Which of these two do we Americans know anything about?
Is it the daily minutiae of an empty-headed blond, or the enlightened action of a Marine colonel in Iraq, who helped turn once murderous Sunni insurgents into fellow enemies of al Qaeda — in a war that might well change the future of millions in the region and of Americans here at home?
In this time of war, our news channels — with updated alerts no less that interrupt the usual IED fare from Iraq — tell us more than we wish about O.J.’s latest rampage in Vegas. But they give us almost nothing about Colonels Rick Gibbs, or David Sutherland, or JB Burton, or Paul Funk, or Michael Kershaw — or dozens more like Cols JR McMaster and Chris Gibson, who are daily trying to incorporate former enemies in the so-called Triangle of Death into coalition forces to stabilize Iraq.
How they, and hundreds of their fellow officers — away from their families on serial tours, replete with MAs and PhDs, and often survivors of multiple IED attacks — do this is largely lost on the American public in a way Aruba, the ghost of the drug-laden Anna Nicole Smith, and the trashy Britney Spears are not.
I don’t wish to suggest that our present titillation on the home front, or amnesia about those fighting overseas, is entirely foreign to the American war experience. In 1942 Americans kept their business-as-usual East Coast cities lit up at night, apparently oblivious that their resulting silhouetted freighters meant German U-boats would sink a fifth of the entire U.S. merchant fleet in the first year of the war, along with slaughtering 5,000 Americans, usually right off the American shoreline.
Nor should we entirely blame the increasing tabloidization on Fox News and the other less watched 24/7 all-news cable stations that in some respects offer more war coverage than do the major network stations. It is debatable, after all, whether the National Enquirer-hype of Greta Van Susteren, for so long embedded in Aruba, itself promotes the inconsequential as news, or simply reflects — in a competitive war for ratings and market share — our preexisting public inanity.
Or is the neglect of our soldiers in battle because our leaders have never asked us to sacrifice in a manner commensurate with the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq? Should we have paid as we fought — with a fuel tax to meet the spiraling costs of the war — or crafted a bipartisan agreement to cut spending to beef up our military, or a comprehensive energy policy of more conservation, alternate energies and oil exploration to make the Middle East irrelevant to our future survival?
Or in a postmodern war this complex, was the eloquence of a Churchill or an FDR — who pass by us once in a century — needed to galvanize the public about the insidious terrorist danger, and why we will not and cannot lose Iraq?
Whatever the debatable causes of our neglect, the effects of our preference for the trivial as our own fight and die in Iraq are that we have no idea of the real story of this war — raw history that is made even as we snooze. Remember, Iraq is not Grenada, Panama, or even the Balkans. It is a terribly dangerous, geo-strategic war that involves post-9/11 Islam, the world’s fragile petroleum supply, a rising and increasingly lunatic Iran, and the very notion that American ground forces can still fight and win a war of counter-insurgency in which all their conventional assets of firepower and superior training can be nullified by cheap IEDs, the lies of Al-Jazzera, and terrorist killers hiding among civilians.
It seems instead that one of two things is going on that explains why only a fraction of the American people follows our soldiers. Either Iraq has become a taboo subject, evoked only to cast blame ad nauseam about what went wrong or who erred in 2003-5, or we as a people have become crasser, in our leisure and influence — more glued to good-looking empty-heads than the hearts and souls of those who defend us. But, of course, a society that does not fathom who keeps them safe in order that it might stare at Oprah and fixate on Brad and Angelina, eventually will be a society not kept safe either to so stare or fixate.
What is going on in Iraq is quite remarkable in a number of historical ways that should have earned our rapt attention. We entered Iraq to remove Saddam, did that brilliantly, and then found ourselves in a complex second war to stabilize the new democracy, one in which almost everyone in the Middle East upped the ante — Syria to ensure that Iraq failed and did not undermine by example its own autocracy; Jordan and the Gulf monarchies to thwart nearby Shiite-dominated rule; and Iran to become regional hegemon by weakening its historical rival Iraq and bogging down the United States. The result is that we found ourselves not just in a war for Iraq, but one for the entire Middle East — the rewards of success and the penalties for failure far beyond what was imaginable in March 2003.
Nor have we appreciated the radical changes of the last three months on the ground in Iraq. For a variety of reasons — Sunnis’ hatred of al Qaeda thugs, their general weariness and attrition by U.S. forces, fear of Shiite militias, and kindness shown them by American soldiers — American colonels and their staffs in Anbar and Diyala provinces have been able to enlist former Sunni insurgents into common cause against al Qaeda. This is startling, since if the transformation were to succeed, then al Qaeda would need to fail — and with it almost all Sunni resistance to the coalition.
Critics here at home argue that we invested too heavily in Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan. But the truth is that al Qaeda went for broke in Mesopotamia — the oil-rich heart of the ancient caliphate — and if defeated there will feel the losses from the Hindu Kush to the Philippines. And if the attacks from the Sunni extremists were to cease, then there would be far less reason to be for the Shiite militias, allowing the United States to turn its full attention to the plodding Maliki government to reach out and fuel Sunni efforts at reconciliation and reconstruction. That ordeal to get the elected Shiite-government to muzzle Shiite militias and to fairly distribute state monies and services to Sunni provinces is considerable — but it is manageable and not the same as the entire Sunni provinces in revolt, taking arms alongside al Qaeda.
In other words, the global war on terror is crystallizing in Iraq; Iraq is hinging on turning the Sunni insurgents and prodding the Maliki government; and the entire gambit rests on just a few anonymous American soldiers. So we should know the names of the Iraqis and Americans who brought this change about, in the manner we knew of Bastogne and Iwo Jima.
There is a third recent story that likewise went unnoticed as we turned our gaze from the radio jock Imus’s firing to George Clooney’s motorcycle spill. Iraq is now a colonel’s war, where American officers in their early forties in large swaths of Anbar and Diyala provinces are trying to fight, reconcile, and reconstruct entire provinces larger than some American states. In peacetime they would have the military responsibilities of two-star generals, the municipal worries of big-city mayors, and the administrative tasks of state governors.
Who they are, how they were trained and educated, and what they must do to succeed is a saga that would rivet the American people. I think most of the public would like to hear of the work of a Sean MacFarland, or an HR McMaster, or a Rick Gibbs, and JB Burton, and Chris Gibson, far more than they would the ranting of Cindy Sheehan, or the vulgarity of Sean Penn.
And, as important as the turn-around in Iraq is, there is yet another largely unknown, but related development. We are creating, from the midlevel up, an entirely new American army. Most of our present senior generals came of age after Vietnam; some saw only limited action in the four days of the 1991 Gulf War, and none in the largely air campaign in the Balkans. In contrast, our present Army and Marine majors, lieutenant- and full colonels, have seen nothing but hard war for the last five years in Afghanistan and Iraq — and with it prior wisdom proved folly, and what was once considered heretical now is now validated as doctrine.
If military history is any guide to the future — and if there is justice in the Pentagon — this group of highly educated officers will soon become our generals, with a wealth of knowledge, camaraderie, and a war-hardened sense not seen since the cauldron of Vietnam. And this time they will be buoyed by being acknowledged as victors in a humane cause.
So the next six months of this war are critical, both for the Iraqis and for the very future of our country as well. Who knows, perhaps Fox News can spotlight and profile one of these rare officers each week, just one captain, major or colonel — and maybe just one less blond high school teacher frolicking with her students?