Thursday, October 20, 2005

Twicebaked Rice

A few days before the invasion of Iraq began, the colonel in charge of the Marines’ 11th Regiment — a quartet of artillery battalions whose “organic weapon is the 155mm howitzer” — turned up to give his troops a pep talk from the back of a truck. “The indication we’re getting from over the border is that there’s not much motivation for a fight,” he told the troops. “Last week a bunch of Iraqis came up to the Brits and tried to surrender, but the Brits said, ‘It’s not time yet.’” Naturally, his Marines tittered and snickered. They were entitled. They’d been practicing gas-attack drill after drill in 120-degree heat day after day, donning MOPP suits and imagining the worst. What they couldn’t possibly have known was how limited their commanders’ imagination was, with very few exceptions. This colonel wasn’t it. He said: “We’re gonna go to Baghdad, fight the Republican Guard, take care of them, replace Saddam, and put stability operations in place. Then we’re gonna come back home.” (I’m quoting from the account by Chris Ayres, the London Times correspondent and author of the just-released War Reporting for Cowards, about which another day), who was an embed with the 11th Regiment. So this is taking place in the second to third week of March, 2003. The colonel’s summation pretty much sums up, in soldierly argot, what the cakewalk-crowd around Bush was thinking at the time.

It’s been two and a half years. This weekend the military will register its 2,000th GI death in Iraq. (They’re at 1,988 today, 2,187 if you include coalition deaths, 2,433 if you include Afghanistan, the forgotten lost cause). You figure a few lessons have been learned, at least the one about not sounding so glibly self-confident that a few good-sounding sentences and a few good men can get the job done. Yesterday Condoleezza Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Her sum-up: “I have said our strategy is to clear, hold and build.” How different that phrase is from the 11th Regiment’s colonel’s is any hairsplitter’s guess. But let’s return to the Regiment the evening after the colonel left to prepare for his “stability operations.” Grunts are in their tent, not asleep. A corporal is reading a letter from home. Ayres quotes him: “Man, this letter’s depressing the hell out of me. Even my goddamn brother’s against the war.” “No shit,” comes a reply. The corporal continued: “My brother’s the kind of guy who usually says, ‘Let’s just kill the motherfuckers.’” A pause. Then: “What’s our job here to do anyway?” From the American perspective, the question has answered itself, so far, 1,988 times.