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I grew up in Florida. Joined the army for college money, made it into Special Forces and the same week I graduated from Special Forces “selection,” was accused of murder after a fistfight in a Maryland nightclub. Those charges were eventually dropped. Special Forces gave me shelter, taught me to speak German fluently and tried to teach me Polish. Among other topics, we studied insurgency and counterinsurgency. I was on two A-teams. We trained to infiltrate extremely deep behind enemy lines, past the point where helicopters could extract us. The exfiltration plan included, “Hope to see you again, but nobody’s coming to get you.” I learned something about my country. We were not the wimps many people seemed to think; we were deadly serious about going into someone’s backyard when needed.
Money was never my master, but a deep-seated curiosity and a desire to explore were strong. After the Army, off to college, worked security for Michael Jackson for a brief period, started a business in Poland, among other things, and I wrote a book called Danger Close.
When jets crashed into American buildings and soil on September 11, 2001, few knew the name “Osama bin Laden.” But as the second jet crushed into the second tower at the World Trade Center, I knew bin Laden was the culprit, and that Taliban were harboring him in Afghanistan. Despite the horror that day, I was relieved. If al Qaeda had possessed deployable weapons of mass destruction, atomic or otherwise, they would have used them.
About one year before we invaded Iraq, this email came:
I’d been studying cults in India and Nepal, and was heading back to northern California to infiltrate a cult in Sonoma. On weekends, I attended peace protests in nearby San Francisco.
While protesting the invasion of Iraq, few mentioned the war in Afghanistan, which seemed all over except for the still-at-large bin Laden. As the first “special forces war,” media restrictions added to the ease with which that battleground was subsequently and collectively overlooked. When we lifted and shifted assets to Iraq before finishing in Afghanistan, years passed before anyone learned, myself firsthand, that the tide had changed under cover of media darkness. (Later, in 2006, I described a deadly combination that could cause us to lose a war we assumed we won, and in 2007 those predictions proved accurate.)
Our people had crossed the Rubicon in Iraq. Bullets were flying, bombs splitting the air. Tanks, artillery pieces and bodies were being shattered.
The massive Iraqi Army was mightily armed, its top leaders were smart and many were battle experienced. Fantastic amounts of weapons and explosives were stored around the land from decades of near continuous warfare waged by Saddam against his neighbors.
Suggesting lessons learned in the first Gulf War, Saddam split into hiding while his army mostly melted away into an Iraq already pregnant with insurgency. Hinging much on the hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, among others, was hardly a bold stroke for a man who owed his career as a dictator to his ability to exploit the fertile ethnic, cultural and religious fault lines of his birthplace. Although the true gestation period is unknown, no more than two months passed before a resistance was crawling.
It got worse from there. The decision to disband the Iraqi Army played into Saddam’s plan. He must have looked at the chessboard in a basement as we announced complete de-Baathification and screamed check!—and then we announced the dissolution of his Army . . . check(!) again. As wily as he was, it’s doubtful Saddam would have foreseen our exposing the back row so readily.
The Iraqi Army was gone—sort of—leaving the people without an indigenous security force and hugely increasing the burden on our troops.
Books already have been published about all this. Tom Ricks’ Fiasco, by title alone succinctly described both the process and the outcome. It’s become irrelevant if our top leaders lied or were just honestly wrong and unable to recognize it until it was too late, because the United States and a coalition of some of our best allies did invade Iraq with a plan that was bad, at best.
We punched a cloud, it let us in.
But even critics like Mr. Ricks recognized that some military leaders saw it differently. While old-school commanders stormed in and crushed anything that dared resist, one particular two-star general slipped ingeniously from the kinetic force-on-force mode to a sort of “pre-counterinsurgency.” His 101st Airborne Division swept up through Iraq and with masterful strokes—punching when needed, yet pulling punches that other leaders likely would have thrown—they took northern Iraq, and the key city of Mosul.
Mosul was a made-for-insurgency city, surrounded by huge amounts of former generals, tens of thousands of soldiers, and enough weapons and explosives to outfit several European armies.The commander’s work in northern Iraq was the subject of study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Newsweek called him Iraq’s Repairman.
To see what a restaurant’s kitchen looks like, just check the restroom. Counterinsurgency—especially when much of the world is watching—is the most complex form of warfare and requires our most agile commanders and soldiers. As with the restroom to kitchen analogy, there is a simple litmus test in this war for commanders who are able to win counterinsurgency battles. Check their press. Good or bad, there should be some; little or none is a bad sign, especially if the enemy is using media.
Some in the military even now disparage this general for his embrace of media, for understanding that complex counterinsurgency warfare can only be successful when the media battles are decisively won. He once corrected a junior officer who wanted to track media coverage according to whether the reports were “positive” or “negative,” saying that it only mattered that the reports were accurate, since it was how the soldiers did THEIR job that would largely determine the way people on all sides reacted to news, so long as it was accurate. This General’s name is David Petraeus.
The war, and my life, were about to change forever.
One year after the Iraq ground war had begun, I was in Massachusetts studying cults and working on an unrelated book project, when Master Sergeant Richard L. Ferguson died in a humvee rollover on March 30th, 2004 while conducting combat operations in Samarra, Iraq. “Fergy” was a fixture in the 10th Special Forces Group, and I had lunch with him in Colorado shortly before he went to war this time. Now he was gone.
I still remember how freezing cold it was in Massachusetts the next day when I took a break from writing to watch the midday news. Although David Petraeus and his 101st Airborne had performed brilliantly in Mosul and Nineveh Province, other areas of Iraq suffered less facile stewardship. Fallujah, for instance, which began as Coalition-friendly, had been pushed to a snapping point, largely by us. On the television, below a breaking news banner, flashed a mob of Iraqi’s dancing and chanting as they mutilated four American contractors.
Emails flooded my inbox. One of the murdered contractors was Scott Helvenston, an ex-Navy SEAL and super-athlete. We’d gone to high school together in Florida. When Fergy died in Samarra only friends and family seemed to notice, but the drama of the incident in Fallujah, culminating when the crowd hung the charred torso of one of the contractors from a nearby bridge, was captured frame by frame by the insurgents’ camera crews. Insurgent media teams do not labor under a pretense of objectivity any more than cheerleaders ignore home team touchdowns. Thanks to the media partnership at work on their side, the dramatic video ensured that none of the early and inflammatory reports included Fallujah back-story, or anything about the culture of a community that had gone from Coalition-ally to insurgent-incubator.
The incident would likely have been reported as “Four U.S. Contractors Killed in Fallujah,” and that would have been the end of it, but for the video. Instead of ending the photo-op, Washington’s promise to unleash fire and brimstone stoked it to hell, and the media came to Fallujah for the Full Monty.
Cult leaders are ruthless about hijacking high profile moments, like when Moqtada al Sadr carpe diemed a call for a general uprising, and spread the violence around Iraq. Zarqawi also cashed in on the media windfall, using his own call to violence as the fulcrum to catapult himself to the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, a new position in a place where al Qaeda apparently had no franchise before. These two cult leaders, each the sworn enemy of the other, both managed to brazenly manipulate the same media coverage to achieve their strategic gains at the further expense of Coalition forces.
Looping footage of the carnage filled the screens and I was saddened by the loss of two old friends in two long days. I flew to Colorado for Fergy’s memorial and funeral, a gathering of family, friends and comrades, where they fired the guns, played taps and lowered Fergy into the soggy earth.The loss of this excellent human being ripped through the 10th Special Forces. At the reception, soldiers made a point of saying the media was not delivering a fair story on Iraq and that as a writer I should go there. “No thanks,” was my stock answer. I’d not written a word about the war and had no intentions of starting.
From Colorado I flew to Florida for Scott’s memorial, where media from as far away as Japan had besieged his mom’s home and camped out front, using the long lenses to try to get photos of the family through the blinds. Media types stalked Scott’s friends, including a friend we shared, Eddy Twyford. Eddy took me to the memorial and funeral, blocking the relentless swarm of media buzzing their politically loaded questions. Some had taken to calling Scott a mercenary; extreme baiting even for tabloid programs.
National discourse grew even more aggressively polarized. To someone with my political tin ear, it all required too much translation. There seemed to be little emphasis on honest talk. But even with the pitch so high and intense, I heard the same thing at Scott’s funeral from the military people in attendance there:“We’re not getting the full picture of what’s happening in Iraq from the media, you should go, you’re a writer.”
“We have a problem. . . . ”
The same month as the funerals, Abu Ghraib hit the headlines. The war flared even more intensely as these photos became al Qaeda’s best recruitment posters. The very moment I saw the photo above, I saw the cancer it was, and cringed at how it surely would deform part of American and world history. We would never shake it, and we could never make it right. Like the iconic image of the little naked girl running from the napalmed Vietnamese village, this image would always be emblematic of this war. As with Mai Lai, we remembered the villains at the expense of the heroes, and turned on our heroes for exposing the villains in the first place, finally blaming the media for telling any of it.
Many in the U.S. blamed the media for reporting Abu Ghraib, but it wasn’t the press who was abusing prisoners for entertainment while taking pictures. That was MY Army. The Army I am very happy to brag that I served in. The Army I tell many people to join. That was NOT the Army I had served in, or that so many of my friends are still in today.
Counterinsurgency? Abu Ghraib was proinsurgency. Worse, it widened the gulf between between military and media. One side now offered us a double-standard by which the enemy sawing off a man’s head on camera and posting the video would somehow end up being reported as evidence of OUR failure. Opposing this, we had an incredible fighting force of people I am proud and lucky to be associated with, who are essentially media-illiterate. That’s right. Some of my closest friends, people I would fight and die for, are media idiots. They know less about the power of a photo than I know about sewing. Most civilians can get away with this, but for soldiers in this new warfare, it’s bad.
Rodney didn’t deny the problems, but spoke instead about an entirely different side to Iraq that was not being reported. The media is not telling the whole story, he said, and often seems to just report what everyone else reports without even putting reporters on the ground. Rodney had been part of the reason I joined the Army back in high school. He was a year older and gone in a year before me, then came back saying it was the best thing going. He was right. Best thing I ever did was join the Army. Second best thing I did was get out. Now my childhood friend had morphed into a career officer and was trying to recruit me a second time, saying my skills as a writer were needed. “No” was my answer. I’m not a journalist. I’m not coming to the war. “Are we winning or losing?” I would ask him.
“I can’t explain it,” he would answer in so many words.“That’s why we need writers like you who will tell the truth even when it’s ugly.” Rodney said things like that. And finally, Rodney said it was my duty to get over to Iraq. He tried to play fair, but he knew duty was the only button that worked in my cockpit. Not for money, not for fame. But I still had two or three unfinished projects and people waiting on them.
On November 7, 2004, just days after President Bush was re-elected, Operation Phantom Fury launched, to crush the terrorists (or whatever they were safely called at the time) in an insurgency that was still being described as just “pockets of resistance.” While our people began crushing at Fallujah’s front door, old enemies and new scrambled out the back. Mosul fell to the terrorists four days later. Major General Petraeus had long gone home (and come back to build the Iraqi Security Forces) when the efforts of the 101st Airborne and the goodwill they had created in Northern Iraq, were razed by an enemy that intended to stay.
News from Mosul was that the Iraqi Police had abandoned their stations. The news from much of Iraq was of chaos and fighting on a scale not seen since the invasion, with U.S. casualties mounting. That’s about the time I realized that my country was in trouble in
Iraq and I didn’t know who to believe.
It was roughly at this point, around late December 2004, I landed in Baghdad.
I flew to Tikrit, then down to Baqubah. Realizing before landing that no publication would likely print the unvarnished truth from me, after about a month in Iraq, I started one of those blog things. I barely knew the word “blog.” Soon, people were calling me a blogger. Was that a compliment or insult? They used terms like MSM, and I had to ask someone what MSM meant. I had absolutely no idea there was a sharp fight crackling away between the “Bloggers” and “MSM.”
My first dispatches told of bombs, mortar attacks, IEDs and so on. But from the first days on the ground, it was obvious there truly was a side that was not being reported. Troop morale, for instance, was high, and Iraqis seemed committed to making this work. I talked with writers who complained about editors in far-off places re-writing their work. I was running mission after mission until I just collapsed on a cot in a very dirty old room where the 155mm cannons would shoot over top every day or night. Before long, I could actually sleep through cannon fire.
The media that had swarmed the country in late January 2005 to cover the predicted slaughters at polling stations, instead reported record turnouts for Iraq’s first free elections. Whatever negative assumptions brought them in, once there they reported accurately on how successful the elections were, although few reported on the unmistakable shock that had accompanied the news. If I hadn’t seen it myself I might not have believed it. It was like the entire press corps came prepared to attend a funeral and write the obituary, only to stumble into a baptism.
I ran missions with some EOD soldiers, and later hooked up with a good bunch of Tennessee National Guard where writer Lee Pitts was embedded. Lee had posed the famous “hillbilly armor” question through a soldier to the Secretary of Defense and caused a ruckus. We were losing a lot of good people needlessly to bombs in the road, but Lee said he got thousands of emails because of that question; mostly hate mail. Lee said nobody would eat with him for a long time, and months passed by before the unit realized it was a good thing to have a writer nearby who actually wants you to get home alive. Lee truly cared about those soldiers, and that one question did bring an equipment problem to light so it could get solved.
Other battalions were fighting in Mosul, but they apparently did not adopt-a-scribe, and so Deuce Four started getting credit for the work of many. Apparently there was some resentment, as I got hate mail from soldiers for not riding with their units, but the vast majority were satisfied to see some truthful writing about infantry soldiers.
By my fourth or fifth month in the war, I had learned that moving around from unit to unit led to a tired writer doing a dozen or two missions without writing a word. Communications were an incessant problem. But someone in the Deuce Four must have read Ernie Pyle’s article about how the 9th Division became a media magnet . Because when the Deuce Four gave me a trailer and an internet line and all the missions I could handle, I stayed.
Although the Deuce Four and other units had wrestled control of Mosul back from the insurgents, the city was still very dangerous. On my first mission with them, they lost two soldiers and one interpreter in a suicide car bomb attack. Deuce Four did not waver. My access to soldiers and Iraqis was incredible, I saw parts of the war that weren’t reported anywhere, like the courageous Iraqis who were getting into the fight to push back the terrorists. The best writing and photography I’ve done in Iraq came out of that one little corner.
When my writings about Mosul started to attract a huge readership, the MSM press took notice, though not always with Tony C’s collegial tone. Many “professional journalists” sneered at my work. The most common criticism was that I lacked “objectivity” because I called enemy fighters “terrorists” when they used car bombs to blow up civilians, or because I openly admitted that as an American, I hoped “our side” would win. I seemed to get particularly bad marks for describing the outcomes of combat missions with terms like: “killed the enemy,” “shot the terrorist,” or “captured the suspects.” But in the context of the war as I was seeing it, the terminology was accurate.
Since the start of this war, there’s been a lot of killing going on: killing of our soldiers and allies; killing of Iraqi civilians, soldiers and police; but, especially, a lot more killing of bad guys. The particulars of the killings are seldom publicized, but killing the enemy is in fact one of the primary purposes we have soldiers in Iraq.
I don’t often publish brutal photos like the ones in this series, but that has to do with context. Whether or not it’s reported, our guys kill the enemy daily. So if a 20-year-old soldier comes home behaving differently than when he left, there could be some valid reasons.
The power of images and the importance of heroic cult leaders who appeal to Iraqis as much as they do to our soldiers was never lost on the Deuce Four. They used the Punisher sign and they made it instantly meaningful in Mosul. But they also exploited the news and used the media, myself included, to shape public opinion about the insurgents hiding among the civilian population. The best known example of this involved the use of the photograph above to amplify and focus public outrage following the terrorist car bombing that wounded the little girl cradled in Major Beiger’s arms. As I wrote about it later in the Battle for Mosul IV dispatch.
That was a day that I kept shooting pictures, and one of the pictures of Major Beiger cradling the dying little girl in his arms made news around the world—and it exposed the terrorists in Mosul for who they really are. This was no stray bomb landing in the middle of ongoing combat. Perhaps it was a deliberate effort to kill and maim as many children as possible in order to frighten their parents, or maybe it was just bad luck that the kids were there. Whatever the case, it backfired; Iraqis love their children. When the foreign terrorists targeted kids, the citizens of Mosul grew to hate insurgents. US Army officers told me that after that photo had run on Iraqi television and in newspapers, intelligence flooded in that resulted in killings and captures of more terrorists.
The terrorists were said to have a big bounty on the commander’s head, LTC Erik Kurilla. I figured the commander would be proud of that. After all, if the terrorists don’t have a bounty on a commander’s head, that commander probably is not winning press battles.
I followed the Deuce Four home in the fall of 2005, to work on a book about the Battle for Mosul, but there were interruptions, including my trip to Afghanistan in Spring 2006. It was around this time that the MSM caught up to the realization that Iraq was in or on the verge of a civil war, even though I’d written about it as early as February of 2005, a full year or more before anyone else, something I pointed out in a dispatch “Of Words.” Some readers dismissed me as a traitor, accused me of going soft and liberal, and a few even wondered if the stress had finally gotten to me and withered my judgment, but fact is I was writing that Iraq was in a civil war not even two months after I first hit the ground.
On the other side, many readers thought my reports of progress in Mosul reflected a political allegiance when in fact they were simply observations of one place in Iraq where our people clearly were getting it right and where the security situation was improving. The debate about the civil war that raged for more than six months ended up burning twice that time before anyone actually addressed the problem. It also made the media military interface toxic again, especially for independents. When I asked to embed in summer 2006, one lieutenant colonel outright denied the request, stating that I was not a media source on Iraq that he “recognized.”
I’ve been back in Iraq now for about three months, and sadly have to report that, despite signs of progress in many key areas of the battle space, the conditions on the media/military front have not improved since early 2005. The hardest part of my job should be surviving the missions, and after that, deciding which one of a dozen possible dispatches should be written. But lately I’ve been fighting just to find a place to live and work—like that tiny trailer with that tiny desk and tiny stool in Mosul. It’s been a month since I’ve had reliable internet access. A month. It took twenty-five hours spread over two days to transmit about a dozen photos for this dispatch. Two work days.
Responses to my questions about a safe place to live and work get wrapped in remarks about being here for free rent and free food. And they’ll say, “You know, we are in a war zone.” Then chatter about how busy they are helping press, and almost in the same breath complain about the shortage of accurate stories about the war in our media. Some of the offices of media officers here in Baghdad are bigger and nicer than my attorney’s office. That’s what we’ve come to at the threshold into the fifth year at war in Iraq.
I’m finally starting to understand what so many Vietnam veterans have told me. One overarching message from the front is that our combat forces are overwhelmingly good to the Iraqis and extremely accommodating to media, but there is a deeper substrate. We simply cannot beat the terrorists if we do not learn how to embrace media realities.With all the focus on training Iraqi Security Forces, it might be worth considering training our own team, too.
Yet trapped here with Dr. Strangelove, while some commanders undermine the media war, it bears frequent reminding that General Petraeus has won complex battles before in Iraq. He is extremely open with the media, and nobody with PhD from Princeton would invite a bunch of writers to document an historical fight he plans to lose. He’s invited press to a process he aims to resolve. I’d planned to watch the surge unfold in and around Baghdad and focus on that, but haven’t had much of a chance with Brooks and Gang playing musical chairs. And so that’s a brief of the route here, and the struggle with some commanders to stay and report on your friends, loved ones, and your war. Because, like it or not, this is YOUR war.
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