The United States and Iraq

Few things in my life have troubled me as much as watching the conflict in Iraq renew itself over the past two weeks. Like many veterans who served there, walked through the streets, and met with the people, I have a deep vested interest in seeing that country succeed in spite of several millenia of cultural and sectarian warfare, not to mention the damage done by the US invasion that I participated in. Watching the country be torn apart and cede control to ISIS has been terrifying & has prompted a lot of soul-searching within the veteran community.

Like many of my brothers and sisters, much of who I am today was shaped by my experience in the war zone. I don't like to talk about it because I don't like to think about it - the explosions, the kids, the people that we hurt, and worse. I am eternally thankful that I was able to bring all of my men home, and I am still moved to tears when I learn about a family who lost a loved one to that place. I am deeply grateful that I returned to a country where I was welcomed and thanked for my service while wearing a uniform, yet am deeply troubled as to whether or not it was in the best interests of our nation to send our young men and women there. I was hoping that question would be answered with time, but a decade later it still lingers and haunts me.

In spite of my personal conflict and doubts as to whether we did any good, I firmly believe that it is useless to turn our nation's involvement into Iraq into a political argument to be won or lost. It should surpass our superficial love or hatred of whomever is holding political office. We cannot undo an invasion. To paraphrase Colin Powell, when we broke it, we bought it. History will judge those responsible for the decisions and while we should hold them accountable we must also realize that we cannot change the past. Ultimately, we owe it to the country and region and our countless veterans and government service personnel - many of which gave their youth, some their bodies, and others their lives - to ensure a peaceful and sustainable life for the Iraqi people. While this argument is deeply affected by a sunk cost fallacy, at the same time, the price of collapse is simply too high for the region and for the world.

The country suffers from a variety of challenges that make the most consequential issue within the US look like a schoolyard spat. The conflict between the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds are literally biblical in origin and are a part of the core identity of just about everyone who could potentially call themselves an Iraqi citizen. Any compromise or concessions offered from one group to another is regarded as a sign of weakness in a culture that often punishes weakness with death. The short period of peace realized from 2007-2014 occurred only because of a massive surge of US military power and diplomatic actions focused on building relationships that have disintegrated without our involvement. If the solution to lasting peace in Iraq was easy, it would have been accomplished already.

Comments from friends and people that I know commonly revert to "we should bomb them into the stone age." This solves nothing. Iraq is already largely in the stone age. The problems that the country faces require political solutions, not military. This was obvious to me as recently as 2003 while sitting in a 70-ton tank north of Baghdad - once the opposing army was defeated, there wasn't anything for us to do with that level of firepower other than be there. We conducted "presence patrols." We searched for contraband at checkpoints. Meanwhile, efforts made to establish any sort of governance or police force were absent or incredibly poor (at least where I was, near Tarmiyah). This led to a vacuum filled by warlords in 2007, and again now in 2014.

My final year at RPI I took a military history course that concluded with the Vietnam War. The professor's conclusion was that the reason for our strategic failure in Vietnam in spite of overwhelming military superiority was that we failed to establish a functioning government that was by the people, for the people, etc. We asked the military to accomplish this, but it was ill-equipped for nation building. Without the ability to win the hearts and minds of the local population, all of our military victories were useless. He concluded the course simply writing on the board: "The Army is not a Cop."

I wrote this down in the last page of my notebook. These words have haunted me ever since, at age 22 while commanding an M1A1 Tank Platoon, I was asked to be a cop in Iraq - and more. Trained to operate and deploy a fighting force whose mission was to defeat enemy armor on the field of battle, I was instead attending city council meetings and through an interpreter tried to figure out how I could help the local sheikh and ICDC commander ensure that their citizens had power and running water. When they did have these things, they'd take care of their sect, but not the greater area. We unsurprisingly failed at even the basic task of getting the leadership to act as public servants to the greater population - we weren't equipped nor trained on how to provide basic governance, or more accurately, assist those who should.

The best writing I've seen on the subject comes from Ryan Crocker - US Ambassador to Iraq from 2007-2009 - who correctly identifies the path forward.

If a modicum of power-sharing can be achieved, it will require the kind of effort that we exerted when I was in Baghdad, from 2007 to 2009, and that we have not seen for too long. We learned then that what the Iraqis could not give to each other, they were sometimes willing to give to us, as long as they could trust that we would stand by agreements and that we would do so at the highest levels of our government. 
It is not too late for diplomacy. Diplomacy worked at the height of the Iraqi civil war. It can work now. And it can work without boots on the ground. 

I'll be watching, and praying that's he's right.