“One Iraqi soldier in the alley pointed his rifle at an American reporter and pulled the trigger. There was only a click: the weapon had no ammunition. The soldier laughed at his joke.”
That was the kicker to a depressing, maddening, and illuminating piece in this morning’s New York Times by Damien Cave and James Glanz. The duo (or one of them, the Times’ famously impersonal style makes it hard to assign authorship at times), was embedded this week with an American Army unit fighting on Haifa street in Baghdad — a unit that had a horrible time not just with the enemy, but with its Iraqi Army allies.
The two report that at the outset of the day-long fight, “many of the Iraqi Army units” that had initially been assigned to search buildings in the neighborhood “did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.
“When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns…Many of the Iraqi units that showed up late never seemed to take the task seriously,” and when it came time to search apartments for insurgent activity, the Timesmen write that the Iraqis were “searching haphazardly, breaking dishes and rifling through personal CD collections in the apartments. Eventually the Americans realized that the Iraqis were searching no more than half of the apartments; at one point the Iraqis completely disappeared, leaving the American unit working with them flabbergasted.”
There have been plenty of stories written about the many failings of the Iraqi Army, but this story seems a bit more personal than the Times often allows. Considering that an Iraqi pretended to shoot one of the reporters on the scene, we can guess that there’s some residual anger involved, to say the least. But you know what? That’s what makes the piece so damn good. Rather than the Times’ usually dispassionate retelling of an event, this story has an edge that is sadly missing from so much American newspaper reporting — an edge editors would be wise to encourage from their journalists. For example, Cave and Glanz write that after the Americans tossed a couple smoke grenades in the street to cover their movement, the Iraqi troops “could not stop shouting and guffawing with amusement as they ran through the smoke.”
“Guffawing with amusement” is something of a loaded phrase, and in a sense, juxtaposed with the scene — Americans under sniper fire with one American soldier killed and Iraqi soldiers pretending to shoot American civilians — it evokes a measure of revulsion at the unserious, unprofessional and unready Iraqi soldiers. And in the context of the revolting story as a whole, we suspect that the phrase is more than appropriate.
The story also does something that all good journalism should strive for — it illuminates the whole by dealing in particulars. By that we mean that its description of the clown-like behavior of this particular Iraqi unit does as much to show us the operational readiness of the Iraqi Army as any descriptive piece that charts how many Iraqi units are capable of operating on their own, or how close they may be to operational status. We can’t assume that every Iraqi Army unit would act like this one when it is forced to fight, but if we assume that this is one of the units deemed ready to be in the fight, things hardly look promising.
The story also exposed some blatant falsehoods concerning the ability of Iraqi forces to take the lead in this war. Vice president Cheney grunted last night on CNN (in a profoundly disconnected interview that sounded like it could have been conducted in 2004), that “there’s more and more authority transferred to the Iraqis all the time,” and Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, who was the commander of the mission, said, “This was an Iraqi-led effort and with that come challenges and risks.”