courage might influence Congress to keep America from withdrawing before the job is done. “I have a personal stake in this,” he adds. “If we don’t stay and finish the job here, my children — ages three and six — might have to 15 years from now.”

Nichols believes “there is a growing support for victory at home, and we’re seeing it in the public’s negative perception of those who would prematurely declare defeat.” He adds that as victory in Iraq continues to become more evident to the American people, declarations like Reid’s are going to seem less believable.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.