Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five Years After Invasion, American GIs Look Back -- and Ahead -- at War in Iraq

U.S. Soldiers Who Took Part in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq Reflect on Their Experiences There -- And How the War Changed Their Lives

US soldiers cover their retreat with smoke grenades during a ...

U.S. soldiers cover their retreat with smoke grenades during a raid in Baquba, Iraq on March 5. Five years after U.S.-led invasion troops swept through Iraq, feared dictator Saddam Hussein is dead and an elected government sits in Baghdad -- but Iraqis remain beset by rampant violence, political stalemate, economic woes and lingering anger over a foreign occupation. (Photo: Patrick Baz/Agence France-Presse)

NOTE TO READERS: On March 19, 2003, American and allied troops launched their second invasion of Iraq in 13 years. Whereas "Operation Desert Storm" in 1991 was aimed to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's armies from neighboring Kuwait, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was aimed to oust Saddam himself from power in Baghdad. To mark the fifth anniversary of the still-ongoing war in Iraq, a group of U.S. soldiers who participated in the invasion gathered on the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington for a panel discussion about their experiences and their feelings toward the war. Erik Wells, the managing editor of The Defender, the student-run newspaper of nearby Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont, attended that panel discussion. This is his report.

By Erik Wells
The Defender

Matt Howard thought he was going to die.

In Kuwait in March 2003, Howard and the First Marine Division, First Tank Battalion were waiting to invade Iraq.

“I really honestly expected to die,” Howard said. “I mean, I said there’s no way these people are just going to let us, like, bulldoze into their country and shoot them up without some type of resistance, without some type of fightback. I was convinced very early on that I wasn’t going to make it back.”

When the invasion began, Howard and the Marines moved north into Iraq for three days without stopping, he said. When they did stop, it was at an Iraqi artillery site that had been bombed by American warplanes the night before, Howard said.

The Marines dismounted from their vehicles.

“No sooner do we hit the ground when I hear an explosion off to my left to the back,” Howard said.

Eric Alva: The War's First American Casualty

Staff Sergeant Eric Alva stepped on an American cluster bomb and half of his leg had been blown off, Howard said. The medic who went to help Alva stepped on another bomb and went down, Howard said.

They had to retrace their steps to go back to their vehicles, Howard said. A bulldozer with anti-mine attachments came to clear a path for the Marines to get out. Howard was guided out of the area by the Marine in front of him, he said.

“He all of a sudden starts screaming, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ and I look down at the tire, and I could see the three prongs of an anti-tank mine just like a centimeter from my tire,” Howard said. “I was afraid if I even just hit the gas I was going to explode.”

Howard made it out and continued the push north to Baghdad. Alva had become the first American casualty of the war, Howard said. Alva was visited by President Bush when he returned to the U.S.

Since then, more than 29,000 American servicemen and servicewomen have been wounded and 3,974 killed in the invasion and occupation of Iraq that began five years ago today, on March 19, 2003.

Just Days After Arriving in Ramadi, a GI Faces Grim Reality of War

When he was 17, Bill Gates, of Northfield, Vermont (not to be confused with the Microsoft co-founder of the same name) joined the Army. He became a medic, and two years later was deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2005. He was assigned to a platoon of men who were mostly in their mid-20s and some in their 40s.

“I was like, ‘Hi, I’m 19 years old, and I’m here to save your life. I hope you trust me’ and they did,” Gates said.

In Iraq, Gates and Alpha Company Third Battalion, 122nd Infantry, were stationed in Ramadi. He spent time as a medic, truck commander and driver. "The platoon would make eight-hour patrols of the city, sometimes driving and sometimes on foot," Gates said.

One day at about noon, not long after Gates arrived in Iraq, he was shot at for the first time.

Driving with a truck commander and gunman they pulled a vehicle over on the highway to search it, Gates recalled. After finding nothing in the vehicle, Gates and his commander started talking with the driver.

“We were just standing out in the open and we heard ‘crack!’ and I was like, ‘What was that?’ and then we heard ‘crack!’ again, and he [the commander] went down,” Gates said.

A bullet had ricocheted and went into the commander’s leg, making a hole about the size of a half-dollar coin wide and a half-inch deep.

Gates knew he had to get the commander to safety.

“I guess I was in a different world when I did it,” Gates said. “I just saw him, I grabbed him, dragged him behind the truck, guessed where the fire was coming from so I hoped they weren’t shooting toward the truck, bandaged him up and got on the radio. I was all hyped up; I was screaming.”

The commander was fortunate; no arteries were hit, Gates said. He remembers driving him to the aid station and being surprised at how calm the man was, smoking a cigarette after being shot. The commander was out in three weeks.

“I think that was what kind of broke me in,” Gates said. “After that I was always on my toes, and whenever I got out of the truck I was moving around. I didn’t want to stand still or anything. It seemed to work out.”

A Marine Recalls Killing an Iraqi Civilian

Lieutenant Corporal Jon Turner of the 3rd Battalion 8th Marine Division spent time in Ramadi and also served in Fallujah. Today, Turner is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, an anti-war group patterned after the Vietnam Veterans Against the War from the 1960s.

Turner gave gripping testimony with other members of IVAW at a panel discussion, "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afganistan," held on February 28 at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Howard, his roommate, was among those testifying to what they had seen and done in Iraq.

On April 18, 2006, Turner committed what he acknowledges was his first war crime by shooting and killing an unarmed civilian who was walking back to his home. “After I killed him, I was congratulated by members of my platoon as well as my chain of command,” Turner said.

For the Marines, looking out for their own safety became most important, Turner said.

“Collateral damage was not an issue for us. Anytime we felt threatened, we would go ahead and take care of that issue and then deal with the issue later,” Turner said.

While on night patrols, Turner and his platoon would kick in doors of houses at 3 a.m., he said. They would make the family gather in a room. If they didn’t like the man of the house, they would take him in another room and choke him or slam his head against the wall, Turner said.

“Throughout my deployment, I proceeded in constantly choking these individuals, just because it was my way of letting go,” he continued.

Turner testified that another time, after a firefight, he was "upset" that he hadn’t shot anyone that day. His friends in his platoon yelled they had someone for him, he said.

“I ran over to where my friend Tucker was at, and as soon as I got there put the man in my sights and I fired a 12-round burst into his chest,” Turner said. “This man was just riding his bike. He wasn’t doing anything. The firefight was over, but that was my way of letting go of the aggression. Afterwards, we all laughed about it and talked about it, and it was just a normal occurrence.”

Howard Ordered to Stop Handing Food to Iraqis

After Howard reached Baghdad three weeks after the invasion began, there wasn’t a specific task to complete, he said. His company took over the abandoned United Nations compound. It was during a time of looting and chaos in the city, including the thefts of precious ancient artifacts from the Museum of Antiquities. "The oil ministry building was protected, while museums were looted," Howard said.

On his truck, Howard had a pallet of humanitarian food rations. When making the push north, he started to hand them out to the hundreds of people who lined the streets for food, he said. His First Sergeant then pulled up in his Humvee and screamed at Howard to stop, he said.

“It was conveyed that the decision had been made by the First Marine Division not to hand out the humanitarian rations because he did not want to give the enemy the wrong impression of why we were there,” Howard said.

He continued to hand the rations out until his gunner feared they might be punished, Howard said. When they returned to Kuwait, his commander told him to bury the food, he said.

When Howard returned home from Iraq in 2004, he said he felt betrayed by the government. “I was angry with the callousness that I felt my life had been treated,” Howard said. “It was very personal when I realized my commanders did not care whether I lived or died,” he said.

Iraq Now America's Longest -- and Costliest -- War Since Vietnam

In the beginning, people didn’t expect the United States to be in Iraq five years after the invasion, said Bill Wilson, the provost of Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont.

According to Wilson, a Vietnam veteran, the scope of a five-year period is dependent on the society who is looking at it. “I think five years is long for us, because in many ways the war has been extraordinarily expensive,” he said.

The United States has spent more than $500 billion on the war, which may eventually cost about $1.7 trillion -- a conservative estimate, according to economics professor Patrick Walsh. This can be thought of as every U.S. household losing $14,000 of its net worth over time, he said. The country is spending about 0.8 percent of the its gross domestic product on the war, Walsh said.

“It’s not going to sink the economy,” he added. "The looming possibility of a recession cannot be solely blamed on the war. A number of other economic factors are in play."

The U.S. strategy in Iraq has changed dramatically in the past year to 15 months, according to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a liberal "think tank" in Washington.

"Cease-fire deals have been negotiated between Iraqi insurgent groups and the United States," he said. "In creating a deal, the leader of an insurgent group agrees to field men to cover checkpoints and to patrol in a specified area."

The insurgents agreed not to leave the area or shoot Americans, Iraqi government officials or Iraqi civilians, according to Biddle. "The only people they can fire on are al-Qaida members and insurgents," he said.

Violence has decreased in Iraq during this period because the insurgents who sign the cease-fire deals were shooting at the U.S. military the week before signing, continued Biddle, who visited Iraq twice in 2007 and spoke with members of these new security forces.

“You quickly discover that these are not little old ladies from Topeka,” he said. “These are, in many cases, steely-eyed killers with remarkably impressive degrees of military discipline.”

In exchange, the U.S. agreed not to fire at these security groups and paid each member who abided by the terms -- $300 a month, according to Biddle. But the money is not the primary factor for these deals. "Iraqi insurgents have discovered that the strategic landscape is different in Iraq," he said.

“This is not primarily buying them off, it’s primarily responding to their changed sense of what their strategic possibilities are,” Biddle added.

U.S. Deal With Militias Resulted From 2006 Battle of Baghdad

This stems from the "Battle of Baghdad" in 2006 where Sunni Muslim militants and al-Qaida in Iraq tried to gain control of the Iraqi capital by driving the Americans and the city's majority Shiite Muslims out.

The bombing of the Shiite al-Askari Mosque by Sunni militants spurred Shiite militias to go on the offensive. “That gave the Sunnis the Technicolor view of just what an unconstrained, unlimited civil war against the Shiites would look like,” Biddle said, “and to their astonishment, the result was they got whipped -- badly. They decisively lost the Battle of Baghdad.”

The Sunnis also agreed to cease-fire deals because they no longer trusted al-Qaida in Iraq, Biddle said. In addition to taking money intended for sheiks, the Battle of Baghdad showed that al-Qaida in Iraq couldn’t support the Sunnis militarily, according to Biddle. "They began to turn on al-Qaida and side with the U.S. as a means of survival," he said.

Biddle argued that to withdraw U.S. troops now would disrupt the delicate balance of the cease-fire deals. "If the deals were able to spread, by next year, the U.S. mission in Iraq would transition to mostly peacekeeping," he said. “If somehow magically we were to get everybody out tomorrow, the result would be the country would collapse into a much more violent form of civil war than we saw before.”

U.S. Has 'Obligation' to Rebuild Iraq, Wilson Says

Iraq was a sophisticated country and has now lost its infrastructure and middle class, said Wilson, who added that he didn't approve of the invasion because it was not supported by the United Nations. "The political risks seemed greater than what could be gained," he said. "The worst-case scenarios have occurred in the country following the period of uncertainty after the invasion."

Occupation of a country is one of the most taxing burdens militarily, Wilson said. “You can’t place people in those situations of stress without expecting that bad things will happen. That is always the curse of occupation.”

Insurgents work to make situations where soldiers feel encouraged to kill civilians, added Biddle.

But Wilson insisted that reconstruction is a U.S. responsibility. “Apologies are not a helpful thing, I think acts, quietly done, will do it,” he said. “If we roll up our sleeves and did the infrastructure-buildng and if we could make sure that Iraq does not simply become a pawn or a military base of the United States.”

Nonetheless, the rest of the world will continue to look at the U.S in Iraq negatively, Wilson added. “Given the area and the attitudes we will always be seen as a foreign occupier, that doesn’t serve anyone’s interests,” he said.

Wilson served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam from August 1965 to August 1966.

“What I would say is that I can’t explain fully, but there are very few Vietnamese that have malice against the U.S. at this point,” Wilson said. “So, enemies are never forever, and there’s no reason Iraq cannot be restored.”

Iraqi Delegation: Abolishing Iraqi Military and Police After Saddam's Fall Was Huge Mistake

On March 4, seven delegates from the Iraqi government, while on a visit to Vermont, sat in on professor Michael Bosia’s "Transitions to Democracy" class at Saint Michael's to answer questions through an interpreter.

The Iraqis continue to cling to local councils because they still haven't fully adjusted from the totalitarian rule of Saddam Hussein, said Kadhim al-Mansoori, regional district advisory council chairman for the Baghdad provincial council.

"It was easy for the United States to get into Iraq, but it is not as easy to get out," said Sabeeh al-Kaabi, chairman of Baghdad's Rasheed district advisory council. “It’s a moral responsibility of the American army to only withdraw when they have restored some form of government, peace and security on our land,” he added.

What Iraqis have benefited most from is the end of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, al-Kaabi said. “The best thing that the Americans have done is to remove the lifelong nightmare we were living in.”

But in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's fall from power on April 9, 2003, the United States dissolved the military and police force, which acted as a catalyst for destruction, Mansoori said.

“We have the responsibility to tell you this,” al-Mansoori told the class. “All our stores were looted. The American forces were just watching. Banks were robbed; they went to the electrical plant and dismantled and looted, and the American troops just watched. The only thing that was protected was the Ministry of Oil.”

And then there are the power cuts. The aerial bombing destroyed much of Iraq's electrical grid, al-Mansoori said. "There isn’t a full hour of electricity for the Iraqi government even today."

But following President Bush's controversial troop surge, in which an additional 30,000 American troops were sent to Iraq to boost security, "stores and businesses started to reopen and security improved," al-Mansoori said. "Hopefully this will continue."

Five Years Later, What's Next for Iraq?

As for the qustion of what the future holds for the U.S. presence in Iraq, opinions were mixed.

"There is a difference in Iraq now from five years ago," Al-Kaabi said. “Would one prefer to be free and hungry, or caged and full? This is the problem.”

"The war is a tragedy," said Laurie Gagne, director of Saint Michael's peace and justice center operated by the Society of Saint Edmund, the order of Catholic priests who founded the college in 1904. "The United States needs to replace its military presence with a humanitarian presence to help Iraq rebuild," she said.

“Since we went and did all this damage, I really think we have a moral obligation to help them rebuild,” Gagne added.

Gates argued that the more than 4,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq to date "would have died in vain" if the U.S. were to leave Iraq now.

“I know a lot of people are saying 'Bring the troops home,' and I respect that, because they don’t want anything to happen,” Gates said, “but I think that if we started something, we should finish it. But I don’t know how exactly we should finish it.”

Gates is looking to return to Iraq with soldiers he would train before deployment. “I kind of like the stress of it all, I guess,” Gates said. “It’s kind of messed up, but I just like being stressed out. It was good money, but it’s the kind of thing that I like doing.”

The first principle of Iraq Veterans Against the War is complete and immediate troop withdrawal.
"Violence in Iraq will continue as the occupation progresses, Howard said. “Until we stop the violence we are the catalyst. Every innocent Iraqi citizen we kill creates more resistance. Every Marine they kill creates more Iraqi civilian deaths. That is the fundamental crux of the occupation.”

Turner is now a changed man.

“I apologize for the lives that I have destroyed,” Turner said in closing at Winter Soldier. “I apologize for the families that I have destroyed; I apologize for the buildings and homes that I have destroyed. The men that I killed, I don’t even know their names, I don’t think I want to know their names.”

(Additional reporting by Deanna Kaiser.)

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Volume III, Number 21
Special Report Copyright 2008, The Defender
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