Ever hear about the Battle of the Humvee? That's what I'm calling a May skirmish fought by soldiers of the 37th Armored Regiment's 2nd Battalion in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. In what became a six-hour firefight, Americans battled followers of Moktada al-Sadir to secure the hulk of a burning Humvee. It's not that our soldiers fought because the flaming wreck amounted to a tin can's worth of military value. They fought, as Capt. Ty Wilson of Fairfax, Va., explained to The Washington Post, because "We weren't going to let them dance on it for the news. Even (with) all the guys they lost that day, that still would have given them victory."
Chalk one up for our side, a small win on the way to an underreported triumph over the followers of Moktada al-Sadir in the spring. Iraq is sovereign, life goes on ... but I can't get over the chilling description of American soldiers risking their necks to keep the media from awarding a phony victory to the enemy. This puts the media -- in this case, anyone with a video camera and a satellite hook-up -- not in No Man's Land, but on the Other Side. The concept is horrifying in that the ramifications are so bleak. It shows our soldiers engaged in a war on two fronts -- a military front and a media front. And it shows our soldiers fighting two enemies: the adversary who fights fire with terror, and the adversary who also fights fire with perception.
The Washington Post review of the 60-day offensive against the Moktada al-Sadir fighters in Iraq's holy cities of Karbala, Kut, Kufa and Najaf offers an in-depth look at this two-front war in action. It becomes obvious the militias that rose against us didn't garrison themselves inside mosques and cemeteries for nothing, and certainly not because these sites were militarily defensible. They holed up in their holy spots with grenades, guns and mortar rounds not only to exploit Western qualms about using a church or temple in battle; they did so mindful of the cameras of the world. They knew the United States would find it politically untenable to attack historic shrines turned into armed strongholds. Such attacks, as the conventional wisdom won't stop telling us, would make the world -- namely, the media, the Arab street (wherever that is) and Jacques Chirac -- mad at us.
Of course, I thought they were already mad at us. Maybe eradicating a nest of killers in a mosque would make them really, really mad at us. As The Washington Post put it, "U.S. officers knew that damaging the shrines would inflame" -- really, really, really inflame -- "opinion in Iraq and worldwide against the Americans." So much better to send our boys out to win one for the Humvee.
And that's not all. U.S. commanders, as The Washington Post reported, designated all Shiite holy sites in these Moktada al-Sadir battlegrounds to be "exclusion zones," sites where fire -- American fire, anyway -- was effectively verboten. That is, it didn't matter that the Moktada al-Sadir forces had transformed religious buildings into munitions dumps. Americans were under orders not to return fire unless they could see their attackers, which was nearly impossible under the circumstances. U.S. troops operating near the Shrine of Imam Ali, for example, "came under steady fire they did not return," The Washington Post reported. "Each night, mortars fell on (the American) camp -- 495 in all -- fired from a mosque complex in Kufa ... also protected by an exclusion zone." Sounds as if it takes an infidel to save a Shiite shrine.
The sitting-duck routine must have gotten old, at least in Najaf. "After the troops took mortar fire for days from behind the cemetery wall, a tank was sent to knock down a 200-foot section, exposing the fighters inside," The Washington Post reported. A local man bemoaned the American act of knocking down the wall -- not, however, the Moktada al-Sadir militia's act of desecrating the cemetery by turning it into a fort -- explaining that it "disrespected what the cemetery means to us."
Bottom line: The mortar attacks stopped, which is as good a moral to this story as any. Unfortunately, the media attacks on our military and its mission have not, as a perusal of any day's top stories will attest. "Promises Unkept: The U.S. Occupation of Iraq" pans The Washington Post. "For Iraqi Girls, Changing Land Narrows Lives," tolls The New York Times. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann likens the peaceful transfer of authority in Iraq to America's chaotic retreat from Vietnam in 1975. NBC's Tom Brokaw disdains Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's assertion that "Saddam Hussein had relations with Al Qaeda."
This isn't a steady flow of facts; it's an anti-war drumbeat. Which means this isn't a war for soldiers alone. To win abroad, we must battle the burning Humvees at home.