American veterans are watching the unfolding disintegration of Iraq less than three years after the U.S. military withdrawal, and are facing the news with complex turns of trepidation, anger and sorrow.
“I spent ten months in Mosul and when I heard on BBC that it fell, I thought well, that just sucked. I tell you I spent most of my day that day looking at the news of what happened in that city—you’re very much tied to the city where you served,” said Jason Hansman, an Army reservist who served in a civil affairs battalion attached to the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in 2004.
“I was hoping to make it a better place,” he told TAC, noting that many of his buddies have been actively reminiscing on social media since ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) began taking over territory in Sunni Iraq. In the meantime, he said, “these graphic images from Iraq, this can certainly become a trigger, there are certain vets who avoid the news entirely,” because of the pain it brings.
“What’s interesting,” Hansman added, “is what my commander posted that evening … he wrote, ‘I want you guys to know the time we were there was worth it.’”
It’s been 40 years since the fall of Saigon, but the range of emotions pervading that short phrase—it was worth it—are suddenly as alive now as they were among returning veterans of the Vietnam War. This is no surprise, say vets who spoke with TAC, since the two have become mirror experiences: wars fought but not entirely won, in countries whose tragedies grew back like brittle weeds over a mowed lawn once the American military machine rolled away.
But more than not, the phrase is turned as a question, now plaguing a new generation of American men and women: was it worth it?
The answer? It’s complicated.
“You serve with some really great people over there—most guys and gals did their best, and they did have individual noble intentions, but the problem is it was war, and war is complete madness, it is a breeding ground of unintended consequences,” said Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain who commanded a combat engineer company in Tikrit and Anbar—two places now overrun by ISIS—from 2006 to 2007.
“It’s hard to square that, then, when you and everyone was doing their best. You were trying to go in there and treat the Iraqis you met with the utmost respect. But it did not matter, when your individual actions were meaningless to what was going on there,” he told TAC. “The fact that we were there picking winners and losers in someone else’s country it unleashed elements out of our control.”
Not all Iraq-era veterans are the same, any more than their Vietnam counterparts. Though the older vets have been pitied, caricatured as angry and troubled, and used as textbook lessons and political props, they have never spoken with one monolithic voice. Their post-war views about whether their service “was worth it,” or the failures of the war itself, depend largely on their personal experiences there. And their politics.
One school of thought still believes the Vietnam war was a noble cause that could have been won if the U.S Congress and American people had the belly to endure. Others believe our Cold War detour into Southwest Asia should never have happened. Still another school is somewhere in the middle, hovering in the space between those hopeless photographs of the last American airlift during the capture of Saigon, and an earnest conviction that their service was not in vain.
“I was in the Pentagon (in 1975), I saw Vietnam crumble, it was a disturbing scene, seen mainly in the Washington Post and on TV,” said John C.F. Tillson, who spent most of 1968-69 in the jungles of Vietnam as a troop commander (and Silver Star recipient) in the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. He recalls the years afterward living with dueling emotions of guilt and regret, reconciling the reality of a broken strategy with the desire to move on.
“The ending of the Vietnam War and what appears to be the ending of the Iraq War, and probably the Afghanistan War, are very similar—we go in there, we prop up a government, and it falls apart,” Tillson told TAC. “You will certainly find, as I’ve been reading in the press, an entire spectrum of opinion of what should be done (about it),” he added.
For the Iraq veterans who have shared their thoughts in local papers and military forums over the past two weeks, this is certainly the case. “I have mixed feelings,” said Issac Macias of Chicago, who was 21 when he was deployed to Iraq, in the Chicago Tribune. “Everything we did, all the man-hours we put in. It goes down the drain in a couple of days.”
“We are a big country, and I felt like it was a humanitarian mission to stop a tyrant, Saddam Hussein, from killing people with chemicals and torturing,” said Macias. The paper said his “transition to civilian life was difficult,” and current events have “made the processing even more difficult.”
Military writer Alex Horton, who served in Iraq in 2006 with the Third Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, has some advice for his fellow veterans wrestling with their feelings right now:
Iraq veterans should not beat themselves up by attaching their ideas of sacrifice – of worth to a nation – to that broken government we left behind. We did what was asked of us. We held up our end of the bargain. [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki did not, and many Iraqi troops similarly betrayed their own people when they chose not stand between extremists and their own countrymen. It has always been their fight, but that is especially true now. The American public and its Congress allowed the war to happen, and it was the US military’s job to help Maliki create the security necessary to establish a functional government. The march of Isis to Baghdad shows how spectacularly they have failed.
With shades of Vietnam, Army Staff Sgt. Richard Baca II, who served in Baghdad and Nasiriyah, told Military Times that politics got in the way of winning, resulting in today’s crisis.
We would get reports of large amounts of insurgent activity or IED activity or we would tell higher up that the Iraqi police on the ground were telling us that al-Qaida or terrorists were in certain parts of the city and we would want to act upon that and try to root them out — and we would be told that wasn’t our mission, our mission was something else.
So does that mission include going back into Iraq to “finish the job”?
“I think that most veterans would not have strong feeling about returning,” Tillson surmised, noting that with all veterans, there will be varying opinions. “I think the majority would say that we have done enough or that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. A few might say let’s go back and help them but they will be in the minority,” he said. “The two groups of people I wouldn’t trust are the neocons and the generals because … by and large they have not demonstrated good judgment about these issues.
After Captain Hoh left the Marines for a senior-level foreign-service position in Afghanistan, he publicly resigned in protest against the war, which he felt wasn’t worth the continued casualties and expenditures. He is obviously averse to reengagement in Iraq.
“As a veteran, it drives me nuts that people are thinking of putting troops back there – it’s only going to accomplish getting more troops killed. We would not be seen as peacekeepers or referees, but as taking one side,” he said. “I don’t understand why people think if we only kept troops there everything would be great. We got kicked out, the Iraqis did not want us there any longer.”
Hansman, who says he feels his service “made him a better person,” is slightly less inclined to weigh in either way. “I don’t know, I don’t have the full picture,” he said. “At the end of the day, if anything happens, we want to make sure we do it right, that we’re taking our time and above all, thinking about what happens when these soldiers get home. Let’s be realistic about the situation we’re putting them into.”
Tillson guesses that while he has devoted his own post-Vietnam career to learning and teaching strategy, most “veterans don’t focus on the Big Pictures, they tend to focus on the veterans they fought with.” The “Blackhorse Regiment” reunions he’s attended were always a case in point.
“The things people talk about at the reunions are not about ‘grand strategy,’ or how the war was a mistake,” he said. “They think about the people in their unit, the people they knew, the things that happened – both good things and bad – but no one talks about whether the war was worth it and I suspect that is the case with today’s veterans as well.”
Perhaps. But when they are asked, it’s clear vets are thinking about the question.
“I completely disagreed with the decision to walk away from Iraq,” former Army Sgt. Kenneth Mancanares told the Military Times. “Now, to be honest, I’m trying to think if there’s even a way I could get back out there. I’m sure there are a lot of guys feeling that way. I really wish that I could sign up on something tomorrow and join a volunteer group that’s going there to stand up for these people.”
Hoh says he and his buddies don’t agree. “I think a lot of them – the guys who are out – are glad they are out. We talk about whether we would ever want our nephews or nieces to serve. I can’t imagine anyone in my family serving in a system so broken,” he said.
As for Iraq, he added, “we just shake our heads and say this is unbelievable, that history really does repeat itself.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.