Mansuriyat al Jabal, Iraq — JAG officers like me tend to be a bit nervous whenever we go “outside the wire,” and last Thursday’s kerosene-delivery mission to the small Diyala River Valley town of Mansuriyat al Jabal (or “MAJ”) was no exception. The 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Paul T. Calvert, commanding) was deep into the second week of “Operation Raider Harvest,” a complex operation designed to deny al-Qaeda one of its last safe havens. As the squadron cleared the local towns of al-Qaeda, we also brought much-needed supplies, including humanitarian assistance (rice, flour, etc.), medical care, and kerosene (vital for cooking and heating on cold northern Iraq winter nights).
The Squadron Operations Officer, Major Cameron Cantlon, had asked me to ride along on the kerosene mission. It is important for staff officers (yes, even lawyers) to see the “real Iraq” so that the decisions they make in the relative safety of a forward operating base (“FOB”) are effective and productive for the troops on the line. So I grabbed my body armor and my M4 and headed for the nearest Humvee.
The trip from the FOB to MAJ was short and uneventful, but once we arrived, I was shocked by the scale of the need and the size of the crowd. No less than 800 Iraqis — most of them desperately poor — were lined up, each holding empty 20 or 30 gallon jugs. Very young children stood patiently in line, holding containers as tall as they were. The town had gone without fuel for some time, and the villagers were hungry and cold.
Because we knew that the town was formerly dominated by al-Qaeda (before we arrived, al-Qaeda committed atrocities against the former town leaders, killing many and destroying their homes), and because a fuel truck full of highly flammable kerosene would make an excellent target, the lawyer wasn’t the only nervous soldier out there. “Doc” Allen, a medic who had seen just about everything, leaned over and said, “I’ll be surprised if nothing happens today.”
Thankfully, Doc Allen was surprised — thanks to the professionalism and vigilance of the young soldiers of Grim Troop, who pulled off an operation that combined firm crowd control and constant vigilance with a light and compassionate touch. The kerosene delivery — done under a warm sun and a cloudless sky — was quiet and routine.
I’m keeping a journal of my experiences in Iraq — something I hope my kids and grandkids can read many years from now — and I began that day’s entry: “Nothing happened in MAJ today.”
But as soon as I typed those words, I knew they were wrong. Something did happen. Not only did hundreds of individuals have their basic needs met — at least for that day — but in terms of the war in Iraq, “nothing” isn’t just something — it’s everything.
We will win the war when “nothing happened today” is the common report, when “nothing” means no explosions, no beheadings, no snipers, no torture, and no kidnappings, when “nothing” means that kids went to school, mothers went to the market, and dads went to work.
The desperate quest for “nothing” is one of the many things that separates us from our enemies in Iraq. Regardless of where one stands on the essential morality or wisdom of the initial decision to invade and topple Saddam Hussein, it is difficult to argue with the fundamental justice of our case today. When one side wins when life attains its most normal rhythms of work, play, and school, and the other side wins when that life is disrupted by the most hideous violence imaginable, there is no real debate as to who is right and who is wrong.
The citizens of MAJ know what life under al-Qaeda is like, and they are now beginning to experience life in the new, free Iraq. As the Iraqi army completes work on an outpost in town so that the only permanent military presence is Iraqi, and as the men of the town start to work on clearing local canals, repairing bridges, and renovating schools, it looks like we have a fighting chance to make “nothing happened in MAJ today” the common report.
And that’s how this war will end, not with toppled statues, not with defeated armies surrendering en masse, and almost certainly without any victory parades. It will end with . . . nothing. And when the last Humvee rolls out, it will perhaps roll out without even a wave.
The people of Iraq will be too busy living their lives to pay much attention.
– David French is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and a senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund. This is his first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.