Friday, January 04, 2008

Review of “Chasing Ghosts - Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective” by Paul Rieckhoff

I knew this would be a book well worth reading when I saw the following blurb from my friend, Nate Fick, author of “One Bullet Away”:

“Paul Rieckhoff is a citizen in the classical sense. He went to war when his nation called, but is service didn’t end when he came home. Paul poured his hard-won wisdom into changing the public dialogue about Iraq . . . and it’s working. He’s a patriot, a warrior, an organizer and a leader. Paul’s an inspiration, and you cannot put this book down without realizing that guys like him are changing Iraq, and America too.”

Nate’s eloquent summary of Paul Rieckhoff and his book hits the bull’s-eye. This is a book that added to my understanding – not only of what our troops are facing in Iraq – but what they face when they return home. Rieckhoff makes a strong and passionate case for celebrating the bravery and resolve of our forces fighting in the trenches. He makes an equally compelling and passionate case for holding accountable those at the top of the chain of command whose failure to adequately plan and to properly deploy and equip our forces have led to more suffering than was necessary. President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld do not emerge as heroes in this tawdry tale.

Rieckhoff is a gifted writer, so I will let him make the case in his own words:

“A scenario that happened more times than I can count: a sedan comes barreling towards us. Te headlights are out. The car is not slowing down. Maybe the driver can’t see the line of soldiers in the street. Maybe he doesn’t notice the headlights of two Humvees facing him. Maybe he’s extremely drunk. Maybe the car is filled with a hundred pounds of explosives. We wave our flashlights at the car. But he keeps coming. We scream, yell, and wave our arms. But he keeps coming. We fire warning shots in the air. But he keeps coming. The car is close enough now that I can see the outline of the three passengers inside the cabin. But he keeps coming. I think about the fact that last week, and Squad lit up a car and killed a little girl. The .50-cal rounds blew her head clear off her body. She was wearing a little blue dress. I saw the pictures. But the driver keeps fucking coming. Just a few weeks ago, four American soldiers were killed ten blocks away when a car leaded with explosives ran a checkpoint. One of the soldiers had five kids. Another was nineteen years old and had just gotten married. We fire rounds into the ground feet in front of the bumper. But he keeps coming. There are no alternatives left. The vehicle is close enough that I can see dents in the orange hood.

What would you do?” (Page 117)

Not all that the author shares involve tales of doom and gloom. He offers an uplifting story of his unit adopting an elementary school in a poor section of Baghdad, a school badly in need of their protection, because they were under fire from insurgents who did not want life as usual to continue:

“A little girl, half the size of the others, smiled shyly and took her time before bursting out with ‘How are you?’

‘I am great!’ I exclaimed, and laughed.

And I was. As we climbed back into the Humvees, Rydberg and I were as giddy as two kids who had just been sneaking bong hits behind the school. Talking to that class was without a doubt one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. That was why I came to Iraq: to help little kids keep their school safe.

And maybe to kill a few bad guys along the way.

A few hours later, Sergeant Mac was up high in a water tower near the school with his scope. I also mentioned the school’s situation to an SF [Special Forces] team leader who stopped by the auditorium to pick up an SUV. He had a sniper team with thermal sights looking for work. Three days and a few raids later, the shooting stopped.

For the children in Sector 17, we were the only protection. Bechtel and Halliburton were nowhere in sight. That school would become Third Platoon’s school. And nobody would mess with us . . . or them. The children in that school, and throughout Baghdad, were often our only real joy.” (Page 138)

The disconnection between the President’s words and actions and the reality of life on the ground in Iraq was made starkly clear in this passage:

“One story flabbergasted me. It was dated July 3, 2003, and was titled: ‘Bush warns militants who attack U.S. troops in Iraq. It described a macho speech by the president in which he stated: ‘There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ‘em on.’

Bring ‘em on? What the hell was he thinking? My soldiers and I were searching for car bombs in Medical City and scanning rooftops for snipers, and our president was in Washington taunting our enemies and encouraging them to attack us. Who the hell did he think he was? He had finally taken the cowboy act too far. Iraq was not a movie, and he was not Clint Eastwood. The armchair bravado and arrogance of our commander in chief affected our lives directly and immediately. If I had seen this news story, so had the Iraqis. I just could not fathom what would motivate him to say such a thing. Iraq was in a very fragile state, and we needed our president to be a statesman, not a bully.” (Pages 157-158)

In this tautly written account, the author documents dozens of instances of his unit being asked to perform with less than adequate equipment, lack of uo-to-date and accurate intelligence or proper support from those making decision in air-conditioned command centers far from the front lines. Upon returning from his deployment in Iraq, Rieckhoff felt the need to make sure the voice of the men and women on the ground in Iraq would be heard – in Washington and beyond. Along with several of his colleagues, he founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.


I urge you to read this book, “Chasing Ghosts,” and to visit the Website for IAVA. It is a rich repository of information about what is being done – and what still needs to be done – to support our men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.


No comments: