The ten year anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is in a few weeks. Below are a few thoughts describing what we were going through as the invasion neared.
On St Patty’s Day, 2003, myself and the five other members of HUMINT Exploitation Team Three, assigned to support Third Battalion/Fifth Marines, were in position north of Logistical Support Area Grizzly, just a few hundred meters south of the Iraq-Kuwait border. The day before we had taken the last showers we would have for about the next month. A few days earlier we’d made a last quick trip to First Marine Division headquarters, Camp Commando outside Kuwait City, to touch base with our chain of command, pick up last minute supplies like extra ammo and MRE’s, use the internet, and maybe get a phone call home.
We had also broken open our vacuum-packed chemsuits, to ‘try them on.’ Leadership wouldn’t tell us anything official, they wouldn’t say we were about to cross the border. But you don’t ‘try on’ a packaged chemsuit. Once you open a sealed chemsuit it can’t be re-packaged and the protective chemicals in the suits deteriorated rapidly in the open air, so they were only useful for a few weeks after they had been unsealed. Breaking open tens of thousands of chem suits could only mean the military had been ordered to prepare for an imminent invasion.
Despite not having been given an official order, there was a sense of overwhelming momentum in those weeks and days before we crossed the border and invaded Iraq. We had watched as each convoy carrying tanks, artillery, armored transports and every other kind of military hardware imaginable flowed north from the ports in southern Kuwait. There is something magnificent about watching a military force prepare for war. A sense of purpose. Everywhere you looked there were thousands of Marines cleaning weapons, training, checking gear. We were professional warriors. We were poised to attack. I was surrounded by my team, the battalion we supported, Fifth Marine Regiment and the entire First Marine Division, all readying for the conflict to come. We were an army preparing for a war far from home, but we represented a nation preparing for war. It was at the same time incredibly humbling and amazingly empowering.
Within the team, we discussed the imminent invasion, we didn’t all agree with what we were about to do. Contrary to some propagandists, the individuals that make up the American war machine are not mindless followers. We obey our seniors because that is our duty, we all swore the same oath. But we still have beliefs about the orders we are given. Discussing the reasons for the war were important, and still are, even ten years after the invasion. The ripple effects of the removal of Saddam Hussein are still being felt throughout the region and the world. Arguably, the 2010 Arab Spring was one of those ripples that brought a tsunami of change to the Middle East.
I believed, and still believe, the United States was justified in removing Saddam. Not because he (as we thought at the time) had weapons of mass destruction, but because he was a threat to regional stability. The sanctions on Iraq that had worked for a decade were broken. Not just broken, they were completely defunct. Irrelevant. Saddam would eventually have reconstituted himself as a regional threat, and that simply couldn’t be allowed. The region is too important to the world’s energy supply to risk allowing a loose-cannon free rein to threaten his neighbors again. Iraq had re-established regular international commercial flights, banned under the sanctions. Saddam was upgrading his air defense network with fiber optic cables purchased from China. And he was financing his rearmament via the UN’s Oil-for-Food Program. As most of the world seems to have forgotten, after the invasion we discovered the United Nations was involved with Saddam in the largest bribery scandal ever recorded in human history. Senior UN personnel, including the Secretary General’s son, were collaborating with Saddam and helping him evade the sanctions the UN had imposed by selling Iraqi oil through the UN Oil-for-Food program and using that money for weapons to re-arm his military. The primary countries that didn’t want us to invade, Germany, Russia, France and China, were all heavily involved with Saddam financially and simply didn’t want to lose the business, in my opinion. Once we got to Baghdad, we found tens of thousands of tons of recently manufactured Russian ammunition, of course the Russians didn’t want to lose a buyer, just like Putin doesn’t want to lose Syria now.
I wish President Bush had just said we were going to war to safeguard a significant portion of the world’s energy supply, but ‘Global Stability!’ doesn’t make much of a battle cry. It isn’t a pleasant responsibility to protect the world order, but in the years since World War II the United States built the way the world is now structured. We made ourselves indispensable, so I believe it is on us to protect the world we built around ourselves. It’s not just a matter of self-preservation. If we fail to live up to our global responsibilities the people and nations around the world that have built themselves on this American-made foundation are at risk, whether they know it or not, which means the entire global order is at stake in these kinds of situations.
Some of my teammates felt it was none of our business, and we should let Saddam be a regional power if he wanted to be one. I can certainly understand that position, I didn’t WANT to go to war. My life was fundamentally altered by what I went through, from my career to personal relationships to a multitude of other aspects my life, and the lives of so many others, were put on a different course because of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. As much as I believe we were justified in going to war, I wish we had just assassinated Saddam, though of course that wasn’t an acceptable option. Apparently it was more moral to invade the entire country than killing one man. Considering our current targeted killing program using drones, an anachronistic prohibition against assassinating Saddam seems ludicrous in retrospect.
Despite the disagreements about the imminent war within the team, our discussions weren’t heated. They were held in the context of what we were pretty sure we were about to do, standing on the Iraq-Kuwait border ready to invade. We could discuss the ‘why’ of the invasion, but we all knew that in a few days or weeks the ‘why’ would be irrelevant, which meant that it was essentially irrelevant at that point as well. We would execute our orders, conduct the mission and perform our jobs, which would be killing the enemy and protecting the Marines around us. Civilians could afford the luxury of passion in their conversations on international politics and the policy of US military intervention abroad. We would face our duty with the dispassion of professionals.