Moment of Truth in Iraq, by Michael Yon (Richard Vigilante Books, 227 pp., $29.95)
Iraq is where ideologies go to die. Arab nationalism, Baathism, anti-Americanism, al-Qaidism, Donald Rumsfeldism, and Moqtada al-Sadrism have either died there or are dying. Conventional liberal opinion, more or less correct about the foundering American war effort from 2004 to 2006, has been severely bloodied—along with Iraq’s worst insurgent groups and militias—by General David Petraeus’s leadership of the American troop surge. Even post-9/11 fear of Islam has proven unsustainable for those who regularly interact with ordinary Iraqis. Independent journalist Michael Yon, who has spent more time embedded with combat soldiers in Iraq than any other reporter, is a refreshingly unideological analyst of the war. His self-published dispatches have earned him a loyal following around the world, and he has set out to reach even more people with the publication of a terrific new book, Moment of Truth in Iraq.
Yon begins his story in medias res. “We are in trouble, but we have a great general,” he writes on the eve of Arrowhead Ripper, the major battle last summer against al-Qaida’s terrorist army in Baqubah, just north of Baghdad. Iraq was all but lost before the battle, when American forces under Petraeus surged into the capital and beyond. Yon then takes us back in time and to the northern city of Mosul, where Petraeus first proved that he knew how to counter an insurgency by working with the local population and protecting it from killers. Yon spent many months in Mosul embedded with the 1-24th Infantry Regiment, or “Deuce Four,” and his first-person narrative of firefights in the city’s streets and alleys is relentless and gripping.
Despite Petraeus’s early successes in Mosul, the city is now perhaps Iraq’s most violent. It slid back into chaos when the general’s strategy was discontinued after he completed his tour there and before he was appointed the commander of American forces in Iraq. There are no final battles in counterinsurgency warfare, as Yon makes clear, but if there were to be one in Iraq, it most likely would take place in Mosul. Much of Iraq has now been pacified—most famously and astonishingly in the formerly convulsive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, as well as in Baqubah, most of Baghdad, and regions further south.
Moment of Truth in Iraq isn’t the journalistic equivalent of a war movie, but parts of it could surely be used as the starting point for a screenplay. (Such a film might easily perform better at the box office than Hollywood’s string of gloomy, axe-grinding Iraq flicks have.) Still, Yon’s book isn’t just about explosions and carnage. It’s also about the new counterinsurgency strategy and, more important, the Americans and Iraqis who risk their lives to make it work. When Iraq was degenerating into its worst levels of violence, American soldiers spent too much time behind their bases’ walls, hoping to keep casualties to a minimum and to avoid being seen as occupiers by the Iraqis. Today, they live and work inside Iraq’s cities and neighborhoods, where they tend to be welcomed, if not as liberators then as protectors. Counterinsurgency is as much about nation building and community policing as it is about war making.
“The American soldier is the most dangerous man in the world,” Yon writes, “and the Iraqis had to learn that before they would trust or respect us. But it was when they understood that these great-hearted warriors, who so enjoyed killing the enemy, are even happier helping to build a school or to make a neighborhood safe that we really got their attention.” Images of the despicable abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib have become iconic for many around the world. But anyone who has spent significant time with American troops in Iraq, as I have, will recognize the truth in Yon’s descriptions of U.S. soldiers as usually decent and caring. “There are lots of kitchen accidents in Iraq,” he points out. “Kids get burned. American soldiers can’t take it when they see a kid get burned. If they are in the neighborhood on a mission and they see a burned kid, they will cancel the mission to get the kid to an American aid station, which, technically they shouldn’t be doing.”
Yon is a former Special Forces soldier, and his affection for the grunts in the field is palpable. He takes their honor, courage, duty, and sacrifice seriously in a way that most journalists don’t—and perhaps can’t. At heart, he is as much a soldier as a reporter, but he is neither a propagandist for the U.S. military nor a mouthpiece for its public affairs officers. He nearly got himself thrown out of Iraq for an article in The Weekly Standard challenging some top-level brass for trying to censor media coverage. And he calls out both officers in the field and pundits back home who refuse to admit that all has not always gone according to plan. “Combat soldiers have little patience for less than unvarnished truth,” he writes. “That’s why I spend so much time with infantry.” Nothing makes a mockery of party lines and spin from air-conditioned offices quite like facing snipers, ambushes, and improvised explosive devices in 135-degree heat. Reality is more real in Iraq than almost anywhere else.
But in distant places like Washington, eight time zones away, Iraq is more of an abstraction. There is a left-wing Iraq and a right-wing Iraq, and they only vaguely and occasionally resemble the actual place. Yon will have none of either, which may be why no reporter who has covered the conflict—from any country or for any newspaper or magazine—has managed to convey the truth with such blistering accuracy. “Happy news for the Left was that U.S. soldiers were demoralized and the war was being lost,” he writes. “Happy news for the Right was that there was no insurgency, then no civil war; we always had enough troops, and we were winning hands-down, except for the left-wing lunatics who were trying to unravel it all. They say heroin addicts are happy, too, when they are out of touch with reality.”
Iraq is a tragic, unhappy, and often disturbing place, but it’s less sinister and frightening up close than it is from a distance. That’s because it’s a country striving for normality, whose normal aspects rarely make their way into media reports that highlight violence, mayhem, and failure. On TV, Iraq looks like a nation of masked, gun-toting fanatics, but in person, one finds friendliness, solidarity, and reasonableness amid the chaos. “Just because Iraqis have ‘Allahu Akbar’ on their flag,” Yon writes, “doesn’t mean they’re going to blow up the World Trade Center any more than ‘In God We Trust’ means we’re going to attack Communist China.” “Iraq does not hate America,” he insists. “If they hated us, I’d be urging an immediate troop withdrawal, because there would be no hope of winning this war. If the Iraqis hated us, we would be fighting the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. Instead, we’re fighting alongside them.”
Yon convincingly argues that the U.S. is winning in Iraq, at least for the moment. “The enemy learned that our people and the Iraqi forces would close in and kill them if they dared stand their ground. This is important: an enemy forced to choose between dying or hiding inevitably loses legitimacy. Legitimacy is essential. Men who must always either run or die are no longer an army and are not going to found a caliphate.” The outcome, though, is still in doubt. If Petraeus’s surge strategy fails or is prematurely short-circuited by Congress, the American and Iraqi forces will almost certainly lose. “Maybe creating a powerful democracy in the Middle East was a foolish reason to go to war,” Yon concludes. “Maybe it was never the reason we went to war. But it is within our grasp now and nearly all the hardest work has been done.” Which makes the present moment the moment of truth in Iraq.