Dispatches From Iraq: A Bird's Eye View

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.

A Tactical Operations Center (TOC) is the headquarters for a unit. Company-level TOCs are the smallest I have seen. A typical infantry company has about a hundred or more soldiers. The commander will normally be a captain. A company-level TOC often consists of a radio and a map, and one person on duty 24/7. It might have a coffee maker, too.

In fact, there is a company TOC at the other end of the tent in which I now reside with a company called C-52. C-52 is a small company with only 54 men. They all live in this tent with a huge amount of weapons, and great combat experience to back them up.

Units in Iraq that aren’t fighting much seem more intent on keeping their TOCs top-secret. I’ve seen exceptions, but as a general rule, access seems to increase with action, and in the case of 3-2 SBCT, embedded journalists are given full access 24/7.

Click here to read the full dispatch from Michael Yon in Iraq.

Journalists actually are given more access than they possibly can handle. They can stay all day and night, coming and going as suits their needs. They can go off on missions, and then come back to watch from the TOC as missiles and bombs splash across the television screen just like on those History Channel shows. Only here, a few seconds later the TOC rattles from the blasts.

So I walked into the TOC at about 0320 that Saturday morning, and there was a video feed coming in from an F-16. Crosshairs were steady on a house the pilot was circling. We could sometimes hear the jet as it orbited over Baqubah. The Shadow was circling the same house but from a lower altitude.

“What’s up with the house?”I asked.“An element took SAFIRE (small arms fire)and the enemy ran into that house.”“What’re you gonna do?”“Trying to decide. Probably bomb it.”

‘Bomb it,” he said. Sounded simple. Question is, with what? Commanders have myriad options. Some weapons are within their direct authority to use, while other weapons require higher permission. Rules of Engagement (ROE) constantly change, and in order not to tip the enemy, I’ll only talk about the ROE in a general sense. For the early days of operation Arrowhead Ripper, the ROE were relaxed, giving robust options further down the chain, with caveats to mitigate civilian deaths, which had been few.

The 3-2 is combat seasoned — many 3-2 soldiers have served three or more combat tours — but if such relaxed rules were extended to a brigade without a similar depth, the results might be muddier missions from commanders whose soldiers had either sticky trigger fingers, or were too quick on the draw. Either extreme could result in catastrophe.

A week after serious fighting began on 19 June, I watched as Michael Gordon of the New York Times and Alexandra Zavis of the Los Angeles Times tried to tally civilian deaths. After being out and seeing the battle first-hand, Gordon and Zavis were a few feet away from me, talking with Major Robbie Parke and comparing notes, trying to figure out the civilian deaths, and finally arriving at a consensus of about 7.

Their earnestness was not an agenda-driven hunt for collateral damage victims. A number that low — and five of those deaths were from a single explosion that locals said had come from a U.S. bomb — is almost unbelievable, considering the amount of firepower that had been used.

Usually civilian casualties that low in a major urban operation only occur only when commanders have made avoiding civilian casualties a primary part of the battle plan, which is a basic tenet of counterinsurgency warfare. It's hard to build civic relationships out of body parts.

The F-16 and Shadow both beamed down live images of the house where the terrorists had hidden after firing on U.S. forces. Now was option time. Which weapon to use?

There were so many choices: mortars, missiles, and cannons of various sorts, among others. With the enemy hiding in the building, an F-16 and a Shadow orbiting in the black above, both peering down on thermal mode, the Battle Captain asked the Air Force experts, (the JTACs) what weapons the F-16 was carrying.

As a JTAC started ticking off a long list, I was thinking, “How in the world to do those little jets carry all that?” In fact, I believe they were reading down the list for two jets flying in the same package. They carry a mixture of weapons cross loaded between the jets so that they might have the black magic needed for a likely situation.

In addition to the F-16’s bombs of various sorts, there was the MLRS rocket system dozens of miles away that had been precisely punching through Baqubah rooftops for days. The MLRS had been flattening buildings that had been rigged as giant bombs.

There were the 155mm cannons on this base that can hit and flatten anything in Baqubah and beyond. The Apache helicopters could spin up with their rockets and cannons. Infantrymen could just roll in. Or tanks. Or Bradley’s. Or Strykers. Even Humvees.

The idea was to use just the amount of force to kill the enemy fighters, but leave everyone in the surrounds unscathed, if possible. If that was not possible, often they would simply not fire, but other times they would. Judgment call.

Click here to read the full dispatch from Michael Yon in Iraq.


Independent journalist Michael Yon’s dispatches from Iraq appear exclusively on FOXNews.com. Click to read Yon's online magazine MichaelYon-online.com.