Sunday, August 20, 2006

Flashes from the Past: Notes on "The Ugly American" and "Unhappy Hours"

Sooner or later, every foreign correspondent learns that what Americans really want from the rest of the world is to forget about it. This is just a fact we have to deal with. Isolationism is an instinct in a nation of immigrants looking to dedicate their lives, not to the past, but to the future, and that's nothing new. When George Washington warned against "entangling alliances" overseas, he meant, as much as anything, entangling histories. I wrote about this general theme back around the Fourth of July. And I've been warning since the earliest days of the Iraq War that a big part of the administration's goal was to persuade the American public it was safe to change the channel -- which people are more than anxious to do, in any case.

A few months ago, to accompany a piece I wrote about George Clooney's political angst, and parallels with the movies being made about the time he was born, Newsweek posted the last scene from the 1963 film of "The Ugly American" with Marlon Brando. It's definitely worth watching.

Three years ago, when some 50 Americans had been killed in an Iraq where the mission was not quite accomplished, I wrote about the same theme. I've had a little trouble calling it up from the Newsweek archive -- although it is there, somewhere -- so here is the full text from August 1, 2003, as I find it in my laptop:

Shadowland: Unhappy Hours

The capture of Saddam Hussein, when it comes, may pacify America. It won’t change much in Iraq.

By Christopher Dickey

Over a catfish sandwich and a Coke in the Raleigh-Durham airport, I learned how the United States ends a war. Above the bar a long array of televisions, maybe eight or ten of them, broadcast silent sports-network images of tennis matches and stock car races. Only one was tuned to a closed-caption news channel.

This was ten weeks ago, in the middle of May, and it was obvious to any of us who’d covered Iraq that more than 100,000 Americans were still there, still in harm’s way. Serious harm. So why, I asked the woman tending bar, was nobody watching?

“Well,” she said, in one of those charming drawls were almost every sentence sounds like a question, “during the war, all these TVs were on news all the time? And you know, people would watch it and just kind of feel depressed, like, and down? And then President Bush landed on that aircraft carrier?” She waited for me to nod, like I might not have seen it. I did. “And the very next day, the boss called up and said we could put all these TVs back on ESPN.”

The war had ended, in other words, because on May 1 President George W. Bush made a thoroughly choreographed display of announcing it was over. And the American people believed him because they wanted to. They were tired of the war, even tired of winning it. They just wanted it zapped into the past, gone and forgotten like last season’s reality shows. But with more than 50 American soldiers killed since Bush declared major combat operations were over, the reality of the fighting that’s still going on has crept back into the American consciousness like an unexpected hangover. So the administration is increasingly anxious to show the war has ended … again.

Saddam Hussein can do that for the president. All Saddam has to do is get captured or, better yet, get killed. And, true to form, he’s even willing to play his old familiar role as Washington’s favorite bad guy. The erstwhile Butcher of Baghdad (or a mighty good imitator) keeps churning out audio-taped taunts that amount to “catch me if you can.”

Our American warriors here in Iraq, where I am now, certainly can and certainly will catch this decrepit thug, and sooner rather than later. But what will that mean? Problem solved? Just a little cleaning up to do once the Butcher bites the dust? Time to zap back to the sports networks? (How’s Kobe going to get through this? And ain’t that a shame about Kournikova?) It’s conceivable that Bush himself thinks Saddam’s death will pacify Iraq. But in fact this manhunt is mainly about pacifying America.

Two weeks ago Gen. John Abizaid, the new CENTCOM commander, made it clear he knows just what’s going on where the boots hit the ground: “A classic guerrilla-type campaign against us. It’s low-intensity conflict, in our doctrinal terms, but it’s war, however you describe it … I would think it’s very important for everybody to know that we take casualties and we cause casualties to be inflicted upon the enemy because we are at war.”

American troops are being picked off day by day by little groups of fewer than a dozen men, probably Ba’athi veterans of Saddam’s old military and security forces. But the attackers are waging this war mainly on their own account. For them, to paraphrase an old song, Operation Iraqi Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. There’s every indication they’re following their own instincts, not orders from their old boss.

“There is some level of regional command and control going on,” said Abizaid, but he wouldn’t claim the regions were all connected. “Not yet,” he told Pentagon reporters. “Could they become connected? Sure, they could become connected.” If they do, we probably won’t have heard of the mid-level commanders from the old Ba’athi army who make that happen.

As Abizaid elaborated his clear-eyed vision of the war, the uncomfortable paradox of the occupation grew more apparent. He literally claimed that as things get better, they’ll get worse. “You have to understand that there will be an increase in violence as we achieve political success.” With every step forward by the Coalition and the Iraqis working with it, pressure will mount from the guerillas trying to thwart it.

There’s also a problem, often cited by the U.S. commanders on the ground here, of “foreign fighters.” Essentially, these fanatics are from the international brigades of Islamic terror, the same sort who went to fight in Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Indonesia -- wherever there were infidels to kill along their martyrs’ path to Paradise. For such Jihadists, Iraq is an answered prayer. “This is the place to come,” as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of Coalition troops here, told us at a briefing Baghdad yesterday.

You see what this means, of course. While there’s little proof that Al-Qaeda was here when Saddam was in power, Iraq under occupation already is the training ground for future Osamas.

No wonder Washington works so hard to spin the message back toward the simple, compelling narrative of the chase – a story the Pentagon is confident will come to an end. But our soldiers know better. They’re here for the long haul no matter what happens to the defunct dictator, and it’s a fight their government and their people would rather forget.

Maybe that’s why Maj. Gen. John Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, told a Quantico seminar on lessons learned in Iraq that happy hour is a vital part of a modern-day officer’s preparation. Like his colleagues, Mattis recognized that even during the “major combat operations,” field commanders had to improvise mightily in spite of official assumptions about the way the war was supposed to unfold. They had to know each other, and believe in each other, and the time they spent as younger men arguing doctrine and details over a couple of beers played a vital role. “The friendships and the trust, the mutual respect between officers who served once together as captains and majors who went to happy hour together…,” Mattis said in an emotional passage quoted by “Stars and Stripes,” “there was a bond between those of us on this stage, that I don’t care what the enemy could have done, I don’t care what weapons they had … there is nothing the Iraqis could have done to break the bond between us.”

Well, General, stay away from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. During happy hour back there, folks aren’t watching you, and they’re sure not watching your back. They’re watching ESPN every chance they get.

Post Script: Saddam was captured almost five months later, in late December 2003.

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