Politics & Policy

Executing the Mission Statement

Sheep, rice, bullets, and blood.

Diyala Province, Iraq — For most of my career, I’ve worked in perhaps the most despised profession in America: the large-firm corporate lawyer. Anyone who’s spent any time within the much-maligned mahogany corridors of legal power knows that life is dominated by long hours, demanding clients, and . . . mission statements.

Yes, mission statements. It would be hard to overstate the number of hours spent at “retreats” or in meetings with partners, associates, consultants, and “facilitators” agonizing over the purpose and direction of the firm or the local branch office of the firm or the department within the local branch office of the firm. We would endlessly discuss the immortal questions so powerfully raised by Admiral James Stockdale: Who are we? Why are we here? For some reason, my answer — “This firm exists to make as much money as it can within the rules of honor, law, and ethics” — never made the cut. Too crass, I suppose.

Despite my best efforts, I still can’t shake the mission-statement mentality — the urge to reduce complex efforts to a single-sentence summary — and I find myself doing that even here in Iraq. I just passed the 23rd week of my mobilization, and I think I finally came up with a sentence that sums up our current fight pretty well: “Our mission is to help rebuild a shattered country while overcoming vast cultural differences in the midst of constant combat.”

If there is just one story that sums up the reality of this place, it is a story told by a veteran trooper in my unit, 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (LTC Paul T. Calvert, Commanding). The story dates back to Operation Iraqi Freedom III and the regiment’s battle for Tal Afar. The community was in the midst of celebrating Eid al-Adha, an occasion which often calls for the sacrifice of the family’s best domestic animal (typically a sheep). Many Iraqis, however, are too poor to afford a sheep for sacrifice, and — as a good-will gesture — the trooper was ordered to purchase sheep, bring them to the town, and give them to the poorer citizens. Sounds simple enough, right? But as we should all know by now, there is nothing simple in Iraq.

At the time, 3rd ACR was in the midst of its now-famous struggle to wrest the city from extremists, and there was a good chance that any given mission would result in enemy contact. So the troopers couldn’t exactly get a pickup truck and trailer to bring the sheep to town. How do you get sheep into town when there’s a chance of roadside bomb and ambushes? How do you protect the sheep and the troopers bringing the sheep?

Why, you jam them all into the back of a Bradley Cavalry Fighting vehicle, of course. Twelve sheep, a few unhappy troopers, and a large load of ammunition all lodged in a space where three men can barely sit in comfort.

They proceeded into town, where a crowd promptly gathered as they began to hand out the sheep. Because crowds can attract attention, the troopers hurried up the delivery by practically tossing the sheep from the Bradley to the enthusiastic local citizens.

But then . . . contact. Small-arms fire. The troopers dove back into their Bradley and neutralized the threat. And then jumped right back out and gave out the rest of the sheep. As they handed out the last of their bleating cargo, one of the local citizens — with a mighty shout of Allah Akhbar — slaughtered the animal right in front of the shocked (and amused) troopers. Recalling the incident’s combination of humanitarian assistance, combat, and public animal sacrifice, the trooper just smiles and says, “Now that was a good day.”

We haven’t handed out any sheep during this deployment (at least not yet), but we’ve done much to rebuild a shattered corner of a shattered nation. Here in the eastern Diyala Province, where the land and buildings are still scarred from the Iran-Iraq war, my unit has helped refurbish schools, open health clinics, repair water pumps, build soccer fields, and clean up towns. We have brought humanitarian food aid and medical care to rural villages that have seen very few Coalition soldiers during the five years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And more than once, our troopers have dined on freshly slaughtered lamb, while sitting on the floor sipping tea with their Iraqi hosts.

The squadron has done these things in the midst of constant enemy contact. In February, our Fox Troop — acting on tips provided by local citizens — destroyed an AQI cell and killed a senior AQI leader. Working with the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, we have detained dozens of alleged extremists. Our troopers regularly fight through IED attacks.

Combat has its costs. High costs. Since my last piece for National Review Online my unit has lost five Troopers and one Iraqi-American civilian interpreter. One of those troopers, Captain Torre Mallard, was mentioned in my first NRO report as one of the men making a difference during Operation Raider Harvest, a recently completed operation in Diyala’s breadbasket area in the northern Diyala River Valley. He was also my friend. Each of the men who died represented the best our nation has to offer — men who were willing to give all that they could give for their nation and for their brothers-in-arms.

In reality, it’s just too trite to speak of mission statements. Instead, men like Captain Mallard, Sergeant Corey Spates, Sergeant Phillip Anderson, Sergeant Gregory Unruh, Specialist Donald Burkett, and Mr. Albert Haroutounian were doing nothing less than pursuing a noble calling — and pursuing it with courage, integrity, and honor that I can scarcely comprehend.

 – David French is a senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund and a captain in the United States Army Reserve. This is his first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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