In the months that have passed since Iraq’s much-hyped democratic elections, one word keeps creeping into my mind as I assess the tragic events unfolding in Mesopotamia today: Vietnam.
The American press and punditry, intimidated and compensated into slavishly reporting on Iraq solely along lines that will not overly alienate them from the powers that be inside the administration of George Bush, have long ago foregone drawing comparisons between the ongoing conflict in Iraq and the one America lost in Southeast Asia some three decades in the past.
The lack of a basis for direct comparison makes accomplishing the denigration of any such correlation between conflicts all-too-easy for the uninformed consumer of what passes for “news” in America today: the terrain is different, the scale of violence is different, the Cold War is over, and, of course, everything changed after 9/11.
Recently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, insisted, at a press conference, that the US and coalition forces were winning the war in Iraq, and noted that he was confident of a military victory.
“I’m going to say this: I think we are winning, okay. I think we’re definitely winning. I think we’ve been winning for some time,” Myers said.
Myers’ statements, mirroring his earlier pronouncements, as well as those of his fellow joint chiefs, represent a posturing for the public that is not matched by the reality on the ground in Iraq.
For every general who speaks of winning the war, there are hundreds of soldiers and marines, veterans of the harsh reality of ground truth in Iraq, who believe otherwise.
A typical example is the experience of the third battalion, seventh marines, who are based in 29 Palms, California. This battalion was assigned the task of securing the area around the western Iraqi city of al-Qaim in April 2004.
“The marines”, the battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Lopez wrote in a letter to families back in the US, “are hard at work establishing security and bringing a better life to the people of al-Qaim … we are actively engaged in establishing local governance, local Iraqi police forces, and improving schools.”
However, the reality of al-Qaim was much different. The marines entered what they called “silent war”, where they engaged in unforgiving combat with faceless insurgents that killed and wounded them in alarming numbers, and which went largely unreported back home in America.
The anonymity of their struggle briefly lifted in mid-April 2004, when the town of Husaybah, located near al-Qaim along the Syrian border, exploded into violence when some 300 well-armed and well-organised Iraqi insurgents launched a coordinated attack on the marine positions.
The marines were able to repel their attackers, but at a high cost: five marines killed, and another nine wounded.
Back home, marine families and friends communicated back and forth about this fight: “No better friend, no worse enemy”, one wrote in a blog.
“It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s ‘when’. In this battle, it took less than 10 hours. We’ll grieve with the families of our fallen heroes, knowing that their sons and husbands made a difference. Semper Fi.”
But this chest-pounding bravado was not shared by the marines walking the ground. “I guarantee you that people don’t understand what we’re going through,” one young officer was quoted as saying.
“Sometimes, you walk right by a bomb, and there’s just nobody there to push the button.”
Waste of time
The third battalion, seventh marines returned home in September 2004, having suffered 17 dead and many dozens wounded.
The marines of this proud battalion were deeply scarred by their experiences in Iraq. This was the same unit that had, in April 2003, spearheaded the American assault on Baghdad, helping liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. During that phase of the war, not a single marine from 3/7 was killed.
This time it was different. Rather than a sense of victory, the marines were struck by the futility, and tragedy, of what they had gone through.
“I feel like I wasted my time, caring about something that doesn’t have any meaning any more,” one marine was quoted as saying, speaking of his time in al-Qaim. “I felt like I was wasting time and the taxpayers’ money.”
His battalion commander concurred, noting that while much had been accomplished on the surface, little had fundamentally changed in Iraq as a result of the sacrifices of his marines.
“If we can’t turn the corner on turning security and governance over to the Iraqi people,” Lopez said, “we will continue to be frustrated.”
‘Dereliction of duty’
Myers knows this reality, and yet, he ignores it. His words and actions, together with his fellow joint chiefs, remind me of another generation of American generals, who occupied the office of joint chiefs of staff, those written about so devastatingly by HR McMasters in his classic book, Dereliction of Duty.
McMasters details how general officers could, and did, forsake their fellow warriors by glossing over the reality of what was transpiring in a conflict in the name of political expediency, designed to further their own personal careers and reputations.
As McMasters points out, however, careers may be salvaged, but personal reputations stained by such cowardice cannot stand the test of time and history.
Myers and his fellow joint chiefs, like those of their ilk who so shamefully served during the Vietnam era, have committed a massive dereliction of duty in the manner in which they so brazenly embraced an illegal war of aggression.
This embrace has led to an acceptance of an ongoing brutal occupation that only deepens the social and political divides inside Iraq, guaranteeing that so long as American forces remain in that embattled nation, the only path our forces are on is one leading inexorably towards civil war, and more death and destruction.
“Go tell it to the marines.” This slogan has long signified the reality that America’s marines were the first to fight in our nation’s wars, and, therefore, the ones who bore the brunt of the sacrifice, and were in the best position to gauge reality.
Snapshot in time
“I told the marines we were there to begin a process and turn it over to other marines,” Lopez said of his time in al-Qaim. “Ours was a snapshot in time.”
Another marine battalion now occupies al-Qaim. Far from the optimistic mission of “nation building” the marines of 3/7 had embarked on in April 2004, the marines of the third battalion, second marines are more concerned with security and stability operations.
In early April 2005, these marines withstood a massive assault on their positions by more than 100 enemy fighters, equipped with mortars and explosive-laden vehicles.
The marines repelled the attack, suffering no significant losses, through a combination of skill, bravery and good fortune.
The “snapshot in time” Lopez spoke of is a much different one for the marines of 3/2. And it is a far cry from any viable notion of victory that could be imagined when listening to General Myers’ speak of “winning” the war in Iraq.
Go tell it to the marines, General Meyers. You might be surprised by the answer you get.
Scott Ritter is a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, and a former major in the US marines, having served for 12 years, including in the first Gulf War in 1991. Author of Iraq Confidential, to be published by IB Tauris (London) in the Summer of 2005.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.