Marine Gunner Terry Walker says the Iraq war is still America's war to win.
As pressure builds on the Bush administration to give the war its final push, Gunner Walker is a stalwart. This 51-year-old marine, on his third tour in Iraq, is the face of members of the US military who say the job can still be done, despite the odds.
Walker, a wiry intellectual with glasses and a chirpy exuberance, joined the Corps at age 17, straight from high school in Rittman, Ohio. Now, he directs training for the Iraqi security forces at a US base in Anbar Province, driven by a personal quest to help transform the Middle East. A serious guy, he says the US war in Iraq will have a "revolutionary" impact on the region.
"It's how to inculcate within these people the idea that you can win this fight," he says, referring as much to the Iraqi soldiers he trains as the American public that he knows still needs convincing. "It's about vision." Here in Habbaniyah, a former British air base distinguished by its Western-style barracks and palm tree-lined roads, Walker leads a group of about 50 trainers and interpreters, which grew from about 15 American instructors that he handpicked to come here and, quite literally, teach Iraqi soldiers and policemen how to shoot straight.
Largely motivated by their love of shooting, the US trainers take Iraqis who have already graduated from basic training to refine their marksmanship, safety, and weapons-maintenance skills. The hope is that the Iraqi students take these newfound abilities back to their units, making all the Iraqi security forces stronger and more professional – and able to defend their own country, Walker says.
But it's not clear that everyone shares Walker's optimism about his Iraqi students.
An independent panel commissioned by Congress to assess the Iraqi security forces recently gave mixed marks to those forces, but said that even with more improvement over time, the Army and police will still not be able to operate independently anytime within the next 12 to 18 months.
"The panel finds that, in general, the Iraqi Security Forces, military and police, have made uneven progress, but that there should be increasing improvement in both their readiness and their capability to provide for the internal security of Iraq," the report concluded.
The report was portrayed by some US lawmakers as proof that progress in training Iraqi security forces has become a losing proposition.
At this, Walker bristles.
"Are you telling me that after five years, we would cut the fish loose as soon as we got him to the boat?" he asks.
On a recent day, after several Iraqis finished shooting at paper targets at a rifle range, Walker darted to one of the targets after someone had shot a particularly tight "grouping" of rounds, ripping it from its wooden stand to make a point. "As marksmen, they're equals," he says.
An ideologue and soldier
Walker joined the Marines in 1974, after the military fundamentally changed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War from a draft-based institution to one made up only of volunteers. As a warrant officer, essentially a rank that is a hybrid between an enlisted man and an officer, Walker inhabits a class much his own and expresses his perspective more freely than his Marine brethren. And as a chief warrant officer-5, Walker is one of the Corps' most senior experts in marksmanship.
Walker counts as his heroes Ronald Reagan, the free-market economist Milton Friedman, and Theodore Roosevelt. He's currently reading the selected writing of Mr. Roosevelt, Rudolf Steiner's "The Freedom Philosophy," and a collection of essays published by the free-market group, The Foundation for Economic Education.
Walker typically summons his heroes as he interrogates visitors in a Socratic style in hopes that they will come around to his way of thinking. And he's forthright in a military where political opinions expressed publicly can be poisonous. A proud subscriber to the conservative National Review magazine for 26 years, Walker freely owns up to his "red-state" views.
"I believe that a stable, secure Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors is critical to the security of America.... Iraqi freedom, democracy, and self-government may not necessarily look like America, but it will prove revolutionary in the Middle East," he said in an e-mail.
To hear Walker tell it, every job he's had in the Marines over the years seems to have been in preparation for the one he holds now. "I've never been in a position where I thought I was having a bigger impact."
Americans who have trained Iraqis will say that to be effective requires patience and a steady hand to overcome the vast cultural differences between Arab and Western cultures. Walker has the ability to walk that bridge, say senior military leaders, who have come to rely on his expertise over the years.
He is "a man for all seasons in the heave and ho of modern conflict who can out-improvise the enemy," wrote Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who led the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in an e-mailed response to questions about Walker.
"He understands human nature, has a robust historical basis for his approach, and can build human bonds across cultural divides," says General Mattis, known as one of the Corps' most colorful warriors.
Walker sees his job as not to create an Iraqi force in the American image but to give Iraqis the basics and the discipline they need to defend their own country.
Like many Americans who works closely with the Iraqi forces, Walker clearly has frustrations: He wishes the Iraqi Army's leave policy didn't allow soldiers to return home for weeks at a time, for example. And he grouses that culture here tolerates such a fatalistic approach to life, typically summed up in the common Arabic expression inshallah, meaning God willing, and uttered at challenges big and small.
"We don't allow inshallah," says Walker. "It's either you will or you won't."
His parting shot
Walker only has a few months left before his tour in Iraq is over. He appears to mean it when he says he doesn't want to leave. He may not have a choice – military men and women can serve only so long.
Earlier this year, Walker received a form letter from Gen. James Conway, the current Marine Corps commandant. It was to him, he says, the saddest words he could read: After nearly 34 years of faithful service, it is time to hang up the uniform and retire from the Corps.
Walker says he believes that he still has more to give to the Corps, yet he will abide by this final order. But not wanting to let anyone have the last word, even a four-star general, Walker took the bold step and wrote back with a bit of wry humor.
"If I thought this was going to be a part-time job," he wrote the commandant, "I never would have joined." [Editor's note: The original version misquoted Gunner Walker.]