Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Religious Intolerance

Very few Marines have that classically blunt demeanor which causes others to wince at every other sentence they speak. Most only allow this type of abrasive behavior to happen occasionally, as needed or sometimes accidentally, with a likely increase in frequency during that time when one returns from a war zone.

I try not to be, but am regrettably guilty of a few of those episodes, the first of which happened just a couple days after my return from Iraq.

I went to eat dinner at an Irish restaurant about a half hour outside Camp Pendleton, eager for something other than MRE’s, chicken and rice, or one of the multiple versions of turkey yakisoba I’d been exposed to during the previous 7 months.

Toward the end of dinner, two couples seated at the table next to me asked if I was a Marine and if I’d just returned from Iraq. The haircut and raccoon suntan after months of wearing ballistic sunglasses in the desert gave me away.

I told them I was and had. They asked what it was like and I gave them a short version of my experiences. The four of them were surprised to hear something other than the doom of the evening news. Unfortunately the conversation then turned to current political matters. Probably not the best subject considering my level of intensity.

That’s when it happened. As the conversation unfolded, one of the ladies, in a statement of religious intolerance, said that she didn’t appreciate the President “shoving his religion down her throat.”

I quickly and bluntly replied that “at least you don’t have to worry about him having your head cut off for disagreeing with his religion.”

The conversation kind of fizzled from there.

Her comments may have been personal and sincere, but I took them as I know them to be, typical phraseology of those on the left for expressing their intolerance of religion. That phrase, as well as “establishment of a theocracy here in America” are two of the preferred verbal attacks by those on the left against religion.

Their intolerance tries to deny those of faith, any faith, their freedom of religion because they themselves have either chosen not to be religious, are uncomfortable around religious people, or are incapable of tolerating any view other than their own.

Both groups, believers and unbelievers, have the right to express themselves accordingly. But the intolerant and unbelievers on the left pursue a path which denies religious individuals their freedom of religion.

They often argue they are guarding against governmental establishment of religion. If they weren’t so intolerant of religion, there might be some credibility to that argument. If there were a little perspective in their argument, it might have some credibility. But they fall short in both areas.

Our Constitution guarantees that no law “respecting an establishment of religion” can be made, which the militant left is adamant about defending. But at the same time they eagerly work against the Constitution’s mandate against “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion by others.

Ever notice that the far left’s arguments for “separation of church and state” in defense of our freedom of religion always end up with someone being denied their ability to exercise and express that freedom?

A little perspective on their part would reveal that the act of one person, even one with as much power as the President, openly admitting to being religious, is far from shoving religion down the throat of anyone else. Any one person expressing faith or gathering around others who share that same faith is far from an attempt to establish a theocracy.

A little perspective comes from actually fighting against Al Qaeda’s attempts to establish a theocracy and their use of violence against all who stand in the way, including their own Muslim brothers who don’t believe exactly as they do. A little perspective comes from being in a country where having the wrong religion is grounds for having your head physically separated from your body.

A little perspective comes from looking at the theocratic states of the world, knowing how different from them we are, and knowing that the steps which led them to being theocratic states are not being taken or considered here.

Maybe I was too blunt, too tough on the lady. I regret that it wasn’t the best public relations move for the Marines, but I don’t regret being intolerant of her intolerance.

I had just undergone the frustration of friendships dismantled because religiously intolerant terrorists had threatened my Iraqi friends with being “slaughtered” simply for talking to an unbeliever. I felt sorrow for one whom I was informed by others, had disappeared at the hands of terrorists intent on establishing a true theocracy in Iraq simply because he didn’t hold the same religious convictions as they.

I had just experienced religion truly being “shoved down someone’s throat” in a country where intolerant religious zealots were attempting to deny others their freedom of religion and was still more than willing to jump into a fight against anyone with a similar, albeit non-violent, mentality of intolerance. The same fight each of us should be willing to take up against all who threaten that right or any other.

Iraq's Civil War

Evidently some Americans’ definition of a civil war is different from that of the Iraqi’s.

That’s not a surprise to those who’ve worked with the Iraqi’s and understand that Arabs don’t see things the same way as the average Westerner. That’s not a surprise knowing that Iraqi’s perceive, critique, and analyze daily events differently than most Americans.

For at least a year, there has been a concerted effort in the press and among defeatists to call the situation there a civil war, often as a means to justify cutting and running. Even some in the intelligence and defense communities have recently used the term to describe some aspects of Iraq.

But is that just applying our own label, invoking our own definition, or our determination of what is or isn’t normal?

Yes, because most Iraqi’s don’t see their country as caught up in a civil war.

The Times of London reported a poll on Sunday, conducted by Opinion Research Business, “a respected British market research company” that surveyed over 5,000 Iraqis, the largest sampling yet. Of those surveyed, only 27% thought their country was involved in a civil war.

Obviously, there’s a “disconnect” between what the Iraqi people see, and what some here are eager to believe.

The fact that good news from Iraq, such as that illustrated by The Times poll, is largely ignored, as the Times poll was, may reveal, at least in part, why the standard American view of the war is different than the Iraqi people’s.

The perspective of some American’s is that Iraqi’s are worse off. But the same poll tells us that they, by 2 to 1, prefer life now than under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Some in America believe that the answer to Iraq’s problems is to divide the country into three sections for the Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni populations. But again, that’s applying a solution most Iraqi’s don’t want. 64% of them want a unified country under a central government.

These numbers come at the beginning of the increased military and diplomatic efforts for victory in Iraq, affectionately known as “the surge” which has produced some solid initial results.

The news from both Multi-National Forces Iraq and Iraqi news sources show some promising initial indicators of success. Marsad Iraq and Aswat Aliraq reported on a press conference with Iraqi military officials concerning operation “Rule of Law” for Baghdad. They revealed that murders have declined by 28%, car thefts are down 65%, assassination have declined by 95% (from 517 to 22), kidnappings were down 90%, bombing crimes decreased by 38%, car bombs also fell by 38%, and mortar attacks were down 47%.

These numbers are the result of both increased military and diplomatic efforts.

Although most of the buzz about “the surge” concerns the numbers of troops, the surge itself and its early success is a product of much more than just an increase in troops.

In pursuing the political solution, a surge in diplomatic efforts is also taking place. Publicly, we’ve seen Iraq meeting with its neighbors and all interested parties to discuss the situation. We’ve also seen an agreement being reached for sharing the country’s oil wealth, a main point of contention among insurgents.

Behind the scenes, and maybe even more importantly, diplomats like Albrecht Muth are working diligently to have all parties constructively engage in developing a stable future for a unified Iraq.

Albrecht Muth, who works directly with Muqtada al Sadr and his followers, is one of many who, on a daily basis, juggle the myriad aspects of bringing all Iraqi’s together, working to find the right balance between the various groups and interests there.

If the decrease in activity by Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Shiite militias is any indication, Mr. Muth is having some success. The lack of activity on the part of the Mahdi Army can not be attributed to coalition military action alone. Diplomatic efforts are also at work here.

Even with all the “militant” labels pasted to Al Sadr, and calls to arms against him, he has become one who is willing to give the current plan a chance. Because of diplomatic efforts, he is currently one of the 64% willing to work toward a unified Iraq.

This combination of diplomatic and even-handed military efforts by the coalition seems to be having a positive impact on the security situation.

Could these efforts reinforce the Iraqi people’s view that their country is not embroiled in the civil war some Americans are convinced is taking place? Time will tell. There is hard work yet to do with no guarantees.

But one thing which may be more of a guarantee than Iraq’s future is that most of the national media will likely ignore similar positive developments in the future, as will most Democrats in Congress who are likely to continue their efforts to force our surrender.

After all, positive developments in Iraq work against the path both groups have chosen. Both groups need Iraq to fail, one to preserve credibility and the other to preserve political futures. Neither can afford to have the United States or Iraq succeed.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Petraeus and a Political Solution

The opening line of the TV news story went something like this, “General Petraeus, our top military commander in Iraq, admitted that military force alone was not going to resolve the issue there.”

Admitted….yes, admitted.

“Admitted,” as if he’d walked into Iraq armed with only a plan for destructive conflict because he’s a military man and that’s all the military knows or does. “Admitted,” as if he’d suddenly, begrudgingly accepted the role of the military in resolving conflicts after some kind of paradigm shifting revelation which had only occurred to him after reaching Baghdad.

The word “admitted” as it was used in the opening line and in the context of the story was that of yet another gloomy condemnation of Iraq and yet another reason to be pessimistic. After all, even the top military commander didn’t see a military solution to the problem.

Well no kidding!

That story and others following General Petraeus’ first news conference revealed both a lack of understanding about the role of the military in national strategy as well as ignorance of the education of professional soldiers.

Most military commissioning programs require college courses in Political Science and Military History which teach future officers the role of the military in our democracy and its place in national policy. Education throughout one’s military career is required for promotion which also includes education about the military’s role in conflict resolution.

This continued education includes a lengthy required reading list on military history and national security policy, correspondence courses from advanced military schools, resident attendance at professional military schools, and even completion of advanced degrees from places like the Naval War College.

The enlisted ranks have similar professional military education requirements for advancement which may include some of these same opportunities or educational opportunities designed specifically for enlisted leadership.

At each step along the way, military professionals are taught the art of warfare and where they fit in the big picture of conflict resolution.

So to act is if it were some kind of revelation or setback for General Petraeus to speak to the need for something other than a military effort in Iraq is grossly ignorant and grossly underestimates his comprehension of the task at hand.

I’m confident, that long before he reached his current rank, he was fully aware of the continuum of politics, diplomacy, and warfare on which his profession exists in our democracy; a continuum which happens before armed conflict breaks out, continues while hostilities are occurring, and is ongoing after they cease.

I’m confident he understands that no conflict is resolved by military force alone.

Each conflict has its own type of diplomatic efforts, a series of fits and starts to those efforts, and various intensities of armed conflict to achieve political ends. The amount and type of diplomacy and the intensity of armed conflict ebbs and flows, with one becoming more prominent at times than the other. But in the end, all final resolutions are political or diplomatic, not military.

Military actions are simply one of the means by which political solutions are achieved.

It was good that all relevant parties to the war in Iraq recently came together in pursuit of a political solution to the problems there. It demonstrates the continuum of diplomacy on which armed conflict exists. Both can and did occur at the same time. We don’t have to have one without the other. In fact, one often enables the other, creating the potential for better political solutions.

So calls for a “political solution” in Iraq are not ignorant, but become such when they are demanded as generic solutions to the problem without proper consideration given to the unavoidable component of armed conflict there. Generic calls for a political solution are simply disingenuous when they are offered by those who have no specific solution of their own, and downright dishonest when offered as thinly veiled attempts to force our surrender.

So far there have only been two proposals for political solutions in Iraq. One is the current strategy we’re applying, using military force to enable the current Iraqi government to stand on its own and politically, diplomatically address its internal and external challenges while establishing a position of strength for us to withdraw from.

The other is dividing Iraq into three autonomous states based on sectarian backgrounds. This is untenable, as it ignores the will of the Iraqi’s, ignores the fact that much of the country’s middle consists of areas of mixed neighborhoods and villages, ignores the fact that Turkey would not allow this because of the Kurds, and ignores the fact that regional Sunni Arab countries would not allow it because of the power it would garner Iran. Additionally, the rest of the world is not ready to allow Sunni militants like Al Qaeda another safe haven as would become the case in Anbar province, nor is the world ready to tolerate genocide and societal upheaval at the levels which are sure to come with trying to implement such a plan. Iraq’s own history shows the frivolity of drawing such artificial lines for states.

So until a better political solution is proposed (“cut and run” is not a political solution) it’s better to stick with the current plan, which is still better than no plan at all.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Vets Still Serving

When I was in Iraq I wrote an open letter to Vietnam veterans thanking them for their service. The letter was about the lessons learned by the American public about how not to treat the members of our nation’s armed forces, lessons that came at the expense of our Vietnam vets. I thanked them because this current generation of servicemen and veteran’s, my generation, enjoys so much more support because people remembered the injustices served upon our Vietnam veterans.

My wife asked if she could post it on a Marine Corps website and the letter grew legs from there. It made its way all around the states over the internet. Judging by the responses I received from the letter, it had evidently touched many veterans.
Those words struck a common chord among many. The shared experiences among a group of people had drawn them together and caused the same reaction to what were heartfelt, but simple words.

Sometimes this column does that, drawing phone calls from veterans who seem to feel comfortable sharing their views with me. I believe that level of comfort comes from what we have in common. Our service is such an important part of our lives that there is at least a foundational relationship established before the first words are even spoken.

But isn’t that how it goes for those who’ve served? Our shared experiences provide a bond which leads to much more than being able to swap war stories.

Those experiences bring us together in a way that many others do not understand.

Maybe things change as one’s time away from the service increases, but at this point I find it much easier to talk to those who’ve been to Iraq or Afghanistan than many other people. I find it easier to talk to another veteran who would otherwise be considered a perfect stranger, but who really isn’t at all.

I probably have more communication with the guys I served with in Iraq than I do just about anyone else except for my family. The shared experiences among those I served with have created a strong bond between us.

These bonds can be nurtured for all of us through veteran’s groups like the American Legion and the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars. It is right that they serve to hold the “band of brothers” together. That they provide each of us with a group of veterans who can speak the same language, relate to one another in ways each of us truly understands. They provide the vehicle for us to support each other as veterans.

Our common bonds allow us to take care of each other and continue to serve those who may still be actively fighting for our country. They humbly step forward but can not, nor would they out of pride as professional soldiers, make public their complaints about injustices served upon them. But we can.

As a group we carry the weight to support our elected representatives for introducing and moving legislation forward which is beneficial to all veterans and those still serving. We can move quickly to support legislation like Senator Nelson’s push for immediate refitting of National Guard and Reserve units who’ve suffered war time equipment losses. We should support legislation updating the Montgomery GI Bill recently reintroduced by Senator Hagel.

We can stand with other veterans to oppose legislative resolutions we don’t agree with.

We can denounce derogatory comments from politicians and reporters about our brothers and sisters in arms. When reporters like William Arkin call us “mercenaries” and says the American public should question what they actually owe those who’ve fought for them, we should lead the way in widespread fury against such an ingrate.

We can lead the public outcry when our soldiers and veterans get tangled in the web of VA or military bureaucracy trying to obtain medical care or are subjected to the deplorable conditions they were as outpatients at Walter Reed Hospital. We should stand ready to support our elected officials in correcting these disservices.

We can stand against those in Congress who make attempts at under-handed legislation aimed at cutting off the funding for troops still in harms way.

We can work with veteran’s support groups which exist to serve the unique needs of our nation’s heroes and their families such as Paralyzed Veterans of America and The Freedom Alliance.

We can pass on to the next generation those American ideals, our way of life, our form of government which we hold so dear and were so willing to sacrifice everything for.

But our influence and the potential power of our actions depends upon the numbers of veterans who band together to accomplish these things, who band together to provide a positive influence in society, who stand and defend one another while continuing to defend, albeit in a different way than we’ve previously done, to defend our country and our way of life.

There is still a great need for service to our country. I challenge my fellow veterans: you’ve shouldered the burden before, and although it may be in a different role, please continue to do so. Your country still needs you.

Three Busy Days

In just one three day period during the last week, coalition forces in Iraq showed tremendous success against those trying to destabilize that country. Some of their achievements came in areas which have just begun to see the first “surge” troops, indicating some initial success with that plan. Other “wins for the good guys” occurred elsewhere throughout the country.

Multi-National Forces – Iraq press releases from the 24th through the 26th of February revealed many stories which were completely uncovered, or at best barely received a mention by the national media. The discovery of one large weapons cache with possible ties to Iran did receive more thorough coverage, possibly because it made an easy segue into critiquing our foreign policy with Iran and opened the way for warnings to the administration about their dealings with the Islamic Republic.

But overall, the press releases showed that our troops and the Iraqi forces they’ve trained accomplished much during those three days, just as they do day in and day out.

A tip from local citizens led Iraqi police to the discovery of a large weapons cache near Baqubah which included Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), mortars, rocket launchers, RPG’s, and IED materials. Finding and destroying this weapons cache not only prevented the possible injury and death of its intended victims, but also represents Iraqi people who choose peace over violence while challenging those who claim the training of Iraqi police to be a complete failure. These Iraqi police chose to act for the benefit of all, rather than turn their heads to, or even become complicit in the terrorism.

A raid was conducted near Hilla, uncovering a Shiite weapons cache. The cache contained bomb making materials, infrared sensors, electronic triggering devices, explosives materials, information about explosives, and a set-up for a vehicle borne IED (car bomb).

Reuters did cover a story in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki shared information about the surge in Baghdad having already netted 426 suspected militants with about the same number killed. This certainly flies in the face of those critics who claim that all the bad guys would “go to ground” during the surge. We know there are at least 800 who didn’t.

Coalition forces targeted and raided several locations throughout Iraq, including surge and non-surge areas, with suspected foreign fighter facilitators and Al Qaeda in Iraq terror cells. Fifteen suspected terrorists including a possible Emir for Al Qaeda in Iraq were captured in these raids.

Iraqi Forces targeted and disrupted an IED making and ambush cell near Titten, arrested 6 suspected insurgents and discovered a small weapons cache. As is the case with many areas, Iraqi forces around Titten are conducting operations independent of American forces and realizing success against the insurgents.

On the 25th, it was reported that coalition forces killed two insurgents and captured 6 more, including a suspected Al Qaeda leader near Mosul.

Baghdad troops discovered a weapons cache near the village of Koresh on the 24th.

A three day operation in Salman Pak targeted Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists, resulting in the death of 15 and the capture of 13 more. Their terror cell was dismantled and an IED factory containing over 1000 pounds of explosives was destroyed. During the conduct of the operation two roadside bombs were prevented from being emplaced. Coalition forces also found and released a man being held hostage by the terrorists.

Raids in Fallujah, Amariyah, and Mosul on the 24th netted the coalition forces 12 suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, including the leader of another Al Qaeda in Iraq terror cell in Mosul.

Special Iraqi Army Forces detained five members of the Jaysh Al-Mahdi militia implicated in IED attacks against coalition forces north of Baghdad.

Iraqi police and an American Military Transition Team held off an attack by numerous insurgents at a checkpoint two miles south of the Baghdad International Airport, killing at least two.

But where was the focus of the mainstream media? Did they share these triumphs of our troops or did they neglect their hard work?

Why does it seem like we only got Katie Couric reporting an attack at an Iraqi University, a story with a tag line of “Iraq has no future?”

Why do the “wins” continue to go unreported? Why don’t our troops get the recognition they deserve for executing these operations and training the Iraqis who are risking everything for the future of their country?

Three weapons caches discovered (two of them notably large), around 800 Baghdad militants killed or captured, 13 members of Al Qaeda in Iraq killed with 40 more captured including one suspected Emir and two terror cell leaders, two other insurgents killed and 12 more captured, 5 Mahdi militiamen detained, two IED making cells destroyed, and one ambush terror cell dismantled, all in three days.

But maybe even more important than these accomplishments are all the places in Iraq where coalition forces laid the foundation for absolutely nothing to happen during those three days, especially in the northern Kurdish areas and four southern provinces where life quietly went on.