I’ve read a lot of things you’ve written recently. You wrote for a progressive journal called [Common] Dreams or something. I’ve read [Rolling Stone’s] Tim Dickinson’s comments from you in 2005 when your organization wasn’t getting as much press, or so it seems. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective because you seem like more of a progressive dude, but you still seem to frown upon the partisanship because you think it’s left the troops in the dirt because it’s either the Sheehan response of “Bring them home now,” which is sort of an emotive thing. Or it’s “Stay the course,” and it’s sort of a blind way. I really wanted to ask you, since this is a very different war – as your remarked to the [Times’ Bob] Herbert the other day – since it’s not a draft war, is the troops’ voice any more important than it was? In a draft war, it would seem that the troops’ voice would be more important, but if you are essentially an employee, aren’t you – ?
I would say it’s more important now because there’s such an overall lack of understanding. You have a very limited amount of subject expertise. You’ve got less than one percent of the overall population that’s served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In World War II, it was about 12 percent. So the point that I was trying to make to Herbert is that it is not only very right but their obligation to educate people about every element in this war because so few people have been there. If you talk to one guy who has been to Antartica, he is probably the authority on Antartica until you meet someone else who has been there. And I think that that’s a critical level of understanding that has affected everything: from our understanding of the media coverage to our understanding of the Middle East to what veterans face at Walter Reed. There’s a total disconnect. We might as well be from Mars because there are so few of us. Most people have no contact with us. I think that that’s a unique element of this war.
I spoke to a guy at a [war] protest back in January in Washington, and I think that he’s a part of a veterans’ group that’s against the war, and he was saying (and you’ve served since ’98) that there are a number of gag orders on troops to even prevent them from telling their families that there was preparation for war before Iraq broke out.
Yeah, but that’s operational security. You’re not supposed to tell people when you’re going, where you’re going, how you’re going. That’s standard. It’s not necessarily a conspiracy or something, or some kind of a violation. Once you’re getting ready to go and you’re on active duty, you have to maintain what they call operational security. You’re not supposed to tell folks what you’re doing, how you’re doing it because it exposes vulnerabilities and in theory could be picked up by the enemy or anyone else who would do you harm. So it’s the same thing as when Geraldo got thrown off the battlefield for going on Fox News, saying “Well the third [infantry division] is going to go through here, and the Marines are going to go through here.” It’s a very dynamic media environment.
I heard you complaining about that in your book in saying that he’s kind of a clown, which I do have to agree with. If it isn’t a “leave now,” given that most of the Iraqis from what I can ever find out do want us gone, isn’t there a certain arrogance in even wanting to stay there at all?
Yeah, but I think, to be honest, the problem is that we look through it with a very simplistic lens. Iraq is essentially (and this is oversimplifying, too) three separate places. The Kurdish region in the North, they love Americans. There’s no two buts about it, no ifs, ands, or buts about that. The Kurdish love the Americans. They consider themselves better off. They’ll probably end up with an independent Kurdistan. Then you got Baghdad and the southern area thats is Shi’a dominated where you’ve got sectarian violence, and you’ve got criminal elements and you’ve got this kind of mix of all different types of bad crap going on. And then you’ve got the west, the Anbar province, which is more of a fight against Al Qaeda. So there’s another Iraqi saying, and I think it’s in a book “All the fingers on your hand are not the same.” It’s not to say, “Well, Iraqis hate us.” Well, that’s like saying, “Americans hate George Bush.” Some do, but not all of them. And I think it would be disingenious to assume that there’s any kind of unanimity, and that there’s any monolithic group. It’s much more complex than I think people understand. You say, “Can we leave?” If I had to predict, I’d say we’ll probably have forces in the western area, where they’re fighting Al Qaeda, for a while. I think that if we start to pull out, it’ll come from the Kurdish regions first. Iraq has been cobbled together to start with. It’s not a clearly defined country, so I kind of ask people to just look a little deeper and understand that, when you draw it down, you have to understand how do you do it. So when you say, “We’re pulling out,” what does that mean? Does that mean we’re pulling out now, or does that mean we’re pulling out over the course of five years? Are we pulling out of the north? This goes back to that lack of military understanding. Even the candidates, a lot of the candidates, don’t understand the military. They don’t understand the difference between a brigade and a battalion.
The Democratic debate last week really really showed that, on the Democratic side especially, I think they’re really lacking in military experience and understanding. If you’re going to be commander-in-chief, you have to be learned up on that stuff.
What would a “mission complete” status in Iraq look like to you, or to the average, as you would put it, “grunt on the ground”?
I don’t think there is a clear mission statement that everyone would agree with. I think that’s part of the problem is that Bush has failed to articulate what is our mission clearly. It has changed so many times. First, it was “the weapons of mass destruction.” Then, it was, “Kill Saddam.” Then, it was, “Create a constitution.” Then, it was “Get an election.” Now, it’s, “Have the Iraqis stand up.” If you ask 25 troops, “What are we doing over there? What’s our mission?” you’d probably get five or six different answers. And I think that’s President Bush’s fault, that he hasn’t laid out for us clearly “What are we supposed to do? What does it look like when we’re done?” If people think it’s going to look like New Jersey, they’re going to be sorrily mistaken. It’s never going to look like what we view as an American democracy should look like.
You watched the debate. What do you think of a guy like [former Alaskan Democratic Senator Mike] Gravel’s statement that we were defeated the moment we set foot in there?
I think he’s wrong. I think that’s a really over-simplistic understanding, too. That’s his perspective, but I don’t think it’s shared by anybody within the military. You could have said at the same time that we had won in 2003 when I got there and that was it; we should have pulled out and gone home. You can create your own benchmarks. You can create your own turning points. But ultimately what we need to be thinking about is what’s best for America, what is the best for our national security. I know we talk a lot about the Iraqis – and I’m sensitive to that, too – but, ultimately, we’ve got to face how does this affect America’s interests and what is in the interest of our national defense and our country.
Tim Dickinson’s blog had a quote from you in which you derided the current anti-war movement, and Dickinson [quotes you] for a number of reasons. A lot of them have their own leftist causes riding on it, which they just want to interject, and they kind of want to shame the right. I think you compared it to a very old automobile, that looking through the lense of Vietnam, at a conflict that’s essentially different. If the actual reasons – and I know that people tend to get hung up on this too much – if those original reasons are defunct (I think you tend to connect it mostly with weapons of mass destruction and you were kind of upset that they weren’t there for very, very good reasons), how can you ask a troop to move an inch or even pick up a gun if there is no criteria? Sure, you can point to a failure in leadership.
The criteria has changed. There was no weapons of mass destruction, but we have created a mess, and the question is, “Do we have any responsibility to the Iraqi people? Do we have any responsibility whatsoever to the region? Do we have any responsibility to America’s interests there or globally?” I’m not saying that if we pull out, they’re going to follow us home. I don’t necessarily agree with that. But there is a percentage of people in Iraq that want to kill Americans, . . .
. . . and will continue to want to kill Americans. That’s small. We don’t know what percentage. It’s not the percentage President Bush thinks, but if people think that if we pull out tomorrow everything’s going to be OK over there, they’re smoking the funny stuff. And that’s the fallacy that is perpetuated at times by the anti-war left. It irritates me. Again, I’m generalizing here. But if they believe that the Iraqis want us out, the Iraqis are going to be better off, let’s face the reality that the Iraqis are screwed either way. It’s a false argument to say, “If we pull out, they’re going to be better off.” That’s really simplistic. They’re probably screwed if we stay, and they’re probably screwed if we leave.
You said there’s no “silver bullet.” Those were your words about it. I saw a really good documentary last week, and they were talking about how the Elections actually polarized the situation there because the Sunnis weren’t even willing to vote because they thought it would ruin their ability to complain about the occupation in the first place because they would give legitimacy to what they saw as a puppet government.
It seems like every single step, even when you can hold up something shiny – I think you call it the “soft power” of giving off the American way – those efforts, as far as I can tell, have actually led to further destability or instability in Iraq.
Well, sure, if you could go back in time, you’d know it was a mistake, but the reality is we can’t. So how do you mitigate the overflow now? How do you limit the damage now? Let’s take a very simple example of the Iraqi military. If we were to pull everybody out tomorrow, 175,000 troops tomorrow, say we could wave a magic wand and do that, the Iraqi military has no helicopters, they have no trucks, they have no logistical assets. You’ll have Iraqi units running out of bullets, getting killed, hanging in the wind; that’s the reality.
To what extent is the violence going on there, though, really just an attempt to demonstrate to the American people, as Bush has suggested, that we should lose, if you will? Or, whatever the hell he thinks winning is.
Wait, say that again? To what extent are we causing the violence? Is that what you mean?
Nonononono. That’s what people get mixed up on, in my opinion. The death toll’s actually quite substantial if you count the indirect cause . . .
. . . but what are we gonna do?
As you say. To what extent do you think the violence would decrease if a lot of these demonstrated acts or these suicide attacks or whatever are really just statements against the American population? I know there’s a civil war going on, and I’m aware that that would happen anyway, but, at least from my perspective, my calculation is that if those attacks decrease, sure, the civil war’s there, but those people, especially the Anbar province, they hate us no matter what. It’s kind of like asking 2 Live Crew to police at a Klan meeting. It just makes no sense.
Interesting analogy. I think that it’s a different fight in different parts of the country. I think part of the problem is that people have fallen into Bush’s oversimplification of the whole thing, black/white, easy/hard, in/out.
Or red and blue.
It’s not all or nothing. And, for example, we could remove Marine Corps front line units and replace them with State Department assets, you could bring in a humanitarian group. There are a lot of different ways to tackle this problem, and, ultimately, what we need to challenge President Bush on is not whether or not to fight terrorists, because there are terrorists, or whatever you want to call them, there are enemies of the United States that are out there, I think. Even if in small numbers, they do exist. The question is how best do you fight them, and is it with a bullet and a bomb or is it with creating jobs and establishing security or is it getting the hell out. What is the best way to deal with our enemies, and I think that is the problem for our generation. You always hear Iraq is the biggest fight of our generation. Fixing things after Iraq for America and the region, that’s going to be the fight of our generation. How do we repair our credibility? How do we repair our military? How do we repair our international relationships? That’s the big fight. So, will suicide bombings go down if we leave? Yeah. They might. Sure, they might shift somewhere else. They might increase because Iran might roll in, and start making a play for power against the Sunnis. The Turks might come in, and smash the Kurds. There’s a lot of different scenarios that could unravel. Would attacks decrease if we pulled out?
That’s my question.
Attacks on Americans would. Sure. But, again, it gets to the point where I think we gotta start thinking about, “Are we there for Iraqi interests or are we there for American interests?”
A lot of the crap I hear from people – who, by the way, are not soldiers, who, I’m sure are far more naïve – who just full-fledged support this war because of all of the ideological reasons we were baited with; first of all, they don’t really know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite. They think that we’ve found weapons of mass destruction, which is comically and insanely false. It seems that the disconnect between the average soldier on the ground and, I’ll acknowledge this, the average person here, and even weirder, the person who wants to give the most funding and the most weapons to troops on the ground, it’s a totally different ballgame. You said there are five to six reasons if I were to ask 25 soldiers why they’re there (and they want to be there, a lot of them), what do you think those five to six reasons would be?
You’d hear people say we’re here to respond to 9/11. You’ll hear we’re here to protect the Iraqi people. You’ll hear we’re here for the oil. You’ll hear we’re here because George Bush is pissed off that Saddam tried to kill his daddy. We could go on. People would say we need a strategic foothold to deal with Iran. People might say we’re there for Israel. I think that those are just a couple of different reasons you might hear.
Do you think it’s ethical to invade another country to take oil?
Is that the assumption, that we’re definitely there to take oil?
No, I was asking if it would be. I mean, if Bush said, “Yeah . . .
The issue is not so much intent so much as it is transparency, to me. If he said to the American people, “We’re going to Iraq because we need oil,” and the American people bought off on it, I think it’s legitimate. People say there’s no need to use military force. Well, what if we wanted to stop what’s happening in Darfur, would that be legitimate? I think it would. Maybe people would say, “No, that’s no in America’s interest,” or “No, we have no business doing that.” It’s kind of on a case-by-case basis, I think, but ultimately, the big issue is transparency. Was the administration honest about their intention? Were they honest about their preparedness? Were they competent once they decided to do it? And then along the way were they honest? When you’ve got all these cases, like, last week, Jessica Lynch, Brad Tillman. That shows a pattern that lacks transparency, and then people lose trust in the government, and that’s why nobody likes George Bush. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if they said we were going for oil, and everybody bought off on it, then you could say it’s legitimate, but that’s not why they said we were going.
Do you see Iraqi and Afghani Veterans of America as a group that advocates for policy with the Veterans Affairs Administration [V.A.] or with the Department of Defense [D.O.D.]?
Both. We have actually, to use an example, had people testify before the Armed Services Committee, and we have had people testify before the VA Committee. Those are the two tracks that we work on most often. For example, if we are going to try to get body armor for our people on the ground, that’s an Armed Services/D.O.D. function. Walter Reed was a D.O.D. function. Although it was health care, it comes under the scope of the Department of Defense, dealing with Rumsfeld’s incompetence department. Dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is largely a V.A. issue, along with the V.A. hospitals around the country. Suicide, that’s going to be a V.A. issue, so they’re really going to be intertwined.
I always get the sense that you’re upset with the administration, and you’re running what is ostensibly – and I think what is essentially – an non-partisan group to collect stories and perspectives and communicate those to the powers that be. But I can’t really figure out what your bent is on the war itself. You said you can’t really identify a mission complete status, but I think that’s what the frustrating point is. I think people keep bringing up irrelevent points, like, oh, the weapons of mass destruction weren’t there, and they keep bitching about them, because there’s simply no replacement for it, and that’s the bottom line for me in a lot of ways. A lot of the questions I ask of people in uniform, some of them are as wacky as to say it’s a war against Islam, which I really think is just baiting the psychos.
Right. It’s a tough situation. But every major intelligence organization has issued a report in the past week saying that if we pre-emptively yanked out, you’d have genocide and anarchy, which is a realistic after-effect of pulling out prematurely. It doesn’t say that’s why we need to stay, but you’ve got to be honest again and realistic and try to be accurate in your projections. If people are OK with genocide, and that, whether we agree with George Bush or not, we started it as a country, it’s ultimately going to be the reflection our entire nation for generations. If people are OK with that, OK. But if 20 years from now, the Sunnis are slaughtered, it’s going to be tough for us to go back and say, well, George Bush went in for the wrong reasons, so we just have to get the hell out. Pulling the knife out of the wound doesn’t necessarily make it stop bleeding, you know? And I think that’s the enormity of this problem that Bush has created. He’s screwed us in an epic way.
Because it’s the definition of a quagmire now. And I don’t have all the answers, but I think that the thing that we try to encourage and what you’ll hear from veterans, if they’re thoughtful about it, is that it’s complicated, and it’s more complicated than the debate in Washington, and it’s more complicated than the average debate between those guys on Hannity & Colmes.
No, it’s not like that. I don’t know. I don’t get the sense that Sheehan is vindictive. Obviously, her son went over there as a volunteer. The whole scene has kind of changed. In a draft war, you can kind of claim that there’s something together with it. You could say that perhaps even – perhaps this will sound foul to you – aren’t the troops kind of the thumb of the masses, as it were? I don’t like all of these people who are going to scream at veterans when they get home that they are “baby killers.” It’s just fucking stupid.
We’re the instruments of policy. If the American public are unhappy about this war, the only people they have to blame are their leadership themselves. You can’t blame the soldiers for executing the policy that is ultimately determined by the elected officials and the American electorate. People can say, “Well, I protested. I didn’t believe in this war,” but, you know what? As a government, we didn’t, and your elected officials probably voted for it, and that’s a reality, however it works. Unless you want to refigure the entire system, you’ve got to work within it to try to figure out how to make change, and I think the election this past year was a good example of how things can kind of rock back in the other direction. And it’s good to see Iraq vets elected. There’s a guy, Pat Murphy, from Pennsylvania who got elected, who was in the 82nd Airborne. That’s a great person to have in Washington. There are others who served, too, who lost, but the only alternative is not necessarily being Code Pink and sitting on Nancy Pelosi’s lawn.
You think a three-year pullout is probably the most realistic thing, right?
A three-year pullout?
Yeah. You said in three years, seeing a pullout then would be the most realistic thing.
Yeah, I think we’re going to see a pullout. When I say pullout, the troop numbers will decrease. I think in 5-10 years from now, we’ll still have troops in Iraq. I don’t know how many. I think it’ll probably be a much smaller number, but if there were 25,000 or 50,000 there in five years, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m not so sure that it’s a bad thing, either.
Are we going to have to kill off all of those dedicated to absolute lawlessness and against Iraqi sovereignty? Or are we going to have to wait for them to calm down, or are we going to have to educate their children in a more Western-like school to make them even – ?
Ultimately, what we have to do is figure out how to enable them. They’ve got to handle it themselves. The most powerful person and the biggest grassroots leader in Iraq right now is Moqtada Al-Sadr, so the question is: How do you develop a Moqtada Al-Sadr who likes us, and who isn’t violent, who is an agent for a positive change? Some people would argue he is. I wouldn’t, but that’s the larger question: How are you impacting the kids, and that’s why I talk about them so much in my book, because that’s the ultimate future of Iraq. It’s not a marine on a corner with a rifle or a rocket launcher. What are we doing to make those kids successful and stronger, and how do they view America and Iraq?
Moqtada al-Sadr, for as much bad press as he gets, (I remember he was once on the cover of Newsweek as “The Most Dangerous Man In Iraq”), other than the threat he imposes to American troops there now, and obviously it isn’t our goal to keep them there indefinitely (or maybe it is), why is it that he is a threat to Iraqi stability as a whole?
Because the Badr Brigade is killing people. Because he’s commanding Shi’a death squads that are killing Sunnis all over Iraq.
Is it suicide bombings? Is it bombings?
Yeah! It’s guys walking in and putting bullets in the back of peoples’ heads. That’s happening. That’s indisputable. The Badr Brigade has infiltrated almost every Iraqi agency. They’ve claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, the battle in Fallujah. Moqtada Al-Sadr has been pretty candid about his intentions and his allegiance at times to Iran as well, so I don’t think it’s just that he’s a guy we disagree with. He’s also killing a lot of Iraqis. He may think it’s justified in the end, but there are plenty of Iraqis, especially Sunnis, who don’t at all support Moqtada al-Sadr or his Badr Brigade or any of the other Shi’a militias that have developed.
What is the economic reason for the divide? I know there are all sorts of complex theological reasons and very old fights going back a long way. In fact, it kind of seems like that was the reason that Saddam was able to “unite” these people because he was so brutal.
Sure, they were united against him.
They were. I don’t know how far you got in my book, but one of my Iraqi interpreters at some point says, “We were all united in our hatred for Saddam and now you’ve killed Saddam, and many of us are united in our hatred for you.” So it’s a very fragmented society, and some would argue it’s going to inevitably fragment into pieces, and maybe what we’re trying to do is impossible, so there is so many years of history and animosity and division within that country that it’s going to take a long time to even try to cobble something together. So I don’t know if a federal government as we know it is the most viable model. I wouldn’t put money on it. If I had money, I’d say, we’re probably going to see something along the lines of what Joe Biden and Les Gelb have proposed: where we have a fragmented state. That’s what happened in Bosnia. That’s what we have moved towards. If I had to put money on something, I’d say that’s probably more what it looks like in 50 years than what it looks like now.
Is there conversation, at least on the right, about creating that fragmented Iraq, that series of provinces that could coexist more peacefully?
Sure! I think you hear it at a lot of levels. The people who are willing to accurately assess the situation and not put their political party ahead of the country and our interests, you get a lot of honest people. I think most people would agree that Iraq is already functioning military as three different areas. So a lot of people in the military would agree that that’s kind of where we are already. It’s not official, and the political system hasn’t caught up with that, but with the massive numbers of refugees – you’ve got over two million people who’ve left Iraq entirely.
What you’ve got left is kind of a three state situation now, anyway.
There are so many refugees. Do you think that, to the extent that we are trying to serve the Iraqi people, what can we even do for them? Are we working with Syria?
We could let some of them in here. That’s one of the big things that I think is a travesty, that we’ve only let a few thousand here. There are plenty of people who worked with us and bought into our plan who are now left hanging.
A bunch of them were obviously the Ba’athists, though, and we’re not going to let those people in.
No, not all of them were Ba’athists. My interpreter was a Shi’a who spoke five languages, and he’s still stuck there. There’s a lot of different types of people. You’ve got doctors and other types of people who are afraid to continue to work.
Do you think a draft would be a good move?
Totally depends on how you do it. If it’s something where you have other options where people can be teachers or work in the Peace Corp. or other types of stuff, it’s fair. I think we can have one of two things: we can either be a superpower, or we can have an all-volunteer military. I think it’s unsustainable to think we can have both.
I totally agree with you. I asked that because of your own reasoning for why you said you went in, because you described it as a paradox unto itself. You went to this high falooting liberal arts college, and you got this degree, and you went in – hell, I think as most people did – thinking this is probably a really bad move. You called it Bush laying his cards down. It’s like an Onion headline I saw that said “Nation’s Privileged Children Lining Up For The Military.” It’s funny to see that you actually saw that as your reasoning.
It was part of it. It was definitely not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons. And I felt like, quite honestly, that if I didn’t serve in the military or the Peace Corp. or Americorp or somewhere else that I was freeloading.
What do you think the difference is, if there is one, between patriotism and nationalism?
That’s a good question. That’s a good question. I really haven’t thought about it.
That’s globalization for you. It really becomes a thin line.
What do you think?
Nationalism is when you think that the lives of your citizens at home (I’m only talking about citizens, not when you’re not fighting) are more important, one by one, than the lives of just any given person overseas. That is their lives are more special. I think that patriotism is within a realm of sovereignty working for the benefit of the people within that sovereign nation. That’s what I believe in the realm of globalization.
That’s interesting. I think the two are used interchangably often in dialogue and in the media especially. I think that nationalism has a more negative connotation than patriotism.
As far as I can see, a lot of troops who are over there, if they’re just over there to protect their buddies and they’re not stuck in it financially, if we’re not seen as winning and we try to go home, if we don’t have a good result to bring back with us, they’re not going to fund the medical care, and it will be just like Vietnam, and it will be the same thing. The strong left and the people who just want to see the Bush administration shamed, they’re just going to drag the troops through the mud because they went along with it.
I’ve heard a lot of, “This is what you signed up for. I don’t feel bad for you guys.” If you want to know something interesting, and this is really I think the nasty side of the far left that doesn’t do the Democratic party any good, and it is really a pretty shitty conversation, look at my Huffington Post. Go back, and look at some of the comments where people will say, “This is Bush’s war. If you don’t like it, you should quit.” It’s such a naïve understanding of what these people are doing and what it’s like to be a veteran and ot be a soldier. People like me, who joined long before 9/11, you don’t get to pick when and where you go to war.
I talked to a guy named John Hutto who was lecturing [actually, giving a speech outside of any class] at Virginia Union University, and he’s a veteran who is a communist. And there are certain channels he’s not allowed to go through because he’s a soldier, but as a soldier, you can always file a redress of grievances to your congressperson or senator, and if you think it’s a complete bum deal or it’s all shot out, you’re always welcome to do that. The political complaint is still in place for soldiers; however, they may be an instrument of the masses.
You have an obligation and a right to disobey an illegal order. You don’t have a right to disobey a stupid order. And that’s the reality of being a soldier. And to be honest, that’s how the structure works. People say, “Why don’t soldiers revolt? Why don’t they just leave?” It’s really just a shallow understanding. It also creates close to a Banana Republic. If your military says when they’re not going to war, what if they say when they are going to war, if they say, “We want to go invade Cuba right now, and, the American people, you don’t approve? Too bad. We’re doing it, anyway?” That’s the seeds for a military dictatorship.