One Day at War
While Washington argued, the 2-16 Rangers fought a different battle.
BAGHDAD -- The general was coming. His helicopter was landing. The great David Petraeus was nearly here.
"Ooh, that's nice!" Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich said, surveying the top floor of a decrepit two-story building that his soldiers had spent the morning cleaning up. They were in eastern Baghdad, on a remote base called Rustamiyah.
There were muffins, cookies and fresh fruit, all arranged on a table that had been covered with a green hospital bedsheet. "It's brand new," a soldier assured Kauzlarich, who had never briefed a four-star general before and was feeling nervous.
There was an urn of fresh coffee and a bowl of iced drinks. Kauzlarich noticed there was no Diet Coke. "That's all he drinks," he said.
Finally, everything, including the Diet Coke, was ready for Petraeus, who was here for a briefing on what Kauzlarich's infantry battalion, known as the 2-16 Rangers, had accomplished as part of the Iraq strategy called the surge. Marking the spot where Petraeus would sit were a new nameplate, a new pen, a new notebook, a jug of water, a jug of juice and a coffee mug filled with ceremonial American flags.
"There's only so many ways to polish a turd," said Maj. Brent Cummings, the battalion's executive officer.
Every once in a while, a day would feel good in Iraq, and Sept. 22, 2007, seemed one of those days. The temperature was under 100 degrees. The sky was a dustless blue. The air stunk of neither sewage nor burning trash. The only smell was the chemical bouquet wafting from some portable latrines near where Petraeus paused to shake hands with a few soldiers before he walked into the little building, climbed a stairway cracked from explosions and sat in a high-backed chair that had been wiped to a shine.
Kauzlarich took the chair next to him and watched as Petraeus ignored the muffins, cookies, coffee, Diet Cokes, pen and notebook and simply reached for a grape.
He popped it into his mouth.
"Okay," he said, swallowing. "Fire away, Ralph."
* * * David Petraeus at that moment was one of the most famous people in the world. He had just returned to Baghdad from Washington, where he had testified before Congress about the surge. Over the summer, the anticipation of his testimony had grown to a frenzy, and by the time he showed up on Capitol Hill he was no longer just a general. He was the face of the Iraq war.
It would be difficult to overstate his fame, just as it would be difficult to overstate how badly Kauzlarich needed this good day. Less than three weeks before, on Sept. 4, a roadside bomb had killed three of his soldiers and left two others in critical condition, and Kauzlarich had been seeing images of dying soldiers and body parts since. It was something he didn't talk about openly, but other commanders would have understood, including Petraeus himself, who once, in a moment of reflection when the death count of American troops in Iraq neared 3,800, had said, "I almost think sometimes there's sort of a bad-news vessel, and it's got holes in the bottom, and then it drains. In other words, you know, it's really your emotions, but I mean there's so much bad news you can take. And it fills up. But if you have some good days, it sort of drains away."