Recent Iraq Discussions

Recently there was a round table discussion with Dr David Kilcullen, the Chief Counter-Insurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus. A number of blogs that I subscribe to described this discussion including Austin Bay’s blog and Black Five. In many respects, there was nothing particularly new about what he said – many military professionals who have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan know that many of his comments are similar to those that have been echoed by military people for the last few years and largely ignored. There was a substantial body of history to draw on – the US Small Wars manual, the lessons from Vietnam, the Malayan Emergency, Ireland and so on.

It is refreshing though to see that at the highest strategic level of the military effort in Iraq there is this appreciation of the situation in Iraq, and a recognition that war is more multi-dimensional than a simplistic use of ‘kinetic’ force aimed at finding a target and destroying it. While I would fear that it is perhaps too late to fully make good the situation in Iraq, I expect that this change of focus will ensure that the situation is less grim than it would otherwise have been.

Almost two weeks ago, a former Colonel in the Australian Army, Mike Kelly, retired from Defence and decided to stand for parliament in the upcoming elections. He was interviewed for the ABC’s 7.30 report and gave a very interesting insight into events in Iraq. I had had the opportunity of meeting Colonel Kelly a number of times in Baghdad and so it held a great degree of personal interest for me. He again alludes to the lack of following the advice of military planners and particularly points to the de-Ba’athification policies as a key failure in the Iraq war.

Iraq Memoirs

When I served in Iraq back in 2004, I wrote a number of group emails that I sent to my friends and family. After returning to Australia, a few people suggested that I consolidate them and consider publishing them (not that they are necessarily any good). Anyway, I have posted them on my blog, so if you are interested, go to Dispatches from the Front. There is a table of contents there as well.

US military blogging ban

Today’s news services have again covered the decision by the US military to ban its soldiers from using social media (blogs, Myspace etc). Austin Bay’s blog alerted me to this a couple of weeks ago. He also pointed to a very comprehensive article by Wired from the start of May that is worth reading. The two main reasons given are firstly bandwidth usage and secondly OPSEC (or operational security, the protection of sensitive information associated with operations).

While appreciating both of these concerns, this is truly an ignorant decision by people who do not appreciate the importance that deployed soldiers place on being able to communicate with loved ones and the potential wider positive influence that can be used through social media. It is also a bit patronising to entrust soldiers with prosecuting the war at the tactical level, but not consider them sufficiently mature to consider OPSEC.

A large number of US personnel are spending close to one year in two, or six months each year, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the Iraq war having only started four years ago, many of my friends have now spent two years of their life there. For those of us who have been to war, we understand the real importance of being able to communicate with family and friends. The pressures on soldiers are high enough without taking away their ability to communicate. While the cost of larger bandwidth use may be higher due to the use of myspace etc, surely it does not compare to welfare and morale of deployed forces, and the potential for increased retention problems.

One of the major failures of this war has been the appalling lack of trying to win the information war, at home and in the operational environment. Since the fall of Baghdad, the political-strategic direction of the war has been an almost complete failure. Even some of the great reconstruction work that has gone on has been overshadowed by the complete inability of the US administration to deliver positive messages about this – and into this void, Al Qaeda and other terrorist/ anti-Iraqi forces have been able to bombard people with negativity about what is happening in Iraq. Even in the West, press coverage of the war has been overwhelmingly negative. In some ways, I would equate this decision with some of the decisions in World War One that led to the slaughter of Ypres and the Somme. Back then, senior leaders refused to acknowledge that technology had changed the face of war forever with the advent of the machine gun and other weapons of war; now, senior leaders refuse to acknowledge that technology has again changed the face of war, this time due to the internet.

Excerpt from Austin Bay’s Blog Part 2

Austin wrote this one back in late 2004 on his blog and at Strategy Page and is as follows:

A new greatest generation is emerging — in Afghanistan, in and in the other, less-publicized battlegrounds of the War on Terror.Focused on the U.S. political cycle, America’s press elites are missing the extraordinary story of the 19-through-35 year olds who are winning this war. The detailed history of this new cohort of American and Free World leaders — the people who will shape the 21st century — is being written by themselves, chiefly on the Internet, via email or web logs.

This is a battle-honed bunch with exceptional talent and motivation, young people with a mature balance of idealism and realism, youthful cool and professional competence. I saw this cool and competence on every patrol and convoy I made this past summer in Iraq. I had the privilege of working with these “kids,” inevitably chastising myself for referring to such able young adults as kids. Their comeback was always “It’s OK, sir. We know colonels are old.”

Sam, a U.S. Army private first class from Milwaukee, is an example of young soldiers who are both “boots and geeks” — troops who can handle digital technology and rifles. The non-classified laptop is on the blink? Sam taps out a half-dozen commands, and the machine functions smoothly. Need to run the eight kilometers of iffy freeway between Baghdad International Airport and downtown? Sam pulls up in an SUV, his M-16 propped so that he can drive and shoot. Sam goes through the pre-trip procedures calmly, carefully. If we “meet trouble” and can’t drive through the ambush — and Sam is very good at high-speed swerves, I’m talking NASCAR level — he’ll take the best firing position available and try to suppress the attackers. Cool? He does this every day.

I know Sam has several gripes with “the system” — every real soldier earns the right to gripe. But in four months, I never saw a gripe deter this young man from doing his job right.

Then there’s James. He’s a captain in the Australian Army (note, I said “Free World leaders”). He’s 27, with a law degree but more importantly, on-the-ground experience. His has a special talent for seeing the “big picture” — strategic assessment. Every night the analytic group he organized would meet in Al Faw Palace to discuss the day’s events, with particular emphasis on economic and political issues affecting Iraqi governance.

James’ “Chess Club” consisted of lieutenants, captains, majors and a handful of young enlisted troops, with a couple of old fogies allowed to kibitz. From the discussion, James would produce four or five concise PowerPoint slides. He usually finished his chore around 2 a.m., when he emailed the slides worldwide. By 9 a.m. the next morning, there’s James, back in the office, with a huge cup of coffee, starting the process again.

James’ “product” actually attracted a large readership. One day we got a complaint (from headquarters, Supreme Allied Commander Europe) that “the interesting slides SACEUR likes to see” hadn’t arrived in email.

Australia, James said one morning, was America’s most reliable military ally in the 20th century, and those shared values extend into the 21st century. “This fight is about freedom, sir,” James said. “Though it is an extremely complex fight, with economic development and governance lines of operation pursued simultaneously with the security (warfighting) operation.”

“Yes,” I said. “And it’s going to be men and women like you, James, who will fight it for at least the next decade.”

He replied with a sober nod.

As a senior officer told me the day before I left Baghdad: “You’ve gotten to see what I see, Austin. These young people are so smart.”

“Where do they come from?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Many were in the service before 9-11, but a lot of the young enlisted people, they’ve come in since then.”

“Maybe it’s the pressure, circumstances,” I said. “You know, terrible challenges, the old saw of rising to the occasion?”

We both looked at each other. No doubt that is the case — but the challenges these young people meet day in and day out are so dangerous and daunting.

Excerpt from Austin Bay’s Blog Part 1

Now that I have my own blog, I thought I should post a couple of articles here that came from a good friend’s blog. Austin Bay and I served together in Iraq back in 2004 with the US Army III Corps (from Ft Hood). Here is an article that I wrote for him back in August 2005:

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations – all take their seat at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”

I recently read the first volume of Winston Churchill’s fine memoirs and was struck by the above comment. In light of recent experiences not only in Iraq, but in a range of theatres where I and/or my friends have served, the above statement rings true. Looking past the fact that Winston Churchill was a great statesman who stood up to the great evils of Hitler, as a young man, he served in a range of conflicts at the behest of Queen and Country – a man who had seen the face of war in all of its terrible splendour and sadness.

One of the great tragedies of operations that the US, Australia and their allies have been on, as well as operations led by the UN, has been an unwillingness to stay the course. The politicians who stand up for principles and seek to thwart those who do humanity an injustice run a great risk – they live in democratic countries and sometimes the domestic political cost can be too high. Deploying to Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan and certainly Iraq means hardship and sacrifice, but the causes are just. While it is obvious that some government leaders do not acknowledge the real cost of operations, we must recognize that they cannot unless they wish to commit political suicide.

Domestic constituencies are fickle and tragically their judgments are based on erroneous media hype – the ‘a bomb has gone off in Baghdad, obviously the Coalition is loosing.’ What is good for a media outlet rarely coincides with the truth – those awfully boring, mundane facts such as new schools being built, agricultural initiatives, public utilities for all Iraqis. Oh and did I miss that the new government of Iraq represents all the facets of ethnic and religious components of Iraq. Overseas deployments, particularly when including massive reconstruction programs, are incredibly expensive and need long-term commitments. I can remember one visit to Sadr City in Baghdad where I met a real hero – an Iraqi who was rebuilding his 23rd school after years of neglect by Saddam. His partner in this most noble enterprise was murdered by the enemy. That is, the enemy of the Iraqi nation, not just us.

War is noble and nasty – and hard. In the case of Iraq, who can dare argue against removing an evil dictator? It was never going to be easy despite what some suggested. To depart now would be to fail the Iraq people and the memory of all of those young men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice from our nations.

I support the ideals of the UN – an international body to be responsible for international peace and security. As it has generally (and sadly) displayed incompetence at that, we should be relieved that other countries step up to the challenge. The history of the UN is replete with examples of failure and cowardice. How can anyone who values their own human rights denigrate those who are willing to take a stand to protect such rights? The deaths of millions in Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Former Yugoslavia and other locations should loom large for any that suggest that the US and her allies have no right to intervene in another country. Notice that the last sentence didn’t include Kosovo – it might have if the US, UK and others had not acted out of principle as opposed to the strictures of a bankrupt international body. Oops sorry- we meant the UN is dealing with Saddam so lets not get rid of him. He didn’t really mean to gas all of those Kurdish people. And the Shi’as were never persecuted either. And all those poor Iraqis are not getting any food or medicine because of UN sanctions, but isn’t that a nice marble palace you are building Saddam. How fantastic that you only have thirty of them. At least you won’t have to now see all the raw sewerage that flows freely through the streets of Baghdad.

The anti-war pundits in the US, and certainly in Australia, forget that by not supporting the Coalition, they lend de facto support to the enemy. This is not some noble hero fighting against an evil empire, Luke Skywalker style. This is an enemy that is happy to kill Shi’a schoolchildren in Basra, kill unemployed Iraqis looking for jobs in the Iraqi Police, destroy income sources for the nation and plunge Iraq into some sick jihaddist fantasy where human rights don’t rate a mention. Do we need another reason to stay the course?