Michael Yon is the brave independent reporter who has told us the story of this war on his website, michaelyon-online.com. Now he is the author of the new book, Moment of Truth in Iraq, published by the new Richard Vigilante Books. Michael recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What does it mean to be American “in the most romantic sense of the word” and why is it essential to counterinsurgency?
Michael Yon: Remember the scene in Lawrence of Arabia, where Peter O’Toole executes an Arab friend? “It was written,” Anthony Quinn tries to console him. Lawrence turns on him furiously and declares “Nothing is written.” It’s a very American moment in an English story. Americans live in a romance of possibility; we say “we can do it!” We reject fate.
Replacing fatalism with hope is crucial in a counterinsurgency. The citizen is trapped by despair — caught between an inept and/or corrupt local government and brutalizing terrorists. So when the government comes looking for the terrorists-next-door, the neighbors say nothing. That’s how insurgencies survive.
Counterinsurgency is political war. Governments that can’t remove sewage, lose the people. So in a counter insurgency American soldiers trained to hunt and kill terrorists may find themselves in a Baghdad neighborhood talking to the locals about sewage removal.
Strange combo, you might say — warriors and sewage removal. But these warriors are Americans. If it needs to be done, they do it or help do it. And next thing you know, the locals are telling our folks where the terrorists are hiding.
The romance of self-reliance. Replacing fatalism with hope. This is absolutely essential because counterinsurgency works only if people help defend themselves.
The American soldier is the most dangerous man in the world, and the Iraqis had to learn that before they would trust or respect our folks. But it is only after they see with their own eyes these great-hearted warriors, who so enjoy killing the enemy, are even happier helping to build a school or to make a neighborhood safe that we really got their attention.
Lopez: How many days of this war have you spent on the frontlines? What got you there the first time and what’s brought you back subsequently?
Yon: I don’t know how many days. Since December 2004, I have been either in Iraq or Afghanistan a lot more than I have been in the U.S. And most of the time I have been embedded in combat units. At first I traveled around a lot from place to place, unit to unit. But then I found that if I settled down with a unit for a while, lived as they live (though they try to keep me from getting shot, or misplaced) I would see the war more closely than other writers.
In a counterinsurgency there may be a lot of combat but there is really no frontline.Counterinsurgency is a fight wherein the people are the center of gravity, and the fight takes place not on the high seas, but in the neighborhoods where the people live and where the terrorists hide. We are winning partly because in the most violent sections of the country this became a war of competing values, terrorist values vs. American values. But only when we got off our big bases, and out of our tanks and deeper into the neighborhoods, could we make that choice very clear. Few people with a choice choose al Qaeda.
Lopez: How has the Internet changed war reporting?
Yon: It means that instead of getting paid to go to Iraq and get shot, I can do it for free. It also means the sky is the limit on reaching readers worldwide. People from approximately 100 countries come to my site each day.
Lopez: What is al-Qaeda’s view of masculinity and how does it differ from the American military’s?
Yon: Al-Qaeda models a street gang notion of masculinity in which the cruelest, most destructive and bullying are seen as the toughest and most admired. Raping children and murdering their parents is a gang-banger’s way of asserting his masculinity. And a lot of al-Qaeda recruits are young gang members who join up for the money, the drugs, and the guns.
For the American soldier the ideal of masculinity is “protect and serve,” especially the weak, and women and kids. It means killing the bad guys.
When al-Qaeda murderers detonate a bomb in the middle of a crowd of school children, our guys rush the kids to the medics. Then they go kill the terrorists. They are really good at both. They may enjoy hanging out with kids more than killing terrorists, but it’s a close call. Our guys really like killing terrorists.
Lopez: My impression is you did not go over as a Bush/McCain foot-solider saying “No surrender,” now I’ll slant the story to make sure we don’t. You went there wanting to tell what was going on. What brought you to “no surrender” mode?
Yon: We made horrible mistakes in 2004 and 2005.
It is true that al-Qaeda funded and tried to control the Sunni insurgency and use it to start a civil war. But al -Qaeda never would have had such a big chance if we hadn’t given it to them. Al-Qaeda exploited the insurgency, but we helped create it. The extent of the Sunni insurgency was not inevitable. Much of it was a reaction — and in some ways a rational reaction — to American policies approved by the Bush administration and enforced by Ambassador Bremer.
General Petraeus proved that the insurgency was not inevitable by what he achieved while in command of Nineveh province in 2003. He was able to restore civil order, rebuild security, even hold local elections and see the economy start coming back to life. He held local elections in Nineveh before Bremer was on the ground in Baghdad.
Part of the reason it worked was that Petraeus got temporary exemptions from the policies that excluded former Ba’ath party members from any role in post-Saddam Iraq. Nineveh for some reason happens to be a big retirement area for Iraqi army officers. Petraeus used to have tea once a week with dozens of former Generals, many of whom were helpful in restoring order. A year later, when Petraeus was gone and the Bremer policies were fully enforced many of those same men, or their protégés, were in the field against us.
Lopez: All that sounds pretty discouraging. But once again, what changed your mind?
Yon: Things changed dramatically in 2007. The Anbar awakening actually got started in 2006, but when Petraeus took command in 2007 things really turned around. He understands counterinsurgency, believes it can work, and has experience with it working — and then falling apart — in Iraq.
I saw that American units were doing what he had asked of them, and switching from “kinetic warfare” mode to counterinsurgency. That wasn’t a “gimme.” Special Forces are trained in counterinsurgency. Most regular Army and Marines are not. But I observed large “traditional” units learning more about Counterinsurgency.
Then of course there was the “awakening” when so many of the Sunni tribes switched sides and began fighting with us against al-Qaeda. This really started in 2006 but settled over parts of Iraq in 2007.
But most of all I began to see the fruits. I saw it working, the Iraqi people beginning to align with us and for themselves. I saw it in big “kinetic” battles where we took a fraction of the casualties we expected because the citizens told us where almost every terrorist ambush and booby trap was hidden. And I saw it in neighborhoods in which the American military had become the most respected institution in Iraq, and it was our soldiers whom the people turned too for protection but also for justice.
Lopez: What was the low point of our efforts in Iraq?
Yon: I think flattening Fallujah in revenge for the massacre and public desecration of four American security contractors was a terrible mistake. It looked like a declaration of war against the Iraqi people, and many Iraqis who had been on the fence took it that way. Fallujah — and of course Abu Ghraib — were giant recruitment campaigns for al Qaeda that were launched in April 2004.
Lopez: Was the surge the turning point or was it something more under the radar?
Yon: The “Awakening” was a separate phenomenon that happened before and after the surge, and continues today. If you think of “the surge” as just an increase in troop levels, then it does not begin to describe what happened or how we turned things around. It’s true we needed lots of troops to do a counter-insurgency right — and we still need more today — but changing our approach was critical. More troops doing more of the wrong thing would have just been more wrong. We needed more troops doing things better and that’s what we got.
You win a counterinsurgency by walking the neighborhood, not by flattening it. Not that counterinsurgency is a tea dance. There are always some people you just have to kill and our guys are always ready for that job. But the army alone can’t protect a neighborhood any more than the police alone can protect a neighborhood. You need the neighbors.
Lopez: So we should be talking about increasing troop levels not decreasing.
Yon: Absolutely. We know we can win, we know we are winning. We know the investment will pay off. But counterinsurgency requires lots of boots on the ground. On the ground, not in tanks or planes.
Lopez: How is a dog instant morale on the frontlines?
Yon: American soldiers love dogs and kids and you will find dogs on every big base in Iraq even though it’s completely against the rules. When I embedded with the Tennessee National Guard the base was full of them — mostly sleeping right outside the dining hall. But at night those dogs were out patrolling the perimeter.Really they were. The Tennessee soldiers will remember that!
The dogs know whose side they are on. The “Deuce Four” battalion up in Mosul adopted a dog named Sheba. One day Sheba trotted up holding in her jaws the heart that apparently belonged to the driver of a suicide truck bomb. It was a giant bomb and the soldiers believed that heart must have belonged to the driver. I believe they found his face on a nearby roof. The “vector control” people — in charge of preventing disease — tried to take Sheba away but the commander told them to leave her alone and never come back.
Many Iraqi kids have been brought back to the U.S. for medical treatment after soldiers found them sick. I recall the case of Rhma in 2005 in Mosul. Cute little girl with a heart condition. The soldiers got the case rolling, and before long good-hearted American citizens had her in New Mexico getting treated. I recall a story wherein her mom was so surprised because she thought Americans must hate Iraqis, and then she realized we don’t hate them at all.
Lopez: Why do you spend most of your time with infantry troops and not special forces?
Yon: Our Special Forces are great. I used to be one of them. But a lot of what they do can’t be written about. I did a Special Forces mission a few weeks ago. In fact it was my last mission to date. Meanwhile infantry soldiers are great to talk to because they really don’t have time for anything but the unvarnished truth. Some army or state department bureaucrat might issue a memo like “The tenuous security situation in Ramadi makes it advisable to don protective headgear in situations in which visitors may be exposed to hostile fire.” The infantry will just put up a sign that says “The last dumbass who didn’t duck got shot in the head.”
Lopez: What will be Deuce Four’s place in the history of this war?
Yon: I have called al Qaeda a gang. Another way of saying that is that al-Qaeda is a cult. It requires slavish obedience to an evil code and it is horrible in many ways but it gives young men especially something with which to affiliate.
The Deuce Four battalion, led by LTC Erik Kurilla in Mosul in 2005 when Mosul was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, was a counter-cult, a warrior cult, brave, dangerous, honorable. Kurilla, who is one of the great weapons in the U.S. arsenal, was the cult leader. And he knew it. He modeled courage and honor and death for the enemy. He became a legend in Mosul and his example inspired not only his own troops but Iraqi Army and police who wanted to be like him. The book has lots of Kurilla stories. But the point is you have to give the young men a model to aspire to that isn’t the al-Qaeda model. And then you have to kill lots and lots of al-Qaeda and never give in to them, because the young men have to understand that your model wins. And that you should always treat the locals with respect and dignity.
Lopez: Tell me about the Iraqi security forces.
Yon: Well here’s the good news: whatever problems they have, lack of courage is not one of them. Iraqis are brave fighters. Any badly led or badly trained unit can panic under fire, but few Iraqi soldiers are cowards. I have seen Iraqi regulars and even militia perform courageously under fire. Some units are better than others, but some like the Iraqi 2nd and 3rd Divisions have solid reputations.
The bad news is that it takes a long time to train a modern army and the hardest skills to train don’t necessarily have to do with engaging the enemy in combat on any given day. There is an old saying “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” Logistics, administering a base that is really a small city, moving 20,000 men cross-country to attack “from the march”: those are partly MBA skills and they just take a while.
Bottom line: They have improved amazingly. On my first stay in Iraq in 2004-05, I would often take cover whenever I saw an Iraqi soldier with a gun. In 2007 Coalition forces held the city of Mosul, against heavy terrorist opposition, with one U.S. battalion, about 750 men. We could do that only because Iraqi security forces, army and police, bore most of the burden. The Iraqis do most of the fighting these days.
Lopez: How do Iraqi soldiers and police emulate American Marines and soldiers? Has it affected progress?
Yon: Our guys are the best warriors and so they have the most respect. That’s huge in Iraq and it means everyone wants to be us, especially the guys in Iraqi security forces.
Sometimes it shows in silly hero worship stuff like imitating a walk or way of talking. But often it is very important stuff, like how we treat prisoners. Iraqis can be very harsh on prisoners. But then they see how our guys act with restraint and that becomes the cool, professional, manly thing to. (Long way to go on that front, though.)
One big thing Iraqi officers have learned from Americans is to lead from the front, not the rear. They saw Americans officers and NCOs lead from the front. They saw that in the American army, the higher the rank the more you protect and serve, the more you put yourself on the line. That was a huge lesson for them to learn and they learned by example because they were ashamed not to take the same risks as American officers and NCOs.
Lopez: Why did our “welcome” in Anbar end quickly?
Yon: Fallujah is the capital city of Anbar. We had already alienated the people of Fallujah as we did in Baghdad by failing to keep order, failing to do some of our basic jobs as liberators, leaving a vacuum in the streets. Then after the contractors were killed we hit the city twice, hard. The first time supposedly we halted the attack for diplomatic and humanitarian reasons, but the truth is we ran into much fiercer resistance than expected. The second time, Operation Phantom Fury in November 2004, we really smashed through the city. It’s impossible to know how many people died, but it was many. That, and the detainee abuse, pretty much did in our welcome in Anbar and many other places. First we were useless; then we were destructive. Who needs us?
Lopez: How was al-Qaeda “strangled and pummeled to death in Baqubah”?
Yon: We took Baqubah by surprise — almost. There were leaks and many escaped. But our troops raced up from near Baghdad and attacked “from the March” to try to seal off the city and make sure we would kill as many AQI as possible. As I said we didn’t entirely succeed, but we did pretty well.
But the real key to Baqubah was the citizens. U.S. and Iraqi forces cleared Baqubah in a very deliberate, not rushed, house-by-house way to minimize our casualties but also civilian casualties and even property damage. Some huge number of buildings were wired with explosives by the enemy. It was unbelievably dangerous but the people were very helpful.
Lopez: Why can’t the same thing happen in Mosul?
Yon: Mosul is a haven for what’s left of al-Qaeda but it is not under al-Qaeda control as Baqubah essentially was. The scorecard is much harder to follow. There are a lot of bad guys in Mosul who are not strictly speaking irreconcilable terrorists. They are more like the kind of mafias that arise in a place where the civil culture is very weak and corrupt, and they are actually part of the fabric of society, bad as some of them are. You can’t really just do a house-to-house and rip them all out of that fabric. They have local connections and good cover and they are not all necessarily our blood enemies, and al-Qaeda is just one group.
So it will take longer. Also we need more troops. We can’t do Mosul in a hurry without a lot more American troops. So probably we will do it slowly with Iraqi forces carrying most of the burden.
Lopez: Is it possible to tell Farah’s story without someone tearing up?
Yon: Not without me tearing up, so I am going to let people read it in the book. She’s the girl on the cover being carried away from a car-bomb attack by Major Bieger.
Lopez: Will David Petraeus be president of the United States?
Yon: He would make a great president. But the best thing the U.S. is going to get out of Iraq is a great generation of leaders who have had a unique experience in American history of trying to help freedom and democracy and the rule of law take root in a culture that has never known them. Someone should write a book about what that experience could mean for American democracy.
The other day Michael Medved asked me during his show what I would say to people who say that the U.S. military in Iraq is the dregs of American society. And you know you are not supposed to be struck speechless in a radio interview; it’s very bad form. But I really was. At first I thought I was hearing him wrong because it seemed just impossible that anyone would say that. The men and women serving in Iraq are the elite of America — and that I believe is going to become very clear over the next 10-20 years.
Lopez: Let’s say Barack Obama becomes president. How does Iraq work out?
Yon: Well, I don’t do politics.
But since you brought it up, in my view the Bush administration was mostly wrong about the war for a long time and now seems to be mostly right. I will say that Sen. McCain is one of the few who seems to have understood the war, not just backed it, but understood it from the very beginning.
That shows in his steadfast opposition to torture, by the way. Betraying American values is no way to win a counterinsurgency. We win counterinsurgencies by killing the “irreconcilables” and then showing everyone else what America is really like.
Lopez: What is the future of al-Qaeda?
Yon: In Iraq its future is bleak. Al-Qaeda is not a mistake the Iraqi people will make twice in a lifetime. Al -Qaeda will still do some killing, especially up in Mosul, but mostly they are just being killed or captured and losing ground month by month.
Lopez: What’s going to happen with Iran?
Yon: That’s way above my pay grade.