Impressions of a Mercenary Journalist

With Captain Shawn Tobin, supervising payday at a Baghdad job training center. (photo by John Goodman)

So here I am, still in the Middle East, which despite the occasional explosion lightly rattling the walls, has claimed neither me, my photographer, nor any of the soldiers I am embedded with. I've been in Iraq for about three weeks now -- the greater Baghdad area, to be more specific -- and, as expected, my perception about certain things has changed. For starters, we have a tendency back in the States to think of this "war" (which in most places, it no longer really is) almost strictly in terms of the US military and the poor, battered soldiers over here. I feel bad for the soldiers, too. A lot of them are bored and want to go to Afghanistan. You try sitting around in a desert army camp in a Muslim country where you can't drink for a year and see what it does to you.

Exposing young people to the horrors of war is a tragedy, and I certainly don't want to condone the use of force as a means of accomplishing anything, but the fact is that a lot of these guys were trained for combat, are all keyed up for it, and are pissed off because they're passing out soccer balls instead of stomping all over enemy combatants' masked faces. Chalk this one up to our military, once again, being a few steps behind the curve in the ol' tactical sense. For the longest time, the Army was outfitted for an all out war against heavily armored commies on the vast plains of Central Europe, and now that they're finally beginning to catch up and play the small, fast, light game of fighting insurgents in this vaguely defined war on terror, it comes to light that "winning the hearts and minds" is the best way to delegitimize the bad guys. General David Petraeus had a recent epiphany to that effect, but ask around and you'll find plenty folks who will roll their eyes and smirk wryly at his attempt to claim credit for the notion.

Enter civil affairs. Most of the guys and gals I've been running around with are reservists from the 425th and 403rd Civil Affairs Battalions who are trained to deal with the civil-military end of things, or this winning of hearts and minds. To many people, this approach may sound like common sense, but believe you me, it takes eons for the great gears of an organization as big as the Defense Department to begin turning towards a change of consciousness. This is no reflection upon the dedication of the servicemembers who are out here. Sure, not everyone is thrilled to be here, but this is an all volunteer military, so everyone knew what they were getting into when they signed on the dotted line -- well, unless their recruiter was a damed good liar and they lived under a rock before going to basic training (more common than you might suppose). For the most part though, you find people who are happy to be doing something to help the big picture -- or at least hope they are. Many volunteered to come back before they had to, and have served two, three, even four deployments here. Granted, i think that most people would be happy to come back to hearth and home after a month (i know i will be), or in a perfect world be able to see their families every day or every week, but they seem to know that it's difficult to accomplish most of the work being done here without being around for a while.

Even as it is, a year isn't very much time for someone to learn a job, establish a rapport with other agencies and locals, and carry out assigned tasks. The quandary of the military establishment in keeping bureaucratic divisions and overlaps straight quickly becomes apparent. This unit works for that one; that company is a detachment of some other division, but subject to the orders of a State Department employee, unless the colonel says otherwise. Wait, no, not that State Department employee, the other one! And the company detachment is subordinate to a different brigade combat team, but only on specific missions; get the picture. It's maddening how many entities are cross threaded into the thick web of bureaucracy. Factor in the equivalent Iraqi agencies and organizations, the incongruencies between the two governments (and even between the various branches of our own), and any sense of order evades all but the most astute observer. It seems cumbersome -- and in a lot of ways it is -- but it works.

Sergeant Major Garren Fulmer, a member of Santa Barbara's 425th Civil Affairs Battalion -- the unit I am embedded with -- refers to this as "big army," saying that smaller, specialized units work successfully despite the nebulous behemoth that controls everything. He elaborated on that theme, saying that the military is the only organization that can perform certain tasks -- even ones you would think are more civilian agency oriented -- because there is no State Department employee in the world who can be told to mobilize and get his ass out of his warm, comfy apartment in DC and into the thick of a situation within two or three weeks. Current policy allows state department personnel 90 days to get their affairs in order, and in a lot of cases, even though combat isn't required, prompt interface between the US government and whatever country is having the problem is. "This looks like a job for civil affairs!" says the State Department employee as the civil affairs reservist steps into a phone booth, changes from shirt and tie into a green uniform, and flies off to the Middle East.

There are many other things besides the the improving, but unpredictable security situation which have caught my attention in Iraq, but that's another story for another time. For now, as I battle the trivial obstructions of bureaucratic obstruction and longing for home, I must focus on my mission, which is to relate the happenings of a place that people at home don't see, but is still very important in the global sense. Regardless of any withdrawal of forces, there are a lot of issues here that are yet unresolved. The peace is tenuous, and very diverse groups are working to make it stronger. Stay tuned.

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