Special Report

The Gray Zone

Deciphering the true state of U.S. military morale in Iraq in a partisan standoff.

By 2.9.06

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The edges of the wooden tables in the small huts where troops meet to go over last minute details of missions are often littered with the entrails of the disemboweled care packages sent by grateful fellow Americans half a world away. Thus, dots on a map denoting potential insurgent safe houses can sometimes be only inches away from, say, Tootsie Rolls representing a little bit of manufactured sugary goodness. A sheaf of intelligence reports may find a nearby cousin in a stack of letters written by young elementary school children.

So it happened that I came upon a 22-year-old Army specialist one night on a base in Mosul as he snacked on a Butterfinger bar and prepared to read a Dear Soldier missive as the last minutes before 3:00 a.m. ticked away. "I love these kids' letters," he said as he tore into the envelope. "Sometimes all they get around to saying is how much they love horses or how cool it is that the sky is blue, but I read 'em a hundred times anyway and keep every one."

After a minute or two of nodding and crunching that seemed loud as a jackhammer outside a silent city under curfew, he laughed a bit ruefully. "This one says, 'Thank you for giving your life for your country,'" he said. "I mean, shoot, I'd do it if that's what it comes down to, but it sure the hell's not my grand plan for Iraq!" The soldier laughed again, putting on his helmet to head off to his bunk for some shut-eye before a morning patrol of one of the more dangerous Sunni areas of downtown Mosul. A few feet out he stopped, thought for a moment, and turned back. "I still loved the letter. It was a real sweet thought. I just wonder what y'all are telling everybody over there about how we're doing over here."

UNFORTUNATELY, WHEN IT COMES to Iraq the American public demands a purer distillation than reality -- i.e. what this soldier and 130,000 others like him experience everyday -- can provide. "What's it like there?" and "How is troop morale?" are questions I feel as if I've been asked a thousand times since returning from Iraq, only to watch eyes glaze over as I equivocate and wrestle with the complexities of what I saw there. Reporters and political figures eager to turn the war into a partisan issue, on the other hand, are only all too willing to provide impossible starkness, urging us to choose between John Murtha's fire and brimstone and Don Rumsfeld's True Grit optimism, as if there were no other options.

The problem with gauging morale in Iraq, however, is the same as it would be gauging morale in any office in America: Experiences vary widely depending on the role. A computer programmer sitting upstairs in his ergonomic chair surrounded by faux exotic plants will probably have a different level of morale than the shipping clerk in the basement warehouse. Likewise, we cannot approach the question of the state of morale in Iraq in a serious way until we acknowledge our troops are not a large, indistinguishable conglomerate.

"I've heard war described as a one-way door; once you pass through you can never go back," Captain Aaron Barreda told me one night in Samarra. "It affects everyone differently. Some soldiers become stronger and better for it and others...just don't. But no one comes away from it unchanged, which is why war always has to be the last resort for us as a nation."

It's a cogent point that deserves some thoughtful contemplation. All I can add is what I observed as a civilian on the ground in Iraq: Soldiers going out everyday on combat or humanitarian missions were generally more upbeat and less morose. The troops I met with the lowest morale were almost exclusively those in non-combat support roles. Indeed, the Army's own studies show higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among support troops than combat troops.

How to explain? A non-combat support role where you're not worrying about IEDs or sniper fire might sound like a fairly plum gig to an outsider, but the truth is there is little glory in working around base all day and then worrying about whether some random mortar shell or rocket is going to blow up the building you're sleeping in. The lack of a proactive, offensive footing does not comfort when one is exposed to violence. It only hammers home the point that you are the recipient of violence but never the deliverer of retribution -- hardly a psychologically comforting position. The isolation of base life also colors how these soldiers see the larger picture of the war. Rarely leaving base means rarely interacting with individual Iraqis or the real life society swirling around them. For those passing their tour in these little American enclaves, Iraq is but a nameless, faceless beast that occasionally lobs death over their walls.

It follows then that when I was out with combat soldiers, they would ask about the political situation in America or express great affinity for ordinary Iraqis and unrestrained disdain for the "bad guys," as insurgent elements and foreign Islamic militants are ubiquitously referred to, or exhort me to give their mission at least a fair shake in my dispatches. Meanwhile, back on base support troops would ask me if my editors had forced me to come to Iraq and call me crazy when I said they had not. One soldier wouldn't even speak to me after I said I'd volunteered. He just waved his hand and walked away.

OF COURSE, IT WAS not uniform. Some combat soldiers, especially those embedded in small numbers off base with Iraqi units, expressed dejection or lack of interest in the war's objective and some support troops were as full of sunshine as a summer's day. As much as they are a unit, after all, they are also individuals.

Lt. Col. Edward Loomis, whom I was privileged enough to spend an afternoon traveling with from Tikrit to Mosul, explained that in the end, the morale of today is inextricably intertwined with to what degree the mission is accomplished in Iraq.

"I tell my soldiers that they want to remember this fight the way I remember the Cold War, not the way I remember Somalia," Loomis said. "We have to work hard to get it right here because a lot of people are making sacrifices we want to be worthwhile in the end."

A clear delineation of what success in Iraq actually entails would do more for troop morale than all the blustering prognostications of politicians and pundits back here in America more interested in votes and petty red/blue state warfare than the actual state of affairs in the hearts and minds of our soldiers.

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