Lance Corporal Tara Pryor has been in Iraq for only three weeks. Already, she has learned that what readers glean from newspapers and television broadcasts back home are not as things really are.
”I am surprised,” says the 21-year-old Strongsville, Ohio, native who currently serves with the Marine’s 6th Civil Affairs Group in Fallujah. “The majority of the [Iraqi] people appreciate what we are trying to do.”
Pryor’s revelation is no surprise to those who have been there. Back home, military servicemen and women contend the daily fare from the various media ranges from disturbing to false to downright manipulative.
“I personally come from a family with varying ideologies,” Marine Col. John Toolan, who last year commanded Regimental Combat Team (RCT) 1 in Iraq, tells National Review Online. “When I come home and explain to them what I saw and what we are doing, their eyes kind of glaze over and they say, ‘gosh, we really didn’t have that perspective.’”
Instead the reported news is grim. The recent focus has been on the 2,000th U.S. soldier killed in Iraq: Opponents of the war eagerly anticipated and capitalized on that number for their own political aims, as if the losses of soldiers 1,998 and 1,999 were somehow not as great. But then propagandists throughout history often have used symbols–like a relatively high, round, even number–that can easily be remembered and thus accurately and frequently repeated for effect.
But the true story of Iraq is far different than what some would have the American public believe. It is story of enormous sacrifice, commitment, political, and military success, and a desire for freedom on the part of the Iraqi people that in many ways parallels our own War of Independence, 230 years ago.
What about America’s military successes and victories in Iraq? They are in many ways, immeasurable: A reality of the overall global war on terror.
What is known is that the war–in Iraq and elsewhere–is being waged and won by the U.S. and its allies. Effective intelligence is being gathered, terrorist cells are being destroyed, fewer countries are willing to harbor the bad guys, free elections have been held in two former totalitarian states, and the American mainland has not been successfully attacked in more than four years.
The latter can be attributed to what any good military commander knows is the ability to lure the wolf away from hearth and home and force him onto ground of one’s own choosing. In that way, the enemy can more easily be controlled, enveloped, and ultimately destroyed.
Marine Major Neil F. Murphy Jr., a spokesman for Multi-National Force West, says in terms of kinetic operations, U.S. forces are applying relentless “day-and-night” pressure on the terrorists: capturing and killing scores, and seizing and destroying numerous weapons caches across the country, particularly from the Syrian border and into the Euphrates River Valley of the Al Anbar Province.
“We recently conducted Operations Iron Fist, River Gate, and Mountaineer, and we continue to conduct operations along the western border where we are interdicting terrorists and foreign fighters,” Murphy, speaking from Camp Fallujah, Iraq, tells NRO. “The amazing thing that gets me is that the insurgents have absolutely nothing to offer the people. They only kill and create misery, yet the media give them a platform. Bad news sells and the terrorists create plenty.”
On the flipside, Murphy says, there are lots of positive things happening in Iraq. “But those things don’t pull in the ad dollars,” he says. “Conflict outweighs progress in the news value rating we’ve all learned about in journalism class and that’s a hard nut to crack.”
Of course, there is more than one reason good news is cut out of the cycle, and much of it stems from how stories are covered today. Many reporters in Iraq are isolated in safe zones, venturing out only to cover dramatic events like bombings or the discovery of murdered victims. Far different than the spring of 2003, when the vast majority of the journalists in Iraq were embedded with Coalition forces racing toward various objectives during the war’s invasion phase. Then, all the news was on the move, and both good and bad news stories were witnessed and reported.
There is also the impatience factor.
“The real success in Iraq is the daily commitment and grind of our nation’s G.I.s steadily transforming the Iraqi society from one of tyranny and oppression to one of democratic governance, opportunity, and freedom,” Brig. Gen. David L. Grange (U.S. Army, ret.), a CNN military analyst and the former commanding general of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, tells NRO. But “the pace of this success does not move at a speed dramatic enough for our media to highlight.”
“Iraqi Security Forces are taking more and more responsibility for the security of their own country,” Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells NRO. “[They are] providing the environment in which a working economy, and a democratic process can grow and prosper.”
Gen. Pace’s words were demonstrated during the mid-October elections where security was largely an Iraqi show. U.S. reaction forces were waiting in the wings, but not needed.
With Iraqis now pulling more of the internal security and policing responsibilities, U.S. and Coalition forces (including Iraqis) are able to concentrate on the isolated badlands like those found in the western-most sectors of the Al Anbar Province.
Toolan, who currently serves as director of the Command and Staff College at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, echoes the chairman’s sentiments, adding that the strength of the new Iraqi army is in its leadership.
“They are making great strides as far as a professional army is concerned,” he says. “Many of the Iraqi military officers have been fighting and leading at great risk and cost to their personal lives. I know individuals who have lost their homes. Their families have been kidnapped. Yet they remained with their units. They knew if they were to walk away and go home and protect their homes and families that would be an invitation for others to do the same. That kind of dedication you don’t forget.”
From the continued “standing up” of a professional Iraqi security force (military and police), the ongoing development of Iraq’s physical infrastructure, and the forming of a constitutionally based elected government, to the weakening of a now-desperate insurgency; progress is indeed being made.
Unfortunately, the 2,000th U.S. death, anticipated and since promoted by groups like MoveOn.org so they could launch their antiwar advertising campaigns, deliberately shoved any “good news” off the table. The strategy of manipulating the public with the number, deliberately skirted facts like all war is grim and costly; all losses are terrible; or that 1,000 American Marines perished in 76 hours on Tarawa (1943) and 19,000 U.S. soldiers were killed during the six-week (Dec. 1944-Jan. 1945) Battle of the Bulge. What’s worse, groups that promote death number-milestones as a means of discrediting America’s involvement in Iraq only incite the insurgents to do more of the same. The terrorists see their strategy as working on the American home front, which is their only hope since they cannot defeat us militarily–and they are losing politically–in Iraq.
Military family members like Gene Retske say they are “appalled” by those who would capitalize on death numbers. “It is so easy to vacantly mouth the words, ‘I support our troops,’ then go on to marginalize their worth and criticize the mission,” says Retske, whose son, David, is currently deployed with the U.S. Army in Iraq. “Our soldiers are struggling against brutal fascists, who would put us all to the sword if they could.”
He adds, “If you truly realize the value of what our brave people are doing and how meaningful and selfless they are by putting their lives on the line for what they believe, then you will have the respect to avoid trying to measure their contribution in body counts. Round numbers, where human lives are involved, have no relevance.”
According to Maj. Murphy, “the most troubling thing about casualty reporting–especially the 2,000 angle the media is reporting today–is that Americans are never told WHY by the collective press. There’s no depth, no explanation that people in Iraq are free and moving toward a future and that it helps our shared future. Every mention of something positive is countered by the talking heads with a ‘yeah, but.’ They barely mentioned the ratification of the constitution, which is huge for the Iraqi people.”
Frustrating for the troops, says Col. Toolan. “Even the guys who have gone back three times know they are achieving something,” he says. “When they are in Iraq, they feel good, because they see the progress everyday. But when they come home they are discouraged by what they hear, see, read, etc.”
Each week, a particularly outgoing nine-year-old Iraqi girl and her mother, pass by Bohlen’s post in the city of Fallujah. The little girl is usually dressed in pink, and she smiles as she greets the Marines, hoping they have some drawing paper and crayons, which they often do.
“Her face lights up a worn-out Marine’s heart,” Bohlen says. “She is so eager to learn English and can even write the entire alphabet without help, on top of that, she already knows all of the Marine ranks by heart.”
Bohlen has an American flag taped to his rifle that has piqued the interest of the little girl. “One day she saw it as I leaned over to help her sit on a stool,” he says. “She asked if that was our flag. I said yes. She then put both of her thumbs up and said, “Good, go America.”
It is a reflection of the growing trust between Americans and Iraqis in former hells-on-earth for both sides like Fallujah.
“This turned out like a movie,” he tells NRO. “The brand new [Iraqi] police vehicles formed up the morning prior to the vote flying huge Iraqi flags. They loaded up and then pulled out of their compound, flags flying and police hanging off each vehicle. The police standing in the station doorway were in tears, they felt they were finally getting to do something important. You have to understand most are local boys.”
That night Miles was positioned on top of the Civil Military Operations Center in downtown Fallujah watching as the police brought in the ballots. “It was a helluva sight,” he says. “Lights flashing, sirens now and then, always in ones or twos, they kept coming. Flags still flying. It made me feel better about the price the Marines have paid for this town over the last year.”
This time last year, Fallujah was a bastion for guerrillas led by Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi. The Marines were poised to take the city in the spring of 2004, but–after a political calling off of the dogs, followed by a weak attempt at seizing by an ill-prepared Iraqi brigade–the city held and Zarqawi’s numbers swelled into the thousands.
Then in November, U.S. Marines and soldiers along with Iraqi forces stormed the city. The insurgents were ready; armed to the teeth; positioned in houses, shops and mosques; and convinced the Americans would not engage them in close quarters battle. The insurgents were wrong. Fallujah became a veritable tooth-to-eyeball slugfest in which the Americans–often without their tactical edge in air, armor, and artillery–closed with Zarqawi’s headhunters and killed them.
Today Fallujah is a relatively quiet city where, two weeks ago, more than 105,000 people (mostly Sunnis) exercised their right to vote: A huge success by any measure, resulting from a newfound sense of security as well as the efforts of the city’s imams, sheiks, and civic leaders who encouraged the citizenry to go to the polls.
“The Iraqis are seeing this change in their own governance, and that makes them grow even stronger as a nation,” says General Pace.
A stronger nation indeed, but only if Americans back home cease the partisan bickering while our troops are committed in the field.
Yes, there have been lives lost–on both sides and among innocent non-combatants–enormous progress has also been made over the past year: For instance, the new Iraqi military has been established and continues to develop. Nationwide elections have been held, each time with a greater voter turnout than anticipated. The Sunnis are increasingly warming to the idea of democracy. A nationally unifying Iraqi parliament is slated to be elected in December. The economy is growing (though, thanks to the recklessness of the insurgents, with staggered starts and stops). The nation’s physical infrastructure is gradually improving. Women now have a voice. Girls and boys have a free future. And Saddam Hussein is on trial.
In the face of such progress and the purple-ink commitment of the Iraqi people, cutting and running is simply not an option. And public discussions of deaths for naught and exit strategies are not at all helpful.
“The reality is that in this world today with the interactive nature of everything that’s going on, there is no exit strategy,” says Toolan. “We are committed throughout the world. We are not going to exit from anywhere. It’s a long-term commitment to improve conditions that create these insurgencies.”
Certainly, stateside opponents of the war take heart in political bandying over whether or not America should cut and run. So too do the insurgents and others in the Persian Gulf region who want America out of Iraq so that democracy might be uprooted before it takes hold and spreads into neighboring countries. And as long as the bad guys are privy to the effects of casualty numbers used to promote campaigns by Americans hoping to withdraw troops from Iraq (no matter the strategic cost), the insurgency will continue. Bleak, unbalanced stories in American newspapers breathe life into the insurgency.
The bad guys know this. So should we.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.