By Lt. Gen James T. Conway, USMC
Copywrite 2005, U.S. Naval Institute.
Reprinted from the Naval Institute Proceedings with permission.
Forwarded by Jerry Johnson

General Conway is Director of Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has previously served two combat tours as commanding general, Marine Expeditionary Force.

In July 1861, the first major battle of the Civil War had been joined on a small stream named Bull Run outside Washington, D.C. As the fighting neared its climax, a Confederate staff officer galloped his horse up Henry Hill and hailed Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson. He shouted above the din of cannon and musketry, “Sir, I fear the battle is lost.”

Jackson, astride his horse near the crest of the ridge watching the advancing Union brigades, looked over his shoulder at his own brigade of Virginians on the reverse slope, lying prone but at the ready. He then turned his gaze on the officer and responded in a low voice, “You may think it, Sir, but you had best not say it to those troops!”

Jackson's words contain sound advice for those who journey to Iraq. If you have any misgivings that the Coalition and Iraqi forces are losing this war against insurgents and terrorists, then you had better not say so in their presence - lest you attract a hostile crowd.

The fact is that they get it. They are closest to the action, they feel the momentum shifts, and they know when they have taken the best the enemy can dish out. They know what victory looks like and smells like - and they know it's only a matter of time. This youngest generation of warriors has been a welcome surprise to those of us who weren't certain they would have the discipline, the spirit, the aggressiveness to go forward when shrapnel filled the air and enemy machine guns were talking.

Indeed, time will show they are worthy successors to a long line of American heroes who have stepped forward and volunteered for duty at a time when our country needed their services most. They have performed magnificently.

If you ask the troops, they will paint for you the big picture. These are well-read young men and women who grasp the importance of establishing a free and hopefully democratic Iraq, geographically situated in the middle of terrorist-producing states that include Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Our people understand that a progressive and prosperous Iraq can help destroy the very roots of the extremist movement in a way that just killing terrorists would never accomplish.

They accept that the eventual form of Iraqi government must be an Iraqi decision and therefore understand that the result may not be a mirror image of our own. However, the troops view with satisfaction the steady drumbeat of successes that have occurred over the past several months: the retaking of Fallujah, successful elections, development of the Transitional National Assembly and a new government set to be elected by mid-December. Finally, they point with justifiable pride to the security conditions they and their Iraqi counterparts have created that have allowed the fledgling government to move forward.

Duty in Iraq is hot, dangerous, dirty work, and some have spent over 24 total months in-theater; but the men and women there will look you squarely in the eye and say with enthusiasm that their morale is just fine - that they are making a difference for millions of people - and that it's worth their sacrifice. Soldiers, Marines and our Special Operations forces will tell you, in plain-spoken terms that they particularly relish the mission to capture or kill foreign fighters who have come into Iraq.

Our troops who were in the ranks during the devastating attacks on 9/11 shared an immediate sense of disillusionment and dismay. The very basis of our National Military Strategy called for U.S. combat forces to engage and defeat our nation's enemies on foreign shores, well before they could reach our homeland. On 9/11, 19 fanatics somehow slipped through our defenses, attacked two of our key cities and killed almost 3,000 of our countrymen. Events of that day made us reexamine our strategy and reconfirm our beliefs. Today the troops are comfortable that they are once again playing a dominant role, overseas, to defend America from terrorist attack.

They believe those violent extremists who might otherwise attack New York, Boston or San Diego are the same foreign fighters they are facing in Iraq. These terrorists are a dangerous and fanatical enemy, but our warriors will tell you they'd much rather deal with them in Iraq than give them the opportunity to attack our unsuspecting and defenseless citizens at home.

And U.S. troops in all sectors will readily comment on the steady and sometimes remarkable change in the quality and capability of Iraqi Security Forces. Since May 2004, they have seen the Iraqi Army grow from one battalion with the courage and determination to fight in Fallujah, to over 88 battalions that are trained, equipped and engaged in counterinsurgency operations.

In spite of the deadly explosions and attempts at intimidation by insurgents, there is no shortage of young Iraqi males seeking to join the armed forces. Quality leadership was previously lacking but officer training is now selective and challenging - focused on the tasks at hand. Our troops see the change. They know well the spirit that competent and aggressive leadership can bring to a combat unit. Iraqi and Coalition battalions now “partner” for combined operations, generating greater competence and teamwork. Teams of Coalition advisers work and live with Iraqi battalions to enhance their combat capabilities as well as provide access to Coalition firepower when it's needed.

A Marine company commander recently wrote his father from Fallujah: “The Iraqi army troops are doing pretty well. They are friendly, brave and happy to be working with us. I think they need heavier weapons and better vehicles to fight the bad guys. However, they are fairly sound in the fundamentals of patrolling, VCPs [vehicle check points] and cordons & searches.”

The Iraqi people also see the change. In a recent poll, over 80 percent said they now have confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces. The number of hotline tips on insurgent activities provided by Iraqi citizens in recent months has soared. And the insurgents see the change. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the No. 1 terrorist in Iraq, said in a 2004 cable to his followers, “With the spread of the army and police, our future is becoming frightening .?.?. the problem is you end up having an army and police connected by lineage, blood and appearance to the people of the region .?.?. how can we kill their cousins and sons and under what pretext after the Americans start withdrawing? This is the democracy, we will have no pretext.”

Our troops are not oblivious to the challenges that Coalition forces will face for some time to come. Major portions of the Iraqi population still need reliable power and a clean water supply. Industry, which will employ young Iraqis and perhaps draw them away from life in a labor pool for insurgents, has not yet matured. The porous borders must be sufficiently sealed to prevent Jihadists from filtering in from neighboring countries. Iraqi police forces have not yet stepped up to the plate in the way they must.

Lastly, there is no shortage of available ammunition and explosives for those who would continue the IED attacks. Though less than a quarter of all attacks succeed, those that do cause casualties are becoming increasingly lethal for our troops. All that said, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines realize that the biggest threat to mission accomplishment does not depend on what the Iraqis do - rather, it's what their fellow Americans do.

As in any democracy, the support of the population is the center of gravity for continuation of war. Our forces in Iraq know this and so does the enemy. The insurgents realize full well the only chance they have of defeating the U.S. military is to weaken the will of the American population - and every facet of their strategic communications effort is focused on that aim. The insurgents maim and kill the less protected Iraqis - but their real target is that portion of American public opinion that is shaped by the news media. They openly cite our premature withdrawals from Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia as a national tendency to cut and run if the cost is too severe - and hope to force a repetition in Iraq.

Our troops write articles, make statements and give interviews in an attempt to steel the will of the American public; yet their most fundamental question is, “Does our country still support us?” They seek only one answer to that question, because they understand failure, forged by premature disengagement, is not truly an option. They realize that a crucial battle in the global war on terrorism, whether it was originally intended that way or not, is being fought in Iraq. Our young warriors understand it is a battle the United States cannot afford to lose.

They get it.