On Point: Austin Returns to Baghdad

by Austin Bay
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 partexplains the change in perspective. This trip my job is assessment andanalysis, not action. Even with a fast-paced itinerary that takes us toFallujah, Tal Afar and Kirkuk, there is more time to reflect.

Today, the summer heat is just as hard as it was a year ago, thesand haze in the air just as thick. But the Baghdad of June 2005 is not theBaghdad I left in September 2004.

"Metrics" is the military buzzword -- how do we measure progressor regress in Iraq? The piles of bricks around Iraqi homes are a positive.Downtown, cranes sprout over city-block-sized construction projects. Thenegatives are all too familiar -- terror bombs and the slaughter of Iraqicitizens.

Last year -- on July 2, I recall -- I saw six Iraqi NationalGuardsmen manning a position beneath a freeway overpass. It was the firsttime I saw independently deployed Iraqi forces. Now, I see senior Iraqiofficers in the hallways of Al Faw Palace conducting operational liaisonwith U.S. and coalition forces. I hear reports of the Iraqi Army conductingindependent street-clearing and neighborhood search operations. BrigadierGen. Karl Horst of U.S. Third Infantry Division told me about an Iraqibattalion's success on the perennially challenging Haifa Street.

In February of this year, under the direction of an Iraqicolonel who is rapidly earning a reputation as Iraq's Rudy Giuliani, thebattalion drove terrorists from this key Baghdad drag. Last year, HaifaStreet was a combat zone where U.S. and Iraqi security forces showed up inRobo-Cop garb -- helmets, armor, Bradleys, armored Humvees. Horst told methat he and his Iraqi counterpart now have tea in a sidewalk cafe along theonce notorious boulevard. Of course, Abu Musab al Zarqawi's suicide bombershaunt 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'tmean the will of U.S. forces in the field. Wander around with a bunch ofMarines for a half hour, spend 15 minutes with National Guardsmen fromIdaho, and you will have no doubts about American military capabilities orthe troops' will to win.

But our weakness is back home, in front of the TV, on the cablesquawk shows, on the editorial page of The New York Times, in the politicalgotcha 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. Themilitary is fighting, the Iraqi people are fighting, but where is the U.S.political class? The Bush administration has yet to ask the Americanpeople -- correction, has yet to demand of the American people -- thesustained, shared sacrifice it takes to win this long, intricate war ofbullets, ballots and bricks.

Bullets go bang, and even CBS understands bullets. Ballots makean impression -- in terms of this war's battlespace, the January Iraqielections were World War II's D-Day and Battle of the Bulge combined. Butthe bricks -- the building of Iraq, Afghanistan and the other hard cornerswhere this war is and will be fought -- that's a delicate and decades-longchallenge.

Given the vicious enemy we face, five years, perhaps 15 yearsfrom now, occasional bullets and bombs will disrupt the political andeconomic building. This is the Bush administration's biggest strategicmistake -- a failure to tap the reservoir of American willingness 9-11produced.

One afternoon in December 2001, my mother told me she rememberedbeing a teenager in 1942 and tossing a tin can on a wagon that rolled pastthe train station in her hometown. Mom said she knew that the can she tosseddidn't add much to the war effort, but she felt that in some small, tokenperhaps, but very real way, she was contributing to the battle.

"The Bush administration is going to make a terrible mistake ifit does not let the American people get involved in this war. Austin, weneed a war bond drive. This matters, because this is what it will take."

She was right then, and she's right now.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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