War Stories

Lost Voices

Why the deaths of Yance T. Gray and Omar Mora are particularly galling.

On Monday, while Gen. David Petraeus prepared to testify before two House committees about the successes of the surge, seven of his soldiers died when their transport vehicle overturned in a highway accident west of Baghdad.

Two of those soldiers, Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, 26, and Sgt. Omar Mora, 28, were part of another group of seven—the seven noncommissioned officers of the 82nd Airborne Division who wrote a brave, well-reasoned op-ed in the Aug. 19 New York Times, calling the prospect of victory “far-fetched” and appraisals of progress “surreal.”

One of the other NCOs, Staff Sgt. Jeremy A. Murphy, was shot in the head during a firefight before the op-ed piece was published. (Rushed to a military hospital, he is alive but recovering slowly.)

It is sad and appalling that nearly half of the authors of that op-ed are now casualties of the war that they publicly criticized but more than willingly continued to fight. (The last paragraph of their piece read: “We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.”)

A friend of the seven NCOs told me in an e-mail, several days before the accident, that Staff Sgts. Gray and Murphy were two of “the brains behind the op-ed.” (The third was Spc. Buddhika Jayamaha, who, like the article’s other three survivors, remains in Iraq and is not scheduled to leave until November.) They were inveterate readers of history, and they relished talking about books on civil wars and insurgencies—and how those histories related to the war that they were fighting—for hours after returning from a patrol.

In other words, these were precisely the sorts of soldiers that Gen. Petraeus is trying to groom for a new U.S. Army attuned to the requirements of 21st-century warfare: soldiers who fight valiantly and think strategically.

It would have been interesting had some congressman or senator asked Petraeus what he thought of these aspiring acolytes’ observations. After Petraeus cited claims of improvements in the Iraqi army’s performance, some legislator should have recited the seven NCOs’ description of the “Janus-faced” Iraqi security forces who are trained by U.S. personnel by day and help insurgents plant bombs that maim those same American soldiers by night. They wrote:

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that [Iraqi] battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

As for the one success worth touting in Iraq—the joint effort by U.S. troops and Sunni tribes to kill jihadist terrorists in Anbar province—the seven NCOs wrote that proxies are “essential in winning a counterinsurgency,” but that, for the strategy to work, the proxies must be “loyal to the center that we claim to support”—i.e., they must be loyal to the central government in Baghdad. As Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker acknowledged in their two days of hearings this week, no such loyalty is evident.

The seven NCOs wrote:

Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency, is far-fetched.

When the op-ed appeared three weeks ago, I wrote a column predicting that it would make an impact, that some would invoke it as “a set of boots-on-the-ground rebuttal points” to the “lofty claims” in the then-forthcoming Petraeus report. It is galling that so many pundits and legislators touted a Times op-ed by two Brookings scholars who spent eight days in Iraq and came away persuaded that the war might be won—but paid virtually no attention to the far more unusual, even unprecedented, op-ed by seven active-duty soldiers still based in Iraq, some on their second or third tour of duty, who dared to step forth and argue otherwise.

I’m not saying that, because the NCOs are grunts, they’re right—or that, because Petraeus is a commanding general, he’s wrong. I’m just saying it would have been good to have that dialogue. It would be good to have soldiers who think in these terms rising through the ranks. My guess is that Petraeus wouldn’t disagree. The question is how many more smart, brave soldiers we’ll lose while the rest of the nation sidesteps the debate.