June 21, 2005
BAGHDAD -- This trip to Iraq is deja vu with a difference.
I served here as a soldier, and returning as a writer in part
explains the change in perspective. This trip my job is assessment and
analysis, not action. Even with a fast-paced itinerary that takes us to
Fallujah, Tal Afar and Kirkuk, there is more time to reflect.
Today, the summer heat is just as hard as it was a year ago, the
sand haze in the air just as thick. But the Baghdad of June 2005 is not the
Baghdad I left in September 2004.
"Metrics" is the military buzzword -- how do we measure progress
or regress in Iraq? The piles of bricks around Iraqi homes are a positive.
Downtown, cranes sprout over city-block-sized construction projects. The
negatives are all too familiar -- terror bombs and the slaughter of Iraqi
Last year -- on July 2, I recall -- I saw six Iraqi National
Guardsmen manning a position beneath a freeway overpass. It was the first
time I saw independently deployed Iraqi forces. Now, I see senior Iraqi
officers in the hallways of Al Faw Palace conducting operational liaison
with U.S. and coalition forces. I hear reports of the Iraqi Army conducting
independent street-clearing and neighborhood search operations. Brigadier
Gen. Karl Horst of U.S. Third Infantry Division told me about an Iraqi
battalion's success on the perennially challenging Haifa Street.
In February of this year, under the direction of an Iraqi
colonel who is rapidly earning a reputation as Iraq's Rudy Giuliani, the
battalion drove terrorists from this key Baghdad drag. Last year, Haifa
Street was a combat zone where U.S. and Iraqi security forces showed up in
Robo-Cop garb -- helmets, armor, Bradleys, armored Humvees. Horst told me
that he and his Iraqi counterpart now have tea in a sidewalk cafe along the
once notorious boulevard. Of course, Abu Musab al Zarqawi's suicide bombers
haunt this fragile calm.
This return visit to Iraq, however, spurs thoughts of America --
to be specific, thoughts about America's will to pursue victory. I don't
mean the will of U.S. forces in the field. Wander around with a bunch of
Marines for a half hour, spend 15 minutes with National Guardsmen from
Idaho, and you will have no doubts about American military capabilities or
the troops' will to win.
But our weakness is back home, in front of the TV, on the cable
squawk shows, on the editorial page of The New York Times, in the political
gotcha games of Washington, D.C.
It seems America wants to get on with its Electra-Glide life,
that Sept. 10 sense of freedom and security, without finishing the job. The
military is fighting, the Iraqi people are fighting, but where is the U.S.
political class? The Bush administration has yet to ask the American
people -- correction, has yet to demand of the American people -- the
sustained, shared sacrifice it takes to win this long, intricate war of
bullets, ballots and bricks.
Bullets go bang, and even CBS understands bullets. Ballots make
an impression -- in terms of this war's battlespace, the January Iraqi
elections were World War II's D-Day and Battle of the Bulge combined. But
the bricks -- the building of Iraq, Afghanistan and the other hard corners
where this war is and will be fought -- that's a delicate and decades-long
Given the vicious enemy we face, five years, perhaps 15 years
from now, occasional bullets and bombs will disrupt the political and
economic building. This is the Bush administration's biggest strategic
mistake -- a failure to tap the reservoir of American willingness 9-11
One afternoon in December 2001, my mother told me she remembered
being a teenager in 1942 and tossing a tin can on a wagon that rolled past
the train station in her hometown. Mom said she knew that the can she tossed
didn't add much to the war effort, but she felt that in some small, token
perhaps, but very real way, she was contributing to the battle.
"The Bush administration is going to make a terrible mistake if
it does not let the American people get involved in this war. Austin, we
need a war bond drive. This matters, because this is what it will take."
She was right then, and she's right now.