Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A Peek at the Other Side

Lt. Col. Craig Trebilcock, from the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps, is a local guy about my age who has been in the Army for the past 17 years. He spoke to the Rotary here this week, and by sheer coincidence my newspaper sent perhaps the one reporter on staff who would ask him some good questions, knows something about the military, and has some appreciation for what kind of conditions these folks are working under.

I'm almost hesitant to give his name, in case it turns up on a Google search someday and he gets grief from our very anti-Bush/war editors.

But the reporter was kind enough to send me his full transcript of the interview (only a few sentences actually got into print). I want to run some excerpts from it over time. Most of it deals with the evolution of the legal system over there, and general political issues. But the section I want to start with deals with the media coverage (of course).

Q: I have friends that are, were there, and I get all these reports about how much better things are for the people there than when Saddam was in power, [but] reading the New York Times, the place is a quagmire going to hell worse then when Saddam ran things.

Trebilcock: Yeah, 'here’s the body count, so many guys dead since the president declared victory;' every time I hear that I want to throw up. There’s a few reasons for that. I can’t look inside somebody’s head, I think some of it is politics. Part of it is bombs and deaths grab more attention than 'hey, a new school opened up in Karbala today that will help 200 children have a better education.' You know, that’s kind of a yawner of a headline compared to 'six contractors and one Marine die in fiery blast.'

The other part of it, to tell you the truth I was really disappointed, generally, in the reporting after the big war stopped; I mean the capture of Baghdad and the fall of the former regime. Up till that point there was a lot of great coverage coming back from embed reporters; you know, 'here I am driving forward with the tanks,' and we saw that even over there with the satellite television. Once the war stopped, all the reporters, largely, have hunkered down in Baghdad. And I’m guessing, I don’t know, there are threats out there for reporters running around, et cetera, but everything you see on TV and coming out in the major papers seems to be it’s some reporter in print or TV who is going up on the roof of his hotel and doing a sound bite and then going back to the hotel bar.

I was all over southern Iraq, I mean all over. From Baghdad south, that was my playground and I was out constantly in convoys and stuff; their weren’t any reporters out there. Nobody wants to leave Baghdad, so nobody’s going out into the countryside and covering these: 'here is this new courthouse opening, here’s these Seabees from the Navy, they just built this courthouse from practically nothing. Here’s this new school.' The new waterworks is open. When we rolled into southern Iraq people got electricity two hours a day, now they get it 24 hours a day. None of that’s being covered and it’s frustrating for me personally and professionally because that’s what my unit did, those sort of projects. And they did a sound bite occasionally, but compared to just doing this body count and here’s another burning building, they’re really not getting covered at all.

Q: Did you see the NYTimes yesterday? One of their headlines was “U.S. misses deadline for providing electricity.”

Trebilcock: And it’s probably because the bad guys blew up another pipeline over there and maybe it’s a short-run thing, maybe it’s a long-run thing.

I was stationed most of my time there at a place called Camp Babylon, which is about 60 miles south of Baghdad, and when we first got there I lived in one of [Saddam's] palaces that got looted. We were up on this big hill that towered over the countryside. You could see 50 miles in each direction, and at night, at first, it was like the surface of the moon. I mean it was black as a bottle of ink.

And, each night, as days went on for the next couple of nights, more and more of the lights in the houses and towns out in the countryside in the 50-mile diameter started coming on and coming on. It was like watching the country coming to life. And those lights weren’t out because we had bombed the place; they were out because the old system didn’t provide these people with electricity except for those two hours a day.

It was great ... to watch those lights go on. It was like watching a country go from the Bronze Age level of existence in the southern part of the country to a modern country with electricity. So, the U.S. has blown it with providing electricity? They are being really myopic.

Q: I also read they write about pipelines getting blown up, but they never write about them getting fixed, or how fast they were fixed.

Trebilcock: Or the sacrifice of the people who get shot at to go out and repair them. And not just the military guys, the contractors. I mean, these guys are all heroes. These contractors don’t get near enough credit. I mean they might make a good wage going over there, but you can’t spend it if you’re dead, and a lot of them are at risk a lot of the time.

Q: So, by and large would you tell people that it’s been worth it and we’re doing good over there?

Trebilcock: I would say it’s been worth it. Overall it’s been a success story, some real black blemishes on the radar screen, Abu Ghraib for example. It’s a small group of people, and they should be punished for having done that. At the same time, we’re talking about things that aren’t covered, the amount of restraint that our troops are showing over there is incredible. I mean under the laws of warfare, for example churches and mosques are protected, but if you take fire from them, you can attack them under the laws of war.

Well, there are mosques over there from which our guys got sniped at constantly, and we did not return fire and we did not take on the mosque out of respect for their religion and the Iraqi people. Because we knew the bad guys wanted to draw us into destroying the mosques so they could go on al Jazeera and say, 'here are the jack-booted Americans stomping on your religion.'

So guys got shot out of these mosques and we didn’t even return fire. We would go to the village elders and the religious leaders and say, 'look, we know there’s bad guys in the mosque, you’ve got to get them out of there. We don’t want to destroy the mosque, we respect your religion, please do something.' And they would do something and it would stop for three days, and then the snipers would come back again.

So, any portrayal of these American troops over there as trigger-happy John Wayne types is just so far from the truth it’s not even funny. Bad stuff happens in war. It does. Sometimes people get shot because somebody gets nervous, or overreacts or whatever, but as an army, the training, the rules that given to the soldiers and just their personal restraint is just amazing.