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Finding comrades comes first

The U.S. search for three soldiers missing in Iraq is taking significant staffing and firepower away from efforts to bring order to Baghdad.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published May 18, 2007


In the past few months, Baghdad has grown so dangerous that even civilians in the heavily fortified Green Zone are wearing helmets and flak jackets.

Does it make sense then to take 4,000 U.S. troops away from the "surge" and use them to search for missing soldiers?

Yes, military experts say, for reasons perhaps more psychological than strategic - to boost troop morale, to show American resolve, to deny the captors a propaganda triumph. And not least because Iraq may be so far out of control that a few thousand troops here or there will have little impact.

"Strategically, the United States has lost that war, so the idea of the surge is laughable anyway," says Geoffrey D.W. Wawro, former professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

"The battle for Baghdad is ineffectual and ultimately almost meaningless so focusing on this finding the soldiers is not going to make a whole heck of a lot of difference."

An insurgent group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq has claimed responsibility for Saturday's ambush in which four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed and three more Americans were kidnapped in the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad.

Although the group has warned that any search for the missing men will be futile, the U.S. military has mounted an enormous effort to find them, including a $200,000 reward and the use of loudspeaker trucks.

"We believe that they are still alive, certainly at least that's the thinking right now," Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Wednesday.

However faint, that hope is reason enough to continue the hunt. Moreover, field commanders know that a key way to build morale - especially in an unpopular war like Iraq - is by showing troops that help will come if they, too, ever get in trouble.

By conducting such a massive search, "psychologically they're telling everybody, 'You're in an organization that will do everything it can to get you back,'" says Charles Melson, chief historian for the U.S. Marine Corps' History Division.

That ethos has long been strong with the Marines and smaller, elite units of other branches like the Army Rangers and the Navy Seals. But since the Vietnam era, it has spread to the broader military.

"In the Cold War and the post-modern world, we don't have decisive military victories where we capture the enemy's capital and have parades to celebrate," Melson says. "Maybe this is the next best thing."

'A struggle of wills'

Given the ubiquity of the Internet and satellite TV, the United States is also anxious to find the soldiers before al-Qaida can exploit them for propaganda purposes, as Iran recently did with 15 British sailors and marines captured in the waterway between Iraq and Iran.

Though the Britons were released unharmed, al-Qaida is far more likely to torture or kill its American captives - and show the gruesome results to the world - as evidence of its ability to hurt and embarrass a superpower. After an ambush last June, two U.S. soldiers were found with their bodies mutilated and booby-trapped with bombs.

"In the final analysis, this is a struggle of wills between us and al-Qaida," said Lawrence Korb, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. "If you were able to get these guys back - please, God - it would really give a blow to them and all that boasting. And I also think that if you can get them back, it will give confidence to people in that area (of Iraq.)"

The concept of "no man left behind" is not a new one.

In ancient times, warring city-states periodically stopped the fighting so each side could collect its dead for proper burial.

The Japanese, who lost 22,000 soldiers on Iwo Jima in World War II, continue to scour the island for remains of the 13,300 who remain missing. "If they get a finger or hair or fingernail, they'll try to return that," says Melson, the historian.

Israel also makes extraordinary efforts to get back its captured solders, dead or alive. In 2004, it traded more than two dozen Arab prisoners - including senior officials of the radical group Hezbollah - for a reserve colonel and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.

And last summer's war with Hezbollah began after Israeli troops stormed into southern Lebanon in search of two kidnapped soldiers. Their fate is still unknown, and the failure to find them has severely hurt the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Top-level decision

In the current crisis, the decision to throw so many U.S. troops into the search for their missing comrades likely came from a top-level weighing of the consequences, according to a British expert on international security.

"Gen. Petraeus must be saying, 'I can look for these guys and devote these troops, but the implication for the surge is that we take our eyes off the ball, all the gains may be wasted and all the bad guys come back in,'" said David Livingstone of London's Chatham House.

"Because the surge is the president's strategy - one final push to get these people back in the box - that is a decision that can only be taken by the highest levels of political and military" leadership.

Unfortunately, Livingstone said, there might not have been a need to redeploy 4,000 troops had the initial military response been quicker. It reportedly took an hour for other soldiers to arrive on the scene.

"The longer this goes on, the likelihood of retrieving those soldiers is reduced. You only catch insurgents and terrorists when they're on the move, when they're going to their hidey-hole and they're exposed and vulnerable. That's when the retrieval should have happened and if did not, why not?"

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.