The 82nd Airborne vs. the Brookings Institution: Who Do You Trust for a Real View of Iraq?
Huffington Post
Paul Rieckhoff
August 20, 2007

This Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed that gave a harsh assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq.

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the "battle space" remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers' expense.

The piece strongly contradicted last month's optimistic analysis of the war by Brookings scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack. Admittedly, their eight-day guided tour was handled by the Pentagon. But their years of study of the Middle East surely meant they wouldn't be taken in by a Department of Defense dog-and-pony show, right? And could yesterday's op-ed possibly come from a source more reputable than the Brookings Institution? What are the authors' credentials, exactly?

Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant. Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant. Omar Mora is a sergeant. Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant. Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant. Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.

This op-ed was written by seven American soldiers who are serving in Iraq right now. They describe themselves as "responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home." Sadly, one of the authors, Staff Sergeant Murphy, a Ranger and reconnaissance team leader, was shot in the head before the piece was published. (He is being flown to the U.S. and is expected to survive.)

Consider the tremendous amount of moral courage that it takes to put oneself on the line like this. Whether you agree or disagree with the stance these soldiers take, hats off to them for having the guts to write this piece. Only a person with exceptional love for his or her country would take this kind of risk. And because I know people will ask, I think these soldiers will be fine under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for two reasons: 1) they included a disclaimer, and 2) they didn't disclose any information that would compromise OPSEC (operational security). There is always room in the military for professional dissent.

And right now, we need their experience and opinions. These guys spent a year in Iraq, not eight days, which is why they can read between the lines on Pentagon statistics. For instance, when the Pentagon says, as they told O'Hanlon and Pollack, "more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners," the truth on the ground can be far different. As the soldiers recount:

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb... The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Bottom line: No scholarly articles can replace real boots-on-the-ground knowledge. Participating in a heavily secured, carefully orchestrated sight-seeing visit to Iraq does not make you a military expert any more than a trip to Yankee stadium qualifies one to be a baseball broadcaster for ESPN. That should be obvious by now.

But the media continually treats troops as wallpaper footage to run in the background while the latest talking-head pseudo-expert pontificates. And the White House hasn't learned the lesson, either, judging by the so-called "Petraeus report" coming out in September. The White House announced last week that this report won't actually be written by Gen. Petraeus. Once again experienced military leaders will be overruled by air-conditioned bureaucrats and Beltway experts.

So let's call the Petraeus Report what it is: Yet Another White House Plan. Of course, those don't have a great track record, especially when it comes to assessing the situation on the ground. In the meantime, as more Americans and Iraqi civilians die waiting for someone in power to listen to the troops on the ground, someone should call the Brookings Institution -- I can think of seven sharp 82nd Airborne soldiers who are getting back from Iraq soon, and they could use some comfy think tank fellowships.

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