August 20, 2007

How to Spy in Iraq

By Michael J. Totten

BAGHDAD – American soldiers arrived in Iraq in 2003 with not much of a plan and little idea what to expect. The Iraqi government, military, and police were overthrown and disbanded under de-Baathification. Most Iraqis who knew how to run the country were either sent home or imprisoned. Americans were in charge of just about everything even though they had no experience running even their own country let alone a traumatized and suspicious Arab society. They were confounded by its exotic and dysfunctional ways. When Sunni and Shia militias launched wars against each other and against the Americans, confusion turned to bewilderment.

General David Petraeus fared better than other American commanders in cracking the code of Iraqi society and reducing the insurgency in Mosul from an explosion to a simmer. I saw some of the results of his strategy’s expansion to Baghdad with troops in the 82nd Airborne Division. Instead of staying on base and training Iraqis while security disintegrated outside the wire, they moved into a neighborhood in Baghdad where they now live and work among the civilian population 24 hours a day.

Clear, hold, and build is the strategy now. The Graya’at neighborhood has been cleared of active insurgents, although there still are dormant cells in the area. The Army is working on several modest community and urban renewal projects and is planning larger ones in the near future. Constant patrols and intelligence gathering are the two crucial pieces of the hold part of the strategy.

I went out one night with Lieutenant Larry Pitts and his men one of their intel gathering missions.

“We’ll collect info on Shias in Sunni areas and Sunnis in Shia areas,” he told me. “We make the best of it by going out and meeting the local people. It works because we have a decent reputation around here that we’ve been cultivating for a long time. Reporters would get it more if they were with us from the beginning.”

We saddled up in Humvees, drove down quiet residential streets, and dismounted on a street near a palm grove.

Children came out of their houses to meet us.

Kids Baghdad with Lt Pitts.jpg

We walked, and kept walking, so the parked Humvees would give no indication whose house we were going to visit. When we eventually reached our destination, some of the soldiers dispersed and set up checkpoints several blocks away in each direction.

“We’re trying to make it slightly less obvious that we’re having a meeting here,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

Two families of men, women, and children met us on the lawn inside the gate. Hugs and formal greetings in Arabic were exchanged. Everyone seemed happy to see everyone else. The soldiers had been to this house before. No one but me was a stranger. I was instantly made to feel welcome, however. No people in the world are more hospitable than Arabs, and that includes Iraqis in war time.

A handful of soldiers went inside and made their way to the roof. There they could watch the entire street with their night vision goggles and take out anyone stupid enough to mount an attack on the house. Soldiers are killed in Iraq every day, but it’s still hard to feel nervous even in Baghdad when you’re surrounded by these guys.

The night was reasonably cool for Baghdad in the summer. The temperature rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit before midnight, but this night it felt like a cool 90 by ten p.m.

Plastic lawn chairs were arranged in a circle on the grass. I expected a relaxing evening of important conversation in comfort. The lawn chairs, though, were not for us. The owner of the house said we should have our meeting inside.

“He owns a store,” Lieutenant Pitts said to me on the way in. “He sells us phone cards and stuff at the right price, not at a jacked up rate. We call his store Wal-Mart.”

Inside the house was brutally hot. The lights were on, but the air conditioner was off. The fierce heat of the day couldn’t escape into the atmosphere like it could in the yard. If we were in the U.S. I would have suggested we sit outside, but I was the stranger and a mere observer in a foreign land and was not about to complain.

The home owner turned on the air conditioner, but it would take a long time for the room to cool down.

“Can I take pictures?” I asked him.

“Of course, of course,” he said. “Just please don’t publish pictures of our faces in Iraq.”

Publishing pictures on the Internet is the same as publishing pictures in Iraq. So I have to be careful about what I let you see. I can't show you the faces of any Iraqis.

The living room, or salon, was bigger than the entire downstairs of my house in the United States. Most Iraqis live in large houses, but this one was also lavishly decorated with plush couches, nice oak cabinets, and tasteful decorations. The occupants had a much better sense of aesthetics than Saddam Hussein’s family, who decorated their tacky palaces as though they were the Beverly Hillbillies of the Arabs.

We all took our seats on the large billowing sofas. An eleven year old boy placed a small wooden table in front of each of us and served soft drinks and tea.

Tea Baghdad with Lt Pitts.jpg

The soldiers and the Iraqis discussed the rather mundane minutiae of joint community projects. I wrote down much of the dialogue, but it is not terribly interesting and, besides, I wouldn’t want to reveal too much about who these Iraqis are and what they do. Everyone in the community knows they work with Americans. What they don’t know is that they also pass on reliable and actionable intelligence to the military about the identities and whereabouts of terrorists and insurgents.

Lieutenant Pitts passed around a bag of salted American peanuts. Each Iraqi took a handful and wasn’t sure what to do with them.

“They’re peanuts,” he said. “Just like the peanuts you eat, only they’re still in the shell.”

The owner of the house broke open a peanut with his hands.

“No,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “You need to put it in your mouth and suck the salt off it first.”

The children in the room smiled at me and asked me over and over again to please take their picture. I can’t show you their faces, though, because I do not want to put them in danger.

“We brought toys for the kids,” Lieutenant Pitts said. Sergeant Roma and another soldier whose name I didn’t catch handed out Beanie Babies, toy trucks, and coloring books as though they were Christmas presents. One of the boys sprawled on the floor and “drove” his toy truck across the carpet while making loud “vroom” noises.

“Everyone working on the [omitted] project should be paid by the end of the week,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“Thank you, Captain,” said the man who owned the house. It was the second time he referred to Pitts as a captain.

“I’m a lieutenant, not a captain,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “So please don’t call me captain. If one of my superior officers were sitting here and heard you call me a captain he might get mad at me and think I’m misrepresenting myself.”

Lt Pitts Baghdad.jpg
Lieutenant Larry Pitts

I leaned over and whispered to the lieutenant. “You didn’t come here to talk about community projects, did you?”

“Of course not,” he said. “We’re fishing for something else. It’s a process. Some new lieutenants don’t get the culture, and the locals won’t give them the time of day. How many times have you let total strangers in your house and given them everything they wanted right away?”

The air conditioning was on, I had taken off my body armor and helmet, but I was still roasting. The couch seat and cushions radiated an extraordinary amount of heat that had built up all day. Almost every damn thing in Iraq is hot to the touch, even cushions. I felt as though I was standing too close to a campfire, but I could not step away.

Lieutenant Pitts’ radio squawked. He answered and grinned as the soldier on the other end of the conversation gave him the humorous news.

“They just caught a DUI at the checkpoint outside,” he said.

The soldiers all laughed. Our interpreter Nathan translated, and the Iraqis laughed too.

“What do you do with a DUI?” I said.

Lieutenant Pitts shrugged and shook his head. American soldiers in areas cleared of insurgents act like police officers in many ways – Baghdad P.D. as one soldier put it – but they can’t be bothered with trivial matters like these. That’s for the Iraqi Police who probably don’t care much about drunk drivers either. There are so many more critical problems in Baghdad.

For hours we lounged on the sofas and discussed minor community matters and touched on subjects that were utterly trivial.

Nathan asked our host for a cigarette. He was given a long brown “More” brand menthol.

“Nathan is smoking!” said Sergeant Roma.

“Since when do you smoke?” said the soldier at the far end of the room whose name and rank I didn’t catch.

“It’s my first cigarette ever,” Nathan said.

It was hard to believe Nathan had never once smoked a cigarette. He grew up in Sadr City. Almost everyone in Iraq seems to smoke.

I took a picture of the occasion. Nathan didn’t mind.

Nathan First Cigarette.jpg
Interpreter Nathan smokes his first cigarette

Lieutenant Pitts wiped the sweat off his forehead.

“You Iraqis have the right idea wearing dishdashas,” he said. The dishdasha is the loose-fitting white “robe” worn by many Arab men in hot regions. “They’re a lot more comfortable in this heat than our uniforms. I asked the colonel if I started wearing a dishdasha around the base in my off time if he would think I was crazy. He said he would send me away.”

Everyone laughed. If the Iraqis were offended – and Pitts did not mean his comment that way – they didn’t show it.

“The soccer field you’re building,” said our host to the lieutenant, “is great for the kids, but it also helps with security. Insurgents were using that area as a base. Thank you, thank you.” He put his hand on his heart.

“Listen,” said another Iraqi, who wore a long black beard as well as a dishdasha. “I have something to tell you, but it has to be away from the children.”

He said this in English so the children would not understand. A young man led them outside and suggested they play with their new toys on the lawn.

“When you came and liberated this country,” he continued, “Iraq had 25 million Saddams. America is turning us back into human beings. That soccer field is not for a specific person. It is for everybody. We appreciate that. We believe that if Americans have something that is ours, they will return it to us. If the Iraqi government has something that is ours, we forget it.”

Our host for the evening nodded in agreement.

“We support you,” the man continued. “You support our back, we support your back. But you must understand: If you pull back, we will pull back. I will have no choice but to pull back if I can’t depend on you. It will be much harder for us to stand together. But as long as you stand firmly behind us we will support you against Moqtada al Sadr and the other bastards in the area.”

“Are they Sunnis?” I said to Lieutenant Pitts. Moqtada al Sadr leads the radical Shia Mahdi Army militia.

“No,” he said. “They are Shias. But they don’t like any of the idiot groups, regardless of sect. They want peace.”

It was late at night, but the Iraqis said we needed to eat. I had no idea, but in hindsight I should have known. It seems no Arab is happy if I’m in his house and he isn’t feeding me.

“Come to the table,” said our host. “Let’s have some chicken.”

The soldiers and I walked to the table in the next room and found an enormous spread of barbecued chicken, lamb kebabs, vegetables, and tearable flat bread. The Iraqis deferred to the soldiers, and the soldiers deferred to me. I was the lone foreign civilian, so I was expected to go first. There were no chairs at the table.

“Just stand and eat at the table,” Lieutenant Pitts whispered to me.

There was also no silverware. Iraqis eat with their hands.

I tore off a hunk of barbecued chicken and rolled it into some bread. The spices tasted vaguely of lime.

“This is delicious,” I said. And it was. This was the soldiers’ cue that they could now eat.

“This is some really good chicken,” said Sergeant Roma. He wasn’t just being polite. “It’s much better than the chicken we have at the D-FAC [military dining facility].”

This is how soldiers spend most of their time when they gather intelligence on terrorists and insurgents in Iraq. Not until the very end of the meeting, which is almost strictly social and takes many hours, does anyone get down to business. Jumping right in with a list of intelligence questions is considered the height or rudeness except in extreme or unusual circumstances.

“Would you like a glass of arak?” our host graciously asked me.

Arak is the Arabic version of ouzo, the milky white liquor that tastes of licorice.

“I would love some,” I said. “But I am not allowed to drink alcohol while embedded with the military.”

“Go ahead, it’s okay,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“I should probably follow the rules,” I said. I hadn’t been embedded long enough to feel like flouting rules yet, but in hindsight I hope I didn’t offend him by turning him down.

After eating we returned, stuffed, to the couches. Nathan, our interpreter, was needed outside. To my surprise, Lieutenant Pitts continued his conversation with our Iraqi hosts, unaided, in Arabic.

“How long did you study Arabic?” I said to him during a lull in the conversation.

“I haven’t studied it,” he told me.

He hadn’t? Most non-native speakers can’t hold down a conversation until they have studied Arabic formally for several years.

“I just listen very carefully before our interpreters translate,” he continued, “and I’ve been picking it up. I still need Nathan to help with the nuances and specifics, but I understand basically what they are saying. And they understand me even though I am not speaking correctly.”

The Army has come a long way since they first arrived in Iraq, and Lieutenant Pitts was shaping up to be a real American Arabist.

We still hadn’t done anything, though, except hang out and socialize with Iraqis. I knew the drill, however. I often work the same way in the Middle East as a reporter when I’m not embedded.

Much of what I do in the Middle East is have dinner and tea, and sometimes alcohol, with Middle Easterners and learn how their culture works and what they think. Most Arabs will tell you far more and answer more honestly over food and drinks than they will if you rattle off a list of pre-packaged questions like you’re pumping them for information. Government officials usually skip the formalities and the socializing, but few others do.

Sergeant Roma, who sat to my left, also speaks Arabic.

Roma Baghdad.jpg
Sergeant Roma

“They think that makes me a spy,” he said, “and that I must be from Jerusalem. They don’t mind, though.”

This was typical of the Arab world, but also a bit odd. They think he’s a spy? What did they think we were doing there in their house? This was an intelligence gathering operation. It was, more or less, spying. The only difference is that the soldiers were up front about it, even though (and this is not contradictory) no one said anything about intelligence gathering yet. Nobody had to. Everyone knew what was up. The United States military has better things to do in Iraq than socialize just for the sake of socializing.

That doesn’t mean the food and gifts and chit chat were a sham. The friendship and affection between these Americans and Iraqis is real. Several soldiers and officers told me that what surprises them most about their time in Iraq is how emotionally attached they’ve become to Iraqis in general and to specific individuals in particular. They didn’t expect it, but that’s what happened. And it’s considered a waste of that friendship to talk strictly business. The business wouldn’t be possible anyway if the friendship and trust weren’t there first.

“Some people around here think anyone who talks to Americans is a spy,” said the Iraqi man with the beard.

I have been suspected and accused of being a spy in every Arab country I’ve been to. The accusation is usually not serious, rarely feels threatening, and is usually humorous or annoying, depending on the context and who said it. But the truth is that huge numbers of Iraqis who talk to Americans really do supply actionable intelligence on terrorists and insurgents. They risk retaliation, but if they don’t take that risk they risk getting ethnically cleansed or car bombed at the market instead. Iraq is an extreme country in a state of emergency. Spies – and I’m using the term loosely here, not referring to James Bond type characters – are literally everywhere.

The only areas of Iraq where the locals won’t provide much intelligence is where the American presence is thin on the ground. It’s not worth risking reprisals if no one is around to provide security. This is one of the major reasons Iraq spiraled out of control for several years. American troops did not provide security for civilians. Today, though, they are.

“We’ve been getting to know these people for months,” Lieutenant Pitts told me before we arrived at the house. “We thought if we got to know them as people and promised to protect them from violence that they would help us win the war against the insurgents. And it works.”

“Some people complain about Iraqis working with Americans,” said the man with the beard. “But then many of them work for Americans as soon as they are offered a job. When they complain they are just jealous. Give people jobs. That is the key.”

“In the four years you have been here,” our host said, “only lately have you finally come around and talked to us about what we want and need.”

“Hopefully in the last six months we’ve been able to improve your area,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“Yes,” said the host. “Yes! And what about big projects like hospitals?”

“Soon, in the future,” said the lieutenant. “We do have some big projects coming up.”

One of those big projects is the installation of 1,500 solar-powered street lights in the neighborhood. Most sectors of Baghdad only get one hour of electricity every day. And the Iraqi sun is so fierce, solar powered lights are almost a no-brainer. Insurgents sabotage the electrical grid and make it all but irreparable, but there’s no grid for decentralized solar lights to attack.

“Right now you’re light,” our host said. “If you do big projects people will really love you. People see we’re working with you. Support all of us more and it will be okay. They will love you. They will even give you their shoes.”

“What about the big fight at the mayor’s house?” Lieutenant Pitts said. He was referring to the mayor of the neighborhood of Graya’at, not the mayor of the entire city of Baghdad.

“The mayor works for himself,” said the host. “His son, though, was listening to music in his parked car. Mahdi Army men came up and threw sandals at him and beat him up. They fired warning shots in the air. The shots were a way of saying We have weapons.

“A big problem is that lots of displaced people are coming back into this area,” said the man with the beard.

“And what about the illegal checkpoint that we busted up?” said the lieutenant. “I need to know the fallout.”

We weren’t quite getting down to brass tacks yet, but were close.

“What you need to do,” said the host, “is bust up two or three of the other checkpoints so people don’t think you’re taking sides. They are checking ID cards to find out if people are Sunni or Shia.”

The lieutenant and our interpreter Nathan whispered conspiratorially. Pitts nodded. They clearly worked well together.

“Tell them they are only allowed two checkpoints,” the host said, “one at each end of the market. None in the middle. They are taking 5,000 dinars from each vehicle. They use that money to buy weapons for the Mahdi Army.”

“Have you heard about anyone storing weapons?” said Lieutenant Pitts. “Not in these houses but in [omitted]?”

“No,” said the man with the beard.

“We got a report that there are caches there,” said the lieutenant.

“We’ll keep our eyes open,” said our host. “We will [omitted] and get back to you.”

I’m leaving out certain details by choice to protect these Iraqis, but I still want to give you an idea about what was said.

They have clever ways of keeping their eyes on the neighborhood. Their methods have always been used in the alleyways of Arab societies. Insurgents can possibly guess what those methods are, but they will not learn it from me.

Lieutenant Pitts pulled a color print picture out of his pocket. “Do you recognize this man?” he said.

He passed the picture around.

“This guy is bad guy,” he said. “He’s done some bad things to Shias. I was hoping to catch him these evening.”

It was news to me that I might be along for the ride during a night raid. But no one seemed to recognize him, so it looked like that wasn’t happening.

“We have some Sunni friends in [omitted],” Lieutenant Pitts said. “But they’re afraid to tell us about bad Sunnis. We know [omitted] lives in this area. There are no Sunnis here. I just want to sit down and talk to [omitted]. I think he’s the final piece to this puzzle. Then we’ll be able to roll these guys up. We’ve tried to get this guy before, but some other Sunnis in the area warned him in advance that we were after him.”

“I am sorry, my friend,” said the man with the beard and shook his head.

“If you can provide even a small piece of information,” said the lieutenant. “The fuel station we’re building will be open soon. The swing gates and security checkpoints at the market are already in place. The solar lights will be installed shortly.”

The Iraqis shook their heads. I doubt Pitts needed to remind them of what the Army had done for them lately. They seemed plenty motivated already, as Shias, to get Shia-murdering Sunni thugs off the streets.

It was time to move on to the next house. We said our goodbyes and I sincerely thanked the generous Iraqis for their hospitality. When the soldiers rose from the couch the kids ran up and gave them high-fives.

“One last thing,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “If you come back from your vacation in [omitted] and you don’t bring us pictures, we are taking over your store.”

Everyone laughed at the obvious joke.

“We will bring you a gift from outside,” said the man with the beard.

“A real live woman?” said the lieutenant. “Will you bring me a second wife?”

More big laughs all around.

I strapped on my body armor.

“Do you want to stay a while longer and take a nap?” said our host.

“Thank you,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “But we have work to do tonight.”

They’ll have work to do for years.


Those men were Shias who lived among Sunnis. Next we would meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias.

We drove for five minutes, parked the Humvees, and quietly, casually, walked to a different part of the neighborhood.

Grayaat Baghdad at Night.jpg

I had no idea where we were going, and we seemed to take random turns to disguise our intent and direction in case anyone watched.

Then, out of the blue, Lieutenant Pitts tried not to look obvious as he rang somebody’s doorbell.

The city was dark, quiet, and still, and not in an ominous way. It may not have been tranquil, but it felt like it was. As was often the case, I was surprised how relaxed I felt in Baghdad. Suddenly two feral cats screeched and fought tooth and claw in the street.

A man came out the front door and opened the gate leading into the courtyard. He saw me and several soldiers and quietly beckoned us in. We did not go in the house, though. We crouched next to the wall just inside the courtyard where no one could see us. Someone could have heard our conversation if they were standing just on the other side of the wall, but several soldiers spread out on the streets and made sure nobody did.

“Hello,” the man said in English. “I was wondering when you would show up.”

The man had briefly approached Lieutenant Pitts in public a few weeks before and said he had some information to give him. Not wanting to appear obvious, Pitts asked the man where he lived and said he would pay him a visit at some unknown time in the future.

This was that time.

“Do you mind if I take your picture?” I said. I was almost certain he would say no, but thought I would ask.

He laughed. “No, no please don’t,” he said.

“It’s amazing that you asked,” said Sergeant Roma, who crouched next to me. “Most reporters just take the picture.”

“Of course I asked,” I said. “I am not going to risk getting him killed for a picture.”

Sergeant Roma nodded and rolled his eyes at the behavior of some reporters who had embedded with him in the past.

The Iraqi man works for the Baghdad government at a ministry I will not identify in the Green Zone. He showed us his card. “I would never show this card outside the gate in this neighborhood,” he told me.

The cats continued fighting in the street, loud enough to wake people up. Still, we did not go inside. Everyone just lowered their voices.

Jaysh al Mahdi [Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia] may want to attack this area,” the man said. “Mostly Sunnis live here. We don’t cause problems for anyone. This area is totally quiet.”

I can vouch for that. No violence erupted anywhere near me at any time during my stay. I wasn’t just lucky. The U.S. Army soldiers based in the area haven’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in early 2007.

I had thought, though, that we were going to meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias. I asked the lieutenant what happened to the plan. He said he changed it at the last minute when he remembered he needed to meet with this man.

“The American military needs to make sure no one has weapons but you,” the man said. “We are suffering from bandits and thieves. I am Sunni, but I don’t pray any more.”

“Why not?” I said, expecting him to say he was disgruntled with his religion for some reason.

“So Jaysh al Mahdi doesn’t know I am Sunni,” he said. “So many Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police belong to the Mahdi Army.”

It was the middle of the night and we had awoken the man from his bed. The usual Arab formalities and socialization ritual therefore was skipped. Sometimes it’s okay to get right down to business in Baghdad.

Jaysh al Mahdi kidnapped eleven people from this area, killed them, and left their bodies in the dump,” the man said. “I can provide you with the names of the people who did this.”

Considering where the man worked, I believed his information was credible. So did Lieutenant Pitts.

“Colonel [omitted] in the Iraqi Army works with intel files,” the man said. “He pulls files on individual Sunnis and has them assassinated one by one. I know someone who killed 25 people. I reported him to the Iraqi Army and they reported him to the U.S. Army. He was detained for two days and let go. What the hell is going on?”

Lieutenant Pitts shook his head. “I will take care of it,” he said.

“I told this to a different Iraqi Army Colonel,” the informant said, “a man who I thought could be trusted. He said he would help, but he didn’t do anything. You know, Iran is providing weapons to these people. The same guy who killed all these people wants to operate in the [omitted] area. I would give you chai [tea], but it’s the middle of the night.”

“Of course,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “It’s not a problem, and I am sorry for waking you. Listen, would you rather we meet in person or speak on the phone? I don’t want to put you in danger.”

“It is better if we speak on the phone,” the man said.

“Okay,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “We’ll get out of here and let you get back to sleep.”

The man gave the lieutenant his phone number.

“I will not share this number with anyone,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “You gave this number to me, and it will stay only with me. You do not need to worry about who else might get it.”

“Thank you, lieutenant,” the man said.

“And from now on we will only speak on the phone. For your protection. If I see you on the street I will just casually say Salam Aleikum and walk right on past.”

Postscript: Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I'll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 20, 2007 10:19 PM


I wonder if we've been too expeditious in our business meetings in Iraq. We've gotten things done in under eight hours at times. Possibly it's just that our friends the Kurds are exceptionally anxious to help us.

I think they'll like it better if we can take more time in the future.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at August 20, 2007 11:43 PM

Great stuff as always. Without guys like you, stories like this would never be told.

Posted by: Ken at August 21, 2007 01:06 AM

Another fantastic story. After reading M. Yon again ... you're a better writer. I don't know why (but I know better when I read it). He has more exciting stuff, more often tho.

The infiltration of Iraq Army killers in the Ministry will be the toughest problem to solve.

Witnesses will be murdered so "proof" of guilt will be extremely hard -- harder than with org. crime, but similar in the need for witness protection.

There is also the issue that "nobody is innocent" -- how many of the untried, murdered Sunnis had been terrorist supporters? Or ex-Baathists?

The Iraqi Sunnis urgently need to understand they support American imposed human rights for minorities, or else they'll be facing a genocidal fight against Shia who have been trained and armed by the Americans.

More please!

Posted by: Tom Grey at August 21, 2007 02:26 AM

"American soldiers arrived in Iraq in 2003 with not much of a plan and little idea what to expect."

Kind of like saying that Sadr City is a no-go zone, even as we're killing JAM goons daily.

If I were your editor, I'd chop out all the editorializing--your one weak area--and make you stick purely to the facts.

Then you'd go from being a good journalist to being a great journalist, possibly one of the greatest.

Posted by: Tom W. at August 21, 2007 03:41 AM

solid reporting, Michael.

Posted by: john marzan at August 21, 2007 07:09 AM

Have to respectfully disagree with you there Tom W. I'll take (what you consider) editorializing of this sort any time. If you don't trust the writer then I can see how you might feel this way. When the writer has this sort of reputation and knowledge base it's really not an editorial. I've been reading him for quite a while now so for me, Mr Totten's credentials are impecable.

2 cents..

Posted by: Steve D at August 21, 2007 08:32 AM

Steve D,

I agree with you. While sticking exactly to the facts might make Michael a "Great Journalist", he'll soon be one that nobody reads. Michael can and does write in strictly factually based format, when people pay him to. I have no doubt that Michael will be along shortly to direct you to articles of his that he wrote along strict lines.

On his blog, Michael gets to be his own editor and this is the kind of writing that satisfies his own, very demanding, criteria. If that does not meet the highest expectations of some people, until they are paying him magazine rates for coverage of topics, they can just endure the disappointment.

If you would like to employ Mr. Totten for a specific type of article covering a specific subject, he would be happy to have your trade. Be generous, he's got a mortgage to pay, and I'm trying to get him to work consulting gigs that cause him less frustration than writing to arbitrary standards.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at August 21, 2007 09:31 AM

I've recently started reading your column and often send links to your latest writings. I beleive your reporting directly from "the horse's mouth" is extremely important. Getting what you are gathering from the Iraqis themselves instead of listening to the sensationalized headline news we get here is the only way we're going to win the "war of indifference" at home. People have become so desensitized to everything over there, including me, because the bad news is all we hear. But getting even small bits of good news gives me encouragement that what we're doing over there is actually worth something, and may be the key to eventually helping Iraq turn the corner.
Anyway, I always enjoy your posts and look forward to new ones eagerly. Thanks for sharing with us.

Posted by: Jen B at August 21, 2007 09:31 AM

To second what Steve D just said, if someone thinks that we did arrive in Iraq with a plan and any idea what to expect, what happened? From my recollection of what was said going in, and what happened early on, if there was a plan it had no basis in reality. If we knew what to expect, why did we just let things go the way that they did?

Today, we seem to be at least headed in the right direction. Maybe it is too late. Maybe we will end up pullng out rather than staying long enough to make things go right. But at least we have started to abandon a lot of the mistakes of the first 4-5 years. And Mr. Totten is showing us that.

Posted by: wj at August 21, 2007 09:33 AM

Mr. Totten,

The only areas of Iraq where the locals won’t provide much intelligence is where the American presence is thin on the ground. It’s not worth risking reprisals if no one is around to provide security. This is one of the major reasons Iraq spiraled out of control for several years. American troops did not provide security for civilians. Today, though, they are.

I found this to be quite revealing. I know you only got to see a few parts of the country, but I wanted to ask you why you thought that "today, though they [the Americans] are" providing security for civilians? We still don't have enough American troops in the country to follow proper counterinsurgency strategies and principles. Why do you feel we are? Foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia keep pouring into the country. Shi'ite tribes are killing each other now down in the south (the second regional governor has been killed recently in intra-tribal fighting), Sunni extremists are killing Yazidis in the worst terrorist attack since 9/11, and the government is in near collapse. What civilians are being "protected" by the Americans?

Posted by: Dan at August 21, 2007 09:36 AM


Civilians are being protected by Americans in the areas I went to. And I am writing about the areas I went to, not the areas I didn't see. How can I write about the parts of Iraq I have never been to?

I didn't go everywhere, and since I was with the military the entire time I was not able to visit areas without an American military presence. So it logically follows that civilians are protected by the military everywhere I went.

The first thing everyone needs to understand about Iraq is that it's not the same everywhere. Conditions vary wildly from place to place. And I can only write about one place at a time.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 09:43 AM

Oh, and I didn't say I think we have enough troops in Iraq. It would be better if we had more. I've said that before. I just don't say it often because bloviating about it is not what I do. I would rather report the war than run it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 09:47 AM

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 08/21/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

Posted by: David M at August 21, 2007 10:11 AM


We don't need more troops, we need more earmarks and bases. Just ask Congress, they'll sort you right out about this. Who needs 10 divisions when you can have earmarks?

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at August 21, 2007 10:29 AM

Great job Sir! I too am a recent addition to your readership but have found your reports more plausible and believable than most of what I read on the major news networks.

Thank you for sharing your eyes with us, well done again.

Posted by: Bryan at August 21, 2007 10:32 AM

If we could triple the amount of troops we could win for sure. But we can't, we don't have that many.

I have no idea what is going to happen in that country. One thing you really learn by showing up is how bottomlessly complicated and unpredictable it really is. It's hard to get that across in writing, but it hits you hard in the face when you're there.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 10:38 AM

That you live here, and that the Oregonian doesn't have you on their payroll tells quite a story about the Oregonian.

It is sad that your reporting doesn't fit their narrative thread. It hasn't always been so. Back in the early 80's the Oregonian was actually a pretty good paper. I love reading newspapers, but it will be 13 years this October since I have subscribed to the "O".

Thank you for doing such an admirable job.

Posted by: OregonGuy at August 21, 2007 10:44 AM


I approached the Oregonian years ago and asked if they were interested in publishing my work. They said they will only publish local material from local writers, that they get their national and international coverage from wire agencies and syndicates. They offered to pay me 25 dollars each for freelanced local articles, as if journalism is a hobby.

If you ever wondered why it is such an atrociously bad newspaper, there you go. No one with talent would sell their work for 25 dollars. Writers need to eat and pay bills like everyone else.

They did "hire" some local bloggers to write on their Web site, but they don't pay them a dime and no one knows their Oregonian blogs even exist.

There are many good writers in Portland. None of them work there.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 11:05 AM

My friend Joel who lives here is also a foreign correspondent. He travels to and writes about Latin America. But he does not do this for the Oregonian. He does this for the Wall Street Journal. They want quality material and they pay real money. So they get his services while the Oregonian languishes, unread, in oblivion.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 11:07 AM

I couldn't enjoy this article to the point that I could not read it. Unless the details you provided were untrue - they provided enough information for this man and his family to be identified. That could result in his torture and death. I would have enjoyed it more without such specific details - or with the knowledge that you had changed some of the details to protect the innocent.

You are a great writer and with it comes responsibility.

Posted by: Becky at August 21, 2007 11:38 AM

Every time I write something from Iraq I am accused by somebody of endangering people, even though I know what I'm doing and think about this every time I write a sentence. I always ask Iraqis how much information they are comfortable with me revealing, and what I should conceal.

I am also very careful not to photograph or publish information that is classified by the military. Off-the-record information I'm exposed to is factored into my analysis but is never revealed, not even in the comments section.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 11:50 AM

Welcome back, Michael. Thanks for another very compelling piece of work. As a former Army Captain who spent a year in the very areas you are covering, your writings bring back a lot of thoughts about the "reality" over there. Ever since I got back stateside, people always ask me to describe what my experience over there was like. Until now, it was a bit hard to describe. Now, I send them a link to your site as it is the single best representation of the dichotomy that is Baghdad, in particular . Please keep up the good work.

I hope everyone who appreciates your reports will donate to your cause as I did.

Posted by: Rob at August 21, 2007 12:16 PM

Exceptional Michael, as always. Particularly touching were the bits about the DUI (nice to see they're beginning to have NORMAL problems) and the bit about the soccer field / 25 million Saddams being turned back into human beings. Invaluable work.

Kind rgs,

Posted by: Scott Moshen at August 21, 2007 01:07 PM

Excellent stuff. Don't worry about the "editorializing" criticism; with a dash of background here and there and select quotes from your previous articles, would it not be considered perfect material for The New York Times Magazine? The only thing I miss is the recipe for that chicken...

Posted by: Solomon2 at August 21, 2007 01:28 PM

Mr. Totten,

You refrained from flouting the rules, not flaunting them. Nobody knows this except me anymore, it seems. :-)

Posted by: Ed the Roman at August 21, 2007 01:35 PM


Not according to them! Thanks for the compliment, though.

I actually wouldn't publish this in the NYTimes magazine if I were an editor. It is not in-depth enough. It's just a dramatization of a few hours.

I have much better and more important material coming up from Ramadi that would be more suited for a magazine. I'll publish it here, though, and see if any magazines want to reprint it.

Most will not reprint anything regardless of quality. I think that's a mistake because hardly any of their readers would have already seen it, but whatever.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 01:37 PM

You refrained from flouting the rules, not flaunting them

Wow, what a stupid mistake. Corrected, thanks.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 01:38 PM


I'd be curious about your reaction to an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times attributed to the following "infantrymen and noncommissioned officers" in the 82nd Airborne Div:
Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant. Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant. Omar Mora is a sergeant. Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant. Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant. Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.
Posted by: JM Hanes at August 21, 2007 02:37 PM

JM Hanes,

There are some very good points in that article.

I'm negotiating with a newspaper editor right now as we speak about writing an op-ed on the surge. I am insisting on having an ambiguous answer about whether or not it is working or not. He strongly wants me to come down on one side or another, but I refuse. The situation is too complicated, and I'm in no mood to arrogantly pontificate on it.

We'll see if ambiguity sells in the media. He is resistant, but I am still trying.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 02:52 PM

Wow! What an insight this gives me about the Iraqi culture! I can now see how our guys could become close to many of the local people. Your post reveals the human side of the situation and I appreciate every word you've written. Keep it up!! I also know that if our local police dept wouldn't back me up, I wouldn't reveal information either! Duh! God, I hope we don't abandon these people just when we (our soldiers) have earned their trust.

Posted by: Roger L at August 21, 2007 03:32 PM

I was in Iraq in 2003-2004 and am going back in a couple of months.

This is a great site; I echo what others have said, the big news media outlets will not cover these stories because it does not fit into their liberal agenda.

The Iraqi people are worth some of our blood and treasure. We owe it to them.

The liberals do not care about the Iraqi people,
then just care about getting more political power.

They need us to lose in Iraq so that they can
say that they were right; their biggest fear is that we will win in Iraq.

We do need to stay and help the Iraqis.


Posted by: gray at August 21, 2007 05:05 PM

We'll see if ambiguity sells in the media. He is resistant, but I am still trying.

Everything is backwards! MJT, you call yourself a writer but insist on being a reporter - just the facts, no judgments - whereas the editor is a reporter insisting on being a writer - he wants a judgment, not just facts.

Why can't you two just switch titles so everything can go back to normal?

Posted by: Solomon2 at August 21, 2007 05:42 PM


I"m slackjawed, as usual, by your wonderful work, and by the sacrifice you make every day of your time over there... as has been said a thousand times, thank you very very much for bringing us reality. Our press can't be bothered to do their jobs, since they're so focused on the agenda... thank heavens a few good people have not forgotten what a journalist is...

Reading your work leaves me completely unable to pick up the Dallas Morning News.

Just another 21st century big city newspaper.. liberal and factually challenged...

I don't demand conservative slanted news, I just want actual information and not agenda drivel..

thanks seems insufficient, but thanks. :-)

Dave in Dallas

Posted by: Dave at August 21, 2007 06:16 PM

I have no problem making judgements, Solomon2. It's just that in this case making a resounding judgement is a bit of a stretch.

The two long articles in the NYTimes recently on each side of this question both made excellent points that I know to be true, and pretending otherwise would be dishonest.

I am not going to tell anyone what they want to hear just because they want to hear it. But if I thought with a reasonable degree of certainty that the surge would succeed or fail I would say so.

I am not without opinions or judgements, they just don't all line up on one side. Petraeus does have the right idea, in my view, I just don't know if it will actually work. Nobody does.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 06:35 PM


Stick to your guns, so to speak! Most of the media are actually reporting on the politics of the war, not the war itself or Iraq itself. That's why I come here, and why independent reporting is so critically important.

I thought the NYTimes piece was a pretty solid piece of work too, although like everyone else, the authors can only describe the part of the elephant they see. I get the impression that while Petraeus is keeping pressure on in Baghdad, the real push there will come when he's secured the "belts" and can then work into the city -- instead of working outward as before. I've been wondering if the political resolutions might similarly end up working inward as well, and whether centralized/top down benchmarks represent a seriously misguided set of "metrics" which may, in fact, be counterproductive. If so, the Iraqi parliament's vacation may be the best thing going.

Posted by: JM Hanes at August 21, 2007 06:37 PM

I sold the editor on the idea. We'll see if he likes it after I write it. No guarantees.

If he doesn't, I'll publish it elsewhere or here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 21, 2007 06:40 PM

Thanks so much for your writing. I would love to be in Iraq right now, but have to settle with living vicariously through you.

I did some work for a fellow who was in Iraq for almost a year working for a contractor. He thoroughly enjoyed it and would have returned but for some demands stateside. I listened to the stories and felt the desire to see history in the making. He too felt a strong bond to the people and made deep friendships while there.

Out of curiosity, do the local Iraqis discuss openly their differences, political, religious, or is the situation too hair-trigger to do anything but walk and talk softly?


Posted by: D Kite at August 21, 2007 06:50 PM


You and Michael Yon are the only two reporters whose writing from Iraq is trustworthy. You guys apparently don't have an axe to grind. I'm very grateful for your efforts as I believe that if the American people can be made to understand what is really happening there, they will respond accordingly. There's some $ headed for your tipjar today. Thanks again.

Posted by: mac at August 21, 2007 07:28 PM

The Iraqis are coming to realize that Americans can be peacekeepers and fair (in addition to liberators) - if the Iraqis hold up their side of the bargain.

Great job Michael!

Posted by: hamidreza at August 21, 2007 10:07 PM

Michael I have argued with you in the past and been deleted even, thank you. Today I donated the first $50.00, eh not much but you are winning me over slowly! a few years LOL!

We have it so good now we should get up every morning and thank God/ or Sponge Bob [not sure] for such good fortune to have writers like Michael and the Internet.

Have you ever tried to have a discussion with the "stars" in the media, you know the ones..the ones who are more important than the story itself...?

Heady stuff the News business! Ya have to be grounded though... dude, frosted flakes & awards won't impart the right stuff..

You got it Michael..

Remember that half decent writer named K Sites, the one who flew so close to the Fallujah Sun he became confused, became a became a little lost Rapporteur™, believing that he was all things...

A Point man, a Squad Leader, a JAG prosecutor, a Haig Judge, REMEMBER HIM? Well K Sites wound up being just a third rate snitch.... Sad that.

With a little effort we can find a good number of top writers who update their blogs with 1st rate stories and reports. I tell ya we are lucky indeed today!

We've got Ex-Mil types doing combat embed writing , ex-Hippies with a wander lust, and Action Addicts who need that next fix out in Wazoo-Stan wherever.

To name a few I like..

Michael Totten

Michael Yon

Bill Roggio

Wesley Morgan

Pat Dollard

there's more, forgive my pea brain, the memory.

And they do it without masquerading as 'objective' journalists, confusing their opinions with facts. [hint: MSM]


This following article is an excellent example of agenda writing that I am so sick and tired of. As I'm sure most of you are too.

Not only is there a huge disconnect between the subjects covered and the author herself, she injects assumptions and claims as facts, so much so it smacks of a editorial put up job by her cheif editor.

Time magazine.
Have a Vomit Bag Handy: Taking Aim At the Taliban


Aryn Baker is the associate editor at the Asian edition of Time Magazine, based in Hong Kong. Since joining Time in 2001, she has worked as a reporter, editor and correspondent, covering everything from the first Tibetan beauty pageant to Iran’s Paralympics volleyball team, Afghanistan’s first female Olympian and Pakistan's polio eradication program. Prior to moving to Asia, Baker earned her M.A. in Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where her focus was on radio and international reporting. While in the United States she wrote freelance articles for the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times, the East Bay Express, the Asia Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. She also produced a weekly news radio program for KALX in Berkeley, and interned at KQED in San Francisco. Journalism is a second career for Baker, who worked as a pastry chef in Paris for several years after earning a B.A. in Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College.

aka Rubin

Posted by: Rubin at August 21, 2007 10:53 PM

I'm not sure where the "agenda" is in the story you linked to, Rubin.

Is it the reference to civilian casualties?

Posted by: eihpla at August 21, 2007 11:19 PM


Our Men and Women move Heaven and Earth everyday in A-stan, Iraq, the Philippians and the Horn of Africa etc. before any reporter takes his first shit of the day.

And they do their jobs under conditions you and I might think hazardous, like gun fire, IED's, RPGs etc LOL. Our Kids are putting their life and limb on the line for you and me. God bless them!!

I love them our men and women serving. Please rest assured they've done a fantastic job, orders of magnitude better than any News Paper, TeeVee Station, or Magazine has ever done.

I for one will always be grateful for their sacrifices, I have never believed the News media's daily gloom and doom hysterics and War politics.

I guess the contrast between them is what makes it all so bothersome to me.

On the one hand we have our best American citizens ever, our kids in the Armed Forces who have been fighting their hearts out and when it's called for, fighting smart like Michael's article alluded to.

On the other hand we have the cynical bar stool sitters who swap the same stories over gin and tonics, playing fast and loose with facts, then viola, The next morning we see the same stories in the NYT & WAPO repeated like some bad jokes and they have the nerve to call it news.

Heh, LOL, To pick up a little Gravitas the MSM decides to cook up some Polls to run every month.

Of course the MSM's idea of objectivity is HATE AMERICA in every article, so after months and months of slamming our Armed Forces behold why nationally they the citizens are a little turned off on the War.

thanks for asking we'll have to use e-mail for any more, don't want to horn in on Mr. Trotten any more.


Posted by: Rubin at August 22, 2007 04:01 AM

Shave! That is all.

Posted by: Kevin at August 22, 2007 05:12 AM


I loved this story, and I have to admit I am just totally ignorant about the intracacies of Arab and Middle Eastern culture. Thanks for that look, and helping me understand why we have been less successful than what we could have been in Iraq.

The way we do things are so different, and I am now gaining an understanding of the problems our soldiers face. And can now see the way to win, if we have time, and if we commit the troops to do so. I think Iraq is worth saving, I can see what a great ally it could be for the US in the ME. And I also think our peoples have a lot to give each other, if each would be willing. I hope I live to see it.

Posted by: templar knight at August 22, 2007 07:53 AM

Great job! I am left with wanting more....much more. Ever thought of writing a book?

One thing missing, though, that leaves me frustrated and.....drooling; THE CHICKEN RECIPE!!!! You must go back NOW and get it!
Religions be damned, the belly connects us all!! :p

Posted by: John at August 22, 2007 08:44 AM


Great work! Thanks for the eye opener. If the networks would share stories like yours on a regular basis our commander-in-chief and our soldiers would begin to get the support and respect they all deserve. God bless you.

Posted by: Indiana Dave at August 22, 2007 09:02 AM

I like your report, How to Spy in Irak.
I would just like to say that this is the way to go in Irak.

Good luck.


Posted by: John Dueck at August 22, 2007 09:24 AM


I suggest you point out in your article that the surge is an opposed action. This is not like the construction of a building, where all you have to fight is interfering bureaucrats and corrupt unions... Okay, maybe this is like construction of a building in New York, where you have to fight to make sure the project goes through. Classic example is the skating rink in Central Park which languished for years until Trump got tired of the values on his properties diminishing and took over the project.

Petraeus is like Trump, taking over with a new, more effective method. Only the problem is massively more complicated and dangerous. The electricians union didn't send members over to detonate themselves if the project didn't match their expectations. The New York parks department didn't turn their backs while explosives were placed on the approaches to the construction site. The commitment to accomplishing the job was what Trump communicated to the diverse participants (obstructers, previously) effectively.

Of course the question is if that will be enough. Will we be able to raise the price of bribes through civic pride to the point where Al Qaeda's pockets will get emptied faster than they can be filled. The recent attacks on impoverished Yezidi's indicate maybe this is happening. Reality is a lagging indicator though, which makes the question open.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at August 22, 2007 11:01 AM

As usual great reporting MJT ;-)

Posted by: tsedek at August 22, 2007 01:31 PM

Great site!

Would you consider a Link Exchange with The Internet Radio Network? At the IRN you can listen for free to over 28 of America's top Talk Shows via FREE STREAMING AUDIO!

Posted by: Steve at August 22, 2007 01:35 PM

Of course the MSM's idea of objectivity is HATE AMERICA in every article, so after months and months of slamming our Armed Forces behold why nationally they the citizens are a little turned off on the War.

I'd love to be able to listen to critiques of the MSM and feel like they had some credibility, but I can't, because the people making the critiques so often present themselves as bitter, manipulative, slightly unhinged and full to the brim with ideological agenda. I might take Michael Totten's critiques seriously. Maybe.

Andrew Sullivan provides a fantastic example of this today:

At the bottom of all of these rants comes a line like Rubin's asserting the war is unpopular because the media hate America and are trying to ruin it for George Bush.

It's unrepentant bullsh*t of the most transparent kind. The war was widely expected to be a cakewalk and sold to the public as a cakewalk, as Grenada 2.0, and it has completely failed to be anything like that. Even in a totalitarian society where the media were forced not to report on the 3700 deaths, the 70000-400000 Iraqi casualties, and the several million displaced - which is the only kind of media that would meet Rubin's standards of "support" - the public would still be vastly dissapointed in this war. The dissapointment is built into the objective reality of events on the ground.

The public is not dissapointed in this war because of a failure on the part of the MSM to print pro-troop fluff stories - there's one on the front page of the Washington Post just yesterday, they're as common as fleas on a dog - and those stories are, I'm sure, largely accurate. Just as the negative stories are.

Other than the occasional hiccup, the MSM are accurate. Reality in Iraq is dissapointing. Mike's positive experiences are good to hear, if anecdotal, but they don't change the fact that Iraq hasn't worked out the way the Administration told us it would.

Anyone who can't start by admitting that is trying to demonize a convenient scapegoat.

Posted by: glasnost at August 22, 2007 04:34 PM

On the other hand we have the cynical bar stool sitters who swap the same stories over gin and tonics, playing fast and loose with facts, then viola, The next morning we see the same stories in the NYT & WAPO repeated like some bad jokes and they have the nerve to call it news.

What a disgusting smear by imagination. 104 journalists have been killed in Iraq in the past four years. I'd love to be able to see that as a ratio to overall presence. Were they killed swapping gin and tonics in a bar? Of course, they're not hailed as heroes. Their deaths are ignored, and their institutions continue to be dragged through the mud by people like 'rubin'.

I often wonder how Mike Totten feels when people hold him out as the only honest reporter on earth.
I bet he knows better. He should say it more.

Posted by: glasnost at August 22, 2007 04:41 PM

Before I get distracted, I should say, Mike, I enjoyed reading this as well. It's nice to see people being smart.

Here's a serious question for you: if everywhere the American military goes, people like them, hate the major native power players, and want more, more, more - as seems to be what you find everywhere in your blog - why do surveys show majorities of the Iraqi populace approving of attacks on Americans and wanting the forces out?

Which of the following explanations do you think are more credible?

a) Iraqis are afraid of thugs and lying to surveyers.

b) The people you're meeting are the self-selected most pro-american subset in the population.

c) something else.

I can go find the surveys if you make me.

Posted by: glasnost at August 22, 2007 04:46 PM

I suggest you point out in your article that the surge is an opposed action.

This, for one, is why I feel innately suspicious about positive reports. Not because I dispute the factual events occuring, but because a certain audience, fed by people suggesting that the negative stories are all lies, look at this stuff and say "look, we're going to win".

A lot of previous counterinsurgencies have been smart, respectful, and well-managed and have still ended up losing. Is anyone ready to come out and say that the Israelis ran a bad counterinsurgency in Lebanon? They lost. We've been here for years and, best case, we're starting to use smart strategies. We get fragmentary and carefully selected incomplete data suggesting that things are better than a year ago, and the unspoken assertion always seems to be "so shut up now, because now we're going to win. The only thing stopping us is you (dissenter) not shutting up".

Counterinsurgencies are full of up and down cycles. A lot more of them have been able to reduce attacks by a fifth at some point in time, then have been able to "win".

Posted by: glasnost at August 22, 2007 04:53 PM

Your reporting is just excellent, Michael. I can't begin to tell you how impressed I am.


Posted by: Marc S. Lamb at August 22, 2007 06:41 PM


Fighting an insurgency in a PC world is hard enough without the grating cynicism you so warmly embrace. It's not enough for you to say, "I am unconvinced". Instead you drone on and on, exuding rationalized negativity. You remind me of Iago in Shakespeare's "Othello".

Posted by: John at August 22, 2007 06:55 PM

Hey, Michael,

Your with my kids outfit, if you can I'll give you his name and you can tell him Pops says Hi.


Posted by: Pops at August 22, 2007 07:19 PM


If we do win this war, the loyal opposition -- people like glasnost -- will deserve a good measure of credit for forcing our leaders to adopt innovative strategies or face disaster on election day. Robust competition in an open marketplace of ideas makes for better policy.

Posted by: Creamy Goodness at August 22, 2007 09:20 PM

Glasnost: I bet he knows better. He should say it more.

Of course I know that, but I suppose you're right that I should say it.

I know lots of honest reporters, and I can think of many who I think are better than I am.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 22, 2007 09:38 PM

Glasnost: Which of the following explanations do you think are more credible?

I have absolutely no idea, seriously.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 22, 2007 09:40 PM

glasnost @ 4:34 pm
The war was widely expected to be a cakewalk and sold to the public as a cakewalk

I remember MSM talk of the Siege of Stalingrad, tens of thousands of body bags being returned "full or containing only tiny parts" from the impenetrable defenses of Baghdad. And I remember a dust storm early on being called an "insurmountable crisis", a "quagmire".
I can replay in my mind's-eye dozens of instances of Bush, Rumsfeld & Cheney intoning "hard war", "long war" etc. before U.S. divisions had even left the continental U.S.
I remember an advance to Baghdad where people in this country stayed up all night fearing our troops would experience the horror of chemical warfare.

You are a man with a selective memory or you are a creepy liar.
Either way you are useless.

MJT - Superior work. Exemplary writing.

What a great opening paragraph.
I caught myself humming the theme to Lawrence of Arabia.
After the second paragraph I found this:

When you wrote, "Americans were in charge of just about everything even though they had no experience running even their own country let alone a traumatized and suspicious Arab society."

I has a vision, a dream really that one day you and Michael Yon would meet for a long weekend.
In Beirut. With yet another American.
And that the three of you would dine and chat about your views and experiences of the Middle East.
And you all would eventually also exchange your experience of the men and women who comprise the U.S. military.
That third man would be hosting the meeting.
This man:

Semper Fi MJT. You're a good man.

Posted by: Stephen M at August 22, 2007 09:43 PM

Stephen M: This man

Anthony Bordain did an amazing job covering the Lebanon war even though he's a food journalist.

Someone should give him a prize.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 22, 2007 09:59 PM

[...] Even in a totalitarian society where the media were forced not to report on the 3700 deaths, the 70000-400000 Iraqi casualties, and the several million displaced - [...]

I'm sorry that you don't seem to have realized this by now, but the only time enemy casualties has any significant impact on American public opinion is when there are more dead Americans than dead enemy.

This is not a recent development.

Posted by: rosignol at August 23, 2007 04:27 AM

wj - You are quite correct, the US had no idea what Iraq was like before this started nor even a clear idea of how the ME worked on a social and societal level. That is the problem of 'Realism' in foreign policy - it is not concerned with such things. Which looks to be pretty unrealistic to me. Dead, spot-on, accurate and true for decades! Thank you for bringing that up.

On the post-warism side of things I, as a free citizen of the United States, have read history and drew my own conclusions. I did not believe that either Afghanistan or Iraq would be: easy, 'cakewalks', or swift. By all similar such works of counter-insurgency the timeline is normally 8 years for the basic fighting to be quelled and then 'normalcy' to return in a like period of time afterwards. That is not taking it from the Administration, the MSM nor any other single source, but looking through the diverse history of mankind on such operations, not all of which succeed. With all of that known, I still did and do support the conflict to end totalitarianism from those Nations that will not abide by their treaty agreements, especially in warfare, and to get accountable government set up so that such a place is internally and externally accountable with such government.

I do have problems with the view of what the aim of US foreign policy should be in such situations, and do not like the heavy concentration on 'realism' that continues to this day. The US was not set up on a 'realistic' basis, but one of strange idealism that puts forward that folks in Nations should have government that is accountable to them and that such government is held accountable by other Nations and its People for its actions. Apparently, to some, that is still a revolutionary idea in the affairs of mankind.

Mr. Totten's work is excellent on its own and part of the larger mosaic of what the English speaking world can see in Iraq. When citing the number of journalists killed, one also needs to cite that they are, by and large, Iraqi journalists trying to get stories out to their People. They are exercising a basic right to freedom of speech and, apparently, there are some willing to kill to end it. We do not hear about their deaths in the West as they report in the local language of their communities. I do fault Western 'news' organizations for not working out commercial deals to help bring that news to a wider audience so that the world can understand what is being faced in Iraq. But then I do support the right of individuals to exercise their free speech and press to bring us information as they see fit... and I learn much when I see what they do not report on, also.

So when names like Totten, Yon, Robison, Roggio, Ardolino, and so forth are not given wider venue and they are presenting a complex mosaic of a Nation trying to come out of an era of tyranny, I thank them and send what funds I can. These other organizations that cannot present me such diverse views do not get my attention. I now trust to individuals to report well or side-step those that would edit them to meaningless views, for that is the demonstration of openness, transparency and ethics to those reading their works. That is why I do not mind and even applaud Mr. Totten's views both factual and personal, those he sees fit to give us, as I come to understand that openness and transparency and that it is impossible to be objective in such situations. From that I learn to distinguish what is personal and why, and that is just as important as the facts involved.

Posted by: ajacksonian at August 23, 2007 06:37 AM


If tomorrow the Islamic Republic of Iran falls from its own diseased corruption and insanity with no deliberate act on the part of the US (like marching the 1st ID on Tehran), 700,000 people are going to die in the resulting chaos. One of the reasons I support my friends in Komola is that I genuinely believe they can cut the butcher's bill down to 300,000 if they get a lot of help. I believe it is worth some effort to save 400,000 lives.

Iraq was going to be a bloody mess if we invaded or if Saddam's eventual death by assassination caused it. The body count figures on Iraqi dead make the assertion that US troops are deliberately, or through atrocious neglect, causing Iraqi dead. That assumes a world where the transition of power from Saddam to anybody responsible and humane was possible without hundreds of thousands of people dying. Based on my years of studying this problem, I do not see that as an honest assessment or a worthwhile assertion.

What bothers the hell out of me about bringing up Iraqi casualty numbers is the inherent dishonesty of those who usually do so. The raw figures are not the whole or an accurate picture. This is why I have stopped treating glasnost as someone worth routinely responding to, although he is not a troll.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at August 23, 2007 06:59 AM

Pat, I agree. Unfortunately, I am atypical- most Americans' response to the question "Would you support sacrificing the lives of American soldiers to prevent the deaths of foreign nationals in a non-allied country" will respond "No!"

To most Americans, American lives come first, the lives of our allies come second, and they don't care much about anyone who isn't in one of those two categories.

I would like to be wrong about this, but my experience is strongly to the contrary.

Posted by: rosignol at August 23, 2007 08:08 AM


Every so often I actually pay attention to the people opining against the war and it frequently gets on my nerves how often they talk about the lives lost as if they were making the sacrifice. What bothers me about this is these people do not care less about the safety record of the various services in peacetime.

They genuinely do not care that soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen routinely die carrying out their routine missions. If they genuinely cared, they wouldn't make the repeated glaring omissions of fact about the military that so characterize their commentary. People who care study what they care about and speak about it honestly. I can get more accurate information about the National League standings, chemical dependent starlets, or any of a blinding array of trivial topics of genuine interest from the stridently anti-war than I can get about the military.

I do not think that the anti-war rank and file give a damn about the troops based on what they can speak about accurately. I think they care that their entire raison d'etre is about to be proven misguided, foolish, and measurably counter-productive. If we can win this very difficult war, billions of dollars of NGO and charity money is going to dry up as a result of paradigm shift, and that is worth caring about.

The other part about this is that real people making the ultimate sacrifice for something worthwhile is terribly unflattering by comparison. While there are people dying on the field with honor and grace, it makes ordinary people really feel like schmucks for not contributing. A lot of people want the troops out of harms way so they can feel better about themselves while still being selfish jerks. This is exacerbated by current military admission policies that exclude people who chose to make illicit drugs a part of their lives.

I'm not saying that everybody who opposes the war is a selfish doper, but I think it is instructive to look carefully at selfish dopers and short their picks. For instance, there is the entertainment industry and it's leading lights...

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at August 23, 2007 08:57 AM

WRT the anti-war movement-

If we can win this very difficult war, billions of dollars of NGO and charity money is going to dry up as a result of paradigm shift, and that is worth caring about.

I do not think that the bulk of the people participating in the anti-war protests think that. The organizers, maybe. The UN bureaucrats, probably. The average participant, no. My impression is that they're having a knee-jerk "War bad!" response and are doing something they honestly believe is correct and moral, not that they're trying to preserve the international charity gravy train.

Posted by: rosignol at August 24, 2007 01:25 AM

The article brings to light the problem why progress in Iraq has taken so long. The culture is so very different than anything our troops have dealt with.
Having spent over 2 years working with the Iraqi Police I needed to learn these differences and how to work within its structure.
In the past 35 years I've visited and worked in several countries and I'm use to having to do this. Can one imagine how difficult it would be for inexperienced soldiers to go from being a trained war fighter to a nation builder in a totally unfamiliar enviroment.
Great article, keep it up!

Posted by: FiveOadviser at August 24, 2007 02:04 AM

I'm sorry that you don't seem to have realized this by now, but the only time enemy casualties has any significant impact on American public opinion is when there are more dead Americans than dead enemy.


This statement is often true to a given extent, but I don't think it can be laid down as a law. I think the events that matter to the American public are subject to variation depending on how the strategic objectives are explained to the American public. If we send troops in there with a public mission of "we're gonna go protect these foreign civilians" - and six months later all the foreign civilians are dead, the public will get a sense of mission failure, and it probably won't reflect well on the president's popularity, even if US troops mostly come out okay.

Under different circumstances, this might not apply.

Iraq was going to be a bloody mess if we invaded or if Saddam's eventual death by assassination caused it. The body count figures on Iraqi dead make the assertion that US troops are deliberately, or through atrocious neglect, causing Iraqi dead. That assumes a world where the transition of power from Saddam to anybody responsible and humane was possible without hundreds of thousands of people dying.

These are assertions, projections, opinions. They aren't facts, and it's a mistake to present them as such. History certainly provides contrary examples of bad rulers falling benignly and sick polities reordering themselves. What the odds are of that happening is subject to debate, and maybe they weren't large, but to act like the Iraqis who have died since 2003 were effectively already dead is a monumental simplification, which I can only imagine is done for moral convenience.

I'm not an exhaustive expert by any means, but I have gone back and read some minutiae on human-rights reports from Saddamn's regime in the 90's. The evidence doesn't suggest that he was killing 30K of his own citizens per year, much less 50 or 100K. Most of the mass graves and events he was trialed for were in the 80's. He was still brutal, but our actions have led, through a variety of intervening events, to lots of extra dead Iraqis.

I don't really mind not talking to Patrick. We both have strong convictions, and we're not likely to change them.

The raw figures are not the whole or an accurate picture.

Neither is their absence or exclusion.

Posted by: glasnost at August 24, 2007 03:37 AM

I'm not saying that everybody who opposes the war is a selfish doper, but I think it is instructive to look carefully at selfish dopers and short their picks.

Well, but Rush Limbaugh is one of our more celebrated selfish dopers.

The trouble with shorting the picks of selfish dopers is that they're all over the map. If anything they're the least consistent pickers around, and if you short their choices you'll short everything.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 25, 2007 01:45 PM

He was still brutal, but our actions have led, through a variety of intervening events, to lots of extra dead Iraqis.

When making such judgments, one should subtract from the total number of casualties, all those who died by being targeted by the tyrants who oppose us, and/or used as defilade by them when attacking us ... before assessing blame.


There is a governing principle in warfare and many other human endeavors:

Good ---|
Fast ---|-- You can only choose two.
Cheap --|

As for me, I hoped that the Battle for Iraq would be short ... but I also understood going in that the enemy has a vote in that matter, and that it could go long.

Where I part company with the critics of the Administration, is when they use the difficulties ... and the mistakes in execution ... to justify their assertion that we should have left Iraq as it was.

My question to them:

If a few dozen fanatics, with less than $1M, staying in a primitive and sympathetic nation produced the events of 11 September 1991 ... how did it make any sense to leave a dictator, whose established record of brutality and support for terrorism proves that he shares the 911 attackers' disdain for life and liberty, in absolute control of a relatively modern nation?

Also, before passing judgment, consider that ... just as happened at the end of the 1991 Gulf War ... the media and political pressures to end this Fast and Cheap actually encouraged the Administration to make some of the errors it did ... and not adopt from the get-go the Good and Cheap (in terms of lives) approach of clear-hold-build ... or as I call it, "precision-guided ruthlessness" ... we see today.

Constructive criticism is justified ... errors were made ... the problem I have with so much of the criticism today, is that it is used to "prove" that we were wrong for engaging the enemy in Iraq in the first place.

And that, in the light of history ... where tyrants never seem to stop on their own, but only when credibly and decisively confronted by free people ... is a flawed judgment.

Posted by: Rich Casebolt at August 26, 2007 10:27 AM

Great insight, however, I believe General Petraeus was with the 101st during his drive to Baghdad and eventual time in Mosul.

Posted by: Annette at August 26, 2007 01:28 PM

My apologies. After re-reading the second paragraph I see that you are talking about the 82nd you are imbedded with now instead of Petraeus's time in Mosul.

Posted by: Annette at August 26, 2007 01:32 PM

I also know that if our local police dept wouldn't back me up, I wouldn't reveal information either! Duh! God, I hope we don't abandon these people just when we (our soldiers) have earned their trust.

Posted by: Guess at August 27, 2007 12:19 AM

I don't read MSM reports anymore, they don't have the insight or patients that you and few others have. They only go for the "Big" story not the real story in it's entirety. What sells right now. Your dispathes give the World hope for tomorrow, that this all was worth it. Where I work and live (San Diego) I come into contact with Marine, Army, Navy and Air Force active service and recent vets and the story is always the same, "The Mission isn't complete yet" and most would and will return to finish if and when called upon. They are highly dedicated as should all Americans be. Go above and beyond, our military does.

Posted by: Paul at August 27, 2007 01:03 PM

All it takes for evil to take hold and florish is for good men to do nothing. This is to emphasize why we need to do such terrible things as war against evil men who would use the innocent as fodder.

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Posted by: michael mckenna at August 28, 2007 09:50 AM

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Posted by: michael mckenna at August 28, 2007 09:51 AM
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