Friday, January 18, 2008

Do you feel like a winner?

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS (in route home from Iraq) - Last February I was in Fallujah at the start of the surge, and when I asked soldiers if they thought we were winning the war they almost universally rolled their eyes, and gave me some version of "Yea, right" for being dumb enough to even be asking the question.

The soldiers I embedded with in Fallujah were justifiably proud of local accomplishments they had made, but violence was generally on an upward spiral across the rest of the country, and their buddies were getting wounded or killed with increasing regularity.

Ten months later I toured the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad with with COL Storm, the hospital commander, and he shared some amazing statistics with me. In March 2007, right after I left Fallujah the number of combat wounded American soldiers receiving initial treatment at the hospital hit an all time high of 179. By December 2007 that number had dropped to 80. And the trend line was in steady decline.

By contrast the number of combat wounded Iraqi Police (IP) and Iraqi Army (IA) soldiers being admitted to the hospital was on an up trend. The positive interpretation being that the IA and IP were finally really getting into the fight.

When I toured the hospital a majority of the patients were Iraqi children who had been injured by IED's, and wounded Iraqi insurgents, each with their own armed American guard. The only American patients I could find to talk to were there for non-combat injuries or illness.

The medivac crews I flew with also commented on the fact that things were slowing down, and that a much higher percentage of the missions they were flying were to pick injured Iraqis. I spent an entire day with them, and they only flew one mission, to pickup an injured IP soldier.

Now when I talk to soldiers there is definitely a new sense of optimism that was non-existent just 10 months ago. Nobody thinks the war will be over soon, but most people are coming to believe that it's winnable.

One of the most striking signs of progress to me is the number of Iraqis that wave at our helicopters as we fly over.

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Day by Day, by Chris Muir (updated daily)

Chris Muir is the cartoonist that I met in Kuwait. He spent two weeks in Iraq at the same time I was there in February 2007, and so thought it would relevant to showcase his work on my site. Here is a link to Chris' humorous travelogue of this Iraq trip: