Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The War Is Over (aka Painting Rocks)

It’s January 2009, and the SA (formerly known as SOFA) is in effect. Iraq is quiet. Quiet so that there are fewer explosions, less gunfire, less violence. The country is preparing for elections in two weeks. Whatever normal is for Iraq might look like what I see and hear outside of the FOB.

There is an undertone of, “What do we do now?” that hangs over the FOB. Trained killers now spend time eating, going to the gym, and maintaining their equipment. The new unit that we are supporting spent months physically, mentally, and emotionally preparing to go to war only to get here and find out that stability and security are now firmly taking hold.

Iraq is suddenly boring and that is dangerous.

Slowly, Soldiers lose their edge. Worse yet, the boredom will overtake them and they will act up or act out against one another. It is a greater challenge for leaders to keep their troops gainfully employed during these times than it is to deploy them in a fire fight.

So leaders fall back on what they know from being in a garrison; orderliness, beautification, and attention to detail. Thus we paint rocks. “Painting rocks” is a term used in the Army, but not often. It means to make busy work in lieu of anything substantial. The other day I went by a bunch of Soldiers who were painting cement barriers, making the headquarters look more professional, and I thought, “The war’s over, were painting rocks.”

With all deference to the Soldiers who were doing the painting, they we only trying to bring a sense of esprit de corps to the area by painting logos and heraldry for the unit. However, it isn’t lost on many of us that somehow, somewhere in 2008 the war turned a corner. Iraq stability hit a tipping point. And now, here we are at the beginning of the end.

I was talking to some troops who were wondering about “what’s going to happen next.” I told them to take the next few months seriously. We are at the threshold of a win, something we didn’t really expect in 2006 and 2007. The Iraqis have a long way to go but have made great strides since 2005 (when I was here last).

The next few months will be hard. We need to put down the metaphorical paint brush and get smart in areas of expertise that we are unfamiliar with; economic initiatives, measuring essential services, building relationships within the Iraqi government, building capacity, and continuing to professionalize the Iraqi military.

And then let's go home.

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