Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, an annual holiday to celebrate the day to end all wars that marked the end of World War I. The occasion this year falls almost exactly two months after President Barack Obama announced Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), an ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Last week he authorized the deployment of 1,500 troops to Iraq as military advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
As the new campaign proceeds, the news media covers it by interviewing the usual figures from think tanks, Congress and the Pentagon. With very few exceptions, we’re not hearing from veterans of the most recent wars in the region — those charged with implementing the president’s policies.
Even with Obama’s promise of “no boots on the ground,” this war is still being waged by Americans in the military. It took Navy and Air Force service members to deliver the more than 1,000 bombs dropped this past month. The George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier alone, stationed in the Arabian Gulf, has nearly 100 planes. Before the Obama’s decision to send more troops, there were already more than 1,300 U.S. service members already on the ground in the newly bolstered Iraq conflict — security personnel and staff at two joint operations centers in Baghdad and Erbil and the growing advisory teams working with Iraqi units.
When OIR was first announced, I began checking in with some of the Iraq veterans I knew. Almost all are watching closely. Although very few expressed surprise that Iraq is being lost to chaos and violence, many are troubled by the dissolution of their hard work and sacrifice in the country and by the prospect of endless war.
‘It breaks my heart’
“It’s something I’ve been expecting,” former Marine Scott Olsen told me last month about the rise of ISIL in Iraq. “I served in Al-Anbar province, which is majority Sunni and 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 ISIL there. These people have legitimate grievances.”
Olsen, who served in Anbar and is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), said that the U.S. shares in some of the blame for the situation. “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,” he said. “It’s hard to say what is.”
One former Army infantryman who served in Mosul for a year was blunter about the city’s fall to ISIL. “It breaks my heart. My friends died for nothing,” he wrote to me. “We spent over a year fighting and securing our sectors just so they could throw it away.” This young vet, who preferred that his name not be used, added that during his time in Mosul and Baghdad, his 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 the most pessimistic. “We never should have been over there. We didn’t do any good. We left that place far worse off than when Saddam [Hussein] was in charge.”
Susanne Rossignol, an Army veteran who served in Mosul and Tikrit, sees Iraq from the perspective of her Iraqi contacts. She recalled an interpreter 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,” she said. Rossignol, now a computer programmer, added, “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 derived 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 ISIL independently.”
This Veterans Day we’ll undoubtedly hear much about the war the ‘greatest generation’ fought 70 years ago. But the day after that, Operation Inherent Resolve will still be with us.
Michelle Wilmot-Dallochio, a former member of the Ramadi female engagement team documented in the film “Lioness,” was especially frustrated by the continued violence and the absurdities the war generates. “It’s actually quite disgusting to see other combat veterans get into a war-hungry frenzy that was basically constructed by our own government,” she said. Dallochio, the 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 percent Saudi mujahedeen in Iraq and it was underreported. We were fighting a war in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” She then offered an example: “The way we were gaining intel was through paying people off. If you had a vendetta against a neighbor in the face of $1,000 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.”
OIR, the president has assured us, is being conducted via airstrikes, not U.S. boots on the ground. Such claims are supposed to give moral relief to an American public tired by war. But some of the veterans I talked to remain morally troubled by the campaign.
Annapolis graduate Fabian Bouthillette, who served as a surface warfare officer (SWO) on the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Wilbur until 2005, told me that ever since OIR 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 I 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, “ISIL 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.”
Like Olsen, Bouthillette is a member of IVAW. Olsen, in fact, first came to public attention in 2011 when, as a participant in the IVAW contingent at Occupy Oakland, he was injured by police. 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, whom Bouthillette chronicled in his new book “Gore Vidal’s Last Stand.” I first met Olsen and Bouthillette as well as the other veterans while working on “Ain’t Marching Anymore,” my book about U.S. soldiers and veterans who dissent.
The argument for OIR has been bolstered by the stark evil of enemies who would behead civilians and parade their barbarity on video. But the veterans I spoke to have moral qualms about U.S. actions. Brandon Bryant, a former drone sensor operator on missions over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, ended his service with a certificate attesting to more than 1,500 kills accomplished by his team, hunting the worst of the worst. He remembers watching one man bleed out in real time and seeing whole families running from the sound of a Predator drone. He has 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 ISIL, Bryant rejected Obama’s statement that the group is “unique in their brutality.” “We’ve got prisoners in Guantánamo 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 other veterans I spoke to, Bryant calls his own burden from his service a “moral injury.”
“I swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he explained. “How do you feel if you can’t use ‘I obeyed orders’ as an excuse?”
This Veterans Day we’ll undoubtedly hear much about the war the “greatest generation” fought 70 years ago and the Vietnam conflict now passing into history. But the day after that, Operation Inherent Resolve will still be with us. And the voices of these newer veterans will be crucial for any honest reckoning.