Monday, April 19, 2004

Mainstreet Iraq

Another gem from Ron Harris, an embedded reporter with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who asks the really tough questions:

"I don't think the American people understand that this is full-blown guerrilla warfare," he said as he stood inside one of the cramped barracks housing scores of Marines in this remote outpost. ...

Any Marine here who fought during the early stages of the invasion of Iraq will tell you that the Marines' mission now is more complex, more difficult and much more dangerous _ even before the recent upsurge in violence in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad. "What you are really facing is what the Marines call `the 3-block war,'" said their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez, a 40-year-old Chicago native. "On one block you can be doing humanitarian aid. In another block you could be providing security. In the third block you could be engaged in full combat. "In this environment, the transition between those three blocks happens instantaneously." ...

Their mantra is: "Marines: no better friend, no worse enemy." They hope to achieve their mission primarily through civil affairs projects and good public relations. They want to help rebuild schools, sewer systems and other infrastructure, train and equip an Iraqi police force that will be the first line of defense against crime and violence and build an Iraqi militia, called the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, that will back up the police. But to do so, they must establish security in the region, a former Saddam Hussein stronghold where U.S. failure would be good news for a number of factions:

Low-level street thugs, who have no use for law and order. Local crime lords, who have profited for years on smuggling and have held the local population in check through bribery, murder and intimidation _ with the understanding of Saddam. Corrupt politicians and tribal chiefs, many appointed by Saddam, who don't want to see their power diminished. Ideology-driven insurgents, "the Jihadists," the Marines call them, who take advantage of all the other factions to try to drive the "infidel" Americans out of their country. ...

Last year, they took over Karbala, a city in southern Iraq dominated by Shiite Muslims. The battalion provided security and reconstruction, and made tremendous strides with a more accepting population. Iraqis and Marines alike wept when they pulled out. But one month after the Marines turned over their mission there to the Bulgarian Army and returned to the United States, a suicide bomber rolled a car into Lt. Col. Lopez's former office and killed five Bulgarians and two Iraqis.

Doubt has begun to creep into the minds of even the most committed Marines as to the ultimate success of their mission. Staff Sgt. Carl Scott of Pine Bluff, Ark., a veteran of Desert Storm in 1991 and the early push into Baghdad, has heard a number of Marines voice reservations. "Most of these Marines, you can give them an M-16 and one bullet, and they'll go out there and battle to the death," said Staff Sgt. Carl Scott, 39, of Pine Bluff, Ark. "But some are beginning to question why we're here. It's not that they don't want to be here. It's just that in times like this, it's hard for them to find a purpose."

One officer put it more bluntly. "I love my country, I love the Marines and I love George Bush, but Iraq is going to collapse the moment we pull out," he said. "It doesn't matter what we do. It's time to go home." ...

Henderson turns to the interpreter. "Ask her if she will accept a gift until her brother returns," he says, and the interpreter complies. "I can't," she responds, as does everyone else on this day. Their refusal reflects the intimidation and corruption that has stymied the Marines' ambitious efforts. Numerous are the stories of Iraqi policemen who have been kidnapped and killed by those opposed to the Marines' presence.

"Civilians are being found dead and gagged, bound and shot execution-style, beaten, cut and tortured," said Fareed, a defense corps lieutenant working with the Marines to bring stability to the town of Ubaydi. One of the most disheartening failures for the Marines recently was an effort to help a local school. When they approached the principal to see how they could help, she told them that she would like to have the schoolyard paved, and a wall built. The wall was to have been built when the Army was here, but local leaders pocketed the money the Army had given them and never built the wall. Marines started in on the project, lining up contractors and planning the work. But on their fourth trip to the school, they were barred from the property. A staffer explained that the principal was no longer there; she and other staffers had been threatened with death if they continued to cooperate with the Marines.

Read the whole thing. Harris raises totally different issues from the stock polemic raised by the Left or Conservatives. The enemy is not a "freedom fighter" or an "Iraqi nationalist", still less the romantic Islamist with flowing robes, just a plain thug, encrusted with the brutality and corruption of hundreds of years of Arab culture. Neither is the Joe Iraqi of Marine acquaintance the Middle Eastern equivalent of an American just yearning to be free, eager to seize an historic opportunity to shuck off his Islamic chains. The picture is rather one of a people comfortable in their dysfunction, who know no other and yearn for no better.

All throughout the Harris piece Marines ask themselves if this was what Vietnam was like. Not the burial place of imperialist legions so much as the graveyard of youthful idealism. In many ways, the United States has been far more successful than its detractors will admit. It has won the war against Saddam. It may even win the war against organized Islamism. What is in doubt is whether anything can prevail against a six thousand year old culture that gave the world Ali Baba, the Assassins and baksheesh. It is now up against the bedrock of opposition, the hard fabric of Arab-Islamic society itself.

"If you look at it, the Marines who died in Vietnam died for nothing," said one veteran, whose father served two tours in Vietnam. It was a shocking statement, one that only a veteran Marine would dare make in the presence of other Marines. "Look, they were there supposedly so that Vietnam wouldn't become Communist and become a threat to the United States and the world," he said. "Well, Vietnam is Communist. Is it a threat?"

The other Marines mumbled, but there was mostly silence.

Then the discussion turned back to Iraq. Saddam is gone, his sons killed and his regime destroyed. There are no weapons of mass destruction. Why are we still here? Why not leave now? "We owe these people," said one Marine. "We owe them to finish the job that we have started." Plus, he said, with the intense criminal element intimidating the people, the corrupt politicians, the sense of lawlessness, the weak police force and the Jihadists operating in the region, the area could easily become a haven for terrorists.

The other Marines nodded in agreement. Ultimately, the conversation drifted to the upcoming missions. Kilo Company was going out that night to search a house in Karabilah believed to be a center for making roadside bombs. India Company was assigned to do security patrols the next day and wouldn't be back for another 36 hours. Another Marine was headed up to Lima Company, near the town of Husaybah, considered the region's most dangerous location. After a few more minutes of small talk, the men drifted off the balcony and back to their assigned sleeping areas where they would prepare for another day of "the real war."

In the classic scene from Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurz, played by Marlon Brando, recounts how he returned to a village shortly after having inoculated the children there against disease in an effort to win 'hearts and minds'.  (Hat tip: Gerard Van der Leun of American Digest)

"back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile...A pile of little arms. And I remember...I...I...I cried... I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I I was shot...Like I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead...And I thought: My God...the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we."

The ultimate difference between Vietnam and Iraq has always been the fact that the Viet Cong could never follow the boys home. But the jihadis will and many are already here, smiling, waving, hating. And they will have nuclear weapons. Failure is not an option.