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Iraq in the Fullness of Time

Memory is never finally fixed. We are constantly editing our memories in the light of subsequent events. Sometimes meaningless event are explained in the fullness of time. Sometimes those events really were meaningless and they take on meaning only because we have jammed them into our narrative of memory.

That is why oral histories are unreliable and even things that are written down are subject to continual revision.Telling any story is always an act of choosing and even if we are being fair and thoughtful, our choices will always be subject to revision. We probably cannot arrive at THE truth, but we usually can come up with something useful or at least something that makes sense to us.

I have been thinking about these things as I prepare to address a class in public diplomacy at USC. They want to know about strategic communications at a PRT in Iraq. Lucky for me my blog provides a lot of contemporary impressions and pictures. I can see the evolution of my own thinking and my blog entries remind me of lots of things I would have forgotten. It seems like I am reading the experiences of someone else, but I know it was me because I can see the pictures.

My time in Iraq was the most meaningful work I have ever done. I am not saying that it was the most enjoyable or even that it was the best work I have ever done, but my job made a difference and my actions made a difference in a way they had not before. I am convinced that my activity saved lives. My PRT contributed to our success in Iraq and that is a world changing accomplishment. America and the coalition beat back terror and chaos, when many in the world and even in our own country had written us off. The alternative would have been horrible.

I don’t think we have told the story very well. Most people I talk to and read about in the papers have it wrong. They think that our success was based on good luck or that it would have happened anyway. This is very ironic, given the fact that back in 2007 most of these same people were convinced that we were so far down that road to perdition that we could never recover.

There is definitely a political dimension to this. Some people are knee jerk anti-war. They don’t want to believe that anything good can come from something is bad as the Iraq conflict. They dislike words like victory or even success. I don’t think anything can be done to change their minds, short of them experiencing what I did. Forget about them. But the broad American public should understand because there are lessons to be learned. We learned how to counter an insurgency. We beat an Islamist terror group right in the heart of their own region, on a battlefield of their choosing. Their growing power is not inevitable. History is not on their side. The future belongs to us, not them.

Iraq is a success story. I read an interesting headline in the paper the other day. It said that the Iraqi election was too close to call right away. When you have an election like that, it means there are actual alternatives. Saddam always got nearly 100% of the vote.


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Comments

John,
I have not been following your blog since you left Iraq in the fall of 2008; however, for some reason today it occurred to me to take another look. I am interested in this posting regarding your recollections of past events and the impact of the current elections in Iraq.

First, I understand fully your comments on oral history. While I was in Iraq I even seemed to realize that my impression of events would be different as time and environment changed. At the time I recall thinking that I needed, at least, to remember the import of the event, that that was somehow more momentous than particulars. I believe that I have done that, although I don't necessarily believe that we can be our best critics. In a way it's like photographing Niagra Falls, the photo certainly captures the details but it fails to convey the raw grandeur of the scene. That is why I have always considered artists to have an advanatge. A skilled artist can re-create how it feels to be on the rim of the Grand Canyon whereas a photo can merely depict how it looks. As time passes our thoughts on previous observations, including mine on Iraq, are bombarded by new information and experience and I can sometimes find it difficult to recall my initial presence of mind.

On the topic of the relevance of the current parliamentary elections in Iraq, I too am gratified by the coverage, although scant, of the elections. I was privileged to have been in Iraq during the 2009 provincial elections. Sitting on on the district planning sessions with the Iraqi officials, army and IP I recall being impressed by their seriousness and determination that the elections be secure yet open. On many occasions I observed people standing up at public municipal meetings and speaking at length about the importance of the upcoming election, in many cases openly lobbying for the replacement of public officials who were there in person at the same meeting. I am certain that this never happened during the Saddam era. In another case I recall a sheik predicting that the election would mark the beginning of the end for strong men and tribal influence in Iraq. The remarkably candid comment was prophetic since the incumbents in that election lost most of their positions. For the first time, perhaps ever, Iraq was turning over its government from the ballot box and not the barrel of a gun.

As I look at that election, and even more so the march 2010 election, I can't help but wonder at the impact it will have on the broader region. Is it possible that the Persians in Iraq, who have hated the Iraqi Arabs for millennia, now cast the gaze over their eastern border and witness people freely chosing their own leaders, a freedom that they themselves cannot enjoy?

As you stated many times, while pontificating at the dinner table in the chow hall on board Camp Ripper, it will take a long time until we understand fully the impact that American involvement in Iraq will have. I wonder now if that time period might be more abreviated then we thought.

All the best.

-Paul

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