The American Legion Magazine | 3.1.04
By Alan W. Dowd

Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for almost 24 years — longer than Hitler controlled Germany, longer than Tojo dominated Japan. During that quarter-century, neither the Iraqi people nor their neighbors knew a day of peace. Saddam’s wars scarred Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel. His internal terror decimated the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq and the Shiite majority in southern Iraq, transforming the cradle of civilization into a giant torture chamber.

Yet less than a year after the liberation of Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition has come under heavy fire —literally and figuratively — for its inability to fix all the problems and purge all the evils unleashed between July 1979 and May 2003. The impatience and fury of the Iraqi people is understandable, even predictable, given the hell they have endured. What is not understandable is the impatience and doom-saying of American pundits and politicians.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” the time-honored media maxim declares. So, our newspapers and newscasts are full of stories about car bombings and quagmires rather than the impressive milestones of Iraq’s reconstruction.

Some perspective is in order. As the hole in the Manhattan skyline reminds us, it is far easier to destroy something than to repair it.

The Whole Story. Playing every role from detective to diplomat to de facto mayor, U.S. forces are carrying out a multifaceted mission of staggering scope: they search for weapons of mass destruction, seal the borders, provide basic public services, prevent civil war, apprehend regime leaders, protect diplomats, hunt al-Qaida and Saddam’s leftovers, rebuild roads and bridges. And as if that weren’t enough, they are laying the foundations for something truly revolutionary: the first democracy in the Arab world.

Toward that end, the Iraqi Governing Council has sketched the outlines of a “Fundamental Law.” It includes a bill of rights protecting freedom of speech and religion and guaranteeing due process. It balances the power of the central government with regional governorates, or provinces. It ensures civilian control over the Iraqi armed forces. And it envisions an independent judiciary. Already, 95 percent of Iraqi courts are functioning. In fact, the coalition has approved more than 600 Iraqi judges who are presiding over 500 different courts.

By summer, each of Iraq’s 18 governorates will elect representatives for a transitional assembly to carry Iraq from allied stewardship to full independence. As postwar Iraq moves through these phases of maturity and sovereignty, the Iraqis will develop a permanent constitution that will be an outgrowth of the Fundamental Law. The new constitution will be presented to the Iraqi people in a referendum sometime in 2005.

However, the fruits of America’s efforts in Iraq are not just words written on paper and promises made behind podiums, but tangible signs of progress, as the Coalition Provisional Authority, Pentagon and State Department detail every day in print and on the Web — if only the press and politicians cared enough to read the whole story:

  • On a fast track to representative government, the Iraqi people have created neighborhood and city councils all across the country. The city council in Baghdad, for example, reflects the full cross-section of the Iraqi populace: Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Kurds, men and women, even Christians.
  • Since November, Iraq’s vital port at Umm Qasr has been receiving grain-laden cargo ships.
  • More than 240 hospitals and 1,200 clinics have reopened. They have administered more than 22 million vaccinations to Iraqi children. U.S. and coalition military units work with local physicians and nurses to set up clinics that provide health care even in Iraq’s most backwater villages and neighborhoods.
  • Iraq’s 22 universities and 43 technical institutes have been de-Baathified and reopened, as have 1,500 elementary schools. Some 64,000 teachers and 5,000 principals have been vetted, retrained and put to work in Iraq’s schools. A “teach-the-teacher” program has recruited hundreds of Iraqis to train another 81,000 educators in post-Baathist teaching methods. And by the end of Iraq’s first school year after Saddam, the coalition will have distributed 72 million new textbooks.
  • Iraq now has 150 independent newspapers and counting.
  • Iraq is now generating enough oil to meet its own domestic consumption and is exporting 1.5 million barrels a day. In the span of a few months, a free Iraq generated $2 billion from oil sales.
  • Electrical power generation is now well above prewar levels, and Iraqi personnel are guarding the power plants.
  • Indeed, U.S. forces have retrained and deployed more than 48,000 Iraqis to protect the power grid and water supply, 60,000 new Iraqi security personnel, 12,000 border-patrol guards and a full battalion of soldiers. In fact, Iraq now accounts for the second-largest contingent of security forces in the coalition and will likely surpass the United States as the largest sometime this year.
  • Working together, U.S. and Iraqi forces have seized tons of weapons, arrested hundreds of regime loyalists, thwarted several terror attacks, and killed or captured 40 of the 55 most-wanted regime leaders. Although Iraqi forces were not involved in the raid that netted Saddam Hussein, Iraqi sources were key pieces of the intelligence puzzle that led the Fourth Infantry Division and Task Force 121 to Saddam’s hiding hole.

Worth It. None of this comes without a price. Hundreds of U.S. troops have been killed, and more than 1,000 have been wounded. For those Americans too young to remember World War II, Korea or Vietnam, this is something new. In the shadow of Vietnam, America prosecuted its wars quickly and almost bloodlessly. They were measured in days or weeks, not years. They were quarantined within clear geographic boundaries. And they began and ended at a time of America’s choosing.

That military calculus worked as the Cold War thawed, but in an age of terror — as mass murderers scramble to build weapons of mass destruction to maim U.S. cities — the American people have reluctantly concluded that their troops must risk life and limb in faraway lands to ensure that civilians aren’t evaporated at home. That may sound unfeeling, but every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine I know agrees. They must not fight and die in vain, but they must fight.

They are winning this fight. Surprisingly to some, especially given the bloody nature of postwar Iraq, almost two-thirds of Iraqis say liberation from Saddam’s rule is worth the temporary privations of the U.S.-led occupation, according to a Gallup poll.

An American Enterprise Institute-Zogby poll conducted in four different Iraqi cities unearthed even more good news: 71 percent of Iraqis believe their lives will be better in five years, and 70 percent believe their country will be in better shape in five years. Almost three in four Iraqis want Baath Party leaders punished; fully 60 percent oppose an Islamic government in Iraq; and 57 percent have an unfavorable view of Osama bin Laden. When asked which country Iraq should model itself after, Iraqis chose the United States over Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Iran.

In fact, 59 percent of Iraqis want coalition forces to stay for more than a year. Without question, some of what the U.S. occupation forces have to do angers locals, but as one member of the Mosul City Council told TheNew YorkTimes, “They work hard to do the right thing.”

Indeed they do. War correspondent Jim Lacey reported in National Review that when soldiers from the 101st Airborne were ordered to guard the Mosque of Ali in Najaf, a mob of angry Iraqis, under the impression that the GIs were going to storm the holy site, blocked the Americans. But instead of retreating or opening fire, their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, told them to point their guns into the ground, take a knee and grin. That’s right — grin. Within minutes, American troops and Iraqi civilians were shaking hands. Lacey marveled at “an army of men who could fight with ruthless savagery all night and then respond so easily to an order to ‘smile’ while under impending threat.”

After fighting their way from Kuwait to the northern third of Iraq, another brigade of the 101st Airborne was ordered to reopen trade flows between the border towns of Iraq and Syria. The unit discussed the problem with Iraqi customs officers and those with goods to trade, decided on a per-vehicle toll and reopened the commercial route. The humming trade activity has generated enough revenue to hire additional customs officials, fund other municipal projects and reconstitute local institutions of governance.  One might call Iraq’s northwestern borderlands the “101st Airborne Enterprise Zone.”

Different Standards. This is nothing new for Americans. In the creativity and ambidexterity of a military that uses commerce to open up borders and revive villages, drops JDAMs on the guilty and MREs on the innocent, and lays foundations for new roads and new governments alike, we catch a glimpse of the stuff that transformed Japan and Germany after World War II.

What is new, what is a challenge for the U.S. military, is the impatience of the American people and the unblinking eye of the modern media. The U.S. military of today is simply held to a different standard than its enemies and forebears alike.

Recall that the enemy began this war by using civilian airliners as guided missiles. When the U.S. military struck back, the world was watching. The world demanded that civilian casualties be avoided, that U.S. forces feed the war-weary innocents, that bombing missions be scrubbed if sand obscured the targets, that America respect the sovereignty of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Cribbing his battle plan from al-Qaida, Saddam marched noncombatants in front of tanks, used school buses as time bombs, converted holy sites into missile sites and executed prisoners of war. And since the fall of Baghdad, his henchmen have capitalized on the protection of civilian population centers and the good will of the American military to wage a guerrilla war.

American troops have always tried to avoid civilian casualties, and they have always displayed humanity in battle. But can you imagine half of Doolittle’s squadron dropping K-rations on Tokyo while the other half dropped incendiaries, the 8th Air Force steering clear of dams or divisions located near cathedrals, Patton reining in his tanks at this border or that for fear of violating the sovereignty of a pro-Nazi government, MacArthur ordering his troops to smile when Japanese villagers started to get agitated, Eisenhower drawing up an exit strategy in the autumn of 1945?

To be sure, the world is very different than the one my grandfathers fought to save in the 1940s, and that’s precisely the point. The American people and global media demand near-perfection from U.S. forces; the enemy knows this and thus wages war according to a far different set of standards, making the American military’s achievements in Iraq to date all the more impressive.

Politicians and the press have a right and, indeed, a duty to report bad news and ask hard questions, especially in wartime. But they also have a responsibility to tell the whole story. And the whole story is that the mission in Iraq is succeeding. Baghdad is rising.