Remembering Iraq: How The Personal Squares With The Press
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This week, as we remember the start of the war in Iraq, the media is full of reflections on what went wrong and lessons learned, the decisions that shaped the struggle and opportunities fumbled. Well, we want to hear from Iraq vets today about what you have heard this past week and how that resonates with your experience in Iraq. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Along the way, we'll also read excerpts from a series of pieces in The New York Times' Opinionator from Iraq vets like this one from Matt Gallagher:
Like many Americans, I spent much of early 2003 watching angry debates about weapons of mass destruction and yellowcake. Unlike many Americans, as a 20-year-old attending college on an Army ROTC scholarship, my future would be determined by those debates' outcomes. None of that mattered at the time. We were at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for field training, conducting night land navigation. With map and compass in hand, all I cared about was finding that damn red light - the marker for the next assigned point.
And then he goes on, a few paragraphs later: The war's end found me in another kind of swamp - the cable news circuit. I was a young, relatively clean-cut Iraq veteran living in New York, so December 2011 proved a busy time for my one sports coat. Was it worth it, they asked. What did it all mean, they demanded. I stared at the small red light of the camera and did my best to boil down multitudes of ambiguity into pithy talking points, longing for the clarity of war.
This is from Brian Van Reet. For me, Iraq exists outside of winning or losing. It shrugs off neat theories weaving nerve gas with preventive war. It hung as the dark backdrop to my 20s and the absolute purpose to a year of my life. It's not an abstraction but concrete blast barriers, dust falling all over everything, blazing sunsets, sleeplessness, the call to prayer, the smell of burnt hydraulic fluid, the warm waters of the Tigris and a corpse with gray skin and half-lidded eyes. It's the impossibility of allowing for regret; the feeling of being young, reckless, hated and trapped in a foreign land; the fear that comes with getting swept up in a wave too big to ride.
Again, we'd like to hear from the Iraq vets in our audience. What are - from what you're hearing this past week amidst all the reflections on 10 years after, what about that echoes your experience in Iraq? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Michael is on the line with us from Roanoke in Virginia.
MICHAEL: So I've heard a lot of people mentioning, of course, numbers, numbers and cost in terms of the financial burden we've had to carry and then also numbers in terms of American lives lost and, of course, Iraqi lives lost. But it's important, for me, to always find a way to link that to some sort of human experience. You know, these are people behind those numbers. And I served as a medic in the - during the invasion and have been trying to do a lot of writing about that since that time and to give pretty much stories to the names that I remember, of course, to the people that I know and then also the people that I don't know.
And I encourage people to go online, look up the numbers but also do some research on the people involved, and you find that you get through maybe a few of these and it becomes very, very difficult to sort of reconcile that, I think, with the benefit we were supposedly having gained from this. I really don't see it.
CONAN: Can you give us one story behind one number?
MICHAEL: Sure. If you'd like, I can read - recite a poem for you that I wrote.
MICHAEL: OK. It's called "Drinking Baghdad." Outside the skin, there's a temperature that curls blood at its edges, like gauze layered too thin will lift while drying. After death, bodies mark time bloomed in decay, a calendar knowing the value seconds play in reclamation. To erase silhouettes, hydrogen peroxide poured onto spills explodes cells by chemistry. In an-Najaf, I watched a man's wound flitter off his skin, knowing he'd died two days prior, before I broke his body free from concrete by dissolving dregs of catalase. This is all that remained after 10 pints of that man's blood pooled about him. Tonight, in a bar surrounded by friends, I'll drink one-third as much as he held inside, but won't tell his story.
CONAN: Michael, thank you.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Vincent, and Vincent with us from Philadelphia.
VINCENT: Good program.
CONAN: Thank you.
VINCENT: The British people are getting from their Parliament accountability. It's a three-year project, the Chilcot commission, and the results are going to be coming out shortly where they interviewed 400 government officials in the UK and the U.S. Tony Blair, prime minister, as well as Prime Minister Brown confronted, those oversight and investigative parliamentary committees for the British people and the world to see. What I ask is, are the American people going to get from their Congress the same accountability? And I don't think we'll ever be able to close this chapter until we get that accountability.
CONAN: Do you think that that's a likely prospect?
VINCENT: Well, I'm hoping with shows like yours and some of the good media people that are still out there and this report will be coming out shortly, and I can assure you it's going to have a very strong reverberation here. And I give them a great deal of credit. They spent quite a bit of money. It was a three and a half year project. That's what democracy is all about. And as some of the commentators have said - I think it was Mark Thompson at Time - we got to get Congress, when they're going to send our guys into war, to actually declare war and not do it in the way that they've been doing it, which really doesn't put them on the line for the consequences that happen. And so anyway, keep up the good work there. But if you continue doing what you're doing, I think, eventually, we should be able to get that accountability.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Jamie(ph). Jamie with us from Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
JAMIE: Hey, how are you doing? Great show. I really enjoy it.
CONAN: Thank you.
JAMIE: 2003, I went over to Iraq as commander, brought 26 dentists. I was dental commander, and we had 14 clinics in Iraq and Kuwait. And our headquarters was in the middle of the hub of Balad. And so we did as much work on the Iraqis as we could and had a lot of goodwill. My wife is a Muslim, and so I know a little Arabic, and I taught them some English. And we went from $1 a day we gave them for working to $2 a day, to a bottle of water to boots. They - I was their habibi, so they asked me to run for mayor of their small town, which I thought was quite a compliment. So these are some of the stories you may not hear.
We would go out about every three weeks to do med/reds and we would do dental, medical and vet treatment for those folks. And the women of the village would then be out in 140-degree heat cooking on outdoor ovens, making us a feast that you just wouldn't believe. So kind of interesting commentary that I thought I'd share.
CONAN: Well, Balad, of course, became one of the major U.S. bases.
JAMIE: There was about 20,000, yes sir.
CONAN: Yeah. When you went out, though, were you accompanied by people with weapons? Were you wearing armor?
JAMIE: Yeah, we were - my soldiers said, sir, you promise you'll get us home without being in a body bag. And, you know, we're dental techs, dentists, and so they had to do it on a voluntary basis. And we went to usually a school and we were accommodated by the MPs who had their, you know, their weapons front and back. We never had any incidents in the six times we've been out. But there were some caution involved, of course.
The one thing I would relate is that the last village we went to, we saw some consternation among the men. And we asked our interpreter, what was going on? And they said, well, they're very upset because you saw the women and children first. And we did not even think that that would be an issue. But in the Iraqi culture, in Muslim culture, you know, men are first. And so we promised to come back in two weeks to see all the men, and that calmed them down a bit. But it just kind of an interesting perspective on what kind of democracy we have versus another democracy in another country. You know, what is freedom and how are their culture mores.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
JAMIE: Appreciate the time. Keep up the great work.
CONAN: Thanks. Let's go next to - this is David. David on the line with us from Fort Bragg.
DAVID: Hi. This is David Von Bargen(ph). I'm an active duty solider. I've been to Iraq twice, and I just got back from Afghanistan. I think the biggest downside really of the Iraq war, aside from, of course, the numbers that you've already mentioned, is that they took our military focus away from Afghanistan, which I think was really the larger, more important fight that was going on at the time. And the lack of military focus on Afghanistan is leading to some of the real big issues that we're starting to - or continuing to see in Afghanistan today.
CONAN: Arguable that it was more important. It certainly wasn't bigger, not after Iraq started.
DAVID: Yeah, no, certainly not in the number of people that we sent. And then actually, yesterday, I heard - I think it was Tom Ricks speaking briefly. And also just removal of Saddam from Iraq destabilized the Iran-Iraq relationship, making Iran have a great deal more strategic power in that area than it had in the Arab world.
CONAN: That is undoubtedly true. It has a ally or quasi-ally in Baghdad where it used to have a - its most prominent adversary. Nevertheless, yeah, he was a brutal dictator.
DAVID: Oh, certainly, and I saw that when I was in Iraq. There were a number of people who were very happy Saddam was gone, but the instability that his removal caused, I think, we'll keep seeing ripples of that for the next 15, 20, 30 years.
CONAN: Maybe you're right about that. David, thanks very much.
DAVID: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Amy(ph) in Madison, North Carolina. I'm not a vet, but my husband served a year as a diplomatic security agent at the embassy in Baghdad. He came home in 2007 yet still responds to some of the triggers that meant danger there: people standing on a bridge or overpass as we approach, abandoned cars on the shoulder of roads, people running away from a street or an intersection. Some television shows use the siren he heard to signify incoming rockets, and he still has a fight-or-flight reaction when he hears it. He's home, safe, thankfully. But the experiences remain.
We're hearing from veterans of Iraq about how well their experiences match up with the reflections they're hearing in the media on this 10th anniversary. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Jason's(ph) with us from Austin.
JASON: Hi. How's it going?
CONAN: Not too bad.
JASON: Good. I was just calling, talking about my experiences overseas. In Iraq, I was there from - two times at the beginning of the war just after the initial invasion, and again in '04 with the taking of the city of Fallujah. But I just find that, when we were doing security and stability operations, or better known as SASO, we would drive around with, not civilians, but obviously not military personnel. They never identified who they might be or what they might be doing. But we would provide security as they handed out big bags of money in small hamlets to the local people in charge, and we never got any confirmation on that. And so that's something I've always kind of thought about and wondered what we were buying and what the money was being spent on.
CONAN: And whether it was well spent.
JASON: Yes, sir. Definitely.
CONAN: And as you look at the coverage and read what you see in the newspapers and websites, is what you're hearing resonant with your experience?
JASON: I believe so. I believe that, you know, it resonates. It does for me, personally. I can't really define that in - in strong words for you. Unfortunately, I kind of lost for that feeling. But just hearing what some of the other veterans have to say, it does kind of bring back a lot of the memories that I haven't thought about for a while. So...
CONAN: Well, not sure that's a good thing or a bad thing. But Jason...
JASON: Yes, sir.
CONAN: ...thanks very much. Appreciate it.
JASON: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to Jerry(ph). Jerry on the line with us from Fort Campbell.
JERRY: Yeah. Hi, sir. How are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
JERRY: Great show. I just wanted to talk about, you know, being that it's 10 years past. I was in Iraq during the initial invasion, course, about three weeks behind the units that entered in. And with my last tour in Iraq, that was in 2005, 2006, you know, 10 years gone, it's - for some, it seems like a long time. But for a lot of us that have been there done that, it was yesterday.
You know, I remember one of my last missions on my tour in 2005, 2006, it was a routine mounted patrol throughout one of the villages that we had set up one of our base camps in. And you know, nothing out of the norm as far as day-to-day life. It was an evening hour, and you know, we got hit with an IED which, you know, we were in armored vehicles so everybody was OK. But the actions on the contacts, we ended up returning fire to suppress any additional enemy activity and get us out of that area where we just got hit. The thing that kind of sticks to me the most is after we did our battle damage assessment of the location, we found that everything was - there was no friendly or civilian injuries of any sort and no U.S. service members were injured at the time.
The next day, my commander had come to my hooch where I was living at and informed me that a child had gotten killed, which is an unfortunate event, without a doubt. But realizing what the child was shot with was a 556, the type of weapon - our M4 machine guns or rifles.
JERRY: And I was the only one who fired any shots with that weapon system. So...
CONAN: So that was your bullet?
JERRY: It was. It was. And again, those are things that happen in combat and - but what I'm trying to get at is it just put a lot of things in perspective. I think it opened up a clarity as to what exactly are we doing here, and I really never finalized that answer. But you know, it was a difficult moment to just take that in, being that was our last patrol. We were going to be redeploying in about two weeks time. That was our last patrol for that reason.
And you know, after 10 years of being in, you know, in Iraq and the anniversary and everything of that nature, a lot of soldiers that have walked away from those fights, whether it's 10 years or 20 years from now, you know, they're not going to leave that piece of the battlefield that may affect them the most. I just want to let a lot of listeners know that even though it happened whether 10 years ago, five years ago or 20 years, and now we look back, it's still something that's unfortunately, a lot of us have had - remember like it was yesterday.
CONAN: Jerry, thank you for that, and I hope that gets easier.
JERRY: Well, you know, sir, over time it does. It's just - does one thing there, it's definitely something that takes time and definitely something that, you know, you kind of keep in the back of your mind. That's the unfortunate part of it.
CONAN: Stay strong. Thanks very much.
JERRY: All right, sir. Thank you.
CONAN: Jerry calling us out from Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Thanks to all of the vets who called and wrote us. We're sorry we couldn't get to your contributions on the 10-year anniversary. We did get this by email: Please list the poem by the man who called in, Michael, I think his name was. Haunting. Check our transcripts. It goes online at about, oh, 6:30 in the afternoon. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.