Politics & Policy

Be Not Afraid

In a place where everything that is not already desert is tinder, sparks tend to catch fire.

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way. You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand. You shall see the face of God and live.

Be not afraid.

I go before you always;

Come follow me, and I will give you rest.

[From a prayer card I found on a base in Anbar Province, Iraq.]

Thoughts flow on the eve of a great battle. By the time these words are released, we will be in combat. Few ears have heard even rumors of this battle, and fewer still are the eyes that will see its full scope. Even now — the battle has already begun for some — practically no news about it is flowing home. I’ve known of the secret plans for about a month, but have remained silent.

This campaign is actually a series of carefully orchestrated battalion- and brigade-sized battles. Collectively, it is probably the largest battle since “major hostilities” ended more than four years ago. Even the media here on the ground do not seem to have sensed its scale.

Al Qaeda and associates had little or no presence in Iraq before the current war. But we made huge mistakes early on and are pumping blood and gold into the region to pay for those blunders. When we failed to secure the streets and to restore the stability needed to get Iraq on its feet, we sowed doubt and mistrust. When we disbanded the government and the army, and tolerated corruption and ineptitude in reconstruction, we created a vacuum and filled the ranks of an insurgency-hydra with mostly local talent. But when we flattened parts of Fallujah not once, but twice, primarily in response to the murders of four of our people, we helped create a spectacle of injustice and chaos, the very conditions in which al Qaeda thrives.

There is no particular spark, no single bolt of lightning, errant campfire, or careless cigarette flicked out a window that caused this conflagration. We walked into a dry, cracked land, where the two arteries of Mesopotamia have long pulsed water and blood through scorched lands into the sea. In a place where everything that is not already desert is tinder, sparks tend to catch fire.

When we eviscerated Fallujah, al Qaeda, who had not been here before, swarmed in and grew like a tumor. There were many insurgent groups already infecting Iraq with many conflicting ideologies and goals, and just as many opportunistic thugs, and some that only needed the band aids and aspirin of open markets and electricity and a feeling of normality. But al Qaeda has been trying to start a civil war here for several years; chaos speeds the decay they feed on.

During about the first three months of 2005, when I was in Diyala Province, I first wrote that Iraq was in Civil War. I felt the backlash from that throughout 2005-2006, and worse, we all watched the sad unfolding of greater and greater lies until now, in 2007, when the civil war is systemically toxic.

Today al Qaeda (AQ) is strong, but their welcome is tenuous in some regions as many Iraqis grow weary enough of the violence that trails them to forcibly evict AQ from some areas they’d begun to feel at home in. Meanwhile, our military, having adapted from eager fire-starting to more measured firefighting, after coming in so ham-fisted early on, has found agility in the new face of this war. Not lost on the locals was the fact that the Coalition wasn’t alone in failing to keep the faith of its promises to Iraqis.

Whereas we failed with the restoration of services and government, AQ has raped too many women and boys in Anbar Province, and cut off too many heads everywhere else for anyone here to believe their claims of moral superiority. And they don’t even try to get the power going or keep the markets open or build schools, playgrounds and clinics for the children. In addition to destroying all of these resources, and murdering the Iraqis who work at or patronize them, AQ attacks people in mosques and churches, too. Thus, to those listening into the wind, an otherwise imperceptible tang in the atmosphere signals the time for change is at hand.

We can dissect our Civil War, or World War II or Vietnam, but there is no way to dissect the current war. Only the residue of those prior wars remains with us today — the scars and headstones, memorial statues, history books, and national boundaries. We only dissect that which is dead. Pathologists who autopsy those wars can no longer affect the outcomes. There is little left to the corpse of a war, but the sculptors of history take the clay and give it shape and substance. But even the most masterful among the artisans — Michelangelo himself — chipping and slicing at marble from Carrara, could not breathe life into the statue of David. Twice I stood in Florence, staring up at David, clad only in his slingshot, the rock with which he would change history cupped in his hand.

But as I write these words, the explosions — cannon fire reverberating day and night, rockets exploding on base, the rumbling and crumpling sounds of car bombs — are the very pulse of this war. This war cannot yet be dissected because it still lives– wounded, angry, thrashing on the table, but alive. We can only hack into it, diagnose it, treat it, knowing each attempt at a cure affects the pulse. Doing nothing causes tachycardia. Much of what afflicts Iraq was here before America was born. But when we elected to perform surgery on this sick land, we used hacksaws and sledgehammers, and took an already sick patient and hacked off some parts while pulverizing others.

Meanwhile, there are stadiums full of people shouting at the doctors, threatening to fire them or revoke their licenses, or at the very least to cut off the lights mid-surgery. In the din of the mob, few seem to notice that the patient, screaming to be healed, is much more alive than dead. The patient roils in agony with every new cut, slashing at doctors and self. Some say we’ve done enough and it’s time for the patient to heal itself. Others are saying we should put it out of our misery, but surely this thing will live, and drag its mutilated self out of the hospital and follow us home, no longer seeking a cure but intent on revenge.

For far too long our media and government have failed to fully inform us — even to the point of lying — about Iraq. I came to this ill-begotten war searching for people who knew the truth and would tell it. After those early embeds in places such as Diyala Province, back when I first began a five month embed in Mosul, I attempted to trace what had gone right and wrong with Nineveh Province during 2003, 2004, and 2005. Nineveh is a reasonable microcosm of an ethnically, religiously and culturally divergent Iraq — clearly affected by the whole, and affecting the whole — and I got in with one of America’s best fighting battalions, the 1-24th Infantry Regiment. They were at war. Out of the battalion of about 700, the soldiers were awarded about 181 purple hearts. And they were winning, clearly winning, in their tough battle space. I traveled around to many units in different provinces, but nowhere was the pulse of this war as palpable as it was with the 1-24th, also called the “Deuce Four.” Importantly, even perhaps presciently, feeling that pulse with my own fingers in 2005 led me to a specific person: David Petraeus, the first Coalition military leader in Nineveh, a general who’s many successes in Iraq were at that time already behind him.

I finally reached General Petraeus after following the Deuce Four back home. He was stationed in Kansas, though why he was in Kansas was beyond me. Having just spent most of 2005 in Iraq, I thought he should be back in Iraq where he was needed. During a phone call to his home early in 2006 we must have talked for about two-hours. He was honest, almost blunt and always cogent, and the conversation added to my growing belief that Petraeus was the doctor who might be able to save this place…

Click here to read the full dispatch from Michael Yon from Iraq.

— Michael Yon is an independent writer, photographer, and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. He is entirely reader supported and publishes his work at www.michaelyon-online.com.


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