Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A captain in the US army's email written to your's truly

A few weeks ago, I was perusing Daily Kos, when I happened to read comments written by a very knowledgeable user. He debunked some of the more outlandish things blabbed about by user "Meteor Blades." Intrigued, I wrote him an email. It turns out this individual is a captain in the US army. He goes by the user name "John Rohan," and he is an extraordinary person. This is the email he wrote to your's truly...I think it will enlighten you all. It puts the Iraq War in a very different light.
Sorry it took so long to answer back. I've been on leave the last couple weeks and don't check this email account often. By coincidence, like your friend, I am a captain in the army too, and have done two tours myself. I think we should stay, but I would drastically change tactics and then cut down the troop numbers greatly. I would declare martial law, appoint a single strongman in charge for a two-year period, arrest Muqtada Al-Sadr, draft every eligible male, ban all personal weapons period, issue a new Iraqi ID without religion indicated on it, ban all non-essential foreigners from entering the country, and shut down the cell phone network. All the above would make life very difficult for the terrorists. To answer some of your other questions, here below is a letter I sent out to all my friends back in February, just before I got back from Iraq my second time. John Hello all, I'm leaving Iraq safe and sound. In fact, I am literally waiting for my flight out of here as I write this. This was my second tour, and hopefully my last. Now that you don't need to worry about me anymore (and if you didn't worry, it’s ok) I just wanted to describe my tour a little here to the people I love and to tell you a few things the press gets wrong. This way I also don't need to describe what I did here a dozen times over. If you are not interested, just skip all the below. It ended up longer than I planned. The opinions here are mine only, and probably not shared by everyone on this list. 1) What my job was: I was the intel officer for a transition team. We were a very small (11 man) team that worked as a liaison to an Iraqi national police battalion (Once upon a time, there was a real difference between Iraqi police, National police, and Iraqi army, but no more - they really all do the same job). We were pretty much on our own, and worked with our Iraqi soldiers on a daily basis. When I first got here, I expected we were to train them, and work with their staff. In reality, we didn't do much training; these guys were mostly all veterans, some of the Iran-Iraq war. I did work with their intel officers and train them, but the majority of our time was spent on joint patrols, or watching them while they conducted searches and raids. They prefer to have US forces there so people will see the raid is legit, not being done by a militia. We prefer to be there, because then there's less chance the Iraqis would abuse prisoners or mishandle weapons or evidence. 2) What is Baghdad like? - Well, it’s pretty much like it was in 2003-2004. That is, hot, dry, and not a lot of fun. The whole place just looks and reeks of death. Along the streets you can find one black spot after another where a bomb has gone off. If you look at the buildings, it would be hard to find one without bullet marks on it. At regular intervals there are lots twisted shapes of cars, the remnants of car bombs that exploded but were never towed off. Playgrounds are rusty relics, soccer field have been neglected and turn into trash dumps. Dust is everywhere, and it’s impossible to keep anything really clean. All the buildings, no matter their original color, turn the same dust color eventually, so the whole city is essentially the same color everywhere. It’s impossible to really describe in one email the many ways dust degrades the quality of life here. This country was had the most advanced and prosperous civilization in the world. But that was thousands of years ago, when the rivers provided plenty for the 1 million people of the land. Now it’s 23 million, and there's also less river because Turkey has damned up many of the sources for the Tigris and Euphrates. There are actually fish still living in the Tigris, but you wouldn't want to swim in it or drink from it, I promise you.In the distance, you regularly hear the pops of gunfire, and every once in a while, a mortar. Some of the gunfire is celebratory, and sometimes the bullets fall and kill people. I've seen the US wrongly blamed for this; people don't understand that bullets fall to earth, and they assume that a single bullet from the sky must have been fired from an aircraft.If you looked around, you might also notice that women are missing. Of all people you see walking on the streets or riding in a car, there are about 6-7 men for every woman. Baghdad streets are usually crowded with children, but normally all you see are boys. Many soldiers get the impression that there aren't many women in this country, when in reality there are far more women than men. The reason is very simple. People who think the US is a chauvinistic society should try visiting Iraq (or any country in the Middle East). Iraqis believe a woman's place is in the home (both figuratively and literally) and even when they go out they cover up from head to toe with a garment called the abaya. This was true in Saddam's time as well, but it’s even worse now, because of fears of woman's safety. To contrast with Germany, where women go jogging or biking all the time, this would be impossible here. To Muslims, everything is connected to sex, everything. If a woman did decide to simply jog down a street, I am told that everyone will point to her and say: "look at that bad woman, she is trying to show off her body to everyone", and the religious militias might beat her up for it.Believe it or not, Iraqi police and Iraqi army have women in them, but very few, and their job is really only to search female prisoners. Before they go home for the day, they change out of their uniform into an abaya, and generally don't tell their friends or family about their "scandalous" job. 3) Did I see any action? In 2003-2004, during my first tour, very little. I mostly dealt with prisoners and didn't go on many patrols or raids. But this time, I have been shot at, had a bomb blow up directly in front of me while manning a gun turret, witnessed a suicide car bomb go off just down the street (and searched through the grisly aftermath), treated an Iraqi gunshot victim while under fire, and many other gruesome things. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here; I didn't really do anything heroic, I just did the same job as everyone else with me at the time. But as bad as it was, all this is far worse for the average Iraqi soldier. They have to go through all this, plus they get paid far less for it, they don't have a safe place to go home to eventually, they don't have the advanced body and vehicle armor like we do, and their medical care is seriously lacking, since so many doctors have left the country to take safer, better paying jobs in the West. Here are just some of the ways the media or press either misunderstands Iraq, or deliberately distorts it: Myth 1) Every time we kill/capture an insurgent, more just takes his place, the war is just creating more terrorists. This is true to a point, but there is the other side of the coin. Every time terrorists kill an Iraqi national, it drives his family members to want to fight the terrorists - some of them join the ISF (Iraqi security forces) for this reason; unfortunately, many instead join a competing terrorist group to take out revenge. Myth 2) We are losing the war The war is actually a stalemate right now. If we are losing then the terrorists must be winning. Problem is, they don't dare openly control any territory and disappear pretty quickly whenever coalition forces or ISF show up in force. Moreover, they haven't achieved any of their objectives other than terrorizing the population. We made much more progress initially, but then it stopped. We are simply too divorced from the culture, language, and society to make much more progress. We can't blend in with the population or go deep undercover to root out the insurgents from their lairs. The Iraqis really do have to take it from here. For this reason, the planned upcoming surge in troops will not help much unless the tactics also change. We need to show a little more imagination than just playing "whack a mole". Some of the ideas I've heard kicked around for the extra troops do sound pretty good, but I'm not in that planning loop. Just have to see how it goes. Myth 3) Iraq is in a Civil War Not exactly a myth; This is actually entirely how you define civil war. It certainly isn't what you imagine as a classical example of Civil War, such as the US or Spanish Civil Wars. There aren't two clearly definable sides to the conflict. Each insurgent group (and there are many) is either Sunni or Shia, never mixed. But even these groups fight among themselves and both fight against US troops or Iraqi forces. If the US completely pulled out, my prediction is that it would turn into open civil war, with more definable sides as each faction decided to join one side or another. The danger is that the surrounding nations would get involved, and could be a very messy war. Myth 4) It’s a scandal that we didn't have more body armor for the troops or vehicles at the start of the war This one really galls me and I hear it a lot. Its strange that people who allege this didn't see it also as a scandal that Clinton didn't have body armor for soldiers in Somalia, Bosnia, or for that matter, any President in any prior war in US history (we have had flak jackets since Vietnam, but they stop shrapnel only - they aren't bulletproof). The reason why not every soldier had the IBA (interceptor body armor) at the start was that it was just being introduced for the very first time when the invasion took place! Now there is some misunderstanding on this among the public - if police departments have had bulletproof vests for a long time, why did it take the military so long to get them? The types of vests that police use would be pretty useless out here. Police vests stop handguns only, they don't stop any rifles unless they are of a very low caliber, and can't stop armor piercing bullets at all. The IBA is capable of stopping almost every kind of bullet there is (at least for a few hits). But it is bulky and hot as hell in the summertime!! Incredibly, some people are calling for more armor, like full arm and leg protection... I would ask them to try themselves going through an Iraqi Summer with all that on!! Also incredibly, sometimes the press is still claiming we don't have enough body armor, which hasn't been true for the last three years. Vehicle armor is a little different issue, and plenty of soldiers don't agree with me here. I feel the administration could have done more here, but not much. If, before the war, Rumsfeld tried to budget hundreds of millions for armor upgrade kits for Humvees, congress would have slammed him for it, and rightly so. There was no justifiable reason at that time to spend millions to put armor on a vehicles that still couldn't stand up to even the weakest Iraqi tank. Keep in mind that Humvees were meant to be military cars, like jeeps. They weren't supposed to be armored fighting vehicles. For that job we already had the Abrams tank, the Bradley, or the M113. But shortly after the invasion, it was decided that these vehicles were not ideal for regularly patrolling city streets, so they decided to go with Humvees for some patrols. I remember this time clearly. I guess they could have waited a couple months until more uparmored Humvees were available, but that would have given theinsurgents a faster head start in the cities of Iraq. I'm not sure if there really is a perfect answer here. Myth 5) The war was illegal It may have been immoral, if that's your opinion (not mine), but the war was actually technically legal. The UN had a mandatory resolution on Iraq authorizing the use of force if they didn't comply with inspections. Saddam didn't comply for 10 years and we let him get away with it (although we bombed him several times during the Clinton years). After such a long period of time, maybe it would have been better to get another resolution, but that's another story. Myth 6) Bush is to blame for all this violence Bush is certainly most to credit or blame for the invasion, but primary blame for the sectarian violence is on those who actually commit it. I saw this same attitude a couple years ago when so many commentators blamed the French government for the riots in Paris. I think there is an element of racism here; as if Arabs or Muslims in general just by nature can't help rioting or bombing other people, and so Bush's war set them all off and now of course that's all they will do. They can help it. They don't have to kill each other if they don't want to. If they don't want the US there the government now can simply ask us to leave. Even if they were justified in attacking coalition forces, what justification is there for them to blow up oil pipelines, hospitals and even crowded market places? That doesn't hurt us, it only hurts them.Shortly after I got here, there was a very shocking murder in a neighborhood right next to ours. An 8 year old boy was found dead with drill holes in his body and head. Let me say this straight - an EIGHT year old boy (same age as my daughter) was not just murdered, but tortured several times with a power drill. I'm sorry if that sounds upsetting (it upset me greatly) but there's no way to sugar coat it. It was almost certainly done by the Jaysh Al Mahdi (Sadr's militia), since that is one of their favorite techniques. Now there's no possible way this little boy was involved in terrorism. The only purpose of this torture and murder was to terrorize that particular Sunni neighborhood, and I'm sure it worked. Now in spite of all their religious justifications (it’s weird how every threatening letter here, no matter how violent the threats, is signed "in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful"!), the terrorists are human beings and deep down they know they are doingsomething wrong. Of the hundreds of prisoners I have dealt with, some of whom were literally caught in the act, I have yet to see one proudly admit he is fighting a just cause, or doing something right. You know what insurgents do when they get caught? They cry, cry, cry and deny, deny deny. Even if they are caught with overwhelming evidence, they make the most ludicrous stories about their situation (one guy claimed he was setting off bombs only to protect children because children kept trying to play with them!!!), or they will claim they were forced to join the terrorists because of threats to their family. It’s usually not true, but even if true, I don't believe that being threatened is a justifiable excuse for murdering innocent people. Strangely, for all their ferocity, they are extremely docile after they are caught and almost always spill their information very freely. If they truly believed they were fighting a just cause I think their behavior would be very different. I read in the paper that the Gitmo prisoners act very differently. Maybe it’s because they are the most hard core extremists? I don't know. Myth 7) Soldiers rape, murder and torture They do, but so do everyone else in the world. Certainly not at the rates you see in the press. My experiences here have forced me to challenge some of my past assumptions. For example, years ago when I saw the movie "Platoon", like everyone else I took it for granted that just like in the film, soldiers in Vietnam regularly tortured/raped/killed civilians, and got away with it. Now I am much more skeptical of these claims; I'm sure they happened, but I believe it may have been much more rare than people assume. The reason is because reporting on Iraq and soldiers actions has been so skewed from my personal experience that sometimes I wonder if I will ever believe the news again. I'm not exaggerating, probably only about 30% of what you read in the press about Iraq, especially if they are recent reports, is accurate. I can't tell you how often a news report said civilians were killed here or there in Baghdad, when I was there and no such thing happened at all. Or three werekilled but the news outlets say 30. Or they label the dead as "civilians" when more accurately they were actually armed insurgents. Moreover, there is no balance at all. On the very rare occasions when a soldier was accused of rape, it makes front pages everywhere. Yet, there have only been a handful of rape allegations in Iraq and even fewer verdicts. Moreover, anytime you have between 100-200 thousand people in one place, you are likely to have some incidents of rape and sexual assault. In fact, the rate out here is probably lower than the US average. Heck, once in 2003 my unit stopped a rape in progress at an Iraqi home. Did the press report it? Of course not, that's not newsworthy to them.In fact, going back to the murdered boy I spoke about earlier: the press didn't report that either. And why should they? It happens here every day. But one incident alone was far more egregious than all of the "tortures" done at Abu Gharayb put together, yet Abu Gharayb was splashed on the front page of the NYT at least two dozen times.Speaking of Abu Gharayb, I have had Iraqi prisoners sent there on my orders. A few of them were later released and I met them again (they sometimes come back trying to find out what happened to other prisoners, or looking for their missing belongings or some such). This was both before and after the big scandal broke. I asked them how they were treated, and not a single one of them told me he was abused there. They did have plenty of complaints about the food, the length of time, visitation, etc. But not abuse. In any case, I think a lot of this distortion is because people want to discredit Bush, and so they do it by criticizing the military, like they are one and the same. But I need to emphasize this: It is NOT George W Bush's military! We are not his personal force. I have served since the Clinton years and seen very little difference in the way the military is run. Bush is commander in Chief, but he actually scarcely gets involved in the day to day operations. Myth 8) We armed Saddam in the first place I see this falsehood repeated a lot, and a lot of authors have tried to cash in on it. The US did provide some assistance, but we never sold weapons to Saddam (at least not directly, and saying we "armed Saddam" is ridiculous). The US did directly sell some artillery pieces to Iraq, but the last was in 1967, before Saddam's time. During the Iran-Iraq war, the US also sold some unarmed helicopters, and some US companies sold chemicals, some of which were used to help make chemical weapons later. But the chemicals themselves were perfectly legal to sell, and Saddam was also buying them from other countries anyway. The CIA did help Iraq make contacts to buy weapons from several other nations, and strangely these nations get very little criticism for it. For example, France sold Saddam Roland missiles, Mirage fighters and Super Etendard bombers, while Argentina sold thousands of anti-personnel mines. One popular weapon of choice among insurgents is a particular Italian-made anti-tank mine. Myth 9) The US used chemical weapons in Fallujah This was a huge lie spread in a short film by RAI, an Italian company, several months ago, and was debunked, but not loudly enough, in my opinion. They showed footage of blackened bodies with Iraqis claiming that it was done by napalm and white phosphorous from US attacks. But they didn't seem to notice that the bodies still had clothes on them, and the clothes weren't burnt at all! The bodies were actually dug from the ground and were black from decomposition, not burning. In any case, napalm has never been used here to my knowledge, and in the desert it wouldn't be very useful anyway. White phosphorous has been used to smoke out insurgents, since it makes a lot of smoke, but it doesn't work well as a weapon. But even if it was used as a weapon, it is not a chemical weapon under any international agreement. This is an important distinction, because every weapon on Earth, whether bullets, knives or bombs, uses chemicals. Myth 9) The Iraqi people hate Americans and want to kill each other I see this attitude around, among a lot of soldiers too. Truth is, probably less than 1% of Iraqis want to kill Americans, and over 90% want the violence to end. But even 1% in a nation of 23 million is 230,000 people, so it’s still a lot of people! But the point is, the vast majority of Iraqis are decent people, and they really do want and end to the fighting and just to be able to live in a decent country. I'm not just saying this in some obligatory way. There are several Iraqis that I am very proud to call my friends, and would be welcome in my home anytime. But what they don't seem to understand yet is that the US cannot fix this all for them. They must do this themselves.
I hope you found this all as interesting as I did!

11 comments:

anticant said...

It doesn't seem to occur to this guy to ask himself whether the current situation in Iraq would have been the same, or better, or worse,if the US-led "coalition" hadn't invaded.

His surprise at so much that he describes is surprising.

Red Tulips said...

anticant,

And how would you know either way if things would be better or worse, given how the media has lied?

anticant said...

Loathesome as Saddam was, I very much doubt whether as many Iraqis would have been killed in the period since the invasion as have been in consequence of it.

Red Tulips said...

anticant:

We don't even know how many people have been killed, (given the media lies about death tolls) so how can you possibly know that?

Furthermore, given who is killing them (Islamist butchers), and given how weak Saddam was, how can you say for sure the butchers would not have entered the nation, regardless?

Jason said...

Please to remove me from the contributor list.

Red Tulips said...

Jason, done and done. Sorry things didn't work out!

ratherdashing said...

There's alot there to address. But, what stands out to me is the Captain's overall concern for the Iraqi people. He mentions the Iraqi security forces that are poorly equipped and the Iraqi people that just want to live their lives and the Iraqi children's damaged soccer fields. I bet his view is representative of a number of US officers. We have a great military made up of good men and women.

We prayed tonight that they are protected and that our leaders can make the correct decisions to improve the situation in Iraq.

anticant said...

I didn't say I knew it - I said that I very much doubted it, and I still do.

Red Tulips said...

anticant:

Point taken. Truth is, we really don't know. I have no clue what should be done in Iraq, but I do take the words of a captain more seriously than a pundit.

muse said...

Interesting, but one thing for sure, after 37 years in Israel, I've learned the hard way that Arabs are not bothered by death the same way as we are. OK, defining "we" may be difficult.
No other people celebrates suicide bombing, even proud that their family member died murdering others.

Mr. Smarterthanyou said...

Something else positive, seems we are already saving over 40,000 Afgan kids each year due to better health care after kicking Taliban butt:
http://news.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=655792007