Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ambiguous anniversary -- 10 years after Iraq, personal thoughts

Seth In Iraq, April 2003
From early childhood I was always fascinated with the military, the history of war and soldiering. I cannot remember a time when this wasn't so. Before I was out of elementary school I had read every book of military history at my local library. Growing up I always knew what I was going to do when I grew up -- be a soldier.

Along the way I discovered other loves and interests as well, and being a journalist often vied for first place in my heart, but when it came time to apply for college (and there was absolutely no question of a skipping college, as I wanted to be an officer) my selection criteria were two -- that it have a journalism program and that it have ROTC. I had also applied for West Point, and my Congressman, Rep. Hastings Keith, had appointed me as an alternate, but the primary apparently went and I wasn't willing to wait another year.

Now 30+ years of life brings a lot of detours, side trips and changes in perspective and it's not my place here to recount my entire life story. Suffice it to say that I did get the chance to be both a journalist and a soldier, so I did get to be what I wanted to be when I grew up. But the 10 year anniversary being marked today has much more to do with the soldierly part of my personal story, than the journalist part.

Naturally, a military career involves the possibility of going to war and, as it turned out, right up until New Year's Day of 2003, I thought the twists and turns of fate were going to mean that it was my fate to serve a full military career without ever going to war. Sure, there had been plenty of wartime incidents since I earned my commission in 1979 -- Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait and more. But it always seemed that I was in the wrong place as each happened and I missed out. For example, because I was the Commandant's List graduate at the Field Artillery School, I was offered the opportunity to go on active duty and I had a choice of going to Fort Bragg for the 82d Airborne or going to Germany. Well, I'd always wanted to go to Germany, so that was my selection -- and just as I arrived in Germany Grenada happened!  While there's no guarantee I would gone to Grenada anyway -- possibly a newly arrived lieutenant might not have been deployed -- it's possible I might have. Instead I spent three years serving in Germany in the Cold War that never turned hot.

Likewise I missed the first Gulf War because I was in the Yankee Division at the time and it wasn't activated.

So I watched the gathering war clouds in late 2002 like every other citizen, with little notion that I might personally be affected. When asked, as I was often, I would tell people that it seemed very unlikely that the Army would need or want a broken-down old major from the Individual Ready Reserve.

And then on Jan. 7, 2003, the telegram came.

"Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order of 14 Sept., 2001, you are relieved from your present reserve component status and are ordered to active duty."

My daughter could hear from from the hallway as I employed my soldierly vocabulary rather loudly to express my astonishment.

So on Feb. 2, the day after my 48th birthday, I was off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and a peculiar adventure.

Through a series of events that are all-to-familiar to anyone who has spent any time in uniform and yet are too banal to be worth memorializing, I found myself watching the start of the Iraq War like most everyone else -- on CNN. In my case, I was watching the opening salvos from a hotel room in Fort Carson, Colo., where I was temporarily parked while I waited for transportation to join my wartime assigned unit -- Joint Special Operations Task Force -- North.

Yeah, in yet another peculiarity of my wartime career, I was on my way to take part in the war in the Kurdish zone up north. Ironically, I would get to earn a combat patch after all -- and that patch would be the Special Forces Patch!!!  I will credit my extensive reading of history to help me handle the capriciousness of wartime fate that brought this result. For it meant, quite frankly, that I had a very easy war, personally.

Joint Special Operations Task Force North was built around the Headquarters, 10th Special Forces Group, and they were on the move, so it took me a while to catch up to them, but finally in early April I did, in Costanza, Romania, after passing through Germany. And so I got to watch the fall of Baghdad, like many of you -- on Fox News, which we had a feed for. Eventually I ended up in Iraq, itself. If you look at the map, below, from the wargame Operation Iraqi Freedom, I landed in hex "I-2" flying in on a C-17 I shared with an M1 tank! We rode into a convoy to Irbil, in hex H-2 on the map, where I spent the next 35 days working in the HQ for JSOFTF-N.  For most of that time I held a position on the staff called "Ground Fires Officer" which essentially meant I was coordinating the artillery in the JSOFTF-N area. This would have been an interesting job -- except for the Turkish parliament. Because Turkey refused to let the 4th Infantry Division invade Iraq via Turkey, they had to go through Kuwait instead -- which meant there was no artillery in JSOFTF-N to coordinate! We had a grand total of six guns of 105mm artillery in the entire area (and that only because the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade insisted on bringing his whole brigade). All our fire support was provide by air, so the Air Force guy sitting next to me was pretty busy, but I had little to do except watch his desk while he went to the latrine and a few other admin tasks.

It was a great ringside seat, however. While much smaller than the Task Force that invaded Iraq from Kuwait, JSOFTF-N was considered a corps-level command under CENTCOM and therefore I got to see the war unfold at a higher level HQ.

Operation Iraqi Freedom. Seth passed through hexes I-2, H-2, H-3 and H-4
A little over a month after arriving in Iraq the 10th SFG handed over control of operations in northern Iraq to the 101st Airborne and pulled out -- European Command wanted their Green Berets back. So we drive through Hex H-3 to hex H-4 (Kirkuk) and flew out, bound for Germany and then Colorado and my war was over, just like that. It took another six months for the Army to finally decide it didn't need me anymore and send me home, but those six months were just spent in casual duty at Ft. Carson and Ft. Sill.

So I had an easy war. Remarkably, we did not suffer a single fatal casualty among American forces in JSOTF-N while I was there. Our job was to tie down Saddam's forces in Northern Iraq so they couldn't intervene  elsewhere. To do that we had an eclectic mix of forces. Numerically, the bulk of the force was represented by about 60,000 Kurdish Peshmerga militia, but the bulk of the combat power was represented by the three battalions of green berets of the 10th Special Forces Group. At various times we also had a battalion of infantry from the 10th Mountain Division, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade and other stuff. There was air support provided by the USAF, USMC and USN. Oh, and some folks from the "Other Government Agency" were about, here and there.

So here's my ambivalence about the whole experience. I got to go to war, after all, which was a childhood ambition and the culmination of an entire military career. And I'm thankful that I came through it not only physically safe, but spared any real psychological toll from my experience. As I have told people before, it's an oddity of my life that, despite being a "combat vet," that the only place I've been downrange from hostile fire ended up being as a reporter in Brockton, Massachusetts!

And yet, while I am proud of my service, I have come to feel very disillusioned about what that service amounted to. While nothing I did contributed to that outcome, the bottom line is that the war I was in ended up being a huge disaster for my country.

Like most Americans, I was deeply affected by 9/11 and when the Bush administration made its case for war, I was prepared to believe them. I was convinced that they must have secret information that proved that Saddam really had WMD and was ready to use it. Certainly we acted at JSOTF-N as if that were the case. It was a genuine concern throughout combat ops. I would have found it unbelievably cynical to think that the administration was wrong about there being WMD. And I simply assumed that the government would not do something like invade without having a well-thought-out postwar plan.

Well, we know now that I was wrong, of course. Not only were there no WMD, but worse, there was no plan. You know, I can forgive the delusion about the WMD. We were owed better, but they were human and I understand how human failings can lead to a delusion like the WMD fiasco. But I can't forgive the lack of planning for the postwar situation. I mean, there was no possibility we were going to lose the fighting part of the war. Zero, zilch, nada. Long before the end of World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall and his planners started planning for the end of World War II -- and while many mistakes were made in 1945 and 1946, there was a plan and it was carried out and it basically worked. So what's the excuse for the Iraq debacle? There was at least as much time available planning for that postwar world as Marshall had.

So, while we won the initial campaign, we lost the war because we were failed at the highest levels. And I resent it. I resent it that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Franks lost my war.

Those who follow me online at Facebook and elsewhere know that I have been a consistent critic of those who advocate for war with Iran, and I'll make no bones about it, my Iraq War experience drives that criticism. I've since retired from the Army. I, personally, won't be going back to war. (Any scenario that has me toting a  rifle again is so dire that you know we'd in deep doodoo.) But I have had to go to a funeral for someone who died in the war -- a friend of my daughter -- and I have seen the corrosive cost of the Iraq War on our politics, our budget, our civil liberties and our good sense. The bar has been raised, in my view. For at least the second time in my life, I have seen the government get us into an ill-advised war (Vietnam, now Iraq) that it couldn't win.  Third time is not a charm.

So 10 years on, I find myself an older, sadder and, I hope, wiser man. I hope it's also a wiser country.


  1. Interesting piece, and one that I agree with. Unfortunately, I never really believed the backstory from the beginning; call me a cynic.

    Appreciate your service. Like you, I wanted to be a part of something while I was in, but it did not happen. Probably better that it did not. Some boyhood dreams are not meant to be fulfilled.

    I hope you are right about learning a lesson. I doubt you are, however.

  2. Seth, thank you for your service. May your next hex crossing land you in a good place. God Bless you, I enjoy reading your blog.

  3. Thanks for your service, and thanks also for this post. The reflection & personal analysis is meaningful for people like me who don't have the same firsthand experience.

  4. Thank you for the interesting post, and thank God their are people like you from the military waking up, and prepared to speak out.

  5. Another excellent post Seth. I enjoy your take on our hobby.I also respect and appreciate your service. Those of us who did not serve or lose a loved one cannot appreciate the perspective.
    Thank you for sharing yours.