Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get serious or get out

A funny thing happened on the way back from Iraq. A strong opponent of the Iraq war from the start, I have since developed a different opinion on the matter. Perhaps this change of opinion arose from the simple fact that I am not physically in Iraq anymore; that I’m no longer in physical danger (however small that danger was living on secure Camp Taji); that whatever opinions I have on the continuation of our Iraq incursion now have no effect on me as a soon-to-be civilian with no deployment hanging over his head.

Don’t get me wrong – I still believe that invading Iraq was a terribly bad idea. I still stand by my belief that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; that he was contained; that we invaded with too few troops and not enough allied support; that we were criminally under-prepared in terms of equipment and cultural knowledge for the guerrilla war I knew we would face. However, after years of arguing that invading Iraq was a mistake, I realized that I was basing my argument too much on the should-haves of 5 years ago rather than the realities of 2008. No matter how tempting, we cannot turn back the clock and not invade Iraq. We are presently stuck with the situation we got ourselves in to, and must act accordingly by maintaining a strong presence there and enlisting the help of foreign allies to keep the lid on the conflagration and subdue the influence of religious clerics like Sadr.

This war has been run so poorly and amateurishly from the start that I know that it is difficult for anyone of intelligence and thought to justify its continuation. We had the guy at the top, from the safety of the Oval Office, egging on the insurgents in Iraq to attack my fellow soldiers with his “bring them on” comment in 2003. I think you know him: the same guy who landed on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit in 2003 with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him, even when the war was clearly not over. Let’s say I give him the benefit of the doubt—that he actually believed that the Iraqis had chemical weapons. That proves to me that he was willing to subject us troops to poison gas attacks in the beginning of the war. (I remember hurriedly donning my chemical suit in Kuwait in March 2003 during SCUD missile attacks. One perk in working in the V Corps headquarters tent complex was the early tip off I got in the form of a few out of place officers from the next tent running out with their protective gear in hand, even before the alarms went off).

Regardless, there is still a war going on and we must face the realities. While he and other war apologists stand like amazed and ashamed children at the sight of an out of control forest fire they never met to light, Iraq slides into chaos. Given the recent upheaval in Sadr City and Basra and the likely prospect of our eventual withdrawal, I predict disaster for Iraq’s people and its nascent democracy. Iraq is like a huge steel cage match, with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all ready to rip each other’s heads off while a small and feeble referee in Iraqi Army uniform tries, futilely, to stop the violence and establish some control. In the short run, he’s going to be powerless. Why isn’t the international community offering to provide more referees, of larger physical stature, to the fight? Is it because our President is too proud to ask for assistance? Or is it because the international community is also suffering from the same should haves and I told you so arguments? I don’t know what the truth is, but I bet it’s a combination of the two.

What is clear to me is that we as a country cannot handle this situation alone. Why isn’t the Arab League helping? Where are they in this matter? What is the State Department doing? Our Army has reached the breaking point. It’s calling up former soldiers like me who have been out of uniform for years. It’s relying on immigrants and former criminals to fill its ranks rather than putting out a national call to service or revamping the GI Bill to encourage a larger proportion of the American public to consider military service as an option before or after college. This is all really embarrassing if you ask me.

I just don’t feel comfortable about the idea of abandoning the budding Iraqi democracy, however tenuous their hold may be on the country. I know that the argument sounds very cliché, something you’d hear on Fox News or a White House Press briefing, but the alternative is something more sinister: a theocratic country run by competing religious clerics whose ridiculous and childish disagreements about the rightful successor to the “prophet” Muhammad motivate their followers to torture each other, subjugate women, and extinguish free thought and logical reasoning. Do we want to leave the Iraqis up to the brutality of the parties of God? You have seen what dastardly war crimes the Sunni and Shiite holy warriors have committed in the name of their religious beliefs. Are we ready to let them take over and massacre those who helped us? I don’t mean to knock Islam exclusively, as I think Christianity is equally laughable and deserves criticism too. It’s not based on a shred of credible evidence, provides false hope to those in need, controls people with guilt and shame, absolves people of personal responsibility, and impedes human progress.

If we are so serious about democracy and freedom in Iraq, then we should really push for the promotion of an Iraqi democracy unimpeded by the menacing influence of the religious clerics. That’s the only way Iraq will survive. If we allow Iraq to fail, the clerics will eventually have their way, and we’ll have to go back there to fight them again. It seems to me like we’re going about this war in a half-ass sort of way. 4,000 American deaths later, it’s about time we as a country get serious about this whole thing, or get the hell out entirely.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Homecoming Purgatory

I’m happy to write that I’m now back in New Jersey—not home exactly, but close enough. I have to stay at Fort Dix, NJ for about 10 days to arrange all the logistics for the guys in my unit who will arrive here shortly. They’ll need things like barracks space, their demobilization schedule, a place to store their weapons, flights home, etc

Flying out of Taji was, to put it lightly, an ordeal. I had about 250 pounds of equipment to lug around from helicopter to helicopter, helicopter to plane, tent-to-tent, and so on. My shoulders and arms are still bruised and scratched up from the duffel bag shuffles involved with each move. Exiting a Chinook helicopter, I even got choked by my M4 machine gun’s shoulder strap, which crept up my shoulder and neck thanks to the 3 bags I had strung over my shoulders. I had to tough through the pain to get far enough away from the backwash wind caused by the 2 rotors in order to drop my bags.

In Kuwait, Navy Customs searched through every item in each of our bags, checking to see if we had any contraband.

We stopped to refuel in Shannon, Ireland and had about an hour to roam around the airport. I was surprised that they let us walk around in our uniforms among the Irish waiting around in the terminal. The people were nice to us, asked us about Iraq and wished us a good trip back home.

At Fort Dix, there was a line of about 50 people waiting next to our buses to shake our hands and welcome us home. The first 10 guys were Vietnam Vets from the local VFW; they’d been there for 8 hours already, getting there at 2AM to greet the group arriving before us. The motto on their banner said something like “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another generation of veterans”—a pretty good crack against the “Greatest Generation” of WWII vets if you ask me.

It’s so good to be back in the States. I’m also grateful that I arrived here in one piece and I’m not physically and emotionally traumatized like so many other soldiers from this war and wars past. I saw on an AFN commercial over in Iraq that 17 IRR soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began. One was a West Point grad, Captain Brian Freeman, who as a Civil Affairs officer was ambushed along with several other soldiers at a meeting with a tribal sheik in Karbala in 2006. I tried to get switched into one of these Civil Affairs slots when I found out that I’d been drafted out of the IRR; maybe it was better that I just served the way that I did. Getting killed over there for nothing wouldn’t have been worth it.