Veterans of the Iraq War Discuss the Impact Three Years Later
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MARGARET WARNER: Three years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, how do the men and women who fought there feel about the war now?
Marine Corps Captain Jodie Sweezey was a logistics officer in a civil affairs unit in Iraq. She’s now an historian at a congressionally chartered commission studying the role of the Reserves and National Guard and has volunteered to return to Iraq this summer.
Sergeant Kelly Dougherty was in the Colorado Army National Guard, serving as a military policewoman in Iraq. She’s now co-founder and southwest coordinator of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Army Captain Jeremy Broussard served with an artillery unit in Iraq. He’s now at Howard University Law School. He’s also a senior adviser to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America political action committee, a nonpartisan group trying to elect war veterans to Congress.
Also on the board of that group is Marine Corps Captain Nathaniel Fick. He served as a platoon commander in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He’s now pursuing two master’s degrees at Harvard University.
Welcome to you all.
Captain Sweezey, three years now, during this week, it’s marking the three-year anniversary of the war, do you feel the war was worth it?
CAPT. JODIE SWEEZEY, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve: Yes, I do. I still believe that we needed to go into Iraq. During my tour there doing civil affairs, I saw a lot of positive things.
If you understand the Iraqi culture and you understand the history of the Iraqi people, you can’t possibly expect that a change like this and rebuilding a country so destroyed by Saddam is going to be done overnight. And I think that, in the end, it will be better for the Iraqi people.
MARGARET WARNER: And Sergeant Dougherty, you are, I know, against the war. Do you believe it wasn’t worth fighting in the first place?
FORMER SGT. KELLY DOUGHERTY, Army National Guard: Overall, I do not think it was worth it. When I was in Iraq, the majority of the rebuilding I saw being done was being done on military bases, while meanwhile the average Iraqi people remained with devastated communities, unemployment, lack of basic utilities, electricity, fuel, clean water, medical care.
And what we’re seeing right now is a country completely plunged into civil war, or teetering on the brink of a civil war, and the United States military presence hasn’t been able to prevent violence or secure the nation at all. We’re just plunging it further and further into more death and destruction.
MARGARET WARNER: Captain Fick, what’s your view of this?
CAPT. NATHANIEL FICK, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve: If I say yes, that denies the reality that the outcome is still very much in doubt. But to say no is to dishonor the sacrifices of so many people, and as a Marine I simply can’t do that.
Personally, it was worth it for me, and it was worth it because I had the chance, as a citizen, to go forward with my fellow citizens and do something that involved us in the role of our nation in the world. It made us more vested citizens.
Professionally, strategically, was it worth it for the United States? Increasingly, it’s looking like, no, it wasn’t.
MARGARET WARNER: And what’s your view on this question, Captain Broussard?
CAPT. JEREMY BROUSSARD, U.S. Army Reserve: I guess it would depend on what our objective was in the war. If you want to say, first, our objective was to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction posed by Saddam Hussein, then that mission was accomplished. If you want to say our objective was to remove a tyrant — that’s what our 2003 objective was — then it was accomplished.
The problem becomes is that we have a shifting focus on what our mission is and what our objectives are. So now, if you asked five soldiers or five Marines in Iraq today, I think you’d get five different answers on what our goals are.
That’s part of the problem of this entire operation in Iraq, has been that there isn’t a clear goal with a clear instate. Now we’re there to create peace and democracy in the Middle East as a whole. I don’t think that’s what the American people signed up for in 2002, and I don’t think that’s what the soldiers fighting — when I was there in 2003 — were fighting for.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you surprised that, after three years, the conditions in Iraq are what they are today? Is it something you anticipated three years ago or two years ago when you were there?
NATHANIEL FICK: Oh, I was there in the spring and summer of 2003 when I think there was a very good chance of holding Iraq together and starting on the right road, with solid reconstruction, but a series of decisions were made during that window and time, just after the president declared, “Mission accomplished,” decisions like failing to seal the borders, failing to stop the looting, disbanding the Iraqi army. And these set us on a downward slide, and we’re still digging ourselves out of that hole.
JODIE SWEEZEY: I would agree with Captain Fick that, certainly, there have been a number of mistakes made and missteps, and we are still working hard and struggling to overcome those.
Unfortunately, the bad guys, the insurgents, are masters of the information operations campaign. They are very, very good at it. They’re also masters of the intimidation campaign.
We found DVDs all over the city of Fallujah where they were torturing and murdering people, putting it on DVD, and then passing it out to the masses. And people knew that, if they supported the efforts, the reconstruction efforts, something bad was going to happen to either themselves or to somebody in their family.
MARGARET WARNER: Captain Fick, the president this week, as we know, has been out talking about the war. And he’s talked about his plan for victory. And on a couple of occasions he said — and I’m going to quote — “If I didn’t think we’d succeed, I’d pull our troops out.”
Do you think success is possible at this stage?
NATHANIEL FICK: What we see right now in Iraq is intense civil strife. And I would distinguish that from civil war, where you have factions that are holding territory and launching organized attacks against one another.
And the great dilemma with this civil strife is that the American presence is provoking it. And yet, if the U.S. were to leave, I think that civil strife would quickly escalate to full-blown civil war, so we’re on the horns of a dilemma.
DOUGHERTY: I really haven’t heard a clear plan for victory coming out of this administration, and what I believe is that the plan for victory seems to be that we’re going to eradicate terrorism, yet every day that the U.S. forces stay in Iraq, we create more terrorism, more people who are willing to use violence against U.S. troops there and U.S. people across the world.
JEREMY BROUSSARD: Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it, that the administration has yet to define victory, has yet to define success. The way that it’s been described today, as if there’s going to be this one day where there are no terrorists or no insurgents in Iraq, no.
There will ultimately be the point where we define — and we haven’t defined was this is — but we will define Iraq to have a certain level of stability which will be conducive for a U.S. withdrawal.
The problem is, is that I think that date where this can be accomplished will be far in advance of when the national will for the American people will allow U.S. Troops to stay.
JODIE SWEEZEY: I do think success is possible, but I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. I think it’s going to depend a lot on the Iraqi people and what they’re willing to bring to the table and willing to do.
I keep in touch with an Iraqi girl — actually, she’s in her 30s — and she had her entire family murdered by Saddam. And I look at her, and she talks about the struggles under his dictatorship. And, you know, she’s looking forward to the day when Iraq will be a place that she can be proud to live in and she can feel safe every day of her life.
And so I would define success as leaving Iraq in a condition where the people can rule themselves, and they can feel safe and secure, and they will be able to take care of this insurgency and the problems that will arise on their own.
MARGARET WARNER: I’d like to ask you all, finally, about how you and many veterans that you all stay in touch with — whether active duty, whether involved against the war, whether in the group that both you and Captain Fick are involved in — how they feel about the fact that American support, public support for the war is waning?
And I’ll begin with you, Sergeant Dougherty.
KELLY DOUGHERTY: Well, I just got back from a march from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans with hurricane survivors and veterans to call attention to the Iraq war and the effects that it’s having on our own communities here in the United States. And we had a large number of Iraq veterans against the war, plus veterans from other conflicts, the most that we’ve had together in one place.
And I think we’re all hopeful that, because of the turning viewpoints — not only among the American public, but among soldiers in Iraq, 72 percent of which who were polled said that they think there should be a complete withdrawal within the next year — that this will help speed the end of this conflict, because already we have over 2,300 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed because of our involvement in Iraq.
So to me, it’s heartening, but polls don’t necessarily turn into tangible conclusions and actions.
JODIE SWEEZEY: It’s very disheartening when you see, especially in the media, the war being portrayed — You know, I stood in the city of Fallujah D-plus-eight of the battle, in the November offensive on, and I saw what was being said, in both the international media and the U.S. media, and it was night-and-day difference.
And it’s very frustrating, but I think that plays a large role in what’s happening with the support for the war amongst the American people, and I think it’s unfortunate.
JEREMY BROUSSARD: Historically, support for any conflict is at its highest point the first day of the war. It only goes down, without any deviation. We’re now in our fourth year of the war. And by a majority, there is public opposition to the war, you know, not support.
My concern, in when I talk to people, their concern is that…
MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about other veterans?
JEREMY BROUSSARD: Other veterans. They say sort of what I said, is that, you know, we’ve been told one rationale in ’03. The first people there, the first wave were there for weapons of mass destruction.
People who are now in their second and third, you know, possibly this year in their fourth tour, are being told that they’re there to prevent a civil war and to maintain democracy. So what’s happening is you’re getting people who get very cynical, very jaded.
And I think, as opposed to really being an exception, they’re really part of the majority of Americans who now see as being very cynical toward this war. And my fear is that, if we are going to be there another two or three years, how many different rationales we’ll have and how cynical and detached the American people will be from this war, if it remains all-volunteer and has a very small amount of people who suffer the cost?
NATHANIEL FICK: I think there are two factors at play here.
First of all, the active-duty members of the U.S. military are professional volunteers. And as such, they swear an oath to the Constitution, not to the president, or a policy, or an administration. And they swear to obey the lawful orders of the democratically elected government, full-stop.
And so public opinion doesn’t affect them very much. When I was in Iraq, we listened on a shortwave radio to protests in Washington and in London, and we had our own opinions about the justice or injustice of the war, but as an active-duty serving member of the U.S. Military, that doesn’t matter.
The second factor is that this opposition to the war, growing opposition, is very passive in nature because the war simply doesn’t affect many American citizens. During Vietnam, for instance, you saw college campuses as hotbeds of activism. Right now, they’re islands of apathy, because most people really aren’t affected.
So the opposition becomes sort of a knee-jerk, popular thing to do, or say, or believe. It’s not true analysis. And so I think that that’s disheartening, and it speaks of a wide civil-military divide in our society.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all four very much.