Sell It to the Marines
A remarkable 'Washington Post' piece, based on interviews with a dozen disgruntled Marines in Iraq, reveals why they won't play dummy for Rummy. One says: "The reality right now is that the most dangerous opinion in the world is the opinion of a U.S. serviceman."
NEW YORK (October 10, 2004) -- Last year, every time I put Iraq and Vietnam in the same sentence, I'd soon receive a barrage of letters mocking the very idea. If I had a dollar for every e-mail like that, I'd have enough money to treat my soon-to-be-draft-age son, and a few of his friends, to an upcoming Green Day concert. But now the mockery has stopped. The ones laughing least are U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
So here's one more Iraq/Vietnam connection: We've been through this movie before, in the 1960s, with brave American reporters interviewing even braver American soldiers, whose words reveal why this war is a mess, a tragedy, and a crime.
Two weeks ago, the most honest and important writing from Iraq came in the form of a private e-mail composed by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi. Now, on the front page of Sunday's Washington Post, we have a must-read piece by Steve Fainaru based on interviews with a dozen Marines based in Babil province, south of Iraq.
When Post readers picked up the paper on Sunday, it was Good Morning, Vietnam.
"The reality right now is that the most dangerous opinion in the world is the opinion of a U.S. serviceman," Lance Cpl. Devin Kelly told Fainaru.
Added Lance Cpl. Alexander Jones: "We're basically proving out that the government is wrong. We're catching them in a lie."
Their mortar platoon is part of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which has taken heavy casualties lately, including four deaths. Among other dangers, they have faced an average of one road bomb a day over the past two month.
Lance Cpl. Carlos Perez, a firefighter from Long Island, N.Y., joined the Marine Corps "to take revenge" for the 9/11 attacks. After two months in Iraq, he said: "Sometimes I see no reason why we're here."
The Post's Fainaru commented that Perez was "hardly alone." In interviews, Marines "expressed in blunt terms their frustrations with the way the war is being conducted and, in some cases, doubts about why it is being waged. ... The Marines' opinions have been shaped by their participation in hundreds of hours of operations over the past two months." Their assessments differ sharply from the more optimistic forecasts of the interim Iraqi government and the Bush administration.
"I feel we're going to be here for years and years and years," said Lance Cpl. Edward Elston. "I don't think anything is going to get better; I think it's going to get a lot worse. It's going to be like a Palestinian-type deal. We're going to stop being a policing presence and then start being an occupying presence. ... We're always going to be here. We're never going to leave."
The Post article appeared on the day Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke at a town hall meeting for Marines during his weekend visit to Iraq. The Marines were warned beforehand, however, not to ask any questions about when the United States might start withdrawing forces.
According to Fainaru, several members of the platoon were struck by the difference between the way the war was being portrayed in the press back in the United States and the reality of their daily lives.
"Every day you read the articles in the States where it's like, 'Oh, it's getting better and better,'" said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Snyder. "But when you're here, you know it's worse every day."
Why the disconnect? According to Pfc. Kyle Maio, government officials might be reticent to speak candidly because of the upcoming U.S. elections. "Stuff's going on here but they won't flat-out say it," he said. "They can't get into it."
Maj. Douglas Bell, the battalion's executive officer, told the Post reporter that Marines offering dire predictions for Iraq were not taking into account the training of the new Iraqi security forces, which would lay the foundation for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
But Lance Cpl. Matthew Combs told Fainaru, referring to these Iraqis: "They can't take care of themselves. ... They just do what we tell them to do."
Some of the Marines offered their own interpretation of Why We Are In Vietnam, er, Iraq. Lance Cpl. Perez, the Marine who joined to take revenge for 9/11, now feels: "We're supposed to be looking for al Qaeda. They're the ones who are supposedly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. This has no connection at all to Sept. 11 because this war started just by telling us about all the nuclear warheads over here."
Lance Cpl. Snyder added: "Pretty much I think they just diverted the war on terrorism."
And just as American soldiers in Vietnam often expressed great sympathy for the natives and sought to help them, Perez now finds that "every time you go out, people give you bad looks and it just seems like everybody wants to shoot you."
Fainaru closes his article with the kind of absurd dark humor that became a staple among Americans in Vietnam by the late-1960s. He reports that when he asked the platoon's radio operator, Cpl. Brandon Autin, 21, if he was worried about the Marines being punished for speaking out, he replied, "We don't give a crap. What are they going to do, send us to Iraq?"
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