Why We Write
- Published: Monday, 08 May 2006 00:00
Soldiers on the ground hold our helicopter pilots in extreme regard. I’ve never heard a real combat soldier calling pilots “fly boys” or anything disrespectful. If I were willing to share my closest combat helicopter photos from Iraq, folks would understand just why the infantry loves our helicopter pilots. But there’s a problem with sharing my best photos - some pilots would get in trouble with their commanders if the photographs circulated. Sometimes they fly so low they are practically lawnmowers. One Kiowa pilot came so low that I could read the time on his watch in the photograph. I was not using a telephoto lens. Just a 50mm prime.
I nearly posted some of those photos after a long day in Mosul, but fortunately I asked an infantry commander if he thought the pilot would get into trouble for flying so low. The infantry commander said I was free to post them, of course, but that pilot with the Timex would likely get an earful from his commander. When they fly so low and fast around us, the enemy knows we have shooters who are practically willing to fly through a window to chase them while covering the soldiers below.
I’ll take a hiatus from combat writing in order to finish the book about the Battle for Mosul. Our folks did an incredible job there — and that’s why we don’t see or hear much about Mosul in the news. I got word that CSM Jeffrey Mellinger was up in Mosul checking on our troops, so I shot an email to see if no news was good news. Folks might remember that Jeffrey Mellinger is the senior ranking enlisted man in the Iraq war, and though he never has to leave the safety of his giant office, he doesn’t seem to like it there. Like many American combat leaders, Mellinger works out of his vehicle. In this case a humvee. I’d like to tell more about how he really travels — it’s scary — but I want to go fishing with him in Alaska some day so, I’m not going to say any more.
I’d heard CSM Mellinger just got another humvee blown away and totaled by an IED. When I asked about him, he deflected the concern onto his soldiers and the Iraqi Sergeant Major who’d been traveling with him. I told CSM Mellinger I was going to quote him and he sent me this:
Things must be slow if you have to write about me.
As for my Iraqi SGM, he is doing great, adds much to our missions, has interesting observations and insights from our troops visits (coalition and Iraqi), and is absolutely fearless. He has been on the road with me for nearly two months now. First long trip ended with his helping me pull security and recover my lead vehicle which got blasted by an IED near Samarra. Nobody hurt, but the HMMWV was a bit peppered.
Life still goes on here, and every day there is more progress and a few frustrations. This government building is tough work!
None of his troops were hurt that time, but what I’d called his “rat patrol” in my Walking the Line dispatches has been hit over and over. One of his soldiers has been through seven IEDs. I still can’t believe for all the time I spent riding around in combat that I never got hit with one — although that wasn’t true for the people all around me. I spent a month tooling the streets of Iraq with CSM Mellinger and thought every day might be my last, but he just keeps on keeping on. And senior leaders like CSM Mellinger do not do three-month rotations, but two-year tours.
Many demands: Soldiers, diplomats, mentors, ambassadors.
I’ll be thinking about our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and so many other places while I go into seclusion to write. I’ve written pointedly about Afghanistan recently, and will post a couple more dispatches about the place before getting settled. My remarks about Afghanistan have angered many readers and I understand that. I appreciate that many folks have strong political aspects; certainly, they have been blunt sharing their viewpoints, so I knew many would be angry before posting those words, but I was speaking important truths. I care about our soldiers and our people and will not go silent when a man should speak.
These issues are increasingly the focus of discussion for military officials and leading journalists. One point of consensus is that we can all do a better job at finding and communicating truth. When I sat in as a stand-in for Joe Galloway at a symposium on how the media portrays the insurgents and military held recently at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, fortune led me to talk with retired Marine General Thomas Draude. The perfect gentlemen, it’d be hard to guess he was once a combat leader in Vietnam. General Draude came over to tell me a few things, and Joe’s name came up. They’d first met on the battlefield in Vietnam in 1965. When I later asked Joe about the General, Galloway said, “BG Tom Draude is fine, fine people in my book. We met on a battlefield at night while he was collecting his dead from his company stumbling into a nest of machine gun bunkers in Quang Ngai Province.”
Those are serious words from Joe Galloway, who has seen more combat than most soldiers or Marines, and those who know Joe Galloway from combat, speak his name with respect.
I’d just landed back from Afghanistan, so talk of the media portrayal of the insurgency in Iraq got me thinking about the situation in “the Forgotten War.” Whether or not the danger signs were as proliferate or as prominent as they are now in southern Afghanistan, there were indications in the weeks and months after the initial invasion of Iraq that an insurgency was active and taking hold. Whatever the rationale at the time, hindsight gives clarity that we might have been able to quash the violence and contain the risk. Here we are years later, paying for the same ground three and four times.
Despite the urge to reach back for the Vietnam banner and start flapping it around to illustrate the consequences of fighting wars without plans to win and have the victory stick, for Afghanistan, we don’t have to go back thirty years. We can look over to Iraq and realize that a threat ignored today is an enemy on our doorstep tomorrow. With the signs pointing clearly to danger on a massive scale in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern regions, our civilian leaders are holding to the pre-existing plan to draw down our combat forces and turn over responsibility for security to NATO. No disrespect to our allies, especially not so to the Brits, Aussies and Canadians, but I’m not sure the rest are up to that challenge.
I asked Joe Galloway his opinion and he replied [Having requested his permission to reprint]:
“…we are sailing ever deeper into the swamp in Afghanistan. Gonna turn that badlands territory in the south over to NATO? What will they do when they start taking casualties out the yazoo? Cut and run? You bet. Or hunker down in their bases and pray the bad guys don’t come get ‘em. Which they will.”
I know Joe is right. I also believe that in 2007 and 2008, at this rate, we will face an extremely fierce enemy in Afghanistan, one that we already know is courageous and tough, an enemy left mostly unmolested while they brazenly guard the poppy fields that will make them rich with money to buy weapons. Explosives. Rockets.
Many people in my generation and younger — keep asking me about this “Joe Galloway” who I keep saying people should listen to. Joe Galloway is one of the finest war correspondents our country ever produced. Joe ranks with Ernie Pyle, but Joe is a lot meaner than Ernie. Plus, Ernie had the “advantage” of dying in combat with our Marines. Joe has somehow survived all his extreme bouts with combat. Joe lived with the soldiers and told their stories, eventually writing an incredible book called, We were Soldiers Once… And Young. My copy is here on the desk beside me. So when Joe talks, old sergeant majors and old generals — and most of current top military leadership — listen. And when these old veterans talk, we should all listen. They know war. We should listen more to our veterans than to politicians. We are more likely to get straight answers about war from warriors than we are from politicians and most of the media.
Joe Galloway has been attacking Donald Rumsfeld lately. With great fury. And some highly respected officers such as recently retired Major General John Batiste have been calling for Donald Rumsfeld to resign. When John Batiste was leading the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, he was not a stay-in-the-palace general. Like many of our top military leaders, Batiste was frequently on the battlefield. He lost more than 100 soldiers in Iraq. I would see the General personally attending the memorials for his soldiers.
General Batiste knows the face of war, and his voice should be heard by Americans. Some people have called Generals like John Batiste “traitors” because they speak out in retirement against civilian leadership. Batiste and Galloway might be a lot of things, but they are both patriots to freedom and brave men. They are also both very smart about war.
And so when I see communications like the following flowing from Rumsfeld’s office to Joe Galloway, I personally take offense.
The communication was lengthy, but I’ll cut right to the name calling:
Larry Di Rita, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs wrote to Joe Galloway to rebut his attacks on the Secretary of Defense, “…You’re just becoming a johnny one-note and it’s only a couple of steps from that to curmudgeon!!”
Galloway, Di Rita complained, was holding his boss to account for decisions made a few levels down the chain. Reminding Di Rita that all great leaders recognize they are ultimately responsible for the decisions made on their watch, Galloway wasn’t buying that everything was going fine or Di Rita’s dismissal of the growing chorus of critics of Secretary Rumsfeld’s leadership as being too mired in the past to see what really mattered for the military. The voluminous communications ended with Joe’s final response to Larry Di Rita:
I like to think that is what I am doing also, and it is a struggle that grows out of my obligation to and love for America’s warriors going back 41 years as of last month. There are many things we all could wish had happened. I can wish that your boss [Donald Rumsfeld] had surrounded himself with close advisers who had, once at least, held a dying boy in their arms and watched the life run out of his eyes while they lied to him and told him, over and over, “You are going to be all right. Hang on! Help is coming. Don’t quit now…”
Such men in place of those who had never known service or combat or the true cost of war, and who pays that price, and had never sent their children off to do that hard and unending duty. I could wish for so much. I could wish that in January of this year I had not stood in a garbage-strewn pit, in deep mud, and watched soldiers tear apart the wreckage of a Kiowa Warrior [helicopter] shot down just minutes before and tenderly remove the barely alive body of WO Kyle Jackson and the lifeless body of his fellow pilot. They died flying overhead cover for a little three-vehicle Stryker patrol with which I was riding at the time. I could wish that Jackson’s widow Betsy had not found, among the possessions of her late husband, a copy of my book, carefully earmarked at a chapter titled Brave Aviators, which Kyle was reading at the time of his death. That she had not enclosed a photo of her husband, herself and a 3 year old baby girl.
Those things I received in the mail yesterday and they brought back the tears that I wept standing there in that pit, feeling the same shards in my heart that I felt the first time I looked into the face of a fallen American soldier 41 years ago on a barren hill in Quang Ngai Province in another time, another war.
Someone once asked me if I had learned anything from going to war so many times. My reply: Yes, I learned how to cry.
Joe Galloway is irreplaceable and his retirement leaves a void in how wars will be covered. Mainstream media provides some stalwarts like Dexter Filkins and Tony Castaneda who keep slugging it out, but increasingly we’re getting solid information from alternative sources like blogger Bill Roggio, with whom I spoke today. Bill’s heading to southern Afghanistan on an embed with our Canadian allies. I offered him my best set of body armor, as it will only be taking up space here while I write, but he declined, afraid to “destroy it up.” Of course, I replied to Bill, if he destroys my body armor it means he’s dead and so he would not have to pay for it anyway. I would not send a bill to his widow.
I wish Bill all the luck, but if he is injured or god forbid killed, at least he died trying to tell us what is happening. More than 100 reporters have died covering these wars. That is just one reason why I try to temper with specifics criticism of the media reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan. In such deadly environments, those who venture to get the story and take care to get it right are rare. It’s why I try to point folks to those journalists who I know to be accurate and professional, like the link I just put up to a story by Washington Times journalist Maya Alleruzzo.
The Canadians are fighting more and more although few people seem to notice. Hopefully, Bill can help change that. No matter what anyone says, the Afghanistan I just left is easily as dangerous as the Iraq I spent almost a year in. But whereas we are beating back the enemies and winning in Iraq, the enemies in Afghanistan are getting stronger as the seconds tick. We need to listen to our military experts and to our young soldiers, too. Like Ernie Pyle once noted, nobody is more plainspoken than combat soldiers. The ones I met in Afghanistan call that the “forgotten war” but unless things change dramatically, 2007 will be a year everyone remembers in Afghanistan.
I figure my part is telling what I saw when I was there. But in addition to the dozen or so dispatches I have been working on while interviewing soldiers here and traveling across Afghanistan, I’ve added a forum to this website where our military and allies can tell their stories from the various wars. Submitting stories and photos is easy. Nobody is expecting a young Marine to be an Ernest Hemmingway, so our young warriors should not worry about anybody critiquing writing style. We want to know what is going on. A remarkable corps of retired military and professional media volunteers makes certain every submission passes the comma test. Soldiers, you are fighting a war that is becoming the Great Undocumented War. We at home need to know what is happening, what you are doing right, wrong. Good or bad, tell us what you need. We are listening. Send us your stories.