Michael Yon is an independent journalist and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. Here is a portion of his latest dispatch exclusively for FOXNews.com.
Many people know the old adage about restaurant kitchens: To know if the kitchen is clean, check the bathroom. The same holds true for soldiers, only it calls for checking windows.
If you are going on a combat mission and soldiers have not cleaned all their windows to a sparkle (during times when it is possible to do so), do not go with them. Soldiers with dirty windows are not watching for tiny wires in the road, nor are they scanning rooftops. They are talking about women, football and the car they will buy when they get home. I will not go into combat with soldiers with dirty windows.
I also look at the state of their weapons and ammunition. Does the machine gunner have lubricant? Before going out with them, does someone tell me what to do if there is any drama? Or do they just drag me into combat like a sack of potatoes?
It’s usually very simple. A platoon sergeant will say, "Sir, you stay next to me and do what I tell you, we’ll probably get you back alive." Although there are always exceptions, most of the soldiers fall into the "ready, prepared and alert" category.
On the command level, there are other indicators. In counterinsurgency, as our Vietnam veterans will vouch, press has strategic and tactical influence. Commanders who are afraid of the press or who cannot handle it cannot win this fight. They are often the same people who alienate Iraqis.
I remember one captain who had allowed his men to ransack an Iraqi home, much later shouting in my face while his lip quivered with anger, "You are a piece of [expletive]!" He could not handle having press around and resented the very air they breathed, and he made sure they knew it.
Of course, anyone whose idea of winning is to bully Iraqis would not want media around. I watched him for months as a study in how not to do certain things. Tactically, he was competent and knew how to win the gun battles, but he was incompetent and inadequate for counterinsurgency.
Dealing with the press is just a reality, like the weather. We would never put a commander in the field who refused to make plans for fighting in the cold or heat. Although it’s just a reality, cold weather, for example, could destroy a unit overnight if they had not prepared for it.
As with the weather, the press also influences the enemy. Cold weather freezes everyone’s toes, and bad press stalls progress. In either instance, he who is better-suited and more adaptable has a supreme advantage. There was a time when many of our enemies in Iraq were beating us in the press — both their press and ours — but that is changing.
When I consider a unit, the first indicator I check is their glass (if they are using vehicles with glass). At command level, the leading indicator for me is media relations. These reliable indicators can be seen without going onto a battlefield.
In May, I headed out to Fallujah and requested to speak with Col. Richard Simcock II, the Marine Corps Commanding Officer, Regimental Combat Team 6 (RCT 6), whose responsibility included Fallujah. I landed by helicopter in Fallujah, and within the hour the public affairs officer (PAO) with RCT 6 had me set up in a secure trailer with a live Internet connection. They even had AA and AAA batteries sitting on a table.
I had been trying for weeks to get some of those batteries but never told anyone. They just anticipated the need. The PAO said I could have anything in the room. There were books and magazines. There was even a little refrigerator stocked with water and snacks. I was astounded.
Within an hour of arrival, they had set me up for success. Sometimes I spend days just to get an Internet connection or trying to get a memo for access to a dining facility. Days of lost time, wasted for nothing, and forever.
I requested to talk with Col. Simcock. The commander made extra time and met with me not once, but twice, saying he was available anytime. Col. Simcock was so blunt that he was not fit for television. Just the kind of talk that was needed. Plain talk. Realistic talk about war and how his Marines were doing.
But talk is just talk unless you go onto the battlefield and see with your own eyes what is happening. Are we really winning, or are we really losing? There is no middle ground. The clock is ticking.
Independent journalist Michael Yon’s dispatches from Iraq appear exclusively on FOXNews.com. Click to read Yon's online magazine MichaelYon-online.com.