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Go Back and Ask the Grunts

A few months before he died of cancer, much-decorated Vietnam War hero, Colonel David Hackworth told me, "There is no military solution to the war. We have lost the war in Iraq." That was in September of 2004.
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A few months before he died of cancer, much-decorated Vietnam War hero, Colonel David Hackworth told me, "There is no military solution to the war. We have lost the war in Iraq." That was in September of 2004 -two and a half years before the Iraq Study Group weighed in with its own bleak assessment that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," that "the level of violence is high and growing" and that "in Baghdad and several provinces the situation is dire." So why did it take so long for the esteemed members of the ISG and much of the rest of Washington to figure out what Colonel Hackworth was arguing years ago? The same thing that encourages President Bush to think that his own plan should include sending more troops: both the ISG and Bush seem to have ignored the war's history as told by the troops who have been fighting it.

"Hack's" pessimistic assessment was influenced by his own experiences fighting North Vietnamese guerillas but this "soldier's soldier" was also debriefing his beloved Iraq War "grunts." For the past couple of years, I've interviewed scores of American soldiers, asking them about their experiences in Iraq. I too heard accounts from these GIs that indicated that early on, the hearts and minds campaign to win over the Iraqi people was pretty much lost and with it, the war.

It wasn't long after Baghdad fell that some Iraqis decided they didn't like their "liberators" very much. An idealistic young lieutenant named Jonathan Powers described watching the Iraqis in his sector of Baghdad cope with the build up of sewage and garbage during the stifling summer of 2003. Lieutenant Powers devised a workable $40.00 a week clean-up plan but he could never convince the Coalition Provisional Authority to fund it. "It is summer," said Powers "and a hundred and twenty degrees with cooking sewage sitting in people's neighborhoods, and what have the Americans given them at this point? Nothing." By that fall, Powers and his men were no longer able to socialize with Iraqi civilians. The backyard soccer games ended and soon they would lose their first man to the insurgency.

In Ramadi, the following year, the marines on patrol were surrounded, unable to tell the "good guys" from the bad. "I just had a hatred for the Iraqis, I guess you could say," one told me. "Even the good ones that would actually offer us food, [and] water, I still just had this distrust, like I couldn't turn my back on them. As soon as I turned my back on them, they'd become a bad guy." Another marine related a story about carrying the blood-soaked Kevlar helmet of a dead comrade through a crowd of Iraqi civilians who were smiling at the carnage. Distraught, he shouted at them, "I want to kill you."

Travis Williams served in 2005 and in restive towns, took part in missions that only seemed to make matters worse by inflaming the locals. "There is no way you can go repeatedly into these people's homes, search through everything they own, put their women and children in a room, scare the crap out of them every morning and honestly believe you're making anything better," says Williams. In August of that year, Williams' entire squad--all but him--was killed by an improvised explosive device.

Again and again, the GIs described a near total breakdown in relations between themselves and the people they were dispatched to rescue from a dictator - human nature, a critical element rarely mentioned in the public discussions about how to fix Iraq. The significance of it was noted by Colonel Hackworth, an experienced guerilla war fighter who offered a warning to those who

think sending more troops can solve the intractable problems of Iraq. Said Colonel Hackworth, "If you think you can win by throwing bombs and maybe kill a few insurgents, but have a bomb fall on the wrong target and kill a bunch of civilians, then you create more and more insurgents."

Trish Wood is the author of What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It (Little, Brown and Company; November 2006)