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A Life in Conflict One Marine’s Journey, Part IV

A Life in Conflict One Marine’s Journey, Part IV 9/11 and the Road to War

9/11 and the Road to War

The Marine infantry battalion to which I belonged was mid-way through a six-month deployment to the Far East, when Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center. We had just completed a month of mountain warfare training in Korea, and I was in a restaurant in Seoul with a group of officers from the battalion when the unforgettable images appeared on the television above the bar.

Without sound or context, the terrible clear shots looked to us like scenes from a movie: the underside of a silver jetliner against a brilliant blue sky as it sailed into the flank of a majestic skyscraper; the slow-motion collapse of the second tower leaving in its place a phantom shadow sculpted in smoke. Subtitles appeared banishing with their harsh concision any hope for misconception but leaving in their wake an anguished torrent of questions that none among us could answer. Then a military policeman, wide eyed and breathless, burst through the door and ordered us back to base.

It has since become axiomatic to say that things were never the same after 9/11, but for those in the military the contrast was particularly stark. Until that point, our lives had been a predictable cycle of training and peacetime deployments. The attack on the World Trade Center brought to an end the certainty of routine and rendered our future a void.

I stayed up that night watching the news, sickened and angry but unable to turn away. Nor could I bring myself to join my friends in the hotel bar where they had gathered after our return from downtown. The bellicose talk, at first cathartic, had become repetitive, a hollow reminder of our helplessness. Our nation was under attack, and we whose mission it was to defend her, had been on the other side of the world drinking beer.

Two months later, US forces invaded Afghanistan, among them Marines from two shipborne expeditionary units. The battalion was in Okinawa at the time, and we followed the news hungrily, with emotions that swung between pride and envy. The campaign to overthrow the Taliban seemed to have been a resounding success – and, glumly, we assumed that the war was done.

If this desire to go to war seems distasteful, I offer context. Our professional lives to that point had been focused on preparing ourselves and our Marines for combat — now we sought validation. The attack on our country demanded retribution, and we believed it our duty to exact this toll. Many Americans appeared to expect the same: ‘When are you guys going to get over there and kick ass?’ an airport security officer asked me as we arrived back in California.

     ‘I thought that all you guys were in Afghanistan,’ added another unhelpfully, thereby tainting any residual feelings of contentment at returning home.

By then, March of 2002, collective mourning had given way to a surge of patriotism. Members of the military were applauded in public places, people gave up their first-class seats on planes, bought us drinks and offered free tickets to sporting events. Many of us, myself included, felt chagrined to be riding the wave of popular sentiment without paying our dues.

The prospect of war had brought with it a newfound respect for the military.  It was a sharp contrast to prevailing attitudes prior to 9/11 when public perception of those in uniform varied between pity and contempt.  As a young Marine, I remember being habitually refused entry to bars.  In one particularly humiliating (and ironic) episode, the British sailors who were my companions for the night were welcomed to a club in Wilmington, while I was left standing on the sidewalk having been barred upon presentation of my ID.  Later, as a platoon commander, I spent much of my time trying to extricate my naïve charges from the contractual claws of the only civilians who would give them the time of day: car salesmen and loan sharks.

Over a century before, Rudyard Kipling had summed up well the wartime elevation of the common soldier from social outcast to plaster saint in a poem that lent the British soldier a nickname that would remain with him through two world wars:

“For it’s Tommy this and Tommy that, and Chuck him out the Brute!

          But it’s savior of his country when the guns begin to shoot”

The American public is perhaps equally impervious to nuance when it comes to its perception of those who have chosen to serve in uniform – a concept quite alien to most.  And now – after the wars have ended — the pendulum is swinging the other way. Congress has already started to erode what are euphemistically called military entitlements but are instead part of the implicit bargain that all Americans struck by rejecting universal service some 50 years ago. Retirement and health care benefits would have been regarded as inviolate in the months after 9/11 – but are now falling victim to the same lawmakers who posture loudly for their constituents to benefit from profligate defense industry projects. 

For most of us in uniform, some degree of awareness in-between the two extremes would be just fine: “We aren’t no thin red heroes, but we aren’t no blackguards too / Just single men in barracks, most remarkably like you.”

After our return from post deployment leave, training picked up in earnest. As operations officer, I was working long days to help orchestrate the countless tasks that go into preparing a unit for war: ordering intelligence briefings on the Iraqi army, working with the logistics officer to develop plans for getting the battalion to Kuwait by aircraft, and coordinating training exercises.

Few of us questioned the decision to go to war at the time. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, we were coursing downstream together, and it would have seemed perverse to paddle against the current.   Not so for all in our profession.  My commanding officer in 15th MEU, Gregory Newbold, was now a lieutenant general serving as the Director of Operations on the Joint Staff.  Greg Newbold, an officer universally liked and respected, had shown an interest in my career from my time as a first lieutenant, and I have no doubt that a letter of recommendation from him was influential in my augmentation into the regular Marine Corps at a time when applicants had less than a 10% chance of success.

Now he raised concerns about the plan to invade Iraq – from a point of view of the plan’s objectives (unrealistic, under-resourced and irrelevant to the war on al Qaeda) and probable outcome (a long term and bloody occupation).  His dissent would cause him to clash with his boss Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and lead eventually to his resignation. He subsequently wrote an article for Time magazine, in which he went public with his concerns.  I was at the time, slightly shocked that Newbold had gone against the administration so openly, although my respect for him remained undiminished. A few years later, his example would shape my views about a military officer’s obligation under certain circumstances to dissent.  Greg Newbold remains today the only general officer in the last two decades to resign on a question of principle.

Colin Powell’s testimony before the UN General Assembly in which he cited irrefutable evidence that Saddam was in possession of biological and chemical weapons was the clincher for many of us in uniform who might – until that point – have entertained some qualms.  Powell was one of us – a man who had risen to the top of our profession before his appointment as Secretary of State in the administration of George W. Bush.  If Powell – despite his well-publicized warning about crockery shop rules — said that it was OK to invade Iraq, well then it would be churlish, even unpatriotic to demur.

In October, Congress voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. I was interested to read that this resolution wasn’t based solely on the threat from weapons of mass destruction but cited also Saddam’s ‘brutal repression of Iraq’s civilian population.’

     Why not? I thought. The Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine that holds the international community responsible to protect all citizens of the world, had not yet been endorsed by the UN but had a wide body of support among its members. The Canadian government had championed the doctrine in a 2001 proposal to the UN, arguing that if a government fails to meet its obligation to protect its own citizens, then it forfeits the sanctity afforded by the international community to the sovereignty of states. Not yet a legal justification perhaps, but certainly a moral one; and one that made sense to me.

That Christmas, while on leave in the UK, I found myself defending the argument for invading Iraq. President Bush had just announced the deployment of US troops to Kuwait, sparking heated debate among my British friends, most of whom were opposed to the war.

I conceded that UN Resolution 1441 probably did not offer sufficient legal grounds for going to war but argued that there was no body of international law that made invasion, strictly speaking, illegal. Opposition to the war, I said, was based on an outmoded view of state sovereignty dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and no longer made sense in the twenty first century.

     On the other hand, I argued, invasion could be justified morally according to the theory of Just War: the ethical doctrine, dating back to Roman times and adopted by Christian theologians, that establishes moral parameters for the use of military force. According to this theory, war is justified if its purpose is to redress a wrong (Saddam’s repression of his own people) with the intention of establishing a peace preferable to the current status quo. This sounded convincing after several pints of beer in the pub, but my argument was flawed. War unleashes a chain of events so complex that no one can predict their outcome.

to be continued

More By Andrew Milburn

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Newslooks.com

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