Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2005 / 25 Shevat 5765

Paul Greenberg

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An incredible day | One of those small miracles of electronic journalism occurred as I was trolling the Net for news of the Iraqi elections.

Somehow, out of all the jibber-jabber floating around out there in cyberspace, amid all the usual puff and punditry, an e-mail from an American soldier in Baghdad popped up on the screen.

It was from Major Scott Stanger, of Benton, Ark., currently in Baghdad as operations officer, 1-153rd Infantry, 39th Infantry Brigade, Arkansas Army National Guard. The e-mail had been forwarded to me by his proud wife, Ronda. After reading it, I can understand why she's so proud of him. So will you. Here is one American soldier's up-close view of what would prove an historic day, and it beat anything I could find on the wire:

— An Incredible Day —

Today I got to witness first hand a new democracy take its first steps. My day started early. Actually, my day started about 4 days ago because we have been going non-stop since then, hence no updates lately. I was up at 5am. and my head was pounding and my sinuses were killing me. I was up and out with my team by 5:30am. I had to get at least one cup of coffee in me before I left.

The day started slow and we had some small arms fire, 8 rockets shot at us, and we found one IED. The small arms fire and the rockets missed us. The IED was another matter, but we called our bomb guys and they took care of it with their bomb robot. Which, by the way, is their third robot. The first two died in the line of duty. The polls opened at 7am and that's when things got interesting.

The press showed up in droves. It would have been impossible to swing a dead cat and not hit a reporter in our area of operation today. I met Campbell Brown from NBC. She was likable, but you could tell she did not want to be in Baghdad. She was very jumpy. I guess we were that way when we first got here, too, but you get used to the shooting.

We had very tight security on the polling sites and all around our area of operation. Iraqi police and Iraqi Army soldiers were at every polling site defending them. I have been planning for about 8 days for this mission and it was the largest we have done to date. Infantry, armor, attack helicopters, engineers . . . you name it, we had it.

The Iraqi government shut down all traffic in the country so the streets were deserted. At about 10am the streets were packed with large crowds of people walking to the polls. We were on edge waiting for more attacks that never came. By about 3pm we could start to let our hair down and talk to the people. The sight was amazing.

We dismounted from our vehicles and were instantly mobbed by about 200 kids. The kids were all over the place playing in the streets while their parents voted. The kids walked with us for about 2 miles while we were talking to the adults. I have never seen anything like it.

People everywhere wanted to talk to us and thank us. This is what it must have been like when the Allies liberated Paris. Iraqis of all ages wanted to shake our hands and thank us for allowing them to vote. The kids were proud to tell us that their parents voted. Adult after adult wanted to thank us for making this day happen.

When the Iraqis voted they dipped their fingers in indelible purple ink so that polling officials could tell who had already voted. When we walked the streets, the Iraqis would hold their purple finger up in the air as a mark of pride. They were very proud of their purple finger.

The Iraqis' statements to us were all the same: "Thank you for your sacrifices for the Iraqi people . . . . Thank you for making this day possible . . . The United States is the true democracy in the world and is the country that makes freedom possible . . . G-d blessed the Iraqi people and the United States this day . . . We have never known a day like this under Saddam . . . This day is like a great feast, a wonderful holiday . . ."

I shook more hands today than I have ever in my life. If you missed a hand they would follow for a mile to get a chance to shake and say thanks. It was nothing like we expected or have ever seen.

The Iraqi people were strong and brave today. The Iraqis, stoic to danger, faced fear, and went out and voted. Then after they voted the Iraqis stayed on the streets to celebrate by singing, dancing and trying to shake the hand of any American that they could find.

Even though today was a great day for Iraq, the Iraqis took their lumps. There were 6 car bombs in Iraq today, 2 of them in Baghdad. One I believe did more for Iraqi morale than any other event that I have ever witnessed here. A suicide car bomber drove up to a polling site, which was not too far from us, and blew up. The bomb did not kill anybody but the bomber himself. After the bomb went off the Iraqi voters calmly walked out of the polling site and spit on the remains of the suicide bomber. The polling site stayed open and the voting continued.

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That incident ran all day long on Iraqi TV. It was a beautiful act of defiance for the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people stood up for themselves today and stuck a purple finger in the enemy's eye.

Later in the day I thought about our sacrifices that we have made. I wondered if the three men that my unit has sent home in flag-draped coffins was worth what I saw today. I am still not sure if that is the case, but when a grown Iraqi man thanks me with tears running down his face it made me feel better about what we have accomplished . . .

— Scott

Of all the reports over the wire, I saw none that had quite the impact of Major Stanger's. When I asked for permission to use his e-mail in today's column, he said sure. ("Feel free to use the letter or any part of it as you wish. I hold no reservations because everything I wrote is true.") He did ask me to touch up any errors because his "grammar skills" might not be up to par.

I explained that wouldn't be necessary, and that his unpolished prose said more about what was going on in Iraq than all the well-honed commentary I'd seen out of the press services, think tanks and assorted blogs. Maybe that's because he was telling it, as we say in these parts, with the bark off.

One day, when the history of this whole miserable, noble, imaginatively conceived, poorly thought-through, magnificently executed, squalid, altruistic and, in short, very American endeavor is written, I doubt if there will be any truer account of what happened in Iraq that historic Sunday than this e-mail from an American soldier.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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