From the frontlines in Iraq – Part II

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Feb 06, 2006 12:23 PM

In Part I of our exclusive two-part interview with Brigadier General Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team in Iraq, we covered a variety of topics as they relate to the standing-up of the new Iraqi Army. Among those were Iraqi soldier motivations (Why do they fight?), Iraqi Army strengths and weaknesses, and problems associated with training Iraqi soldiers. Bolger also explained why Iraq is not devolving into ‘civil war’ – as some have suggested – in the purest definition of the term. Additionally, he says, the recent bloody infighting between domestic insurgents and foreign-led “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (also known as “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia”) is a real opportunity for the new Iraqi government.

In Part II, Bolger discusses the so-called “Arab mind,” Iraqi perceptions of soldierly virtues, U.S. troop morale, what Americans back home might be surprised to know, and why the U.S. and its allies will ultimately defeat the insurgency in Iraq.

WTSjr: Westerners often talk about “the Arab mind” and how it is different than the Western mind. In that sense, is their perception of the soldierly virtues – things like courage and honor – different from our own? And would you elaborate on Iraqi perceptions of courage and honor.

BOLGER: I do not subscribe to an Arab mind or ‘an Oriental mind’ – with apologies to the late General of the Army Douglas MacArthur – or anything like that. The daily lesson I get is that Iraqis are individuals. Sure, they have cultural views based on their upbringing. Who doesn’t?

In Iraq, years of isolation and repression have made a lot of people here especially insular, magnifying this region’s tendency to value strong extended family ties. When you can’t trust the government – Ottomans, British mandate, Ba’athist socialists, and then the ultimate Ba’athist dictator, Saddam – you go with whom you can trust. People here rely on the family, writ large, sometimes called “tribes” in recognition of their size: thousands of relatives claiming kinship.

What has impressed me is how willing most Iraqis seem to be to look at other points of view. For so long, they got one way – Saddam’s way – shoved down their throats. I have seen a genuine interest in other ways, and it is not unusual to find your conversation with an Iraqi private, sergeant, or captain drift into all kinds of areas. Things like: Do Americans believe in God? What is success in private business? What is federalism in America? Why do Americans care about Iraqis? Do Americans have weapons in their homes? Why don’t Americans seem to like soccer? These are reasonable questions, as are many others. The fact that they get asked, tells me that the minds here are very much open to new possibilities.

In terms of courage and honor, those are esteemed traits in Iraq, and especially in the military. Iraq’s soldiers have a good reputation in Iraqi society for the right reason. They put their lives on the line to protect the people. Of course, without skill, discipline, and leadership, courage does not get much done. Units fight well not because every soldier in each unit is fearless, but because the strength of the teamwork allows a multiplier effect to those who are brave.

As far as honor, this is very important to any Iraqi in uniform. An Iraqi who makes a promise, will carry it out, even in the face of death.

Iraqi commanders consider it their duty to look after their U.S. or coalition advisors – Australians, British, Danes, Italians, Koreans, Poles, among others who also serve in this role. In all of this fighting, we have never had a military advisor captured. We have never had one betrayed. And though we have suffered advisors wounded and killed, every one came home, often at cost to our Iraqi partners who saw to that. That is Iraqi military honor at work.

WTSjr: We’ve talked about conventional ground forces, but what about Iraqi special operations forces? Would you say they are comparable to our own commandos?

BOLGER: The Iraqi Special Operations Forces or ISOF have been well–trained by the American special ops folks and cooperate at times with their British analogs as well. As to their strengths and weaknesses, we’ll leave that to the imagination of those enemies unlucky enough to meet the ISOF. The Iraqi operators are very good—enough said.

WTSjr: What would you change in Iraq, or what do you hope will change in that country regarding our approach to winning the war?

BOLGER: I’m lucky enough to get the chance to be a small part of the creation of a free Iraq. The Iraqis have won already. They won the day we toppled Saddam. Now it’s just a matter of finishing the job as the Iraqis take ownership of their freedom. You can’t give freedom to people. They must want it enough to fight and die for it. The Iraqis want it enough.

WTSjr: So, you are personally convinced we will win this war?

BOLGER: We will win this war! We have the support of the vast majority of Iraqis and the vast majority of Americans and regular people everywhere who believe in freedom and don’t want to back down to terrorists.

This kind of war requires two things: popular support in Iraq and a long-term commitment by our country to Iraq’s future. I know we have the first and I believe our leaders and those of Iraq will ensure the second.

WTSjr: Does negative reporting in the American and British press adversely impact our efforts in Iraq? If so, how? [NOTE: In his book, “Americans at War 1975-1986: An Era of Violent Peace” (Presidio, 1988), Bolger writes, “The stories in the papers and on television did not always square with my own knowledge of the military and how it operates. ‘Media bias’ was not the problem; there was no ideological slant to most defense reporting. To be blunt, what seemed to be amiss was an articulate understanding of how armed forces actually work.”]

BOLGER: America and Great Britain enjoy freedom of the press. The Iraqis are learning about this great idea. The press has their role and I’ve got mine.

My job is to help the Iraqis fight and win this war. These days, there is no shortage of folks grading that effort. That is as it should be — I work for the American people, and they have every right to judge my service here. I’ll leave it to others to grade the work of the press.

WTSjr: Let’s talk about the morale of our own soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines; particularly those going out and conducting the most dangerous missions on the ground – raiding, patrolling, escorting convoys, etc. Is morale still high?

BOLGER: I’d say morale is good here and will stay that way as long as we keep making a difference. We know we’re on the winning side. Our men and women came here to make a difference, and they surely are doing that.

WTSjr: Yes, but is deployment–weariness creeping in? If morale is high, what is keeping it high?

BOLGER: We have a great mission, the one all of us put on a uniform to do. When our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, our people spoke through their elected representatives. They gave us the mission to defeat these terrorists and the countries that harbored them. That’s what we’re doing today in Iraq, and thank God we have about 27–million strong supporters by our side as we track down and finish off these ruthless Al Qaeda types and their local henchmen. We aren’t tired, or broken, or losing heart. We’re going all the way on this one.

WTSjr:How about the Iraqi people? I understand they are warming to our presence in their country. Any truth to that?

BOLGER: The Iraqi people know who liberated them. I have been personally thanked time after time, out in very poor rural villages and in the streets of Baghdad. Iraqis wave to us and talk to us while we are on foot patrol. The little children love the ‘high five.’

To me, the best thanks we’re all getting involves watching the Iraqis take charge of their own destiny. They are choosing freedom. They are fighting for it. They’re dying for it. They are not turning back.

WTSjr: What would American readers be surprised to learn that they don't already know?

BOLGER: That Iraq is not Arabic for Vietnam.

The model here is much more our experience in Korea than our efforts to defeat Communism in Vietnam. In Korea, we fought a tough war from 1950 to 1953 that continues—no easy or quick solution there. We had the support of the people of the Republic of Korea all the way. America made a long-term commitment with our 1954 mutual defense treaty, and we have stuck with it for decades, despite casualties, political crises, and outside threats.

Just as the people of the south never had any stomach for North Korean dictatorial Communism, so the folks here in Iraq have no interest in joining Al Qaeda’s fanatic, nihilist war against all things not Al Qaeda. As for Saddam’s Ba’athist die-hards, they are already fading into the woodwork of normal political discourse with each electoral cycle. The ebb of enemy power is tangible because they have turned on the very people they said they protected. Against this abyss of destruction, our side promises freedom, prosperity, and a future here. Something beats nothing every time.

WTSjr: Thank you, General.

BOLGER: Thank you.