Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 6/30/2006 [Archive]

Debriefing Ollie North

Debriefing Ollie North

Oliver North spends so much time on patrol with or interviewing the troops in Iraq, you'd think he is still an active colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.

North, who has been to Iraq seven times and Afghanistan once and fought in Vietnam, is a conservative commentator for Fox News, where he hosts "War Stories" at 8 p.m. Sunday nights. July 9th's episode on the role of baseball in wartime, "From the Ballpark to the Battlefield: Baseball and WWII," will air the night before the All-Star game. I talked to North on Tuesday, June 27, by telephone:

Q: What is your assessment of the condition of the U.S. military today?

A: There has never been a brighter, better-educated, better-equipped, led or more combat-experienced military than the one we have today. And I can say that having spent 25 years in uniform. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it is all volunteer.

Q: Is our military as modern, as smart, as it needs to be for the 21st century?

A: You always want guys with more education. But no nation ever has ever had a military as bright. When you add to that the combat experience of this military, it is an enormous war-fighting capability that no nation has ever had. And with the technology of the weapons and the equipment that they use and maintain, it gives you an extraordinary advantage on the battlefield.

Q: How are the troops in Iraq holding up morale-wise -- in spite of what you've called 'the steady drumbeat of dismal defeatism'?

A: (laughing) Nothing like a little alliteration for us newspaper guys, right? Look, while they are over there they are blissfully unaware of most of the negativism. It's the guys who come back home and then go back out. They are being affected by it. The frustration they feel is that the folks at home don't understand how successful they've been. And maybe the best barometer of troop morale -- and I think it's been this way since 1777-78 -- has been, always, the re-enlistment rate. The re-enlistment rate -- not the new enlistment rate -- has never been higher.

Q: It seems that it's pretty obvious U.S. troops in Iraq are going to be drawn down for political reasons in time for November's elections and again in 2008. Will this hurt the situation in Iraq?

A: They're already being drawn down. There are units that were out there in December that have come home that are not being replaced. So the drawdown has already begun. They're not going to make a big announcement about it to give encouragement to the bad guys or to discourage an Iraqi government that desperately wants us to stay as long as we can.

I differ with you, Bill. I don't think it's just because of the November elections. These decisions were being made back last September, October, November. My sense is that they have watched the overall success from an entirely different perspective than we're getting on television from the balcony shots at the Baghdad (Hotel) and they're getting that from the guys in the field.

I watched the Iraqi armor unit roll into Ramadi and was stunned at the reaction of the Iraqi people. This is a town that has been the centerpiece of the so-called Sunni insurrection. It's right in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. I watched the people react incredibly warmly. They were impressed by their own army's strength and resolve. I've been on patrol with them out there.

Q: Are these the things that give you confidence the Iraqis will be able to hold it together when we leave or draw down significantly?

A: Yes.And it's because they have overcome the two great obstacles we put in their path. Both were made at the same time, in May of 2003, and I was there when it was happening.

Obstacle No. 1 was the decision not to call the Iraqi army back to their barracks. (Former Coalition Provisional Authority head) Paul Bremer called me up -- we've known each other for a long time -- and I said to him that we've forgotten the lessons of history. Everybody thinks that the Marshall Plan won World War II in Europe. The first Marshall Plan dollar didn't hit Europe until 1948. Between May of 1945, at the end of World War II in Europe, and 1948, Germany was rebuilt by the Wehrmacht, with American officers and supervisors. Italy was rebuilt by the Italian army, and Japan was rebuilt by the Japanese army.

And No. 2, we turned away the exiles in Iraq. And guess what? Look at the people who are in positions of ministerial power in Iraq today in the new government -- democratically elected. They are all exiles. They were put there by the Iraqis. So the Iraqis have overcome two major obstacles we threw in their path -- not by the U.S. military but by the political leadership at the State Department and the White House.

Q: Has the Bush administration asked the volunteer army to do a job or mission it is not designed to do -- basically rebuilding a country and trying to plant a Western-style democracy in a place that probably isn't suited for that?

A: Or, as someone put it to me, 'Have they been asked to do mission impossible?" No. Because this is a military that is capable of winning this kind of war. It's not the war they were designed to fight but they have fought it extremely well. The difficulty in this war is the inevitable frustration Americans always have -- which is let's get the doggone thing over with. ...

If you look at the capabilities of the armed forces of the United States, the part that has been missing is the political dimension -- support for the troops. When was the last time you, in a local newspaper, had given to you the press release on the local citations for the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross?

Q: It doesn't happen any more.

A: Bingo. Well, why the hell doesn't it, if I can put it baldly on a Fourth of July weekend. Why the devil doesn't it? Why should the American people be reminded, regularly, about Haditha, instead of being reminded that we have real, live, walking, talking war heroes living among us?

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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