On the Tenth Anniversary: Owning up to Iraq

It is difficult to describe the contrast between my first and second deployments to Iraq. I invaded Iraq with Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (3/7) in March 2003, spent the summer eating half chickens in the restaurants of Karbala, and returned to the US in September. Just after the following Valentine’s Day, 3/7 was deployed to Husaybah, where we were mortared on our first day. Husaybah, a small town on the border of Anbar Province and Syria, was so violent that after suffering several Marines killed and many wounded, we were forced to cede most of the town for several weeks in the summer of 2004.

I had been assigned to radio watch in the Husaybah command post when my platoon sergeant read in a weeks-old issue of the Wall Street Journal that Richard Clarke had published Against All Enemies, in which Clarke claimed, among other things, that the invasion of Iraq was based on known faulty intelligence. I was outside the command post on a cigarette break donned in my helmet and flak vest, concerned much less about lung cancer than about the increasingly accurate mortar attacks from which we suffered almost daily.

As I coached myself through another minute of war’s obscene boredom, I heard “THAT SON OF A BITCH!” erupt from within the command post. An officer inquired to my platoon sergeant about his outburst. He was indignant that Clarke was criticizing the Bush administration. Indignant, in other words, that Clarke was revealing a formerly obscured truth about the war.

Integrity is one of the Marine Corps’ honored leadership traits. Here was a revered staff non-commissioned officer, admired by subordinates and superiors alike, who was having none of it. Loyalty to the Republican Party, to a war based on lies, to war itself took precedence while people died. To what exactly what was I party here?

There are many aspects of the war that upset me, but it took me most of the last decade to realize that at the core of my discontent is a deep sense of betrayal. For all that is said of America’s greatness, America sold me up the river.

Looking back, I think the betrayal really started sinking in with the discourse on “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs). We all know that WMDs were a major justification for the war and that Iraq turned out not to have any. However, the greater and more transparent lie is that WMDs justify an invasion in the first place.

Many of the biological and chemical weapons that we call “weapons of mass destruction” are finicky substances that require considerable resources and favorable conditions to employ against a large population. Take the case of Aum Shinrikyo: In 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo was believed to have 20,000 to 40,000 members and a net worth of $1.5 billion. In 1994 and 1995, Aum Shinrikyo marshaled these resources to kill nineteen people with Sarin gas, a nerve agent 500 times more toxic than cyanide. Twelve of the fatalities occurred when Sarin was released in a crowded Tokyo subway that continued running, thereby spreading the gas, for up to an hour and forty minutes. Estimates of the 3,800 wounded in Tokyo include many with injuries apparently not severe enough to seek medical treatment.

Some will note that Saddam had already inflicted much higher fatalities with a chemical attack. His infamous 1988 attack on the town of Halabja killed an estimated 5,000 civilians. The attack relied on some 20 fighter aircraft delivering a preparatory bombardment of conventional munitions to drive the residents into their basements. Only then was a sustained barrage of mustard gas, Sarin, and VX unleashed on the town. Halabja was part of a larger genocide campaign that killed an estimated 50,000-100,000 Kurds, mostly by conventional means. The Halabja attack was horrible but it was hardly a template for an attack on the US.

To place these figures in context, Adam Lanza used a garden-variety AR-15 assault rifle to kill 26 people in an elementary school before abruptly committing suicide rather than continuing his assault in the face of arriving first responders. On 9/11, Al Qaeda killed some 2,975 people with four commercial aircraft conveniently aided by some falling skyscrapers. Meanwhile, in a continued show of disrespect for our collective intelligence, federal law has since categorized homemade pipe bombs a “weapon of mass destruction” for the purposes of prosecution.

Of course, certain WMDs are highly lethal within their constraints. Weaponized anthrax ranks among them. Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 United Nations speech, which is said to have shifted US domestic support in favor of the war, focused on weaponized anthrax as a WMD of potential threat to the US. Powell cited Saddam’s alleged testing of aircraft spray tanks, by far one of the most effective methods of dispersing weaponized anthrax, on a MiG-21 fighter jet:

In 1995, an Iraqi military officer, Mujahid Sali Abdul Latif (ph), told inspectors that Iraq intended the spray tanks to be mounted onto a MiG-21 that had been converted into an unmanned aerial vehicle, or a UAV. UAVs outfitted with spray tanks constitute an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons.

The maximum range of the MiG-21 is six hundred nautical miles—barely enough to escape Iraqi airspace. So how could these spray tanks threaten a large number-say tens of thousands-of Americans? One would have to deposit as many Americans within six hundred nautical miles of an Iraqi airstrip. Of course, given America’s likely response to a WMD attack, Saddam would probably only have been inclined to use anthrax against the amassed Americans if he had a credible fear that they were a threat to him or his regime. I’ll let the implications sink in for a minute.

Spray tanks aside, the primary threat posed by “Saddam’s WMDs” was in the event of a handover to Al Qaeda, whose link to Saddam was, to say the least, hotly debated before the war. Even Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon, who seemingly continues to support the invasion in principle, reasoned in 2002 that WMDs were a minor threat to the US .

In the days before the invasion, USA Today reported that fifty-four percent of Americans supported the attack even in the event that it was rejected by the UN Security Council. Those Americans weren’t inclined to Google this stuff before risking my life for it? They entrusted George Bush with my care for this?

In the past few days, an explosion of media interviews have asked Iraq veterans, “was the war worth it?” Many veterans recoil at the implication that the sacrifices of their comrades are even open to question. In a response published by the Guardian, Iraq veteran and author Kayla Williams gave the following answer:

The question still makes me pause and fumble my words. Was the tremendous sacrifice of blood and treasure a worthwhile investment for the United States? Are the Iraqi people better-off today than they were a decade ago?

My answer, which feels like a cop-out even to myself, is that we may not know for a generation or more. Yet, I bridle instantly at suggestions that troops died “in vain”, for they sacrificed themselves not for policy but for their comrades-in-arms; all are remembered and honored.”

I understand the pain of Kayla’s loss. Nevertheless, her reaction strikes me as a rather spurious diversion from the policy question at hand. No, the Iraq War was not necessary or justified. Yes, my friends would be better off alive. Make no mistake, this war was supported by the American people as revenge for 9/11. Who among us believes that George Bush would have sold the American public on the Iraq invasion if 9/11 hadn’t occurred?

Honoring one’s fallen comrades is noble enough. However, the time has come to ask ourselves how we will honor them. With this in mind, I can accept that my comrades died in vain insofar as deaths not in vain are deaths that can be justified. How many Americans will ponder their citizenly role in supporting the war?

Unlike most veterans, I thought it was wrong to participate in the Iraq war. I never believed Saddam was a threat to the US. More importantly, I thought the Iraq War was a violation of my oath of enlistment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Legal scholars may assert that Congress’ 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force constitutes a declaration of war but at the time I didn’t see it that way. Those who argue that it was right to blindly follow orders are wrong. Discounting my independent judgment about the constitutionality of the war rendered my oath—my word, the keystone of my social being—meaningless.

The most moral option would have been to refuse to deploy. I knew this but I deployed anyway. I didn’t want to be ostracized by my peers who dutifully followed orders. I didn’t want a dishonorable discharge to haunt my post-military career. I didn’t want to go to prison. I made what some will describe as the rational choice: I put myself before others.

I share responsibility for the consequences of the Iraq invasion. Not just because I served in the military though. I share responsibility because I am an American citizen of good conscience. As an American beholden to a Declaration of Independence written in the name of the people, it is my responsibility never to trust that my leaders know what’s best. It is my responsibility to demand a logical, legal, and moral argument for action that is backed up by proof, and then by more proof. It is my responsibility to exert the necessary political pressure to avert the abuse of force. When legal means fail to avert such abuse, it is my responsibility to break the law. Where I have failed to do these things, I have violated my responsibility to the people—to all people.

There are stories the public needs to hear that I have not yet found the courage to relay. These range from outright atrocities to a vast sea of petty injuries and insults to the Iraqi population that were not prohibited by the Law of Armed Conflict.

What lesson will be learnt from the Iraq war? Will we learn to better plan occupations of belligerent but militarily weak nations that just happen to have vast natural resources? Will we learn only to help people when we can kill from the sky? Or will we adopt some prima facie skepticism of the utility of military force and of the motives of those who promote such force? Are we prepared to consider that, if an unseen hand switched our circumstances with those of the Iraqi people, those who called loudest for the Iraq invasion would instead have been the first to label the resultant insurgency the duty of every “patriotic American?”

Do we find it contemptible to help people in ways that hurt no one else? Does it threaten our masculinity to suggest that helping people usually doesn’t involve killing anyone around them? The historically cognizant among us are correct in asserting that it’s too early to know whether Iraq is better off for our invasion. But could the $3-5 trillion we committed through war have helped Iraq even if we didn’t get to kill their leader and defeat their army?

I’ll close on this point: Unilaterally invading a country to prevent a potential attack or to realize presumed humanitarian benefits is not just reckless. It is a knowable crime of aggression under International Law. It doesn’t matter if historians later determine that quality of life eventually improved for those Iraqis not among the 170,000 killed and the 2.8 million displaced from their homes. We have no standing to decide that the pain inflicted on Iraq was “worth it.” Our responsibility lies elsewhere.


  1. […] my ten year retrospective of the Iraq War, I asserted that the MiG-21′s 600-nautical mile range was “barely […]

  2. […] may recall that, in my Iraq tenth-year anniversary post, I griped that federal law had been amended to insult our intelligence by labeling small homemade explosive […]

  3. […] I’ve been taking for granted that “it” is “the battle of Fallujah,” which is really a metaphor for the Iraq occupation. Taken in political and strategic context, the answer to “was [the Iraq occupation] worth it?” is a straightforward No. […]

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