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Mortar Attack

When Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah northern Babil province was mortared on January 27, 2005, eight US Marines were wounded; one was killed, Corporal Jonathan Beatty. More than three years later, friends, relatives, and strangers leave fresh tributes to Beatty on memorial websites.

Beatty, 22-years-old, and other Marines from Charlie Company of First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment – “1/2”in Marinespeak - had been asleep in their tent. As the mortars exploded, I was a little over hundred yards away, safely huddled in a concrete bunker with grunts from Alpha Co. I shot video, my job, while fighting a surge of conflicting emotions – fear and a gut-churning powerlessness.

Less than a week before the attack, “anti-coalition forces” detonated a makeshift bomb along a road in the city of Haswah just as an Iraqi Police cruiser drove by. Haswah is down the road from FOB Iskan.

When I got there with Marines from LAR – Light Armored Reconnaissance – other grunts and Navy Corpsmen from 1/2 were working feverishly to patch up a semiconscious Iraqi police officer who was bleeding from shrapnel wounds all over his body. Another cop, Patrolman Wessam Mohamed Obeid, was slumped in the backseat of the car, dead. But it was the driver, Captain Thamood Hassan Haj al-Janabi, who caught the full force of the blast. A dozen Iraqi soldiers scrambled in the dark to retrieve pieces of his body.

These deaths — American and Iraqi — are linked. They occurred around the same time, just days before the January 30, 2005, national election. But they have something else in common. Along with the thousands of wounded, they are invisible to most people here at home. More than five years on, the occupation of Iraq is for most of us a sort of low-grade chronic illness that we treat with heavy doses of distraction and denial.

The President’s “Surge” ended in July. About 30,000 troops are coming home, but roughly 140,000 will stay in Iraq - and that doesn’t count private military contractors.

We know what the temporary troop increase accomplished: it suppressed violence in places where US combat troops were concentrated. We know also that the end of July 2008 saw a series of stunningly horrific bombings in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Baquba, and…

And we know that the “Surge” didn’t deliver what was promised: the conditions for national political reconciliation. It didn’t alleviate the violent sectarian discord or remedy the de facto ethnic cleansing that the 2003 invasion unleashed.

We know that the engineers of the war here at home don’t want us to know or remember any of these things, so they drape curtains of rhetoric and secrecy over the facts on the ground. They deny the news media true access to events as essential as funerals for fallen service members at Arlington Cemetery – even when the families want us there. Various branches of the armed forces “disembed” – kick out - journalists who have attempted to cover unpalatable truths or released photos that show the true extent of the carnage. Government agencies, military and otherwise, stiff-arm attempts to obtain public documents through the Freedom of Information Act and other time-tested avenues. And they continue to mislead us about “progress”, effectively moving the goal posts beyond the reach of people asking for accountability.

Don’t take my word for it. Try the U.S. Government Accountability Office: “The security environment remains volatile and dangerous. The DOD reports that the United States has not achieved its goal of defeating al Qaeda in Iraq, local security forces (such as Sons of Iraq) have not reconciled with the central government, and the cease-fire agreement with the Mahdi Army remains tenuous.” And there’s more where that came from in that July 23, 2008 report, including the judgment that the administration has no strategic plan for life after the Surge.

At the core of the Iraq plans presented by Barack Obama and John McCain is a demand of the Iraqis that they assume responsibility for their battered country, even though much of the battering occurred on our watch. They – we – simply don’t want to abide by the sensible (and quite ethical) Pottery Barn principle famously invoked by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. (Powell also said, somewhat less famously, that “it is a civil war. The current strategy to deal with it, called a surge, the military surge, our part of the surge under General Petraeus - the only thing it can do is put a heavier lid on this boiling pot of civil war stew.”)

We know quite a bit after five-plus years, but we still don’t know much about the ordinary Iraqi citizens we claim to be saving, most of whom want us to leave.

We also know that valid criticism of Washington’s Iraq policy is often labeled “trashing the troops” by those who refuse to acknowledge brutal reality.

Those of us critics who have actually been to Iraq know that our soldiers and Marines are following orders, doing their job. Problem is, when we point our cameras at them, they become lightning rods for everything that happens, whether good, bad, indifferent. Meanwhile, the architects of this experiment sit safely at home deflecting well-earned criticism and spinning stories for credulous reporters and self-interested pundits. And so the gap between rhetoric and reality grows.

But now, well into 2008 and deep into the fifth year of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” I’m mostly thinking about the events of January 2005 because 1/2 headed back to Iraq recently. Counting the 2003 invasion, this is the unit’s fifth turn through the revolving door to Iraq. I don’t know of anyone making their fifth pump, but a handful of grunts I patrolled with in Anbar province in 2006 will be making their second or third – and that’s not counting tours in Afghanistan. They venture into a parallel reality, a vacuum, which we at home haven’t taken the time to notice, to feel, or to understand.


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