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Saturday, March 02, 2024

A lesson in humility

Critical analysis of the Iraq war has been offered to students by academics in innumerable forms since the war began in 2003. Although most explanations and predictions offered have been sound, they share one common problem: They come from the isolated and sometimes out-of-touch world of American academia. 




The following interview is intended to add a voice capable of speaking in the first person about the Iraq War to the chorus debating it in the abstract. The interview contains the opinions of a UW-Madison undergraduate and Iraq War Veteran who spent one year in Iraq with a National Guard unit. The interviewee has decided to remain anonymous. 




Breezy Willis: What is the most important thing that students do not understand about the war? 




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UW Veteran: What we are actually doing over there, or the specific role that the military is playing there. I don't think anyone really knows. I think the soldiers themselves ask the same question. When I went it was a story of weapons of mass destruction. Then while I was there, there weren't any weapons of mass destruction and it changed to us being there to liberate the Iraqi people. Also, I don't think you can really say we are fighting over there. We are occupying Iraq and reacting to specific acts of aggression. 




BW: What single event from your time in Iraq has left the biggest impression on you? 




UWV: I think the biggest event was the realization that there were not any weapons of mass destruction. 




BW: What effect did that realization have one you? 




UWV: It made me wonder what the hell we are doing over here. I don't know how that shift happened. One day we were searching for weapons of mass destruction, and the reason just changed. I mean liberating the Iraqi people is a just cause, but you can't just change. I felt personally that they sent us over to get weapons, and then just wanted us to forget that fact. That was why we mobilized the troops. If we were going to liberate Iraq why didn't we just do it in '91 you know? 




BW: Does the picture of the war that is painted by both sides in Washington represent reality? 




UWV: Is it as bad as everyone is saying? Yes. There have not been any improvements in making a stable government. We say that we've established a new government over there, but it doesn't work because if it worked we wouldn't have to be there. I think the situation is stagnant because we don't know what the hell we're doing. The military is not a peacekeeping force, it's a war machine. I think that was our biggest problem over there, we didn't know how to keep the peace. 




BW: What aspects of Iraqi culture did you find most surprising? 




UWV: The most surprising thing to me is how rigidly conformed they are to their religion. Religion is what makes them go through their everyday activities. When Al-Sadr was motivating the militants he was using Koran references to get them to fight the U.S. 




BW: Did you interact much with locals?  




UWV: Yeah, I mean I talked to people who lived nearby, and a few of them were pro-Saddam. Their view was that he was a good guy. It was funny because when we caught Saddam the guy thought he was an imposter because Saddam had so many look-alikes. He was in a hole with like $200,000 in cash. It seemed like wealthier people were happy we were there, but the lower class really didn't like our presence. A lady spit on me in the street and said \go home,"" and I was like ""I wish I could lady."" My friend Abbas said ""We appreciate what you guys have done, but you can go home now."" 




BW: Does the attitude of civilians back home toward the war reach troops in combat? 




UWV: Absolutely not. I was over there pretty much in the beginning and I got no feedback from the people back home. All we had was snail mail; the Lieutenant Commander got an e-mail or two. So I had really no idea. About seven months in we got TV over there. I had been by the UN building in Baghdad and I didn't know that it got blown up until I saw it on CNN World. I guess now there is pretty much mass communication between the troops and home. Now they have Pizza Hut over there. People are living pretty good. When I first got there we rationed water one bottle per soldier, and then had to drink ROPU [chlorine treated] water that was from the Euphrates. There was no refrigeration, the first time I tasted ice water was euphoria. It almost knocked me out. I lived outside for a month when we got there because there were not enough tents. The supply routes were crappy, but I guess that's true in any war at its outset. 




BW: Speaking of equipment, is the assertion that you guys were poorly equipped true? 




UWV: The under equipped thing is really true. The Humvees we drove in were canvass, and we didn't get flak jackets until four months in. We had vests that couldn't even stop a nine-millimeter round, which is the smallest round. We didn't have desert-specific uniforms until six months later. We were wearing the green stuff, green obviously being the easiest color to see in a desert environment.  




BW: What was the positive moment for you in your time in Iraq? 




UWV: I saved a kid's life one time. He got hit by a car. I remember sitting downtown and people were screaming ""we need a combat lifesaver!"" I was like, ""shit what happened?"" So, I go over and I see this kid walking around with blood all over his head all dazed. You know, they teach you how to deal with that stuff but not how to react. We took the kid to a safer place and started doing our training. We performed first aid on him and got him to a hospital. It was weird because 20 Iraqi guys were standing around us screaming in Arabic, but we didn't pay much attention. It was kind of questionable whether we were supposed to help civilians, but it felt good to actually help people instead of just occupying. It also felt good to hire the jobless Iraqis to do stuff around the camp. We built schools and cleaned streets over there, but that's not what we went over there to do. It's hard to justify the amount of troops that died over there to build schools in that particular nation. 




BW: Did you have buddies die, or anyone from your unit? 




UWV: In our battalion one guy got hit by shrapnel from an IED, but I went to enough mourning services for other battalions to know that it was happening.  




BW: For those of us who don't know, what is the feeling of being in combat? 




UWV: Let me put it like this: I don't feel that I was in combat. The feeling of occupying another country, for whatever reason, is hard to describe. It's kind of this dead feeling. It feels good to help people, but it goes back to this thing about that not being the reason we were sent. Whatever we were doing over there, I felt it didn't justify me being there. Not to say that I don't like helping people, but I can help lots of people here too. We say we were doing this war to help the people, but I don't remember them asking. 




BW: What else do you want people to know? 




UWV: Whether or not people agree with me ... I can't speak for the entire military population but there is so much evidence to support what I think. But I want to say that I don't blame the military. It's not the military's fault. They went there because they were told. I wanted to go over there at first, but to do something. I guess now it has turned into something. It all goes back to why we went there in the first place.  

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