Fresh Paint

Just over a year ago, my platoon boarded a plane in Kuwait for my first trip into Iraq. We were bound for Al Taqaddum Airfield, and after a few days there would be flying to Camp Corregidor, on the eastern edge of Ar Ramadi. More than half of my soldiers had already spent a year in Ramadi with the 1-503rd Infantry (we were later re-designated 1-9 Infantry at Fort Carson, Colo.), and we knew what we were in for.

We had spent the previous year training as hard as we could. Starting with the basics - discipline, marksmanship, first aid and physical training - we threw more and more complicated situations at ourselves until company and combined arms live-fire exercises were normal. If we needed something, we found a way to get it. If we didn't have a range complex enough for us, we built it. If there was a piece of gear that might make us marginally more lethal or better protected in combat, we bought it.

Once our fighting ability was beyond question, we started to focus on the finer points of modern warfare that would allow us to accomplish our overall mission. Without the tools to rebuild and reverse the chaos, we could never be more than partially successful, so we trained on how to gather our own intelligence on the ground, how to exploit that intelligence, how to work with other units and other services, and how to avoid cultural problems that would alienate the people and compound our difficulties. We learned how to open doors with respect if we could, and how to open them with demolitions and shotguns if we couldn't. We learned how to transition between cautious dialogue one minute and explosive violence the next.

At that time, Ramadi was still one of the most vicious fights in Iraq, a rubbled city of more than 250,000 people, primarily Sunni, and a traditional stronghold of al-Qaeda and several other hardcore insurgent groups. The police force had all either quit or been killed. The Iraqi Army and a battalion from the 101st Airborne were under siege in their camps with only a few roads in the sector that could be consistently traveled, even in armored vehicles. Entire districts of the city hadn't seen U.S. soldiers on the ground in months.

I read once that war can be defined as long periods of boredom punctuated by short bursts of terror, or something to that effect. In reality, the periods of boredom weren't all that long here. Between October and March, we were fighting somewhere in the city nearly every day. My platoon was in contact three or four times a week at a minimum for a while, usually more often when we were downtown at OP Eagle's Nest, and it was fairly common for the battalion to have several fights going on at once. Our headquarters became very good at juggling tanks, aircraft and indirect fire, and handling multiple situations simultaneously in a snarl of tense radio traffic.

Six months ago, we knew we had turned a corner in our efforts to dislodge al-Qaeda from its traditional stronghold in Ar Ramadi. For Task Force 1-9, the tipping point might have been the house-by-house clearance of the insurgent-infested Malaab and Al Iskan districts. One of the most significant actions was sending our soldiers to the aid of a local sheik who found himself and his tribe in a gunfight with al-Qaeda.

That night literally turned into a game of "shirts and skins." With no way to distinguish between the sheik's people and the insurgents, and with everyone running around shooting in the dark, we had to revert to the old pick-up football game method of telling people apart, and had the sheik's guys take off their shirts. As the saying goes, "If it's stupid, but it works, it's not stupid."

That gesture of support, combined with our history of seeking out and engaging local leadership who could influence the population, indirectly led to a chain reaction of sheiks who, faced with an either/or decision, threw their lot in with the coalition and began to support our efforts to rebuild the police force and get the local government back on its feet. After a series of operations that cleared virtually every house in central and eastern Ramadi, assisted by an increasingly competent Iraqi army and the first group of trained policemen in over a year, the ultra-violence that had permeated Ar Ramadi for several years just stopped.

To say that the silence was deafening wouldn't be far off the mark. After fighting so consistently, for so long, I don't think anybody really believed that the fragile peace could last for long. Where a day without significant violence had been an exception in the past, now the days stretched into a tense week, and then a month, until it became more and more obvious that this might not be a coincidence. Not that there weren't isolated incidents of violence; there were six small-arms attacks in our area in May, and we found 12 IEDs, although none of them detonated. But when you consider the fact that between February and March, our two busiest months, there were a total of 43 IED strikes, another 119 IEDs found before they detonated, 144 enemy attacks with small-arms fire and 56 RPGs fired at us, the change in environment was almost disorienting.

The trend has continued downward without exception. In September - the first month of Ramadan, traditionally marked by a serious spike in violence here - we found one IED that did not detonate. That's it. No small arms, no RPGs, no IED strikes. So far in October, as I write this, there have been none.

Task Force 1-9 wasted no time taking advantage of the more permissive environment. There had already been significant and ongoing political, civic and social efforts to change Ramadi for the better, but Lt. Col. Chuck Ferry, Col. John Charlton (commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, operating on the western side of the city), and others now had a small window of opportunity to try to sustain what had been started.

Civil Affairs. When the battle is going on, destruction is part of our business. We do what we can not to cause unnecessary damage, but when thousands of bullets are flying and massive explosions are just another part of clocking in, a few windows are bound to get broken, to say the least. The difference between us and the insurgents, who couldn't seem to care less what they destroy, is that we follow the you-break-it-you-buy-it rule. If the infantry is the tip of the spear during a hot war, it can be said that civil affairs is the tip of the spear - or shovel or bucket loader - after the hot war cools down. These soldiers work hard during the fighting, clearing sectors while attached to the infantry, working with local institutions and assisting the population. But they really step up once the dust settles. After assessing the sewage, water, electrical, academic and trash situations, they begin to prioritize and plan the reconstruction of the city.

For soldiers of B Company, 486th Civil Affairs Battalion, a reserve unit out of Tulsa, Okla., the establishment of Civil Military Operations Centers, or CMOCs, became one of their most prominent missions. The CMOC is the most common point of contact for the local population in need of assistance or looking for some restitution for destroyed or damaged property. In addition to helping the Iraqis, the battalion helped us by providing better answers for disgruntled civilians.

When an Iraqi starts flailing his arms and talking 1,000 miles an hour while pointing to a .50-caliber bullet hole in his Mercedes, an infantry platoon doesn't have any way to fix his problem on the spot. Directing him to the CMOC, where he can talk to interpreters and soldiers who are accustomed to handling these types of situations, allows us to move on with our primary mission while still building some good will for the long run. In a society all too accustomed to injustice, a situation like this can highlight the difference between us and the enemy.

In addition to establishing the CMOC, civil-affairs teams coordinate with local leaders to establish or repair civic and government systems and restore the basic needs of civilization to the local population. For a good civil-affairs team, this doesn't always mean throwing money onto the fire and taking the easy way out. The Iraqis are always willing to accept coalition money, but sometimes the less obvious solution is the better one.

Recently, when two local leaders requested a new water-treatment plant be built in their area, they were directed to the 486th CA. Instead of writing a blank check, Master Sgt. Charles Smith of Stillwater, Okla., went out to do an assessment. He discovered that the locals already had a $2 million treatment plant; it just wasn't working. After inspecting the plant to determine the source of the problem, he realized the people didn't need a new plant; they just needed additional diesel fuel to run the generators at the existing plant. Once the root of the problem was addressed, the Iraqis had their plant without wasting unnecessary U.S. tax dollars.

A sure way to cultivate trouble is to have multitudes of young men hanging around without gainful employment. One of the first orders of business was to begin a job-creation program, and invest the working-age population in Ramadi. Both the CA team and company commanders were encouraged to be proactive in starting work projects that would both benefit the local population and provide work, bringing reconstruction money into the economy and giving some military-age males an incentive to stay on the right track.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that if a senior commander looks at a PowerPoint slide and sees a huge amount of money spent in an area, that always equals huge results. Money spent for the sake of spending money is equated by 1st Lt. Morgan Ashworth, a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University when he is not on active duty, to the method of marksmanship sometimes used by low-level insurgents in Iraq: "If you shove an AK-47 around a corner and spray 100 bullets, that's not the same as aiming carefully and hitting 10 targets with 10 bullets." By carefully targeting the money spent, and considering second- and third-order effects, you're going to see a much better result without wasting precious resources.

Weaning the Iraqis from dependence on U.S. guidance and assistance is just as important as weaning them from U.S. money. If they get used to taking the easy route and asking the Americans to do things for them, they never learn to use their own government systems and follow the proper channels to get projects off the ground.

As in so many other things, it starts with boots on the ground. "The average Iraqi citizen wants our presence more than our presents," he said. "Of course, they'll take our presents, too."

Intangible benefits matter. A U.S. soldier wearing 80 pounds of gear, bristling with weapons and night vision, covered head to toe with dark sunglasses, gloves and armor, can be an intimidating presence in a man's home. Once security is established, it is vital that the leaders on the ground reveal their humanity.

Taking off their eye protection and Kevlar when it's safe to do so, removing gloves before shaking hands - all these little things transform us from faceless stormtroopers to a bunch of sweaty guys out doing a hard job. Add a little Arabic into the mix, or an interpreter with a simple message of "We’re here to help ... we need you to help us," and then follow that up by respecting their family and possessions as much as possible, and some, though not all, people will begin to help us. This in turn sets up civil affairs for success and leads to long-term mission accomplishment. It is virtually impossible to defeat an insurgency without the support of at least some of the population, and it's very hard to get that support if they don't see you as a human being.

Working hand in hand with 1-9 Infantry, and giving much of the credit to mature and intelligent leadership on the ground, the 486th has been tremendously effective in Ramadi. When soldiers arrived, they found a city largely in ruins. Approximately 20 percent of the houses in our sector were able to get electricity, and only around 10 percent had running water. Today, those numbers are around 90 percent for running water, and nearly everyone gets electricity for at least part of the day.

Ramadi General Hospital is functioning, as are smaller clinics in the area. This doesn't mean that they are functioning on the same level that we would expect back home. There is a shortage of good doctors, since almost anyone who could get away in previous years has already fled to other parts of Iraq, or to neighboring countries. Corruption also plays a part, hindering the flow of supplies. All in all, the medical situation today is much better than it has been through most of the war, but still has a long way to go.

Academically, the city has undergone some success. Returning the primary and secondary schools to a working state has been largely accomplished. Classes at Anbar University have continued, and students who couldn't get to class for months are taking advantage of the more secure situation. Ramadi could benefit greatly if many of the educated citizens and professionals who fled the country would return. It remains to be seen if they will have the inclination or the means to come back.

Police Training. That the Iraqi police force exists at all is a major improvement, but further training and equipment are necessary if they are going to be more than a temporary solution. In April, Lt. Col. Ferry tasked Dog Company with the establishment of the East Ramadi Iraqi Army and Police Training Academy. There, police trainees who might have been shopkeepers or farmers a few months ago are learning how to do more than fire their weapons.

Beginning with the police-force leadership, U.S. Army, Marine and civilian forces began instructing classes on marksmanship, individual and team movement, police ethics, detainee handling and processing, searching personnel and vehicles, checkpoint operations, evidence processing, and many more of the finer points of police work. Selected individuals then complete a detective's course across town.

The police forces are criticized in the media for having been infiltrated by the insurgency. That is surely true in parts of Iraq, but it's hard to doubt the motivation of some recruits. Between classes on detainee processing, I was practicing my limited Arabic with a few of them when one mentioned that he remembered seeing me down in the Malaab district. This often means that I kicked in his front door at one time or another - which isn't as bad as it sounds, since we've kicked in a lot of doors in our efforts to clear out the insurgents, and the Iraqis know it's nothing personal - but this time it turns out that his dad was "Red Turban Guy."

I really liked Red Turban Guy. He was an old man whose name we did not know at first who would always talk to us on our patrols and offer us cigarettes while he worked outside his house with his grown sons. I guess this guy remembered me from one of my conversations with his dad.

The insurgents beheaded Red Turban Guy a few months after we arrived. He had spoken critically about them to his neighbors. I think it's safe to assume that the water in his son's eyes when I told him I was sorry to hear about his dad was genuine, and I doubt that he would knowingly work alongside his father's murderers. When this balding, middle-aged man tells me he wants to fight al'Qaeda, I believe him.

Today, police officers in clean blue uniforms man checkpoints and roll by our convoys in new blue-and-white trucks with machine guns mounted in the beds. They wave. I wave back. It's possible some of them were shooting at us a year ago, but they're not shooting at us now, and that's all I can afford to care about. If we had to kill everybody who had ever shot at us in the past, we would never get out of here. A lot of them would probably shoot at us again if it were in their best interest, just as we would kill them without remorse if they rejoined the insurgency, but it's become obvious that it is in neither of our best interests.

Yesterday I took a convoy across the city to Camp Ramadi, a large installation on the west side of the city that is home to the Marine headquarters here as well as the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. As we traveled down Route Michigan, once known as the most dangerous stretch of highway in Iraq, the changes were obvious and remarkable. Groups of men and boys work alongside the road. One bunch has collected up enormous piles of twisted rebar from buildings demolished by tanks, missiles and explosions. A young man in a track suit and sandals uses a sledgehammer to straighten the iron while another group removes busted concrete from an emptying lot. There's no telling what will be here in a year, but at least it won't be a demolished building looking like something from the final scene of "Saving Private Ryan."

Among the most common sights in Iraq are the huge concrete barriers that line every road and surround every installation. They are known as Alaska, Texas or Jersey barriers, depending on their relative size. Most scattered through the city are of the waist-high Jersey type, redirecting traffic and blocking roads and entrances. Iraqi flags, plants and flowers, pro-Iraqi slogans, and decoration and designs on white backgrounds now cover the dirty gray concrete, although they can't completely cover the bullet holes.

Across the highway, people have strung wires with dozens of Iraqi flags flapping and twisting in the wind. Iraqis are sometimes said to lack a strong sense of national identity. You would never think that of Ramadi. Even the curbs are now painted. For miles outside the city, the median is an alternating yellow and white, adding color - and a visible sign of progress - to a city that desperately needed it.

As I walked between the guard posts tonight, the audio speakers across the city issued the nightly call to prayer, stretching "Allahu Akbar" into 15 or 20 undulating syllables. Call me crazy, and I know a lot of guys hate it, but I like the sound sometimes, especially in the evening as the sun sets. It's a haunting, exotic sound, and to me it sounds sad and lonely and eternally associated with warfare. The power is on across most of the city, and the mosques are strung with thousands of lights for Ramadan. It's the first Ramadan in recent memory that hasn't been a nightmare of blood, violence and death here in Ramadi. Hopefully it won't be the last.

Sgt. 1st Class Jack Robison is a U.S. Army infantry platoon sergeant with D Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, deployed to Ar Ramadi, Iraq.