We Need More Feature Reporting from Iraq
by Virginia Postrel • Sep 23, 2004 at 6:40 pm
Although news correspondents tend to get the glory, feature stories with longer time horizons often give readers more truth about the world than scattershot, often decontextualized news reports. If we want to have any sense of what's really going on in Iraq, we need much more feature reporting--like yesterday's great page-one piece by the WSJ's Greg Jaffe:
RAMADI, Iraq -- In the space of four minutes in May, two Humvees in Capt. Nicholas Ayers's unit were hit by roadside bombs. In the chaos, one vehicle was left alone as soldiers, injured and under fire, took cover in a school and radioed for help.
By the time Capt. Ayers arrived on the scene, Iraqis had looted the Humvee's machine gun and high-tech gun sights. Losing equipment to the enemy is a mistake that can ruin an officer's career. Standard Army practice holds that the area should be searched immediately.
Instead, Capt. Ayers, 29 years old, took a risk. He went to the village sheik's house. As a sign of respect, he said, he wouldn't search the village. But he gave the local leader 48 hours to find and return the equipment. "If we don't get the equipment back, I am going to come back with my men and tear apart every house in this village," he recalls saying. If the gear was returned, he promised to reduce patrols in the area.
The gamble ran counter to Capt. Ayers's training, which states that the longer troops wait to search an area, the less chance they'll find what they are looking for. His bosses told him he had made a huge blunder. Two days later, though, the sheik returned every scrap of looted equipment to the Army. Later, he would pay a heavy price for that move.
"I was floored," Capt. Ayers says. "The incident made me rethink the tactics I was using, my relationship with the local sheiks. It made me rethink just about everything."
Fighting the volatile, growing insurgency in Iraq is putting increased responsibility on younger, lower-ranking officers, who are learning through improvisation and error. For the Army, the heavy reliance on officers such as Capt. Ayers is a significant change. As the war in Iraq has turned into a far different kind of battle than the Army expected, it is triggering major shifts in how the service uses and equips soldiers and remaking its historically rigid and hierarchical command structure.
In May 2002, before the Iraq war, a study commissioned by the Army's top-ranking general concluded "the reality in the Army is that junior officers are seldom given opportunities to be innovative, plan training or to make decisions; fail, learn and try again."
Earlier this summer, the same team, led by retired Lt. Col. Leonard Wong, concluded: "Junior officers have become the experts on the situation in Iraq, not higher headquarters." The fast-moving insurgency is forcing lower-ranking officers, who spend more time in the field, to take a more prominent role.
Here's the ending:
Capt. Ayers, who was recently selected by the Army to teach at West Point, has begun to think about how a young soldier could prepare for what he's been through. Before deploying to Iraq, he and his soldiers fought a giant mock tank battle at the National Training Center. It wasn't helpful.
Instead, he says, "I guess I'd drop soldiers in a foreign high school and give them two days to figure out all the cliques. Who are the cool kids? Who are the geeks?" he says. That would be pretty close to what he has been doing in Iraq, he says, with one big exception: There would also have to be people in the high school trying to kill the soldiers.
Read the whole thing. (The link should work for a few more days, even for nonsubscribers.)