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Moment of Truth in Iraq



Reviewing the dispatches from 2007 shows that the war in Iraq is not spiraling toward inevitable catastrophic failure. The year did not start out on a positive note.

In January 2007, growing doubts I had about our ability to stave off an eventual genocide in Iraq were intensified by our failure to competently manage the media battlespace. Within the military I sensed a growing censorship and was myself denied access to the battlefields in 2006. After months of fighting with Army Public Affairs for access, they relented, but only due to public pressure following the publication of an article in the Weekly Standard. An expanded version of the article “On Censorship” was published as the dispatch “Al Sahab—the Cloud” on my website. The article was blunt; by then I’d been fighting for about six months to re-embed with troops.

In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda’s media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have “journalists” crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an “embed” media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.

Many blame the media for the estrangement, but part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn’t manage the media so much as manhandle them. Most military public affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, but it takes only a few well-placed incompetents to cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.

Before returning to Iraq, I flew to Vietnam and Cambodia to visit war museums. Interestingly, the Vietnamese and Cambodians alike were friendly toward Americans. I found similar friendliness in neighboring Laos some years ago: we nearly bombed Laos into oblivion. Huge fields of craters still exist and people are still being killed by our old bombs, yet they treated me well. But on this trip, especially when I stopped at a Cambodian museum/memorial on the site of a former “killing field,” it was impossible to shake the dread that history might be revving itself up for a repeat genocide in Iraq, something I wrote about in the dispatch “No Darker Heart.”

After the monsoon rains abate, the draining earth offers up fragments of clothing, human teeth and bones as final testimony of the restless, wronged dead. Murdered on this now sacred ground, thirty or more years ago, they are among the millions of souls sacrificed to a fevered ideology that was completely broken only a decade ago. The remains that seep up through the mud under my feet in this Killing Field are from a different war, but they echo a mournful reminder of how jarringly common it is for societies at war with themselves to descend into madness. Death squads under holy orders, suicide bombers in mosques, machete-wielding mobs in Rwanda, industrialized gas chambers in Europe, fire-breathing Janjaweed militias in Darfur, and here the tree named for its function as “killing tree against which executioners beat children.”

By December 2006 I was back in the Iraq war. Within couple of weeks, I was quite literally helping to pick up American body parts and carefully putting them into body bags. By then, enemy bombs were even more sophisticated and bigger than they had been in 2005. There was the Iraqi civil war, full on in parts of the country, and trending in the wrong direction, and waning patience at home in the United States and Great Britain, especially with politicians long on slogans and spin and short on solutions. Americans and Brits had never gotten consistent balanced coverage of the war, and without that context, the daily drumbeat of the death tolls, followed by the same empty barrel analysis was becoming deafening.

If the violence could not be contained, most people in America and Great Britain would likely lose patience, and force the withdrawal of troops, leading to genocide and regional chaos with global implications. Al Qaeda would score a strategic victory. In this scenario, the Mother of All Mistakes would be followed by a century of negative consequences, because violence would likely devolve into genocide on a scale similar to or worse than that seen in Cambodia; and because the Sunni/Shia fault line snakes throughout the Middle East, the chaos might catapult the region into war.

If we catastrophically lost the war—for instance, if we rushed out of the country and it descended into genocide—likely many generals would point at politicians who would point at the press who would point at politicians and generals. There would not be enough fingers to fulfill all the pointing requirements. All while blood filled the rivers. No revision of history would reverse the incidents in which more than thirty thousand of our finest young men and women were wounded or killed while making our country less safe.

The same truth holds for the uncounted thousands of Iraqis who died for one of our flawed decisions only to then have the value of their lives diminished by another. The only gains to come of this complete loss would be the swollen ranks of a reinvigorated al Qaeda.

The impulse to withdraw the troops is understandable, especially once the media that had written off Iraq began to focus instead on the inexcusably, unacceptably poor way this war was managed from the start. Truly, 2003 and 2004 were first-order fiascos. I’ve twice read the book Fiasco by Tom Ricks and found it accurate from my perspective as a witness to the aftermath. That we created the conditions for the complex insurgency to follow is a fact. There is plenty of blame to go around for that: some politicians and generals made severe errors, but then so did some in the press. Cases like Abu Ghraib needed to be reported, but not blown to such enormous proportion that the reporting itself became a kind of recruitment campaign for terrorists. Clearly none of the key voices were singing off the same sheet of music and the audience can’t be blamed for covering their ears and grimacing when what should have been close harmony sounded instead like cats mating underwater.

In America, the photographs and reports made many people shake their heads and say, “That’s not who we are. That’s not what America stands for.” Across the Muslim world, the photographs stoked the fires of radical fundamentalism and swelled the ranks of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But in Iraq, it wasn’t the news reports about Abu Ghraib that did the real damage. The torture itself had already done that almost a full year before someone leaked photographs of it to the press.

In late 2007, when I was in Mosul, LTC Eric Welsh told me about a former al Qaeda leader whom he had persuaded to turn against al Qaeda. It was not an easy task to convince the man to become an informant because he did not trust Americans. The Iraqi man told LTC Eric Welsh that although he hated al Qaeda, he hated the Americans more. Why did he hate Americans? Because we had tortured him at Abu Ghraib.

Media coverage of the war drew to a conclusion in many ways from that point forward. For most of the next two years, stories that illustrated the decline in security and unraveling of progress on the ground were widely reported, while those showcasing the pockets of progress, especially among the Iraqi security forces, were increasingly rare. So much so that when I finally succeeded in getting back into Iraq in late 2006, even I was truly amazed at the progress that had been made across Iraq with the training and management of Iraqi Army and Police forces.

There’s only a small group of writers who honestly spend enough time in Iraq to make serious claims based on firsthand accounts. But I’ve seen the Iraqi Army with my own eyes. I’ve done many missions in 2005 and 2007, in many places in Iraq, along with the Iraqi Army: please believe me when I say that, on the whole, the Iraqi Army is remarkably better in 2007 and far more effective than it was in 2005. By 2007, the Iraqis were doing most of the fighting. And . . . this is very important . . . they see our Army and Marines as serious allies, and in many cases as friends. Please let the potential implications of that sink in.

We now have a large number of American and British officers who can pick up a phone from Washington or London and call an Iraqi officer that he knows well—an Iraqi he has fought along side of—and talk. Same with untold numbers of Sheiks and government officials, most of whom do not deserve the caricatural disdain they get most often from pundits who have never set foot in Iraq. British and American forces have a personal relationship with Iraqi leaders of many stripes. The long-term intangible implications of the betrayal of that trust through the precipitous withdrawal of our troops could be enormous, because they would be the certain first casualties of renewed violence, and selling out the Iraqis who are making an honest-go would make the Bay of Pigs sell-out seem inconsequential. The United States and Great Britain would hang their heads in shame for a century.

Alternately, in an equation in which the outcome is a stable Iraq for which they (Iraqi Police and Army officials) are stewards, the potential benefits are equally enormous. Because if Iraq were to settle down, and then a decade passes and we look back and even our most severe critics cannot deny that Iraq is a better place, a generation of Iraq’s most important leaders would have deep personal bonds with their counterparts in America and Great Britain. This could actually happen. The ultimate irony is that many of those same people who would have gotten the blame likely would be getting the credit. But somehow I doubt there’d be as much of a circle-point to share the glory.

In “The Ghosts of Anbar, Part I,” the caption for this photograph read as follows: “Shattered headstones, like broken promises, warn of restless ghosts.”

At the start of 2007 when I first learned that General David Petraeus was going to take over the management of the war, I described the situation he was inheriting as a disaster in progress.

It took enormous guts to take the job at this stage of the war, when it’s like an airplane with one of the wings blown off, and there is this pilot in the back of the airplane who easily could have parachuted out the back—where some of the others already have gone—but instead he says, “I can still fly this thing!” Had David Petraeus jumped and landed safely, he’d still have been one of the few who could land with a sterling reputation after his previous commands here. If this jet crashes while Petraeus is flying it, we will always know that the best of the best did not jump out the back; he ran to the cockpit.

Throughout most of 2007, as I’ve watched General Petraeus’ strategy being implemented, I have observed the impact his change in strategy was having on our soldiers, on Iraqi security forces, and most importantly, on Iraqi people including some who were formerly our avowed enemies. I have seen how our own military morphed into something much more agile, and I came to see how American commanders tended to be the most trusted voices in Iraq for many Iraqis.

To be sure, the “Anbar Awakening” and other signs of progress were underway before the massive strategy overhaul occurred, and nobody can track and trace all the factors involved in this fantastically complex war, but one thing was certain: the momentum was shifting in favor of a stable Iraq for the first time. The institutional knowledge reservoir was becoming vast, and success was touted and shared. It may have been true that Americans knew very little about Iraq before the invasion, but it was for certain that American commanders had now developed an intimate understanding of the goings-on. It can be said with confidence that as a group, no non-Iraqis know more about Iraq than the US military.

My own confidence in the US military has grown immeasurably in 2007. But for most of 2007, I was one of the only writers to stay on the battlefield with troops. The few who came tended to embed for very short and specific assignments, and their reports inevitably reflected the clipped staccato that such a practice results in. A whole lot of truth can get lost in between the gaps in coverage, while false assumptions that remain unchallenged only attain more vigor.

It’s well-known that alligators are green. I saw an alligator just this morning on 6 January in Florida. It’s also well-known that massive amounts of weapons are pouring in from Syria and Iran. Do you know how many tons we’ve caught while coming in? How many shipments? The answer might astonish many people. I’ve been up and down the Iranian border. I’ve talked with Iraqi commanders, with British commanders on the border down south, and of course with our commanders by the many dozens. They’ve all told me the same thing. I asked Lieutenant General Odierno on a Baghdad street one day about weapons coming in from Iran. LTG Odierno was forthright. I’ve even asked General Petraeus and he was equally forthright and didn’t hesitate to tell me what I had already learned: the answer is ZERO. We have caught zero shipments coming in from Iran. We may have caught a single shipment recently coming in from Syria.

Now, to be sure, frankly, based on the incredible access I’m given, I do believe many EFPs and other weapons are coming in from Iran, although the numbers may have greatly declined recently, based on information I learned during a top secret briefing in Baqubah. You know, the cynical part of me knows that most armies would probably just make it up; after all, the message from Washington that Iran intends to topple Iraq comes through loud and clear. Keeping the lie intact would require limited access to the soldiers; however, reporters from many nations are given unescorted access to American forces and journalists have pretty much free rein on the American bases in Iraq.

It’s also astonishing how many Iraqis have been telling me they, too, want to help us attack Iran. This is not surprising given the history of hostility between the two countries, but it’s the conspiratorial sense of it all that startles. I recently had lunch with the Iraqi doctor who treated Uday Hussein after he was shot years ago. The doctor told me Uday’s bodyguards all had his same blood type just in case, and Uday did need a lot of blood on that occasion. The doctor told me that Uday’s mom was there in the hospital and she was screaming at Saddam—(screaming at Saddam!)—something like, “You killed my son, you bastard! You killed my son!” Uday survived to be killed by our guys later in Mosul and the doctor is now very helpful to US forces and seems to be doing quite well (he has a home in Costa Rica). Like many Iraqis, he blames a huge part of Iraq’s problems on Iran, and the doctor thinks many Iraqis would support US action against Iran. But what is the truth? Why did part of our own government recently do an about-face on the Iranian WMD question?

If I could tell only 10% of what I have witnessed in Iraq, it would fill many books. I wrote so often about the frustrations in getting these dispatches out that some readers chastised me for complaining, but I hit the ground in Iraq with the ongoing battle with some in the Army Public Affairs trying to run me off even while combat units welcomed the coverage. But what they—readers and troublesome PAO staffers alike—did not know was that despite publishing numerous dispatches, hundreds of photographs, multiple video clips, and many thousands of words, this represented only about a small fraction of the material I had available to publish.

Readers genuinely interested in a fuller more comprehensive picture of the so-called “surge” unfolding, and continuing to unfold, might be interested to know that I have arranged to publish a book based on my 2007 dispatches, with much of the missing details and behind-the-scenes information added and including material I will be writing about critical events in early 2008 that will give deeper credence to the title of the new book, Moment of Truth in Iraq.

My book Moment of Truth in Iraq, due out in April 2008, will be packed with battlefield coverage, including some never-before-published material. But it will also include more from behind the scenes, as I traveled and up and down the back country to systematically report on the astounding campaign of 2007 to snatch Iraq back from the abyss. Places I’d visited in early 2007 and revisited later in the year. Key American and Iraqi commanders who are making it happen in a place most were writing off as a crash site. And many more of the small, telling moments, like the reopening of a Christian church in Doura. Or the anonymous man in a village north of Mosul who recognized a suicide bomber and sacrificed his own life in an embrace of death moments before the bombs strapped to him could detonate inside the crowded mosque. He died but saved the people. Or the entrepreneur I called “Tonto,” who married his ambition to his courage and helped deliver a convoy of food to the people of Baqubah.

But just because our military has averted a disaster does not mean an automatic or easy path to a successful outcome. That’s why I titled the book Moment of Truth in Iraq and why I believe that some events that will determine to a large extent the final outcome will occur early in 2008. Now more than ever, when every American is asking what course our country should take in Iraq, it is absolutely vital that we have a voice in the field.

I’ve worked out an arrangement with the publisher that will allow readers another option to make sure that I can remain in Iraq and Afghanistan and on the ground in key areas in 2008. In addition to providing direct support for my dispatches via links on my website, and through the bookstore and gallery I maintain on the site, now readers can also provide immediate, urgently-needed, substantial support for my work just by ordering an advance copy of this special signed edition. The publication date is April 21, 2008, but your payment for a signed copy now will help keep me in my mission.

The price for this special edition is just $29.95, exactly the same as the suggested retail price for the regular edition. But by special arrangement with the publisher every copy sold of this special signed edition will bring in more support for my work than is normal for traditional book sales. And the funds will be available to help the continuation of my mission almost immediately, rather than waiting for many months as in normal bookstore sales, which is incredibly important now when the plans for my return to Iraq are being worked out. In fact, I’ll fly out on 8 January, and am trying to reach the Iraqi battlefields by late January.

Ordering this special signed edition is one way to support my work, and readers who do so can help ensure that I remain independent. (One company recently offered me $30,000 to write about them. I am finding that this world is full of bought-off writers. Note to such companies: Never offer me money to write about you. It might backfire.) My reader-supported status is critical and prevents anyone from crying affiliation bias as a way to argue with or dispute my findings when I write things contrary to any of the widely-circulated scripts about what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The truth has a way of generating controversy when it runs contrary to conventional wisdom. But my readers have come to rely on me for “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” and this publishing arrangement is based on my honoring that pledge.

The link below will take you directly to an order page provided by the publisher where you can fill out the easy-to-use form to purchase your signed edition. It will be shipped to you directly when the book is published and all the details about the order are also on the linked page. If the title is right, and we are really at the moment of truth in Iraq, the question for readers is “Do you want me to be there when it happens?”

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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