Still the Best Weapon

The last couple of months have been especially rough for American grunts' image in Iraq. First, there were allegations that U.S. Marines massacred Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November. What followed was a flurry of further allegations, as described by the Associated Press:us troop.jpg* On Friday, a Pennsylvania National Guard spokesman said two Guardsmen were being investigated in connection with the shooting death of an Iraqi earlier this year.* On Wednesday, seven Marines and one Navy corpsman were charged in the April shooting death of an Iraqi man in the town of Hamdania. Charging documents claim the man was taken from his home, forced into a hole, shot and left with a stolen AK-47 near him to make it look as if he fought the troops.* On Monday and Wednesday, three Soldiers and a noncommissioned officer were charged in the May deaths of three unarmed Iraqis in military custody in Salahuddin province. A Pentagon official told The Associated Press that the detainees were shot while trying to flee.Finally, this week paratroopers confessed to raping an Iraqi woman and killing her and her family in March.The number of alleged incidents is disturbing enough ... that they've all surfaced around the same time is doubly worrisome. Something's going on here. Perhaps former Marine Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is right in saying that three years of war has so worn down U.S. forces that they can't be trusted to think clearly and act right any more.My experiences in Iraq don't corroborate Rieckhoff's theory. I don't see the American war effort flagging -- at least not on account of individual soldiers' weariness. No, the troops I've embedded with are as motivated and reliable as ever.I can't explain all the recent allegations -- and I eagerly await investigations' findings. In the meantime, on this beautiful 4th of July, let's remember that a few criminals and psychopaths don't represent the entire U.S. military. And the best weapon in the nasty little war is still the young grunt on the ground.To honor U.S. servicepeople in Iraq on the anniversary of our nation's independence, I'm reposting my final journal from Iraq:The Best WeaponOn Feb. 2, M-1 driver Cpl. Walter Howard, 35, was maneuvering his tank against insurgents near the town of Balad when an IED exploded, killing him instantly. At his memorial service today, officers and soldiers wept and held each other. A general, colonels and sergeants major clapped shoulders and doled out hugs. An entire battalion and their brigade leadership poured out their hearts. It was hard to watch.Balad_memorial.jpgHoward, a former Seabee with a wife and a daughter, is the first fatality suffered by Alpha Company, 1-8 Infantry, which since December has occupied a crappy little FOB called McKenzie, where MREs pass for food, the mud is ankle-deep and the mood is plain glum. Theirs is the bad side of Balad; almost every day they take fire from disaffected Sunnis in the city's suburbs. IEDs are a constant threat. And while everyone hopes that Howard will be the only KIA here, most know better.Still, every day Alpha Company rides out in their Humvees, M-2 Bradleys and tanks. Every day they walk the area's filthy streets, knocking on doors or kicking them down, following leads, rounding up bad guys and doing what they can to win the hearts of these poor, untrusting people. Every day they face death side by side, motivated in part by patriotism, duty, pay, their desire to help Iraqis or a lack of anything better to do, but mostly by their love for each other and their refusal to let each other down.Never mind radio jammers, armored vehicles and drones. Never mind multi-billion-dollar programs like FBCB2 and Blue Force Tracker. The real secret weapon of this nasty little war is the young grunt on the ground, the guy who faces Iraq's million little problems with a million little solutions of his own, every day for a year at a time, and who -- while folks back home decry the monetary cost of this war -- bears the true cost, in his blood.Happy 4th of July, America.--David Axe

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