GQ: Prisoner of War

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THE SURGE was ordered by Bush on January 10, 2007. And by April 1, McCain was back on the ground, where, for the first time since his initial trip to Iraq, in August 2003, his four-man CODEL went overland to the Green Zone. McCain had often said that his acid test for progress in Iraq was when the boulevard connecting the airport to the Green Zone was no longer termed the Highway of Death. The new sheriff in town, David Petraeus, who was well aware of McCain's sentiments, was clearly making a statement. Petraeus was also eager to show the CODEL his new pet project: the now infamous Shorja market, the city's largest, which had been plagued by suicide bombings and sniper gunfire until Petraeus had barricaded it to all but pedestrian traffic. With the protection of ground troops, attack helicopters, and sharpshooters, the delegation wandered through tea stands and rug shops. McCain asked one rug merchant whether the situation had improved since the surge had begun. The merchant replied that though things seemed better, snipers still created chaos. Other vendors indicated the same.

But at the press conference later that day, McCain made no mention of such concerns. Instead, he made the decision to publicly emphasize the positive, as he had long criticized General Casey and others for doing. "What is news since the surge began is a lot of good news," the senator declared, before chiding the press for its coverage of the war. "The media, I believe, has a responsibility to report all aspects of what's taking place here in Iraq."

Throughout the rest of his trip, McCain came face-to-face with the surge's positive effects as well as its inherent limitations. He met with a Sunni tribal leader who had pledged cooperation with American forces. He saw Iraqi brigades at last making good on their pledge to defend Baghdad. But he also saw Iraqi political leaders engaged in such petty quarreling that Lindsey Graham hollered at them over dinner, "This guy and me are your two best supporters! Now get off your asses and do something!" Regardless, the only picture making the news was that of Shorja market, which McCain now realized he'd made a mistake about characterizing as a place where one "can walk around freely." (In fact, U.S. military officials in Iraq would later term the trip "the day the Green Zone went to the market.")

Blowback from Shorja immersed the delegation in gloom as they departed Iraq. McCain was furious that the media—his "base"—were now mocking him for simply stating the obvious, that the situation in Iraq was improving. Why couldn't they see what he was seeing? When the delegation's plane landed for refueling in Landstuhl, Germany, McCain visited the military hospital there. It always buoyed his spirits to be among the soldiers, whose idolatry of the celebrity naval officer was the one thing that abided throughout the slog of the Iraq war. In one ward, he came upon Pfc. Mark Robbins. A few days before McCain's visit, Robbins and his fellow soldiers had been ambushed, and Robbins saved them by killing an RPG-wielding insurgent. Another insurgent then shot Robbins in the eye. Robbins kept fighting, and he somehow made it back to the evacuation helicopter. Now he rose from his hospital bed, grabbed John McCain tightly by his hand, and whispered hoarsely: "We can win. We can win this fight."

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