Former Embed: Should My Son Return to Iraq?

By: Dennis Anderson

In a life of connecting dots in newspapers, there?s a connection for me in the news, and the pilgrim?s progress of four people at my ?top of mind? consciousness.

They are, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, former 101st Airborne Division commander; Gen . James Conway, the new Marine Corps commandant; a certain Marine grunt lance corporal, and Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence who just resigned after serving more than five years under former ?SecDef? Donald Rumsfeld.

A Marine dear to my heart — my son, Lcpl Garrett P. Anderson — is contemplating maintaining current billet, as an MP securing Marine Corps Base Pacific at Kaneohe Bay near Pearl Harbor. The alternative is walking himself back over to his grunt battalion former assignment and heading back to Iraq for a third combat tour. We talk about it. It?s personal.

For the grunt-turned-MP, the pendulum of decision swings daily. Follow current orders, or volunteer back into the fray of Baghdad and Anbar Province where the bombs have been spraying American and Iraqi blood now for longer than the sustained combat of Americans in World War II.

This hometown newspaper editor — an Army vet and Marine dad, twice an embed in Iraq — has attended two military funerals this year, a couple the year before, and a couple the year before that. Two funerals a year for a newspaperman isn?t excessive. Two funerals a year for the bravest young men in the world, 19-to-28 year olds, is two entirely too many.

In addition to individual funerals, there are memorials for dozens of Americans in each unit. If you haven?t attended one, the emotional torrent from families and comrades of the killed in action defies description.

I?m not talking about ?Americans can?t take casualties,? the Osama bin Laden mantra. Most serving military, and most Americans with any experience of the military, grasp ?casualties? as part of war, but the term is a euphemism for good men killed, and a few good women, too. If you know them, they aren?t ?casualties.? They are family.

But like a majority of Americans, I ask the same broad questions. Like, ?Why can?t they (warring Iraqis) just make a deal?? The other question being, ?Are we doing any good over there??

Those are the questions. And military professionals have answers, some which many Americans wouldn?t like, and some answers that it seems only a few other Americans understand.

Why can?t ?they? — meaning the murderously combative Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias — just make a deal?
In an old World War II comedy, ?Kelly?s Heroes,? starring Clint Eastwood, his G.I. buddy Don Rickles posed the same question about a Nazi officer astride a Tiger tank between Eastwood and Rickles and a vault of gold bullion.

?What kind of deal?? a G.I. in the raiding party asked Rickles.

?A deal deal. Maybe he?s a Republican,? Rickles quipped, meaning the Nazi with the tank aimed at them. It was a gag, but it illustrates American thinking. Why can?t ?they? make a deal?

Recently, at a conference of Military Reporters and Editors, Lt. Gen. Petraeus answered the question. Petraeus was the ?best and brightest? commander sent back to Iraq after the invasion phase to put some iron in the back of the unreliable Iraqi armed forces. The same Iraqi armed forces we tried to put back together, Humpty Dumpty style, after Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA: Can?t Provide Anything) disbanded the Iraqi army and scattered hundreds of thousands of suddenly unemployed angry, armed young men across a volatile landscape.

Petraeus now runs the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Ks. He?s got a brain the size of a planet is willing to take questions that defy easy answers. Why won?t ?they? make a deal?

Speaking at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Petraeus answered the MRE correspondents. He told the 50 or so veteran military correspondents that the factions of bad actors in Iraq are not looking for common ground. They are looking to beat the other guy under the pavement.

If it?s Muqtada al Sadr and his blackshirt thugs, they want the Sunnis tamed, forever. If it?s Sunni insurgents, they want back atop the food chain where they feasted for most of the 20th century. In short, nobody wants a deal. And that is what we Americans have to face — and deal with.

So, what about Lcpl Anderson, precious to his family?s heart?

Enter new Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. James T. Conway. Conway is a fighting Marine who doesn?t mind speaking truth to power. When Baghdad political hacks shrieked and the White House listened in spring 2004, Conway said that calling off the Marine assault on Fallujah and Ramadi was a bad call. He was right, of course. It was more bloody and expensive to do it twice than to do it the first time.

Sometimes good things even happen in the Pentagon. Instead of being exiled — like the courageous and truthful former Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki — there was an unusual attack of common sense. Conway was elevated. First off, Conway asked for authorized force of an additional 5,000 Marines. Up from 220,000 total force of active and reserves. Why? Because right now, the Marines — the ones in the fight — are deployed for seven months combat, return to home base for seven months, then return to combat for seven months.

It?s a bloody spin cycle that — Rumsfeld bluster notwithstanding — is degrading effectiveness of one of history?s greatest fighting forces.

The Army is in similar, stretched condition. With mangled equipment, extended tours and junior-level officers heading for the exits in droves, the Army will have to go back to the National Guard to maintain deployment pace.

Which brings me to Rumsfeld, who left after demolishing the Republican congressional majority, and his undersecretary, Cambone.

These guys knew their enemies. They were Al Qaeda, Saddam, the CIA and the State Department, not necessarily in that order. Cambone played macho hardball on Rumsfeld?s team for five years, waging a turf war to make Department of Defense the pre-eminent intelligence gathering mechanism. That turf fight had to hurt CIA?s efforts to recover after the 9/11 intelligence coordination debacle. Colin Powell?s State Department got run over in the race to Baghdad.

So, nearly four years into the Iraq war, this father?s Marine grunt son is an old man of 21. With his brothers, killed, walking and wounded, he fought Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and is mourning the loss of friends — too many killed too young, as is always the case in the miseries of extended combat. He doesn?t complain. He grieves.

God willing, he?s home for Christmas. It?s a 72-hour pass we wangled together, as our family present a couple of years after his Christmas in Fallujah. We are grateful for this gift. We know too many families who had those hopes crushed, and were given no options, but to grieve and carry on.

So Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and back to base and billet the day after. As a military family, we are not expecting the Iraqis to make a deal in order to brighten our holiday or the hopes of others.

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