Dispatches From Iraq: First Mission

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.


Click here to read the full dispatch for "First Mission."

To interpret events in al Basra, context is critical. When we invited the British to join us in this war in 2003, the U.S., with the bulk of troops and assets, was the senior partner. In essence, we were the driver of a bus filled with several dozen partners: Poland, Australia, Japan, Georgia, Korea, Albania and so on. Although several key countries had opted to stay home, no nation stepped up to the task like Great Britain, taking responsibility for southern Iraq.

But they could not have not planned for the seemingly precipitous and arbitrary decisions made by the mostly American bus drivers in Washington and Baghdad, who took many turns without consulting an accurate map. Egos and strained competencies only magnified and compounded errors. Nobody paid more for these mistakes than Iraqis and Americans, but the Brits and others have also paid tolls for their seats.

Counterinsurgency experts cautioned Coalition members from the outset that military forces would have a limited shelf-life. There can be a finite expiration period during which popular perceptions shift, and liberators become viewed as occupiers, and eventually as malignant beings that must be expurgated.

While the American shelf-life in some regions was measured in weeks and months, tolerance for the British was measured in years. But when American stewards made early and notable missteps that extended the war, the British outlived their welcome in the southern provinces.

“We don’t do nation-building,” I remember hearing someone say. But by systematically and in relatively short order demolishing Iraq’s government infrastructure, firing its staff en masse, disbanding its army, our combined militaries in Iraq could only accomplish the mission by rebuilding the country from scratch.

While we were making these mistakes and getting ourselves into a serious shooting war around Baghdad and in northern Iraq, some of our British partners made public statements questioning the wisdom of our actions. That the Brits were mostly right was beside the point; their words chafed. Basra was mostly quiet, which was widely taken as evidence of British knowhow, despite how the highly nuanced demographic and historical context could support other plausible interpretations.

By 2007, when the U.S. military had made a rapid metamorphosis and was meeting the insurgency head-on, despite that the transformation was stunning in both speed and outcome, it came too late for the British, whose expiration date in Basra had passed. Increasing tensions in Basra between rival political factions were beginning to undermine an otherwise successful mission in that region. With fewer forces on hand at a time when the British might have been planning final withdrawals, Basra’s many feuding factions galvanized hostilities around a central target: the British.

In truth, the British have kept faith with their pledge of partnership, and much more because by overstaying, they jeopardized men, women and mission in order to buy us time and keep the exits covered. America has no truer ally, always there, through bad and worse. Of course, almost none of this mattered to the men of 4 Rifles on May 21, who’d been out more than 13 hours in stifling heat.

As temperatures approached 70° C (around 150º F) inside the armored vehicles, soldiers poured water down their body armor. A driver was naked other than his body armor and helmet,while soldiers in the back literally pulled down their pants. This was more than a mere attempt to keep cool. They were trying not to die. Thick clouds of dust baked the putrid Basra odors until they could gag a goat; although by then the soldiers inside the Bulldogs and Warriors could offer serious competition in a stink contest. With their heavy body armor and helmets, laden with ammunition, rashes erupted on their skin and their goggles and ballistic glasses were filthy. The place is like a toilet used as an oven. The people on the septic streets were flushed with hostility.

British soldiers, exhausted of sleep and food, drained from the heat, were deliberately moving forward toward an enemy rested with the home advantages of elevation, time, thousands of eyes and tons of weapons. The enemy could wait in ambush from the comfort of shade, while sleeping in bed, or even watching television.

Click here to read the full dispatch for "First Mission."

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