Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Michael Yon - A Man To Watch

12 April 2008, 14 & 16 April 2008 (revised)

As a dual US and Canadian citizen living 80% of the year in Canada and 20% of the year in the US, I get up-to-date on news of the American presence in Iraq mostly when I'm in the US, as I am now.

Thanks once again to the
Wall Street Journal, I have discovered another lead to which we need to pay attention.

Michael Yon, an independent journalist with a background in special forces - not journalism, writing in a Friday Op-Ed piece in the Journal, suggests that we are no longer fighting the (strategically inept and obviously losing) Iraq War of 2004-06.

As perhaps the "most-embedded" of all American journalists, he asserts that under General David Petraeus, we have truly been winning hearts and minds - particularly among the Sunni community - since 2007.

I probably don't have to tell you that this is a story not often heard in Canada, where our focus is very much more on the leadership role of Canadian troops in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. (Nor should I have to tell my Canadian readers that the US media pay little attention to the Canadian story in Afghanistan. That seems to be how war goes. When our countrymen and women are at war, it is they whom we watch.)

However, whether you are Canadian, American, or a member of any other democratic society, you have to pay attention to what Mr. Yon is saying for the obvious reason that he is there as an eyewitness.

I infer that Mr. Yon spoke himself to the Iraqi translator who, when threatened with death, asked that his heart be buried in America.

A story such as this sounds emotive, but blunt appeals to emotion are not actually Mr. Yon's style. His preference is to describe objectively what he sees and let you - the reader - figure it out for yourself.

Why are roadside bombings down? Because an insurgent can't bury a 1500-pound "tank buster" in a main thoroughfare without being noticed by the neighbours, who now call the Americans to notify them.

Yon states, "... in Baqubah in June 2007, politics was crucial. Casualties were a fraction of what we expected because, block-by-block, the citizens told our guys where to find the bad guys. I was there; I saw it."

Yon, who is on the ground with the soldiers, sees the Iraq War now being won. How come? Yon writes, "As the outrages of Abu Ghraib faded in memory – and paled in comparison to al Qaeda's brutalities – and our soldiers under the Petraeus strategy got off their big bases and out of their tanks and deeper into the neighbourhoods, American values began to win the war."

Yon makes clear how and why al Qaeda's forces are being discredited in Iraq: "The al Qaeda terrorists don’t save themselves for the seventy two virgins promised to suicide bombers. They love drugs, prostitutes, and the power of the gun. The gay al Qaeda informant in Moment of Truth in Iraq is classic. Whenever his al Qaeda lovers abused him, he supplied American forces information to kill them."

Last week, I shared Jim Rogers' idea that it will cost more to try to prevent the recession than it will to let it proceed on its own course.

This week, let me paraphrase Michael Yon's idea, blending his thoughts with my own.

Mr. Yon believes that the leadership of General Petraeus (initiated on February 10, 2007), with its emphasis on building relationships with citizens on the ground, has redirected the course of the Iraq War. If he is correct, it might now cost more to walk away from the perceived still-losing pre-Petraeus battle than now to commit America's (obviously critically over-stretched) resources fully to support a possibly winning battle plan under the leadership of a
competent new general (Mr. Petraeus).

In other words, the war in Iraq under General Petraeus may no longer be the same losing effort that characterized the US intervention from mere weeks following its inception through early 2007, at least in the minority Sunni regions of the country. While the Iraq War was clearly conceived and then executed both wrongly and ineptly from early on (in my view), Yon suggests that perhaps this war could now be salvaged - not specifically for the US, for which the salvage operation will certainly prove excessively costly regardless of which course is followed - but for the people of Iraq, who may ultimately fatigue of being bullied and exploited by armed strongmen on both the Sunni and (possibly) the Shi'a sides.

Financially, this will prove an excessively costly ($3 trillion or more) war regardless of whether the United States pulls out soon or stays for the longer term. To the shame of the Bush administration, much else could have been accomplished with the funds that have been and will be deployed in Iraq - including but not restricted to the rebuilding of New Orleans, assistance to strapped homeowners, improved health care, and better management of government indebtedness - not to mention the building of better relations with Middle Eastern countries. It is possible that Mr. Bush will be remembered as the president who bankrupted America, subsequent to his history of mismanaging oil sector businesses prior to his election to the presidency.

I share none of the misplaced and inept militaristic idealism and adventurism of the Project for the New American Century cabal around president George W. Bush that designed this war. I continue to believe that we would live in a better and safer world today if we had not invaded Iraq.

But of course, none of the above are questions for today. Today's strategic question is: "What is the best achievable outcome of the intervention, and by what means, given where we are now?" Our present financial question is also quite simple: "What will be the full costs of staying, as opposed to the full costs of leaving, at this present point in the US-engendered Iraqi conflict?"

In short, if victory - meaning the achievement of relative peace, stability and freedom in that country - remains possible, then that is certainly the most desirable strategic outcome.

Further, if a positive outcome is possible - from our present point of engagement, even at greater immediate cost, the achievement of stability in Iraq would almost certainly also prove our least costly long-term financial (as well as strategic) alternative.

To cut our costs based on a strategic assessment of present failure foretells further, and difficult-to-predict, but probably also entirely unacceptable, and very likely greater, future costs arising as inevitable and partially-predictable consequences of the current emergency.

If stability and freedom in Iraq are actually achievable, this would entail further balanced consideration of John McCain's presidential candidacy. If the Iraq War is recoverable from here, then Mr. McCain's statement of determination to remain in Iraq may yet be found to be vindicated.

I'm not yet well-enough versed in the area of American politics to select a "best" candidate for my vote for the office of president, as most of my knowledge is in the Canadian sphere. Mr. McCain is not by any means consistently "right" in my view - particularly on a range of tolerance-based social issues, where members of the American right recurrently go "wrong." Obama and Clinton easily top him with respect to most issues of broad social tolerance.

(14 April 2008: I would like to add here what in my view is a positive note for Mr. Obama, who has recently demonstrated that his insight into the American psyche is quite deep - so deep in fact that he has recently found it necessary to apologize for his statements over the weekend about feelings of "bitterness" in American communities. Mr. Obama's incisively accurate observations were obviously uncomfortably close to the mark for a broad spectrum of self-interested Americans who have objected to his take on some of the factors which sustain a rarely acknowledged long and dark stream in the psyche of mainstream America.)

In light of the upcoming election, the truth is that we presently have only three candidates to choose from (at this time), and will ultimately have only two. My guiding question in this sphere remains, which of these (now three) obviously imperfect choices will be best for the country and for the international community?

My mind isn't made up yet. I don't begin to support Mr. McCain's or any other candidate's full political agenda. I'm starting to think that Mr. McCain, who favours staying in Iraq
"as long as it takes to win" may be holding to a position worthy of further consideration. I would not have reached this conclusion prior to entertaining Mr. Yon's fresh ideas on the present state of the Iraq War.

I continue to be repelled by the anti-investment stands of both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton, whose intention to continue penalizing savers and investors at the expense of proposed new or expanded health and social programs will depend for its execution on further injections of wealth into the American economy by precisely the individuals they propose to tax more heavily. The inherent contradiction in Clinton and Obama's economic policies in my view spells potential disaster for the American economy under their oversight.

In presidential politics, as in war, our choices are limited by what is possible in the present moment.

Let us now return to the topic of the Iraq War itself.

Mr. Yon writes: "Over the past 15 months, we have proved that we can win this war. We stand now at the moment of truth. Victory – and a democracy in the Arab world – is within our grasp. But it could yet slip away if our leaders remain transfixed by the war we almost lost, rather than focusing on the war we are winning today."

Is Mr. Yon a propagandist?

Well, here is the definition from Wordweb: "Propagandist: A person who disseminates messages calculated to assist some cause or some government." So yes, his work is definitely propagandistic. He is taking a side. He wants to see this war won for the lasting benefit of the Iraqi people and for the vindication of the American soldier (more so than for the vindication of the American government, a position which is admirable), and he uses various rhetorical devices to persuade us of his case.

The more important question in my mind, therefore, is this one: "Is Mr. Yon speaking the truth?"

Again, my initial impression, and thus the more important answer, is also "Yes."

Mr Yon, it seems to me, is a man of truth. Based on this assessment, this man and his message are not to be ignored.

(16 April 2008: As my study of this issue has progressed, my present impression is that Mr. Yon may be describing truthfully - a successful intervention among Iraq's now-marginalized Sunni population in a Middle East now increasingly dominated by Shi'ite Iran. I am not certain if Mr. Yon's narrative is as applicable to the Shi'a as to the Sunni regions. Neil MacDonald of the CBC in Canada offers an excellent Canadian critique of Mr. Bush's Iraq war here.)

Mr. Yon is author of the just-published "Moment of Truth in Iraq" (Richard Vigilante Books). He has been reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2004. (I specifically do not endorse many of the other books available from Mr. Yon's very right-wing publisher, the anti-tolerance themes of which I strenuously oppose.)

My advice - look this guy up. I'm planning to look further into Mr. Yon's ideas.

And, as three of my four stepchildren are now members of Canadian military families, let me add this US-based military motivator link for them (supplier of the above Yon poster).

30 August 2008: Click here for an update on Mr. Yon's move to Afghanistan to report, again from the front lines, on the AfPak conflict.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post Laurence. It's encouraging to think the future over there could look better.

  2. I now think that Mr. Yon's work describes primarily Sunni Iraq. It will take wiser anti-insurgent tactics to defuse the Shi'a rivalries which are now the real issue in Iraq.

    General Petraeus seems a competent military leader, so if it can be done, perhaps he is the man for the job - but I don't think that job has been done yet - or even demonstrated doable so far!