Tuesday, March 19, 2013

10 Years After

10 years ago I was in the western desert of Kuwait, a tank platoon leader unsure if I would have to lead my men to war or not. I fully supported going to war at the time. I didn't much care about weapons of mass destruction, beyond their possibly being used against me, and democratization is a lofty goal.  But these weren't the reasons I wanted to go to war. The most important reason I thought we should go to war was because I realized my quickest route home was through Baghdad, which sounded better than more months whiling away in the desert. The second reason I wanted to go to war was because that's what I thought soldiers should do. We had a plan, we had rehearsed it, and my platoon was very, very good. I went to West Point in an era where there were generations of officers, outside of the few who fought in Desert Storm or Panama, were never able to use the skills they trained their entire lives for. I didn't want to be one of those old guys regaling my loved ones with harrowing tales of that time in the Whale Gap at the National Training Center. I wanted to do something. I was 22 and obviously knew nothing about the world beyond how to lead a platoon of tanks.

We should never have gone to war with Iraq. The intelligence that was used to substantiate a massive war was so shoddy that I wouldn't have used it to substantiate a platoon-sized raid. And of course we know now that I was fabricated purely to start the war. As horrifying as that is, I don't believe Iraq was the greatest blunder the U.S. has made since World War II. I think escalating Vietnam still holds that title. The Iraq War may have tilted the political leanings of the United States, but it has not fundamentally changed our social fabric in the way that Vietnam did. For the Iraqis, our invasion was probably the worst thing to have happen to them since World War II. What this war wrought on them is unconscionable. That we lost 3,542 U.S. servicemembers, with another approximately 32,000 wounded, is horrifying. Even more horrifying are the 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis that are estimated to have been killed because of the war, to say nothing of the millions who were displaced from their homes and the rending of the Iraq's social fabric (although some of that was good, such as the enfranchisement of the Shia and Kurds).

These statistics speak not only to the folly of having started the war, but also to the incompetence of those charged with executing it. At least through the end of 2005 and probably longer, the Iraq War was a tidal wave of arrogance and stupidity. In April 2003, when civilians were looting government facilities, the order came down to let them have at it. This criminality was the "exuberance of democracy". The next month when the order came down to disband the security forces and expel the Ba'ath Party from government it took all of about 4 hours for the first attack to occur on a convoy on Airport Road. No one was seriously hurt, but that was all about to change. In June my unit moved to Balad, a hotbed of former regime acolytes, where we patrolled in unarmored HMMWVs, taking the doors off so we could hang our legs out the sides and face our pitiful body armor to any potential blasts. While there we conducted cordons so the 4th Infantry Division could run their sweeping operations, making matters worse by rounding up military-aged males in the interest of security. In 2005, my unit was in eastern Baghdad where we ignored the Sadrists for almost a year. Our predecessors had a hard fight against them in 2004 and our command wanted none of that. By doing nothing we gave the Sadrists 12 months to refit and rearm so that units in 2006 had a harder time than 1st Cavalry Division did in 2004 and further inflamed the civil war. This is just skimming the top of the nonsense I witnessed personally that did nothing but hurt the Iraqis we were trying to "liberate" and the soldiers and marines doing the liberating.

By the time I was stop-lossed for the surge in 2007 I was adamantly against the war. I thought the surge just another foolish move in a long series of foolish moves and that we should have ended the war instead. During my last 13 months in Iraq during this surge, I came around to believing it was the best way to turn around a terrible situation. The Iraqis did most of the hard work with The Awakening and the Sadrist cease-fire, but it took the infusion of more soldiers into the battle space and the increased killing of our most extreme enemies to solidify the gains made by the Iraqis. This is not to say that the surge made up for our past blunders or that it led to our winning the war. It was merely the best option from an assortment of really bad options. As a case in point, before we had Sons of Iraq in our brigade battle space we had 35 to 40 "negative events" - a euphemism for attacks on coalition forces or reports of attacks on civilians - per day. The day after we secured our battle space with an additional battalion and a contingent of Sons of Iraq we averaged 2 negative events per day. The decrease in violence, brought about by many factors including the use of more violence, was remarkable. So while Iraq is still quite violent and nearly none of the major political disputes have been settled, we did some things right in an attempt to correct the mistakes we made. Unfortunately it wasn't quite enough to make up for that biggest mistake and it's possible it could have been for naught.

My feelings about this war are complicated. On the one hand, in spite of my initial and self-centered support for it, this war should never have happened. The people who worked so hard to create it should never have remained in office after the next election and should have been shamed from public life forever. Invading Iraq was certainly one of the worst things this country has done in the past 70 years. On the other hand I was a soldier responsible for and to other soldiers. I was oblivious to political machinations, concerned only with battle drills, gunnery skills, and medical proficiency. I was concerned with the welfare of my men and accomplishing our missions that were such a small part of the whole of our endeavors in Iraq. During nearly 3 years on the ground I witnessed some of the most inspiring acts of heroism, sacrifice, service, and humanity, so lacking in my life now. Of course we should never have been put in the position to commit and witness these acts in the first place. I am embarrassed for our country for having done this to ourselves and the Iraqis. Yet I am not only not ashamed for having taken part in this war, I'm proud of doing so. It has done more than anything else in making me who I am today. In spite of this retrospective I greet this 10th anniversary of the war with some ambivalence and a bit of distance. I'll probably skip all of these "10 lessons" articles that are being passed around and not revisit my papers and videos on the war. Instead I'll raise a glass to the soldiers I fought with and those we lost and leave it at that.


  1. I wonder "what if" all the time, energy, resources, money and troops committed to the Iraq war had been focused into Afghanistan.

  2. I am very happy that you made it back Jason. The best and most valid witnesses in regard to the validity of this war are the participants. For you to judge and comment, the credence is established. Welcome home.
    A Gold Star Father

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  4. I would argue that Iraq was in a civil war between 1991-2008, or between 1979-2008, or between 1975-2008. Over a million Iraqis died during this civil war. For much of the civil war Iraq was also a regional and international war. America was supporting factions in this civil war between 1991 and 2003. So were 20 other countries.

    I am not sure what could have spared Iraq from losing large numbers of lives after 2003.

    One of the largest tactical mistakes in the Iraq war was not dedicating enough resources to training the ISF. The ISF surge only began in earnest in the second half of 2006. Even that surge was not large enough. It is hard to understand why so many Americans were so opposed to surging ISF capacity, even at the cost of American blood. Wasn't it obvious that creating the perception that ISF victory was inevitable would do much to end the Iraqi civil war [by persuading the international backers of the Iraqi resistance and various factions within the Iraqi resistance to negotiate in good faith with the GoI]? Direct MNF-I kinetic operations had limited strategic effect because few Iraqis or internationals expected MNF-I to remain in Iraq for long.


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