Full text of Stripes' interview with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez
Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Anderson sat down with V Corp commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, at the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Baghdad on Sept. 9.
Since this interview, a number of changes have occurred in the region. More camps have been improved and additional initiatives have been started, such as the 15-day Rest and Recuperation program, which allows some soldiers to spend 15 days outside of Iraq and Kuwait.
Below is what Sanchez had to say during the interview:
Q: One of the things (Stars and Stripes has) learned is that morale can have many facets – esprit de corps, faith in leadership, family and personal issues, belief in mission, quality of life, to name just a few. How do you define morale?
A: Morale is …not necessarily giving them Baskin-Robbins. Sometimes it’s being able to train them hard and keep them focused in a combat environment so that they can survive. So at its most fundamental level within our Army, taking care of soldiers and their morale could have very few worldly comforts. But the morale of the soldier is good. He’s being taken care of, he’s accomplishing his mission, he’s being successful in the warfighting. It varies across the formations depending upon the mission that’s been assigned to an organization and the ability within the logistical system to get the creature comforts out to far reaches, to the soldier on point, if you will.
Q: As the senior commander on the ground here, what would you say is the single biggest challenge in keeping – or getting — high morale?
A: It had been the uncertainty of force rotations. We had built an expectation into the force in general that the way we went to war as an institution was for six months. And deployments would be of the Balkans nature. And, therefore, upon deploying the force into this theater I believe that was that expectation. Even though the leadership tried to communicate the uncertainty of the deployment, it was still very clear to the soldier that that was the way we went to war. With the announcement of the one-year rotation in country, that took away a lot of that uncertainty, both back home and here in the country.
That uncertainty had been a significant challenge in both locations for a while. And now that we’ve got final resolution for Reserve components and active component soldiers, I think it turns to some of the more fundamental requirements for sustained morale.
Q: Actually, many of the troops [Stripes] talked to had a different take on that. They said the single biggest factor on morale is still return dates. Just about everyone said they had been given constantly shifting rotation dates. And many say they still don’t have a hard date. Is that a matter of word not getting down or continuing uncertainty among specific units?
A: I think what you have here is a lot of expectation and a lot of wishful thinking that has continued. There has been some confusion, OK. The confusion comes when you start talking to Reserve components and you say one year for the Reserve component soldier, it used to be a one-year mobilization. What has happened within this week is that it has been made one year on the ground. Which is a significant change for the Reserve component. They have to mobilize, (spend) one year on the ground, and then de-mob after leaving the theater. So that could easily be some of the confusion that is out there. I’ll tell you for the active component soldier that has been pretty well defined with the published force rotation policy. But when you start getting down to dates, that can still modify when the transportation redeployment requirements haven’t been adjusted or met so that we can flow the force out of here.
The guidance I have been putting out to the command is plan on a year from your deployment date. And then as you get closer, you’ll be told exactly when you’re going to depart because it’s still uncertain at this point. We know, for example, that 1st Armored Division will redeploy sometime in spring. At this point I can’t tell you whether it’s going to be April or May or whatever – it’s going depend on how we can flow the forces in.
Q: One of the big pieces that wasn’t mentioned in the announced rotation plan is what happens to your headquarters. Does V Corps have a rotation date and who’s replacing them? Everyone keeps pointing to III Corps.
A: It’ll be one year. They were over here in the November/December time frame and then they went back home for Christmas and then they permanently deployed on the mission somewhere between late January and March time frame. That will be the one-year start point. (On Replacement) I don’t know that’s been announced yet. Let everybody keep saying III Corps.
Q: Another big question mark on rotations: The 101st Airborne Division is slated to be replaced by coalition forces. Who exactly do you expect will replace them?
A: At this point there’s still a lot of discussion going on. But I think that the message is clear to American military forces that they’ll be on the ground for a year. That’s for (U.S. Central Command) and Washington – with, of course, input from me – to figure out how we’ll replace them. The situation that will exist here at the time when the 101st has to go home will hopefully be considerably different. That’s a fairly stable sector. So having to bring in another division would be ideal up there. We continue to work that on multiple fronts. A U.N. resolution is also being worked that could give us some options in the next month.
Q: In terms of your request for international forces, is the focus now on additive forces or replacements for the U.S. units already here? In other words, are we asking the international community to step up to the plate because we want extra help or so that they can assume some of our load?
A: It’ll be kind of a combination. What’s really needed here is international commitment so that this environment does not seem like an occupation force on the part of the United States. This is a mission the international community has made a commitment to. There are 30 countries already here in the coalition. When you have over 60 that are making contributions to Iraq, clearly you have an international coalition. By increasing the numbers of countries inside of the coalition joint task force, that just shows the Iraqi people that we’re really committed to this idea of a democratic Iraq and us not being a U.S. occupation force in the country. That’s the importance of it. So as you begin to flow these forces, depending on the kinds of forces these countries commit, that’s what drives whether it’s augmentation or replacement. But clearly as more combined forces come in, then that relieves some of the burden on some of the initial coalition partners.
Q: You have said that you don’t need additional U.S. forces, but isn’t it true that as the Army is configured now, there really are no more forces? Just about all the active combat formations have either just left, are here now or are already tasked to come here. If you were to ask for more U.S. forces, who’s left to draw from?
A: We have to remember that America has made a commitment and it is more than the Army. I am very confident that if I identified a requirement for additional forces, then Central Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at DOD would be able to (provide them). It wouldn’t have to be Army forces. We’re in the process of exiting Marines. We could bring Marine forces back. There’s still some Reserve component capacity out there. In terms of active component combat organizations, I think you’re right. But there’s still some Reserve component decisions that could be made that could give us that capacity.
Q: (Stripes) talked to a lot of reservists and many of them say they’re tired. Many have deployed to the Balkans already or Afghanistan and now here. How concerned are you that there’s going to be a retention issue there?
A: That is definitely something the senior leadership of the Army is looking at. We have to because of the personnel tempo that we’re operating under. We have to really pay attention to what we’re doing in terms of deployment frequency. And more importantly we’re continuing to watch what’s happening with the individual soldier over time. Yes, that would be a real concern if some of our great Reserve component and active component soldiers decided they don’t want to stay in the profession.
Q: On the active side, over and over again (Stripes) heard stories about soldiers – because of the way the manning system works – who will do a tour in Afghanistan or the Balkans, then switch units and come here or the reverse where they’re doing their tours here, but looking at follow-on assignments that will bring them back here or send them to Korea for another year away from their family. Is there any solution to that or is that just the going to be the grim reality for now?
A: I think that’s just the reality given the decision that we made to go to a unit replacement here – which is typically what we do – go to a unit replacement system and still have individual replacement underneath that. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll run into the exact situations you described. But that will be and is the concern of the leadership right now trying to make sure we can mitigate some of these young soldiers that are going on back-to-back deployments. There are some alternatives that are being looked at back in the States. The Personnel Command is trying to stabilize them for certain periods of time when they go back on a PCS move. But those options are still evolving. I ran into a soldier the other day who had come in from Korea. He had settled his family and a week later he was here. Those are the kinds of things that the system is working to see if we can mitigate.
Q: The president has called for patience, sacrifice and support for the effort here in Iraq. He closed his recent speech making a point to thank your forces here. Yet increasingly, Americans are questioning the war – in terms of the financial cost and the casualty count. Would you say that an erosion of public support is the single biggest threat to morale?
A: No, I wouldn’t say that at this point. I don’t believe the American servicemember does not have the support of the American people. From my perspective, with almost 100 percent certainty, the American people and our leadership support our soldiers and this mission on the ground. We have learned this tough lesson in the past. I don’t believe the support for our military forces and our individual servicemembers here on the ground will ever wane. What may become an issue is the lack of support at the political level. That could become a challenge. I don’t see that, at least in the near term.
Q: You have publicly described morale among the troops as high here. In a very general sense, [the Stripes] survey found, however, only a minority of troops describe their own morale as high. Most say their morale is middle of the road or low. Does that surprise you?
A: That’s expected. There is no morale problem. What you’ve described is the Army’s normal posture. I guarantee you that if you ask a soldier if he’s focused on his mission, does he understand the criticality of his mission, I think you find that a majority of them really do understand why we’re here and the implications of us not succeeding. Those implications are pretty horrible. Are you going to find soldiers on any given day who are down on morale? Of course. There are days when I wake up and don’t feel very good and I’d probably bite your head off. And we know that.
Q: But do you think it’s disingenuous to present morale in a broad-brush stroke as high when in fact it is more of a bell curve?
A: No, I don’t think so. We’re playing shades of gray. What would be the difference if we were back in (Europe) or Fort Hood or wherever? You have to consider the circumstances. When you’ve got the average morale and expect a certain circumstances when you’re at war – that’s pretty darn good. I walk around and talk to all sorts of soldiers also and I honestly believe our soldiers are doing very, very well.
Q: You mentioned the mission. Another set of issues highlighted by our survey revolves around the mission. For example, about 40 percent say what they’re doing here has very little or nothing to do with their training. About 50 percent said they did not receive enough training for their current mission.
A: There are soldiers out there doing things that are based on training instincts that are built into them, that has allowed them to use their initiative and accomplish the task. And do it at a remarkable level. When you look at the tasks being asked of the units and soldiers in this environment, you have to tie that type of response to the fact that the effect they’re having on the ground is absolutely unbelievable. So, was the soldier trained to go in there and negotiate a contract for the privatization for some hotel? No, he wasn’t, but he’s done it extremely well and has been successful. So that kind of stuff is a little bit different. Now, we do have soldiers out there – like our artillery elements – that are out there moving hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition around. Were they trained for that? No, they weren’t. But it’s a mission that has to be accomplished and they’re out there doing it. So when I get those kind of responses in this environment, OK, right – that’s exactly right. We’ve asked our soldiers to do things that are way beyond what we ever envisioned having to be done.
Q: At a very basic level, another one of our findings was that more than one out of every three soldiers said their actual mission is unclear as well.
A: I think the missions we have are very clear. One – Conduct offensive operations against noncompliant forces. The second one is stability and support operations in our zone. When you look across the country those come in different priorities depending on where you are because each of my major subordinate commands have totally different environments that they’re operating under. And then to further break it down inside a division, different sectors within the division have totally different environments.
Q: I think most of the responses were at the soldier level and how clear they felt their individual mission was.
A: That’s a fairly significant challenge, because as they move around in their little battle space, being able to piece that together to the overall mission of the country. Even at the brigade (level) that can be problematic because such dynamic conditions exist. In some cases you’re going from stability and support operations in one small area and then transition into a low intensity conflict area very, very rapidly. Just look at Baghdad itself. This is probably one of the most complex environments. It’s much more complex that Kosovo was. Just in sheer size and then all the all the different dynamics that are playing here. So that can fairly confusing for a young soldier on the ground.
Q: We heard a number of stories from units who felt like that had no mission. Bridge building units, for example, that have no bridges to build and haven’t done anything in months. Are there issues there?
A: Well, I’d like to find that bridge unit, because just about every unit that I’m aware of has been given a significant task. Give me the name of that unit and I’ll get them something to do. I’ll go put them to work. But clearly, there is plenty of work here for any unit to make a contribution. If there is some small unit out there that didn’t wind up getting embraced, that shouldn’t be the case.
Q: Mid-tour leave was consistently named as one of the single biggest potential morale boosters. The troops want it in a big way. Where does the decision on that stand?
A: It is in Washington. We have a target date for it. I’m talking an implementation target date. I am doing everything within my power and pulling every lever I can to make sure that happens. I consider that more important that than three days (of R&R) down in Qatar. I am willing to make trade-offs on transportation and resources so that we can send our soldiers home on two weeks’ leave. I believe we are the verge of a final decision.
Q: Will that be for every soldier?
A: Well, no – clearly when you start looking at the amount of time the current force has been here it won’t be possible for every soldier to go home. Those are decisions that will wind up having to be made inside our subordinate units. But my position is that every single day we delay this decision there’s another 500-600 soldiers that don’t get to go. As it is already I won’t be able to send everyone home and that’s going to be a challenge. But just getting started will send a huge signal to the force that this is something we are really serious about. We have some units that are already into their seventh month. The bulk is already here over five months and well into the window where they’re eligible to go.
Q: Another thing troops say would greatly increase their morale is beer — even just a few a week, many have told us, would do wonders. Do you foresee that prohibition being lifted anytime soon?
A: Not at this point. But then that’s why giving soldiers a chance to go to Qatar and do those kinds of things are important for us – to get the soldier out of this environment and have them go do that. But in my military judgment, (beer) is not appropriate for us to be doing. This is still a war zone; we still have to be focused. And especially given the dynamic nature and the very tough environment of having to switch from normal convoy operations to fighting instantaneously makes it very, very difficult for me to think about lifting it.
Q: A lot of troops will very quickly counter that argument by saying things like, “Well, my dad was allowed to drink beer in Vietnam, which was even more dangerous. Why can’t we here?”
Q: In terms of basic quality-of-life standards for soldiers on the ground here, what is your commander’s intent?
A: It’s very clear that the standard are quite variable. The first day I came to Baghdad we already had soldiers living on palace grounds with running water and everything they could ask for. And then you also had soldiers who were living off of their vehicles just like you would expect in a fast-paced offensive operation. So the standards that we set were that we were going to get air conditioning where at least the soldiers could sleep in air conditioning and provide some rest. More than that is pretty hard. We’ve been working to get the (Kellogg Brown & Root) dining facilities out to the major areas to provide hot meals and at the very minimum mermite out to them. To be able to get them Internet cafes and phones. That has been a very, very aggressive effort over the past 60 days. We’re not out to the individual companies and platoons in little (forward operating bases), but at the major locations I think we’re getting to that level. In the last three weeks or so as I go around talking to soldiers asking about mail and Internet, I hear “Yeah, we’ve got it, getting much better.”
Q: In terms of getting those major hubs up to the end standard you want, how long do you think that’s going to take?
A: We were shooting for about a five- to six-month program because we know that it’s going be a long time that we’re here. When we went into Kosovo we were able to set a not-later-date of, whatever it was, October, where we were shooting to get everyone into buildings by winter. But here, given the breadth and scope of the problem and the dynamic nature of the problem where we are still moving around a lot, it makes it kind of difficult to set a deadline for that.
Q: Morale – for everyone — tends to ebb and flow. Some days are always better or worse than others. When do you struggle with your own morale and how do you deal with it?
A: That’s kind of hard for a commander at this level. What bothers me the most is when I see the tremendous work that our great young servicemembers are doing and I keep seeing negative stuff (in the media.) That’s what eats away at me.
The other thing that really affects me, of course, is when one of my soldiers has died. That’s a really personal thing. And so you have to work through that. It’s a function of the profession. That’s what our profession is about. That’s why the decisions that you make and the effort you put into our training program and the evolution and the learning of lessons while your conducting operations and the continuing to be a training and learning organization every single day is so important to be emphasized by commanders at every level in order to minimize the cost in terms of manpower resources. We know that’s the business we’re in. You wake up every morning and say a little prayer that hopefully not many of your soldiers will get killed or wounded that day.
Q: How important is faith in keeping your own morale up?
A: In my everyday life, it’s the source of my strength in this environment. I reach back into it multiple times every day.
Q: Many soldiers – including several officers – allege that VIP visits from the Pentagon and Capitol Hill are only given hand-picked troops to meet with during their tours of Iraq. The phrase “Dog and Pony Show” is usually used. Some troops even go so far as to say they’ve been ordered not to talk to VIPs because leaders are afraid of what they might say. Do these comments surprise you?
A: I try not to accompany VIPs out there to the divisions, so they can get a first-hand look. The subordinate commanders have a free hand in communicating to them the challenges out there – and they have and that’s what they ought to be doing. That’s what’s expected of us as military commanders on the ground – to communicate to both our civilian and military leadership all the good things that we’re doing here.
Q: We’re told that some soldiers who have spoken out about morale problems have received Article 15s for airing their grievances publicly. Is that true? And where do you draw the line between a soldier’s God-given right to complain and insubordination?
A: Well, no, I can’t confirm that any soldier got an Article 15 for complaining about morale. That would have been done at the company or battalion level and would never have been dealt with at my level. But every single soldier, every single servicemember in America, raises his hand and is a volunteer. When he raises his hand and swears to defend and support the Constitution and obey the officers appointed over him, he makes a commitment to a Spartan code of conduct. He makes a commitment to lay down his life for his country and his fellow warriors. I consider that a very solemn oath that we have made. For us, in this kind of environment, where the country has called on us to make a sacrifice –— and it is not a sacrifice that was asked of us for three months or four months or six months — we’ve got to defend American values however long it takes. Our forefathers fought for years. That’s the commitment we’ve made as professional warriors and that’s an ethic we have to live by. If I have young soldiers that have not totally embraced that ethic, then probably some more mentoring and coaching – and commitment by the American public – has to take place. I am absolutely convinced that the next battleground will be in America if we fail here.
Q: This may sound self-serving, but over and over again we hear complaints about Stars and Stripes not getting to the troops. What is your commander’s intent for Stars and Stripes delivery within Iraq?
A: We are continuing to push and minimize the time it takes to get the paper forward to the soldiers. I think the one I see is usually 3 or 4 days old. That has been one of my key focuses from the beginning.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you’re the first officer to lead V Corps who is not a Vietnam veteran. Still, I imagine you have been a student of that war on more on more than a few occasions. What lessons from Vietnam should we remember in Iraq?
A: I think the key is that the only way we’re going to fail here in this country is by walking away from Iraq. The defeat in Vietnam was because we walked away from it. We can’t afford to retreat back. I firmly believe that this is one of the battlegrounds in the global war on terrorism and it will continue – there’s a long road ahead.
Q: During the last Gulf War, one of the war cries was promises that this will not be another Vietnam. I haven’t heard that once this time around. Why is that, do you think?
A: I don’t tie back to Vietnam because there is no ideological battle that we’re fighting here other than the remnants of the regime loyalists. There could be a religious fundamentalist issue, but then we already knew that. That’s why we were on this global war. This clearly isn’t a quagmire. The people here are a people who are proud. They are very intelligent. They were starving for a democratic way of life and they are embracing that. They are enjoying that freedom. They just need to accept a little bit of responsibility for their own security and cooperate with us. That way we can expedite the stand-up of the country and hand it over.
Q: The troops in some units complain that commanders are living inordinately better than they are. Battalion or brigade commanders, for example, getting air conditioning in their quarters before the soldier. Should that be happening or is that more a matter of rank having its privileges?
A: No. As a division commander I lived in my trailer the whole time I was down there. I didn’t live in a palace. I lived right behind the main. The last I heard that division commander was still living in a trailer – the tactical expand-o-van – that doesn’t have air conditioning. I visited my nephew in the first week of May, who is a specialist in 3-7 Cav in 3rd ID. He was living in a palace right here in Baghdad. So it’s a function of where you happen to be and where you ended up. So I think some of that stuff – is it likely to happen? Yeah, it probably is. But is it the standard? No, it isn’t the standard.
Q: Considering the superior technology and weapons systems that America can bring to bear in a more conventional fight, is fighting a guerrilla war the toughest type of combat the United States can face?
A: Clearly, the counterterrorist against a very professional fight is on the very high end of the spectrum of difficulty. To some extent that’s what we’re facing here. If you look at the number of engagements we’re having on a daily basis, if you look at the number of engagements where you actually have small-arms fire and you’ve got an enemy that you’re fighting against, the numbers are tiny – you’re talking six or seven engagements a day. It’s tiny. And two minutes is a long engagement. The whole process of fighting this low-intensity conflict and this counterterrorism comes down to intelligence that you can generate that allows us to conduct precision strikes against them and pre-empt them in their attacks. It requires all the intel resources of our country and that’s what we’re working on right now. But we can’t kid ourselves that this is going to be an environment that they will continue to come and strike at us as long as we are here. Because this is kind of an ideal environment where they can kind of blend in with the population. There is some kind of support base.