Ten years after the Iraq war, we asked veterans to tell us how they feel looking back at the time they spent serving abroad. To read this story at the Guardian, click here.
Ten years after the Iraq war, we asked veterans to tell us how they feel looking back at the time they spent serving abroad
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. As a part of our ongoing effort to open up the topics discussed on Cif to readers with common experiences, we asked Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from all over the world to weigh in on the issues that have arisen in our series Iraq war: 10 years on. In a call out on the Guardian, we asked them to reflect on their time serving in the Middle East. Their stories show the diversity of experiences – in the field and coming home – of those who served:
I don’t regret my time there – I regret that the US government decided to go to war. I asked a Shiite Iraqi Colonel, who I helped train and who later died in an assassination, whether he was for or against the US-led invasion. He said that under Saddam Hussein, most people were afraid to express political opinions in public for fear of arrest or worse, but they had regular water and electricity; now, he noted, free expression or even wearing a military uniform makes Iraqis targets in their own homes. Water and electricity aren’t reliable services in urban centers. For me, after witnessing the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure and political institutions, it became abundantly clear that the war hurt scores more than it saved.
I am very proud of being part of the multi-national forces in Iraq. I did not meet one Iraqi who was sorry to see the back of Saddam Hussein. I think the challenge of reforming and rebuilding the deeply fractious and traumatised state that Saddam had created was enormous. Sure there may have been flaws in the post-occupation plan to return to normalcy but let’s not fail to place the blame for the descent into violence at al-Qaida’s feet (where it remains to this day) and to some degree those Iraqi’s who chose to participate in sectarian violence. While there remains much to be done, I still believe that Iraq will be a better place in the future had there not been an intervention.
I served on both Iraq and Afghanistan as an Infantry NCO, being called up as a reservist on both occasions. I do believe that on a local level we did bring some measure of good, in the form of security, to the people of Sangin where I was based in Afghanistan (2009), although nationally I did struggle to see any kind of coherent strategy. Iraq by contrast was more disillusioning. I’d been sceptical about the reasons for the invasion, but by the time I deployed there (2005-2006), I believed that now we were there, we could engineer some good for that country. I believe that removing Saddam Hussein was in itself a good thing to do and perhaps something that the ‘west’ might actually have been obliged to do, given that his dictatorship had in part, at certain periods, been supported by us. There is a tendency amongst military men to blame politicians for our shortcomings, but I think our recent experiences have caused many to start looking within. During my Iraq tour, I was exposed to the environment of the Brigade HQ on a regular basis and was stunned at how much heat and noise was generated by the massed ranks of a bloated HQ formation rather than any light. During my Afghan tour, I was far removed from any level of HQ element, but transiting in and out of the country you did glimpse the mini-cities that had sprouted up. I think that their very existence was at some level a part of our problem.
I served in the US Army, and anyone who has will tell you there are no individual efforts. No one person won (or lost) the war in Iraq. I cannot say that I personally made the country better or worse for the Iraqis. I truly feel that I assisted in making the country safer for American troops, though I know the vast population would not say that’s reason to send soldiers to war. And yes I agree it sounds contradictory. I think that as an Army, it taught us we need to train better. That having the best technology does not necessarily mean you won the war.
My experiences in Iraq changed my life dramatically. Having served 2 tours in Iraq (firstly in the initial invasion, and secondly in 2005), I have very differing feelings resulting from each tour. My feelings after both tours were mixed, I made a number of Iraqi friends, one I will never forget called Ibrahim, he was our air conditioning engineer, and a former soldier in Saddam’s Army. He would tell me stories of how he and his family were treated under Saddam, the beatings he would receive as a Shiite soldier and the oppression of the people of Basra. He said he would take Coalition troops over Saddam’s troops any day. For this I felt a small bit of pride, yet looking at the bigger picture, I do not. I feel embarrassment for the way we may have behaved towards some Iraqi civilians, we were after all outsiders in their nation, and also I feel betrayal on the forces by our political masters. The British Army I joined put a big focus on hearts and minds and had acted professionally in more recent conflict prior to Iraq; however the quagmire of Iraq (and the way a certain few UK troops behaved during the conflict) has damaged that image greatly, I do not think this is reflective of the Armed Forces as a whole.
My time in Iraq during the year of 2004 was the best and worst time of my life. I met some of the best friends I will ever have. However, the leadership was concerned primarily with their own agenda of promotion. The missions were unnecessarily and consistently dangerous hardly ever having the lives and moral health of the soldiers and marines as their priority. I live in dream called life, where nothing good seems real or sustainable. I live in a nightmare of Iraq and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that never runs out of fuel. I also learned that creating community and healing holistically is the best way to transition from war. The military is not addressing the suicide rate of its active duty because they refuse to approach mental health as a priority when returning. It is treated like a stigma and the soldier or marine is treated as damaged goods.
I am proud of the work we did helping the local populace and the stability we provided, but I don’t feel we did anything that will have a lasting impact. I would love to be proven wrong though. If Iraq and Afghanistan survive with some democratic functionality, it could have a huge beneficial impact on history. It was grueling and a relentless deployment, but it was an experience I will never forget, but at times wish I could. We did some good and dealt with the terrible. I am not down-trodden or overly prideful. I did what I was ordered to do and served my country, but I hope my children do not. I hope my children enjoy their freedom and do right by themselves and their family. Ground-force occupations are a dated and absurd strategy to use in today’s era of warfare. Big Army is as dated of a strategy as colonial warfare was with standing lines. Politicians like to take pictures with us, but very few actually care about anything but enhancing their talking points. A soldier at the very least deserves to be spoken to, not used as an idle prop or in some display of North Korean-like parade propaganda.
I learned that I am not willing to just go along with thing because “it’s my job”. That position, often repeated, is a contender for the biggest cop-out statement in history. The war made me political and made me realize that imperialism is not a thing which used to happen; it did not end when pith helmets went out of vogue.
I feel like I was able to witness first hand the souring of good intentions. I was stationed at Camp Bucca, the leading internment facility in Iraq, and I got to see the constant attempts to win hearts and minds go south because of cultural rifts. I have no doubt in my mind that the intentions, at least in the lower echelons, were pure; we were really trying to help these people, to educate them, to feed their families, to provide health care. But our success had minimal impact. On the whole, they may be a little bit better off for our efforts, but it wasn’t worth the cost in lives or coffers.
Our mission was to train the Iraqi Police officers in Baghdad and Sadr City. They loved seeing us every day, it meant they were getting training and equipment that they severely needed. Even more importantly, however, were the civilian Iraqi people with whom we interacted daily. You could see in their eyes how grateful they were for us being there. Whether we accomplished it or not can be debated, but these civilians were given hope for a better life by us being there. I learned the mainstream media was quick to point out any mishaps, injured/killed soldiers and civilian casualties. They were much more reluctant to post the positives such as when my unit helped secure polling places in Baghdad during the elections of January 2005. The stories about the Iraqi people taking democracy into their own hands were able to be found but they were generally buried beneath stories of a surprisingly few insurgent attacks on the polling places.
After returning from Iraq and separating from active duty service, I learned that it isn’t easy to make the transition to civilian life. I didn’t want to go to the VA, and I didn’t want to talk about the things I’d experienced, and it took a long time to get over my post-traumatic stress. I heard someone say that there is a boot camp to break you down and submit to a life of orders, but no “reverse boot camp” to build you back up and give you the confidence to move forward after your service has ended. Some may find it easy, but most combat vets need more support.
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