August 23, 2004
Over Najaf, Fighting for Des Moines
By GLEN G. BUTLER
Najaf, Iraq - I'm an average American who grew up watching "Brady Bunch"
reruns, playing dodge ball and listening to Van Halen. I love the
Longhorns and the Eagles. I'm you; your neighbor; the kid you used to go
sledding with but who took a different career path in college. Now, I'm
a Marine helicopter pilot who has spent the last two weeks heavily engaged
with enemy forces here. I'm writing this between missions, without much
time or care to polish, so please look to the heart of these thoughts and not
I got in country a little more than a month ago, eager to do my part
here for the global war on terror and still get home in one piece. I'm a
mid-grade officer, so I probably have a better-than-average understanding
of the complexity of the situation, but I make no claims to see the bigger picture
or offer any strategic solutions.
Two years of my military training were spent in Quantico, Va.,
classrooms. I've read Sun Tzu several times; I've flipped through Mao's Little Red
Book and debated over Thucydides; I've analyzed Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy"
and Clausewitz's "On War"; and I've walked the battlefields of Antietam, Belleau Wood,
Majuba and Isandlwana.
I've also studied a little about the culture I'm deep in the middle of,
know a bit about the caliph, about the five pillars and about Allah, but know
I don't know enough. I am also a believer in our cause - I put that up
front just so there isn't any question of my motivation.
We marines are proudly apolitical, yet stereotypically right-wing
conservative. I'm both. And I'd be here with my fellow devildogs,
fighting just as hard, whether John Kerry or George W. Bush or Ralph Nader were
our commander-in-chief, until we're told to go home.
The other day I attended a memorial service for an old acquaintance, Lt.
Col. David (Rhino) Greene. He was killed July 28 while flying his AH-1W
Cobra over the eastern edge of Ramadi. His squadron was composed of
reservists: "old guys" like me who had been around a little while. But unlike me,
these guys had gotten out ofactive duty to pursue other careers and spend more
time with their families.
Now, they were leading the charge against the Iraqi insurgency.
The night after the service, I sat around in an impromptu gathering of
$10 beach chairs in the sand, watching the sunset and smoking some of
Rhino's cigars with friends I hadn't seen in almost a decade. I listened in awe
as they told me about their Falluja April, about how they had all cheated death,
been shot down, again and again. We talked about the war, pretending to know
all the answers, and we traded stories about home, bragged about our wives and kids.
We also talked about the magic bullet that ended Rhino's life. It could
have been shot by a sniper who had slipped in over the Iranian border, or
maybe it came from the AK-47 of a rebellious Iraqi teenager who viewed shooting
at Yankee helicopters the same way mischievous American kids might view throwing
rocks at cars. No matter, the single round pierced his neck, and within seconds a good man
was dead, leaving his wife a widow and his two children fatherless. I won't
soon forget that day, but it was quickly overshadowed by events to come, as I was thrust
into the heat of battle in my own little slice of Mesopotamia.
On Aug. 5, after a few days of building intensity, war erupted in Najaf
(again). When we had first come to Iraq, we were told our mission would
be to conduct so-called SASO, or Security and Stability Operations, and to train the Iraqi
military and police to do their jobs so we could go home. Obviously, the security part of
SASO is still the emphasis, but our unit's area of operations had been very
quiet for months, so most of us weren't expecting a fight so soon.
That changed rapidly when marines responded to requests for assistance
from the Iraqi forces in Najaf battling Moktada al-Sadr's militia, who had
attacked local police stations. Our helicopters were called on the scene
to provide close air support, and soon one of them was shot down. That was when
this war became real for me.
Since then my squadron has been providing continuous support for our
engaged Marine brothers on the ground, by this point slugging it out hand-to-hand
in the city's ancient Muslim cemetery. The Imam Ali shrine in Najaf is the
burial place of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, and is one of the most revered
sites in Shiite Islam. The cemetery to its north is gigantic, filled with New Orleans-style
crypts and mausoleums. We had been warned it was an "exclusion zone" when we
got here, that the local authorities had asked us to not go in there or fly overhead,
even though we knew the bad guys were using this area to hide weapons,
make improvised explosive devices, and plan against us. Being the culturally
sensitiveforce we are, we agreed - until Aug. 5.. Suddenly, I was conducting
support missions over the marines' heads in the graveyard, dodging anti-aircraft
artillery and rocket-propelled grenades and preparing to be shot down, too.
My perspective broadened rapidly.
At first there were no news media in Najaf; now, I assume, it's getting
crowded, although the authorities have restricted access after a group
of journalists "embedded" with the Mahdi Militia muddied the problem and
jeopardized others' safety. I haven't had time to catch much CNN or Fox News,
and although I've seen a few headlines forwarded to me by friends, I don't think
the world is seeing the complete picture.
I want to emphasize that our military is using every means possible to
minimize damage to historical, religious and civilian structures, and is
going out of its way to protect the innocent. I have not shot one round
without good cause, whether it be in response to machine gun fire aimed at
me or mortars shot at soldiers and marines on the ground.
The battle has been surreal, focused largely in the cemetery, where
families continue burying their dead even as I swoop in low overhead to make sure
they aren't sneaking in behind our forces' flanks, or pulling a surface-to-air missile out
of the coffin. Children continue playing soccer in the dirt fields next door, and
locals wave to us as we fly over their rooftops in preparation for gun runs
into the enemy's positions.
Sure, some of those people might be waving just to make sure we don't
shoot them, but I think the majority are on our side. I've learned that this
enemy is not just a mass of angry Iraqis who want us to leave their country,
as some would have you believe. The forces we're fighting around Iraq are a
conglomeration of renegade Shiites, former Baathists, Iranians, Syrians,
terrorists with ties to Ansar al-Islam and Al Qaeda, petty criminals, destitute
citizens looking for excitement or money, and yes, even a few frustrated Iraqis
who worry about Wal-Mart culture infringing on their neighborhood.
But I see the others who are on our side, appreciate us risking our
lives, and know we're in the right. The Iraqi soldiers who are fighting
alongside us are motivated to take their country back. I've not been deluded into
thinking that we came here to free the Iraqis. That is indeed the icing on the cake,
but I came here to prevent the still active "grave and gathering threat" from congealing
into something we wouldn't be able to stop.
Weapons of mass destruction or no, I'm glad that we ended the dictatorship
of Saddam Hussein. My brother and other American jet pilots risked their
lives for years patrolling the "no fly zone" (and occasionally making
page A-12 in the newspaper if they dropped a bomb on a threatening missile battery).
The former dictator's attempt to assassinate George H. W. Bush, use of chemical weapons
on hisown people, and invasion of a neighboring country are just a few of the
other reasons I believe we should have acted sooner. He eventually would have had
the means to cause America great harm - no doubt in my mind.
The pre-emptive doctrine of the current administration will continue to
be debated long after I'm gone, but one fact stands for itself: America has
not been hit with another catastrophic attack since 9/11. I firmly believe
that our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are major reasons that we've had it so good
at home. Building a "fortress America" is not only impractical, it's impossible. Prudent
homeland security measures are vital, to be sure, but attacking the
source of the threat remains essential.
Now we are on the verge of victory or defeat in Iraq. Success depends
not only on battlefield superiority, but also on the trust and confidence of
the American people. I've read some articles recently that call for cutting
back our military presence in Iraq and moving our troops to the peripheries
of most cities. Such advice is well-intentioned but wrong - it would soon lead to
a total withdrawal. Our goal needs to be a safe Iraq, free of militias and terrorists;
if wesimply pull back and run, then the region will pose an even greater threat
than it did before the invasion. I also fear if we do not win this battle here and now,
my 7-year-old son might find himself here in 10 or 11 years, fighting the same
enemies and their sons.
When critics of the war say their advocacy is on behalf of those of us
risking our lives here, it's a type of false patriotism. I believe that
when Americans say they "support our troops," it should include supporting
our mission, not just sending us care packages. They don't have to believe in
the cause as I do; but they should not denigrate it. That only aids the enemy in
defeating us strategically.
Michael Moore recently asked Bill O'Reilly if he would sacrifice his son
for Falluja. A clever rhetorical device, but it's the wrong question: this
war is about Des Moines, not Falluja. This country is breeding and
attracting militants who are all eager to grab box cutters, dirty bombs,
suicide vests or biological weapons, and then come fight us in Chicago,
Santa Monica or Long Island. Falluja, in fact, was very close to becoming
a city our forces could have controlled, and then given new schools and
sewers and hospitals, before we pulled back in the spring. Now, essentially
ignored, it has become a Taliban-like state of Islamic extremism, a
terrorist safe haven. We must not let the same fate befall Najaf or
Ramadi or the rest of Iraq.
No, I would not sacrifice myself, my parents would not sacrifice me, and
President Bush would not sacrifice a single marine or soldier simply for
Falluja. Rather, that symbolic city is but one step toward a free and
democratic Iraq, which is one step closer to a more safe and secure America.
I miss my family, my friends and my country, but right now there is
nowhere else I'd rather be. I am a United States Marine.
Glen G. Butler is a major in the Marines.
God bless Major Glen G. Butler!
God bless President George W. Bush!
God bless America!
Thought all of you would like to read this and pass it on.
Excellent read. Thanks for posting. I especially liked the following quotes:
Well Said Maj. Butler, Semper Fidelis
Saved to a doc file, ready to send back to family in Texas.
Wow!Keep your powder dry and your head up, Major. Semper Fi!Take care. Coondog
Bump for the day crowd.