“We expect to take ground fire on this flight.” So said the young warrant officer with the bandana on his head as our group prepared to board his Chinook helicopter at Baghdad International Airport a little over a month ago. He then proceeded to tell us how to evacuate the aircraft in case we were shot down – casually noting that a mistake could result in a rotor cutting you in half – and where to regroup forward of the helo. Noting that there were lots of guns on board, the soldier said, if you need to use one, “Point and shoot.”
I found myself wondering whether that young man and his crewmates were among the dead following this weekend’s downing of a Chinook chopper on its way to the former Saddam Hussein International. If not, those lost were probably his buddies – or at least young Americans pretty much like him. So were the kids they were flying to Baghdad on the first leg of a short, and surely well-deserved, rest-and-recreation visit back home.
In his unassuming way, the crew chief had reminded me and my colleagues – a group of retired generals and colonels and a few civilian defense analysts who comment on military affairs for various television, radio and print media outlets – that we were in a war zone. U.S. and Coalition personnel in Baghdad and the “triangle” north and west of it are living with the reality that an enemy attack can come at any time, from any direction and with lethal effect.
That point cannot be impressed forcefully enough on those inclined to deprecate what is going on in Iraq today. Thousands and thousands of our countrymen are running these risks in order to secure an important front in the war on terror. In the process, they are giving the Iraqi people a chance for freedom and economic opportunity heretofore unknown by them or their counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world. That chance -- while fragile and probably ephemeral – could, if realized, pay enormous dividends to this country and its allies in terms of a less dangerous region and possibly far-reaching and positive political changes, there and beyond.
This is true, by the way, not only of those in uniform. Although civilian contractors like Haliburton have become favorite whipping boys for anti-war critics, their personnel are also putting their lives on the line to help the people of Iraq turn things around. And, as with the international humanitarian agencies and newly empowered Iraqi police, these civilians have been targeted for murderous attack.
The enemy – a combination of former regime loyalists and foreign fighters – has a clear strategy: Bleed the United States to the point where the American people and/or their elected repesentatives feel compelled to abandon Iraq. They hope that the cumulative effects of daily roadside ambushes, together with more spectacular attacks on UN and other aid organizations’ headquarters, a hotel housing many Coalition Provisional Authority personnel (and a visiting top official from Washington) and most especially Iraqi police stations, will have the desired effect.
Inevitably, some will suggest that the death of roughly a score of Americans in the Chinook blown out of the sky last weekend, should be a tipping point – like the loss of the ill-fated Blackhawk helicopter in Mogadishu a decade ago. Call it the “Chinook Down” syndrome. That is, of course, precisely the hope of the Hussein loyalists and their imported, Islamist allies.
It was, therefore, providential that the Sunday television talk shows had previously decided to feature Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this weekend. It, therefore, fell to him first and foremost to discuss the loss of the Chinook and to put this setback into context.
With the candor and directness the American people have come to expect from – and admire in – their Pentagon chief, Secretary Rumsfeld said: "It's clearly a tragic day for America. In a long, hard war, we're going to have tragic days. But they're necessary. They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated."
Mr. Rumsfeld also reiterated the essential character of this war: It is far preferable to be fighting it in places like Baghdad than “in Baltimore or Boise.” Like the words of our Chinook’s crew chief, those of the Secretary of Defense convey a grim determination that acknowledges the hard reality of our present circumstance, but cannot help but impress those who hear them with our commitment to take the battle to our enemies.
Something unsaid by Secretary Rumsfeld should also be kept in mind. Nothing we do now could more seriously besmirch the memory of those whose lives have been lost in attacks like this weekend’s than to signal that their sacrifice was in vain. Should the United States respond to the mayhem inflicted in recent days by communicating that our will to prevail is flagging, we can be sure not only that our enemies will be emboldened to redouble their efforts. We will also be saying to relatives and friends of the dead and wounded that their loved ones could have been spared if only we had cut and run earlier.
Fortunately, not only Donald Rumsfeld understands this point. So, apparently, does our Commander-in-Chief. On Fox News Sunday, commentator Bill Kristol recounted a recent White House conversation between President Bush and CPA chief Paul Bremmer and Central Command commander General John Abizaid. According to Kristol’s source who was reportedly in the room, the President made absolutely clear his determination to stay the course in Iraq, without regard to election-year politics. That is surely the best way to honor our fallen, to lead the American people and to secure the defeat of our adversaries.