Last Thoughts of an Iraq "Embed"

Al Asad Air Base
Anbar Province, Iraq

This is my Iraq swansong, Inshallah. I depart soon with the 230+ US Marines and sailors of C Company - Charlie Co. - an infantry element in the 2300-strong 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. They are moving on to other military tasks after conducting two months of stability and support and counterinsurgency operations in and around Hit, a city in western Iraq. I will leave my "embed" and return to the predictable comforts of Brooklyn, NY.

Outside my tent the sun rises orange from behind an enormous dirt and gravel berm. The landscape illuminated by the faint sunlight has been scraped and scarred into ugly functionality by earthmoving vehicles. Long cream-colored canvas tents and squat white trailers are nestled behind razor-wire topped fortifications - Hesco barriers, metal mesh frames lined with gray fabric and filled with tons of dirt. Hescos can absorb mortar blasts, rockets, and small-arms fire, and they catch shrapnel well, but they are unsightly reminders that this is not a peaceful environment. The only thing pretty about the vista is the sun and how it colors the morning sky.

Al Asad Air Base is an American bubble dug into the Iraqi desert. Other than a token force of Iraqi soldiers, the people of Iraq are kept at a safe, stand-off distance by miles of desert, guard towers, and checkpoints. At Charlie Company's base back in Hit, the call to prayer from the local mosque easily penetrated the sandbagged window next to my cot. I could step outside and see and hear the city and its inhabitants. I knew I was in Iraq, even though the same Hescos and guard towers separated me. At Asad, I hear whirring generators around the clock and jet aircraft tearing through the sky. I hear helicopter rotors beating the air above this tent, sometimes so close I fear the blades will slash through the canvas. I hear the chatting and bullshitting of grunts and the hum of vehicles whizzing by. But I don't hear Iraq, and I certainly can't see it.

A couple of days ago in Samarra, a city to the east, dozens of people died in violence following the bombing of the Askariya Shrine. Revenge killing now spreads through central Iraq, but I would wager that few on this base other than senior officers know much about what's going on. We're connected to that Iraq only tenuously. Most of the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen don't venture beyond the wire. They're transiting to or from the States and just killing time until their flights. Issues of Stars & Stripes, the only independent newspaper that's widely distributed, get here a week late. The best source of news is the TV in the chowhall, which is permanently tuned to the Armed Forces Network. AFN airs American cable news broadcasts in a rotating, equal-time format - CNN (I breakfast with Anderson Cooper), Fox, MSNBC, and ABC.

I learned about Samarra last night during dinner, beef curry and salad (I passed on the corndogs and ham). This morning I came back for more information on the violence and got only a brief hit. CNN was fixated on a Phoenix hostage-taking and the Dubai Ports kerfuffle - this as central Iraq burns.

Yesterday on the tube I caught a too-brief vignette about the recent spate of insurgent violence from a news conference with General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Then I read the transcript of the presser.

"[T]o isolate out violence today and say, 'Oh, my goodness, there's violence today; isn't that different' -- which you did not do, of course, but I'm stating it myself -- would be out of context, because in fact there's been incredible violence in that country for year after year after year. And that does not minimize what's taking place today, but at least it puts it in a broader context and -- one would think," Secretary Rumsfeld said, responding to a reporter who asked about the strength of the insurgency.

"Oh my goodness" indeed. The fact that Iraq was cracked, bruised, and brutalized before the US invasion doesn't matter. The Bush Administration cast America as Iraq's savior, so we must either save the nation - the hope of so many Iraqis back in 2003 - or admit that we cannot. But instead of an honest admission of US obligations and missteps, a clear breakdown of Iraq's security situation, or a sensible plan for future operations, the administration offers artful rhetoric about the impending triumph of Iraqi democracy, as illustrated by the success of the nation's three elections.

Unfortunately, and self-servingly, they don't remind us that before each election, US troop strength was increased. Units were put on high alert. Many conducted extra "surge patrols" through cities and towns to deter potential attackers from launching embarrassing election day assaults. During the January 2005 election, I accompanied Marines on such patrols through Musayyib, a city just south of Baghdad. The grunts didn't venture inside polling stations on the day of the vote, as the Bush Administration likes to point out, but they weren't too far away: US troops, armor, and aircraft formed a steel and flesh curtain around the weak and tactically inept Iraqi Army and police force.

The only sure thing about security in Iraq is that US units come and US units go. Some, like Charlie Co. and the other infantry companies in the MEU's ground combat element, Battalion Landing Team 1/2, round up enough suspected insurgents and capture enough weapons to lower the level of violence in their area of operation. And then they leave. The transition between units usually creates a brief slowdown in operations that the antioccupation and sectarian forces exploit.

Two examples: BLT 1/2 pulled out of Iskandariya, Musayyib, and the surrounding towns of Babil province in February 2005 and turned it over to a Mississippi National Guard unit. Just days after the rollover, the area was rocked by a wave of IED blasts and suicide bombings. In one attack in Musayyib, a bomb exploded on streets I had walked just a few days earlier with grunts from the BLT's Bravo Company. The explosion ignited a fuel tanker truck. Roughly 100 people were killed. This year in Hit, insurgents launched their biggest and boldest attack in months just moments after Marines handed the Army control of the area. The antioccupation fighters knew a transition was happening, and they took advantage of it. The same process happens in other troubled cities across the country.

Furthermore, a new unit is under no obligation to continue the previous unit's initiatives or successes. To the extent that rules and regs allow, its commanders can damn-near reinvent the wheel if they choose to. If their strategy doesn't work, Iraqi citizens are back to square one.

It would be disingenuous to assert that such insurgent resurgence reflects poorly on the US Marines I am embedded with - and I don't say this because I have been stricken with Stockholm Syndrome. The Marines of Charlie Co., BLT 1/2 and the 22d MEU were given orders, which they followed. They conducted sweeps through Hit for guns and anti-US fighters, and they found some. Most of the grunts I watched performed professionally - Staff Sergeant David Marino, Lance Corporal William Whitted, Lance Corporal Adrian Bobadilla, and so many others spring to mind. Some Marines didn't. But all in all, the grunts did the best they could with what little they were given.

While there may have been some flaws in the Marines' execution of orders, the fundamental flaw lies in the orders themselves and in the planning for their execution. The architects, the strategists, and the tacticians of the US endeavor in Iraq have handed US troops a catalogue of Sisyphean tasks - install a democracy; help restore infrastructure (and protect it); build an Army and security apparatus from scraps and dregs; crush a disparate horde of mostly invisible enemies. Add to this the burden of force protection, steps troops must take to guard themselves and their bases against attacks. The 20-somethings of the Army and the Marine Corps (and their older counterparts in the Reserves and the Guard) are neither trained nor equipped to tackle all of this. Finally, throw on top of this pile the instability that transitions between US units inevitabily causes and you have a recipe for continuing disaster.

The Administration's response to this reality is to prematurely offload responsibility for Iraq's fate on the nascent and shaky government and on the incipient Iraqi Army, which relies on the US for everything - food, weapons, vehicles, training, command and control, air and heavy-weapon support.

"[I]t will be up to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people to seize the opportunity they have right now and to allow their people to have jobs and a future that would tell their people that the insurgency offers nothing and that the new government is the way ahead," JCS Chairman General Pace told reporters at a February 21 news conference. Would that the "opportunity" the general describes actually existed.

[Other Palmer Iraq bloggings are available at]