Politics & Policy

Don’t Ask Me What I Think about the Petraeus Report

Ask the battalion commanders.

Weeks ago, as the deadline for General David Petraeus’s progress report on the war loomed, journalists were already asking me what I thought of it. Then, as now, I do not know what to think of the report since it is not yet published. Even this coming week, after listening to the general’s testimony before Congress, I will have to read the report and transcripts numerous times, sleep on the information, and reflect on it in light of my own observations of the situation in Iraq. The outcome of the war in Iraq, and to some extent the greater War on Terror, will largely depend upon our decisions today. The outcome is too important for quick words. Many will try to be the first to report on the report, and their reports likely will be the most unreliable.

To form reasonably accurate ideas about what truly is going on in Iraq one must speak with many people. When I first went to Iraq, aside from talking with as many Iraqis as possible, I identified key Coalition military people. I did not necessarily define “key” in terms of either rank or position. Rather, I sought out people whom I believed to be competent, informed, and truthful. Between December 2004, when I first landed in Baghdad as an independent writer, and now, I’ve identified plenty.

For the purpose of the upcoming report, instead of journalists inquiring about what I think, they should be asking Iraqis. Iraqis, in my experience seem to have little problem freely expressing their opinions (women included), and seem particularly inclined to air grievances. To get an excellent and intelligent perspective from Iraqis, I recommend reading the “Iraq the Model” blog site.

When I return to Iraq shortly, I will continue to engage Iraqis from all backgrounds, in my consideration of the impact of, and reaction to, the commanding general’s report.

The reaction and input of military people will also undoubtedly be folded into the news about the General Petraeus’s report. I recall times when mainstream reporters flitted from soldier to soldier doing what I call “opinion shopping.” A variation on this theme would be the more typical tactic of asking a retired general or a newly minted private to render an opinion on a tactical or strategic matter, about certain salient points with which they couldn’t possibly be well acquainted.

But here is a hint to journalists who are seeking truth — good or bad. There is one group of officers whose input has invariably proved both relevant and revelatory for me in compiling my work: battalion commanders who are commanding infantry or special operations units. Special operations people are unlikely to go on record, but the special operations people that I’ve talked with tend to be very knowledgeable and frank, and their input on background is critical. As for the infantry battalion commanders, they are the proverbial sweet spot. Battalion command sergeant majors can be excellent, too, but they often will not go on record. Battalion commanders will tend to be willing to go on record, and will tend to talk to journalists.

It’s important to understand why I think battalion commanders — especially infantry commanders — are the best bet for unmitigated truth coming from just the right places on the ground; they are the best bet because they have SA: Situational Awareness. Good journalists don’t go around interviewing privates and young sergeants about strategic situations because privates and young sergeants don’t know what they are talking about. I know. I was both.

Also, you don’t want to rely heavily on people who are too high ranking, because they can be too politically compromised.

Discerning which officers to talk to is rather like the story of the three bears: Some beds are too big, some beds are too small, but one bed is just right. For this report, the fairy tale translates into something like this: company commander (captain; too small for purposes of the upcoming report); battalion command (lieutenant colonel; just right); brigade commander (colonel; getting too large, but usually is also a good interview); division commander (major general; too large).

The “just right” place is battalion commander, or “BC.” The BC typically will interact with Iraqis six to seven days per week. The BC will be outside the base and downtown just about daily, so he is not insulated. He is interacting, but he also is exposed to higher-level information and goings-on. An infantry BC might command about 700 soldiers, and his responsibilities are vast because they begin and end with life and death. A BC will see Iraqis get killed due to policy decisions, and moreover he will see his own people get injured or killed. Any BC who had tolerance for B.S.before the war tends to have it sandblasted away. Being in combat personally, and having to explain to parents at home why their son or daughter was injured or killed, can have that abrasive effect.

The BCs are vetted and tend to be exceptional individuals with exceptional SA about their particular battle-space. It usually doesn’t take long to register the reasons these seasoned individuals were chosen for the BC position. Most of the BCs I’ve encountered are 40-45 years old. They’ve done multiple combat tours and lived around the world, so their bigger picture has matured into a broader context. Iraq is often not their defining moment, but more a whistle stop.

That said, there are downsides, especially to relying strictly on one or two BCs. While they are leading combat units, they work like plow horses. The work load can be severe, and though they tend to have much broader context than most people, during their combat tours their focus is isolated to their own battle-spaces. Therefore they are most knowledgeable about their own battle-space and their contiguous battle-spaces. They seem to lose context for the broader Iraq while they are at war, and then redevelop that context when they leave, with the addition of an increasingly informed experience-set.

Most importantly, BCs who are in combat tend to be strikingly frank. They are too involved with day-to-day real war to be concerned with sugar, and so they often will say things that likely were not, let’s say, approved by higher command, which tends to be more insulated from the battlefield. Higher commanders often have a great deal of combat experience, but they tend to start taking on different roles and can be more guarded in their talk.

So, while the BC position is just right, talking with only one or two may not give the most accurate portrayal because they will tend to be focused on their own environment. Therefore it’s necessary to talk with numerous BCs. It’s important to get British input, but though their military is extremely competent, they can be more difficult to get on record. So, I would suggest that to audit the upcoming report, reach out to about ten BCs from around Iraq: Nineveh, Anbar, Diyala, Baghdad. Check the cities of Basra, Samarra, Tikrit, Kirkuk and others. While some BCs may be guarded, others will be shockingly frank, and in aggregate, a reporter can begin to develop a feel for the place as seen through an excellent perspective. Additionally, they will be drawing on the reports of those who are not always going to tote someone’s party line.

Caveat emptor: Do not merely rely on the Public Affairs Office (PAO) in Baghdad to ask for introductions. They might stack the deck. Search the web and you can find which units are where, and with that you can figure out ways to reach out to the units without a middleman. The BC will still likely clear any conversation with a journalist with their PAO, but now you have short-circuited any PAO attempt to give you a “happy tour.” I guarantee that if you get ten battalion commanders to talk, the result will not be a “happy tour,” but a realistic feel from the people who know.

– Michael Yon is an independent reporter whose work is reader-supported. To make the investment in his future work, contribute here.


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