A Marine Sees What Defeatists Don’t
My view from Iraq is better than the media’s (and closer to reality)
By Ben Connable
RAMADI, Iraq ? This is my third deployment with the 1st Marine Division to the Middle East.
This is the third time I’ve heard the quavering cries of the talking heads predicting failure and calling for withdrawal.
This is the third time I find myself shaking my head in disbelief.
Setbacks and tragedy are part and parcel of war and must be accepted on the battlefield. We can and will achieve our goals in Iraq.
Waiting for war in the Saudi Arabian desert as a young corporal in 1991, I recall reading news clippings portending massive tank battles, fiery death from Saddam Hussein’s “flame trenches” and bitter defeat at the hands of the fourth-largest army in the world. My platoon was told to expect 75% casualties. Being Marines and, therefore, naturally cocky, we still felt pretty good about our abilities.
The panicky predictions failed to come true. The flame trenches sputtered. Nobody from my platoon died. Strength, ingenuity and willpower won the day. Crushing the fourth-largest army in the world in four days seemed to crush the doubts back home.
Twelve years passed, during which time America was faced with frustrating actions in Somalia and the Balkans. Doubt had begun to creep back into public debate.
In the spring of last year, I was a Marine captain, back with the division for Operation Iraqi Freedom. As I waited for war in the desert, just 100 miles to the north from our stepping-off point in 1991, I was again subjected to the panicky analyses of talking heads. There weren’t enough troops to do the job, the oil fields would be destroyed, we couldn’t fight in urban terrain, our offensive would grind to a halt, and we should expect more than 10,000 casualties.
Remembering my experience in Desert Storm, I took these assessments with a grain of salt. As a staff officer in the division command post, I was able to follow the larger battle as we moved forward. I knew that our tempo was keeping the enemy on his heels and that our plan would lead us to victory.
But war is never clean and simple. Mourning our losses quietly, the Marines drove to Baghdad, then to Tikrit, liberating the Iraqi people while losing fewer men than were lost in Desert Storm.
In May of last year, I was sitting with some fellow officers back in Diwaniyah, Iraq, the offensive successful and the country liberated from Saddam. I received a copy of a March 30 U.S. newspaper on Iraq in an old package that had finally made its way to the front. The stories: horror in Nasariyah, faltering supply lines and demonstrations in Cairo. The mood of the paper was impenetrably gloomy, and predictions of disaster abounded. The offensive was stalled; everyone was running out of supplies; we would be forced to withdraw.
The Arab world was about to ignite into a fireball of rage, and the Middle East was on the verge of collapse. If I had read those stories on March 30, I would have had a tough time either restraining my laughter or, conversely, falling into a funk. I was concerned about the bizarre kaleidoscope image of Iraq presented to the American people by writers viewing the world through a soda straw.
Returning to Iraq this past February, I knew that the Marines had a tremendous opportunity to follow through on our promises to the Iraqi people.
Believing in the mission, many Marines volunteered to return. I again found myself in the division headquarters.
Just weeks ago, I read that the supply lines were cut, ammunition and food were dwindling, the “Sunni Triangle” was exploding, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was leading a widespread Shiite revolt, and the country was nearing civil war.
As I write this, the supply lines are open, there’s plenty of ammunition and food, the Sunni Triangle is back to status quo, and Sadr is marginalized in Najaf. Once again, dire predictions of failure and disaster have been dismissed by American willpower and military professionalism.
War is inherently ugly and dramatic. I don’t blame reporters for focusing on the burning vehicles, the mutilated bodies or the personal tragedies. The editors have little choice but to print the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison and the tales of the insurgency in Fallujah. These things sell news and remind us of the sober reality of our commitment to the Iraqi people. The actions of our armed forces are rightfully subject to scrutiny.
I am not ignorant of the political issues, either. But as a professional, I have the luxury of putting politics aside and focusing on the task at hand. Protecting people from terrorists and criminals while building schools and lasting friendships is a good mission, no matter what brush it’s tarred with.
Nothing any talking head will say can deter me or my fellow Marines from caring about the people of Iraq, or take away from the sacrifices of our comrades. Fear in the face of adversity is human nature, and many people who take the counsel of their fears speak today. We are not deaf to their cries; neither do we take heed. All we ask is that Americans stand by us by supporting not just the troops, but also the mission.
We’ll take care of the rest.
Maj. Ben Connable is serving as a foreign-area officer and intelligence officer with the 1st Marine Division.