Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One day at war

On this blog and others like it, we go round and round about the strategic consequences of the war in Afghanistan, like the Iraq war before it. COIN versus CT. Taliban versus al-Qaeda. Nation-building versus forward defense. Et cetera, et cetera. The same conversations take place in the media and the halls of government, most often with an even greater degree of abstraction: this is why the war is good and must go on, this is why the war is bad and must end, this is what the American people will support, this is what the American people won't tolerate, and so on.

Sometimes we lose perspective. Sometimes we need a reminder that the same war that's a political event for those of us in the chattering classes -- even those among us who have been there and done that -- is a life for other people, a daily struggle to do your job and stay alive and keep going.

Did anyone else understand that, though? Because while the news in Rustamiyah on Sept. 4 was all about three dead soldiers and a fourth who had lost both legs and a fifth who had lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm, that wasn't the news in the United States. It was about President George W. Bush arriving in Australia, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, "We're kicking ass." It was about a Government Accountability Office report that noted the Iraqi government's lack of progress toward self-sustainability, which Democrats seized on as one more reason to get out of Iraq, which Republicans seized on as one more reason Democrats were unpatriotic, which pundits seized on as a chance to go on television and do some screaming.

Sometimes, at Rustamiyah, the soldiers would watch the screaming and wonder how the people on those shows knew so much. Clearly, most of them had never been to Iraq, and even if they had, it was probably for what the soldiers called the windshield tour: corkscrew in, hear from a general or two, get in a Humvee, see a market surrounded by new blast walls, get a commemorative coin, corkscrew out.

The soldiers would laugh about this, but after more than half a year here, one thing they had lost sight of was how different the Iraq war was in Iraq as opposed to in the United States. To them, it was about specific acts of bravery and tragedy. Three dead inside a burning Humvee -- what else could a war be?

But in Washington, it was more strategic, more political. Three dead? How sad, and this is why we need to get out of Iraq, to honor the sacrifice, and this is why we need to stay in Iraq, to honor the sacrifice.

This is an excerpt from an outstanding essay in last Sunday's Washington Post, taken from David Finkel's new book The Good Soldiers. On this evidence, I think it'll be worth the read.


  1. Oh, man... I just read the horrific account of the end of Spc Joshua Reeves! Terrible and haunting... The talk of politicians acting as Drs. Know-it-all on war now sound hollow in my ears... Was it yesterday that I saw on TV the same Sen. Lindsey Graham questioning Admiral Mike Mullen and marveling at how the Talibans had not yet been wiped out though they didn't have one single tank?... Thanks for this post, and thanks to David Finkel for this memorial to Spc Reeves! And may he--and the other fallen--rest in peace!

  2. I have been waiting for this book to come out for SO LONG! Finally!

  3. Alex Engwete: yes, I heard the same Sen. Graham questioning of Admiral Mullen (it's an interesting hearing, for many reasons), but I interpreted that little performance as a bit of political theater and trying to lead the Admiral to a final 'answer' of more troops.

    I also found the very initial part of the hearing amusing: because of the misunderstandings around the use of the word strategy. In other words, the Senators and Admiral Mullen were at pains to explain that the McChrystal strategic review was not a 'new strategy,' and rather, an implementation of strategy review.

    May I humbly submit that naming something a Strategic Review is kind of confusing to the general public, leading to some of the confusion in the reporting of the last few weeks or so?

    The correct use of language is important, particularly when communicating with a layperson, or an audience of laypersons....

  4. Oh, and to the substance of this post, yes, absolutely it is important to remember, as fnord so colorfully puts it, that all of this discussion is not some glorified game of RISK, but real people doing real things in real time. Well, I know you all know that. It's the reason I prefer sites such as this, and also privilege many milblogs.

  5. I visited a FOB for the first time in early 2005 (traveled there with my (E-4) supply sergeant because the "Soldiers" running the class II and IX yards couldn't seem to be bothered to give him supplies). I was dumbstruck to see the amenities and incredibly comfortable lifestyle afforded to the FOB-dwellers (though that was nothing in comparison to what I would see on a later deployment). The next day, my patrol base received a two-week-old copy of Stars and Stripes. In it, I read an article in which a politician was complaining that our troops were being neglected and not given sufficient equipment to do their jobs. My take was that they were being given far too much, thus distracting them from their jobs. Why does the AAFES PX/BX need an entire aisle of lingerie, condoms, perfume, and cologne in a combat zone? For that matter, why do you need a fricken BX/PX?