Michael Yon is the brave independent reporter who has told us the story of this war on his website, michaelyon-online.com. Now he is the author of the new book, Moment of Truth in Iraq, published by the new Richard Vigilante Books. Michael recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What does it mean to be American “in the most romantic sense of the word” and why is it essential to counterinsurgency?
Michael Yon: Remember the scene in Lawrence of Arabia, where Peter O’Toole executes an Arab friend? “It was written,” Anthony Quinn tries to console him. Lawrence turns on him furiously and declares “Nothing is written.” It’s a very American moment in an English story. Americans live in a romance of possibility; we say “we can do it!” We reject fate.
Replacing fatalism with hope is crucial in a counterinsurgency. The citizen is trapped by despair — caught between an inept and/or corrupt local government and brutalizing terrorists. So when the government comes looking for the terrorists-next-door, the neighbors say nothing. That’s how insurgencies survive.
Counterinsurgency is political war. Governments that can’t remove sewage, lose the people. So in a counter insurgency American soldiers trained to hunt and kill terrorists may find themselves in a Baghdad neighborhood talking to the locals about sewage removal.
Strange combo, you might say — warriors and sewage removal. But these warriors are Americans. If it needs to be done, they do it or help do it. And next thing you know, the locals are telling our folks where the terrorists are hiding.
The romance of self-reliance. Replacing fatalism with hope. This is absolutely essential because counterinsurgency works only if people help defend themselves.
The American soldier is the most dangerous man in the world, and the Iraqis had to learn that before they would trust or respect our folks. But it is only after they see with their own eyes these great-hearted warriors, who so enjoy killing the enemy, are even happier helping to build a school or to make a neighborhood safe that we really got their attention.
Lopez: How many days of this war have you spent on the frontlines? What got you there the first time and what’s brought you back subsequently?
Yon: I don’t know how many days. Since December 2004, I have been either in Iraq or Afghanistan a lot more than I have been in the U.S. And most of the time I have been embedded in combat units. At first I traveled around a lot from place to place, unit to unit. But then I found that if I settled down with a unit for a while, lived as they live (though they try to keep me from getting shot, or misplaced) I would see the war more closely than other writers.
In a counterinsurgency there may be a lot of combat but there is really no frontline.Counterinsurgency is a fight wherein the people are the center of gravity, and the fight takes place not on the high seas, but in the neighborhoods where the people live and where the terrorists hide. We are winning partly because in the most violent sections of the country this became a war of competing values, terrorist values vs. American values. But only when we got off our big bases, and out of our tanks and deeper into the neighborhoods, could we make that choice very clear. Few people with a choice choose al Qaeda.