This week I have been writing about Marines in the Fallujah battle. In response, I received several e-mails taking me to task for writing about men who are killing Iraqi men and, some correspondents implied, perhaps women and children. In response, I'd like to address briefly both operational and strategic aspects of the war in Iraq.
At the operational level, battle is about killing until the enemy forces are destroyed or surrender. The columnist Patrick Graham, who has reported from the insurgent side, recently wrote in the Guardian that "the U.S. Marines are the world's most lethal killing machine." In my view, that should be a source of pride to Americans. For 229 years (Nov. 10 was the Marine Corps' birthday), Marines have been at the forefront in our nation's battles, implacable in the attack. Training and tradition mold that attitude, which is essential in battle.
About one in 300 young Americans chooses to join the Marines. Most say they join for the discipline or to belong to a tough unit. These riflemen are a cross section of America. If they are at all different, it is because they have acquired the experience to be forbearing and to do their job of killing while retaining a keen appreciation for the sanctity of life and the tragedy of war.
Lest that sound like gobbledygook, let me relate a story. Based on his visits to Fallujah, Patrick Graham wrote that "it is the sniper the people of Fallujah fear more than anything else." Yet the sniper is the most discriminating of weapons, suggesting that the "people" Graham referred to were the jihadist fighters. I was on a roof during the April siege in Fallujah with a Marine sergeant who was a sniper. One afternoon, he told me, he saw an old man hobble out of his house, supported by his teenage son. They shuffled next door and returned with a few groceries. The son paused to look toward the Marine position before going indoors. On a hunch, the sniper kept watch, and a half-hour later, the young Iraqi sneaked out with a rifle, hid behind a wrecked car, and aimed in. The sniper shot him in the street. From the house came a sharp cry. A few minutes later, the old man hobbled slowly out and, step by faltering step, dragged the body back into the courtyard. The sniper watched through his scope as the old man began to dig a grave.
Marines are keenly aware of war's human toll. The sergeant had no idea what that young Iraqi was thinking. He didn't like killing someone's son. But Marines don't wear their emotions on their sleeves, and they have zero sympathy for the jihadists trying to kill them. If America needs a hard job done, the Marines will do it, and they won't lose their humanity in the process or any sleep over pulling the trigger. Yes, they are "the world's most lethal killing machine." That's what America needs in battle.
Why America entered into the battle in the first place is a strategic question. In Afghanistan, the Taliban sheltered Bin Laden. In Fallujah, a jihadist council sheltered Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Fallujah had to be taken. How we came to be in Iraq will be debated for many years. But we go forward from where we are, not where we would like to be. To walk away from Iraq is out of the question. A failed Iraqi state would become a breeding ground for radicals and terrorists, with tectonic consequences in the region and in Europe, as well as an increase in attacks against Americans.
In Fallujah, Samarra, and Ramadi, American troops will win the battles. The United States, however, cannot win a war of attrition against the insurgents in the Sunni cities, where American soldiers are seen as the infidel invaders. Only Iraqis, led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other believers in a pluralistic democracy, can defuse the Sunni insurgency. Under Saddam (and for centuries before him), 5 million Sunnis oppressed 13 million Shiites. Democracy is a threat to many who benefited from the old ways.
The insurgents are an amalgam of jihadists who must be destroyed, former regime elements who must be neutralized or destroyed, and unemployed, uneducated, emotional youths who are being manipulated and who must be won over. Too many Sunni imams, fearful of losing temporal power, are preaching hate and despair to the desperately ignorant. American troops can stand against those who bear weapons against them. But U.S. soldiers cannot persuade Iraqis to support a new form of government that brings a dramatic shift in the Iraqi centers of power.
In polls, most Iraqis support democracy. Whether they are willing to fight as fiercely as the jihadists has yet to be proved. We will see, in Fallujah and other cities over the next three months, whether the fledgling Iraqi security forces can maintain order in the face of strong resentment and whether Sunni leaders gradually recognize that the new order is as implacable as the U.S. Marines—meaning, get on board or lose out on the future.