One Senator McCain is currently over in Baghdad again, and we’ll have to wait on word to see what markets he strolls through with whatever guards are to hand. Fair enough, after all of Bush’s stunt visits this almost feels routine. (And if you don’t think this is a stunt visit as well, please spare me. After five years — happy anniversary and all that — I’d hope we’d all be a little more cynical by now.)
So while all that’s going on, I’d like to call attention to two other stories I’ve noticed over the weekend. The first, from an LA Times reporter based in Baghdad for a stretch, addresses a criticism often levied from obsessive Michael Yon readers and the like — ‘Why don’t you report the good news?’ Which this reporter tried to do and, well, to single out one of the two main examples:
One line of inquiry concerned a bank branch in Amiriya, a Sunni Arab neighborhood on the west side of the capital that the American military said was one of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s most important strongholds last year.
Over the course of more than a year, the military paid to have the facility rehabilitated, sought to cajole the Finance Ministry into sending a shipment of cash and helped vet the bank’s guards.
“The bank is probably one of the most important things in the neighborhood. Opening it told people the government still cares about you,” Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl said when I called him shortly after he returned to the U.S.
Within weeks, I heard back from the military regarding Amiriya. The bank was no longer something the military was willing to highlight.
“The unit operating in the same area as the bank doesn’t categorize the bank operations as a top priority because they don’t directly affect the good of the community of Amiriya,” an Army spokesman, Maj. Mark Cheadle, wrote in an e-mail. “So, the bottom line is they would rather not sponsor an embed or visit for something they don’t deal with on a regular basis.” My request for a follow-up “embed” was denied.
I tried to arrange a visit that would not involve the military, but the neighborhood is surrounded by checkpoints that were judged too dangerous for us to pass. Without being accompanied by soldiers, there was no way for me to tell the story.
Cheadle proposed that I instead write about a videoconference that allowed schoolchildren in Baghdad and Texas to ask questions of each other. I declined.
And who could blame him? Said videoconference reminds me of random stunts back in the mid-eighties between Soviet and American schoolchildren, only IIRC it was pretty much suggested by and carefully conditioned for Soviet use. The modern equivalent being carried out by the USA sounds about as realistic.
But, so goes the complaint, whatever a mere reporter might have to say, that’s not what the troops think. True — but not for the reasons you might think, if this Washington Post piece from an Army captain who is about to retire after four years of service is any indication. And he’s careful in his explanation from the start:
I hoped to spend at least eight years in the service, maybe more. I wanted to lead troops in combating terrorism and making our home front safe. I wanted to command a company, something you can achieve in about six to eight years. Instead, come April 1, I’ll take off my uniform for good and become a civilian again.
And I’m not alone. Many other captains I know are making the same decision, or considering it. Let me be clear: I’m not a spokesman for some mythical “United Bureau of Captains Leaving the Army.” But as I’ve talked with other captains, attended conferences with superiors on this issue and listened to my peers’ reactions to what I’ve written here, I’ve heard a collective echo arising from the ranks of captains who are leaving. My reasons for this decision strike a chord with many of them.
Those reasons are threefold: First, I’m about to get married, and I want a family. Second, I can earn as much or more in the civilian world as I do in the Army. And finally, my experience with war has left me feeling angry, frustrated and mismanaged.
Extrapolating from one person’s conclusion is often a mug’s game — which, again, I would recommend to the Yon worshippers and their ilk out there — and the writer here, John Rogers by name, obviously knows it. (One should also read another piece in the Post that has run today, from First Lt. John Renahan, which while barely touching at all on the successes or failures of Iraq he has faced provides an interesting — and maybe less uncommon than he might think — meditation on the motivation of becoming an officer in terms of class in America. And, of course, this barely scratches the surface of the milblogging world — and not everyone in it is as blaring and bawling like BlackFive, thank heavens, though I note Uncle Jimbo claimed today that he’s a pacifist. Could have fooled me, frankly.)
To turn back to Rogers’ piece, though — I found it interesting for a number of reasons. Rogers’ explanation for his first two reasons for leaving — family and career — are discussed without apology, which I think makes sense, while serving as an implicit rebuke of the ‘long war’ mentality that’s been talked about. In a way, Rogers’ words are the kind of thing the eternal hawks really don’t want to hear, because it cuts away at the idea that Iraq is a key point of the great struggle of our time. Consider all the rhetoric — ‘we’re fighting over there so they can’t get us here,’ ‘we can’t afford to look weak,’ whatever summarizing you care to dig up. Here’s someone looking at that and basically saying, “I have a life and I intend to live it, sorry but I’m out.” Is he less of a citizen, or a patriot, for thinking that?
It’s also interesting given that his decision is also motivated by a concern for his fiancee, not merely on the level of emotional connection and support, but also because of the need for stability in her career. I don’t think this is necessarily a unique or key turning point in terms of how military members and their spouses’ priorities come into play — and of course, having grown up in a military family, I have a particular perspective about it all! — but I do think its being stated so simply and straightforwardly says much about many things — feminism, career vs. family, and more — which would not have been in the case in past years. To quote a key part:
My wife would be uprooted and replanted in a place where she’d be alone, knowing no one, and without the job she loves. She’d be unable to pursue her goals or use her talents. That’s no recipe for marital bliss.
I’d say that says a lot right there about both Rogers and his fiancee, and how they communicate and how comfortable Rogers himself feels about talking about it. I like the sound of it.
So what of the third factor he mentions? Note his language, that he feels “angry, frustrated and mismanaged” — he does not, and at no point conveys the sense that, the mission itself is unworthy. But his story in the second half of his piece, regarding the work he and his men did in capturing a Sunni insurgent leader only to have him released for unclear reasons directed from higher up the chain, is angry, and understandably so. He puts it simply:
Later, I found out that our detainee was politically well-connected, which supposedly played a role in his release. But we lost credibility with the Iraqi police. And we were ticked off at the waste of our time and our unnecessary exposure to danger.
It’s possible that there was some great rationale for releasing this man. But my men and I will never know why he was really let go. We knew that he was contributing to sectarian violence. Could someone at least tell my men that everything they did counted for something? What did I risk their lives for?
That last question can, and should, hang heavy among war supporters who do not remain skeptical and committed to being skeptical rather than wrapping themselves in glowing, rose-colored reports all the time, or assume that if the troops could just ‘do their job’ everything would be fine — the point here, surely, is that they WERE doing their job, and look at the result. Rogers allows for both the murkiness of political realities and the fact that not everything might surface — and it is not enough.
Rogers concludes by noting the possibilities of staying in in a way where he can work against the problems he’s seen, in a way that would allow him to find the balance he desires, but this appears to be impossible, so he leaves. He does so with regrets he could not do more. Someone with years of knowledge and direct experience is going and he is one of many. What does this say about the situation, the military, modern American life? Much, even if it is only one portrait of one life. And all the flag-waving around a presidential candidate’s visit won’t change that.