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.