ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq -- Those who believe that the campaign in Iraq is a lost cause better not tell that to the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division; they think they're winning. That's not just their commanding general, Rick Lynch, talking; that's the word from every soldier we have listened to for the week we have been with them. These troops ought to know. Many of them are here on their third yearlong tour of duty in Iraq.
Those we have been interviewing for an upcoming special edition of "War Stories" were part of the initial attack north from Kuwait in March 2003; they were here when al-Qaida tried to stop the democratic elections in 2005; and they have been here again since May 2007. What they have experienced along the way gives them a perspective that is much at odds from what we most often see expressed in our mainstream media and by America's most prominent politicians.
"If I thought we were losing, I wouldn't be here," said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Ingleston of Williamstown, N.Y. He's an M1 tank gunner on his third tour of duty in Iraq. When I asked him why he had decided to re-enlist in the U.S. Army knowing that would mean coming back to Iraq a third time, this father of three replied, "I'm part of a team, and we came here to do a job and we're doing it." His commentary on where we have been -- and where this fight is headed -- was typical of what we have heard on this, our ninth "embed" in Iraq.
Professional political pessimists and their apprentices in the press long ago declared this fight "lost" and U.S. efforts here a "failure." In June, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the struggle to bring about a democratic outcome in Iraq a "grotesque mistake." She was joined by Republican critics such as Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, who said "the current surge strategy is not an effective means of protecting" America's vital interests in Iraq. That kind of sniping was heard from both sides of the aisle throughout the summer. Then, after Labor Day, Gen. David Petraeus was subjected to vitriolic criticism before he even had the chance to testify before Congress.
Well, if they care to look, they can see it now. As Mark Twain once said of Wagner's music: "It's not as bad as it sounds."
Although there is marked improvement in the security situation, some in the media just don't want to admit it. A recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Even if surge succeeds, Iraq faces volatile future."
Col. Terry Ferrell, the commanding officer of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of 3rd ID -- our current hosts -- arrived here in June. When I was last here in March of 2003, it was a FARP (forward arming and refueling point) for the Marines driving north toward Baghdad. When 2 BCT arrived here six months ago, it was an al-Qaida stronghold. Today, all that has changed.
We now have seen what few others have cared to report: that "the awakening" in the Sunni population and the "concerned citizens" program here in Babel province have indeed, as Ferrell puts it, "lifted the blanket of fear on these communities." He told us, "We have crippled the al-Qaida in this area and contributed to a dramatic turnaround in security for Baghdad." From all we have seen, he's spot on.
Publicly, U.S. commanders describe the situation as "cautiously optimistic" and say "the momentum is in the right direction." Privately, they say, "We are putting them (al-Qaida and the Shiite militias) on the ropes."
Though disappointed by the lack of "good news" being reported in the U.S. media, the troops' sense of humor is undiminished. When Secretary Gates was in Baghdad this week, it was announced that lack of congressional funding could result in "pink slips for up to 200,000 Defense Department employees." Hearing the story, one young soldier heading out on patrol commented, "Somebody call me if I get laid off."