- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

When I was in Iraq in January, just as I was taking a photo of an Iraqi father who was taking his two sons to thank the troops guarding a polling station in South Baghdad, a huge “boom” shook the ground and scared the kids. A suicide bomber had attacked the polling station, where we had arrived less than a minute before. Several people were severely injured, and one killed the woman standing with her husband who had been standing just behind the bomber. Her husband, covered in her blood, was crying and screaming, “Ali’m Ali’m Ali’m.” Imam Ali is the leading imam for Shi’ite Muslims.

When I interviewed Vice Adm. John G. Cotton and when he talked about the media coverage that showed mostly negative news, I thought of that day, and how contradictory stories those pictures told at that polling station in less than five minutes. I knew then it was almost impossible to do a through analysis of the state of Iraq while physically even being there. The pieces of the picture were so scattered around the country that it prevented anyone from seeing the big picture. But in our interview, it was obvious that the chief commander of the Naval Reserves wanted to make clear how proud he is of the reservists and the military overall.

“In America we think it is very noble to go and help other people,” the vice admiral said. “If we don’t do this overseas, if we ignore it, it will become a home game. And we don’t like home games.” He also challenged the notion that the military is facing difficulty in recruiting soldiers and keeping up the soldiers’ morale.

“We’ve got 4,000 reserve sailors right now with their hands up in the air to volunteer to go anywhere in the world any time,” he said. “They want to do something. We’ve got another 33,000 sailors that haven’t been anywhere yet.” He also talked about the Navy serving on land. “There are 11,300 Navy sailors on land in central command in Iraq and in Afghanistan,” the vice admiral. “At sea there are about 10,000. So the Navy has more people on land than sea.” Their main duty is to help Iraq in nation-building. “ost of our missions are combat supportive missions, which is convoy duty, which is civil affairs, which is contracting,” he said.

Vice Adm. Cotton said that 28 years old is the average age of reservists; the average age for those who enlist is 21. Those enlisted forces often sign up because they want to go to college and get health insurance. Cotton explained that active reservists have the same benefits, as well as a retirement plan. Before September 11, reservists served 39 days a year. Now, he is sure that every soldier who signs up to be reservist knows that active duty may one day come. They take pride in wearing the uniform and want to serve their country, he said, and “40 percent of all the reservists make more money. Thirty percent make the same, and 30 percent make less.”

In a country of nearly 300 million Americans, the total number of reserves is 1.1 million, nearly 3 percent of the population, the vice admiral said. (The total number of active duty personnel is 1.3 million.) Just 6 percent of American businesses hire reservists because of the skill sets required. And their long-term assignments overseas with that ratio has no possibility to have a negative impact on the U.S. economy overall.

In hindsight, these recitations of statistics about the reserves stand as proof that American military is far from being broken. The question, however, remains how those statistics tie to the suicide bomber.

On one hand, the insurgency and violence persist in Iraq, with more attacks on American soldiers and a rising death toll. On the other hand, the military is stretched, even with the support of its leaders and the American people. Americans are almost evenly divided over whether the war in Iraq was necessary. Should another attack occur on American soil, there is no doubt that the military will see record-high recruitment rates.

Nonetheless, there needs to be a vigorous and honest debate over whether the expectation of democratizing Iraq is mutually exclusive than its possible failure; or what kind of influence the U.S. military has on the outcome of events in Iraq. The ongoing sectarian violence shows that there is very little control.

The trouble is every death in Iraq challenges the strategic strength of the American military in protecting the interests of this country and raises the stakes for America’s future.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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