Almost 100 journalists have been murdered while covering the Iraq war. Thousands more have been scared out of the country. Even most of those who’ve stuck around do their reporting from the Green Zone or their hotel rooms.
But there are a few intrepid war correspondences left — brave men and women who deliver real news reports while armchair know-it-alls (ahem) produce their journalism from the safety of Western newsrooms.
In this column, I’d like to identify two especially notable reports. Taken together, they demonstrate the courage and professionalism of U.S. soldiers operating in Iraq. But at the same time, they demonstrate how futile is their task of pacifying Iraq’s hellish civil war.
The first is by Damien Cave and James Glanz, who brought New York Times readers an eyewitness account of a U.S. Army combat platoon’s battle to clear Baghdad’s notorious Haifa Street slums of Sunni and Shiite militia last Wednesday. The combat Cave and Glanz describe is the furthest thing from conventional military warfare. It is more like a free-for-all game of paintball — with real guns. “Who the hell is shooting at us” shouts a U.S. Sergeant as his unit is pinned down in an alley targeted by Iraqi snipers. “Do we know who they are?”
Eventually, the soldiers and their journalistic embeds escaped the alley, and began an apartment-by-apartment search to root out the gunmen. But the enemy was always a step ahead, melting away, leaving behind nothing but surreal domestic vignettes — a teen’s room decorated with an Eminem poster, a small child wandering around amid the gunshots, a wheezing old man.
Hats off to the authors for risking their lives in the interest of good writing: These are the sort of telling details that only a battlefield journalist reporting under fire can bring to the page.
One theme that comes through is the remarkable performance under fire of your average American grunt — even in a nightmare scenario where the enemy was everywhere and nowhere. The soldiers’ performance in this episode was all the more remarkable given that clearing Haifa Street wasn’t even supposed to be their job: The battle plan called for the Iraqi Army to take the lead. But the Iraqis showed up late on Wednesday; and then, “it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns.” Later on, when the bullets got too close, the Iraqi soldiers refused to advance. Some simply went home. Four years after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the Iraqi army is still mostly a joke.
An even more depressing article by Bing West in the current issue of Atlantic Magazine shows that even the insurgents the Americans manage to capture often end up back on the street.
At the heart of West’s article is an episode that reads like something out of a science fiction movie. Following patrols in the field with U.S. marines, the author finds himself at a U.S. military operations center in Haditha. Suddenly, one of the video monitors lights up with suspicious footage from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV): West was staring at real-time video of a man brazenly burying a bomb near a busy local road.
As the UAV camera followed, GPS co-ordinates flashing, the bomber led the UAV on a 15-minute-long goose chase through Haditha until he collapsed, exhausted, under a tree. Within minutes, the bomber was surrendering to a Humvee-mounted U.S. Quick Reaction Force.
But where is he now? Iraq has been a sovereign country since 2004. And so it is Iraqis, not Americans, who now decide prisoners’ fate. And as West reports, the country’s judges, military commanders and policemen almost invariably let bad guys go — either out of sympathy with their sectarian cause, or fear of brutal retribution. In one case described in his Atlantic article, U.S. soldiers captured half a dozen Shiites with weapons and shell casings in their car and, literally, blood on their hands. The body of a dead Sunni lay just blocks away. Yet several months later, an Iraqi judge set all six men free.
This pair of news reports struck me not just because the events they describe are so astonishing, but because they capture the fundamental reason this war turned into a quagmire.
We in the West have long viewed nationhood and citizenship as defining traits. Yes, most of us were aware (some more dimly than others) of people called Sunnis and Shiites, and the fact that they’re gotten on badly for most of the last 1,400 years. But in the new, democratic Iraq that was about to bloom, that wasn’t supposed to matter.
It did matter, very much so. As with the multi-tribal states of sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq’s supposedly pluralistic government remains just a tool to be wielded by the country’s most aggressive tribe. Under Saddam, this was the Sunnis of Tikrit. Now, it is a coalition of Shiite firebrands supported by Tehran.
George W. Bush belies the war can be won with a troop “surge.” That won’t happen. As these depressing eyewitness reports attest, Iraq is a pretend country fielding a pretend army fighting a pretend war. The men in uniform will come out for field trips organized by the Americans. But too many are unwilling to put their life on the line — either as soldiers, cops, or judges — for a national project they don’t really believe in. And all of the professionalism, courage, high technology and troop strength the Americans can muster won’t change that.
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