Iraq Journal, Part II


EDITOR’S NOTE: Jay Nordlinger was in Iraq from October 4 to October 7. For the first installment of this journal, go here. The second is below.

In due course, it’s time for a tour of the IZ — the International Zone, or Green Zone. We drive past Iraqi governmental buildings, such as the one that houses the prime minister’s operation. Everything is barricaded, very, very heavily. It’s a shame, of course, but strictly necessary. I can’t help thinking of our own Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1996, one of Bob Dole’s campaign pledges was to reopen that stretch of road, and to remove those barricades in front of the White House — ugly and depressing as they are. Would he have?

We go to the plaza where Saddam celebrated victory over Iran in that ’80s war. These are the famous “crossed swords” monuments, one on either end of a long, long barren stretch. The arms holding the swords are said to have been modeled on Saddam himself. Below the swords are helmets with bullet holes in them: Iranian helmets.

A couple of my companions actually climb up into the arms — you can do that. I beg off.

There are pretty much no people about, but, off to the side, a boy plays with a soccer ball, amid the trash. This is a scene you can see just about anywhere in the Third World, anytime.

Near the crossed-swords area is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. (This is not properly a tomb, because no one is buried here.) There are two main components to this monument: a gun-like thing, pointing straight up; and an oval shield, tilted. One of our State Department friends says that people refer to this as a lipstick and compact.

Someone asks our Iraqi guide whether he relates to this monument as an Iraqi — or is it just an expression of Saddam’s ego? The guide responds that this is a Saddam monument — no one comes here, no one gives a thought to it. “If we cared about it as Iraqis, we would take care of it” — instead, the monument is dingy and abandoned. “This is just something for Saddam. Let God take care of him now, not us.”

Driving us around, the guide gestures across the way and says, “This was Uday’s area” (and remember that Uday was one of Saddam’s beastly sons). “If you strayed into it, you were kidnapped, instantly.” You can still smell the fear in the man’s voice.

What was the title of Kanan Makiya’s invaluable book? “The Republic of Fear.”

It seems to me that Westerners forget the depravities of Saddam Hussein’s regime — or want to forget them: the “rape rooms,” the children’s prisons, the feeding of men into industrial shredders, feet first (the better to hear their screams), the cutting out of tongues for dissent. It’s almost as though, if you mention Saddam’s depravities, you justify our invasion-liberation — and we can’t have that, can we?

We see the building where Saddam was hanged. And we see one of his palaces — another one, not the one that now serves as the American embassy. Saddam apparently brought seven dolphins to frolic at this particular palace. And his pools were filled with the people’s drinking water. (Sounds Communist, I know: “the people’s drinking water.”) This was a playground for the Baathist elite, as were Saddam’s palaces at large.

Our guide says, “It was always a dream for us to get into these buildings.” I think it again, and I’ll say it again: “I’m glad we knocked him out. I’m glad we got rid of Saddam Hussein. It was a good thing in the world.”

In the evening, we talk with an Air Force major — a woman from Nebraska. We ask how things are, in the embassy compound. “Quieter than they were,” she says. Quieter than some months ago. Then, the embassy was repeatedly rocked — a war was going on, in an obvious way. The progress we have made is “fragile,” she says — and everyone says that: “Progress is fragile” (and/or “reversible”). But it has taken place all the same.

Do she and her fellows think the war is basically won? “No.” But then, “we tend to be a cynical bunch.”

I ask what, for me, is a standard question: How do Iraqis feel about our presence — the presence of the coalition? She gives what is certainly the right answer: “They want us to leave, and they want us to stay — and they can’t have both.” They want us to leave, because it’s their country. But they want us to stay, because of what might ensue if we left.

Incidentally, this major has served for long periods in Japan and Germany. I say, “So, you’re just an occupier — going about the world, occupying.” She smiles and says, “Yes, I’ve said that I’m keeping World War II going, all by myself.”

As we sit in the cafeteria — sorry, chow hall — the lights go out. We’re told that this has never happened before — at least lately. But people carry on as if it were no big deal. And it isn’t.

There is a great deal of food, and a variety of it — which pleases me, for those who serve here. (Baskin-Robbins is not excluded.) At the same time, I’m reliably informed, they tire of it — as who wouldn’t? Still, Americans at home can know that the men (and women) are properly fed.

Throughout this trip, I will ask about winning and losing — does it make sense to speak or think in those terms? Is this a war — a real war — that can be won? And what would winning look like? It’s easy, I think, to say what losing would look like: letting Iraq fall into the hands of extremists, thereby rendering our invasion-liberation for nought. In other words, failing to make the invasion-liberation stick. (The ghost of Vietnam hovers here — sacrifices in vain.)

And what would winning be? The opposite, I suppose: not letting Iraq fall; making the invasion stick. And you do that by fending off terrorists, militias, Iran, etc., so that Iraq can have a decent, sovereign, stable government — a government that is an ally in the War on Terror and a help, and example, to the region.

During my stay in Iraq, I perpetually think of two things — or rather, feel them: humility and gratitude. I will elaborate, as these scribbles unfold.

On Sunday morning, we meet with an army of generals, led by Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, who has two titles: He is commanding general of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which is abbreviated MNSTC-I, and pronounced “Minsticky” (if I have heard correctly). And he is commanding general of the NATO Training Mission-Iraq. In short, he’s in charge of transferring capability to the Iraqis themselves.

He has with him generals who include Castle, Bash, McGahey, Trombitas, Bosotti, Milano, and Salazar. There are of course others. And there are officers under them. This is a lot of brass, assembled for our little old group. And, in a two-hour briefing, they deliver kind of a shock-and-awe performance.

Helmick wastes no time — he is very efficient and general-like. He notes that he is “dual-hatted,” wearing a U.S. hat and a NATO one. That term is new to me: “dual-hatted.” And he says, “A lot of people don’t know NATO is here.” True. A lot of people don’t know a lot of things.

Around the table are many voices — British voices, Australian voices, Italian voices (in addition to a variety of American voices). And they tell us what they’re doing for the Iraqis, in considerable detail. They are doing everything for the Iraqis: giving them, or trying to give them, a country. They cover the army, navy, air force, and marines; the police, including carabinieri — etc.

Helmick says that they arrange for everything from a pair of socks to a C-130J (which must be a damn big plane). “And we do this 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Today is Sunday, of course, and that makes no difference.”

As I listen to this briefing, some thoughts occur to me — thoughts of a general nature. We are doing so very much. Have foreigners ever done so much for a country? The Iraqis are lucky to be looked after in this way. Many other countries would kill for it. I think of the title of one of Fouad Ajami’s books: “The Foreigner’s Gift.” That’s putting it mildly. Of course, “we broke it, we have to fix it,” right? The country was broken — tyrannized and aggressive — before. We are changing it.

And I’ve said it a thousand times, over the past several years: The Afghans and Iraqis are incredibly lucky that our security required their liberation and restoration.

Here is another thought that occurs to me, as I listen to the briefing: These guys — these commanders — ought to be out front. They ought to be known by Americans and other Western publics. They ought to be on television, explaining and answering. The public has barely a clue about what’s going on, about what we’re doing. And that includes journalists — and I don’t exclude myself.

I won’t give you a lot of details from this briefing, but let me lay a few on you:

With every passing week, Iraqi forces are in the lead and coalition forces are hanging behind — guiding. (That’s not a detail, I realize — more like a key generality.)

The Iraqis want F-16s, in part as a status symbol. And those planes send a message to others in the region: The U.S. is on our side; they have confidence in us; they’re willing to sell us their best equipment.

Salaries for Iraqi servicemen and policemen are good — these are desirable jobs, certainly from the financial point of view. Recruiting is not a problem.

The “Sons of Iraq” are being integrated, to the extent possible. Who are they? Former hostiles who now want to join the government, join Iraqi society — join the new Iraq.

There are Iraqi ways of doing things, and this includes paperwork. You see it at the defense ministry and the interior ministry. The top ministers have mounds of papers, suitcases full of papers. They have to sign off on them — on the tiniest decisions. Why don’t they delegate? Because everyone below is afraid of making decisions. If you don’t make a decision, you can’t get in trouble. Consensus is the safe way. If you have 15 signatures on an item, it’s hard to get in trouble.

Iraqi defense officials tend not to think of a navy — they think they could do without a navy, which is false (apparently). One of our guys says, “They really rely on the sea for their well-being.” Another of our guys — Helmick, this time — says that the Iraqis in the defense ministry are army guys: “Everyone’s ground-centric.” (I like that term: “ground-centric.”)

Another general likens the Ministry of the Interior to our Department of Homeland Security. I’m thinking, parochially, “Would National Review have opposed its establishment then?”

One goal is to have 700 border forts, around this vast country. This would not enable Iraq to seal its borders; that is asking too much (even as it is elsewhere). But it would do serious good.

The Iraqis have a “culture of negotiation,” says one commander. “The bazaar was invented here.” Later on, we hear, “I tell them, ‘If you want this Abrams tank, this is what it will cost.’ They want to negotiate. I say no.”

I am reminded of one reason I loved buying Saturn cars. (I no longer buy cars, or have a car, living in Manhattan.) There was no negotiation — the price was the price.

General Helmick says that security is improving, and should continue to improve, “knock on wood” — and he literally knocks on the table.


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