2007-12-10

Morning Report: December 10, 2007

Portland's man in the Middle East visits a once-deadly city.

Fallujah today. "None of the 3/5 Marines – in India Company or any other – have been killed or even wounded since their current tour began in the summer this year." Michael Totten spoke with Corporal Brandon Koch and Sergeant Charles Smith of the 3/5 Marines:
Fallujah today is an impoverished ramshackle mess, but it's not a war zone anymore. In 2004 it was by far the worst place in the country. It was still a hotbed of insurgent activity as recently as the first half of 2007.

“The unit we relieved was monitoring the city, watching the city,” Corporal Koch said. “We took that over from them. Then we started our push. It was a couple of months before the regular civilians got back in the city.”

“Months after you came in?” I said.

“We came in in November, on November 6th,” he said. “It took about two or three weeks altogether. The civilians stayed out of the city for another month or month and a half after that. We were still doing operations then, but it wasn't an all out push. It was just cleaning up. It was loose ends. Weapons caches. Just basically getting this place ready for the civilians to come back in. We made sure people weren't going into their homes while they were rigged to blow.”

Civilians were evacuated from the city before Al-Fajr began. ...

“I don't talk to my friends back home about it,” he said. “We pretty much only talk amongst ourselves.”

“Is it because they don't want to hear about it,” I said, “or you don't want to talk about it?”

“It's because everybody glorifies it so much, I think,” he said softly and a little bit sadly. “Everybody thinks it's cool. You know?”

“You mean American civilians glorify it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Guys our age. You go home and you always get those stupid questions. Did you shoot anybody? Did you kill anybody? How many people? I just don't personally deal with that. I had a great uncle who was in the Korean War. I talk to people like him about it. As far as regular people, I don't. If they ask I just tell them it was nothing. That's what I hear from everybody else, too. They feel the same way.”

“How do you feel about what happened here?” I said.

“I definitely think it was necessary,” he said. “I don't have any regrets. I'm glad I did it, and I would do it again. It's good to see the city the way it is and to go to the same neighborhoods. They're so much cleaner now. These people are doing things on their own, they're taking care of their own stuff. When I was here three years ago, I never would have imagined this place would ever be like it is now. It reminded me of Tijuana. When we got here it just seemed like everything you could think of that was bad, this city had it going on. Now they have regular families thriving in the city. There are people working neighborhood watch, working together. It has turned around a lot. I didn't even want to come on this deployment, but now seeing the city the way it is, I'm glad I did. It's like a closure on everything.” ...

I hear criticism of Iraqis of some kind almost every day when I'm in Iraq. There is a lot to criticize. Iraq is a broken country. Its infrastructure and economy are shot, its political culture dysfunctional. In my experience, though, contempt for Iraqi culture specifically, and Arabs and Islam more generally, is far more prevalent in the American civilian population, even in liberal coastal cities, than it is among American soldiers and Marines who interact with Iraqis every day, forge sometimes intense personal bonds with Iraqis, eat Iraqi food, and speak at least a little Arabic. Stereotypes about racist and psychotic Marines, as well as fanatical and psychotic Iraqis, can't survive a lengthy trip to Fallujah, at least not to the Fallujah of late 2007. ...

“I don't think people really know what to expect from any of this,” he continued. “It's like people say: you only get the bad news on TV. They don't get to hear about how Fallujah is doing good now. I'm sure they'd hear about it if something bad happened. But these people are doing better, the schools are open, businesses are open, people are cleaning up their own city. They're starting their own neighborhood watch. They have their own police force now, their own government. People don't get to hear about that. I think that's important for people to know. You shouldn't focus so much on people who mess up. I mean, people have messed up. Bad stuff has happened. But you should focus on the percentage of people who are doing good as opposed to the percentage who are doing bad. There's a lot of good going on over here. And there's a lot of good people in this city.” ...

“Was it worth it, do you think?” I said.

“Yes,” [Sgt. Smith] said without hesitation.

“Why?” I said.

“We got rid of an insurgency and fought the bad guys,” he said. “That's why people join the Marine Corps, to go and fight.”

Go read the whole thing.

Commentary. There are other things in the news this morning, but I'm just going to focus on Michael's piece. I am personally familiar with those "stereotypes about racist and psychotic Marines". I related to Cpl. Koch's words about "closure", too, even though I am not able to see Iraq for myself.

One of the key concepts in Michael's article, I think, is the role of the "fence-sitters", and of the enemy fighters who are not hardcore "bad guys" but ordinary people fighting for ordinary reasons. I'll let Cpl. Koch tell it:
"But like I said, I think it was a mixture. There were serious guys, then some less serious guys and people who were pressured into it. We could usually tell the difference when we fought them. Some were really there to fight. Others, halfway through, would sometimes think about it and then take off. They'd run or just give up.”

“Did you get many who surrendered to you?” I [MJT] said.

“Not so much,” he said. “But there were houses where we would come in, they'd put their guns down, and be like, okay, we don't want to do this. So we would just detain them. There was a detention facility where they would have to be checked. It kind of sucks, it gives you kind of a weird feeling, because they were fighting, but they're not necessarily bad people. People do weird stuff to feed their family. It goes back to the fence-sitter thing. That makes it hard.”

I'll leave you with what Sgt. Smith said about the Iraqis in Fallujah:
“I think they're normal everyday people who are just trying to get their lives back,” he said. “They're tired of being threatened by Al Qaeda. They're tired of having war in their country. They just want to be left alone. They don't necessarily want to go back to the way things were when Saddam was here. They just want a normal life.”