Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.

April 5, 2006

"Having done a tour in Vietnam in '70 and then having read various accounts of the war in the memoirs of generals, State Department officers, combat officers and the little guys, it's sometimes difficult to respond to the old adage that 'truth is a perception.' It's not that everyone had a different opinion. They did, and that's understandable. What amazed me is that everyone fought in a different world.
"Assuming that reality can be observed and reported, I am curious about your insights about which level of observation offers the clearest picture of Iraq: the combat soldier, the tactical planner, the strategic group, the 'pacification effort,' working with the people, third parties coming in and not being affected by the experiences of the locals, or just someone with a head on his shoulders."
John C.

That e-mail hit the nail on the head. The perceptions and realities of war vary for soldiers at all different levels. I will begin my explanation with a story from my Officer Basic Course (OBC).

• Readers write to Captain Dan

About halfway through a field exercise during OBC, our platoon had taken up a defensive position establishing a 360-degree perimeter. One of the factors in deciding where to establish a fighting position is to look at what we call “fields of fire,” or how far you can clearly see in front of you. I took up what I thought was the perfect fighting position: I had a great view of the area to my front and I could see the enemy coming from almost a mile away.

One of my instructors walked up to me and asked why I had chosen that piece of ground to defend. I proudly showed him the field of fire to my front and how it was easily defendable.

“Dan, I see your point, but I want you to get down in the prone, just like you are firing your weapon,” he said.

I laid down, looked to my front, and realized I could not see a thing. The grass in front of me was about a foot tall, and the trees to my left and right obscured my view. Lesson learned. The war at six inches is completely different than the war at six feet.

How can so many people have a different view of this war? Some say it is successful, some say we are failing, some say everything in between. The war to the infantryman on the line in south Baghdad is completely different than the war to an infantryman in Mosul, which is much different than the war to a soldier standing guard at division headquarters. And none of them see what a brigade staff officer in Tikrit sees, nor does that brigade staff officer see the same war as a company commander in Tal Afar.

It is difficult to explain, but every soldier has their role and their six-inch fight. The fight may be kicking in doors to find the enemy, it may be training Iraqi forces, it may be coordinating visits with local Iraqis, it may even be working in a motorpool and fixing trucks for a year. Despite all these different jobs and positions, we all get asked the same question when we are home and at a bar for a drink: “Did you kill anyone over there?”

My six inches is southern Baghdad. Our section of the city saw more than 115,000 citizens vote in the last election, roughly 115,000 more than voted the previous year. My six inches has seen a tremendous amount of progress over the last seven months, albeit with some steps to the rear (more than 30 soldiers killed in my unit). Another soldier's six inches may see a lot of progress; another's may see nothing but turmoil.

How the view from six feet looks, most of us don’t really care. You just have to ask yourself where your view is from. Is your six feet from what you see on the news, read in newspapers or hear from your friends? Or is your six feet a view put together from the soldiers at six inches?

John C. asked how so many people at all different levels can have such different senses of reality. The soldier who has lost everyone in his team to an IED might see this war as a complete failure. The leaders at the top might look at those casualties as a small step back, with giant leaps being made every day. The catch-22 is that both views are correct.

In the same mold, soldiers working with Iraqis in one part of the country may feel nothing but complete frustration, while soldiers elsewhere may just need to step back as Iraqis take the lead. Same mission, different results, different perceptions of success.

So who has the best view of what is going on? I would have to say commanders. Commanders receive input from their staffs, and higher-level staffs rely on commanders' sense of what is going on in their sector. From the company level on up, commanders — as long as they are receiving accurate information — have the clearest picture of this war.

E-mail Captain Dan at soldiersdiary@gmail.com. Click here to read his bio.