When the first few explosions rang out over Baghdad in March 2003, I was sitting in front of a television with a Navy admiral about to head over to the Middle East. He wasn't one to express a lot of emotion but concern was writ large across his face.
As we watched CNN's live broadcast of Baghdad lighting up with explosions, the admiral squinted. His eyesight was fine. He grimaced. He later told me a few businesslike things about goin' over there and gettin' the job done, doin' his duty and returning. Nothing revelatory. I'm glad to say that he did return, but his face spoke volumes about the things he knew from his years of military experience. Thing No. 1: We are in for a long, hard haul.
The Iraq war will dominate this year's elections and many a dinner-table conversation in Idaho, as well it should. The arguments will continue to rage, as well they should.
Trying to nail down our region's experience with the Iraq war is impossible with just a few sources. With the help of Kevin Taylor at the Spokane Inlander, we've culled a wide range of voices to help us make sense of what this particular anniversary means.
What We're Thinking Now
Five years in, voices on the war in Iraq
Brigadier Gen. Alan Gayhart, deputy commanding general, Idaho National Guard
Notable: He pulled wildly disparate factions into a working provincial government while commanding a brigade in northern Iraq's capital Kirkuk in 2005.
"Six or eight months after I came back, I read the government had fallen apart." A new unit, one with less interest in civil affairs, had taken over. "They were strictly war fighters whereas we did both."
While frustrated by the annual reinvention of the wheel when units rotate in, and by the ineffectiveness and corruption of the central government, he takes a longer view. "We look at this through Western eyes. We sign agreements and think, 'Well, come on now.' But they have grievances that go back centuries."
The good news: "I have been getting calls from the State Department asking what tools we used to form the government, what agreements we had to reach.
"Our soldiers performed magnificently over there." Nine died in the deployment. "I carry those soldiers around with me every day."
Formerly intake counselor, Spokane VA
"Once the invasion started and those men got home we were just swamped at the VA," says McInroe, the intake counselor for the Spokane Veterans' Administration hospital until last month. "There were over 900 that I personally interviewed."
Seventy percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans "come through the door reporting lower back pain. An increasing cause of disability is that damn personal body armor—it's too much of a load."
The basic vest with ceramic plates weighs 38 pounds. As the war drags on, soldiers have been ordered to wear side panels, throat panels and crotch panels. Back and spine problems are especially apparent in soldiers who have served multiple deployments, McInroe says.
"These kids are poor. This is another working-class army. And one of the real ironies coming out of this war is working-class kids depend on their backs to make a living, and now the government is ruining their backs," McInroe says.
John Custer/Ben Gittings
Veterans Service Officers, Spokane
Notable: Both were reprimanded by the VA, which they take as a compliment for aggressive advocacy on behalf of wounded veterans.
"What we are seeing is back injuries, the lower vertebras breaking down, and hearing loss and vision problems from extended use of night-vision goggles," Custer says. That's not even counting combat wounds. The pair recently assessed Reservists in the 321st Engineer Battalion, deployed on bomb-clearing missions last year, and found "an 87 percent casualty rate. That's 87 percent with compensatable claims—mostly it's hearing loss and lower back issues," Custer says.
Such a high casualty rate has swamped claim adjudicators, and Gittings, who was severely wounded in Korea, says a big part of his job is dogging the details—fighting denials when the evidence shows the adjudicator "didn't even look at the file."
Member, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Hailey, Idaho
Notable: She is one of very few—perhaps the only—veterans in Idaho publicly against the war.
Her "deep breath" moment of openly opposing the war came last summer during a peace rally in North Carolina where there were a lot of Quakers—older, quiet. "Then I saw these young guys making strong statements and giving first hand accounts. People standing on a street have limited effectiveness, but veterans saying 'this is what I saw,' particularly if what they saw was illegal, somebody has to answer.
"Service to your country can mean letting your country know when it's going in the wrong direction ... I'm not sure what part of that people aren't understanding."
Boundary County deputy sheriff;
Squad leader with Idaho National Guard
Notable: His squad found and arrested one of Saddam Hussein's two-star generals who had been sought for two years.
Who is the enemy? "I've been shot at by the Iraqi Army more than anybody over there."
Is there progress? "In my opinion, no. The fact that it's gone so long—and we've taken down key people and found a lot of weapons caches—and there's still not super stability. If (new troops) are running the same mission we ran five years ago ... to me, I don't see that as progress."
The experience was a lot like his day job: "There was a lot of searching of vehicles and searching individuals. Over here, it's 'I only had two beers,' over there, it's 'I was in Kirkuk buying a cow.'"
Eight trips to Iraq since 2005
Notable: He was kicked out of Iraq by the 4th Infantry Division for writing (inadvertently, Axe says) about classified IED blockers. Returned under British permission.
Who is the enemy? "The enemy is instability." Just as many soldiers do, Axe points out "the enemy" can be local thugs, feuding tribesmen, Saddam Hussein loyalists and on and on. "It is all contextual and situational. In the big picture, the enemy is instability."
Axe quit a newspaper job to cover the war and didn't care about the politics or morality. "In fact, I tended to be pro-war because I was having fun—I liked the war." It was a grand adventure going to dangerous places. Then Axe covered a huge battle in Afghanistan (where the war's very different than that in Iraq, he says). "What's not fun is watching young guys die, then going to the memorial service and watching their friends weep. It's hard to watch a whole army cry. ... The fun sort of wore off.
"I began to care more about what is this all about, are we making a difference? I used to say I didn't care about politics, but war is politics."
Peace and Justice Action League, Spokane
1st Lieutenant in Vietnam
Notable: His comment on discovering the FBI had infiltrated PJALS, "At least we know somebody was reading our Web site."
"I feel for the members of the military. They are just thrown again and again and again back into danger. Also, the conditions (in Iraq) are more stressful. Anybody who gets into a truck or a Humvee is exposed to IEDs. It doesn't matter if you are a cook or an infantryman."
Cpt. Kory Turnbow
Idaho National Guard
Notable: He survived an assassination attempt, possibly by an Iraqi Army colonel upset at not getting a lucrative contract.
He was a husband, a law student and eager soldier when he deployed to Iraq in late 2004.
Now, "I'm fresh off a divorce, sold the house. Graduated law school but I just couldn't bring myself to drink the punch ... I realized that's not my path in life. I'm still trying to decide what that path is." He's still an eager soldier.
On the war, he says, "My peers want to blame the media for only reporting death and casualties and not the good news. I wonder if they were in the same war I was. Sure, there was good news—we built a daycare/kindergarten in Taza. A couple of months later, a bomb leveled it at 2 in the morning. We installed a well in a little village ... but nobody can acquire the parts to fix it. It's been a slog."
There's a toll of multiple deployments (and related issues such as stop-loss, where the military can force a soldier to stay in past the end of an enlistment contract). "Families can only take so much of that. ... Well, the fact of the matter is, a lot of families have been shaken apart by this."
Co-founder, Idaho Peace Coalition
Notable: In September 2001, Liz Paul and friends founded Idaho Peace Coalition in Boise.
"We gauge success by the amount of support that we get from our community," she says. "If we didn't have any volunteers, if we didn't have any money, if we didn't have any people coming to everything we organize, then we wouldn't be successful. It's the opposite. Often we are thanked for being the beacon in the storm." The Iraq is controversial, she says, because of people like her.
And she did expect, she says, to be doing this five years later.
"That became clear on 9/11, with the way President Bush responded to those attacks," Paul says. "The declaration of the war on terror. I says to myself and my colleagues, 'This is like the war on drugs. This is neverending.'"
She is a mother of two, an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old. It shocks her to think that the war has been waged for most of her younger child's life.
This week, she says, "I'm nervous. We're asking more of people. We are moving away from 'come on a sunny Saturday afternoon and be against the war,'" she says. "We're saying, 'Take off from work. Come downtown in the middle of a work day.
"People always say, 'This isn't going to make a difference.' I say, that's not true. I promise, you will be a different person."
Vietnam Vet, 26-year military career, volunteer, Idaho Peace Coalition
John McMahon remembers supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The longtime military man says he thought it made sense, at the time.
"I was probably like a lot of people. I was somewhat enthusiastic about doing this," McMahon says. "As a military man, I thought Saddam Hussein was a big threat. I bought into some of those reasons the administration put forward.
"Now, we have hindsight," he says.
These days, McMahon is a cheerful retiree who offers "principled negotiation" services (he once taught the subject at Boise State). And every Sunday, he joins a group of Idaho Peace Coalition devotees on a brief walk through Julia Davis Park, holding signs protesting the war.
McMahon begins his critique of the Iraq war from a strategic standpoint.
"It was ill-conceived, poorly planned," he says as he hoists a sign against the war and walks into the wind along the Greenbelt path. "The military did its best to execute, in the best traditions of the military."
McMahon faults the war's leadership, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for not preparing for a war of this magnitude.
"They did not listen to the military people from the get-go," McMahon says.
McMahon did not, he says, expect in 2003 to be protesting the war today. But, he says, early on in his military career, he felt like the wars he was watching and fighting "were not working."
"I thought we were taking care of the world," he says. "It wasn't true. It wasn't giving us what we wanted, which was peace and freedom from violence."
He has given up on this military solution. Instead, he says, the "madness is going to eventually have to end."
—The Idaho Peace Coalition has sponsored several events this week as protests against the war, including a rally at noon March 19 at the Statehouse Annex at Sixth and Jefferson Streets. www.idaho peacecoalition.org.