EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War.
Late in the summer, I was almost killed.
After our air assault earlier in the summer, we just kept moving south, clearing villages all the way. The plan never changed. We never just left the villagers to fend for themselves. We stayed for days, weeks, and sometimes even months. All the while we trained Iraqi Army soldiers to take our place when we left and raised local chapters of the Sons of Iraq, citizen militias to guard their own streets.
And so it would go. We assaulted a group of villages, cleaned out the bad guys, built small outposts, patrolled the streets, trained our replacements, then moved again. And it worked. IED attacks began to taper off. Suddenly, only enemy fighters were dying. That didn’t mean that our region had become safe — by no means. Simply, the enemy had lost the upper hand, and the locals were growing much, much bolder. We were on the offensive, they were on the defensive, and we could all tell the difference. The tide was turning.
One evening, a small team of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fighters tried to infiltrate back into our zone of control. To get through, they had to get past a series of newly built security checkpoints. Some are manned by our troopers, some by Iraqi security forces (Iraqi Army or police), and some by the Sons of Iraq. Naturally, the AQI fighters picked the checkpoint manned by the Sons of Iraq as the weak point and launched a surprise attack in the middle of the night. They were able to kill one of the guards almost immediately, but the rest of the tiny band of Sons held their ground. In a short firefight, they not only fought off the attackers, they killed a local AQI leader. The villagers stood firm, and the terrorists fled. One week later, we gave a very well-deserving and humble villager an Army Achievement Medal for his bravery.
Days later, an al-Qaeda terrorist tried to return to his home in a village now controlled by a large group of Sons. Keep in mind, this was a village he used to rule with an iron fist. When he snuck into his house to sleep, his own wife alerted the local men, and they armed themselves, walked to his house, and killed him when he refused to surrender. The lesson?
Hell hath no fury like a woman sick of sharia.
To be sure, there were still armed bands lurking out there. The stillness of the night was occasionally shattered by small-arms fire, but these incidents didn’t alter the fundamental reality: The Iraqi government owns the ground, and the local citizens never want to see al-Qaeda return.
Across the country, the improvement was staggering. At one point in the “bad old days” of 2006 and early 2007, attacks against coalition forces could hit close to 200 per day. Yet there was a day in July when there were only 13 attacks against the coalition (probably half those were in our area, but that’s a different story). The rate of attacks against supply convoys went down dramatically. Sectarian murders all but stopped, even in Baghdad.
I could go on and on. While we all held our breath, knocked on wood, pinched ourselves, and prayed fervently that these trends would continue, there was now an open debate as to whether Iraq was moving from a state of war to something much closer to the baseline level of violence in the country and culture.
Iraq is a violent place. It just is. And anyone who spends time there (especially if you are a member of a foreign army engaged in counterinsurgency operations) will experience that violence. One of the most eye-opening revelations of my entire tour of duty has been the discovery that not even a Stalinist genocidal maniac like Saddam Hussein had full control of this place. This was no North Korea.
While he was as brutal as he could be in pursuit of total control, he never managed to achieve it.
A combination of civil uprisings, tribal disputes, external conflict, garden-variety crime, political violence, and lively smuggling rings kept Iraq in a constant state of low-or medium-grade turmoil. In fact, any “peace” that existed in Saddam’s Iraq was the product of either actual violence or the threat of it.
I have come to believe that the following statement is true, has been true, and will be true for the foreseeable future (and perhaps forever): Iraq will be far more violent than we would ever tolerate in the United States. My concern is that while we are justifiably grateful for the dramatic improvements since 2007, we don’t make a major mistake in our perceptions of Iraq.