A patchwork of perspectives on Iraq from soldiers, a mother who lost her son, a college student protesting the war, politicians, advisers and a pair of Iraqis.
Do not be surprised if there is no coherent narrative on what has happened. But neither close your mind to the sounds of cautious optimism.
And then there’s this:
It has been about a year since Army Gen. David H. Petraeus arrived to command U.S. forces in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker took over as the chief U.S. diplomat, and the military deployed 30,000 more troops to protect and rebuild neighborhoods.
Officials now running the U.S. effort express frustration that the gains wrought by their new political, security and economic policies — in particular, sharply reduced violence — are continually weighed against the first four years of the war, when Iraq unraveled in insurgency and sectarian strife.
I think that’s about right, but neither should it be entirely unexpected. Patience is a virtue, but it’s never been one of ours.
As for me, five years ago I stood on the bridge of a veteran warship as wave after wave of F-14s and FA-18s, EA-6B Prowlers, E-2 Hawkeyes and S-3 Vikings rattled down the catapults, the thumping of the waterbrakes moving through the ship, the steam from the catapults rising, the afterburners lighting up the night. Heavy laden, wallowing off the deck rather than springing airborne. Worried for them over the beach, wanting desperately to be with them, but assigned other duties. Somebody had to do it.
Waited for them to return, checking the off count even as the next strike turned on deck. Saw them land after hours-long missions, the arresting gear screeching out behind them, the jets shrieking in the wires like snared birds of prey.
Watched the war unfold on green radar screens and in MS Chat as the Army and Marines leapt across the LOD, overran our early target sets. Saw the ASOC and DASC compensate around fluid lines of maneuver even as the shorebased targeting cell reached deeper and deeper to strategic targets beyond the battle lines. We were stunned by the a shocking loss of life when a pair of helicopters carry Royal Marines to Al Faw had a midair collision on the first night of the campaign. Shook our heads angrily at a the news of a Patriot battery shooting down a returning FA-18. Watched the tapes of our aircrews striking their targets with awe-inspiring precision. Saw the same events from a ground perspective on CNN. Tried and failed to outrun the “mother of all sandstorms.”
We were the night carrier, in bed by 1400 and up by 1830. Four hours of sleep on a good day, with maybe a one hour nap during an evening lull. The Captain didn’t fare quite so well as that.
We re-armed and refueled every third day, after flight ops were over. On those days we got even less sleep. One night a couple of weeks in, with my CO almost physically ill from exhaustion, I asked him to step out of the chair for an hour, begged him to go lie down – I promised I’d wake him up when the next recovery started. When that time came, the Officer of the Deck went to wake the Captain up but I stopped him. Told him it was on me. He was clearly torn, trying to discern his duty. The Navigator came over and we exchanged quiet whispers, out of earshot from the straining watch on deck: Let the man sleep now, or maybe lose him for days. It was a kind of mutiny. When the Captain came back on deck four and half hours later, he took the chair wordlessly, refreshed. We never spoke of it afterwards.
We left home knowing the importance of the work to come. We trained hard along the way, knowing that the more we sweated, the less we’d bleed. Waited on tenterhooks for months as the diplomatic dance played out. Watched as the temperatures started to rise again, thought about the hundreds of thousands of young men ashore, wearing CBR gear as they waited in the dirt and dust and pondered those things that only infantrymen think on when everyone knows it’s coming but it hasn’t happened yet.
We fought hard as hard as we could for weeks, sprinting. And then it was “over,” and we left. Losing two more aircraft on the way home, stupidly. Partied like rock stars in Perth. Ran very low on fuel coming back north, as wild seas made at sea refueling more hazardous than degraded sea keeping. Made it good a few days later south of Indonesia. Picked up Tigers in Pearl. Came home to an exultant country that celebrated us with emails, letters, posters, cheering crowds on the quay and spouting fireboats in the bay. Family on the pier. We came home never doubting that we had done the right thing.
Except it wasn’t over, and we’re still there, at sea and ashore and in the air. And the crowds no longer cheer.