Of all the men I met in Baghdad, Colonel Ali Jafar most looks the part of a senior Iraqi officer. A large salt-and-pepper mustache lends him authority—as if he needed it at 6′6″. He rests a long arm comfortably against a stack of sandbags at least as tall as I am. Clad in desert camo, cigarette ever-present, he has the calm confidence of one accustomed to command.
We are standing in the expansive marble and sandstone portico of Saddam’s Al-Faw Palace on Camp Victory with two American Marines, and the conversation has turned to old war stories.
Ali is suddenly animated, pulling his right pant leg halfway up his calf to reveal a gunshot wound he got in the first Gulf war. “U.S. Army,” he says, pointing to a brown-gray scar on his shin the size of a quarter and grinning widely. Lieutenant Colonel Joel Poudrier, who served with Ali in Fallujah in 2006 and 2007, has seen this before.
“You know how he knows it was the Army?” Poudrier asks. “Because the Marines wouldn’t have missed.”
Another American, Colonel Tom Manion, USMC (Ret.), who is holding a lit cigarette he never smokes in his right hand, chuckles along with Ali. He too bears scars.
Three years ago, Manion’s son, First Lieutenant Travis Manion, was killed in action by enemy sniper fire in Fallujah.
No less than Colonel Ali, Travis was an archetypal military man. A broad-shouldered athlete with a quick smile, he was born at Camp Lejeune and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy before serving two tours in Iraq, his first during the national elections of 2005. In Fallujah he was on supply duty but eagerly went out on raids, teaching his Iraqi counterparts as part of a Military Transition Team (MiTT). When the Iraqi soldiers with whom he served are asked about him, they use the word “warrior.”
He was pulling wounded Marines out of the line of fire and fending off an enemy ambush when he was fatally wounded—displaying “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity,” as his Silver Star commendation has it.
I’ve known the Manion family for three years. I met them six months after Travis died, when 200 of his family members and friends came to Washington to run the Marine Corps Marathon in his honor. Travis had planned to run the race with his dad when he got back from Iraq. Instead, his father ran the race that day wearing two numbers. The official results say Travis Manion crossed the finish line at 4:19:39.
Back then, his mother Janet was barely able to speak at a pre-race dinner honoring Travis. This year, she virtually emceed the event. His older sister went from grieving her brother to leading a foundation in his honor. His father went from being a seemingly stoic, mostly silent, Gold Star father to a candidate for Congress in 2008, outperforming expectations in a tough Pennsylvania district and a bad year for Republicans, but ultimately losing to antiwar Iraq veteran Patrick Murphy.
Each member of the family has changed. Where they used to say “Since Travis . . . ,” trailing off without finishing the sentence, they now say “Since we lost Travis,” with affection and purpose. But beyond grieving, they’ve committed themselves to the mission Travis is no longer here to serve—the good of his fellow veterans, his country, and the people of Iraq.
So, three years after Travis’s death, the father retraced his son’s steps, walking into the cavernous belly of a C-130 on a sandy Kuwaiti night to fly to Baghdad. When he texted his wife and daughter from his cargo-net seat, a picture of Travis, smiling in the Iraqi sun under the full weight of his battle rattle, flashed on his BlackBerry screen, illuminating Tom’s scuffed Navy Wrestling ballcap, acquired in Travis’s academy days.
Travis was with him, as always, but this trip was less about the son than it was about the ideas for which he fought. It was not about overcoming the past, but gauging the future.
Travis died just at the moment when Anbar Province went from a killing field to an “awakening.” There were more than 1,000 attacks in Anbar the month he arrived as part of an 11-man MiTT team attached to an Iraqi battalion in December 2006. By April, according to General David Petraeus’s 2007 congressional testimony on the surge, that number had been cut in half, making the area safe enough for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to tour the week before Travis was killed.
When Travis was posthumously awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars, the deputy commanding general in Anbar, Lieutenant General John Allen, said, “He had a personal role in the liberation of Fallujah . . . and the shining example Fallujah has now become.”
It was that personal aspect of the victory in Anbar that brought the nonsmoking colonel halfway around the world to share a smoke with Travis’s fellow soldiers.
“One team, one enemy,” is Colonel Ali’s shorthand for the relationship between U.S. Marines and his Iraqi men. “When you lose your son, I lose my friend and I lose my officer.”
A 30-year-old Iraqi second lieutenant, whose name was Hussam but whom we dubbed The Politician for a near-Barackian ability to respond to short questions with long answers, was Travis’s counterpart, learning the job of a logistics officer under his tutelage. He said through an interpreter:
“We were all getting hit by mortars. If one didn’t eat well, the other didn’t eat well. If one didn’t sleep well, the other didn’t sleep well. The only time we were separated is when we went to bed.”
He and Travis, who was an energetic debater himself, would wear out their interpreter with late-night talks over Iraqi food about The Politician’s upcoming marriage, international relations, and the purpose of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
The Politician, like Travis, comes from a military family. He was in law school at the time of the American invasion, but saw no future for himself under what he called Saddam’s “failed system.” He assumed even if Saddam died, one of his sons would take over, so when Saddam fell the way he did, it “opened a door again” that he’d thought was shut.
Another young lieutenant, who prefers his name not be used because his neighborhood in Baghdad is still dangerous, was with Travis on the day he was killed. A serious man who talks little, he was renowned among the Marines for his competence. Poudrier, an intel officer who served with him, said the Marines would have a briefing with the lieutenant about possible insurgents, and within just hours or days, the lieutenant would have rooted them out using his sources and delivered them to the Marines.
When the interpreter repeats Poudrier’s tales of his exploits, the lieutenant lowers his head sheepishly and says, in Arabic, “It is only my duty.”
The lieutenant told the story of the fateful raid of April 29, 2007, slowly and in detail. He and Tom Manion bent over a map of Fallujah. The lieutenant pointed out a house he entered on a narrow alley. Tom raised his reading glasses and squinted at the intersection. The lieutenant said he knew a big family lived there, but he entered to see plates of food suddenly abandoned, the house silent and still—a sign that the locals knew there was about to be a fight.
Precious time was lost in translating the Arabic word for “ambush” into English. It was the second time we’d heard from Iraqi officers of a translation delay that put soldiers in danger.
“Travis participated with his blood for Iraq’s freedom,” the lieutenant told Tom, through an interpreter, standing and shaking Tom’s hand for emphasis. “The American people and the Iraqis have made an investment of blood in freedom. You’re seeing the fruits of this labor.”
The battalion in which these officers serve is among the best in the Iraqi Army, a sort of special forces unit sent to hot spots around the country. There is no shortage of incompetent or corrupt officers in the Iraqi Army and police forces—this battalion has had its frustrations with both—but it was encouraging to hear a new generation of Iraqis talk about an open society, and the challenges inherent in becoming one, so hopefully.
As military men, they talk little about politics, though they worry openly that sectarian violence will increase if Iraqi politicians fail to work together. When asked about sectarianism, several said that in the Iraqi Army it is their duty to protect Sunni and Shia both, no matter what. They used the phrases “my duty,” “my people,” and “my country” liberally without reference to religious sect or tribe. They talked about equal treatment under the law and the meritocratic style of the American military. Some dreamed of traveling to America someday to train.
Almost uniformly, they lamented the U.S. decision to dismantle the military and other institutions after the initial invasion, saying it left a vacuum the violence filled.
As Poudrier points out, these officers have risked their lives every single day to quell that violence, often with little fanfare and without even the down time between deployments American soldiers get.
“Don’t think it’s just Americans making a sacrifice. What the Iraqi troops and the Iraqi people have sacrificed is tremendous,” Poudrier said.
Colonel Ali offered a metaphor for the chaos with a matter-of-fact shrug: “If you put your foot on a fountain for a long time, and then lift it off very fast, what will happen?” He shook his head in dismay at an imaginary geyser shooting forth from under his foot.
Captain Omar, who was born the same year as Travis and went to an Iraqi military academy, is more expansive, speaking in slightly broken English:
If you have a dog and you close him in a dark room for two years. He don’t see anyone, don’t see the light, just give him the [food] behind the door. Just give him food and close the door. After two years, open the door, and put him between the kids. What’s he doing? He eat them. The freedom is like that. For 34 years the Iraqi missing the freedom. They were in the dark. . . . We need education, we need time.
He sees it as his duty to give his three children the safety and space to learn about freedom, so that the future will look different from Iraq at the turn of the 21st century.
“I hope you can go around and wander freely without any concerns someday,” he told Tom through an interpreter.
His tone suggests Tom will come back to visit again someday, and they will meet for tea without military escorts or body armor. It is easy to look outside the palace, at the sandbags and concrete barriers and dusty armored vehicles, and doubt his vision.
But there is something familiar to Tom in the determination, sense of duty, and optimism of Captain Omar, The Politician, and the lieutenant. They are the Travis Manions of their country, the young leaders who will have to understand freedom and sacrifice at every turn to protect it from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The Politician told Tom that Travis encouraged him not to give up on his country: “Stay in this army and you’ll overcome this difficulty,” The Politician said, paraphrasing Travis through an interpreter. “I view service in the army as an honorable task, serving people, which is an honorable thing,” he went on. “[Travis] knew he was facing death, but he knew that if he died, this would be an honorable thing.”
These young men, as unlikely as it seems, called an all-American, blue-eyed Phillies fan “brother,” and Travis called them the same. That bond is part of the legacy of Travis Manion and all those who have fought and died in the counterinsurgency, making improvements in Iraq possible. Tom Manion plans to keep that legacy alive.
Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.