As the debate over what to do and when to do it in Iraq intensifies, some perspective might be gained from the viewpoint of those who face death daily in a conflict that already has gone longer than World War II. A friend asked his officer son serving with the Army in Iraq for an assessment of the war. I asked him to allow me to use the reply in a column. He agreed if I would withhold the son’s name and that of the rifleman about whom he writes so eloquently.
Both young men should be considered heroes however things ultimately turn out in that far away land. American soldiers. Here is the letter.
"I am not sure you will like this answer . . . In my most optimistic opinion, the probability of our losing versus winning (both terms being relative) is close to 50-50.
"The events that tip the balance in favor of winning are often in the hands of a 23-year-old lieutenant or a 25-year-old staff sergeant who has been trained to operate at the tactical level, but demonstrate heroic restraint in preventing blunders at a strategic level. That’s why you’ve got to love them. And, hopefully, more people in America will come to understand who they are and the sacrifices they are making.
"Let me describe one of these guys: His name is George (not his real name and his hometown is redacted). He is a rifleman in my command who spent two months last summer in the Baghdad quarters of Ghazaliyah (Gaz-a-lee-a) and Shulla in heat so sweltering that salt formed on his boot laces as his sweat evaporated off them. He walked the beat for six to eight hours at a time with three or four of his (U.S.) squad mates and a squad of Iraqi National Police, searching houses at a rate of five or six per hour. Sometimes the Iraqi security forces couldn’t keep up. So (our guys) did most of the work for them.
"In the searching of the houses in Baghdad neighborhoods, George knew to ensure that the head of each household had time to place all women in a separate room (with an acute sensitivity to their culture). He knew not to touch the holy Koran with his hand, to recognize Muqtada al-Sadr in pictures on the wall, and to show respect.
"All these things he knew because he took time to understand the people he was protecting and fighting at the same time. This helped him gain a respect for the Iraqi citizens, which, in turn, reinforces the discipline it takes for an American soldier to attempt to stop a suspected suicide car bomb by flashing a green laser pointer at it while his Stryker driver honks the horn. When these attempts fail, it reinforces the discipline to shine the laser sight on his rifle to demonstrate his intent to use it and then to place a well-aimed warning shot where collateral damage will be minimal. When these attempts fail, he knows to seek cover or, if time allows, take a lethal shot at the driver.
"George and his peers do this to prevent the killing of innocent civilians who are easily mistaken for suicide bombers in these tense situations. In the wrong neighborhood, at the wrong time, this type mistake has repercussions, which take months to overcome if at all . . . George knew this.
"The last time I saw George, I was holding him by the boot while medics and a doctor treated a hole in his chest. A sniper shot him through the armpit with an armor-piercing bullet intended to penetrate his bulletproof vest. He is convalescing at home and in a few months will return to active duty with us in Baghdad . . . to do it all over again.
"George is 20 years old and he and his peers are part of the new "greatest generation." The best thing we can do for them is to tell their story. This war will be decided by these guys . . .I cannot make an honest prediction as to when it will be decided because there are so many factors that I don’t see in the streets or learn from the media. I do know this . . . I have never seen a more desperate and pathetic situation than Baghdad today . . . "
The accuracy of that statement is reinforced by the fact the author also is a veteran of Kosovo and 15 months elsewhere in Iraq. God bless him and his rifleman.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)