What I Saw In Iraq Isn’t Captured In the ‘Debate’ Back Home

U.S. soldiers prepare to participate in a training mission with Iraqi Army soldier, right, outside Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Islamic State extremists unleashed a wave of suicide attacks targeting the Ir... U.S. soldiers prepare to participate in a training mission with Iraqi Army soldier, right, outside Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Islamic State extremists unleashed a wave of suicide attacks targeting the Iraqi army in western Anbar province, killing at least 17 troops in a major blow to government efforts to dislodge the militants from the sprawling Sunni heartland, an Iraqi military spokesman said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) MORE LESS
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The reaction to the takeover of Ramadi by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has ranged from panicked to defensive and furious to painful, demonstrating just how sensitive the memory of the Iraq war still is for Americans. Twelve years later, politicians and pundits still use the war that would alter the fate of individuals and nations alike to prove they were right or that someone else was wrong.

I am part of the generation that came of age in the wake of September 11 and during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those events changed our lives in so many ways. My friends and I were young adults who were suddenly forced to look at the world through a politically charged, terror threat color-coded lens. Out of the rubble in downtown Manhattan we rose up together and knew that we had to do something.

And something we did. Some of us signed up to go to war, or joined the government, or traveled to the Middle East to understand the region and its people. Still others stayed at home hoping to shut out a world that seemed too crazy to understand, believing the best way to deal with this new reality was to close our borders and prevent it from touching us. Our national consciousness changed overnight, especially for American Muslims; our identities were shaken and we wanted to be involved in writing this new chapter of our country’s story as we struggled to write our own.

I was one of those who went to the Middle East. An Egyptian-American who spent her childhood in Egypt, I felt I needed to go back to the region to understand what was happening. I spoke Arabic and thought I might be able to contribute in some way once I got there. I landed in Camp Doha in Kuwait on March 25, 2003, 21 years old and eager to make a difference. A man with a clipboard came up to me soon after I landed. “Jasmine El-Gamal?” “Yes,” I answered. “You’re with the 82nd Airborne Division. Come on, I’ll take you.”

I remember staring at him thinking, what’s the 82nd Airborne Division? But I went with him anyway and that is how I ended up, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, driving into Iraq in a Humvee with a four-man team that would become my family. I sat behind the driver’s seat, hair chopped off to make me look “tough”—a toughness belied by my 100-pound, 5′ 2” frame—and a gas mask strapped around my hip, entering into a war that I could not even begin to understand.

For the first month or two of the war, I was the translator for a unit in the 82nd Airborne. We ate together and slept together; showered with wet wipes together and smoked Marlboro Reds together under the blistering desert sun. These guys would become my protectors and I was their voice; together we tried to save lives and “win hearts and minds.”

I translated during nighttime raids and morning searches for the remnants of Saddam’s soldiers. I facilitated town hall discussions where we listened to the grievances of the Iraqis we now lived among, as we tried to help rebuild their city. I became very close in particular with one of the soldiers, an Army Colonel who was a father figure to me as we navigated those scary and uncertain first few weeks, smoking cigarettes into the night as we tried to make sense of the world around us.

I think today about the men and women I served with and try to imagine how they must feel listening to reporters and politicians debate whether we should have ever gone into Iraq, if we should be there now, and just how “symbolic” the fall of Ramadi may or may not be. With the rise of ISIS and its advances in Iraq we are again bombarded with images of Iraqi cities on television, their names once unknown to us but now completely familiar—Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit. Those images must haunt those who lost friends and teammates there during terrifying gun battles with insurgents, who had to hear the sudden, sickening explosion of an IED and witness the resulting carnage.

Throughout my career I have worked closely with military officers who have commanded hundreds of men and women in Iraq and elsewhere. These incredible individuals, now dear friends of mine, have shared stories of pulling mangled bodies of young soldiers from a burning Humvee or having to call a mother to tell her that she would not be seeing her son or daughter again. I do not claim to understand what that does to a person but I do understand the frustration with having to listen to an endless game of “gotcha!” every two years in the run-up to a midterm or general election. This extreme politicization of the war may be frustrating for ordinary Americans who have not been there, but it can be traumatic for those who actually lived it on the ground.

On Memorial Day, we stood together to honor the memory of those who gave their lives for our country, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. The solemn ceremonies and heartwarming testimonies I heard made me wish that we could finally stop using the Iraq war as a political tool to be wielded in polarizing exchanges between politicians and in the media. After September 11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the rise of ISIS and the risk of radicalization among the world’s most vulnerable youth, our country is in need of real leadership in order to move forward. We need to heal.

I am not saying that we should avoid talking about Iraq or even the decision to go to war. But how we talk about it matters; it is one thing to discuss how to deal with the current situation and quite another to try to find someone to blame for it. It is incumbent on us as Americans to learn the lessons of the Iraq war and demand that our politicians put in place processes to prevent this kind of knee-jerk reaction to an attack on American soil from happening again. Presidential candidates would do well to admit that some people made mistakes—some were outright deceitful—but rather than simply try to place blame I would like to hear their ideas on how to forge a less divisive path for our country’s future. I want to hear how this round of presidential candidates will ensure that the appropriate checks and balances continue to be bolstered so that no one can (mis)lead us into another war. The Americans and Iraqis I worked with—and the people of both nations—deserve better than simply pointing fingers.

Jasmine El-Gamal is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a civil servant in the Department of Defense. She served as a translator for the 82nd Airborne Division in Southern Iraq in 2003. Views expressed are her own.

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  1. Beautifully written article. The political debate about who to blame or armchair quarterbacking the decision-making process should only inform our perspective of history and how to avoid any of those same mistakes in the future. Like it or not, the country as a whole was in a fugue that allowed the vast majority of our country to support the invasion of Iraq, which is historical fact. How we move forward, or if we should move forward in the Middle East, is the decision we need to make now. Like it or not, the US has been part of the cycle and history of Middle Eastern violence, and the cycle will keep spinning round.

  2. Debating the rights or wrongs of the war happens to be probably the most important thing about it, primarily because we either do it again because it represented sound policy or realize that it should not have been done. Personally, the war was both a big mistake brought on by perfidy and also the post-war a poorly run enterprise once it was undertaken (which is what you would expect from deceivers and con artists). Powerful forces in this country believe otherwise and want to repeat the policy. Yes, no doubt it is very upsetting to those who trusted leadership and sacrificed for the cause of the war to hear this debate, but there can be no more important question than making sure such sacrifice is warranted. The only thing that will prevent a horrible repeat of such bad policy is that debate.

  3. War has always been political. When Lincoln was a member of the House of Representatives he requested that Democratic President Polk provide evidence to support his assertion that Mexico had invaded US territory. Lincoln was making a constitutional argument, “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.” Lincoln’s fellow Whigs turned on him. When a reporter asked Justin Butterfield, a prominent Whig politician from Chicago, if he would condemn the Mexican War as he had denounced the War of 1812, Butterfield replied “No Indeed! I opposed one war and it ruined me. From now on I’m for war, pestilence and famine.”

    I’m currently reading Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge.” Nixon and Reagan shamelessly politicized the Vietnam war. I saw Stan McCrystal on The Daily Show last night and I want to read his new book.

    The blame game is a waste of time but it would definitely be a worthy effort to draw a timeline of US involvement in the Middle East and North Africa going back 20 years and plot the decision points. Many people have pointed out that question should not be “knowing what you know now, would you do it again” but rather “what have you learned?”

  4. Avatar for henk henk says:

    Its not a matter of who to blame its a matter of understanding what went wrong and trying ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately in framing it as a blame game the writer is falling into the same media trap that lead us into the war in the first place. Look to the media, don’t take what they are saying at face value. Question, research and make your own choices. In the lead up to the war “some people” were more than “outright deceitful” they lied and they lied with an agenda. That agenda had nothing to do with winning hearts and minds and had everything to do with starting a War. We were LIED TO. And people, thousands upon thousands of people, died for it. Its not called blaming, its called accountability. The best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen again is to hold those who LIED us into war, accountable for their actions, that will deter others from doing the same. Was Nuremberg about placing blame? No, it was about holding those who did horrible things accountable. It worked quite well until some of those “deceitful” folks revived some of the techniques prosecuted at Nuremberg and re-branded them Enhanced interrogation methods.
    Yes we are polarized and there is one side causing the bulk of it. Again its not a blame game, its called dealing with reality. As long as we refuse to do that, those down right deceitful types will keep doing as they please and young men and women will continue to die.

  5. “Twelve years later, politicians and pundits still use the war…”
    12 years? We did not leave Iraq until 2011. That was FOUR years ago (and we still have personnel there.)
    It STARTED 12 years ago.

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