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January 21, 2007

Glimpses Through The Parting Fog of War

...if there's anyone who believes that these youngsters want to fight, as the Pentagon and some generals have said, you can just forget about it...If a young fella has an option of having a decent career or joining the army to fight in Iraq, you can bet your life he would not be in Iraq.

- Rep. Charles Rangel

Think you know the face of war? Think again. War speaks with the soul of a poet, not the inarticulate voice of the poor, the stupid, the uneducated:

Here I stand, in modern-day Iraq. I have come further to fight here than any soldier of any nation before me, and I fight with weapons and equipment that lay pale the panoply of earlier armies. I represent the pinnacle of force projection and decisive battle, and yet I fight here, where unnumbered young warriors have fought and died through time stretching out of memory. It was on this land that the Babylonian empire first arose out of those first Sumerian agrarians, only to be conquered by the Assyrians, and still later throw off the foreign chains. It was here that Alexander's phalanxes swept by, trailing Hellenism in their wake. Rome, and later the Byzantines, drew their border with Persia at the Euphrates River. At that river was where the Sassanids made their stand against the spread of Arabian Islam. The Khans of the Mongols laid this land waste, sometimes killing only to build their towers of bones higher.

This region is steeped in history. We walk on it; we breath it in. Eons of history surround us, infiltrate us, and turn to dust beneath our feet. The ashes of countless cultures, civilizations, and rulers dreams lie under the earth. With each breath, I inhale a few molecules of the dying gasp of Cyrus II, the Persian "Constantine of the East". In the howling wind I can almost hear the cries of a countless multitude dying on killing grounds that bridge across the ages. The same wind carries the red dust that might yet hold a few drops of blood from the battle at Carrhae- the first, crushing defeat for Rome's red blooded legions. Under my heel, a speck grinds into dust: the last grain of sand that remains of the Hanging Gardens at Babylon that are now known only in legend. Some of the world's oldest religions tell us that somewhere in this ancient Cradle of life, God himself breathed on this dust, and it became man, the father of us all. Whatever path we take here, we walk on history.

I walk softly, for I tread on the ghosts of years.

War speaks with the voice of grief. But there is so much more. Beneath the pain lie the promise of healing and the fragile flame of hope:

On the personal level, we have suffered some terrible things at the outset of this New Year. The oldest of my cousins, who is almost a couple of decades older than me, met his death by a terrible accident involving American troops. This is a problem that has occurred so often that really requires reconsideration of the way that M.N. forces are deployed. This was particularly painful as this man was one of the most harmless and peaceful of all, a man who has never hurt anybody, a man with a large family and a man who has born the full brunt of the lean years of these last couple of decades. He had to venture out in his old car in one of these dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad to do some shopping for his family. In his whole life he never drove his car faster than an exasperating crawling speed. He always created a traffic jam behind him. As he became quite old, his sight and hearing became very weak. We don’t know what happened exactly, he must have panicked; he must have misunderstood something. All we know is that he was shot by American troops. I don’t bear any grudge against these guys. They are placed in a terrible situation. They feel threatened and can hardly distinguish a terrorist from an innocent wayfarer. This is a problem that requires solution, but the solution is easier said than done. This is the terror and terrible difficulty of urban warfare. And it is precisely this that the terrorists are counting upon.

Another incident involved a dear old friend of ours, the family dentist, a brave man, who went everyday to work in his dental clinic, ignoring all the dangers and stubbornly going on with his usual daily routine as though there was nothing happening outside. The street where his clinic is situated is a well known location in Baghdad for the private medical community. Some of the best known medical practitioners used to work there, and the place used to be bustling with patients and people, especially in the afternoons and early evening. Nowadays, it has become almost deserted after doctors, dentists and pharmacists became favorite targets for kidnappings, extortion and murder. This man just kept on going. We were always worried about him and wondered about his courage and tried to talk him into more caution; he just smiled and shrugged off our concerns. Well, at last they got him. They broke into his house, took him away together with his three cars parked in the garage. After few days, we heard that they are demanding a big sum, and most likely it is going to be paid, and even then there is no guarantee for his safety as has been the case so often. In such cases the ordinary citizen has no one to turn to. Police protection for ordinary people is something of the past, a historical memory, you might say. Well, here it is; the sad situation that we have to admit and tell the world.

Another recent incident; a young man, a friend of my son, was shot in the head in our up-town neighborhood; for no sin other than being a Sunni. Our neighborhood which used to be so pleasant and peaceful before has become within the red zone, and people are deserting their erstwhile elegant homes.

The cancer is spreading, and the ordinary decent and peaceful people just can’t continue their existence. Baghdad is being taken over by ruthless gangs and blind terror. The accursed Zarqawi plan has worked. It is not difficult to make mischief, and there is nothing for the Sadamo-Ladinists to be proud about. For history’s sake, if we have to consider chronology, the destruction of the holy shrines at Samara marked the start of a new phase, the start of a steeper descent into sectarian strife and civil disintegration. Of-course it is mainly a deliberate plan of the "Sods" (a short name that I coin and will use henceforth for this motley collection of Saddamists, Al-Qaeda types, and other “insurgent groups”. It is the point when the Shiites, especially in Baghdad, started to retaliate, ignoring the advice and admonitions of the moderate religious leaders such as Al-Sistani. And it is usually the innocent and the weak who suffer, of both sides.

This is the horror we don't like to think about, that which haunts the dreams of our protectors, our sheepdogs in the middle of the night. Because it does happen. In war, the innocent are caught in the crossfire, sometimes our own troops are cut down by their own side. No one, least of all those who volunteer to place their lives on the line to free a foreign people, wants this to happen. But war is a deadly business and the press rush to condemn a situation they can't begin to understand. And yet Alaa is strangely gentle, and far more merciful than our own media. Surely he has reason to be angry, to hate, even. Yet oddly he seems to understand the harsh exigencies of war, to forgive what we, sometimes, cannot seem forgive in ourselves.

Why is that? Could it be these Iraqis are made of far sterner stuff than so-called "experts" like Joe Biden and John Kerry give them credit for? It would seem so, for war also speaks with the voice of determination:

There is a common misconception, or least I perceive a common misconception from what I read and what I hear, that Iraqi's are not willing to die for their newly democratic country. That is an unfair charge that should be refuted.

Last year,

in the City of Falluja alone, 101 Iraqi Police (IP's) were killed fighting the insurgency. They were assassinated in front of their homes, they were blown up at check points and recruiting events.

Bill Ardolino has a very good and insightful interview with a Falluja IP. Reading it will give you a better understanding of who these men are and the challenges they face and we face together. I was at a meeting last week where an IP Colonel said, "Iraqi or American we are all on the same team." He was right, we are.

Everyone matters, and everyone matters equally.

Think you know the face of war? Think again. War has an Iraqi face, and that face has been bloodied and battered:

INDC: You mentioned that you hate the insurgents, is that just more now because you've been shot or did you have a different opinion of them before?

Mohammed: "They hit me and they also killed some of my family. Actually they killed my uncle who used to be an Iraqi Army soldier, and they killed him and burned his face. And then they actually started threatening us as well."

INDC: They burned his face?

Mohammed: "Yes. It's a substance called "tizar," it's like, acid. They put it in his face."

INDC: He was alive when they did this?

Mohammed: "Yes, he was alive. They burned him and stabbed him so many times, and also they shot him with bullets. And we found a note on him saying, 'The police and the army and the Americans are all the same.'

But what shines through years of hardship is an utter determination not to give up until Iraq is freed from the grip of the terrorists who are tearing her apart:

INDC: What are your personal plans for the next few years? What do you see yourself doing?

Mohammed: "I think if the situation keeps going the same way, (with vigilantes) killing the insurgents the same way, it (the insurgency) will finish."

"Not to mention the operation that took place yesterday, by the Iraqi Army and the police (Special Missions Group). It actually shook (the insurgents) so much. If we do another 5 or so, I think we'll finish them."

INDC: How many insurgents do you think are operating in Fallujah?

Mohammed: "A little more than 500. Maybe more than that."

"Actually I need to go, because I don't want to stay a long time."

INDC: Ok. One last, quick question: what do you think of Americans, and has that opinion changed over time?

Mohammed: "I think we need the Americans. If they go out right now it's gonna be a disaster. And believe me, even if they get out of Fallujah, Washington itself will be a target."

But back here in Washington, that grim determination is not shared by everyone. Half a world away the corpses are piling up on the battlefield. Here on the homefront, the chattering classes pass the time by counting the coffins of our warriors, who it amuses them to call "children":

Last week a letter in the paper ran off the usual list of oppressions and deletions of basic liberties, including "the coffins we are not allowed to see." It reminded me of a conversation I had in Arizona with a Marine, whose family was also staying at my in-laws' house. (Their daughter played with Gnat, and was one of the Ghosts of Christmas in the play.) He had just returned from accompanying the body of a Marine back to his home town for a memorial. Lance Cpl. Nick Palmer, 19, was killed by a sniper in Fallujah. The vehicle had stopped to defuse an IED, which had been placed to fix the Humvee in place. Flypaper. Lance Cpl. Palmer was manning a gun on the back of the Humvee when he was hit. The shot came from an industrial building a good distance away; whoever killed him had particular skill. It could have been one of those ordinary Iraqis so enraged by the occupation they quit their jobs as an insurance actuary or auto mechanic and went to sniper school, perhaps. Or maybe it was a Ba'athist "Minuteman." Or an imported Iranian merc. You have to admit it's possible.

The networks may not have shown footage of the coffin as it arrived, but it certainly had the opportunity to show the funeral and the ceremony that preceded it. The Marine, who was Lance Cpl. Palmer's commanding officer, described the event: they arrived at night. Both sides of the street were filled with townspeople, gathered to greet the soldier. Every light in every window was on; every pole had a flag.

The church pews had no empty seats. "Amazing Grace" was played and the Purple Heart presented.

Everyone was allowed to see the coffin, and reflect on what it stood for.

The local TV station's website has a video interview with the parents, which manages to work in Vietnam in the first six seconds. If the TV station filmed the homecoming, it doesn't appear to be on the site. I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn't have shown the homecoming, unless they regarded the interview with the grieving parents as the full measure they were required to give.

The Commanding Officer who appears on the phone call is the Marine who told me the story. It's a very short part of the television story, but it was an intensely private moment and we need see no more. You might not get a sense of the CO's emotions from the voice on the other end. Trust me: it's a wound, and it’s deep. He didn't just make a phone call; he left his family at Christmas time to accompany the body and speak at the service – then drove a rental through a storm to get to the airpot to rejoin his family for the few days he had left stateside.

So the next time someone talks about the coffins we’re not allowed to see, consider all that.

Compared to the media's twisted and obscene rhetoric, war itself with all its heartbreak and savagery begins to seem as clean as a stretch of open desert in the noonday sun.

Posted by Cassandra at January 21, 2007 11:52 AM

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Nobody wants to be there? I have tried to enlist in the National Guard twice already and will try again in June. I am 39 years old and have a wife and 2 kids, but the cause of freedom causes me to keep trying.

Posted by: John C. Bachandouris at January 21, 2007 01:53 PM

Yes, but have you spoken with Rep. Rangel lately so he can set you straight?

AHA!!! I THOUGHT NOT!!! You obviously lost your tinfoil hat and fell prey to Darth Rumsfeld's Pentagon mind control rays, you 39 year old child, you!!!

Bring our kidz home!


Bless you sir.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 21, 2007 02:07 PM

It shames me that my fellow countrymen elect scoundrel like him.

Posted by: EssEm at January 21, 2007 05:37 PM

There are no children on a battlefield. If you want to see kids, go to a Kerry rally at any college campus.

Posted by: RIslander at January 22, 2007 05:01 PM

Ha Ha funny.

Posted by: John C. Bachandouris at January 23, 2007 02:39 PM

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