"We're at war, America's at the mall." That's how a lieutenant colonel here in Baghdad summed up his frustration last week. I had asked him, given the chance, which Iraq-related issue he would raise with President Bush. We were standing in the dust of a makeshift landing zone, on the edge of a fortified Baghdad neighborhood, waiting for a Blackhawk to airlift us somewhere.
Then that same officer framed his frustration into a question for his Commander-in-Chief. "What's the answer to preventing multiple tours here for the same troops?"
The art of war has changed dramatically over time, but not some of the basic attitudes of armies. Deployed soldiers always have the same question. "When am I going home?" Back in the fourth-century B.C., when Alexander the Greek led his armies through what is now Iraq, chances are his men also wanted some sense of when their families could expect to see them again. So no real surprise there. But over here, soldiers here often ask a second question. "When am I coming BACK?"
It's a fair question. I've often run into soldiers on their second, even third rotation in Iraq. A gunnery sergeant with a daughter who's now five years old could have missed three of those years soldiering in Iraq. The White House insists U.S. forces are not stretched too thing, but the Pentagon keeps asking the same people to head to Iraq for another tour.
Lots of people travel for work. A couple of days and nights at the Marriott in Tulsa, before trying to get upgraded into first class for the flight back home. A deployment in Iraq is just a little more demanding. I'm just finishing up a rotation in the CBS Baghdad bureau that lasted almost two months. To most people, that's a long time away from home. For me, it meant missing moments that mattered: my brother-in-law's wedding, my daughter's first day of fourth-grade. Not huge sacrifices, but moments you can't get back.
Soldiers deployed here leave for a year, and sometime longer. Think about how many moments they will miss in those months away. I've run into several soldiers here who have a new child they've never seen, born after they left for Iraq. Just about everyone in a U.S. uniform here will miss more than one of life's everyday rituals: a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, the chance to take a high school senior's prom pictures. For their families back home, those missed opportunities, that absence, is made worse by months of worry. There is no truly safe place in Iraq.
U.S. commanders here say when the Iraqis are ready to stand up for themselves, U.S. soldiers will stand down. And begin to go home. Among U.S. troops, there's a growing impatience for that transition to happen. It's an anger beginning to simmer, their feeling that they're working harder to rebuild Iraq than many Iraqis seem to be. They wonder, where's the Iraqi sense of urgency, especially the Iraqi government?
Specialist Tim Britt's hometown is Lakeland Florida. He's twenty-four, newly married, on his first tour in Iraq with the Fourth Infantry Division now operating out of Baghdad. I was riding in the back of his Humvee last week, taking a tour through one of Baghdad's worst neighborhoods that coalition forces are trying to bring under control. The temperature that day peaked at 118 degrees, but that doesn't being to explain how hot we felt. We were all also wrapped in body armor and drenched in sweat. But also dripping from Britt was frustration about the pace of progress here. He knows until Iraqi security forces are able to protect Iraqi people, U.S. soldiers like him probably will have to. Britt's deployment here should be over by year's end. But by 2008, he could be on his way back here. So his imaginary question to President Bush was about Iraqi security forces. "How much longer are we going to have to lead them by the hand?"
All fair questions. Especially, when those questions come from the men and women doing the heavy lifting in Iraq. Most of them believe in the U.S. mission here.
They're not really even complaining about the stress or the danger of being here, which most of them over time take for granted. All they're asking for, in return, is some answers about sharing the pain.