The Yogi Berra of the Iraq War? Or Something Else?
Is Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, the commander of an infantry batallion in the Fourth Infantry Division, the Yogi Berra of the Iraq war? Or is he something altogether more formidable?
The man has a way with words, he's not afraid to express himself, and he knows how to make an impression.
He once summed up the U.S. approach to Iraq this way: "Our policy from the start has been: If you don’t shoot at us, you will be rewarded."
If you recognize his name, it might be because Sassaman was a quarterback for West Point's football team in the early 80s (a "legendary" one, some say). Or maybe it's because he earned a certain notoriety early last month.
In a front-page story in the New York Times of Dec. 7, 2003, he expressed optimism about the pacification of a town in the Sunni triangle (at the time surrounded by razor wire) in these terms: "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."
Pretty outrageous. But it did get people's attention. Also, pretty cocky. I suppose self-confidence comes naturally to a former West Point quarterback.
One day last June, he talked about the weather in Iraq: "During the day it is Africa hot with Central American humidity." You do get opportunities to travel in today's military.
Most recently, Lt. Col. Sassaman's quips appeared in a story about Samarra conducted a few days after the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Speaking of a pre-dawn raid of unusual violence into this ancient town where hatred for Americans is almost universal, Sassaman showed that he was a consummate practitioner of the fine rhetorical art of litotes, or understatement: "[Samarra] hasn’t come along as quickly as other cities in the rebuilding of Iraq. This operation is designed to bring them up to speed."
Up to speed.
A modern Ajax, Lt. Col. Sassaman has the gung-ho can-do hoo-ah swagger of the Bush administration, and, if fortune favors the neoconservatives, he may be destined for greater things.
He's shown a certain understanding how politics works in a modern democracy. When an Iraqi city council began to discuss dismissing a police chief he liked, Sassaman grabbed the microphone and announced: "I hereby confirm the police chief to a six-month term." That settled that.
He knows how to cultivate the press, too. Somehow he got the Times to call the tactic described above "presiding with a light hand." And he was the person most quoted in an October feature article by the Guerrilla News Network.
So Nate Sassaman may be a name to remember. First, though, he'll have to survive his own overconfidence, betrayed by remarks like this: "No one knows the town better than we do, we're gonna clean this place. They've made a mistake to attack U.S. forces. We will dominate Samarra."
One day back in September, though, the former quarterback showed he's capable of more depth. "I figure," he mused, "if someone has their stomach full and can feed their family, they're less likely to go out there and try and kill young Americans."
That's more insight than his commander-in-chief has shown about the sources of terrorism, isn't it?
Sources: AP (Dec. 18, 2003); New York Times (Dec. 7, 2003); New York Times (Nov. 2, 2003); Gert van Langendonck, "Your Hearts and Minds, or Else," Guerrilla News Network (Oct. 9, 2003); Associated Press (September 8, 2003); defenselink.mil (July 28, 2003); The Mountaineer (July 11, 2003); Army Football (Sept. 9, 2002). -- Lt. Col. Sassaman can be seen briefing Gen. Richard Myers, no less, on the left in a July 2003 DoD photo.