Or, Rank Has its Version
General David Petraeus, a former commander of the 101st Airborne Division on its last tour in Iraqis currently in charge of Bush’s “surge” efforts there. He will be returning shortly to pontificate on how Bush’s latest plan to “win” the war supposedly has been going. The snippets he has leaked to date suggest he will proclaim it’s, metaphorically, going great guns. In an alternate view published recently by the New York Times, seven sergeants who have actually been on the streets carrying out the surge provided their own personal observations and they could not be more contrasting.
What the two versions reveal is that there are basically two types of soldiers in most wars, those with the rank of major and above and those with the rank of captain and below. The former see the war as symbols on a map or, at closest, from helicopter height. These days, their's is the world of air conditioned comfort, hot meals, and clean, even pressed, uniforms. The only natives they meet tend to be just the local warlords and ward healers, usually corrupt ones at that. These upper rank officers, the ones with lots of gold braid and shiny brass, may get out in the field occasionally, but seldom for long. And, far too many never listen to those below them, particularly those in the enlisted ranks. The field grade officers, a misnomer, typically remain isolated even when completely surrounded by obsequious underlings.
The soldiers actually in the field, the grunts, those at the sharp end, see the war very differently. They see it up close and personal. They can’t miss the puddled blood and splattered gray matter. Perhaps circumstances force them to lie in it at times. They get to smell the indescribable stench of long dead or burned flesh that never leaves the nostrils once experienced. They taste the grit. They freeze. They bake. They hear, or worse, actually feel in their chest, the uniquely terrifying deep krump concussion of mortars dropping nearby. They understand that unlike in the movies, it does not matter how much a super soldier you are if the mortar shell decides to share your foxhole or if the AK-47 bullet happens to share the same airspace. They walk at night unable to see the trip wires, notwithstanding the high tech starlight scopes and infrared gear they wear. They often have reason to curse the limits of technology toys, particularly the untested new ones foisted on them by defense contractors more interested in surging profit than supporting the troops. They know the limits of human endurance by packing 80 pounds of gear on their own backs and eating cold MREs. They experience the real effects of the war, not the sanitized versions the history professors will later write. The grimy sweaty enlisted men and the lowest ranking officers actually leading them on foot learn all too well what war does to both to their own friends and the civilians they were there to protect. Interestingly, the enemy combatant sometimes earns greater respect than the REMFs who “lead” our own troops only from bunkers located far in the rear.
In any event, the view of war from the perspective of the ordinary infantryman carrying a rifle and searching buildings is one of almost relentless stress, worry, dirt, thirst, pain and fatigue. The one good thing, and occasionally very bad thing when death sickles a buddy, is the close comradery that can develop from the shared, often communal, experience among those fighting the war as captains, lieutenants, sergeants and privates.
These two very different views of the same conflict; i.e. the “higher highers” vantage point versus those scuttling, sometimes literally, on their bellies seeking cover, are so dramatically different that it is almost as if they are fighting different wars. Neither can really understand the other, yet both desperately need to communicate because each has critical information the other lacks.
The best commanders, sadly they’re quite rare, seem to be those who have endured enough close combat at some point in their careers to develop a genuine and lasting empathy with the enlisted ground pounders permanently assigned to kick down the doors. It needs to be long enough for the commander to discover that the enlisted men have useful and practical information. It needs to be long enough for the adrenalin rush to hard wire the experience into muscle memory. Merely earning the combat infantry badge is not enough. That only necessitates being under fire once. Unfortunately, what is probably needed for the lessons to really take hold is to be under fire long enough to lose someone they really cared about. That is when they finally learn the uncountable costs of combat and to not be wasteful of others’ lives. They certainly need to have taken the combat tour assignment for something more than just getting their ticket punched to show they met all their future promotion requirements.
Is General Petraeus one of those commanders men in uniform would consider worth following up a hill? I don’t know. Having served in the 101st Airborne myself, I hope so out of unit pride. But, if it becomes a question of whether to believe the seven doubting sergeants who have been carrying out Bush’s “surge” house to house or believing some general arbitrarily put in power by Bush, my inclination is to put more trust in the observations of the ones who happened to have observed events at grenade distance. They may not have the “big picture,” but the big picture type of guys like Bush’s buddies seem to have been uniformly and horribly wrong.
Besides, when breaking in doors and interacting with civilians in other ways, it is pretty easy for the average boot wielder to get a pretty good feel for at least whether or not the locals are genuinely interested in behaving. Body language is quite eloquent in situations like that. The number of bobby traps discovered divided by whether or not the locals give warnings before such traps are discovered the hard way equals the pucker factor. It is usually a far better predictor than the ideologies and egos of those at high levels who never have contact with the average citizen of the country sought to be subdued.
And, since we are not trying to simply exterminate the populace, isn’t that the one key question in Iraq; i.e., whether they are really interested in behaving themselves? As almost every guerilla war in the past century seems to have shown, until the populace decides they really want to have peace and solve their own problems, it becomes just a bottomless pit. On that subject, the cynical pessimists (which combat troops usually become after extended months under fire) are less likely to indulge in wishful thinking except the wish to go home. Therefore, is General Petraeus routinely seeking the unfiltered comments of his enlisted men who go out beyond the concertina wire every night? If he is, I would feel more confident that his reports will be reliable.
What is bothersome regarding the unknown qualities of General Petraeus is that Bush is not known to allow anyone in a position of authority who might disagree with his particular world view, even in private. Bush unconsciously seems to prefer someone more incompetent than himself so that he can look good in comparison. (How else would you explain “Heckofajob” Brownie for instance.) Consequently, a logical fear is that General Petraeus might be another crony type or an ambitious one. After replacing all the generals who accurately predicted the mess before the war even started and got fired for saying so, it is hard to have confidence that Bush’s latest selection is unafraid to report reality.
Even if General Petraeus is fully competent, inclined to speak his own mind and has good intelligence regarding Iraq’s present situation though, there probably will not be any genuine two way communication between him and Bush. In fact, General Petraeus might be expressly ordered by his commander in chief not to convey any message or facts contrary to the White House daily delusions. Remember, although Bush obviously likes to pretend he is a warrior by dressing up in flight suits, he was too gutless actually put himself where he could even hear the sound of guns which means he has no shared combat experience on even war in general, let alone Iraq, despite his brief sneaks into the county at night. Once again, it suggests what the seven sergeants and those like them have to say on whether the surge is serviceable is more likely to be accurate than what a higher ranking politically appointed general has to say.
It should be noted I have nothing per se against those who quite wisely seek to avoid places where you can be killed. If Bush had confined himself to hiding out during the Vietnam War, that would merely have been self preservation instincts at work. I do have a problem though when the person hiding out insists that the war is a great idea and that others go in his place. The reason I draw the distinction is because when our “deciders” lack that shared sacrifice under fire so important to comprehension, it almost insures a lack of understanding as to both the realistic capabilities of our soldiers and the full costs when trying to conquer.
Let us hope General Petraeus is one of the good commanders who can still remember when he was younger huddling scared in the same hole as his men. Let us hope he recognized that others had valuable information. Let us hope he has the cajones to attempt to educate his boss. A good start might be for General Petraeus to bring those seven sergeants with him on his next visits to the White House and Congress.
If Bush would ever listen to what the troops actually have to say, as the seven sergeants have attempted to share, we would be a lot stronger or wiser, at least not have as many dead and wasted. Of course, that would require that Bush actually care about the troops he so willfully expends.
[Written by a former SSG, 3rd/187th battalion, 101st Airborne, Vietnam era. Lawlessone was his radio call sign.]