In 2003, an optimist could hope that the United States would establish a liberal democracy in Iraq. Four years into the war in Iraq, an optimist can hope that a “surge” of 30,000 troops will help stabilize an illiberal, Iran-aligned Shiite government. The tactical merits of the surge matter little when set against a simple truth: successes of any sort have become increasingly modest, and the overall strategic picture has become increasingly grim.
At the local level, as with most wars, there are discrete successes. They do not reverse the larger trend. And, as time goes on, even the good news becomes more ambiguous. Sectarian violence in the capital is down by about a third since January, but the overall level of violence in the city, in the form of assassinations and bombings, has remained unchanged, prompting a United Nations report in April to criticize the Iraqi government for withholding casualty statistics that might undermine faith in the security plan. Outside of Baghdad, Anbar Province brings encouraging reports suggesting that al-Qaeda is alienating Sunni insurgents. What’s also emerging, however, is that many have turned against al-Qaeda for now in the name of prosecuting a better insurgency against the United States later.
The purpose of the surge, which augments by 30,000 a force of roughly 140,000, is, according to General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, to provide “Iraqi leaders [with] the time and space they need to come to grips with the tough political issues that must be resolved.” To help the process along, the United States has pushed measures for sectarian compromise, including a change in distribution of oil revenues, a law permitting low-level Baath Party officials back into government, constitutional reform, and a new provincial elections law. But the Iraqi cabinet and parliament, whose dominant Shiite factions are more interested in pressing sectarian advantage than reconciliation, have either slow-walked them or neutered their substance.
To put all this in context: Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted candidly in mid-March that without sectarian reconciliation among Iraqis the “strategy won’t work.” Indeed, the entire point of the surge is to bring such reconciliation about by, in Gates’s words, “buy[ing] the Iraqis time.” But that’s the problem. The United States is ever more dearly buying time, and Iraq is ever more freely spending it. As this article goes to press, the parliament is set to embark on a two-month vacation, during which, if current trends hold, 200 more American troops will be killed.
The Democratic Party, fresh from its wins in the midterm elections, understands this. It has finally united around a position on the war: it must end. This spring, Congress passed legislation for supplemental war funding that mandated withdrawal from Iraq by the spring of 2008. President Bush, as was expected, vetoed it.
On the merits of withdrawal, the Democrats have it right. The politics of it, however, remain complicated. It’s become common among Democrats to argue for withdrawing from Iraq in the name of the troops. In January, for instance, New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler introduced a bill titled the Protect the Troops and Bring Them Home Act. In February, Congresswoman Lynne Woolsey sent a letter to Bush arguing that it was “time to truly support our troops—by bringing them home.” Fifteen members of Congress signed on. Senators, too, have been willing to support this idea. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said in a February floor speech that “the best way to support our troops serving in Iraq is to say ‘NO’ to the president’s escalation of the war.”
Haunted by Vietnam, Democrats are determined to express support for the troops. This is admirable. The truth of the matter, however, is this: many troops in Iraq, perhaps even most of them, want to stay and fight. That doesn’t mean that we should stay in Iraq any longer. It does mean, however, that if Democrats want to bridge the divide between themselves and the military—an effort further complicated by their opposition to the war—they’re going to have to recognize that arguing in the name of the troops isn’t going to work.
To speak to the troops fighting in Iraq is to see a particularly stark difference between their mindset and that of most Americans today. I saw this when, a few weeks into the surge, I traveled to Baghdad to see what the change in tactics looked like on the ground. One of the places I visited, on a hot March afternoon, was a much-heralded “neighborhood outpost” in the Hurriyeh Joint Security Station in western Baghdad. Crammed into the basement of the building, which houses a contingent of Iraqi soldiers and policemen, were soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 325th Infantry Regiment. I was struck by the griminess of the locale. The air was thick with the smell of dried sweat, and all the light came from a few intensely flickering florescent bulbs. Don’t ask about the latrines.
None of this, though, dampened the mood of Lieutenant Jonathan Wellman, a twenty-five-yea-rold Georgian. His platoon from the 57th Military Police Company, which was partnering with the 1-325 to “mentor” the Iraqi police, had arrived to check the outpost’s communications equipment. The task was as irritating as it was important, and one of Wellman’s sergeants, bored to tears and uncomfortable standing around in his body armor, mentioned how much better everything would be in Hawaii, where the company would rotate to in a few months.
Wellman wasn’t having it. “What do you got in Hawaii that you don’t have here?” he asked. “There’s sand and beaches. You can’t tell the difference.”
“Chicks in bikinis,” the sergeant felt compelled to note.
“Who needs chicks in bikinis when you got terrorists with AKs?” Wellman retorted. “You can get a hard-on from that.”
From Wellman’s perspective, the war was going well. “For this district we’re at right now, we’re past the storm,” he told me. Many of his fellow troops in the 57th agreed. Small-arms fire and car bombs were still plaguing Wellman’s soldiers, but there had been a measurable drop in violence over the past thirty days. “Now, with the security plan,” said Wellman, “my district, it’s settling down. And it’s only going to get better.”
A few days earlier, at the U.S. embassy mess hall, I heard similar sentiments from two majors whom I’ll call Smith and Miller. Both had spent 2006 in Iraq and felt an acute sense of despair as sectarianism deepened and security deteriorated. Smith recounted how rampaging militias had been terrorizing Baghdad, littering the streets with corpses. Now, under Petraeus, everything seemed to be changing: “population protection” was the new mission. Miller was similarly enthusiastic. The United States, he said, had finally learned from its compounded mistakes and made the necessary course corrections. “It’s the second half,” he assured me.
In short, for many troops in Baghdad, the surge had brought a significant boost in morale. When I rode along with the 57th on patrol, they were experiencing the strange comfort of “boring” days without any enemy attacks—so much so that one gunner even admitted to mixed feelings about the lack of combat. After a period of prolonged catastrophe, the sense that events had shifted in favor of the U.S. came as a great relief. “Having momentum on your side, that’s so important,” explained the company commander, Captain Robert McNellis. “And that’s what we feel right now.” For this company, the surge wasn’t merely an augmentation of troops. It was an augmentation of hope.
Of course, military opinion varies greatly, and the mindset of the 57th could be atypical. But other journalists have picked up similar sentiments. In early April, National Public Radio’s John McChesney visited National Guard troops in Arkansas and found that, “to a man, they were gung-ho for the mission.” One specialist told McChesney, “I am looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great opportunity for me.” And news accounts regularly carry reports of soldiers who are eager to go to Iraq, whether out of a sense of duty or a sense of adventure. (More grimly, many obituaries also mention such eagerness.)
Legal restrictions make it difficult to measure military opinion. Still, the best and most recent measure, the annual Military Times poll (which relies on self-selected responses to a mailed questionnaire and as such is nonscientific), found in December that 50 percent of active-duty respondents continued to believe success was likely—and that was even before the surge had begun. While that number represents a sharp decline from two years earlier, when 83 percent were optimistic, it still greatly exceeds that of stateside civilians, 60 percent of whom favor a pullout from Iraq in 2008, according to the most recent CNN poll. In fact, a plurality of military respondents said they believed that the war requires more troops.
There are other signs that the military has a different view of how things are going: troops deployed to Iraq haven’t been voting with their feet. While National Guard units are having trouble meeting recruitment goals, and the active-duty forces are having similar difficulty with certain key specialties, reenlistment rates in the military in general remain surprisingly robust after four years of the war. The 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, both of which spent 2006 in Iraq for the second time, had post-deployment retention rates of 124 percent and 136 percent of their respective targets. Despite a significant rise in frustration inside the military as the war has dragged on, there remains a sizeable base of support for the mission.
Given that troops on the ground, who clearly have a vivid sense of day-to-day rhythms in the conflict, continue to keep faith with the war, can we trust civilians in Washington who favor withdrawal to know better? Many observers of the war trying to make sense of it feel understandably hesitant to substitute their judgment for that of those on the front lines.
Front-line experience, however, can’t definitively speak to the broader question of how a war is going overall. This is especially true in a counterinsurgency, where conditions vary across the country. “For attacks to be down [in Baghdad] may not mean anything,” explains Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and international relations professor at Boston University. “It’s indicative of the enemy adjusting, probably, and shifting attacks elsewhere. There’s been an increase of violence in Diyala, with all that implies. It doesn’t necessarily mean the surge is failing, but we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that positive indicators in Baghdad mean the surge is succeeding.”
Soldiers may see that their unit is accomplishing its objectives and feel a boost in morale. They may search a house and find a weapons cache, for instance, or they may track down a crucial member of a terrorist cell and take him into custody. Frustratingly, as obvious and long as the list of tactical successes may be, absent dramatic political improvements they rarely coalesce on their own into a change in a counterinsurgency’s overall fortunes. And these aren’t questions soldiers can afford to concern themselves with. “Once you’re engaged, eyeball to eyeball, you tend not to think about those strategic issues at all. You’re trying to shoot and shoot back,” says retired General Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and Vietnam veteran. “Your entire focus becomes tactical.”
In addition, with the bar for success getting increasingly lower, even small improvements feel big. “They have a new commander over there, and at least the appearance and the rhetoric of a new strategy,” says military expert Richard Kohn of the University of North Carolina. The soldiers, says Kohn, will tell themselves, “All right, this is it. This is the one last chance.” (Indeed, this is almost exactly what Smith and Miller expressed to me.)
Most important, those in the military will be the last people to believe a war is lost, even in the face of nearly impossible odds. Losing a war is almost never the fault of soldiers but, rather, the fault of policy makers and generals, but regular soldiers still feel implicated. To believe in anything but responsibility for victory would “not be living up to their image of themselves in an important way,” says Duke University’s Christopher Gelpi, who studies civilian-military relations. “That’s the whole focus of what this institution is about: succeeding at what missions it has been given. They’ll hang on to whatever kind of hope might be left long after everyone else. Succeeding in military missions is who they are.” Even with a draftee military in a controversial, futile war like Vietnam, four years passed before frustrations resulted in massive breakdowns in discipline, notes McPeak. An all-volunteer force, which includes thousands who enlisted after the 2003 invasion—and who are therefore self-selected for their optimism—is much better equipped to handle the stress of a difficult war. “The professionalization of the entire structure of the military” has “permeated across the ranks to make it seem all the more durable,” argues Bacevich.
All of this leads to a simple point: while the perspective of those fighting the war needs to inform any debate, it can’t determine that debate. “We don’t hire front-line soldiers to make strategic judgments,” says Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. “The larger political issues here are well beyond the visibility and responsibility of individual soldiers and even battalion commanders.” As Bacevich puts it, “There’s no simple answer—that the truth lies in Washington, or in the office of David Petraeus, or in the 3rd Platoon of C Company. Each location provides a perspective and gives an angle on the truth. With regard to the perspective on the war that the troops have, it’s certainly the most immediate: they know what happened yesterday. But only in the area of operations for the 3rd Platoon of C Company.”
There’s something inherently unseemly about talking about the politics of a war, even if politics infuses all war. Certainly, no amount of political benefit should substitute for considered judgment in figuring out what to do about Iraq. But nothing in the past five years has provided evidence of the war’s wisdom, nor has the surge so far contradicted the overall trend, which is that the longer we occupy Iraq, the worse things get. The escalation won’t be at full strength until the last of the new brigades arrive this month, and, because one problem all along has been an insufficient number of troops, we can expect that the infusion will bring some benefit—for a while. As has been the pattern all along, however, the enemy will adapt, and sectarian fighting will rage on. The country’s descent will continue.
The uncomfortable reality is this: nothing in Iraq worth fighting for remains achievable, and nothing achievable in Iraq remains worth fighting for. Democrats have made the decision—rightly, I think—that withdrawing from Iraq is the least bad of many bad options. But they shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking that a majority of the troops doing the fighting agree with them. For soldiers like Lieutenant Wellman, this will be hard to accept. As he told me of war doubters back home, “I don’t want them to just support the troops. I want them to support the mission.” This matters, because pretending that in ending the war they’re doing the troops a favor hurts Democrats politically. They risk looking condescending, and, worse, oblivious—which has the broader effect of undermining public trust in the Democrats to handle national security. More basically, it does a disservice to those who serve. For soldiers who are optimistic, being told that the war can’t be won is bad enough. But to be told that politicians are doing them a favor by extricating them from a mission they believe in is downright insulting.
Democrats would do much better to speak honestly: to acknowledge that many fighting men and women want to stay in the battle and would be willing to do so for years longer. There’s nothing wrong with saying that, nor in emphasizing that this is part of what makes us so proud of our military. We wouldn’t want soldiers who were unwilling to fight to the bitter end. Elected officials, however, have to judge what they believe to be in the national interest, and that means calling an end to the occupation of Iraq. Soldiers like Wellman won’t agree, but if Democrats can at least signal that they acknowledge and respect his point of view, they’ll have a better chance at getting Wellman to respect their own. And meeting partway is a lot better than not meeting at all.