Who disbanded the Iraqi Army? You know you live in a free country when you turn to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and you read Paul Bremer's defense of his own actions ("How I Didn't Dismantle Iraq's Army") — right next to a withering column by Roger Cohen (his second in as many outings) which reads, in part, "The fraying Bush Administration still can't work out who took the decision to disband the Iraqi Army in 2003; that's grotesque."
This "who disbanded the Iraqi Army" blame game (and the Olympian finger-pointing it has launched) had me thinking back today to our first patrol into downtown Baghdad after the city fell. It was just two days after the first "thunder run" into the center of town, by the Army's Third Infantry Division under Col. Perkins. We traveled the very same route as the 3rd I.D. had. I was with our dear late friend Gen. Wayne Downing, riding in the only vehicle they could offer us: a "thin-skinned" (non-armored) Humvee — a colossally dumb, dangerous and cavalier act, in retrospect. We had no business driving in the only non-armored vehicle in a seven-vehicle mechanized armored column. The images we saw along the way are permanently burned in my memory: the blown-apart and burned vehicles (many still containing the bloated, burned bodies of drivers and/or entire families who'd made the mistake of being on that stretch of road on that day); the U.S. soldiers stopping pedestrians and doing under-clothing searches for bombs. Fires were burning, the smell was overpowering, there were live firefights going on in the streets — even while the commanding generals were being briefed at one of Saddam's palaces by Col. Perkins (the reason for our mission in the first place). Everyone was a potential target. General Downing kept calling attention to groups of young men — he immediately identified them (in his judgment) as former members of Saddam's Republican Guard — and noted, with his trained eye, that they had just slipped from their Army uniforms into civilian clothes. There was something about their bearing, their haircuts, their demeanor — that tipped off their identity to the veteran military man. On more than one occasion, General Downing (who, while long retired, was the most senior-ranking man in our Humvee by more than four stars and by several decades) ordered the young private at the wheel to drive ahead and get out of the situation we were in, because of the crackle of tension in the air (not to mention the not-so-distant crackle of rounds being fired). Of all the memories of that day, I remember the strong sense that I was literally watching the Iraqi Army walk off the job — never to be re-constituted the same way again. I'll leave it to others to debate the policy of it, but I'll never shake the memory of it.
Reprinted with permission from the NBC News blog, The Daily Nightly.