In warfare’s long history, the rules of the battlefield have remained unchanged. Soldiers follow their orders, and refrain from criticizing their command. It is a pact. They will fight, kill and die for the decisions of kings, generals and presidents. They will do it all as service, to country, to friends, to family, to honor. In exchange for abstractions, they offer all they have.
So it was noteworthy on Aug. 19, 2007, when seven active enlistees of the U.S. Army published a letter from Iraq in the pages of the New York Times. Over the course of 1,414 words, they offered America a military critique from the field — about the intractable war, about the current military strategy, about the hollowness of the political debate in Washington. In passages thick with nuance, they did what soldiers, even noncommissioned officers, rarely do. In an unmistakable act of patriotism, they went outside the chain of command.
“Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal,” the essay began. “Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched.”
The men did not write in a vacuum, or from the comfort of a Washington think tank. As they were preparing their essay, one of them, Staff Sgt. Jeremy A. Murphy, an Army Ranger, was shot in the head. He survived. Less than a month later, two others, Sgt. Omar Mora and Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, died in a vehicle rollover in western Baghdad. Still in their 20s, each left behind a wife and a young daughter.
It is, of course, impossible to note in a single article the stories of each of the 892 American men and women who died so far this year serving in Iraq, or of the 3,895 who have died since the war’s inception or the 28,661 who have been wounded. But in the story of Mora and Gray, we are given a clear glimpse of what our soldiers died for. They did not just die for the mission, as prescribed to them by their superiors. “We need not talk about our morale,” they wrote in the Times. “As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.”
They died in service to a country where even the soldier in the field has the right to question the judgment of the commander in chief. They died in service to the idea that political and military leaders must be held to account for their failures and challenged on their facts. A month after their article ran in the Times, the soldiers words echoed through the halls of Congress, when the war’s Gen. David Petraeus and its chief diplomat, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, came to testify. “Are we going to dismiss those seven NCOs? Are they ignorant?” asked Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who opposes continuing the war, at one hearing. “They laid out a pretty different scenario, General, Ambassador, from what you’re laying out today.”
The general and the ambassador did not directly respond. They showed charts and cited statistics that gave reason for optimism. Indeed, the numbers were following a positive trend from August. The monthly toll of American fatalities, which had gone from 84 in August to 65 in September, continued to drop, to 37 in November. The number of bombings and incidents involving improvised explosive devices also declined. But the concerns of Mora, Gray and their friends never focused on these sorts of statistics. “Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere,” the men wrote.
The political improvements that the so-called surge was meant to deliver have not materialized. The Iraqi police and army remain corrupt. The religious and ethnic factions remain deeply hostile to one another. Living conditions for the Iraqi populace remain abysmal. According to a recent report, Baghdad still gets less than half as many hours of electricity, four years after the invasion, than it did before the war.
“In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect,” the men wrote. “They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal. Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit.”
In Washington, these words were churned through the political grinder. Advocates for a prompt withdrawal waved them as evidence that the Bush policy was failing and the troops must come home. Even the New York Times’ editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, trumpeted the article as evidence of the military strategists’ failure. “Not every soldier in Iraq buys this Potemkin war they are selling,” he told Editor and Publisher.
After his death, Mora’s stepfather, Robert Capetillo, said that Mora had told his family before his death that the article was misinterpreted as a call for withdrawal, when it was in fact a call for a new strategy. The 28-year-old, a child of Ecuador who had grown up in Texas City, Texas, was still very much committed to continuing his service, with dreams of joining the Army Special Forces. “My son gave his life for his country because he loves his country, and because this country raised him like he was its own,” his mother, Olga, told the newspaper in Galveston. Mora finally earned his citizenship papers just a few weeks before he died. In a similar way, Gray’s parents told their local press of a boy who always wanted to be a soldier. He would dress up in his grandpa’s Army uniform and decided at age 5 that he wanted one day to be a Ranger in the 82nd Airborne. He left behind a 5-month-old daughter. He had spent only 14 days at her side.
Both men represented the best of America’s democratic tradition, where even in wartime, enlisted soldiers have a right to their opinions. If there is a lesson in their memory, it may be that true patriots respectfully speak up when they see something going wrong. It cannot be unpatriotic to criticize the military. It shows no flagging of spirit to point to a new direction. And for this reason Omar Mora and Yance T. Gray are Salon’s People of the Year.