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Old 08-18-2007, 11:18 AM   #1
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A War We Just Might Win

I was away on training when this article was published in the NY Times. I was very surprised by it...

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A War We Just Might Win
By MICHAEL E. O’HANLON and KENNETH M. POLLACK
Published: July 30, 2007
New York Times


VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated — many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local Sunni sheiks — all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups — who were now competing to secure his friendship.

In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.

We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.

But for now, things look much better than before. American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).

In addition, far more Iraqi units are well integrated in terms of ethnicity and religion. The Iraqi Army’s highly effective Third Infantry Division started out as overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shiite, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab.

In the past, few Iraqi units could do more than provide a few “jundis” (soldiers) to put a thin Iraqi face on largely American operations. Today, in only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless — something that was the rule, not the exception, on a previous trip to Iraq in late 2005.

The additional American military formations brought in as part of the surge, General Petraeus’s determination to hold areas until they are truly secure before redeploying units, and the increasing competence of the Iraqis has had another critical effect: no more whack-a-mole, with insurgents popping back up after the Americans leave.

In war, sometimes it’s important to pick the right adversary, and in Iraq we seem to have done so. A major factor in the sudden change in American fortunes has been the outpouring of popular animus against Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) against Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

These groups have tried to impose Shariah law, brutalized average Iraqis to keep them in line, killed important local leaders and seized young women to marry off to their loyalists. The result has been that in the last six months Iraqis have begun to turn on the extremists and turn to the Americans for security and help. The most important and best-known example of this is in Anbar Province, which in less than six months has gone from the worst part of Iraq to the best (outside the Kurdish areas). Today the Sunni sheiks there are close to crippling Al Qaeda and its Salafist allies. Just a few months ago, American marines were fighting for every yard of Ramadi; last week we strolled down its streets without body armor.

Another surprise was how well the coalition’s new Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working. Wherever we found a fully staffed team, we also found local Iraqi leaders and businessmen cooperating with it to revive the local economy and build new political structures. Although much more needs to be done to create jobs, a new emphasis on microloans and small-scale projects was having some success where the previous aid programs often built white elephants.

In some places where we have failed to provide the civilian manpower to fill out the reconstruction teams, the surge has still allowed the military to fashion its own advisory groups from battalion, brigade and division staffs. We talked to dozens of military officers who before the war had known little about governance or business but were now ably immersing themselves in projects to provide the average Iraqi with a decent life.

Outside Baghdad, one of the biggest factors in the progress so far has been the efforts to decentralize power to the provinces and local governments. But more must be done. For example, the Iraqi National Police, which are controlled by the Interior Ministry, remain mostly a disaster. In response, many towns and neighborhoods are standing up local police forces, which generally prove more effective, less corrupt and less sectarian. The coalition has to force the warlords in Baghdad to allow the creation of neutral security forces beyond their control.

In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines.

How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.


Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
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Old 08-18-2007, 12:21 PM   #2
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Kenneth Pollack has been for the war since before the war. WHy does this surprise you? I think the man is brilliant. I think if the assministration had followed what he wrote in his book back in 2001, things would be very different today.
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Old 08-18-2007, 01:09 PM   #3
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Originally posted by Dreadsox
Why does this surprise you? I think the man is brilliant.
If I had to guess, I think the "surprise" comes not from the man, but from the publication. FOX News, in particular, loves to rail on how "un-American" and implicitly treasonous the New York Times is.

But AEON is, of course, free to correct my assumption.
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Old 08-18-2007, 01:17 PM   #4
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It's an interesting article. I think one of the greatest challenges, as the article notes, is dealing with its corrupt and ineffectual politicians. I'd say that Iraq has its work cut out for it on that front, because, as we see even in the U.S., getting good people to run for political office is quite difficult, and getting them to boot out an incompetent incumbent is even harder.
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Old 08-18-2007, 01:41 PM   #5
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Originally posted by melon


If I had to guess, I think the "surprise" comes not from the man, but from the publication. FOX News, in particular, loves to rail on how "un-American" and implicitly treasonous the New York Times is.

But AEON is, of course, free to correct my assumption.
Yes Melon, the fact that it was in NY Times was the surprise.

I agree with sox - I certainly regret that this was not our strategy out of the gate. We are now 4 years behind. Hopefully, this adjustment in our tactics can actually salvage Iraq.

Rumsfeld is looking more and more like a stubborn and ineffective leader (not a good combo). General Petreaus, at least for now, is demonstrating what was possible all along.
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Old 08-18-2007, 01:57 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally posted by AEON


General Petreaus, at least for now, is demonstrating what was possible all along.


i am deeply, deeply skeptical of "the surge" -- it's political coverage, a way to delay a reckoning with Iraq until at least 2008, and it will help construct a "stabbed in the back" narrative that's been employed by the right since the defeat in Vietnam. a defeat in Iraq -- though that's a strange term, since no one has ever known what victory looks like -- is of course a conservative Republican problem, since they started the war and have been in complete control of it ever since, but "the surge" and it's inevitable insufficency are going to be attempted to be pinned on the Democrats.

and we all know that Petreaus -- who is partisan, we know this, we've known this -- is going to give us a glowing report in September. and even if he didn't, the WH would spin it as such.

you stop violence in one neighborhood, lovely.

and then this happens:

[q]Death Toll in Iraq Bombings Rises to 250
By JAMES GLANZ
BAGHDAD, Aug. 15 — The toll in a horrific quadruple bombing in an area of mud and stone houses in the remote northern desert on Tuesday evening reached 250 dead and 350 wounded, several local officials said today, making it the single deadliest coordinated attack since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Rescuers and recovery teams were still digging through as many as 200 flattened houses and the death toll could still rise, the officials said. “It is impossible for us to give an exact figure for the dead and wounded,” said Dr. Kifah Kattu, director general the hospital in Sinjar, a few miles north of where the explosions occurred. The four truck bombs were set off in a Kurdish-speaking area dominated by members of the Yazidi religious sect, which combines elements of Islam and ancient Persian religions.

Dr. Kattu cited one village in the area of the explosions, called Al Aziz, where he said 40 of the simple homes had been obliterated and no dead or wounded had yet been recovered. A farmer who survived one explosion, Hasson Dalali, 59, said in a hospital in Tal Afar, a town 25 miles east of the explosions, that he had lost eight members of his family.

“I saw a flash in the sky; I never saw anything like this before,” Mr. Dalali said. He said that after two huge explosions threw him to the ground where he was working his fields, he rushed to his house to check on his family. “The house was completely flattened to the ground,” Mr. Dalali said. “I was looking for any survivor from my family in the rubble. I found only my 12-year-old nephew.”

The nephew had broken ribs and legs and severe wounds to the head, Mr. Dalali said.

Security officials said that the devastation came when two pairs of truck bombs exploded about 5 miles apart in an area close to the Syrian border in what is known as the Shaam Desert. An official at the Interior Ministry in Baghdad said that precise information on the bombings was particularly difficult to obtain because the road between Sinjar and Tal Afar was partly controlled by an Qaeda-linked insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq, which is a prime suspect in the bombings.

The area has long been a focus of insurgent activity, prompting a major American-led offensive in 2005 designed to clear the area of groups linked to al Qaeda. Nevertheless, last March a twin truck bombing killed 152 people in Tal Afar, and in July, 155 people died in a single enormous explosion in the northern town of Amerli, the largest death toll in a single attack until this one
[/q]



it doesn't end. the Sunnis have quit parliment. there is no central government. there is no Iraq. lowering levels of violence in certain neighborhoods -- many of which have been effectively ethically cleansed -- might make for a nice news cycle, but it's meaningless in the overall disaster.

we can argue about what it would have been like to invade with an actual international coalition of 400K troops, but that's moot because the administration wasn't interested in actualy winning a war or doing the right thing, but in making a great big pointless point about how the US could topple any govenrment, anywhere.

too bad we chose a cauldron of ancient ethnic hatreds. and too bad hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, Iran has been emboldened, terrorism is on the rise across Europe and in the US (and especially homegrown terrorism), and another generation of Muslim youth will grow up hating the West.

the only silver lining is that it's destroyed the current incarnation of the Republican party and conservativism is intellectually dead.

perhaps from this we can begin again.
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Old 08-19-2007, 09:02 PM   #7
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These seem like credible individuals, with no agenda but their honest opinions.



Quote:
The War as We Saw It

By BUDDHIKA JAYAMAHA, WESLEY D. SMITH, JEREMY ROEBUCK, OMAR MORA, EDWARD SANDMEIER, YANCE T. GRAY and JEREMY A. MURPHY

Baghdad

VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this fact became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army Ranger and reconnaissance team leader, was shot in the head during a “time-sensitive target acquisition mission” on Aug. 12; he is expected to survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United States.) While we have the will and the resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require measures we will always refuse — namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force.

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet political benchmarks for reconciliation is also unhelpful. The morass in the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving at a lasting political settlement. This should not be surprising, since a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military situation remains in constant flux.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.

Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist.
Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant.
Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant.
Omar Mora is a sergeant.
Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant.
Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant.
Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.
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Old 08-20-2007, 12:12 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally posted by deep
These seem like credible individuals, with no agenda but their honest opinions.



I do find it a bit odd that none of these men are an officer. While do think it is important to listen to all ranks - asking E4's and E 5's for insight into the overall war is like asking a desktop support technician at Google to elaborate about the company's strategic direction.

Their opinion is valid. However, we should remember that they have zero insight into anything above platoon level operations (if that).
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Old 08-20-2007, 09:47 AM   #9
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Personally, I think those who are "in the shit" (to use an Army term) on a daily basis are the ones best equipped to relay what the situation actually is, at least more so than a commander with an eye focused on not rattling the chain of command. There's less of a political spin.
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Old 08-20-2007, 10:55 AM   #10
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I also think that the view of the lower ranks is a very important indicator of the moral in the troops.
When they don't think what they are doing is any helpful, or right, and progress isn't really made (and if it's only in their view) it shows either that the strategy really isn't the best, or the communication is bad.
Either way, something has to change, because something clearly isn't right.
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Old 08-22-2007, 09:02 AM   #11
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Originally posted by Vincent Vega
I also think that the view of the lower ranks is a very important indicator of the moral in the troops.
When they don't think what they are doing is any helpful, or right, and progress isn't really made (and if it's only in their view) it shows either that the strategy really isn't the best, or the communication is bad.
Either way, something has to change, because something clearly isn't right.
Well, it is quite easy to find a ticked off Private even in peace time. They are usually tasked with the mundane work until they make it to Sergeant and become a Team Leader.

Do you honestly think the opinion of a 18 year old Private would be an accurate picture of how the entire war is going? Seriously?

Their opinion is important. However, I strongly encourage you to "add it to the mix" of the higher ranking strategists when developing a complete view of th war.

Additionally, many of these interviews come from non-Combat Arms soldiers (i.e. in the rear with the gear). The morale of the Infantry and Special Forces is extremely high with General Petraeus in charge.
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Old 08-22-2007, 09:29 AM   #12
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Originally posted by AEON

Additionally, many of these interviews come from non-Combat Arms soldiers (i.e. in the rear with the gear). The morale of the Infantry and Special Forces is extremely high with General Petraeus in charge.


it's not surprising, to me, to see Patraeus inspiring such morale. it's clear that he's a superlative commander, and after 4 years of wandering in the darkness, any sort of direction is going to be inspiring.

but we also need to remember that Patraeus is as partisan as anyone appointed by the Bush administration. and i had been of the mindset that he was going to give a glowing report of how things were going in Iraq this coming September -- and how this report has been built up by the Republicans -- and that they were going to use this to continue to justify spending billions in Iraq despite the fact that no amount of military "success" (which still seems to me to be more whack-a-mole than anything measurable) has produced any sort of political gains. the government does not function. it is a sectarian tool of the Shia. it's as simple as that. it doesn't matter how may troublesome neighborhoods are pacified, nor does it *really* matter that Sunni in Anbar are fighting Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda isn't the real problem in Iraq -- in fact, the real problem isn't Al-Qaeda but the training we're giving the Al-Qaeda elements simply by being iver there -- it's the sectarian violence that's the real problem.

it's also clear that "the surge" is militarily unsustainable after March '08. unless there's a draft, the army cannot continue. so it might be that Patraeus will tout successes, and use that as an excuse that we've somehow "won" something somewhere, and then call for a serious but gradual withdrawal of troops over the course of '08 that will have a pro-Republican spin for the election.
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Old 08-22-2007, 10:37 AM   #13
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Originally posted by AEON


Well, it is quite easy to find a ticked off Private even in peace time. They are usually tasked with the mundane work until they make it to Sergeant and become a Team Leader.

Do you honestly think the opinion of a 18 year old Private would be an accurate picture of how the entire war is going? Seriously?

Their opinion is important. However, I strongly encourage you to "add it to the mix" of the higher ranking strategists when developing a complete view of th war.

Additionally, many of these interviews come from non-Combat Arms soldiers (i.e. in the rear with the gear). The morale of the Infantry and Special Forces is extremely high with General Petraeus in charge.
Quote:
Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist.
Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant.
Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant.
Omar Mora is a sergeant.
Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant.
Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant.
Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.
Of course they are not drawing a complete picture of how the war is going. How should they.
But still, when soldiers in the lower ranks don't see why they are doing what they do, their morale will suffer. And that's bad. High morales between the higher ranks, who have a more complete picture, cannot make up for the deteriorated view of the soldier who is doing the field work in the long-run.

So, if things really are better than they look like, soldiers in the lower ranks should know about that.
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