After our meeting with Ambassador Crocker, I meet Maj. Don Potts. You’ve met him before — indeed, you have seen him before, if you keep up with Impromptus. About a month ago, I published this photo: here. He was playing golf, in a makeshift, soldierly way.
The issue arose when President Bush revealed he was not playing golf: He thought it was unseemly for the commander-in-chief to do so in wartime. I disagreed — strongly, and said why — but I understood his position.
Of course, our boys in conflict have played golf all over the world, for generations. And so they do in Iraq. Major Potts is one of them. He and his friends play golf — an inventive golf — near Saddam’s “crossed swords” monument. In fact, they call their track the Crossed Swords Golf Course. (I think Country Club might be better.) I wish I could join them, during this visit. There’s no time.
But I’m pleased to meet Don Potts all the same. And maybe we can peg it up sometime, in circumstances normal or ab.
‐Our group makes its way to Camp Cropper, to tour a detention center. Must be a hellhole, huh? A nightmare of torture and depravity. Not really. The people who are detained here are very, very lucky detainees indeed — very, very lucky jihadists, or former jihadists.
They have the best medical care, the best nutrition — professionals in white coats looking after them. Diabetes seems to be a problem, and that is treated.
An assortment of classes is held. The detainees learn “life skills.” As the general in charge, Robert Kenyon, says, “Everyone gets a skill set” — they’ll need it on the outside. There are “Islamic discussion” sessions, too.
For some of these people, getting detained is the best break they ever had. They’re not hardcore al-Qaeda: They were in the wrong place, or did a job for money, or were a little screwed up (or a lot). Some detainees don’t want to leave, and, in fact, fear doing so. Some mothers say: “Won’t you keep my son for longer?”
Camp Cropper is very, very different from being captured by al-Qaeda — very different indeed. And the coalition makes a point of telling the detainees so.
When they leave, they get to choose Western or Arab clothing. And they get $25 to put in their pocket. They also have the instruction and care they received.
I think — for the thousandth time during this trip — has there ever been so benign a major power as the United States? Some people would regard that as naïve. I regard them as confused.
About 25 prisoners come in a day, and about 50 are released. Recidivism, we’re told, is very, very low.
Foreigners — non-Iraqis — have their own zone. They are dangerous; they are hardcore al-Qaeda. General Kenyon hopes that they never again see the light of day — that the Iraqis, to whom they’ll be handed over, will keep them locked up. These are not the type to reform, or so it seems.
And they keep themselves in shape — in vicious fighting shape. For example, they’ll sprint around the yard, in the hottest, most hellish weather.
All prisoners have prayer rugs, Korans — the whole nine yards. No Westerner in the place touches a Koran, “out of respect.” One of our band — a fellow journo — says that this swallows the Wahhabist view of Islam and its rules. In any case, the coalition is very, very careful.
There are regular family visits — the detainees see their families. One of the American soldiers says, “That’s more than we get to do.”
There are art classes, and we see what the students — students! — have produced. Some paintings are very nice. An officer tells us that the detainees tend to start off painting guns and the like. Gradually, the paintings get less violent and bleak, and more beautiful. A civilizing effect is seen.
One of the art instructors is a former detainee — a former detainee now on the camp’s payroll. Imagine that.
There are sewing classes too, and the instructor shows us what he calls “the graduation piece” — a camel, known as the Cropper Camel.
I ask again: Has there ever — ever — been a power so benign? What’s al-Qaeda’s equivalent of the Cropper Camel for their detainees — if they had detainees?
I think back to my German friend, who says that the Americans aren’t reaching out to the enemy, as they did in Europe. What a load of . . .
We tour the camp’s hospital, which is spick-and-span, and state-of-the-art — all the amenities at hand. I can’t help thinking of a point that the dreadful Michael Moore makes: Detainees such as those in Guantanamo get much, much better medical care than many ordinary Americans. True, true.
Of course, you are responsible for those you capture and hold, if you’re civilized.
In the hospital are Bulgarian and Romanian flags. What are they doing there? Well, Bulgarians and Romanians work here. But never forget that the Americans are a bunch of unilateralist cowboys — never forget that.
‐Detainees are interviewed by a three-man panel — a panel of three officers (I believe they are). The detainees are allowed to plead their case. We observe such a pleading, such an interview.
A Koran is on the table, on top of a small, pretty rug. The detainee takes a kind of oath, I think. Interpreting is a friendly-looking man, a grandfather’s age, who is an Iraqi American. He has been in America for 40 years. He’s here in order to help his country — both of them, actually.
Frankly, the whole situation looks a little colonial to me: the three white panelists, the native petitioner — but that won’t disturb my sleep much.
The petitioner we observe has provided information to the Iraqi authorities and their Western allies. He’s told, “We appreciate your information.” He says that he’ll have no trouble on the outside — will not face retaliation — because no one knows what he did.
And I’m reminded — as though one could easily forget — that all this is life-and-death stuff.
When this interview is over, I ask the interpreter a couple of questions. One is, “Can you tell when a detainee is lying?” He says yes — and they’re lying 85 or 90 percent of the time.
That seldom, huh?
‐Before we leave the detention center, we have a talk with General Kenyon in his office. He looks like Howard Dean — very much so. Separated-at-birth kind of thing. I doubt he has much else in common with the former governor.
I talk with Kenyon about Abu Ghraib, and the stain that left on the whole military. Yes, he says, with some irritation: six or seven assholes on the midnight shift, giving the whole country a black eye. Of course, the world loves to talk about Abu Ghraib, because the world has no sense of perspective — or wills itself not to.
Kenyon himself prowls the camp, at various times — unscheduled, unannounced. It seems clear that those under his command have to look sharp.
I wish Americans, and everyone else, could see the detention center at Camp Cropper — see what Americans and others are doing for those who, after all, were trying to kill them. Would it make any difference?
Finally, a bit of a side note: Kenyon tells me something interesting about the early days of the War on Terror. He sent hundreds of jihadists to Guantanamo — those captured in Afghanistan, I believe. And these guys, most of them — maybe all of them — had never been on an airplane before. They were scared as hell. And they weren’t on some nice Air Singapore flight — they were on noisy, cramped, hot C-130s.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch.
‐Our group makes its way to the Faw Palace — one of Saddam’s pleasure palaces. Hideous debauchery and crimes took place here. It is painful to imagine. But what’s fun is the sight of American soldiers crawling all over the place, going about their business. This is headquarters — anti-Saddam, pro-Free Iraq headquarters.
The sight of those soldiers, in this setting, does my heart good — just as it would have to see them at Berchtesgaden.
In the rotunda of the palace — if rotunda is the word — there’s a famous chair/throne. Many visitors have had their picture taken on it. This gaudy piece of furniture was given to Saddam by Yasser Arafat, the Nobel Prize winner. It shows the Dome of the Rock and says, “Jerusalem Is Ours.” I’m thinking: The money for this chair probably came from EU taxpayers — or American taxpayers.
Americans aren’t the only servicemen here: There are marines from Tonga. They apparently guard the palace. And I just think of laughs around the world: Tonga!
And I remember something that Donald Rumsfeld told me, when I brought up the issue of small countries with him. He said, yes, the countries may be small — and people can laugh. But what if it took some political courage to send troops to Iraq, and some personal courage, too? And what if those troops constitute a decent percentage of the given country’s armed forces? Does anyone ever think of that?
‐I wonder if you remember the renegade Archbishop Lefebvre, from the 1980s. I haven’t thought of that name for 20 years — until now, when we meet Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre here at the Faw Palace. I don’t know whether he’s any relation — I don’t ask.
Lefebvre is yet another general from Central Casting: square, rugged, tough. He is also thoughtful, articulate, and clear. And he leads us through the Iraq situation as it stands today. Al-Qaeda? “We’re rollin’ ’em up, and our stance is offensive. But we have a way to go. And when I say ‘we,’ I’m talking about the Iraqi Security Forces and us. We’re in the third quarter — and we’ll keep up the momentum.”
It’s hard to say when the game might be over and when the coalition might be able to leave — safely, without leaving the country to the wolves. “Every day, we think about how to keep al-Qaeda in the box, and attack their network. We also think about how to handle whoever’s coming back over from Iran.”
Lefebvre has a soldier son — he has done combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantry platoon commander. He was captain of the Duke golf team, and is thinking about the Tour. But he asked to have another tour, his Afghan tour, extended: because he wanted to stay with the people — the Afghans — to whom we’ve made commitments.
General Lefebvre used to be a football coach. In fact, he served under Joe Paterno at Penn State. “Coach Paterno wrote my recommendation to go to officer candidate school,” says Lefebvre. “After working for Joe, I didn’t need the drill instructors to teach me about commitment and excellence — the only thing missing at Penn State is the Iwo Jima monument.”
When Lefebvre called Paterno to tell him he had been promoted to general, the coach wasn’t really overrunning with congratulations. Instead, he said, “What exactly have you done to prepare yourself for this position?” That’s Paterno.
I have said before in this journal that I wish our commanders could be on TV regularly, explaining things to the American public, and to other publics. Norman Schwarzkopf was famous during the Gulf War. Westmoreland was famous. But what about our Iraq guys? Petraeus has become fairly well-known — but the military, with the media, could be doing a lot more.
Lefebvre is one of those who should be on television — he’d do a lot of good, and people would trust him, I believe.
‐Let me tell you a little story. For years, a lot of us have been asking, “Why don’t we know about our heroes today? Why don’t we hear about our Sergeant Yorks and Audie Murphys?” The media tend to be left-wing and anti-war, yes. But what is the military’s responsibility?
Last summer, I read a wire-service report about Capt. Ivan Castro of the Special Forces. He was blinded in combat. And he kept going. He is the only blind officer in the Special Forces.
Well, I wanted to meet Captain Castro — to get his story, do a feature piece on him for National Review. And I contacted the right person — the right public-affairs officer. (Others in the military had given me the e-mail address.) She wrote me back, giving me a series of questions to answer — hoops to jump through, really. I was slightly taken aback, but responded, jumping through those hoops. I never heard from her or any of her colleagues again.
Yeah, we don’t know (enough) about Ivan Castro, and lots of others. And, yeah, the media are left-wing and anti-war — they’d rather bloody George Bush, or dwell on the Abu Ghraib miscreants, than feature the Ivan Castros. But still: The military has some responsibility, don’t you think?
UPDATE: The military has been in touch with me, concerning Captain Castro. It seems that mail was lost — e-mail was lost, out in the ether. Whatever the case, there was a glitch, and no one was at fault. There is now no problem with responsiveness.
‐A President Obama may command American forces to withdraw in 16 months. Some people here think it would take that long — maybe more — simply to remove the equipment we have. It could be a very, very interesting — and very, very painful — couple of years.
‐Our group bunks down, not in the Faw Palace, but in the guesthouse, across the way from it. I must say it is almost surreal, sleeping in Saddam’s guesthouse. History is a strange bird, isn’t it? Also, five of us guys sleep in a very large room, communally. I haven’t slept with this many males since music camp. Oh, wait, that didn’t come out right . . .
‐In the dining hall, we meet Capt. Pat Walsh — he’s a lawyer, graduate of Boalt Hall. He wanted to join the military after Abu Ghraib, because he knew that the military was better than that. And he did.
There is tons of idealism over here — but why do so few at home know it?
‐The final formal meeting of this trip is with Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding general of multinational forces here. We sit with him in his Faw Palace office. Odierno’s all soldier: tall, solid, imposing, bruising, Kojak-bald. He’s quite a sight. He could be the baddest grunt on the ground, except he’s got four stars on his shirt. (I imagine in the military they don’t say “shirt,” but forgive a civilian.)
An Iraqi flag stands in his office. The birds chirp — somewhat incongruously — outside. And I will give you some excerpts from our talk:
Are we at war here, or kind of nation-building, or what? Yes, says Odierno, we’re at war — against terrorists, as we are elsewhere in the world.
It’s difficult to define winning and losing in Iraq: but we should be able to say, we came here, we removed a dictator, we helped establish a government that is stable, a regional player, and a partner of ours.
Elections are coming up — provincial and national. This could increase stability, or things could go south. We held elections in 2005, and it was important that we did. The Sunnis didn’t really participate that time. This time, everyone will participate.
A peaceful, democratic transfer of power is very, very important — because Iraq has been too much a communal struggle for power.
Odierno mentions terror networks in Syria, menacing Iraq. I wonder, “When Secretary Rice sits down with her Syrian counterpart, does she talk about that?”
In 2006, says Odierno, Iraq was a failed state. Now it is a fragile state. We have not yet reached the point of Iraq’s being a stable state.
Our mission, in a phrase: “to help Iraq achieve full sovereignty.”
The general wants American forces to “reduce their visibility and maintain their effectiveness — I tell them I want everything.”
It’s important that more and more governments in the region are dealing with the Iraqi government. The crown prince of the UAE is coming today. Yesterday, the foreign minister of Egypt came.
We are shifting from a security-led strategy to a strategy led by politics and economics.
We can’t just up and quit Iraq, saying we’re going to leave only advisers and instructors. Such people — advisers and instructors — would have to be supported by many forces.
Nouri Maliki “continues to evolve as prime minister.”
Unfortunately, Americans are uninformed — or underinformed — about Iraq, so we have to go back home and talk to them, often. “The American people are pretty damn smart” — they’ll figure out what’s what. They want us to be successful. And if we’re not going to be successful, we should stop what we’re doing.
I have this question (and I make Odierno repeat himself, to a degree): “Are we to the point where, if we withdrew, Iraq would be okay — could defend itself? Are we over a kind of hump?” No, says Odierno — but we’re getting closer. We have to do our work in a deliberate way. We have to turn responsibilities over to Iraqis, and see whether they can handle them. In the past, we’ve handed responsibilities over too soon — and have had to take them back.
Progress since December has gone much faster than we expected — therefore, we are reducing our forces faster than expected.
The coalition is dealing with “the tyranny of distance” — Iraq is a big country.
Say that a president decides he wants only counterterrorism forces in Iraq — well, those forces would have to be supported by regular forces.
Someone asks, “Is what we’re doing peacekeeping?” No, not yet. We have hard work to do, particularly in northern Iraq, where al-Qaeda and others are entrenched — in part because we’ve chased them up there.
We have invested so much — so much. We have made significant gains, but those gains are at risk: “I hope we’ll be able to finish this and do it right.”
I chew over those words: “I hope we’ll be able to finish this and do it right.”
As we leave General Odierno’s office, he calls out to us, “Be safe.” Someone says, “You too.”
‐I’m going to stop scribbling for now, ladies and gentlemen — this is the conclusion of my journal. But I’m going to be back in a column with further reflections, plus letters from soldiers and others.
When I was a kid, I had an LP set of famous speeches. It included Churchill’s wartime addresses, Faulkner’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize — that kind of thing. Also in it was MacArthur’s farewell address to Congress. And I think of a line from it. I can’t remember it exactly, but I look it up when I get to a computer: “I have just left your fighting sons in Korea. They have met all tests there, and I can report to you without reservation that they are splendid in every way.”
Yes, they are splendid in every way.