Diyala Province, Iraq – Every now and then I get e-mails from friends and family members with subject lines like “Can you believe this?” or “This will make you mad!” Invariably they link to some form of radical rant that either slanders soldiers or so completely departs from the reality I see and experience on the ground in Iraq that I laugh out loud. I typically read and dismiss these messages. In a nation of 300 million, there will always be “those people” – individuals so consumed with ignorance, dominated by hatred, and obsessed with the political cause of the moment that they lose all perspective. But as I prepare to wrap up my deployment and head back home, I’ve changed my mind.
We simply cannot let lies pass unopposed.
Those of us who have been here — who have spent a year (and typically more) of our lives in this place — must speak the truth. Unless we do, yesterday’s slander can become today’s conventional wisdom and tomorrow’s history.
One week ago, I opened one of those e-mails which linked to an insidious article not from some fringe blogger fond of words like “rethuglican” or “Bushitler,” but from a respected member of the mainstream media, a self-described conservative who has occupied space in the most coveted perches of political commentary. Andrew Sullivan, writing from The Atlantic Monthly’s website, compared Russia’s aggression against Georgia with the United States Army in Iraq with the following words:
Just imagine if the press were to discover a major jail in Gori, occupied by the Russians, where hundreds of Georgians had been dragged in off the streets and tortured and abused? What if we discovered that the orders for this emanated from the Kremlin itself? And what if we had documentary evidence of the ghastliest forms of racist, dehumanizing, abusive practices against the vulnerable as the standard operating procedure of the Russian army — because the prisoners were suspected of resisting the occupying power? (Emphasis added).
I was appalled. As an officer in the 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (LTC Paul T. Calvert, Commanding) in eastern Diyala Province, I serve in a unit which is at the very tip of the spear in the Diyala Province, arguably now the central front of the war and one of Iraq’s bloodiest provinces. As a judge advocate, one of my core functions is detainee operations. So I know and have lived our “standard operating procedure.”
I first wanted to write to enlighten Mr. Sullivan about the way our soldiers truly behave. I wanted to tell him of the young men who risk death to capture men they could have killed. I wanted to tell him we are so careful with our detainees that the single worst injury ever suffered by any of the hundreds of men our squadron detained even momentarily was a scraped knee. I wanted to describe our procedures for collecting evidence — procedures so demanding that soldiers have braved IED-laden roads to obtain sworn statements from troops in the field so that detainees could be prosecuted according to the rule of law.
But I realized that all of that would be futile. I realized that Sullivan (and others like him) would slander the 99 percent of soldiers who do the right thing by reference to the 1 percent (or less) who commit crimes. And in the minds of many who inhabit Beltway coffeehouses, cubicles in Brussels, and university lecture halls, we could die doing right . . . but they will still define us by those who do wrong.
So if I can’t persuade Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the Iraqis can. After all, they’ve lived with our “standard operating procedure” every day for more than five years. Who knows the Army better than they?
So, Mr. Sullivan, I have a few questions for you: If “the ghastliest forms of racist, dehumanizing, abusive” practices are our “standard operating procedure” why do the al-Qaeda terrorists I’ve seen (and I’ve personally been face to face with more than 100) often visibly relax when they enter Coalition custody? Why do they so frequently and readily surrender rather than even try to escape our allegedly vicious detention? Why do they sometimes plead to remain in our facilities? If individuals are arbitrarily “dragged off the streets” for “torture and abuse,” why do civilians, including the smallest children, pour out of their homes to see and greet American soldiers when we walk through their villages? Why do they hide behind their mud and stone walls only when they fear reprisals from our enemies or suspect an imminent firefight? If we are such monsters, why do sheikhs and everyday citizens beg for us to stay with them, rather than living in dusty combat outposts in the heart of their communities?
Perhaps Iraqi citizens would shut their doors in fear if they learned about the army from Mr. Sullivan’s columns rather than from their personal interactions. Perhaps insurgents would fight to the death every time rather than face our “racist, dehumanizing” detention if they attended a panel discussion at your average university. Perhaps children would run screaming in fear if they saw almost any of Hollywood’s recent “important” films about the war. But they don’t see any of that. Instead, they see and experience the U.S. Army as it is, warts and all. And while they chafe at the presence of foreign soldiers (as any proud people would), they are making their choice. For more than five years they have seen the contrast between our soldiers and the terrorists and militias. And unlike Andrew Sullivan, they can tell the difference.
Because nothing less than history is at stake (and so few have seen the truth with their own eyes), it’s time for those of us who’ve been here to set the record straight. We must testify to the brutality of our enemies – just two days ago, al-Qaeda thugs in our area of operations shot a two-month-old infant in the face. More importantly, we must bear witness to the courage and virtue of our brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
Some try to define the 99 percent through the actions of the 1 percent.
We can never let that happen.
– David French is a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund and a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is winding down his first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.