Thursday, June 23, 2005

Last week, the US Army celebrated its 230th birthday. That’s older than the nation itself. I participated in a birthday ceremony at Times Square. This event was sponsored by the Army’s NY area recruiting command, a regular Army unit; they hosted the Vice Chief of Staff, a four star General in the Army, they invited some National Guardsmen to attend. The ceremony was brief. Soldiers were re-enlisted, and campaign ribbons for Iraq and Afghanistan were awarded to those eligible, most soldiers received at least one. A few soldiers, real heroes, got one for each theater.
Tradition is a military virtue that seems inscrutable to those who haven’t served. It is an essential binding agent in a social order that is designed to survive great stress. Even in Iraq, we held the occasional parade. Traditions serve as reminders of military values, loyalty, courage, discipline other intangibles that warriors need to succeed. Tradition helps us focus on duty and mission, reminding us of those who preceded us, and the sacrifices they made for freedom. Above all else, the American soldier values freedom, he or she has sacrificed some freedom just by enlisting, foregoing some civilian liberties, in order to ensure their continued existence.
One of the oldest traditions in the military, and one we lament rather than value, is the disdain or apathy of outsiders. This often includes our political leaders. Since the beginning of the republic, the idea of a large standing Army has been anathema. The founding fathers feared the existence of a large military. They preferred a very small professional core, to be augmented by the state militias when necessary. This continues today, with Reservists and Guardsmen augmenting active forces committed in the current war. We still prefer not to enlarge the active army, despite the strains upon the entire system.
Filling these ranks has become problematic. Recruiting is now Mission Impossible. Current estimates are that active army recruiting is about forty percent short. Despite of all the “Thank You”s and the handshakes that I get while I’m in uniform, young people don’t want to enlist. Parents are particularly reluctant to accept their children enlisting. At deeper societal level, this reflects America’s historical preference to fight wars far away and to let someone else do it. There was a post 9-11 surge in recruiting, but now deep into the challenge, young people are finding it difficult to connect their life goals with the sacrifice of military service.

While leaders reflect the views of their constituents, we also take cues from our leaders. Responsible political leaders need to speak responsibly about issues. US Congressional Representative Jim McDermott has unfortunately attacked military recruiting efforts:

"They're not going to all the schools. They're going to the schools where they figure the kids will have less chance to go to college," said U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, a Democrat. "It's an insidious kind of draft, quite frankly."

This is unfair criticism. Recruiters, with quotas to meet will go to every school they can, talk to every prospect available. They will however, concentrate on students who have not already been accepted to into college. They’re goal is to enlist soldiers. So they focus on those most available. Military service is many things to many people. Some see it as an opportunity to serve, others to advance, many recognize it as both. I paid for college almost entirely with military money. And I’ve put it all on the line in Somalia and in Iraq.
Rep. McDermott criticizes the Army for not leveling with prospects about the realities of combat. Instead Army recruiters focus on adventure and opportunity in their sales pitches. Well, I hope so. Corporate recruiters don’t focus on the long hours new hires may have to work to get ahead, or the treacherous steps of a career path. Pitching the good parts is what recruiting is all about. It is hard to imagine that in the fourth year of a war, potential enlistees are ignorant of the possibility of combat. I’m not sure that anyone whose cognitive abilities are so challenged would pass the qualifications. I wouldn’t want that soldier on my team. America’s youth seem to understand the rigors of wartime service, hence the inability to reach recruiting quotas.

There is also contempt in the Senate for soldiers. On June 14th, the Army’s birthday, Sen. Dick Durbin stood on the Senate floor, and compared me and my comrades to Nazi’s, Soviet’s and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Now I’ve never been to Guantanomo Bay, but I handled dozens of detainees in Iraq. It was my experience that the US soldiers handle all detainees with dignity and respect, even when they were caught red-handed trying to kill Americans. I am aware that abuses have occurred throughout the system, just as they do in American civilian prisons. And in French and German prisons for that matter. I was in Iraq when the Abu-Ghraib scandal broke. Unlike most Americans I was directly affected, having to work and interact with Iraqis in the scandal’s aftermath. Significantly most Iraqis understood that this was not torture to the degree that Saddam had perpetrated it, though they were still enraged. But no American soldier that I have met, and no reading of current US policy that I have seen has condoned torture or institutional murder for retribution, for genocide, for reasons of race, for reasons of class. These are the crimes of those regimes that Sen. Durbin has accused my comrades of emulating. Should we continue to have a national dialogue on the methods we use to combat terror? Absolutely! But we need to do so while respecting the men and women who are working the hardest to keep us safe.
An open and frank discussion about the war and the policies by which we wage it is welcome. It is in fact necessary. We succeed in war, as in all things by continual self evaluation. But this criticism needs to be constructive, and it needs to be respectful. Being a soldier is hard. And I use soldier in its broadest terms, Sailors, Airmen, Marines as well as Army soldiers are included in my definition. It is a hard job to get. Basic training is some the toughest entry level job training around. Soldiering means long hours, in dangerous places and dangerous spaces. It means never quitting. It means respecting the values of our nation. The least we can ask for is that respect to be returned by all civilian legislators, not just those who approve of this war.

John Byrnes

These Kids Desrve a Future

This is my op-ed piece from the NY Post on June 12, 2005.

AS the first swelter of summer breaks over New York City, my mind wanders back to the town of Ad-Dujayl. By this time last year, midday temperatures were breaking 100 degrees there in the Sunni Triangle. It’s the same heat every year I’m sure, in the impoverished burb of several thousand, 50 or so miles north of Baghdad. But last year I was sweating it, with A Company of the Army National Guards 2-108th Infantry Battalion.
And now Ad-Dujayl is in the New York papers — as the site of the mass murders that will be the subject of the first trial of Saddam Hussein. As it happens, A Company played a key role in gathering some of the evidence for that trial. And several dozen of the company’s 140 soliders live in the metro area — so New Yorkers helped build the case against Saddam.
Here’s how.
We spent 10½ months working with and talking to the citizens of this city. One soldier, Segun Frederick Akintade — born in Nigeria, but a New Yorker by choice — made the ultimate sacrifice just a few miles south of Ad-Dujayl.
My fondest memories are of the kids we befriended.
In Iraq, kids are a great barometer of the local mood. If they’re afraid to talk with you, it indicates a hostile community. And if they’re suddenly not around, it’s a real bad sign.
The kids in Ad-Dujayl were almost always around, with a friendly smile and black-market merchandise for sale. Hijacked from trucks or stolen off U.S. bases, knives and sunglasses were always offered at half-price or less. It was sometimes hard for soldiers to resist the temptation, even knowing that the money might be funding insurgents, or criminals.
Sayif — “The Artful Dodger” — was the best hustler in the bunch. He was 12 or so when we met him, just on the cusp of puberty — he grew over two inches in less than a year. He’d been the favorite of the prior U.S. commanding officer, and wanted to stay the favorite — so he lobbied hard. ¶
Since I was the new CO’s driver, I got to know him pretty well. He was always around, wherever we stopped in town. He was attuned to the sound of the hummvees; if any convoy stopped within walking distance he’d approach, hoping to make a buck.
Barak and Hussein, the half brothers, were another pair. They were the junior gangsters, the muscle to Sayif’s hustle. Neither was any older than 10, but both were willing to fight anyone, of any size, and one would always back the other. They were my favorites, mainly because they could be bribed to chase the other kids away when necessary.
Ad-dujayl is not on most maps — because Saddam had tried to eradicate it, after an assassination attempt on him there in 1982. For a months, that was just background information to us. But in the heat of late July, an old man asked to speak to our commander.
The man recounted his family’s story, and offered it as witness testimony. He told of the assassination attempt, and of one son’s involvement. He told of the dogged pursuit of his family by Saddam’s thugs thereafter. They hunted down his sons, killing one by suffocation in a Baghdad prison. Eight years later, all the women in his sister’s house were all raped and dismembered. This was part of a systematic campaign of terror against that lasted for years. Houses were razed. Date-palm groves, a regional cash crop, were uprooted, impoverishing most of the community.
This man was our first witness.
The citizens of Ad-dujayl were luckier than some victims: Our commander is a lawyer by trade, so he began collecting testimony. The citizens, surprised that someone cared about justice, came forth to speak. By summer’s end, we had dozens of accounts.
We forwarded a summary report through channels (the Army’s JAG office in this case) and for a time it seemed nothing more would happen. But chance struck again around Thanksgiving: In a chow-tent on a base in Baghdad, someone mentioned knowing a soldier attached to our unit — and was overheard by a member of the Regime Crimes Team, who got on the phone.
A few days later, we met with the commission and turned over copies of our witness statements and notes. We escorted federal prosecutors and agents to interviews. We took them to meetings in town, and helped them get witnesses on base. We had three or four days where a platoon was devoted to supporting their mission, and when we left at the end of December they were in contact with our replacements from a Wisconsin Guard unit.
By February we knew the case was going forward against some of the principle henchmen. Now Saddam himself is charged in these crimes.
Those kids in Ad-dujayl deserve a future. Their families deserve justice. Like every other soldier home from Iraq, I’m constantly asked two questions. “What was it like?” And “Was it worth it?”
It’s hard to answer the first one. How do you describe a year of blood, tears and lots of sweat? Of fear and excitement and boredom, sometimes separated only by seconds?
But as to being worth it, I tell them about Sayif and Barak and Hussein — who may now be growing up in a country where the courts punish murder. I tell them about the trials of men who committed murder 2½ decades ago. I tell them about the old man who wept after telling his story — not from unexpressed grief, but from joy that someone finally cared.
Those people who cared were New Yorkers citizen soldiers from Queens, from The Bronx, from Westchester and towns all along the Hudson. Many others played a part, but it was a New York unit that helped bring justice to Ad-dujayl, and helped bring Saddam to trial.

John Byrnes is working on a book about Iraq.