Separating Service and War
Two Thoughts Twenty Years Later
This will be short. There will be enough of it today to fill your Twitter and Facebook feeds for another 20 years. But it didn’t seem right to not say anything at all.
It’s the 20th anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq. I’ve written at length and at times emotionally about the time I served there. Today I’m just going to share two thoughts that have hardened over the years since. To say they’re conclusions implies some certainty that I can’t really claim. But they’re the sorts of things one pulls from war that tends to stick with them. And at some point, it’s just kind of where the mind rests.
The first is on why we went to war. And why anyone goes to war. As best as I can tell, after chasing former Ba’ath party turned militant Al-Qaeda opportunists around al Anbar, I’ve landed on a pretty basic and not that interesting conclusion. That we, the United States, wanted to show the rest of the region (and the world) that we didn’t need to tolerate a belligerent regime in charge of any place that we thought mattered. Prior to invasion we’d had an entire carrier battle group on rotation to the Northern Arabian Sea (Operation Southern Watch) to enforce sanctions on Saddam for over a decade. And it was getting tedious. So we took advantage of the post 9/11 environment and disposed of Saddam Hussein’s regime that had ruled for decades out of government in a matter of weeks.
We used the “weapons of mass destruction” as a useful cause. I don’t believe that it was an outright lie. My unpopular opinion is that large organizations like the Department of Defense or the Intelligence Community don’t really tell outright lies if for no other reason than you can’t really get thousands of people to tell the same fiction. But they do exaggerate. They spin. Or they state hypothesis as fact. And in the case of Iraq, the last of those is what happened.
I spent enough time reporting on or looking for those weapons to know that we believed they were there. Or perhaps said better, we couldn’t believe they weren’t there. For 30 years Saddam’s regime did nothing it said it was going to at the behest of the United States. And we assumed getting rid of the weapons he once had was more of the same. That we would find NONE, was the least likely outcome based on what people in power honestly believed. None of that really matters though. The real thought that matters is that if the leaders of nations really want to go to war, they do. So choose your leaders carefully. And guard the institutions that check them dutifully. Dissecting the stated reasons for going to war isn’t that useful.
I make no excuses though. We were wrong to have invaded. Nothing in our reasoning comes close to justification for the human suffering that came from our voluntary decision to invade. I thought it at the time. I voted for John Kerry as a result. But I also was a Naval Officer. And so eventually, I was going to be involved. So how do I think about that…? That question leads to my second thought.
In some ways, my particular experience risks sidestepping the question all together. By the time I put boots on the ground in Iraq we were fighting a full on terrorist insurgency that was murdering scores of civilians, women and children, in marketplaces and funerals and government buildings daily. My team and I were narrowly tasked to disrupt these networks and stop their attacks. Our job was to stop the violence. And so the dirty work that we did usually was attached to people who, if not stopped by us, were going to murder Iraqi people. The sleepless nights I have are attached to the times we failed, not the times we succeeded. There’s no existential conflict in me for exactly what I did. But it still leaves the question.
How should I feel about the war in Iraq?
How does any soldier feel about any war? In answers to this question, the children of the 20th century have had their views skewed a bit. The idea of a “just” war dominates our views of military service. We defeated the Nazi’s and Imperial Japan. If not for that, the forces of darkness would have marched unchecked across the globe.
The tidy narrative is, of course, too tidy for reality. Like all wars, there were atrocities that led to unnecessary death and destruction. Like all wars there were unjust motivations by those that waged them. And like all wars there were individual elements of service by the people who fought in them that were at odds with the forces that decided to go to war. And in that contrast, we see that the question I have about my service in Iraq is a question as old as war.
To reconcile the general theory of war with the quantum theory of the soldier is folly. All we can do is reconcile what we did. Not all that was done. There are rules for war that the fog can’t excuse. We know them. We follow them. For many like me, our moral true north is that of a belief in individual human dignity. That there is universal value in human life. That we don’t hurt or kill if we can help it. And we’re narrow in justifying those times when we can’t. We prosecute those that break these rules as war criminals. We do it not because of some woke weakness. But because including them among the ranks of those who held the standard dishonors our service. This is the spirit of the society whose governing documents I swore to support and defend. And I believe that the value of my time in the military, projected forward, was not the violence I was capable of. Or the wars that were won or lost. But instead the willingness to serve.
While the cynicism of our times makes that last paragraph seem disingenuous or naive, I assure you, there are people cut from the same cloth that believe it deeply. And we need them.
The need to feel good about a war because it was just is an exercise in self deception of the highest form. War is hell. If one day they end forever, there will be no cost. Service is something different. And in the contrast I find the answers to how I should feel about the wars I served in. Iraq and others. The Bronze Star I was awarded for my service in Iraq hangs proudly in my study at home. I honor our fallen in Iraq as heroes. I can apologize for the war without ever apologizing for my service. But you have to believe some hard but honest things about evil of war and the standards of service to get there.