Exactly five years ago I was with the Third Batallion, Fifth Marines, waiting for the order to cross what they called the Line Of Departure-a pass they'd cut through the giant sandberm that ran along the Iraq/Kuwait border. I was squeezed into the back of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle-an engineering marvel that was built for beach assaults but had no trouble making it all the way to Baghdad, and beyond. We were part of a convoy that stretched as far as I could see forward and back. Amazingly, many of the 19 or so Marines who were squeezed into a space built for about 10, slept. They were smart enough to know they'd need their rest. I was not. I stood and watched through an open hatch as we blasted through the LOD and roared across the Iraqi desert-with no idea of what to expect.
Paging through the journal I kept during those three weeks to Baghdad, it seems (sorry for the cliche, but it really does) like it was just a few months ago. I wrote a lot about the conditions-which were arduous, and dangerous. For example, the night I dug a ditch in the hard desert sand to get a couple hours sleep, then awoke in a cold sweat with a Marine screaming at me to put on my gas mask, that we were under attack. I also wrote a lot about the Marines-so incredibly young (most in my vehicle were were between 18 and 22), and who so astounded me with their maturity and resolve while facing life or death situations.
But five years later, two passages in my journal really catch my eye because they tell so much about Iraq then, and now.
The first was on the highway to Baghdad, where I wrote: "Iraqis wave and blow kisses-and plead for food." It happened in a Shiite area, and it was a reflection of how desperate they were and, at least initially, how grateful they were that the Americans had arrived to end the rule of the much-hated Saddam. The experience convinced a lot of the Marines I was with that the war planners were right-that they would be greeted with open arms.
But another short notation foretells a very different story. It was the day we arrived in Baghdad. In my notebook I simply wrote: "Suicide bombing on way to hotel." A man got out of a taxi, walked up to a Marine check point, and blew himself up. No Marines were killed, but three or four were injured.
I reported the details on the air at length and repeatedly (I worked for NBC and MSNBC in those days), but only later did I realize the significance of what I had witnessed-the first suicide attack in Baghdad on American forces, by what would soon become an army of suicide bombers.
Since shortly after I returned from Iraq, my beat has been Congress. And during that time, I've done more stories on Iraq than any other topic. And I like to think that my experience in Iraq has helped me understand the issue-from Iraqis blowing kisses to suicide bombers to young Marines in extraordinarily stressful situations.
But one thing I'm constantly asked to explain by people who oppose the war is why Congress is so silent on the issue now. Democrats, of course, came to power confident they could force the president to start bringing the troops home. But after countless futile efforts, they appear to have accepted the fact that with their margins in both Houses so small, Republicans have the votes to block them at every turn. Now, with Republicans arguing that the troop surge is working, and with the economy dominating the agenda, Iraq has all but fallen off the map on Capitol Hill.
As long as Democrats stick to their policy of not cutting off funds for troops in the field-a policy they believe is necessary lest they turn the nation's moderates and independents against them-there is little they can do to force the President's hand. Even if they could pass legislation, he would veto it. And Democrats don't have anything close to the numbers they need to override a veto. They've now realized the only way to end the war is to elect a Democratic president, or, if McCain wins, to gain enough seats in both Houses to override his vetoes, which is why the silence on Iraq up here on Capitol Hill is so deafening now. It's all about who wins in November.