With allies in enemy ranks, GIs in Iraq are no longer true believers
BAGHDAD: Staff Sergeant David Safstrom does not regret his previous tours in Iraq, not even a difficult second stint when two comrades were killed while trying to capture insurgents.
"In Mosul, in 2003, it felt like we were making the city a better place," he said. "There was no sectarian violence, Saddam was gone, we were tracking down the bad guys. It felt awesome."
But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this past February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber's body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.
"I thought, 'What are we doing here? Why are we still here?' " said Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. "We're helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us."
His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness.
A small minority of Delta Company soldiers - the younger, more recent enlistees in particular - seem to still wholeheartedly support the war. Others are ambivalent, torn between fear of losing more friends in battle, longing for their families and a desire to complete their mission.
With few reliable surveys of soldiers' attitudes, it is impossible to simply extrapolate from the small number of soldiers in Delta Company. But in interviews with more than a dozen soldiers over a one-week period, most said they were disillusioned by repeated deployments, by what they saw as the abysmal performance of Iraqi security forces and by a conflict that they considered a civil war, one they had no ability to stop.
They had seen shadowy militia commanders installed as Iraqi Army officers, they said, had come under increasing attack from roadside bombs - planted within sight of Iraqi Army checkpoints - and had fought against Iraqi soldiers whom they thought were their allies.
"In 2003, 2004, 100 percent of the soldiers wanted to be here, to fight this war," said Sergeant First Class David Moore, a self-described "conservative Texas Republican" and platoon sergeant who strongly advocates an American withdrawal. "Now, 95 percent of my platoon agrees with me."
It is not a question of loyalty, the soldiers insist. Safstrom, for example, comes from a thoroughly military family. His mother and father have served in the armed forces, as have his three sisters, one brother and several uncles. One week after the Sept. 11 attacks, he walked into a recruiter's office and joined the army.
"You guys want to start a fight in my backyard, I got something for you," he recalls thinking at the time.
But in Safstrom's view, the American presence is futile. "If we stayed here for 5, even 10 more years, the day we leave here these guys will go crazy," he said. "It would go straight into a civil war. That's how it feels, like we're putting a Band-Aid on this country until we leave here."
Their many deployments have added to the strain. After spending six months in Iraq, the soldiers of Delta Company had been home for only 24 hours last December when the news came. "Change your plans," they recall being told. "We're going back to Iraq."
Nineteen days later, just after Christmas, Captain Douglas Rogers and the men of Delta Company were on their way to Khadimiya, a Shiite enclave of about 300,000. As part of the so-called surge of American troops, their primary mission was to maintain stability in the area and to prepare the Iraqi Army and police to take control of the neighborhood.
"I thought it would not be long before we could just stay on our base and act as a quick-reaction force," said the barrel-chested Rogers of San Antonio, Texas. "The Iraqi security forces would step up." It has not worked out that way. Still, Rogers says their mission in Khadimiya has been "an amazing success."
"We've captured 4 of the top 10 most-wanted guys in this area," he said. And the streets of Khadimiya are filled with shoppers and the stores are open, he added, a rarity in Baghdad due partly to Delta Company's patrols.
Rogers acknowledges the skepticism of many of his soldiers. "Our unit has already sent two soldiers home in a box," he said. "My soldiers don't see the same level of commitment from the Iraqi Army units they're partnered with."
Yet there is, he insists, no crisis of morale: "My guys are all professionals. I tell them to do something, they do it."
His dictum is proven on patrol, where his soldiers walk the streets for hours in the stifling heat, providing cover for one another with a crisp efficiency.
On April 29, a Delta Company patrol was responding to a tip at the Sadr mosque, a short distance from its base. The soldiers saw men in the distance erecting burning barricades, and the streets emptied out quickly. Then a militia, believed to be the Mahdi army, began firing at them from rooftops and windows.
Sergeant Kevin O'Flarity, a squad leader, jumped into his Humvee to join his fellow soldiers, racing through abandoned Iraqi Army and police checkpoints to the battle site.
He and his squad maneuvered their Humvees through alleyways and side streets, firing back at an estimated 60 insurgents during a gunfight that raged for two and a half hours. A rocket-propelled grenade glanced off O'Flarity's Humvee, failing to penetrate.
When the battle was over, Delta Company learned that among the enemy dead were at least two Iraqi Army soldiers that American forces had helped train and arm.
Rogers admits that, "the 29th was a watershed moment in a negative sense, because the Iraqi Army would not fight with us," he said, adding that "some actually picked up weapons and fought against us." The battle changed the attitude among his soldiers toward the war, he said.
"Before that fight, there were a few true believers." Rogers said. "After the 29th, I don't think you'll find a true believer in this unit. They're paratroopers. There's no question they'll fulfill their mission. But they're fighting now for pride in their unit, professionalism, loyalty to their fellow soldier and chain of command."
To O'Flarity, the Iraqi security forces are militias beholden to local leaders, not the Iraqi government. "Half of the Iraqi security forces are insurgents," he said.
As for his views on the war, O'Flarity said, "I don't believe we should be here in the middle of a civil war."
"We've all lost friends over here," he said. "Most of us don't know what we're fighting for anymore. We're serving our country and friends, but the only reason we go out every day is for each other."
"I don't want any more of my guys to get hurt or die. If it was something I felt righteous about, maybe. But for this country and this conflict, no, it's not worth it."