This question rarely crosses our minds. We the outsiders see the war in terms of black and white, justified or not justified, victory or defeat. A relentless coverage through papers, books, TV and radio enforces day after day either pro war, or anti war stand. The political elites, our representatives setting in front of large flags impose on us half-baked solutions "stay the course" or pack and run.
At the meantime, the story of war is the one lived by each soldier individually. It is the seconds and minutes, where life and death become synonymous, and the fact that one or the other will win does not project courage or cowardice. It is the simple acts at split of a second to help a falling buddy or defend one's self. It is years of second-guessing and scary nightmares. This is the story of war.
The war is a very complex event, like all real events in life it is not a single color but a rainbow. These thoughts and many more consumed me as I listened to the soldiers standing in front me.
A book-signing event last week in midtown Atlanta introduced two dozens of people to "What Was Asked of Us", a personal account of twenty-nine Iraq veterans.
The Canadian author Trish Wood is an award-winning investigative reporter describes her book as the first unvarnished, unfiltered and uncensored history of the Iraq war-straight from the mouths of the men and women who are fighting it. Accompanied the author to the event three of our soldiers, Alan King awarded four bronze stars during his service in Iraq (two for valor and two for achievement).
The second is Jonathan Powers a twenty-four years old captain who discovered on one morning that he has full responsibility for an area of Baghdad with a population of fifty thousand and no plan to execute.
The third is Garett Reppenhagen Cavalry Scout/ Sniper based in Baquba, who tells the story of fighting an enemy that is nowhere to be seen and discovering after a firefight that all the people killed are collateral damage, another word for civilians.
Trish Wood major success in this book is in her ability to vanish as a reporter and let the young men and women tell the story in their own words. Their story is so complex in its simplicity; it is the story of dreams, nightmares, sweat, blood, fear and joy. It is the image of the Iraqi children running in the streets, old people standing in line for water and propane, young people putting down a stolen couch to wave to the American soldiers and thank them, later on turned enemies. It is the story of Alan King, Gregory Lutkus, Jonathan Powers, Garett Reppenhagen and many more.
When you read Gregory Lutkus of Connecticut Army National Guard describing his effort to remove a soldier from a Hemmet truck, you can see through the eyes of the young soldier the real battle.
"I took a deep breath, and crawled up into the cab, and that is when I saw him. He was not talking. He was leaning forward and his face was shredded. But I still hadn't seen how bad it was I'm looking at him from the side. He is looking forward, and I am kind of just coming into the cab. So I'm crawling through the wreckage, and I remember putting my hand down. When I got almost to him and I picked my hand up, there were pieces of glass and human teeth in my hand, and maybe I should have saved the teeth. I do not know. I just kind of shook my hand off'. Gregory's account titled "Just get me out" continues in details describing the efforts to stabilize the injured soldier and the attempts to remove him from the vehicle. He continues in another part of his story "They are using the pry bars and the jaws of life, which are designed for civilian vehicles, so basically the Hemmet is laughing at them, so to speak. And so when they are pulling on the metal, even with these tools, they are pulling on his foot that is trapped in the wreckage. I remember he's still managing a coherent scream even with that little of a mouth".
Gregory goes on "until a decision is made to chain the Hemmet from the front and back ends with two marine trucks and on the count of three the two trucks went in opposite direction. So I'm covering his eyes and trying to stop the bleeding, and with a sickening crunch and maybe a yell from him, it was over. They pulled the cab apart, it popped over his foot, and I could see everything. I immediately cutoff his pants, I could see that one kneecap was completely exposed. I could see the tibia and fibula".
At the end of Gregory's six-page account he wonders, "Sometimes I think I didn't do enough. I wish I knew more. I wish I had gotten there sooner. I wish I hadn't hesitated. Had I been better or more confident, maybe I could have gotten a second IV in his left arm. Maybe I should have kept the teeth that I just kind of threw away".
This is the account of Gregory, he doesn't think of himself as a hero, he doesn't ask for recognition but he still wonder if there is anything that he could have done better or different. I cannot imagine thinking of his words to compare our political leaders that never have a doubt, never feel guilty for many bad decisions, for thousands of lives destroyed, for objectives that keep changing, but then again this is a completely different matter. It is not in the book but you cannot help to wonder.
Alan King 422nd Civil Affair Battalion and the deputy director in the Office of Provincial Outreach, tells a story that we never heard before, it is the story of the leader, the optimist that believes in the mission when he is shocked with the reality on the ground. Alan says, "In my personal prewar planning for my unit, when I asked for this phase of the reconstruction plan, I was told there was one, and I would get it when I needed. But when the chief of staff, colonel Sterling, came to me the night of the eighth of April and said, "You know, there's no plan; you got to come up with something in twenty-four hours" it was obvious either the plan didn't exist, or it wasn't available at that moment in time. I learned later a plan had been drawn up by the State Department, sort of a government-in-a-box. Never was any of it implemented. At some point, the State Department's plan must have been rejected by the Defense Department, by Rumsfeld's office. But there was a plan. There was a plan. Tom Warwick out of the State Department had the future of Iraq Project, but we never got it. So they told me I had twenty-four hours to come up with a reconstruction plan for Baghdad".
Alan in his simple story is not trying to make a political point. He is still a believer but you can hear in his words the frustration he felt discovering that no plan is ready. The incompetence of the administration reflected in the internal fight between the State Department and the Pentagon. Alan continues to tell the story how he found himself after twenty-four hours of developing his own plan a mayor of Baghdad. He is very proud that he kept the city functioning for thirteen days until the day the representative of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) showed up to work.
The representative of ORHA said to Alan, "We want you to stop. We want you to let everyone go". Alan tries to reason with him "I don't understand. We are accomplishing things, and if you stop it everything goes back to a minus. For god sakes don't do that".
Alan goes on to describe how he was told by a sheikh few month later during the battle of Falluja that the Americans told five hundred thousand men who were trained to kill people and break things to go become productive members in a society that had a seventy plus percent unemployment, they are being pretty productive right now. The sheikh was referring to the insurgency!
Alan and Gregory are just two of the voices we hear throughout the book telling their own stories. Stories of the young men and women confused in checkpoints, of civilians killed, of young American soldiers losing their lives, of their brothers and sister and the pain they go through. You read about the joy that comes with saving a life and the guilt of seeing one slipping away between your arms.
This book does not endorse staying the course or leaving Iraq. It does tell the story of total chaos and complete ignorance of the basic rules of planning and governing. It also highlights the price our men and women are paying for this lack of competency. This book is highly recommended read.