FORT STEWART, Georgia – I arrived at Fort Stewart, the home of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division, early this week to meet with the soldiers and officers of the 2-7 Mechanized Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade, who had recently returned home after completing their deployment in Iraq.
It was with these men that I hitched a ride through Iraq as an embedded reporter during the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 3rd Infantry was the main combat force in Iraq from the March 19 invasion through the fall of Baghdad on April 9. After the city's fall, the 1st Brigade took control of neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city, where the bulk of the population lives.
"We relieved the 87th Marine Regiment of their sectors east of the Tigris River. When we arrived, we felt like we had entered the Wild West.
Buildings were burning, car-jackings and looting were rampant. We had Iraqi police officers wearing military uniforms armed with AK-47s who we assumed were Iraqi military forces," 1st Brigade Commander Col. William Grimsley explains. "We held the zones until June 5. During those two months we oversaw the transformation of the area from a chaotic environment to an ordered city."
From the soldiers' perspective, the main US failure in Iraq to date has little to do with the situation on the ground. The main failure is the inability to transmit the reality they experienced daily to the American people.
"Our biggest mistake was letting go of the embedded media," says 2-7 executive officer Maj. Kevin Cooney.
"After the embedded reporters left, the reports coming out had no context. The reporters didn't understand the situation. They had no sense of what was actually going on and they didn't seem to care. They acted like ambulance chasers moving from one attack against US soldiers to the next without giving any sense of the work that was being accomplished," says Maj. Rod Coffey.
That work was vast. They opened schools; they paid civil service employees; they purchased school supplies; they hired contractors to fix and build sewage, electrical and water lines; they secured vital installations; and they cultivated ties with Iraqi citizens who were capable of providing services to the citizenry and information and intelligence to the US forces.
Much of this work was conducted in the blazing summer heat when the soldiers themselves were living in substandard conditions with sporadic electricity and water supplies. In the meantime, they conducted surprise sweeps and raids in search of arms, fugitives and terrorists.
How were they able to make the transition from fighters to administrators? According to the men, the main reason was the warm welcome they received from the Iraqi people.
"Everywhere we went we were surrounded by dozens of children smiling and waving at us."
"Old people came out of these hovels they lived in and gave us bread and invited us into their homes.
"We knew that they were giving us what they had and we understood how much they appreciated that we had liberated them from Saddam," says Specialist Jennings Roberts.
Grimsley notes ruefully that after the embedded reporters left, the brigade had great difficulty persuading journalists to accompany his men on their missions to report on what they were doing.
"They were all living in the Palestine Hotel and did not want to leave," he says of the reporters.
"We had to beg them to come out with us. And on a number of occasions when they did come, and we knew that they had written up what they had seen, we found that for whatever reason, their newspapers did not publish their stories."
The sense the men share of being welcome in Iraq by the majority of Iraqis is backed up by recent opinion polling data which show that the majority of Iraqis do not want the US forces to leave.Yet largely because of the slant of the news reports about Iraq, it is hard to grasp just how far the US has come in a country where tens of thousands took to the streets on September 12, 2001 to celebrate the bombings of New York and Washington.
The men are quick to admit that liberating Iraq physically was easier than shepherding its people towards democracy and fair governance.
"The Iraqis who worked under the regime are incapable of exerting authority. They survived under Saddam by carrying out instructions without question and they still refuse to make a decision without receiving permission from us," says Grimsley. "We realized this when they asked us for permission to open schools. We couldn't understand why they needed our permission to do something that seemed obvious to us, but then it sunk in that what we were seeing was the result of the perversion of a society that lived under total repression for more than 30 years."
The mindset will doubtlessly take years to change.
Even the capture or killing of Saddam will only solve part of the problem. The other problem is that the Bush administration is not sending a message of absolute resolve, while those forces who wish the US to fail are. By targeting GIs and supporters of the Iraqi Governing Council, these forces are working to create a perception of mayhem and chaos that flies in the face of the actual progress on the ground.
The Western media isn't helping matters. In underreporting the successes the US has achieved while over-reporting the difficulties, it creates irrational expectations among the American public that Iraq should be completely rehabilitated in a matter of months.
Equally unhelpful are the so-called multilateralists within the international community, who understand that American success in turning Iraq around bodes ill for the United Nations' bid to establish itself as the ultimate arbiter of global affairs.
Then too, the administration perhaps did not fully comprehend the magnitude of the task it was undertaking when the decision was made to go to war. Not only would Iraq have to be de-Baathified in the way Germany was de-Nazified. It would have to do so while some of Iraq's neighboring states remained under the control of totalitarian, American-baiting regimes intent on reversing the results of the war.
Yet in spite of the negative publicity, the international hostility, the meddling of neighbors and the work of saboteurs, US forces are quietly succeeding in their task. The men all noted that the day that Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed by US forces, the celebration on the streets of Baghdad put Independence Day fireworks to shame.
"And yet, when the 11PM curfew came around, the carnivals abruptly ended and everyone went home," Grimsley explains. "The Iraqis have a healthy respect for power judiciously applied." In other words, Iraqis both applaud and respect the US for deposing their oppressors.
The soldiers paid no attention to the politics in Washington while they were in Iraq. They try to avoid watching the news now that they are home. But when they do see the reports, they are troubled by the distortion.
"The reporters that came to see us when we returned home ignored the tremendous pride we all feel in what we accomplished while we were over there," says Coffey.
Coffey himself was the subject of an odd front page photograph in the New York Times three weeks ago. The photo-editor lopped off his head to show a picture of his son embracing a headless torso in uniform, weighed down with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Coffey's son was crying. ("Probably because he had just gotten into a fight with his older brother. He wasn't crying over me, I had already been home for a week.") The decorated chest evoked no emotion from a reader.
In a way, th
is bizarre photograph tells the entire story of the campaign to prevent the US from winning. If the American public is deprived of a view of its heroes, who won a war and are winning the peace, they will, sooner or later, abandon the fight.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.