Summer Internship in Iraq

Summer Internship in Iraq

A Princeton sophomore talks about being a cadet and student journalist in a war zone.

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Justin Elliott

September 19, 2007

This summer, 19-year-old Princeton sophomore Wesley Morgan became one of the youngest American civilians to have spent time in war-torn Iraq. The ROTC cadet owes his five-week trip to a profile of Princeton alum Gen. David Petraeus he wrote last fall as a reporter for the Daily Princetonian. The two spoke several more times and Petraeus, whose Ivy League credentials were touted for months before his congressional testimony last week, invited Morgan to Iraq as a journalist and aspiring lieutenant.

The result was a blog, “Notes on Downrange,” where Morgan documented his experiences with American troops slogging through the 120-degree Iraqi summer. The majority of his writing was generally pro-war, and Morgan’s trip was funded by an organization founded by sometime-Weekly Standard writer Bill Roggio. But Morgan’s online diary mostly sticks to hard description, providing a fascinating grunt’s-eye view of the war.

An early post, for example, sampled latrine graffiti at an American base in Kuwait, ranging from “exhortations to Join the Resistance – Iraq Veterans Against the War! to scrawled memorials to fallen comrades, unit mottoes, classic Kilroy-was-here‘s, hawkish rap lyrics, and the ubiquitous Chuck Norris facts – i.e., Chuck Norris killed Zarqawi or Chuck Norris has a 120mm Abrams cannon for a dick.” Elsewhere Morgan discovered that rank-and-file soldiers have more important things to worry about than their commanding officers. One soldier’s response to Morgan’s inquiry about his opinion of Gen. Petraeus was, “Who the fuck is that? Some Greek?”

Newly back at Princeton last week, Morgan took a few minutes away from preparing for classes to speak by phone with Campus Progress about his time in Iraq.

CP: Can you explain how your time was structured in Iraq?

WM: I moved around a lot. I spent part of the time in Gen. Petraeus’s headquarters, kind of talking to his commanders and talking to him a little bit. I went to a battlefield circulation with him. The remainder of the time I split between four different Army units in different parts of Iraq, a few days with each. Of the four units, two were in Baghdad. One was just north of Baghdad in what’s called the Baghdad belts, which are the approaches to the city, and the other was south of the city in the southern belts.

Are headquarters in Baghdad?

Headquarters are split between the Green Zone–well, it’s called “the international zone”–and Camp Victory, which is near the Baghdad airport.

What was it like transitioning from the world of campus journalism to being embedded in Iraq?

Well, it was a little complicated given that I’m a cadet also. When I went to a unit they would obviously ask, “What in God’s name are you doing here? You’re a 19-year-old,” and I would explain, I’m sort of here as a reporter, sort of here as a cadet, and Gen. Petraeus is involved. Some units would kind of treat me more as a cadet, some would treat me more as a reporter. All the units were very welcoming. I met a lot of very good, experienced journalists over there who gave me tips and suggestions about how to interact with soldiers and officers.

What did you get out of the trip from a journalistic perspective?

I’m not sure exactly how much of what I learned was journalism experience as opposed to military experience, because the main idea of the trip was for me to get a sense, given that I’m hoping to be a lieutenant, of what’s going on there from the [military] perspective. As far as journalism goes, I was just trying to absorb as much information as I possibly could.

Gen. Petraeus was on the front pages of newspapers around the country last week. After spending five weeks in Iraq with him this summer, what did you think of his testimony before Congress?

He didn’t say anything surprising. He’d been telling reporters the same assessment all summer long. There were no big surprises. The only thing that was at all surprising from a military perspective was the announcement that there’s going to be one brigade drawn down in a December-January timeframe. Other than that, I just think he gave a frank assessment of what he’s learned.

You posted on your blog about a briefing you attended between Petraeus and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. What was it like being able to sit in on that?

I can’t really tell you much about the contents of the briefing just because the details of it were classified. But basically it was Gen. Petraeus, Attorney General Gonzales, and a few of the general’s top officers just going down and doing a briefing of what the situation is in the country. It was similar to what they’d give to congressmen and most distinguished visitors. Former Attorney General Gonzales asked what the Department of Justice could do to help the mission.

Did you get a sense of the relationship between the professional journalists in Iraq and the military?

In some cases there are strained relationships because a reporter may have published some article that reflected badly on a unit or badly on an area of operation. Regardless of whether it was a fair article or not, that will obviously strain relations between the reporter and the unit. Soldiers were remarkably open with press. The basic guidance that they’re given is, stick to your pay grade, talk about what you know. That’s what they’re going to have an informed opinion about.

Reading your blog, it’s obvious you spent a lot of time talking to soldiers and officers of different ranks. It’s difficult for me, and I imagine a lot of other young people, to connect what we read about the war going on for years and the extended tours of duty to what it’s actually like being a soldier there. Was morale high among soldiers?

I wouldn’t say that morale was either high or low. The soldiers had generally very professional attitudes about their jobs; they’re very serious about doing their jobs right. That said, they hate that they’re doing 15-month tours. Fifteen months is too long for soldiers, in their opinion. It’s forever away from their families. They’ll complain about that–they’re not robots. These deployments are hardships for them.

Do they talk politics much or do they stay away from that kind of thing?

I would say 10 percent of the soldiers I talked to had strong opinions about politics and the remainder just kind of kept quiet about it. There’s a lot of down time sitting around in a convoy or back at barracks–they’ll talk about anything.

Did you have any contact with ordinary Iraqis?

Very limited contact. When you patrol the idea is for the platoon leader to take the pulse of the population in the area. So they do a lot of interacting with Iraqis at a basic level when they’re patrolling. That’s about it. And that’s hard as well because there’s about one interpreter per platoon [between 16 and 45 soldiers]. There’s not any way for them to have contact besides that. The soldiers live on forward operating bases and combat outposts; Iraqis live in their houses. Soldiers do have plenty of contact with their interpreters, many of whom are native Iraqis, and also with the shop owners on bases. Every forward operating base has what are called hajji shops. They’re just little shops run by locals, whether it’s a coffee shop or a place selling pirated DVDs, or whatever it may be. Local Iraqis run all of those and they also do much of the maintenance on bases.

I think it’s really hard for college students, especially those at elite schools from which very few graduates enter the military, to grasp the human cost of the war. Being in Iraq, did you get more of a sense of the human cost?

Hearing soldiers talk about friends who’d been killed, friends who’d been injured–that was kind of depressing, I’m not gonna lie. Many of them had lost many friends over the course of multiple deployments. That’s hard for them because they’re out in the same situations over and over and over, and they have to deal with it when a soldier from their squad just isn’t there any more. That sucks.

Another part of the human cost is the toll that these deployments take on soldiers. When you’re there for 13 months in 2004 and 2005, then you’re home for a year and then you’re back for another 15 months. That’s very hard on soldiers’ families. That’s very hard on the soldiers themselves.

How did seeing what’s happening on the ground in Iraq change your view of the war from a political perspective–or did it at all?

It solidified my view that the surge is a very important strategy that needs to be played out. We’ve made important security gains and I think it would be disgraceful to throw them away. I think the dead on assessment I heard was from the commander of the 114th Cavalry, who said, “It’s clear to me with our new approach and more forces that we’re buying time. But I’m not sure what we’re buying time for.”

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