Morale of the Troops

Handing Over The Mic: Troops talk from Iraq

By Michael Graham

I just spent a week in Iraq and Kuwait cultivating a skill that I, as a talk-show host, have found nearly impossible to master: shutting up.

Turns out, it was easier than I thought, at least in Iraq. When you're listening to a 20-year-old kid from Indiana tell how he earned his second Purple Heart, speechlessness is the natural reaction.

I was there as part of the much-maligned "Truth Tour" organized by Move America Forward, a conservative group based in California. According to reports in the mainstream media, I was part of a "propaganda" junket paid for by the Pentagon to buy some desperately needed positive coverage of the unwinnable military quagmire. All I can say is: If this was a junket, it was the worst-run junket in the history of public relations.

My radio station and I had to pay all my expenses, I slept on a bare cot in a tent in the desert, and at some locations the only available "food" (and I use that term under protest) were MREs - which stands for "Meals Ready to Eat...assuming you've already eaten both shoes and most of your undergarments."

This alleged "junket" failed in another way, too. The Pentagon didn't control what went out over the airwaves. Then again, neither did I. I left it all up to the soldiers.

I traveled about Iraq from Camp Victory at the Baghdad International Airport to Camp Prosperity on the very edge of the Red Zone, then down the Baghdad Highway to Camp Falcon, and on to the Command Headquarters in the heart of the city and, eventually, to the deserts of Kuwait and Camp Arifjan. And everywhere I went, I flipped on my mic, sat back, and let the troops tell their story.

These soldiers weren't stooges from Public Affairs or handpicked flag wavers foist on me by media handlers. I found some in the mess hall, others working security checkpoints; others sought me out because they have family living in the D.C. area where my radio show is broadcast. The least fortunate were the soldiers in Humvees stuck with "tourist duty," four friendly but serious young men who got stuck with a couple of bonehead radio hosts riding along on patrol.

In all, I spoke to more than 100 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, with different ranks and different duties at their FOBs (forward operating base), and yet they overwhelmingly had the same things to say about the war in Iraq:

"We believe in the mission."

"We're making progress."

"The Iraqis are making progress, too."

And, perhaps most important of all: "We're going to win."

I expected to hear this sort of positive assessment from General George Casey, commander of operations in Iraq, when I interviewed him at his headquarters deep inside the International Zone. When he pointed out that, one year ago, there was just one standing battalion in the Iraqi army, but there are 107 battalions today, he was doing his job of supporting the war. And I expected it from Lt. General Steve Whitcomb, commanding general of the 3rd Army, as he talked about successfully moving more than one million gallons of fuel across Iraq every day, despite the best efforts of the insurgents.

Generals are supposed to be gung ho. It comes with the pay grade. But I heard the same, positive assessments from 23-year-old sergeants from New Iberia, La., and from PFCs from Wisconsin and Alabama. I heard it from Lieutenant Li, whose Humvee had been hit by IEDs so many times he'd lost count. I heard it from Airman Truong, who was born in Vietnam and had recently returned to his native country to marry. Two weeks after "I do," Airman Truong was headed back to Kuwait to do his duty for his adopted country.

Again and again, from "white-collar" soldiers working in the relative safety of Camp Victory at the Baghdad airport to the "real" soldiers patrolling Route Irish (a.k.a the "Highway of Death"), I heard that America and their Iraqi-army allies are winning the war against the insurgents. I was told again and again by the soldiers themselves that their (our) cause is just, the strategy is working, and the enemy they fight represents evil itself.

In other words, I heard things seldom heard on CBS or read in the pages of the New York Times.

It was only a week, and I have my obvious Bush-supporting, troop-cheering biases, but how much closer can a reporter get to delivering unspun, bias-free objective reporting than live-mic broadcasting instantly back to the states? No edits or filters or editorial meetings. Just the young men in the hot desert telling what they've seen, what they've heard, and what they now believe based on those experiences.

Isn't it at least significant that not one in 100 thought invading Iraq was a mistake? Was it mere coincidence that a random selection of 100 soldiers all believe their mission is worthwhile? Should we detect the hand of the Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy in the fact that the vast majority of the troops find the media coverage of the war ignorant, harmful, or both?

I'm proud to say that, for a week, the soldiers had their say. If I were the editor of a major daily newspaper or a national network, I would be concerned that what they said is so contrary to what I am printing or broadcasting.

But the mainstream media don't need to hear from the soldiers. They already know that the war was a terrible mistake, that the world would be safer if we'd left Saddam in power, and that there is no chance for victory in Iraq.

Me, I'm not so smart. I like to let the guys on the ground tell their story. I believe it is completely possible that they know something that I - and the New York Times editorial page - do not.

(Radio-talk host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia.)