'What kind of war is this?'

Disconnect: The U.S. presence in Iraq is a vivid contrast of officials in an opulent, former Hussein palace and soldiers living in a grubby camp.

December 14, 2003|By Lucian K. Truscott IV | Lucian K. Truscott IV,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSUL, Iraq - Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, has a large office on the second floor of what was once Saddam Hussein's northernmost palace in Mosul.

He's got a desk and some chairs and a GI cot in an ornate room with marble floors and a tentlike ceiling fashioned from a latticework of wooden beading. The palace is yet another of Saddam Hussein's many-columned, Mussolini-style monsters, faced with the dun-colored polished stone and multihued marble he favored. The entire division staff is billeted in two bedrooms upstairs and in a cavernous marble basement that appears to have been a sort of spa/bunker.

The other day I told General Petraeus about a young specialist I had met while waiting for a military flight out of Baghdad. The enlisted man was a college student from Iowa whose National Guard unit had been called up for the war. He had told me about a prolonged firefight that took place the week before, outside Camp Anaconda on the outskirts of the city of Balad, 40 miles from Baghdad.

"We began taking small arms fire about 8 a.m., from Abu Shakur, the village just north of the base camp's gate," the specialist told me. "Our guys responded with small arms and then mortars. Someone on patrol outside the wire got wounded, and they sent Bradley Fighting Vehicles out, and they hit the Bradleys pretty hard, and by 10 a.m., they were firing 155 mm howitzers, and attack helicopters were firing missiles into the village, and you could see tracers and smoke everywhere.

"I had just gotten off a night shift, and I was sitting outside my tent about 100 meters from the gate in my pajamas reading a book. Right near me, guys were doing laundry and standing in line for chow. I was sitting there thinking: `Have we had wars like this before? Shouldn't we drop everything and help? I mean, we were spectators! What kind of war is this, sir?'"

Petraeus, who graduated from West Point in 1974, just in time to witness the ignominious end to the war in Vietnam, didn't say anything. But slowly, and it seemed, unconsciously, his head began to nod, and his mind seemed far, far away. It seemed clear he knew the answer: Yes, specialist, we have had wars like this before.

Commanding generals have had lavishly appointed offices before, as well. My grandfather, Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr., occupied the Borghese Palace when his VI Corps swept into Rome in 1943. His aide kept a record of the meals prepared for him by his three Chinese cooks, while every day dozens - and on some days, hundreds - of his soldiers perished on the front lines at Anzio, only a few miles away from his villa on the beach.

So there may be nothing new about this war and the way we are fighting it - with troops on day and night patrols from base camps being hit by a nameless, faceless enemy they cannot see and whose language they do not speak. However, the disconnect between the marbled hallways of the Coalition Provisional Authority palaces in Baghdad and the grubby camp in central Mosul where I spent a week as a guest of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, is profound, and perhaps unprecedented.

A colonel in Baghdad (who will go nameless here for obvious reasons) told me just after I arrived that senior Army officers feel every order they receive is delivered with next November's election in mind, so there is little doubt at and near the top about who is really being used for what over here. The resentment in the ranks toward the civilian leadership in Baghdad and back in Washington is palpable. Another officer described the two camps, military and civilian, inhabiting the heavily fortified, gold-leafed presidential palace inside the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, as "a divorced couple who won't leave the house."

Meanwhile, in Mosul, the troops of Bravo Company bunker down amid smells of diesel fuel and burning trash and rotting vegetables and dishwater and human waste from open sewers running though the maze of stone and mud alleyways in the Old City across the street. Bravo Company's area of operations would be an assault on the senses even without the nightly rattle of AK-47 fire in the nearby streets, and the two rocket-propelled grenade rounds fired at the soldiers a couple of weeks ago.

It is difficult enough for the 120 or so men of Bravo Company to patrol their overcrowded sector of this city of maybe 2 million people and keep its streets safe and free of crime. But from the first day they arrived in Mosul, Bravo Company and the rest of the 101st Airborne Division were saddled with dozens of other missions, all of them distinctly nonmilitary, and most of them made necessary by the failure of civilian leaders in Washington and Baghdad to prepare for the occupation of Iraq.

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