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The war after the war

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 26, 2004

Karl ZinsmeisterKarl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise since 1994, makes no bones about his unequivocal support for the war against Saddam Hussein and the U.S. military in general. In his 2003 effort entitled Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq, he informs the reader that he has taught his children "to think of military jet noise as 'the sound of freedom.'") It's not surprising then that in his follow up -- Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq -- Zinsmeister is pretty optimistic about the future of Iraq despite the ongoing strife the news is saturated with every evening and filled with praise for the difficult job the Coalition has been tasked with. In an exclusive interview with ESR Zinsmeister discusses his new book and what's going on in Iraq.

ESR: Thanks for joining us Mr. Zinsmeister.

You served as an embedded journalist during last year's war and then returned earlier this year to witness the aftermath. What are the differences, apart from the obvious, between 2003 and 2004?

KZ: The most striking aspect of my latest visit, chronicled in Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq, was the way our soldiers had become involved in the reconstruction of Iraqi society. There continues to be tough urban fighting, obviously, as there was when I was in Iraq during the hot war phase in 2003. But simultaneous with this counterinsurgency battle the soldiers are working to rebuild the very same neighborhoods they are fighting over. That has never been done before, anywhere, by any army.

Psychologically, it is tough work. One of the commanders I spent time with in Fallujah told his men they had to have a "day face" (friend-making, help-giving) and a "night face" (ready to fight at any moment). It is essential in a guerilla war like this to cultivate the sensible parts of the population (and there are many sensible moderates in Iraq who are willing to work with us). But you can literally turn a street corner after shaking hands and patting kids on the head and walk into a coordinated ambush. So the soldiers have to be able and ready to switch gears at the drop of a hat.

ESR: About all we see on the evening news are the aftermath of bombings. How are Coalition forces faring in reality?

KZ: I am very frustrated with the reporting from Iraq; that's why I felt I had to write Dawn, to give a fuller picture. It's not that the bombings and so forth that we see aren't happening -- the reporting is "accurate." It just isn't complete. There is another whole set of stories out there -- deeper, slower, but ultimately more important stories about the evolution of Iraqi society, ordinary Iraqi opinion, changes in the position of the terrorists, etc. That's all left out of the "what's in flames today?" style of reporting that is dominating today's coverage in the establishment media.

I write about the big, glacial changes taking place under the radar, the stuff, I believe, that historians will really care about -- much more than today's blowups -- when they look back 10 or 50 years from now. Dawn Over Baghdad is a detailed human-interest story, describing exactly what I saw inside Iraqi homes and businesses and on the streets, and the picture it draws is much less gloomy than most of what we're getting on our TV screens and in our newspapers at present.

ESR: Why do you feel the media is only concentrating on the troublesome aspects of post-war Iraq and ignoring all the positive developments?

KZ: Lots of reasons. The easiest, laziest, and most sensation-generating kind of reporting is simply to stick a camera at something that's blown up. The fact that 99 other things haven't blown up may be much more significant in the long run, but it takes a lot more creativity and time to tell that story, and most reporters in Iraq today live sequestered in the Green Zone hotels, and only blast out in their SUV bubbles for 2-3 hours to cover the aftermath of an attack. They get no perspective. They see none of the successes. They notice little of the progress over time.

I'm not a hotel-style reporter; I'm a backpack reporter. My two new books on Iraq, Boots On the Ground, and Dawn Over Baghdad, grew out of weeks spent walking the streets on combat patrols, observing in city council meetings, meeting with radical imams, watching interrogations of prisoners and secret military intelligence briefings at the company level.

The unbalanced politics of the establishment press corps are also a problem. A whole host of studies stretching from two decades ago to literally last month show that the elite press corps is Democrat over Republican/liberal over conservative/dovish over hawkish by about ten to one. In a war that has taken on intense partisan colorations like this one, that causes problems of portrayal. We ought to have much more ideological balance in the ranks of our press corps.

Yet another problem is the yawning cultural gulf that separates most reporters from soldiers. They just don't "get" military men and military work, and often have a hard time portraying them in an easy, straightforward, sympathetic, and accurate way.

ESR: What are some of those positive developments that the media has given such little time to?

KZ: Just one little example I like to cite: We hear, ad nauseum, in the media about the electrical blackouts in Baghdad. But you're never given the perspective you need to understand what's really going on.

The reality is, more electricity is being generated in Iraq today than even before the war. So why the blackouts? Two reasons:

1) Saddam shamelessly hogged most of the country's power to his capital, shunting 57 per cent of all Iraqi electricity to Baghdad, while the provinces were starved for juice. Today, power is distributed fairly to all population centers, and Baghdad gets 28 per cent of the national total. That means occasional shortages in some previously privileged neighborhoods, but Iraqis as a whole are better off.

2) Iraq is in the midst of a consumption bloom. The economy is growing at about 60 per cent, and there are suddenly a million new phones in the country, a third of the population has bought a satellite TV, a million cars have been imported, washing machines, air conditioners, and other devices never before available are proliferating. Most of those things have to be plugged in, and as a result the demand for electricity is rising even faster than supply is going up. Does that cause problems? Yes, but it's a "nice" problem, not evidence that "nothing ever gets fixed by those boob Americans."

But here's the really big story the major media have missed: The critical almost-never-reported reality is that the massive middle of Iraqi society -- the silent majority of Shiites who are going to run this country -- have stuck with us over the last year, through many travails. Contrary to what you'd guess from the headlines, there is no mass revolt in Iraq. The latest military intelligence is that there are a grand total of about 20,000 terrorist fighters operating in the country. That works out to one for every 1,270 Iraqis. Just to put that in perspective, one out of every 305 Americans is a Hindu -- so insurgents in Iraq are four times less common than Hindus are in our population.

Can 20,000 sadistic men cause a lot of mayhem? Absolutely, I've spent three months dodging bullets and IEDs on the streets of Iraq myself, and have no illusions about this. And it's a fact that many Iraqis are so afraid of the insurgents they are reluctant to cooperate with reconstruction. But fearing the guerillas and supporting them are two very different things, and the essential point is that we are not now in the midst of a general uprising, some bottomless guerilla pit where most Iraqis are fighting us.

ESR: The media have been filled with reports that many soldiers are becoming demoralized by the constant strain of operating in environments that can turn hostile in an instant but in your book you argue that they are unanimously positive in their outlook. Why is the media getting this wrong and how are soldiers maintaining a positive attitude despite the difficulty of the mission?

A bogus story built on random anecdotes. Our fighting men and women are not robots, and obviously Iraq is a rotten environment in many ways -- heat, dirt, nihilistic enemies who will stoop to any atrocity, months away from family. But these are soldiers. They do this for a living. And they recognize that this is a big turning point in our nation's history, and are very proud to be doing some vital dirty work on behalf of the nation.

Among the thousands of soldiers I've passed through, the main concern I hear expressed over and over is a fear that the country might cut and run before they finished the job. Our soldiers want a clear victory in Iraq more than anything. That's their best guarantee they won't be coming back.

Something like a quarter-million military folks have rotated through this theater, and there are all kinds of exceptions in any group of that size, but in my months of living with soldiers right in the thick of battlefields I encountered almost no feeling that this was a fruitless mission, or that they were being taken advantage of, or the other malicious claims.

Don't take my word for it: The best hard proof on this, better than any claims or counterclaims, is that the reenlistment rates of soldiers and Marines who've served in Iraq are actually exceeding Pentagon targets today. So don't believe the "Winter Soldier" rubbish.

ESR: Although the U.S. military generally receives your praise, you have some tough words for those in the Pentagon, specifically for concentrating on acquiring super weapons systems at the expense of more mundane equipment. How does this impact the average soldier on the ground?

KZ: The Pentagon is a bureaucracy, and like all bureaucracies it is prone to sticking with old, tried and true solutions. We do not need three new supersonic fighters. We don't need more attack submarines. We need UAVs, and light portable radars, and IED detectors to fight the small guerilla wars that are likely to occupy us in the future.

Over the last decade, a dramatically different style of warfighting has unfolded. In my books I describe it as the difference between checkers (the style of battle during Gulf War I and previous engagements, where the emphasis was on brute force) versus chess (the new style of fighting which, basically, substitutes speed and intelligence and communications for overwhelming strength). This new style of fighting is a reality that's not going to go away. And, happily, Americans are very good at it. We've got to move further in that direction to play to our strengths. But there are always generals out there who want to fight the last war.

I give the Pentagon credit for, mostly, being more willing to kill off sacred cows and innovate than other comparable bureaucracies. But pressure needs to continue to be applied. And fresh solutions are needed for new and unanticipated problems. I have a section in Dawn Over Baghdad, for instance, where I talk about the disappointing performance of helicopters in this war. Somebody is going to have to come up with workarounds on that serious weakness in our fighting force.

And probably the worst failure in this war, continuing right to the present, is the poverty and paucity of our human intelligence. We need to figure out how the U.S. can cultivate and coordinate infiltrators and spies within Islamic societies. We're flying blind too much of the time.

ESR: Dawn Over Baghdad focuses most of its attention on the Sunni triangle, the hotbed of the insurrection. Can you give us a bit of an overview of the situation?

KZ: Early in 2004 I decided I needed to get a good firsthand look at the counterinsurgency fight and reconstruction efforts in the very worst parts of the Sunni triangle. So I re-embedded myself with troops in Baghdad, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and points in between. A lot of journalism is serendipity, and I was very lucky this spring (as I had been during the hot war) in terms of getting to see some important and fascinating things. Dawn Over Baghdad is not a policy analysis, it is human storytelling and eyewitness reporting written from the perspective of the ordinary American soldiers and everyday Iraqi citizens who are in the thick of things in the most troubled neighborhoods.

I was in the worst snakepits in Iraq, where the fighters are a mix of former Saddam-ites and religious extremists (Fallujah, for instance, is both a historic center for recruiting into Saddam's security forces as well as the center of radical Wahabi Islam in Iraq). And foreign jihadists led by Zarqawi, while not large in number, are behind most of the more serious and visible attacks, including nearly all of the horrible car bombings.

ESR: Given the strongly pro-Ba'athist feelings in the triangle, is it even possible to expect that area to be one day pacified and participating in the new Iraq along with the rest of the country?

KZ: There are a few place like Fallujah that, I'm afraid, are going to have to be treated very roughly (probably by other Iraqis at this point) before they calm down. But most Iraqis, even in the Sunni triangle, are ready to move on.

ESR: What's the situation like in the rest of the country?

KZ: Remember: Iraq is a big country, and its citizens hold a wide range of viewpoints. There is a large silent majority in Iraq, as in most countries, that is more sensible than most of our readers may imagine. Large swaths of the countryside -- for instance the Shiite areas in the southern half of the nation where I spent most of my time during the 2003 hot war -- are comparatively quiet and beginning to get on with ordinary life. The wildly pro-American Kurdish parts of the country in the north have none of the strife of the Sunni triangle.

ESR: In one of the more sober sections of Dawn Over Baghdad you describe an Iraqi society that is corrupt, and you argue that many Iraqis -- particularly those who would be the nation's natural leaders -- as dishonest, selfish and irresponsible. How does one construct a democratic culture with such glaring problems?

KZ: There is lots of cultural baggage in the Middle East that must be overcome if more humane governments are to take root. I have a whole chapter on this in Dawn entitled "The Character Test" where I describe the cultural problems the Iraqis -- and other Arabs -- are going to have to overcome if they want to live in decent and self-governing societies.

Though many modern people have lost sight of this, much of the ethical infrastructure that makes democracy possible in the West comes directly from Judeo-Christianity. The whole servanthood ethic, the sympathy for underdogs and the weak, the insistence on the equality of men -- these are basically Christian notions that have seeped into the core of our societies.

Clearly Islamic and other non-Christian nations can make compensations that allow them to have humane democracies of their own. But they really do have to compensate.

I remember lots of claims when I was growing up in the '70s that democracy could never spread to places like the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, Latin America, Eastern Europe, South Africa, even places like Portugal and Spain. Those places recently did become democracies, surprising a lot of people. The next obvious, unavoidable frontier for chipping away at tyrannical government is the Arab Middle East. It won't be easy, but it is not some ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky crusade. People forget a majority of the globe's Muslims already live in democracies, in places like Indonesia, Turkey, India. So it's possible.

In any case, it's not a responsibility we can avoid. Until such time as their governments become less tyrannical, the Middle East will continue to produce bumper crops of homicidally frustrated young men. We have to try to do something about that, for our own safety.

ESR: Every country needs a figure or two to rally around, are there any George Washington's in Iraq?

KZ: For a long time I was kind of depressed by the selfishness and lack of leadership among Iraqis themselves. But I'm very encourage by the events of the last couple months, where some impressive individuals have shown real nerve and wit and courage, and are beginning to take the bull by the horns in stabilizing their country.

It's essential that Iraqis solve their own problems. I write at length in Dawn about how the U.S. commanders have tried to avoid letting Iraqis become dependent on America to fix everything for them. We're going to have to let the Iraqis make some mistakes as they work their way, two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, toward a new kind of country.

ESR: Thanks to their co-religionists in Iran the Shiites have a bad reputation but you argue that they are likely to be the reason why a democratic Iraq emerges. Why?

KZ: Through the magazine I edit, The American Enterprise, I wrote and commissioned the very first national poll of Iraqis, back in August 2003. We found that Shiites are actually more moderate than other Iraqis on many questions -- they're not much interested in a theocracy, not friendly toward Osama bin Laden, more likely to view the U.S. as an appropriate model for their government, etc. And of course the Shiites were abused horribly by Saddam, so they have no romance for the Ba'athist past.

It's important for people to know that Zarqawi, the al Qaeda boss who is leading much of the terrorism in Iraq today, hates the Shiites (60 per cent of Iraq's population) about as much as he hates the U.S. He calls them -- and also the Kurds (another 20 per cent of the Iraqi population) -- "scorpions," and "polytheists," and "the enemy." He says that if they take over running Iraq he will have lost. With the events of the last couple months his worst nightmare is on the way to becoming a reality.

ESR: The Sunnis make up about 20 per cent of the population, enough to be troublesome if the insurrection becomes popular, but you're fairly confident they are a force that will be kept in check, why?

KZ: First, many of them are educated people. Iraq is not a medieval country; there are something like 67 colleges and technical institutes. I met lots of impressive engineers, doctors, professors, people who have made their peace with modernity, and are ready to move on.

And the reality is, the Shiites (along with the Kurds) are going to run this country. They are a large majority and there is no alternative. Now that the government is taking on an Iraqi face, the radical arguments that the country is being hijacked by America are simply losing all validity, and it will become harder and harder to generate public sympathy for continued fighting.

ESR: What's concerning many is the possibility that one day we may see a three-way battle between the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis if ethnic and religious tensions continue. Do think that's likely?

KZ: I explain in one section of Dawn Over Baghdad why the fact that Iraq is divided into Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis is probably a good thing, actually, in the long run, not a disaster as the press often claims. In brief, I believe this tripartite division of cultural power in the country will prevent any one group from leading the whole nation off the deep end, in a spasm like what occurred in Iran in 1979. There is a kind of checks and balances between these three groups which I believe will force them to compromise in some fairly moderate positions -- which is what happened during the drafting of the interim constitution this spring. It turned out to be a much more sane and liberal (in the good sense) document than many expected, because the Iraqi factions had to meet in the middle.

ESR: Overall you seem cautiously optimistic about the future of Iraq. For those of us who receive much of our news from the mainstream media it's sometimes hard to maintain that optimism. Why are you confident?

KZ: I'm not a Pollyanna -- there are reasons that among 22 Arab nations there are zero democracies until now. But my eyewitness experiences leave me reasonably optimistic. Let's remember we're only 16 months into this war; a tremendous amount of progress has been made in that short time. It was four years before Germany was ready for an election after WWII; we ran Japan for seven years. I try to paint a very specific, detailed, and factual picture in Dawn of why I am hopeful on the prospects for Iraq. My opinions are based on hard realities as I've observed them on the ground.

ESR: Any plans on returning to Iraq?

KZ: Presenting deeper reporting on Iraq that gets beyond the conventional wisdom is going to be a long-term project for me. To be honest, it's not my favorite place to visit, but I believe this conflict is the big, unavoidable test for my generation of Americans, so I need to play my little journalistic part in the effort. Particularly since so much of the reporting has turned out to be superficial, incomplete, and alarmist.

My next trip will very possibly involve turning some of the stories and insights in Boots On the Ground and Dawn Over Baghdad into a major documentary, or two. I've been invited to do some filming for national airing in 2005. It would be a major project, so I'm working on details now. I really think the public needs a clearer, fairer, more accurate picture of this fight than they're getting.

The stakes are so high. We're about to find out if contemporary Americans have the stamina and toughness to pull off something as critical as dissolving communism or defeating the Nazis. We've all got our jobs to do as part of this.

ESR: Thank you very much and good luck with Dawn Over Baghdad.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Other related stories: (Open in a new window)

  • The other side of post-war Iraq by Steven Martinovich (July 26, 2004)
    The media is filled with negative stories about post-war Iraq so that makes Karl Zinsmeister's Dawn over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military Is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq important to get the other side of the story out, says Steven Martinovich
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