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A Soldier's Story | The Nation

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A Soldier's Story

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The Tightrope

About the Author

Major Bill Edmonds
Bill Edmonds is a major in the US Army Special Forces, currently assigned to the US National Counterterrorism Center....

American soldiers now patrol the streets with extreme caution and quick reflexes. They have come to think that every Iraqi who runs a red light or does not yield is a terrorist. They shoot at or accidentally kill civilians, which then creates one more insurgent and three more insurgency supporters. I know this cause-and-effect explanation is simplistic for an immensely complicated situation, but you get the picture. I will never fault American soldiers for their actions and reactions; it really is dangerous out there, and no other nation could ever ask for such service and sacrifice from its citizens. Yet I also try not to fault Iraqi civilians, for their truth is just as valid to them as is mine to me.

I have seen firsthand why I cannot create stability by force within an Islamic society and why many say democracy cannot be brought by force but must evolve.

To be a moral person in a protracted counterinsurgency is my daily struggle, one in which I am asked to instill social morality on a culture that is not my own.

So what is the balance between taking charge in Iraq and/or abandoning the country? Our best response is to pull the American soldiers back and push the Iraqi soldiers/policemen forward as quickly as possible. I feel the urgency of this mandate as I type these very words on this small Iraqi base among Iraqi soldiers. As I told Ibrahim, the captured insurgent, "I want to leave your country. The only reason I stay here is because Iraqis are dying and you insist on fighting. All we want to do is to help."

I naturally assumed he understood this. Well, he had not, and most do not. This message is one that is lacking and one that Iraqis surely need. So I find myself balanced on a tightrope bridging a deathly height. As Iraqi intelligence officers once explained to me over hot tea, "It is a race to see which of many possibilities comes first; the competency of an Iraqi Security Force with a stable and competent government, or the formation of a monolithic and deadly insurgency or civil war, both of which would prevent the latter."

In Iraq, I wish to survive and to succeed. Yet as the days pass, my hopes increasingly become mutually exclusive: The insurgency gets more effective; the citizen anger at us and the Iraqi Security Force becomes greater; the fractions in the society grow deeper and more violent; the American public becomes more impatient as the war is perceived as less legitimate and the conditions to form a stable Iraqi government become more elusive. So I run along this rope as if in a race to get away. I run knowing full well that my speed comes only at the sacrifice of my balance. I long for the tranquility of normalcy, the comfortable, the understandable, and so I want to run from Iraq. So what then can I do besides serve admirably and hope for the best while fearing the worst?

The Iraqi officer I advise once said after months of frantically working to capture terrorists, "You need to just relax. You are here, so there will always be another terrorist to capture. Sit and drink some tea with me."

I doubt he was intentionally being prophetic. As a soldier who lives with an Iraqi, I do hope to one day just sit and drink some tea with him. To sit and talk of family without a worry in the world. But to do so, I must do more than just train, advise and fight with my Iraqi friend. I must go out of my way every single day to disprove the "Ugly American" label that is attached to me. I must approach every personal interaction as a singular opportunity to battle the insurgency and then realize that my interactions with each and every Iraqi do have very lasting and very strategic consequences.

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