The commentary below was published today in shorter form on Al-Jazeera America, but I liked the whole thing enough to share it here.
Inherent Resolve? Try inherent blowback, say recent vets of Iraq war
Veterans Day this year falls almost exactly two months after Pres Obama announced an ongoing military campaign against the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria. This new war/counterterrorism op/kinetic activity/forward deployment – “Operation Inherent Resolve”. as was finally named by the Pentagon – has already receded off the front pages. You have to look for news, which then brims with numbers and phrases familiar to any of the veterans we celebrate today: U.S. Bombing Raid a Success, 150 Jihadists Killed. Kobani/Irbil/[fit region here] Crucial to U.S. Credibility. Allies Gain Momentum.
Last week’s headlines included: “U.S. readying plan to send advisers to Iraqis fighting ISIS in Anbar.” “Inherent Resolve Strikes Continue Against ISIL in Syria, Iraq.”
With each such headline, former Navy lieutenant Fabian Bouthillette thinks about the surface warfare officers behind the numbers, those controlling the ships that carry the bombers. Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio thinks about her time with the Lioness infantry unit in Ramadi, a town lost to IS. And drone operator Brandon Bryant thinks about the families he watched die, accidentally lost forever in pursuit of “the bad guys.”
As the new campaign proceeds, we’re hearing about it from the usual assortment of think tanks, politicians, and Pentagon press officials. With very few exceptions, we’re not hearing from veterans of the most recent wars in the region, those charged with implementing the orders of the national security state.
Why are these voices important? Even with the presidential promise of “no boots on the ground,” this war is still being waged by personnel. It took more than a few Navy and Air Force servicemembers to deliver the more than 1000 bombs dropped this past month (the George H.W. Bush alone has nearly 100 planes). Not to mention the more than 1,300 U.S. troops in the newly bolstered Iraq conflict — security personnel, staff at two joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, and the constantly-growing advisory teams working with Iraqi units. For understandable reasons, current personnel can’t speak on their work, or wrestle publicly with its moral complexity— which makes these voices ever more crucial.
When OIR was first announced, I began checking in with some of the Iraq veterans I knew. Almost all are watching closely, and very few were surprised that it has turned out this way. They spoke to me of what they saw and did; mused about what comes next; and described the work each war created, on both sides of the civilian-military divide. It feels as if their intelligence is in some ways better grounded than most, and more mindful of unintended consequences — from wear and tear on personnel to international blowback.
Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio, former member of the Ramadi Female Engagement Team documented in the film Lioness, was frustrated: “It’s actually quite disgusting to see other combat veterans get into a war-hungry frenzy that was basically constructed by our own government.” Dallochio, author of the 2013 memoir Quixote in Ramadi, wrote me that she watched as Ramadi was contested this summer with less surprise than anger. “I’m not trying to sound like an armchair know-it-all,” she wrote, “but I know we were detaining and fighting 90% Saudi mujaheddin in Iraq and it was underreported. We were fighting a war in ‘Alice in Wonderland’” For example, “the way we were gaining intel was through paying people off. If you had a vendetta against a neighbor in the face of $1000 USD cash, don’t you think submitting faulty intel would be tempting in the slightest? Alice just wanted to be in a world that made sense, and over there, nothing did. It felt heartbreaking, but I knew it was going to happen.”
So did former Marine Scott Olsen, who also served in the majority Sunni Al Anbar Province. “It’s something I’ve been expecting,” Olsen told me last month. “Al-Anbar Province is one of the places where the Islamic State has taken over. And the people there, the guys we were in charge of keeping ‘in control?’ They’re the ones that had the most grievances with the government we installed. It’s no surprise that it’s been easy to recruit for IS there – these people have legitimate grievances.” Olsen added that any blame thrown at the U.S. for the situation is far from unfounded: “In some ways the U.S. created this. Just cause we’re not there anymore – mostly – we’re still responsible. We uncorked the bottle, we released the genie. ….More military action is NOT the solution either,” Olsen said ruefully, though “it’s hard to say what is.”
One former infantryman was more blunt: After witnessing the IS takeover of Mosul, where he served a year, “ It breaks my heart, my friends died for nothing. We spent over a year fighting and securing our sectors just so they could throw it away,” he wrote. This young vet, who preferred that his name not be used, added that during his time in Mosul and Baghdad, his own perspective on the war shifted. “When my unit got extended i refused to pull the trigger,” he wrote. “Silently: I was in fear for my life if my unit found out. But I had come to the conclusion that our presence over there was bullshit and what we were doing had nothing at all to do with democracy.” Of all the vets who talked with me, he was overall the most pessimistic: “We never should have been over there, we didn’t do any good, we left that place far worse off when the they nowere when Saddam was in charge,” he said.
Susanne Rossignol, who also served in Mosul and in Tikrit, sees those same events from a more big-picture perspective. She quoted an interpreters she worked with: “He said that removing Saddam was like taking a plug out of bathtub that had spiders in the pipes [and] even though he didn’t support Saddam, removing him quickly let the other spiders come out. I think anytime you have a power vacuum, there is an opportunity for a nefarious force to take advantage.” Rossignol, now a computer programmer, added that “I’m not sure it was a product of having been in the Sunni triangle, but my understanding, on a macro level, is that the less infrastructure a country has, the more likely that the most aggressive force will come into power.” She did derive some small hope from the recent participation of Kurdish forces: “Up until recent events, I was very hopeful that Kurdish peshmerga were going to be able to defeat ISIS independently,” she said, though mostly “I hope that innocent people can get out.”
But how much use is all this perspective on the past? What about the engagements we hear most about now, in or near Syria?
For that I turned first to Annapolis graduate Fabian Bouthilette, who served as a surface warfare officer on the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. WILBUR until 2005. Bouthilette told me that ever since Operation Inherent Resolve began, he’s thought about the officers operating the aircraft carriers. “We SWOs are the ones driving and maintaining the ships. All of them,” he said. Officers like him, he adds, thus wouldn’t be involved in the bombings but enabling them: “I wish could tell them- even though they aren’t pulling triggers, I’d remind them that they are integral pieces of a war machine.” In any event, he added, “ISIS may deserve what they’re getting, but where’s the long term plan for peace? Dropping bombs is easy, but it shouldn’t be done without long term plans for peace, and America has not demonstrated any capacity to organize peace.”
Full disclosure: Both Bouthillette and and Scott Olsen are both members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.. Olsen, in fact, first came to public attention when he was injured by police when part of an IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland in 2011; Bouthillette followed his Navy service with three years as an IVAW activist before moving to Los Angeles and working for iconic author (and fellow Navy veteran) Gore Vidal, the latter chronicled in his new book Gore Vidal’s Last Stand. I first met both of them, as well as the others, while working on Ain’t Marching Anymore, a book about soldiers and veterans who dissent –in which category one might find any vet raising questions about the morality of Operation Inherent Resolve.
If “morality” feels a remote concept when you’re talking about an enemy parading beheading videos, it doesn’t to troops who’ve been charged with chasing down the evildoers. Brandon Bryant, a former drone sensor operator on missions over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, ended his service with a certificate attesting to more than 1500 “kills” accomplished by his team, hunting the worst of the worst. But he remembers watching one man bleed out in real time, saw whole families running from the sound of the Predator. He’s also spoken since, he told me, with Pakistanis who reached out to him at events examining the effects of drone warfare: “That was hard. ” In the quiet, one mother who had lost her son “looked at me….with pity,” he said in disbelief.
Asked by The Intercept about the war on ISIS, Brandon refused Obama’s statement that IS is ‘unique in their brutality.’ We’ve got prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that haven’t seen the light of fucking day. We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people. ” Like many of the others I spoke to, Bryant also uses the newish term ‘moral injury’ when describing his own particular burden.
“I mean, I swore an oath, you know?” Bryant has said repeatedly. “I swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And how do you feel if you can’t use “I obeyed orders” as an excuse? It’s ‘I obeyed the Constitution, regardless of lawful or unlawful orders.’ [But] lawful orders follow the Constitution.” Similar conflicts roiled many of the Vietnam vets treated by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who pioneered the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder but devised ‘moral injury’ to describe such attacks of conscience.
Bryant, Bouthillette and the others know well that Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, a day to celebrate the “day to end all wars.” This year, no doubt, we’ll hear much about the Greatest Generation’s war 70 years ago and the Vietnam conflict now passing into history.
But when it’s no longer ‘Veterans Day,’ Operation Inherent Resolve will still be with us. And the voices of these newer veterans will be crucial for any honest reckoning.
(Photo: The IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland.)