Sunday, November 01, 2009

Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program of CNY – 30 October 2009
LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR
Field Historian, Marine Corps History Division

I am honored to be here today and to have the opportunity to share this time with you. When Judge Mordue asked me to speak, I was delighted to accept. This venue combines two of my favorite groups; students and veterans. I am a history teacher at Cazenovia High School and truly believe helping and nurturing young scholars to be my reason for being. Young people like you are near and dear to my heart. With regard to veterans, I happen to be one, but that is secondary. For me, veterans are the embodiment of our nation’s virtues. They are also living repositories of history. You’re probably tired of hearing your teachers tell you that we need to learn from history, so let me phrase it differently – we can and should learn from those who have made history. Each year, I require my students to seek out and learn from veterans of our nation’s wars. How blessed you are to have veterans in your own family – I hope you will never stop learning from them.

Vietnam veterans, in particular, can be a rich source of knowledge and advice. Every officer remembers the seasoned old NCO who took them under their wing and helped them survive their tour as a 2nd Lt. My mentor was a crusty MSgt named Guy Ambrose. MSgt Ambrose had earned five purple hearts during multiple tours in Vietnam. Now we all suspected that the MSgt must have had magnetic properties to attract that much shrapnel and we used to kind of edge away from him when there was incoming during Operation Desert Storm. But on every other occasion, one wanted to stay as close to him as possible. He had encountered and sorted through every leadership challenge you could imagine and he had that gentle fatherly ability to point you in the right direction without making you feel like an idiot for not seeing the solution in the first place. One of the messages that I would like to leave our students with today is: Everyone needs a mentor – and I’ll bet there are some damn fine ones in this room today – seek them out, ask questions, and listen to what they have to say. I owe much to those who have mentored me over the years.

The timing of this luncheon is appropriate in that Veterans’ Day is just 12 days away. I love our country. I love all that it represents. More than any other group, our veterans represent the qualities and virtues we hold dear as a nation. We all value freedom. They have defended it. They have sacrificed their individual liberty, often in ways we can only imagine, to share the blessing of freedom with others. We honor courage. They define it. I often remind my students that courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting despite it. Our servicemen and women almost always know the dangers they face – the point is that they do their duty in spite of those dangers. What must it have been like to look across that long open field at Gettysburg on July 3rd 1863, to know the odds, but to step off anyway? What must it have been like to watch darkness settle in on Hill 881 outside Khe Sanh, but man your post without hesitation? What must it have been like to enter house after house in Fallujah, knowing the next one may be your last? Veterans knew the risks in each of these cases, but performed their duty nonetheless.

Those virtues are well-known and often celebrated – as they should be. But our veterans embody other virtues such as self-discipline, compassion and restraint that are not as heralded. I will share some examples from Iraq, but talk to those who served in Vietnam, or any of our nation’s conflicts, and you will hear similar themes emerge. I am privileged to serve as a historian for the Marine Corps. My mission is to document the experiences of Marines and those who serve along side them so that their stories are not lost. Historians deploy wherever Marines may be serving to capture their stories by conducting interviews, taking photos, collecting documents and recovering artifacts – all to preserve our history for the benefit of future generations.

Those of you who have served at earlier points in our nation’s history have established a legacy that each ensuing generation strives to live up to. You have set a standard of service, of valor, of selflessness that inspires those who serve now. Each year on the 10th of November, Marines gather to celebrate our birthday and we talk of such things. The spirit of warriors past and the essence of their actions is always tangibly present in the room. That presence motivates the latest generation to live up to your example. I am deeply proud to report that today’s young Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen are living up to that ideal. I never miss an opportunity to talk about the magnificent job that our young warriors are doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to share some of that with you today – because you might not hear about it anywhere else. Due to the current debate on policy in Afghanistan, those who watch the news may know that we have nearly 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan with the potential for tens of thousands more to be added. But how many Americans know that we still have 120,000 troops in harms way in Iraq? You would have to listen carefully to hear any mention of that fact in the mainstream media. So today, as we enjoy our time together and cherish the blessing of being here in America, safe and secure, let us remember those 200,000 young people who are abroad.

I mentioned other virtues that should be honored and I would like to elaborate a bit on that theme now. Make no mistake about it, the troops we have overseas today exhibit the courage, tactical skill and fighting spirit for which Americans have been renowned throughout our history. Those attributes have been essential in tracking down and eliminating those who would harm our nation and other freedom-loving people. But in some ways, it may be other qualities that have led to victory in Iraq and that will be the key to success in Afghanistan. I believe that the Iraq War, for all its flaws and setbacks, will one day be viewed as a strategic victory in the war on terror. The primary reason is that the conflict has showcased the innate decency of Americans and the inherent barbarity of al Qaeda. It has not been lost on the world’s Islamic community that the vast majority of people murdered by al Qaeda and their surrogates during the last eight years have been Muslims. Meanwhile, American servicemen and women have consistently demonstrated honor, decency, respect and restraint. That contrast has been noted.

During my tour in Iraq, I was privileged to travel throughout al Anbar province, its largest province, encompassing the western third of the country. I visited nearly every major population center and concentration of US forces. I met with ordinary Iraqis and their leaders. And I had the honor of interviewing 425 magnificent young Americans to capture their stories for history. I was also fortunate to be there during an event known as the Anbar Awakening. As this indigenous movement unfolded, Iraqis in one area after another made the conscious decision to unite with Americans against al Qaeda in Iraq and other violent insurgents. Iraqis did this out of self-interest. They compared the words and actions of insurgents with those of Americans. Over the long period the message conveyed by our troops was backed up by their deeds. “We are not here to occupy your country. We’re here to help you. We want to stabilize you communities, restore your essential services, train your indigenous security forces, return sovereignty to leaders of your own choosing and then go home to our own families.” In time they believed us because the actions of young Marines and soldiers on the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi and al Qaim matched their words. They exhibited restraint, and decency and mercy and compassion on a daily basis. The Iraqis, who are by and large an extremely pragmatic people, determined it was in their interest to cooperate with us and abandon the marriage of convenience some had formed with al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in late 2003 and 2004. The tide turned in Iraq when their citizens began to cooperate with us in pursuit of our mutual interests. Their young men stepped up to safeguard the security of their own communities. Today their security forces are in the lead and our forces are primarily trainers and advisors.

None of us should underestimate the scope of the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. But like Iraq, I believe the fundamental key to success in Afghanistan will be convincing their people that we are not there to occupy their country. Given the nation’s history and the fragmented nature of its society, this will not be an easy task. However, the element that gives me hope is the knowledge that the same young people who won the confidence of the Iraqis are now operating amongst the Afghan people. More than our political system, our nation’s leaders or even our senior officers, I have faith in the American fighting man and woman. If success in Afghanistan is to be achieved, it will be due to their courage, their decency and their exceptional ability to embody all that our nation stands for. I pray only that we give them a clear mission and the resources to achieve it.

This luncheon symbolizes the intersection of our nation’s past, present and future. The veterans here today have done so much to serve our nation, to protect its interests and safeguard its freedoms. They continue to serve and to lead in so many ways in civil society. There is much we can learn from their example. Today is part of the vital process to hand off the ideals and the values that have guided them to the next generation of Americans. Your capacity to receive, to appreciate and to carry on those ideals will have a profound impact on our nation’s future. This process of intergenerational transfer is essential to the success of our country – so essential that it can never be taken for granted. I am thankful that organizations like the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program exist to safeguard that process and grateful that I could be here today to see it in action. Thank you for having me and for your kind attention. May God bless you and America.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Principle-based leadership in Iraq

Leadership is easy when the way ahead is clear. The goals are widely recognized and the path to victory is well-marked for all to see. The true test of leadership occurs when the opposite conditions prevail. Rallying your forces and guiding the way is most difficult when one is not even sure of what victory will look like, much less how to get there. America’s long and winding path through Operation Iraqi Freedom surely fits the second scenario more closely.

This being so, how is it that Iraq is increasingly secure today and moving steadily (albeit slowly) toward self-sufficiency? Even the staunchest critics of the war have been forced to acknowledge the success of the “surge” in Iraq over the last 18 months as violence levels have dropped and nearly every measure of stability has increased. While the increased troop strength of the surge has been beneficial in all areas (and critical in some), my core belief is that numbers alone have not been the key to victory. I assert that a moral foundation underlies the success built by the surge of troops.

This is most evident in Al Anbar Province. Iraq’s western-most province, this Sunni-dominated region the size of North Carolina has produced one third of all U.S. fatalities in the five and half year war. Despite this violent history, the province has been transformed into one of the most secure areas in the country and achieved “Provincial Iraqi Control” on September 1, 2008. How did Al Anbar go from a hotbed of radicalism and violence to a model of security and self-determination? I was fortunate to witness the beginnings of this transformation first hand as a Field Historian for the Marine Corps History Division. As I arrived in Iraq in November 2006, violence levels were the second highest of the entire war (only the intense combat to win back the city of Fallujah from insurgents in fall 2004 was worse). By the time I left in the spring of 2007, the seeds of progress had clearly been sown.

What caused this shift in fortunes in Al Anbar? While the increased forces provided by the surge were a plus, they served primarily to “reinforce success” that was already occurring. The key factor was the decision of local Iraqi leaders to partner with the United States to rid the area of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). This course of action was driven by their belief that the interests of their tribes was better served by collaboration with U.S. forces than with foreign fighters and radical jihadists. This culminating point was not reached quickly or easily but rather as the product of many months of principled actions and leadership by U.S. commanders and forces. While AQI relied increasingly on violence and terror to control the Iraqi population, U.S. efforts were consistently based on respect and restraint. I witnessed this phenomenon first-hand across Al Anbar province during the winter of 2006-7. Even in neighborhoods where violent attacks had occurred previously, Marines operated with compassion and professionalism. Even the most junior troops were ingrained with the mantra, “the Iraqi people are not our enemy.”

Their actions are a foremost example of principled leadership at its best. Even in the danger and uncertainty of war, these young Marines conducted themselves in a way that should make every American proud. I believe the actions I observed are a microcosm of the trend that will one day cause Operation Iraqi Freedom to be viewed as a strategic victory in the long war against Al Qaeda. An Associated Press report on September 16, 2008 quoted Dell Dailey, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, as describing Al Qaeda’s global support as “imploding.” Given the 9,500 civilians killed by extremists in Muslim countries during 2007, this assessment should not be surprising. Al Qaeda is killing far more Muslims than the “western infidels” they claim to be battling and moderate Muslims around the world have taken notice. Despite the very rare exceptions, the conduct of U.S. forces during the war on terror has been overwhelmingly based on the American principles of justice, decency and respect. This principle-based leadership by U.S. troops is the greatest ingredient in our success.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Remembering the Victors of War and Peace
Memorial Day 2008
By LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR

Memorial Day. We are here today to remember. To give thanks. To pay tribute. We do this because it is the right thing to do. Our fallen heroes are worthy of our time, our attention, our honor. We also do this to support and comfort the families and friends of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We hope to remind them that their loss has paid the mortgage on freedoms we all cherish. Finally, we do this to demonstrate our values as a people; that courage is honorable, that service is essential, that sacrifice will be sanctified. In doing so, we shape the next generation of young Americans.

These are all worthy reasons for us to gather here today. As a history teacher, I would like to offer one additional benefit that this time of remembrance offers us: Examining our past and placing it in context helps us to better understand our present and more successfully guide our future. In that spirit, there are two themes I would ask us to reflect upon today. The first is that the meaning of a given sacrifice is not always clear in the near term. The second is that winning a peace can be as important as winning a war.

Sometimes the meaning of a war and the value of what has been purchased with the blood of its heroes is crystal clear. This is truly a blessing when it occurs. When our gallant veterans of World War II captured Omaha Beach from its Nazi defenders, turned the tide at Bastogne or raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi, there was not a moment of doubt as to the greatness of their actions or the value of their sacrifices. There was a sense of clarity and certainty that transcended even the horror of war. For my own generation, as we drove the last Iraqi invader from the tiny nation of Kuwait, there was nearly universal rejoicing. Very little perspective was needed to understand that a great good had been achieved. The returning veterans of 1991 benefited from this clarity and basked in the praise and good will of a proud nation.

There are times in our history, however, when understanding the importance and the enduring value of our veterans’ sacrifices requires greater perspective and a deeper understanding of history. No one with even the slightest understanding of the Korean War questions the courage and the fortitude of those who fought at Chosin or captured and recaptured the numbered hills of the central peninsula. Yet in 1953, not all could grasp what had been purchased with the 34,000 precious lives lost in the conflict. The DMZ that marked the endgame of the war lay just miles from the original line of the 38th parallel. The meaning of their sacrifice has become clearer and clearer with each passing year. Those rescued by our Korean veterans, the South Korean people, live today in a state of freedom, in a flourishing democracy with one of the most vibrant economies in the world. Those behind the totalitarian curtain that was drawn across the peninsula by force of Chinese arms still suffer 55 years later from poverty and despotism. What if the South Koreans had not been defended? How would the history of the 20th century been altered if tyranny had been allowed to march unimpeded through South Korea and beyond?

The same was true in Vietnam. Examples from its battles fill our history books and tactical manuals as exemplars of heroism and soldierly virtue. There is not a cadet today who cannot describe the valor exhibited on Hill 881 outside Khe Sanh, or in the ruins of Hue City or along the length of the Ia Drang Valley. Yet as our forces withdrew in 1973, and even more as that last helicopter left the Saigon Embassy in 1975, soldiers and citizens alike wondered what had been purchased at the price of 58,000 American lives. History has allowed us a better perspective on their sacrifices. As the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 and democracy spread across the globe during the 1990’s, it was not the result of a single, pivotal battle, but rather the cumulative efforts of two generations of Americans who had resisted the spread of communism. The heroic struggles of so many patriots for so long had raised the ante to the point that communism suffered a systemic collapse. The credit for this historic victory against Soviet-led totalitarianism goes to all those Cold Warriors who suffered and sacrificed in far-off struggles like Vietnam. Our honored dead from Vietnam put the words of President John F. Kennedy into human form, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Without the sacrifices of our veterans, those would just be words, not prophesy.

The lessons of the Cold War may be instructive today as we are once again locked in a long and often divisive struggle against a global ideology that opposes all we hold dear. As combat in Afghanistan nears its seventh year and the war in Iraq has now passed its fifth, there are those who question the necessity of victory in these conflicts. Perhaps the question to ask is not, “can we afford to wage these struggles?”, but rather in the larger sense, “can we afford not to confront intolerance and oppression?” As someone who has gazed first-hand on the evils perpetrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq, I assure you, the threat of Islamic fascism is not a challenge that can go unanswered. Just as the end result of many of our Cold War conflicts was unclear decades ago as history was unfolding, the long term contributions of our current veterans may not come clearly into focus for years to come. My mission last year was to travel across the battlefields of Western Iraq, documenting the actions of the Marines and soldiers serving there. I am proud to report that their courage, their valor and their humanity live up to the high standards set by our past generations of heroes.

Their selfless dedication to sowing the seeds of long-term victory bring me to our closing thought for today; that winning the peace is as important as winning the war. The pages of history make clear this truism. The great victory that was enabled by the sacrifices of Americans in the Argonne Forrest and Belleau Wood in 1918 was squandered when our nation and its European allies failed to build a foundation for lasting peace. Only two decades later, 40 million people around the world would pay the price for that failure to “win the peace.” At the end of the century, a magnificent military victory against the invading army of Saddam Hussein in 1991 was rendered incomplete when we failed to establish a peace that was worthy of our effort in combat. A decade of defiance, conflict and genocide was the price paid for our inattention.

The aftermath of World War II and Korea offering striking examples to the contrary. Our military greatness was matched by our diplomacy, vision and perseverance. The great victory in Europe was matched by the benevolence of the Marshall Plan and a long-term commitment to stability and peace in Germany. Equal investments were made in the long-term success of Japan and South Korea. Victory in peace has been measured for decades by the security and prosperity of these nations.

How will history view our current endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan? The political components which will resolve that question will be decided by the American government as guided by the American people. I pray that they choose wisely and embrace history’s lessons. I cannot predict what our government will do, but I can assure you that our noble young Marines and soldiers are doing their part to win the peace even as they struggle to win the war. Day after day, I was amazed by the courage, the wisdom and the decency displayed by our young warriors. They are laying a foundation for lasting peace by demonstrating our nation’s virtues and winning the faith of the Iraqi and Afghan people one family and one neighborhood at a time.

Thank you all for being here today. May we all pause from our lives, so rich with blessings, to remember those who have gone before us. May we honor their sacrifices and give thanks for the freedoms they have purchased for us with their blood. May we also remember those still in harm’s way and ask God’s blessing on them and their families. Today we remember, we give thanks, we pay tribute… to those who have fought America’s fights, secured our victories (both short term and long term) and helped to win the peace that we all cherish and desire. Thanks again to each of you for being here. God Bless America.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veterans and citizens gather to observe Veterans Day 2007 in Cazenovia, New York.

Iraq veterans earn thanks
By Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Wheeler, USMCR

November 11, 2007

As we pause to remember and appreciate all our veterans, there is increasing cause to give particular thanks to our most recent cohort; those who have served in Iraq. The American public has been steadfast in its support for Operation Iraqi Freedom servicemen/women. They recognize the bravery and selflessness of these troops and are conscious of the difficulty of the mission. Yet, until recently, it wasn’t clear to many outside the war zone what was being accomplished in the larger sense of American national interests. For much of the post-Saddam phase of the war, it has seemed outwardly more a matter of “keeping the lid on” than moving forward. Recent events and reporting indicate this status quo is beginning to change.

An October 26, 2007 piece in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Al Qaeda reveals signs of weakness,” and an accompanying Op-Ed piece by Professor Fawaz A. Gerges, “Osama bin Laden’s growing anxiety,” point to a growing global impact on Al Qaeda caused by the war in Iraq. Sickened by the ruthless and violent tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgents, local leaders and ordinary citizens in Iraq have switched allegiances and are now actively supporting U.S. forces to rid their areas of AQI. During my 2006-7 tour in Iraq as a Field Historian for the Marine Corps History Division, I was privileged to watch this trend grow and pick up steam in its point the origin, Al Anbar province. It has now developed into the predominant view in that region, is quickly spreading to other parts of Iraq and is even having global implications. The Monitor article quotes Evan Kohlmann, an expert on jihadi movements, “Iraq was Al Qaeda’s greatest achievement and its greatest failure. At one time they were riding high from what was happening in Iraq… that time has come and gone.” He continues, “…they’ve been revealed for what they are.”

The stark contrast between American fighting men and women and Al Qaeda operatives has been the key to “revealing” AQI’s nature. Despite the well-publicized exceptions, U.S. forces have operated with an unparalleled degree of restraint, mercy and professionalism. They have consistently professed their desire to help Iraqi’s rebuild and create stability in order to turn areas over to local leaders and local security forces. By 2006, Iraqis began to note that American actions reliably matched our stated goals. They recognized that U.S. forces were more constructive and reliable partners than AQI. That recognition created the foundation for the progress in Iraq’s security situation being seen today. While the current cohort of warriors may also rate as one of the most effective in history in their martial skills, it is their judgment and compassion that may turn out to be the most decisive factors in the war on terror. Critics may attack our Iraq policies at the highest levels, but at the human level our troops have been the greatest ambassadors for the real meaning of America. Neighborhood by neighborhood and person by person, they have demonstrated our commitment to tolerance, justice and peace. The humanity of our individual Marines and soldiers offers a sharp contrast to the barbarity of Al Qaeda… and that may be our greatest weapon in the war on terror.

Thanks to our Iraq veterans for all they have done and continue to do.

Lieutenant Colonel Wheeler is a Field Historian for the Marine Corps History Division. He deployed to Iraq during 2006-2007 to document the efforts of Marine forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The opinions herein are his alone and should not be construed as those of the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A recent Leatherneck magazine article on counterinsurgency success in Al Anbar province can be viewed at:

Contact the Marine Corps Association to subscribe to Leatherneck for more timely news on the Marine Corps and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

What next in Iraq?

The long-awaited reports by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to Congress have come and gone… what was their impact and where do we go next?

The reports were a mixed bag but can generally be divided into military and political outcomes. Militarily, the surge has been effective in many parts of the country (most notably in Al Anbar, where they built upon ongoing success, and in Baghdad where they stemmed a rapidly deteriorating situation). The political outcome is another matter. We must recall the strategic goal of the surge, which was to enhance stability and security to give the Iraqi politicians “breathing room” to begin governing more effectively for all Iraqis. The opportunity was provided, but the good governance hasn’t followed.

One of the more interesting side shows in this affair has been the infamous “General Betray Us” ads run by I have some insights which bear directly on this unfortunate event. First, my own direct observations in Iraq during the period when General Petraeus took over and the candid opinions of many highly intelligent and professional officers that I interviewed point to one fact: General Petraeus is a widely respected, exceptionally talented man who has spent his entire adult life serving our nation. Second, according to the General’s testimony, the consensus of independent reporting in the past six months and my direct sources in Iraq, the surge has been militarily successful in many regards. This is especially true in Al Anbar Province, where I spent last winter, which is now being used a model for successful counterinsurgency tactics.

So, given these facts, why would run an ad that attempts to trash the reputation of a devoted, professional soldier and reject his testimony before it has even been given? The answer is that his testimony was going to run counter to “the sky is falling” rhetoric of and their allies which repeatedly called the surge a failure long before the data was in. Rather than admit that they were wrong (unlikely) or simply emphasize the failures in the Iraqi political landscape (where there is plenty of room for all of us to agree), they took the low road of attacking a professional soldier who is leading our troops through a very complex and difficult situation. Shame on them and to those at the New York Times, who gave them the ad space at a discounted rate in violation of the Times’ own policies. Their tactic was not only unfair and destructive to the process but it undermines the validity of all that our Marines and soldiers have accomplished in recent months. My message to all Americans is that, regardless of your stance on the war, you have cause to be very proud of what our troops are doing each day in Iraq. Their courage, compassion and effectiveness are inspiring.

Where do we go next as a nation? We might look to for an example of what not to do. Let’s not vilify and malign those who have sacrificed the most over the past four years – our professional soldiers. Let’s not obscure or ignore the truth for political gain. Let’s not poison the waters at a time when we should be looking for common ground. The reality is that we cannot precipitously withdraw our forces, nor do we want an open-ended commitment of our troops on the present scale. Let’s work together on both sides of the aisle to draft a policy that will increase pressure on the Iraqi government to serve the interests of all Iraqis and to assume increasing responsibility for their own security. Our uniformed forces have sacrificed too much to allow Operation Iraqi Freedom to end in chaos. Their families have sacrificed too much to allow the status quo.

Lieutenant Colonel Wheeler is a Field Historian for the Marine Corps History Division. He deployed to Iraq during 2006-2007 to document the efforts of Marine forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The opinions herein are his alone and should not be construed as those of the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Recent stories from Iraq in print and broadcast media have reinforced the importance of having “the whole picture” when trying to make sense of the complex situation on the ground there. Specifically, these stories concern the dramatic progress that U.S. Marines and soldiers have made in improving the security and stability of Al Anbar province in western Iraq. A significant component of their success has been the cooperation of sheiks and local leaders who have rejected Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and turned to supporting U.S. forces in droves during the past year. Sparked by a movement known as the “Al Anbar Awakening,” these traditional leaders have decided that supporting U.S. forces is more in keeping with their interests and the well-being of their people than cooperation with AQI. One of the most tangible and significant signs of their support has been to encourage young men in their tribes to join the Iraqi security forces, particularly the Iraqi police (IP), in their area. After more than two years of excruciatingly slow progress, IP recruitment blossomed in 2006 and early 2007, with provincial totals surging from 2,000 officers to the maximum authorized total of approximately 13,000 in just over a year.

Recent reports, particularly one broadcast by a CNN correspondent in Baghdad last week, have referred to the enhanced Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Al Anbar as militias and attributed the progress in Al Anbar to essentially making a deal with the devil (Sunni leaders). The reports claim that coalition forces in Al Anbar are arming Sunni factions that are beyond the control of the Iraqi government or the U.S. and that these “militias” are likely to undermine national unity and security. These reports are one dimensional, ill-informed and misleading. To develop a fuller understanding, one must have a better view of the whole picture.

First the facts: The vast majority of Iraqis who have been recruited trained and armed in cooperation with coalition forces in Al Anbar have joined the Iraqi police (funded and controlled by the Ministry of the Interior) or Iraqi Army (funded and controlled by the Ministry of Defense). A small percentage have been signed up for local defense forces known as Emergency Response Units (ERU’s) which could reasonably be compared to militias. Even these units have been authorized by the Ministry of the Interior and their activities are monitored by coalition forces. The ERU’s have primarily been created in areas where the IP force had already reached the ceiling authorized by the Ministry of the Interior but additional personnel were deemed necessary to meet that locale’s security needs. Virtually all forms of ISF in Al Anbar are operating in cooperation with coalition forces in the province, are performing with increasing levels of professionalism and have been instrumental in reducing the influence of AQI and the levels of violence in western Iraq.

Next the cultural background: Al Anbar is 90% Sunni. Nearly all of its local and provincial leaders are Sunni. The central government (Baghdad) is dominated by Shiites. After decades of Sunni domination and the recent reversal of that status quo, neither side trusts the other. Rumors and conspiracy theories about the insidious designs of the other faction run rampant in both Anbar and Baghdad. Some of these rumors are probably true, but a steady diet of information from only one side or the other would give you an extremely skewed perception of reality.

To close the circle, one has to understand that the vast majority of reporters in Iraq operate out of Baghdad. (I encountered a total of three journalists on the ground in Al Anbar during the course of logging thousands of miles visiting nearly every unit in the province over a four month span.) Their information is decidedly “Baghdad-centric” and they are unlikely to ever get the perspective of either Marines or Sunni leaders from Al Anbar. What is disturbing is that journalists are repeating what they are being told by Shiite politicians without validating it or making any effort to balance it with other perspectives. Tremendous progress is being made in improving the security situation in Al Anbar; progress built largely on the soldiers of courageous young Marines, sailors and soldiers. Effective partnerships with Anbari leaders and security forces have also been a vital part of the equation. To characterize this success as a short-term deal with the devil, as recent reporting has done, is a slap at the young men and women who risk their lives to make a difference every day. None of this is meant to discount the perspective or concerns of Shiite leaders, but journalists have a duty to get both sides of a story before they report it as fact. I can’t help but wonder… if reporting on a topic I am familiar with is so replete with errors, how valid is the information being reported on any other topic? Getting the whole picture on this subject should be reminder to us all about the mainstream media’s coverage of Iraq… caveat emptor.

LtCol Wheeler is a history teacher and Marine reservist who deployed to Iraq from November 2006 to March 2007 for the Marine Corps History Division. The opinions herein are his alone and should not be construed as those of the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Address – Cazenovia, NY
28 May 2007 – LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR

Why are we here today? We are here to remember and to honor those who have given their lives in defense of our country and its principles. We are here to observe Memorial Day. Recall that a memorial is designed to preserve the memory of something precious. That will be our goal today.

The heritage of this holiday goes back explicitly to the years immediately following the Civil War, when a day was set a side to decorate, or to lay flowers, on the graves of those who had fallen in that conflict. It was known for a half century as “Decoration Day” until the Great War, when it was expanded to remember the sacrifices of the fallen from all wars, a tradition we continue today, 90 years hence.

The duty of remembering heroes is always a solemn responsibility, but even more so when your nation is at war. Even more so when each day the names of additional young Americans are added to the long of those we are here to honor.

The specific notion of an American Memorial Day goes back only a century and a half, but the concept of eulogizing and honoring fallen heroes is, of course, much older. It is a practice that can be traced back through the millennia, with one of the best known historical examples being among the Greeks. Scholars today still read Pericles’ Funeral Oration. What is striking about Pericles’ address is that his focus was not only on the fallen heroes, but also the worthiness of the civilization they defended.

I believe there is a lesson to be learned from our ancient Greek ancestors, so I’ll ask you today to reflect on both the fallen and on what they fought for. We are here to honor all members of that long and illustrious line of American heroes, but let me tell you a little about the men and women at the tip of the spear today.

First let me repeat what I just said - they are men and women. The realities of counterinsurgency warfare have outpaced traditions, gender boundaries and policies. There are virtually no front-lines or rear areas in today’s war. Infantrymen and truck drivers, men and women are equally in harms’ way and are all paying a portion of our nation’s high toll in lives.

They’re volunteers. Every one of them has volunteered to serve our nation. The vast majority of them have enlisted since 9/11. They knew exactly what they were signing up for… and they still went.

They’re selfless – they ask only for the chance to make a difference. During my recent tour in Iraq, I had the privilege of interviewing over 425 Marines, soldiers and sailors serving there and the opportunity to interact meaningfully with many hundreds more. The ironic pattern I detected among this huge cross section of troops performing all manner of duties was that the harder the task they had been given, the higher their morale was.

They’re motivated. Last fall, the I Marine Expeditionary Force re-enlisted 161% of its annual goal during the first quarter of the year alone - in a war zone. That is not the response of a disheartened force. They believe in their mission and strive to achieve it each day with exceptional professionalism and skill.

They’re dedicated. I can’t begin to convey how hard these young people are working. A sixteen hour day was the average among all those I encountered there. Many worked longer. Twelve hours was the shortest of days.

They’re giving. My base of operations at Camp Fallujah was only a few hundred meters from the critical care surgical unit for that region. All too often the call would go out for the walking blood bank to provide direct transfusions to the wounded. On each occasion when the call matched my blood type I set aside my work and went straight there – but no matter how quick I was, I was never able to give – so many other troops rushed there to donate each time the call went out, that they began turning people away in minutes.

They’re merciful. You should be so proud of the compassion, the restraint, the judgment of these young people. Daily they are placed in precarious situations where they must make split second decisions with life and death consequences. They are living and working in the most dangerous places in Iraq, in and amongst the Iraqi people, because that is where this war, which is a struggle for the people themselves, will be won.

They are courageous… and humane… and disciplined… and I could go on praising the young people that are in harms way this morning longer than any of you would stand and listen. They are our greatest ambassadors and our greatest asset in the war on terror. They are worthy of your pride, your prayers, and of the honor we extend to those who have fallen today.

Senior commanders, wise men who have served our nation for decades, proudly compared this cohort of young people to “the greatest generation” of the World War II era. The Marines I interviewed would deflect this praise with great humility, but they would nonetheless be proud of the comparison. The impact of the legacy they have been given on their consciousness was exceptionally clear. So many of these young troops expressed a reverence for the service and the inspiration of their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers. They are conspicuously aware of the tradition of service and sacrifice that has been bequeathed to them and they bear it proudly.

The other component of Pericles’ address was his expression of the virtues of Athens and why it was worth defending. Those we honor today clearly understood why America is worth defending… do we?

As I reflect on that question, I realize that my own service has not been a burden, but a blessing. I have been fortunate to see enough of the world to know how lucky I am to be here today. From Saudi Arabia where the concept of equal rights for women was an exotic, far-off notion, to Kuwait, which had been utterly conquered by a foreign power, its people crushed under the heel of a sadistic occupying army. From the Dominican Republic, where tragic poverty was around every corner and the police were so corrupt we were advised not to pull over for them under any circumstances, to the Republic of Georgia, where people could still recall having to worship in secret to avoid persecution by the Soviet government. Most recently in Iraq, where people lived in fear of dying for practicing the wrong type of Islam in the wrong place at the wrong time, where people lived in fear that they or their families might be struck down for daring to work toward something as audacious as running water or for trying to stop bombs from being buried on their street.

When was the last time one of us had to pause and calculate the risks before going to worship at the place of our choosing? Or to hesitate before falling asleep for fear that some political opinion we had expressed publicly might yield a nighttime visit from the government or a from faction we spoke against? When did we last worry about the safety of our children as we walked down the street or shopped or ate in a restaurant?

We have to be constantly aware, constantly vigilant about these blessings and so many more… Our liberties are so strong here, so deeply rooted, that they seem unassailable. The danger of complacency is great.

Every day I try to spend a few moments being consciously grateful for the blessing of being born in America. I do this consciously because I have been fortunate to see the alternatives. I’m lucky to have a job that affords me that brief opportunity each morning as I begin my day. For many, the Pledge of Allegiance seems to be a hollow ritual at best, or an unwanted interruption at worst. Certainly it rarely receives the contemplation it deserves.

Just for a moment, think about the words and what they mean: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, invisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

More than a million Americans have shown the highest form of allegiance. They have paid the price for our flag and all it represents. Remember how rare genuine republics are. Remember what a blessing it is to live in a nation that is not torn by divisions. Remember how many in the world don’t have the luxury of living freely under God and worshipping in any manner they choose. Remember that liberty is only a dream for many. Remember that justice is far from universal. The pledge can be a hollow ritual, or it can be a daily reminder or our blessings.

My challenge to each of you is to think about what it means the next time you say it, and each time you say it. Parents – talk to your children, explain it, discuss it. We are here today to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for its treasured principles. They’ve paid for this wonderful gift, they’ve placed it in our hands. All we have to do is value it. God Bless our fallen heroes today for all they have given. God Bless you for being here to remember them. God Bless America and help us to be worthy of the heritage we have been given.

Memorial Day Address – New Woodstock, NY
28 May 2007 – LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR

Good morning. I feel privileged to be here today. It is both an honor and responsibility to put into words what I hope we all feel in our hearts. Let me begin by thanking all of you for being here. In so many places in America, Memorial Day has become a neglected ritual, not so here. I am proud to come from a place that so faithfully honors its heroes.

To begin to understand the full measure of the sacrifice we are here to honor, we must pause to appreciate our own blessings. Just for a moment, stop your mind from racing and soak in this moment in time. Breath in the fresh country air, feel the gentle breeze on your face, look at the green trees, think about the people around you, the relationships you cherish, all the things that make life so dear. Those we honor today will never enjoy any of these blessings again.

During our nation’s history, more than one million Americans have forsaken these blessings for our sake. This fact is all the more poignant during a time of war, when each day, more names are added to the long list of heroes we honor today. The opportunity to speak to you on this occasion is all the more special for me today having so recently served among the latest generation of American heroes. I used to worry and wonder if my countrymen today would have what it takes to rise to the type of challenges that past generations have faced… I am greatly encouraged by what I have seen and experienced in the last several months. The service being rendered today honors the proud legacy passed down to us by preceding generations.

There is something special about events like this in small towns, something poignant, something personal, that can never be replicated in the anonymity of a large city. We all know each other, we share a common heritage that deepens the communication between us. So many of the young people I met overseas came from places just like New Woodstock. Small hamlets like this one seem to give a disproportionate share of themselves in service to our nation. Perhaps it’s because we have all experienced the best of what America has to offer so richly. It’s not surprising that the official birthplace of Memorial Day is another small town, just down the road in Waterloo, NY.

The other benefit of small towns is that there is an unwritten rule among speechmakers that the length of an oration must be directly proportional to the population of the place in which it is given. So let me speak to you, from the heart, of why it so important for us to be here today.

The young people who are overseas today deserve our support, our respect and our prayers. I can’t begin to convey how good, how noble, how wonderful this latest generation of young patriots is. I was humbled to serve among them. I can’t begin to convey to you how courageous, how selfless, how humane, how utterly professional the young people serving our nation today are.

Those who have fallen deserve every honor we can give them today. Take a moment to reflect on all that they have given up so that we might continue to enjoy the wonderful life we have here.

Our nation deserves our support today. Despite our struggles and our challenges, we remain a symbol of virtue for countless people around the world.

It’s ironic, even things that seems like challenges can be symbols of our country’s greatness. Those of you who know me are aware of the frustration I often feel about our media, especially when it comes to giving a fair accounting of the war. Yet the greatest virtue of that media is that it is free. I read late last night that Hugo Chavez shut down Venezuela’s most popular tv station yesterday because he disagreed with its content. Take a moment today to give thanks for all our freedoms… press, religion, speech, assembly.

Our military deserves our respect today. Militaries all over the world serve as an agent of repression against their own people. Not only is our military forbidden by law from any similar role within our own borders, but they are actively engaged in promoting human rights and the rule of law around the world. Two years ago I was fortunate to travel to the Republic of Georgia. Soldiers once part of the Soviet army being trained to NATO standards by US Marines gratefully acknowledged classes on lawful orders and human rights. Iraqi soldiers and police now under US tutelage are often being exposed to rule of law concepts for the first time. What a blessing to have a military that is as just as it is powerful.

Memorial Day is a chance to reflect on those who have fallen and on what they were defending. I thank God today for America’s heroes and for the nation they died defending.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


“The manner in which objects appear to the eye in respect to their relative positions and distance, one’s mental view of facts, ideas and their interrelationships; the ability to see all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship.”

The importance of perspective has never been as clear to me as it has been since I returned from Iraq and I have watched the version of events there that is portrayed to the American public each day. It is not that the information being conveyed is inaccurate, but rather that it is incomplete. It is one dimensional, lacking perspective. The bombings, killings and other atrocities that form the majority of our media coverage of events in Iraq are certainly happening – these events are undeniable. The danger is in the perception that this is all that is happening there.

As I was initially confronted by this skewed coverage upon my return to the United States, my reaction was, “What would people think of life in America, especially in our cities, if all we saw were the murders, atrocities and tragedies?” Then it occurred to me, those events are primarily what we see in the news. So what is the difference? It is that we have our own experiences and reality to compare to the reporting which allows us to put it in perspective. We may read about a murder in Syracuse, but our own experiences and relationships convey to us that most people were not involved in violent criminal activity yesterday. Thousands of people went about their daily lives in a peaceful, productive fashion.

Most members of the American public have not had the opportunity to put events in Iraq in perspective. They have not had the chance to see with their own eyes the progress that has been made, particularly over the past year and particularly in Western Iraq (which has been the epicenter of the insurgency for most of the war). While in Iraq I had the opportunity to compare media coverage to my own daily experiences and put it all in context. Since I have returned home, I have been shocked by the absolute lack of balance here on the home front. It comes as no surprise that atrocities are favored over stories about progress – the expression, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is well-known and true. More disappointing are the charged words and misleading images. The line between reporting and editorializing seems more blurred than I recall before deploying. Ever notice the images which run in the background during most cable news stories? Have you noticed that they use the same footage over and over? What you may not realize without perspective is that those images are months or even years old and don’t reflect the current reality in many cases. Images are very powerful… and sometimes powerfully misleading.

I point these things out not to fuel a politically charged argument about media bias, but rather to alert people to a reality. You are not getting the whole story. The reasons for incomplete coverage are numerous. Factor number one is the inherent complexity of everything in the Iraq and the Middle East. It is not easily boiled down to a sound-byte or a two minute story. There is also extremely little coverage of anything outside Baghdad. In four months of extensive travels throughout Al Anbar Province, I encountered three journalists (one print, one blogger, one broadcast team). The vast majority of reporting comes from a media pool in Baghdad largely covering the same stories in the same way.

There is an additional definition of perspective I omitted at the onset, “a technique of depicting volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface.” Just as in art, this is a complex task in journalism. A newspaper article or news broadcast is also like a flat surface and despite the talent of the journalist, the reader will never have as complete a view from just one vantage as they would by comparing multiple views. For this reason, I see it as a duty of all those who return from Iraq to share their experiences - a duty I intend to fulfill myself in the coming weeks. The debate we are having over our present situation and future direction in Iraq is a healthy endeavor in a democratic society. This debate can only be enhanced by improved perspective.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


In the course of my duties for the Marine Corps History Division, I have taken nearly 50 flights on all manner of aircraft over the past several months; commercial, military, fixed wing, rotary wing....these flights were in all manner of conditions to destinations I will never forget. But on the 8th of March I took one final flight that will likely stand out more than all the rest - my flight home. After arriving safely back in Quantico, Virginia and wrapping up necessities like checking in and turning in my weapon to the armory, I boarded a plane for Syracuse, New York.

I awoke from my ritual in-flight nap to the feeling of the plane banking... my eyes happily soaked up a view of rolling Central New York hills, the neat geometric patterns of hedgerows and fields and snow-covered ground - sights that were lacking in Iraq. Suddenly those hills and fields felt strikingly familiar... could it be? It was. Spread out below me was Cazenovia College's equine facility and the starting line of their cross country course... the same course where I told many of my athletes of my pending deployment to Iraq months ago (or was it yesterday??) Soon the ice-covered expanse of Cazenovia Lake came into view with the comforting pattern of the village on its far shore... I pressed my face against the glass, straining to soak up every detail of its trees and church steeples, athletic fields and parks. The view soon gave way to the surrounding farmlands and the unmistakable windmills on the nearby Fenner hills and finally to the outskirts of Syracuse itself as we continued northward toward the airport.

The flight was not only memorable for its purpose (reuniting me with my family after several months away) but because that comforting view summed up in a moment all that had been missing during my time in Iraq. The tranquil view of my hometown and its many blessings was a sharp contrast to the many places I had visited in my far-ranging travels in Western Iraq. The real value of living in a third world nation, or a war zone, or both, is that it makes you very grateful for the little things that we all take for granted each day...

Been thankful for your clean, plentiful drinking water that flows into your home today? You should be. As the snow of Central New York melts and as our spring rains come, notice how the vast majority of water flows away in our well-designed storm sewers? And that the storm sewer is segregated from the sanitary sewer that you have never given a second thought to? (I'll leave it up to your imagination what it's like living in places where these systems are interconnected, overwhelmed and generally disfunctional -- if they exist at all.)

We complain about pot-holes sometimes. But I've noticed that hardly any of them have bombs in them here at home. We (justifiably) get up in arms if there is a case of dishonesty or corruption in our government. But there is some encouragement to be found in the fact that situations like that are newsworthy here (especially at the local level) precisely because they are so out of the ordinairy. Imagine living in a place where graft and corruption were so routine that they are simply expected.

Many of us went to a place of worship of our choosing last Sunday (or Saturday or Friday) and didn't think much about it. We may have even sat down for a meal with someone who went to a different place of worship later in the same day. Being thankful for that harmony would never even occur to us. Our children (boys and girls) walked or ride safely to school. We worry about the rising cost of higher education, but not often about the future of our children in general.

I could go on and on... every corner I turn brings me face to face with some new blessing that never seemed like a blessing before. Little by little, some of these same blessings are also coming to Iraq... but they are hard-won victories there. Victories snatched from the jaws of terrorists who thrive on chaos and from a dreadful bureaucracy that allowed the country to deteriorate into an abyss long before the war started.

So take a minute today to give thanks for the little things; 1) Being with your family (a little thing that anyone serving overseas would give a lot to enjoy for just a few minutes), 2) Clean water, warm homes and indoor plumbing, 3) Safety and security 99% of the time, 4) All the hard-working people who bring us these blessings every day.

It's good to be home.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Before I begin this entry, allow me to thank my colleague LtCol P for his help getting my last post up. As he alluded to, connecting to the world wide web from a warzone is sometimes problematic, so his help during those times has been invaluable. Obviously he gets higher marks for his friendship and loyalty than for his poetry : ) -- but he is correct in his observation that I am beginning my long journey home from the OIF theater... which is my topic today.

For the last several months I have been in the company of heroes on a daily basis. It has been an honor, a privilege and a great responsibility to document the work of these selfless and courageous young Marines, Corpsmen and Soldiers each day. Soon I will begin an even more challenging task; conveying the actions and ideals of these fantastic troops with mere words. I apologize in advance because I know I will never be able to capture the full measure of their heroics. But I will do my best. America, you should be so proud of these young people sent here to do this difficult job. Where our statesmen and most senior leaders have failed, they are succeeding. They are winning this war every day through their sheer courage and genuine humanity. They are not only routing out the insurgents by means of their military effectiveness and physical bravery, they are winning a far more important battle each day; convincing the Iraqi people of the inherent goodness of Americans.

Thanks to all of you who have prayed for me and my safety thoughout this mission. Your prayers were heard and answered. Please continue to pray for those who remain here on post and for those who are on their way. Pray for their safety and for their effectiveness that we may help the Iraqis to create a stable and secure state for their own self-government. Pray for a day when all of the troops here can return home with the pride of a mission well-accomplished.

I look forward to being back on American soil in the near future and to returning to my own idyllic hometown a few weeks after that... I will continue to share the perspective I have gained over the past few months and perhaps to help make sense of what I hear back in the US based on my experiences here. Thank you for taking the time to read these posts, not for my sake but to honor the heroes whose company I have been privileged to share.

Semper Fidelis,

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Hello, all, this is not Kurtis P. Wheeler but rather LtCol P from Op-For, a.k.a. vmijpp from Rule 308, a.k.a. The Evil Clown. KPW is having some more connectivity problems from the sandbox-- CommO, heal thyself!-- so I said I'd be happy to post this for him...

I had the opportunity to visit Baghdad this past week in order to deliver my history collections from Al Anbar province to the command historian at Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I). My time there was a complete change of pace from my usual, tactical collections orientation. The first culture shock was transitioning from dirt to polished marble, in that the Corps headquarters is located in one of Saddam’s old palaces. Despite the decadent lavishness of the place, I am told that he only stayed there a few times and had similar palaces across the country. The contrast between the gilded luxury of his palace and the utter poverty of Iraqis in many other areas was striking.

During my visit, I was pleased to discover a nearly universal appreciation for Gen Petraeus’ approach as the new commanding general of all coalition forces in Iraq. Everyone I interacted with during my visit to Camp Victory and the International Zone (IZ aka Green Zone) described him as highly engaged and focused on getting the most out of his staff and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad. Despite concerns about his orientation being very Baghdad-centric, his approach may be good news for Al Anbar as help from the capital is essential to the way ahead in the west.

Equally good news for the troops working so hard out in the field are perceptions that the Department of State and other non-DOD agencies may be soon ramping up their efforts. Some in the IZ assess recent comments and actions by Secretary of State Rice to mean that the bar will be raised for our non-DOD counterparts. This may lead to more of them getting out of the IZ and making things happen on the ground; great news for all the Marines and Soldiers who have been double-timing as warrior and diplomats for the past four years.

It was a great opportunity to see Baghdad with my own eyes, but I have to admit, I was actually a little relieved to get back to Al Anbar province… I’m not sure if it is my agricultural heritage or my years in the Marine Corps, but somehow I feel more at home with dirt than polished marble.

KPW's extremely productive tour is drawing down, and he should be oscar mike in the not too distant future. Good citizens of Cazenovia, sturdy yeomen farmers in your fields and tradesmen in your shops, will you give him the welcome home he deserves?? Allow me to close with a stanza that his Ivy League self will appreciate, and Macaulay would certainly abhor...

Shame on the false New Yorker that wallows in the loam,
When Wheeler of Cazenovia is on the march for home!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Signs of normalcy in Al Anbar... a market near Hit filled with people and produce.

TURNING A CORNER IN AL ANBAR… I spent last week in two of the toughest areas of Al Anbar province; Hit and Ramadi. It was my first trip to Hit, which has been reported as one of the most difficult areas remaining in Western Iraq and my second trip to Ramadi, the provincial capital and epicenter of the insurgency less than a year ago. What I saw and experienced in both places was a source of encouragement and optimism about the future of Al Anbar. I recognize that the following will be a controversial statement, but based my observations across the province, it is my conviction that we are absolutely winning the war against Al Qaeda and its allies in Western Iraq.

City by city and neighborhood by neighborhood, the citizens of Al Anbar are deciding to take their province back from the radicals who have murdered and intimidated them for the past few years. Local leaders are steadily recognizing that they have more to gain by working with the United States than with AQI. Area by area, this part of Iraq is “flipping” to become an environment that will no longer harbor insurgents. Robbed of their veil of anonymity, terrorists must either flee or be killed or captured by US or Iraqi Security Forces. As Iraqis assume control of more and more battle space, US forces are being freed up to go into areas where we have previously had little or no presence, thereby denying insurgents many of the remote areas they have previously used to rest and refit.

In addition to the Marines and Soldiers out risking their lives each day to improve the safety and security of Iraq, the heroes in each city are the Iraqi police (IP) who are standing up in record numbers to protect their neighborhoods. I was surprised and pleased to discover that there are hundreds of police on duty in Hit. These “shirta” are assuming a growing role in the fight against insurgents in their city, which is situated northwest of Fallujah and Ramadi, further up the Euphrates River Valley. They have stabilized many of the communities around Hit and are steadily penetrating the city itself.

The police have been growing rapidly in Ramadi for several months and are now restoring a degree of normalcy to many parts of the provincial capital. A key ingredient in their growing capability and influence has been their effective partnership with coalition forces. I was particularly impressed with the efforts of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in this regard during my stay with them last week. They are making a huge investment in the success of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in their area of operations, giving up some of their best Marines to work directly with their Iraqi Army (IA) and Police counterparts. They have partnered with the IA and IP down to the lowest levels and are conducting combined patrols and operations on a daily basis. The synergy of American technology and firepower with the cultural/linguistic knowledge and local savvy of Iraqis is powerful. Insurgents are being steadily squeezed into a smaller and smaller sphere of influence in the city, and this sphere is moving away from the Provincial Government Center. This core of terrorists, which one senior leader in Ramadi called “the heart of darkness of the insurgency in Ramadi,” is being pressed from all sides. Not surprisingly, they are lashing back at this pressure, but if the police and people of Ramadi remain resolved, the outcome may be inevitable.

The Marines and their brothers in arms in Al Anbar are making huge strides… they have turned a corner from a recent past of violence and hopelessness to a future where stability and prosperity can be envisioned. To reach that end-state, which Americans and Iraqis desire with equal fervor, Al Anbar will need help from its dysfunctional national capital… Baghdad. More on that soon.

Monday, February 12, 2007

HIGHS AND LOWS… I just returned from a week with the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines in the city of Fallujah. The dramatic, enduring impression I am left with is the mental toughness required (and exhibited) by all of our troops to deal with the emotional highs and lows that occur on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. These Marines work so hard, regularly 18 to 20 hours a day, day after day to make a difference in their area of operations (AO). These differences are sometimes small; a stretch of road that hasn’t been laced with IEDs for several days or a family that returns home because they feel safer due to the Marines’ presence. Sometimes they are large; the capture or elimination of some of the terrorists who are causing all the suffering in this city of 350,000 or the furthering of effective relations with the local police who ARE the long-term solution to peace and stability in this area. Marines allow themselves a small mental celebration when these positives occur… because you have to. Psychologically one has to believe that all this effort is having an effect, or you would go crazy.

Marines planning a route on top of a humvee hood during night ops in Fallujah.

The trouble with the mental highs, however brief or humble, is that they set you up for the lows. The greatest low is when you lose a fellow Marine. By historic standards, the losses in this conflict have been small. By human standards, every one is huge – and devastating. Each Marine, and particularly each leader, can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something they could have done to prevent the loss. Of course the answer is no. Given the ruthlessness of the enemy and the determination of the Marines to be out making a difference, only supreme effort and Divine intervention have kept our losses as low as they have been.

What is most remarkable is the ability of Marines at all levels to “shake it off” and keep going. They mourn quietly, inside… and drive on. I can’t fathom how they do it… but they do. Supreme credit should be given to these young warriors for the way they carry on with their mission each day with an incredible sense of professionalism. Their restraint, their discretion and their courage each day are amazing. What they are being asked to do is harder than the “kinetic” types of combat operations they have been trained to do for most of their careers, but they are carrying out these more subtle and delicate missions with incredible effectiveness. When they get back home, make sure you tell them how much you appreciate what they have done.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

REBIRTH OF A CITY... My time in Barwanah this week was another clear indicator how effective strength and mercy are in a counterinsurgeny war. Like many of the the other growing success stories in Al Anbar Province (Al Qaim, Fallujah, Ramadi), the first and most important step in Barwanah was the presence of overwhelming combat power. A major portion of BLT 2/4 from the 15th MEU was brought in late last fall to assist in an area previously managed by just one company. In the face of this superior force, many of the senior insurgents fled the area. As in several other cities in Al Anbar, the Marines put a berm around the town, set up entry control points to monitor access to the city and began to conduct foot patrols and census operations throughout the area. They combined this strength with an active campaign to reach out to local leaders and citizens and have initiated projects such as school renovations. As security improved, so did intelligence from local nationals, making it harder and harder for insurgents to hide within the city or implant IEDs. As I patrolled the streets with 2d Bn, 4th Marines this week, students were walking home from school, children played along the streets, shops were open and residents smiled and waved at the Marines. A dramatic transformation which mirrors the similar progress made by 2d Bn, 3rd Marines across the river in Haditha and Haqliniyah. Just a few months ago, the "Triad" was one of the most violent places in Iraq. The Marines aren't resting on their laurels and are still working each day to make the area safer and more prosperous, but what they have achieved to date is nothing short of miraculous.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF VALOR… As I have written and reflected on the culmination of the I Marine Expeditionary Force’s tour of duty in Iraq and interacted with those involved in the awards process for individual Marines, the concept of valor has come to the forefront. The demonstration of valor is a key requirement in the justification of combat awards for both units and individuals. Valor is perhaps the most admired quality in the profession of arms.

What troubles me is that our societal definitions and perceptions of valor may not be keeping pace with the changes in armed conflict that today’s warriors face. It seems that our existing paradigm of valor was formed in an era when enemies wore uniforms, moved against you in formations and confronted you head-on over the field of battle. Valor was easy to spot and easy to define. I saw in a recent “Stars and Stripes” article that Congress has asked the DoD to look into why so few of our nation’s highest awards for heroism have been handed out in our four years in Iraq. Do we need to shift our paradigm in the face of a set of new realities?

United States combat power has grown so lethal and so dominant, that confronting it is nearly certain suicide for any adversary we can envision at present. It should come as no surprise that our enemies have adopted asymmetrical warfare tactics in an attempt to neutralize our lopsided advantages. Today in Iraq, our forces find themselves fighting a counterinsurgency (COIN) war against an enemy who hides among the populace we are here to help and who almost never fights us in a prolonged, traditional manner. He strikes amidst innocents and dares us to respond.

In a COIN war, not only do our troops seldom have the chance to attack the enemy with the directness and ferocity that is normally associated with valor, but, often as not, such a traditional response would be counter-productive. The effective warrior on the modern battlefield must possess the same courage to face enemy attack as heroes of days gone by, but must also possess qualities of self-restraint, discernment and wisdom.

What takes more courage, responding to a sniper with volumes of return fire or exercising restraint to protect innocents who may be caught in the middle? The volume of fire is the safest option (at least in the short term) for the troop, but often works against the long-term interests of the unit and our nation as it creates more embitterment among the population and ultimately breeds more insurgents. The self discipline to wait for positive identification (PID) before engaging is the more difficult and courageous option and the best one for the mission. Do we regard it and reward it in that light as we should?

To give an example, troops who don’t detect an IED and whose vehicle is hit by the effects of a blast will be awarded the Combat Action Ribbon. Conversely, the attentive crew which detects the IED, stops the convoy and sets out a cordon (at the risk of being hit by sniper fire) while the bomb is neutralized will not get the award. They did exactly what was asked of them. Their actions saved lives, protected property, foiled the enemy’s intentions and took great courage. They will certainly get a pat on their back from their commander, but not the small piece of ribbon by which young troops (and our society?) measure the value of their actions.

Is it time to reexamine our views of valor in the light of modern warfare? These are just some thoughts… regardless of how we define it or what these youngsters wear on their chests, they are surely heroes. It’s a privilege to be here documenting their stories.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR BOOTS ON THE GROUND… I was fortunate to spend last week with two units who are both extremely skilled in the art of counterinsurgency (COIN); 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines as well as the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division and its Military Transition Team (US Advisors). The bottom line for both of these units is that there is simply no substitute for putting boots on the ground… in neighborhoods, face to face with local citizens, at all hours, in a professional, disciplined manner.

Troops may (?) be able to survive this conflict by adding more and more armor to themselves and their vehicles, but they can only win it by focusing on its center of gravity; the Iraqi people. This can’t be done from the inside of armored vehicles or the safety of FOBS. Technology and firepower are great (and both have their place in winning this fight), but in a war where the enemy hides among the people, the individual Marine, soldier or Iraqi policeman interacting with citizens and winning their trust is our most powerful weapon. As trust and relations develop, tips about IED’s, weapons, and ultimately insurgents themselves follow. This information strips the terrorists of the veil of anonymity which they rely upon to hide in plain site.

Make no mistake: the work of patrolling, knocking on doors, making connections and gathering information which I’m describing is tiring, tedious and often dangerous. But it IS making a difference. Both of the units I spent time with last week are seeing dramatic effects in terms of the safety and security of their areas as well as in numbers of extremists who are being captured and locked up. As that trend continues, public confidence rises, leading to more tips and an increasingly difficult environment for the insurgents to operate in.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the savvy and COIN proficiency of the young Marines as well as the skill and professionalism of the Iraqi soldiers I observed last week. Progress IS being made in Al Anbar Province… one street at a time – which is the only way to do it in this war.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

IT’S A TEAM EFFORT… Over the past two months, I have had the honor of interviewing more than 250 Marines all across I MEF’s area of operations in Al Anbar province. It is typical to spend a few minutes just chatting informally Marine to Marine after an interview. Knowing that I have had the good fortune to see what our Corps is doing across its AO, Marines often ask, “How are we doing?” Younger Marines sometimes also ask, “How is my job making an impact?”

I will share with you what I tell them. We are making an impact here. Little by little, the Marine Corps is making this part of Iraq safer and more secure and setting the conditions not only for greater prosperity, but for eventual Iraqi control of the area. In some places, progress is rapid, measured by vast numbers of Iraqi police taking up posts in cities or dramatic reductions in the threat levels in an area. In other cases, the progress is more subtle, perhaps measured by a reduction in the number of IEDs being laid by insurgents or an increase in tips by the local population. As I look at the aggregate though, one thing is clear from my perspective; whether quickly or gradually, things are getting better across Al Anbar.

Why is this? The two most common themes I hear from commanders and senior officers are: 1) Patience is a virtue in Iraq, and 2) Our successes are due to amazing young Marines who put their heart and soul into their jobs every day.

The patience point is an important one. There are no quick fixes in Iraq. As much as all of us here and in Washington might wish for one, it doesn’t exist. From my vantage, a major cause of the Marines’ success here is the steady approach they have taken. Whether training Iraqi security forces, conducting operations against insurgents or building relations with the Iraqi people, the “long view” is being taken in every instance. This is paying off.

The credit for this success which commanders have attributed directly to their Marines speaks directly to that question asked by so many young Marines. They are so immersed in doing their job well, that they don’t have the opportunity to see its broader influence. Trust me, Marines – EACH OF YOU IS MAKING AN IMPACT. The young rifleman on patrol whose courtesy to a local civilian leads to a tip about an IED and saves a life. The helicopter mechanic who keeps that bird in the air to conduct the raid which takes an insurgent off the street. The fork lift operator who unloads the mail or essential supplies that give fellow Marines the boost they need to keep performing. The intel analyst who helps put that last piece of the puzzle together to find the IED cell… Each of you is doing your part. Individually it doesn’t seem to add up to much… put when you look at the whole team’s effort, the trend is clear. What they’re doing isn’t quick and it isn’t easy, but it is working. Keep up the effort, team.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

"HONOR, COURAGE, COMMITMENT - not just a bumper sticker." I spent most of the past week with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines in their area of operations near Fallujah. My final interview of the week was with their Battalion Commander. In response to a question about his Marines and their actions and approach in the difficult area that they have been assigned, he described how proud he was of them. His comment that each day they prove that "Honor, courage, commitment (the Marine Corps' Core Values) are not just a bumper sticker" resonated with me based on what I had seen throughout my visit.

To put this comment in context, one has to understand recent history and the locale these Marines operate in. They have been assigned a rather large area situated between the two key cities in Al Anbar; Ramadi and Fallujah. Their area has likely been the unfortunate destination of many insurgents fleeing successful large-scale operations in both of these neighboring cities. As they have worked each day for the past several months to improve the security and quality of life for the local populace, they have been under steady attack by the terrorists who want desparately for them to fail in that mission. 2/8 has paid heavy toll during its time here, including 7 KIA and many more wounded. I was privileged to spend three days with the company that has been hit the hardest, losing 5 of their brothers during their time here. As I observed them conducting census operations in their area of responsibility; a painstaking and often dangerous undertaking which is vital to separate the innocent from the evil, I was amazed at the decency, bravery and professionalism exhibited by each Marine. (In other words: Honor, Courage, Commitment.)

Moving quickly through open areas to mitigate the threat of snipers (who have already claimed members of their company), they contacted each home in their assigned area for that patrol. As the Iraqis came to the door, the Marines treated them with unflagging courtesy and respect. The local citizens seemed to recognize and appreciate this, responding with cooperation and, in some cases, genuine hospitality. Children peeked curiously around parents and smiled shyly when one made eye contact.

Less honorable men wouldn't have the self-discipline to be so gracious toward a popuation that has, at times, harbored those who have killed their brothers. Less courageous men wouldn't have the heart to leave their hardened outpost each day to carry out this dangerous mission. Less committed men wouldn't have the resolve to carry out the complex and tedious jobs they are assigned each day. Fortunately for our nation and for the Iraqi citizens 2/8 has been assigned to protect, these Marines have Honor, Courage and Commitment to spare. It's not just a bumper sticker for them. It's their way of life.

I share this with you because I have seen it with my own eyes and because you will very likely not hear it anyplace else. If one of these troops was to make a mistake or to have a lapse in judgment, you would read it on the front page of every paper in America... that's the unfortunate nature of what we call "news." It is, by definition, the exceptional thing that is reported. The fact that these young men (and I mean young... when I looked at their memorial hall and saw high school graduation dates of 2004 and 2005 it put the youth of these Marines in the context of the students I have taught in my own classroom) make the RIGHT decisions a thousand consecutive times is not noticed or reported at all. But that doesn't mean it's not happening. I'm not exactly sure where we find young people who WANT to do this or how we prepare them to do it SO WELL... I'll just thank God that we do. Keep up the good work Marines. House be house, block by block, your ARE making a difference.

Monday, January 01, 2007

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2007 FROM IRAQ… It is now January 1, 2007 here in Iraq. There were no parties or celebrations here, just a pause to reflect that New Year’s Day is a good thing, because it brings the year during which those of us currently in theater will redeploy home. On New Year’s Day, like every other day in Iraq, there will be no “holiday” or 96 or day off. The best the Marines can hope for will be that a benevolent commander might push back the first mission of the day by an hour or two, granting them a bit more precious sleep.

The final week of ’06 allowed me to witness both highs and lows… I wasn’t able to enjoy a big New Year’s Eve bash (and certainly no champagne), but I was able to accompany a Military Transition Team to a celebration of the Muslim holiday of “Eid,” which recognizes the end of the Hajj. As we sipped sweet Araq chai (tea) and ate rice and mutton, the event could have taken place hundreds of years before. The richness of the tradition was a visible reminder of how and why things change slowly in Iraq. It is a place steeped in thousands of years of tradition and we westerners have to learn patience as we seek to impart “new” ideals – even such noble ones such as democracy.

The Marine leaders present were treated as honored guests – a fact that has political and military implications as well as social ones. The Marines (and our Army brothers in Al Anbar) have begun to engage traditional leaders; respecting their long-standing influence in their communities and drawing them into the “official” government structures created during elections of the past couple years. This engagement is paying huge dividends as tribal leaders in one area after another begin to use their influence to help the coalition defeat the Al Qaida in Iraq insurgency in their areas. (And, as we engage and respect local Sunni leaders, and they come to trust that we have no desire to occupy their lands, the internal insurgency is also melting away.) The Eid celebration was a symbol of all that is being done right by so many leaders here in Iraq.

The day before was a symbol of all that can still be terribly wrong here. I attended a memorial service for 5 men killed in a devastating IED blast a few days before… All under 25, all loved by their families and fellow Marines, all struck down trying to help create a better and more secure Iraq, they are a symbol of the tragedies that occur here too frequently. I did not know these men. I was only a visitor to their command, paying my respects as a fellow Marine. I had not served with them, laughed with them, suffered with them or celebrated successes with them. But I still found myself getting choked up as their friends talked about all those things. When their First Sergeant concluded the ceremony by alluding to the last line of the Marines’ Hymn, that there a now a few more guards at Heaven’s gate, I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. I’m not ashamed because there were tougher and stronger men than me in the room who were also crying. And because those fallen heroes earned my tears and the love and respect they symbolize. As we begin 2007 and approach the fourth year of the war, one thing is very certain: Heaven’s streets are very secure.

But take heart, day by day, so are the streets of Iraq, especially here in Western Iraq where those young men gave their lives to make a difference. Most Marines here believe, “This is a hard job, but let us finish.” God Bless those who have fallen, and their families. God Bless all of those who remain on post. Help us to accomplish our mission in 2007. God Bless all of you and thank you for your continued support which is SO GREATLY APPRECIATED by the troops here. Happy New Year.


From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli' ,

We fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea.

First to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean,

We are proud to claim the title of United States Marines.

Our flags unfurl'd to every breeze from dawn to setting sun.

We have fought in every clime and place where we could take a gun.

In the snow of far-off northern lands And in sunny tropic scenes,

You will find us always on the job - the United States Marines.

Here's health to you and to our Corps which we are proud to serve;

In many a strife we've fought for life and never lost our nerve.

If the Army and the Navy ever gaze on Heaven's scenes,

They will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.

Monday, December 25, 2006


I just wanted to take moment to wish all of you a Merry Christmas from Camp Fallujah, Iraq.

All is well here and I am so busy that the time is flying by... I am usually on the road about 5-6 days out of every week and have had a chance to see a large portion of the Marines' area of operations in Western Iraq. It is still an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous place, but the Marine Corps and those who fight along side her (including a growing force of Iraqi soldiers and police) are making real progress here. It's sometimes disturbing to see so little reported about what is happening in Al Anbar Province. Most journalists don't venture beyond Baghdad, so few know of the strides being made here. I have been asked to write an article highlighting some of this progress and will be sure to pass it along to all of you when it is complete.

They have taken good care of us here for Christmas... we have excellent food every day, but somehow they made it even better for the holiday. People talk about being with their "Marine Corps Family" for Christmas and it's not just a cheesy expression... there is an incredible bond among the people here and even though we would all MUCH rather be home with our wives, children, and parents, we take great comfort from companionship with one another. I have been sharing Christmas cookies and other treats with my fellow Marines. They have noted the regularity of my care packages and I have explained that it is a benefit of living in a small town like Cazenovia!

The Marines here are simply amazing. I am so proud of them and so honored to be among them everyday. They work incredibly hard, assume tremendous risks, absorb terrible losses... without a complaint. The irony is that in unit after unit that I visit, every leader tells me the same thing... the more difficult the mission and the harder they work, the happier they are. They truly believe in what they are doing. It gets hazier the higher you go, but at the street level, these youngsters are putting their lives on the line to make Iraqi communities safer and more stable one neighborhood at a time.

I wish I could be with you today, but I am honored and humbled to be among the company that I do share on this Christmas 2006. Please continue to pray for the safe return of these young Marines and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen here with us... and for a safe future for the brave Iraqis who have stood up for their people by joining the army and police.

Very best wishes to you all in 2007 and Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

THE CHILDREN OF IRAQ are among our greatest joys and greatests inspirations. Like children everywhere, they are innocent, curious, sweet and fun-loving. They are also incredibly resilient. Everywhere I go, I see kids laughing, playing and smiling - often in conditions and circumstances that would make a lot of adults cry. So many of the Marines and Soldiers I meet share my love for the kids... For many of us, they remind us of our own children, which is a passing comfort. For all of us, they represent a hope for the future and and visible symbol of why we are here. Iraq right now in the post-Saddam era is like a patient just after major surgery to remove a cancer. Her condition is in some ways weak and guarded. What we all hope is that this difficult surgery will ultimately lead to a healthy future for these dear children. Troops will go out of their way to do something nice for a child, often exposing themselves to additional dangers to do so. When I ask them about this, the response is invariably that they hope that little boy or girl will always remember that small act of kindness and understand that Americans really do care about them and want to help. We will continue to do all that we can for every citizen of Iraq, but it is in these youngest Iraqis that we place the greatest hope.

Monday, December 18, 2006

CHRISTMAS IN IRAQ... Last night before getting some much-need sleep, I took time to watch a DVD of my daughters’ Christmas Concert and Cazenovia’s Christmas Walk filmed by some dear people back home. The second half of the disc was filled with people from my community sending their holiday greetings and best wishes. It was like being in a parallel dimension for a few minutes… seeing people I know so well, engaging in something so beloved and so familiar. Our "world" here seems far removed. It’s hard to imagine that the old one still exists. I literally had to struggle to grasp the concept that what I was watching on the DVD only happened two weeks ago…while I was at Waleed along the Syrian border, somehow across time and space the people that I know and love were carrying out our familiar holiday rituals. I know in an abstract way that next year, I will be back to those same rituals… but it is very abstract.

The idea of Christmas itself is equally abstract. I only intend to acknowledge the religious component. I’ll go to church, pause to reflect on the meaning of the day, and then carry on. I don’t feel a strong desire to listen to Christmas music or watch “The Grinch.” These are only reminders of what is not. My sense is that many troops feel the same way. There is almost a desire to forget that you’re here on Christmas day, not be reminded of it. The only thought in my head will be that, far away from here, my family is enjoying Christmas in a safer and better place. Please remember and think of, but don’t feel sorry for the troops here. Accept their willing presence here as a gift of love for all of you back home and for a nation that they cherish more than their own comfort or safety.

What’s on the wish list of the Marines I talk to? Of course they wish to see their families as soon as possible. They also wish for the chance to finish their job here. They wish for a victory over the insurgents and for a just and honorable peace that does not cede the people of Iraq to the clutches of extremists and terrorists. Pray for that. And pray for the safe return of all our troops that they might enjoy a REAL Christmas next year with their families and loved ones. Blessings to you all and thank you for your tremendous support... Everywhere I go I see the care packages, cards and holiday treats you have been sending. MERRY CHRISTMAS!