Michael's Dispatches

One Step Forward

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British soldiers from “4 Rifles” have been heartily welcomed home. Although many people had never heard of the excellent soldiers of 4 Rifles until recently, all of Great Britain seems to know they’ve returned. With all the press they’ve been getting, there has even been press about all the press.

Local police estimated that the crowd of parade viewers reached 10,000, some of whom undoubtedly turned out because of the press. But I’d heard from the soldiers about a special person who would have been a parade of one to greet their return. Before the parades and publicity, the soldiers knew this one person was always with them. While we were out lurking around the Iranian border, several soldiers talked to me about her, saying things like, “Please write something good about her.” They wanted her to know how much they appreciated her many gestures of support, especially the handwritten letters she sent to the wounded soldiers—who numbered over seventy—and their families.

The commander of 4 Rifles, LTC Patrick Sanders, pictured here in parade, invited me back to Great Britain to see the return of his soldiers.

My journey to Great Britain began something like this: I flew in an American helicopter one day, and was with our own soldiers out next to the Syrian border. From there we flew to Mosul. Then via US Air Force C-130 to Baghdad, and from there I boarded an RAF C-130 to Basra. Then, a flight to Kuwait but there was no manifest for me on the flight because I was supposed to have gone to Qatar. Fortunately, the Royal Air Force rather flexed the rules, for which I was grateful, and I had a seat on a jet filled with British soldiers en route to Cyprus. It’s strange how secure one feels on a flight full of American or British soldiers. I do, anyway, especially after spending as much time in combat with American or British soldiers as I have; my respect will never diminish.

And so back from the Syrian border to Mosul to Baghdad to Basra to Kuwait to Cyprus to the United Kingdom, and there British soldiers I did not know made sure all was well, and then the next day they delivered me to their base, just near Stonehenge, where rolling verdant meadows were a most welcome view. No mines.

Standing before Stonehenge with Captain “Bertie” Bassett, I was struck by irony of the unknown, whether it takes the form of the mysteries that come before us, like the ancient monuments, or if instead it lurks in the fog of a future we can’t quite predict because it depends on the will and desires of others.

Bertie, on parade, his pride in his 4 Rifles soldiers evident to all, his concern demonstrated by visiting wounded men and attending memorials as everyone prepared for the medal ceremony with their Royal Colonel, Lady Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

Almost within minutes of meeting Bertie in a minefield on the Iranian border I learned that his concentration was evenly divided between two hugely important considerations: whether the combat soldiers under his command had everything they needed, and whether the woman he loved would say “yes.” Out where even the midnight sky is orange, Bertie had shared his elaborate plans to propose to his girlfriend—very serious and elaborate plans—and it was clear that he’d worked out every detail except her answer. So every day, in between telling me about his soldiers—bragging about them if truth be told—he would say, almost as an aside, and almost always completely out of the context of the conversation: “I hope she says ‘yes.’”

Disco, at a memorial ceremony.

In Iraq, Disco had often talked about a friend of his, badly wounded in a fight in which other men had died. Disco dropped me off one day in London before going to visit him in the hospital. Later Disco told me that when he showed up to visit his friend, Prince Harry or William was there on an unpublicized visit with wounded soldiers. Whoever it was—I can’t remember which HRH he said—Disco was happy “the Royals” were there to boost the spirits of soldiers who’d most definitely rather be at home preparing for holidays with families than in hospital. The benefits of the visits work both ways: future leaders need to come face to face with the real costs of war. Some policy decisions leave pieces of brave men spattered on foreign soil.

There was one final ceremony, and wondering if some of the soldiers of 4 Rifles were becoming exhausted by the many ceremonies, I joked with “Disco” that it might have been easier being in Iraq.

Back at the base near Salisbury, where Lady Camilla was to come welcome the soldiers home and pin on some medals, the weather was cold and wet. There was much press gaggling about with giant lenses on their cameras and I thought to myself: Where were these press people when the soldiers needed them in Iraq? Some press were there, but more would have been better. More than a few soldiers and family members had wondered why it was that an American had to come to cover British soldiers for their families to learn about their service while a mostly-absent press nonetheless ran articles decrying them as incompetent cowards. Never mind. Never mind, I thought. Lady Camilla had been watching over 4 Rifles back when all these cameras were out of harm’s way, and it was going to make a lot of the soldiers happy to see that she would finally I was told, also get recognition for her devotion to duty. Besides which, I was momentarily distracted from my rant when LTC Patrick Sanders told me HRH Lady Camilla had read my website when she discovered I was writing about her soldiers.

4 Rifles Royal Colonel, Lady Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at the medals ceremony.

When LTC Patrick Sanders told me the Duchess had read these dispatches, he offered to introduce me to her. It occurred to me that I might be slightly underdressed for such an occasion, and being probably the only American there, I did not want to stand in for all my countrymen dressed in fire-retardant combat gear.

“But I am just back from Iraq,” I said. “Should I be fitted for a suit?”

LTC Sanders just laughed and answered exactly, “Well, she’ll not be judging you.”

His assurance that she is both very sweet and down to earth worked. Besides, I wanted to meet her to tell her one thing. I had come to learn that these soldiers are quick to praise others but reticent on all matters relating to personal or individual acclaim. The famous British reserve is ever strong, and I wondered if it might prevent the men from telling her directly what the soldiers had told me so often. So when the commander introduced me to Lady Camilla and we had our short and very public meeting before all those cameras, I told Lady Camilla that her handwritten letters to the soldiers were very important to them. That I could tell that they were cherished in a way that went beyond polite acknowledgment. In that brief exchange it was clear to this American with no sense of Royalty that her devotion to these soldiers also went beyond the expected call of duty. She had made it a point to know what they were going through and she had made it a point to let them know how valued their service to their country was in her esteem. Once the formal ceremony concluded the press slowly evaporated but she stayed for hours in the gym, spending time talking informally with any and all the soldiers and their families, without an entourage.

Two Steps Back?

It was encouraging to read the daily papers and see the soldiers finally getting some recognition. While the pieces about the parades and medal ceremonies that greeted the returning “Lions of Basra” were accurate, it was impossible to miss the sensational headlines that gave equal weight to the bleating of Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two leader and number one propagandist.

From The Telegraph came this startling headline:

Britain ‘fleeing’ Iraq, says Zawahiri

Ready or not, UK hands Basra back to Iraqis
Leader: Basra is first step to leaving Iraq altogether.
Locals saw troops as conquerors, not saviours.

I had to shake my head a few times. Not only is it not accurate (British soldiers were not “fleeing” anything, they were drawing down wisely, why didn’t their own newspapers report that?), but it is absurd to cite anyone from al Qaeda as relevant to a discussion of Basra. Might as well quote Baghdad Bob. Al Qaeda is not one of the factions vying for control of Basra; it has never had any presence or proxy foothold there, and Saddam Hussein himself would find a warmer welcome. In fact, I challenge Zawahiri to make his asinine claims publicly from Basra, where I venture the locals would give him a chance to demonstrate how one flees from that city. He couldn’t get headlines like that from Iraqi press; for that kind of star treatment, he’s got to work the Western media.

And there was this one in The Guardian:

UK has left behind murder and chaos, says Basra police chief

Blunt assessment delivered as British hand over security to Iraqis
The full scale of the chaos left behind by British forces in Basra was revealed yesterday as the city’s police chief described a province in the grip of well-armed militias strong enough to overpower security forces and brutal enough to behead women considered not sufficiently Islamic.

As British forces finally handed over security in Basra province, marking the end of 4½ years of control in southern Iraq, Major General Jalil Khalaf, the new police commander, said the occupation had left him with a situation close to mayhem. “They left me militia, they left me gangsters, and they left me all the troubles in the world,” he said in an interview for Guardian Films and ITV.

Khalaf may be accurately quoted here, and the paper has at least disclosed that his interview was part of a television show being filmed, but that’s not the problem either. The problem is that all that might be true, but the British forces did not cause the “chaos” (and, violence in Basra is way down, in fact, most of the recent violence in Basra was directed at British soldiers). The tension between local groups vying for power is not a situation close to mayhem, and was only being prolonged by the presence of troops at the Palace. There is no way any sized contingent of British troops could resolve the conflicts, because what Khalaf has on his hands is an Iraqi problem that requires a political solution. There are thousands of British forces remaining in southern Iraq performing overwatch and other duties that Khalaf can call on if needed, but first he needs to find another uniting force for the gangsters or militias, who have, after all, demonstrated their ability to stick to a cease-fire.
Finally, this from The Independent:

Britain bows out of a five-year war it could never have won
“Britain stumbled into a small war in southern Iraq which it did not expect to fight and where its aims were always unclear. It is now stumbling out with very little achieved and its military reputation dented, after a conflict in which a victory could never have been won.”

This was interesting because if any blame could be placed for the charge of denting the reputation of British military, it has to be said to rest squarely with British media and their failure to get the story right. It’s one thing to ignore your own soldiers; it’s another thing to quote the enemy spokesperson without challenge. Someone needs to tell the newspapers over here in the U.K. that the situation in Iraq is actually looking good and gains that are not being reported are nonetheless holding and expanding. What will The Independent and others report if things actually work out in Iraq?

2008 in Iraq might go well. I believe, based on up-close observations, that there will be sharp fighting in the first few months of the new year, and that may cause the uninformed to lose faith because our casualties may rise as a result. But Iraq, it can work. The place can work. This is not a vindication for any of the people who made all the mistakes that nearly made this outcome impossible. But our collective and justifiable anger at all of them should not blind us to the fact that the capable hands now at the controls are producing results that we should all be supportive of and relieved by.

I’ve said it often: in this kind of warfare media matters. When media is co-opted by the enemy it translates to losses on the battlefield. This is critical to keep in mind in both America and the UK, because we both still have troops in Afghanistan fighting the same kind of war, one I have been very vocal about for more than a year now, stating strongly that I am worried we are losing the war in Afghanistan and practically nobody sees it.

We will lose many more American and British soldiers in Afghanistan, but for what? What are we doing there? During 2008, I will go to Afghanistan because it is very important that American and European press begin serious reporting on Afghanistan. Now that it appears that new leadership and perspective on the military side of this equation has produced dramatic results in Iraq, maybe it is time for a similar reorganization and soul-searching on the media side of the divide so that coverage of the ongoing war against declared enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere finally begins to show the same kind of results.



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