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February 23, 2007

The Heartrending Kaleidoscope of War

How many times has it happened to you? You sit at your computer and suddenly, in your Inbox appears one of those slideshows, set to music. The war, in moving pictures.

Moving, in more ways than one. For more often than not before that moving slideshow is over, you find yourself in tears again. The old familiar stinging sensation starting up behind your eyeballs, and then the hot liquid coursing down your cheeks. And there is really nothing you can do anymore because the response has become automatic now. Three years of war have left you like one of Pavlov's dogs: the mere sight of one of those prize-winning photos is enough to induce a predictable sensation.

And so, more often than not, you close the file hurriedly and open a spreadsheet, or grab your calculator. Because you can't afford to get choked up during working hours. Not again.

I often wonder how the war will seem, in retrospect. Once it is over, should that blessed day ever arrive, how will it come back to us in memory? I often think it will seem much like one of those slideshows; that we won't recall entire episodes, but only snapshots frozen in time. Will our memories be distorted, selective? They can't help but be, I fear. That is partly why I get up and write every morning. In our imperfect way, we are grappling to understand history before it is finished. It is only that some of us want to declare the victor before the final quarter has ended:

"Are you on the road, or in the ditch?'' Back when I covered labor negotiations 30 years ago, that was the question reporters would ask to get a sense of how contract talks were going. The phrase came back to me last weekend as I listened to a series of relentlessly negative presentations at a conference here on America's relations with the Muslim world.

We are in the ditch in the Middle East. As bad as you think it is watching TV, it's worse. It's not just Iraq, but the whole pattern of America's dealings with the Arab world. People aren't just angry at America -- they've been that way to varying degrees since I first came here 27 years ago. What's worse is that they're giving up on us -- on our ability to make good decisions, to solve problems, to play the role of honest broker.

My, my. How on earth could anyone get the impression America lacks the ability to prevail, or the good will to be an 'honest broker'? Could it be articles like this, Mr. Ignatius' offering from last week, optimistically titled: Expect the worst in Iraq:

Somehow, four years on, the debate about Iraq is still animated by wishful thinking. The White House talks as if a surge of 20,000 troops is going to stop a civil war. Democrats argue that when America withdraws its troops, Iraqis will finally take responsibility for their own security. But we all need to face the likelihood that this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

Oddly, the thought that relentlessly broadcasting our inability to win the war doesn't exactly encourage fearful Iraqis trying to decide whether to back militias or support an illogical foreign nation that can't achieve consensus, keep intelligence information secret, or fulfill serious foreign policy commitments never seems to occur to really smart men like David Ignatius. But this is completely understandable. They're too busy telling the world how short-sighted the administration is.

This is a rare talent. Almost as rare as the ability to archly inform world leaders what they should have done, in hindsight, once all the pressure is off and you have the advantage of knowing how everthing played out:

Tim Russert: “John, was it possible for our policy makers to truly understand the way Iraqis would have reacted? The judgments made here were that when we went in we would be greeted as quote, ‘liberators,’ to quote Dick, Vice President’s Cheney's phrase, that they were prepared, in effect, to take governing into their own hands, that they were so upset and had been so downtrodden by Saddam Hussein that they would embrace democracy and rise up, almost immediately.”

John Burns, New York Times: “Well first of all, I think, again, to be fair, the American troops were greeted as liberators. We saw it. It lasted very briefly, it was exhausted quickly by the looting and the astonishment and puzzlement and finally anger of Iraqis that nothing, or very little was done to stop that. I think that to be fair to the United States, when I speak as a citizen of the United Kingdom, I think that the instincts that led to much that went wrong were good American instincts: the desire not to have too heavy of a footprint, the desire to empower Iraqis.

“But, and I think that the policy makers in Washington, and to be on honest with you the journalists also, to speak for myself, completely miscalculated the impact of 30 years of violent, brutal repression on the Iraqi people and their willingness, in President Bush's phrase, ' to stand up' for themselves, to take authority, to take risks. Why did we who, people like Rajiv [fellow guest Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post] and myself who were there under Saddam, why did we not fully understand that? I think it's because we were extremely limited by the Saddam's regime as to where we could go and where we could go and speak to and what we wrote about mostly -- certainly I can speak for myself -- was what was most palpable and accessible to us which was the terror, it was real.

“To that extent, I suppose you'd have to say people like myself enabled what happened, the decisions made here to go into Iraq and I'm not going to apologize for that. I've been to, I think many of the world's nastiest places in a 30 year career as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and Iraq was, by a long way saving only North Korea, the nastiest place I've ever been. It was a truly terrible place and what I think we were transfixed by was the notion that if you could remove this of carapace of terror and you could liberate the Iraqi people, many good things would happen. We just didn't understand, and perhaps didn't work hard enough to understand, what lay beneath this carapace which is a deeply fractured society that had always been held together, since the British constructed it, by drawing geometric lines on the map -- Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia in the 1920s -- a country that had really always been held together by force and varying degrees repression. The King, King Faisal, is remembered, the King who was assassinated in 1958, as a kind of golden era, but even that is really, was not really a parliamentary democracy. It was still basically an autocratic state and I think we needed to understand better the forces that we were going to liberate.

“And my guess is that history will say that the forces that we liberated by invading Iraq were so powerful and so uncontrollable that virtually nothing the United States might have done, except to impose its own repressive state with half a million troops, which might have had to last ten years or more, nothing we could have done would have effectively prevented this disintegration that is now occurring.”

And we all know that would have been much better, don't we? The conventional wisdom of the day, back then, was that the Arab street would rise up in anger against the removal of Saddam and there would be massive casualties.

None of that happened.

Because we did not go in as heavy handed conquerors, the "Arab street" saw that we did not intend to oppress Iraq and impose imperial rule. They saw that we were serious about letting the Iraqis control their own future. The peril we could not avert was that decades of brutality had numbed the Iraqis and made them more passive than we expected. And so one danger was averted and another danger we did not foresee - that a proxy war would arise and malicious third parties would leverage deep divisions both in Iraq and back here in America - took its place.

For back at home, the fighting was no less bitter:

An American Congress has got itself into a war it can’t win. It is stuck. Can’t move forward, can’t move back. And Congress is starting to take casualties. It doesn’t know which way to turn. It’s a quagmire.

The situation is dire, and congressmen everywhere are increasingly beleaguered. They have been unable to come up with any strategy for success, but more seriously, they haven’t been able to agree on a strategy for failure. One of their leading lights, Rep. John Murtha, has already been reduced to an object of derision and the danger is he will drag more of them down with him.

Congress spent four days … four days! … yammering earnestly, and then cast a strong, uncompromising, forceful non-binding resolution with a self-negating caveat. The president of the United States, in reaction to this devastating congressional shock-and-awe campaign, said, “Thank you, that was interesting.”

...recent polls have found support for Bush’s troop surge surging, and while opposition to the war is high, so is opposition to:

(a) surrender,
(b) losing,
(c) defeat and
(d) compelling the troops do do any of the same.

This poses a frightful dilemma for Dem Cong strategists. How to surrender without giving up? How to compel defeat without being seen to cause us to lose?

It is becoming increasingly clear that this war cannot be lost politically. It will have to be lost militarily.

And meanwhile, in the midst of hyperbolic press coverage about a lying ex-ambassador who went to Africa so he could spill the beans about what he didn't find there and a sensational trial, ostensibly about a White House aide involved in exposing the identity of a "covert" CIA operative so deeply buried that half the Washington press corps already knew her name, the LA Times openly brags about "outing" three ACTUAL CIA operatives who are covert.

So much for journalistic ethics. But we're supposed to "trust" the media when they report on the war, despite the fact that Jamil Hussein does not exist. Details.

The battle for Baghdad has begun. Richard S. Lowry reports:

The battle for Baghdad has been enjoined. The Iraqi Army is in the process of moving three additional Brigades into the city for Operation Fard al-Qanun. “These Iraqi forces are deploying throughout the city and working also in the joint security stations, where they're living and patrolling jointly with Iraqi police and with coalition forces.” This battle will have a very small military component, as this will be an operation to bring peace and prosperity to the neighborhoods of this war-torn city. The Iraqi ministry of Finance is already planning to provide vital services to the people and there are even plans to open local bank branches.

Within the last week, the 82nd Airborne’s historic 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment has started “cordon and search” operations on the streets of Baghdad. They have taken up residence at Combat Outpost Callahan, inside the city. They have begun to reach out to local leaders to establish relationships and to learn the community’s needs. They are telling all that will listen that they are there to stay. On one of Thursday’s foot patrols SPC Michael Benusa, one of the regiment’s medics, returned to visit civilians that he had treated on his first patrol. He checked in on a family with a teenage daughter who was suffering from eczema and an elderly man who was trying to recover from a recent stroke.
Beneusa provided topical medicine to the teenage girl and gave the elderly man’s family instructions on how to help him regain some mobility in the limbs affected.

In their first week of Fard al-Qanun, there has been a significant reduction in sectarian incidents and in extrajudicial killings in Baghdad because the Iraqi people have chose restraint rather than retribution. However, while this is in fact very encouraging, we cannot stress strongly enough that it would be premature to declare Fard al-Qanun a success. Success will require a sustained effort and a comprehensive approach that complements progress and security with political, economic, legal and social initiatives. The effects of the operation will not be seen in days or weeks, but over the course of months.

If General Petraeus’s plan runs smoothly, there will be very little for the traditional media to report. I will continue to monitor the “real” news and provide it to this blog.

From inside Baghdad, the news is encouraging, if early:


The sky of Baghdad is a story by itself—the city is being watched from above at several levels; from helicopters flying just above rooftops to various types of surveillance drones -which Baghdadis collectively refer to as “the fly” because of the buzzing sound- that remain in the air for hours, to another type of surveillance aircrafts that fly silently at higher altitudes and I suspect are also unmanned.
Above those flies an assortment of fighter jets, and sometimes heavy bombers.
All in all it’d be true to say that the sky is full of eyes and guns.

Although attacks happen here and there, the general feeling is still closer to hope and appreciation of the plan than pessimism. More families are returning to the homes they were once forced to leave, and we’re talking about some of the most dangerous districts such as Ghazaliya and Haifa Street.
Al-Sabah reports that yesterday alone 327 families returned home and that the scene of vans loaded with furniture of refugees leaving Baghdad is no more. There were times when the average was around 20 a day. The 327 figure brought the total to more than 500 families across Baghdad.

Al-Hurra TV aired a report on the story and interviewed some of the returning Baghdadis, one man said “those who returned earlier and saw the change in the situation called us and encouraged us to return, and I too will encourage the rest to come back”. The report showed those families asking the army to stay and not abandon their neighborhood, and showed the officer in charge giving his number to the locals so that they can contact him directly in case of emergency.

Looking at the relative increase in the number of attacks and their geographic extent one can expect the coming days to bring more escalation, but with the amount of power available for US and Iraqi troops I think the bad guys will not be able to achieve much.

The war has been a pastiche of heartbreak and hope, of tears and embraces. Whom do you believe? David Ignatius at his keyboard, or Mohammed in Baghdad? Jack Murtha, or David Petraeus?

Your choice. Hope, or despair. Prevarification, or Purpose?


Posted by Cassandra at February 23, 2007 12:33 PM

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Way back early in the Afghanistan operation (prior to Iraq) someone put together one of those slide shows set to Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah." It was my first exposure to that song and led to me finding the Leonard Cohen versions, and later even kd lang's version, all of which are quite moving in their own ways. I've long since lost track of the slide show and was wondering if you were aware of it, and, if so, do you have a link to it?

Posted by: Glenn Sutherland at February 23, 2007 07:18 PM

Do not click on antiwar.com. The guy is an inflammotory idiot who uses rhetoric badly.
Not to mention hyperbole. He also smokes.
Therefore he is bad.

See, I can make sweeping generalizations.

Posted by: Cricket at February 23, 2007 09:41 PM

Thank you. This is one very special slide show that brings us to tears every single time.
You speak volumes with this post. Very well done!
Thank you!!
We will continue to stand strongly, as we take on the defeatists here at home, while our Warriors take care of our enemies over there.
May God bless our Military and their families! We are protected by the very best of America!

Posted by: Shep at February 24, 2007 12:07 AM

Great post! I fully agree with Shep, we MUST continue to challenge the defeatists here at home while our brave Warriors are taking care of business overseas.

Posted by: Terri at February 24, 2007 12:33 AM

"Common Sense" was written before the Revolutionary War and had a tremendous impact for its time. Cassandra: too bad your "common sense" is drowned out in all the shouting. But, then, that seems to be the plan. What are they for, those who are so against? They never say.

Posted by: Joe Evans at February 24, 2007 12:43 AM

Hope and Purpose! Amen sister.

Posted by: Russell D Elford at February 24, 2007 02:06 AM

Great post and many good point. We all have to go back and read how Thomas Jefferson handled Arabs and how the crushed the Muslim Piracy and their attacks on Americans and how he fee all salve Americans in Northern Africa.

It's too bad that after 200 years are still are afraid of confronting Muslim fanatics...Wake up American, learn from your founding father!

Posted by: Frieda at February 24, 2007 02:09 AM

The numbing. The anesthesized nerve blocking void. Hollow. Reflexes make moves the mind ignores. What would you give for one decent nights sleep? Those GD wonderful images. You could vaporize and be at those moments, smells, sounds, and feelings. For me its having been swept away. The life before and now. We stood up and swore an oath. Those words now mean so much. Not as lemmings but freemen and women with values. So many have gone before. Oh God would there be a place of rest for US. Never regret.

Posted by: Gmo at February 24, 2007 02:32 AM

Inspiring. Thank you.

Posted by: Moultrie Creek at February 24, 2007 05:46 AM


Powerful stuff.

Cassandra, what a terrific post.

Now if we can get the rest of the Government (besides the DoD) into the mindset that we are a NATION at war!

Posted by: LongTabSigO at February 24, 2007 08:23 AM

This post is a perfect example of why I am so thankful that you keep up this blog.
And thankful for you.

Posted by: Carrie at February 24, 2007 10:10 AM

As usual, you guys are far too generous. It would have been nice if I'd been able to get it up there without the typos, etc. that I don't seem to be able to avoid lately, but I have just been way too slammed at work. Churning out posts on lunch breaks doesn't leave much time for checking your work.

Sorry! But thanks for reading :)

Posted by: Cassandra at February 24, 2007 11:06 AM

Which is more important and valuable? A post full of powerful and thought-provoking prose along with some typos, or a perfectly-typed piece of pablum that has no impact on the reader?

Please don't give the typos a second thought, okay?

Posted by: FbL at February 24, 2007 12:41 PM

"All in all it’d be true to say that the sky is full of eyes and guns."

They also have tethered Blimp's on some of the larger bases to provide better perimetr security.

Typo's left in in honor of our hostess!

Posted by: unkawill at February 24, 2007 05:31 PM

During bootcamp, after our "final exam" type all-night exercise, they gave us hats that said "NAVY" and the song "Proud to be an American" was played-- we all cried, even if we managed to keep the tears off our cheeks. This was a few weeks after 9/11.

During C-School a few months later--- think of it as finishing college--- an instructor brought in the song "Let the Bodies Hit The Floor" by drowning pool, set to images of the hijackers, the planes hitting, and us blowing things up in response.

THOSE are powerful songs.

Thank you for bringing them back to me.

Posted by: Sailorette at February 25, 2007 03:48 AM

Thanks for posting the video. It's been some time since I've seen it and there's a rather poigniant story to go with it.

The people who made this are the same people who made the 'We Support U' video. It was a family owned sign making company I believe and for a while they had a site that hosted about 40 such videos.
At that site they would also post e-mails and letters they recieved from people who had seen the videos.

This one in particular was very touching.
About 1/3 of the way through you will see a bunch of soldiers sitting in a room with 2 of them reading a paper.

The mother of the soldier who is reading the paper on the left wrote to thank them for showing the video of her son.
When that photo was taken it had been almost a year since she had seen him and he was due to rotate home within a couple of months.

She never got to see her son alive again. He was killed in action 2 weeks after the picture was taken.
When she recieved this video it had already been about a year since his death and she had no idea he was in it.
She thanked them because they gave her something that she never knew existed, the last known picture of of her son.

Since we're paying Homage to the fighting men and women I would like to link to a poem I like.
It's old but still good.

The Final Inspection

Posted by: Joatmoaf at February 25, 2007 04:18 AM

Great post!

I've quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms.blogspot.com/2007/02/re-cassandra-on-war-heartrending.html

Posted by: Consul-At-Arms at February 25, 2007 10:29 AM

Great story,the clip is also on the military.com shock and awe,videos.im a member of military .com forever and they have alot of tear jerking clips tribute to the troops..I have added you to my favorites and wii continue to read your great writings.God bless our soldiers and their families Semper Fi ps i post on the corpsblog im not even close to being a writer im a refrig.a/c mechanic--referman

Posted by: referman at February 25, 2007 11:19 AM

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