Watching the gruesome opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is the closest most of us will ever come to armed combat. Yeah, sure, it's horrifying and all, but at least we have the luxury of being horrified while reclining in cushy purple theater chairs, oil-barrel-sized troughs of popcorn gripped comfortingly between our thighs.
Lt. Col. George Garcia (not his real name) doesn't need to watch any Hollywood manufactured fantasies of military combat—he's seen more than enough of the real thing. He served during the invasion of Panama in 1989, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 and the failed humanitarian mission in Somalia in 1993. After leaving active duty in 1995, he joined the Army Reserve and was called up to work in Bosnia in 1998. From June 2003 through June 2004, he also served as part of the occupation force in Iraq.
For security purposes and due to the nature of his work, Garcia can't use his real name in this article. Yet given the current mess in Iraq, this Albuquerque soldier's thoughts on the Bush administration's faulty justifications for the war and his own dramatic experiences in the country are of utmost interest. Garcia, of course, can't claim to speak for the entire military. As a registered Republican, however, who voted for Bush in 2000, his take on the Iraq debacle is an eye-opener, to say the least.
"The bottom line is we didn't need to do this," Garcia says. "The war in Iraq diverted attention from al Qaeda, and it also handed Osama bin Laden a strategic victory. In other words, the Bush administration did exactly what al Qaeda wanted us to do. It's created a huge recruiting opportunity for our enemies, and we've alienated the whole world in the process."
I asked Garcia what he'd say to George W. Bush if he had the chance. "With respect, sir," says Garcia, "you've lost my vote."
The Bloody Triangle
Throughout most of his time in Iraq, Garcia was quartered at a secure base in the middle of the infamous Sunni Triangle. He served under a full colonel who in turn served directly under Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq. This gave Garcia a fairly direct line to the heads of military power in the country.
While in Iraq, Garcia was responsible for supervising four captains who each led military teams composed of 10 to 20 people. These teams assisted locals in building the infrastructure necessary to reconstruct civil society in this severely battered country.
"We also did human resource training," Garcia says, "basically instructing local officials on how to run an open, free democracy."
Each of Garcia's teams was assigned to a different town in the Sunni Triangle—Samarra, Baqubah, Ramadi and Fallujah. "I tried to spend at least one day a week in each town," Garcia says. "The rest of the time, I was usually in Baghdad or at the base."
When problems cropped up, of course, he'd often need to spend several consecutive days in a single town. "We worked with a lot of highly trained Iraqis who were educated in the West, very able people," says Garcia. "Unfortunately, there's a lingering mistrust toward any kind of official authority, which is a natural reaction to Saddam's psychotic regime. Everyone, even most Sunnis, seems to have a relative who was arrested, tortured or murdered by Saddam. This made our job difficult, but most Iraqis want to get their society up and running again. What a lot of Americans don't understand is that Iraq was a fully industrialized, modern country before Saddam took over."
Ignoring the Experts
Over the last year, U.S. troops have done a lot of good in Iraq. Yet even before the war began, Garcia believed the Bush administration hadn't presented an adequate case for sending American troops to war. Using the military, Garcia emphasized several times during our conversation, should always be a last resort. "There just wasn't enough evidence that Iraq presented an imminent threat to our national interests," he says.
To make matters worse, Garcia says, the war wasn't conducted the way the military wanted it to be conducted. "The civilian leadership disregarded the advice of military planners. They have manuals about how to do this sort of occupation. The Department of Defense ignored them. Look what happened to Shinseki."
Gen. Eric Shinseki, you might recall, was the Army Chief of Staff. Right before the invasion, he testified to a congressional committee that, due to Iraq's size and cultural complexity, he believed the military required a force of several hundred thousand troops to adequately occupy the country. Shinseki was much more worried about the subsequent occupation of Iraq than the war itself.
A couple days later, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz publicly rebuked the general before another congressional committee, calling Shinseki's estimate "wildly off the mark." Wolfowitz also said, "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."
Hard to imagine for Wolfowitz, maybe, but not for the military experts who had spent years researching the intricacies inherent in attempting to overthrow Saddam's regime. As it turns out, it was Wolfowitz' statements that were wildly off the mark. Garcia believes that the occupation of Iraq has become a catastrophic disaster not because the military didn't plan appropriately, but because the Bush administration ignored the military's plans from the beginning. The result, he said, has been a much greater loss of life, both American and Iraqi, than would otherwise have been the case.
According to Garcia, the current administration has combined extreme arrogance with a capacity for deluding itself that makes such disasters almost inevitable. "I don't think the big shots in the Bush administration are malicious or conspiratorial or conscious liars," he says. "Actually, I think they really believe the things they say, which to me is even scarier. These people don't listen to other viewpoints, and they don't seem to have the ability to use basic critical thinking skills to reach logical solutions to the problems we face in the war on terrorism. The neo-conservatives really scare the crap out of me. Their messianic view of global democracy is pure fantasy."
A Gesture of Respect
Despite his anger at the Bush administration, Garcia is proud of the U.S. troops' many accomplishments in Iraq. "A lot of our biggest successes haven't really been reported in the media," he says. "One of the biggest is the education system."
One day, three Iraqi women approached Garcia's team in Samarra to ask if the Americans would help them reopen a small school for girls. The school had been under-funded throughout Saddam's reign. Following the invasion, its windows were smashed and its contents looted. The 10-room elementary school remained structurally sound, though. All it needed was an influx of fresh resources to get up and running again.
"The first step was to get permission from the local school board," says Garcia, "which we promptly did. As is so often the case in Iraq, though, we also had to get the blessing of the mayor and the local tribal chieftain."
Garcia made contact with the two men and was soon invited to discuss the matter over dinner. The episode provides a fine illustration of some of the intricacies involved with navigating Iraqi society.
Garcia brought five of his men with him to the dinner. The chieftain, the head of a prominent local family, brought 25, all of them male.
Everyone sat down on rugs, and they spent the next hour with introductions. Through a translator, Garcia listened to the chieftain express his views on everything under the sun. "He delivered a litany of good and bad things that had happened over the last 50 years. He was a thoughtful guy. He said Americans are basically good people, but he didn't understand certain things about them, which is fair enough."
They had tea and then ate a meal consisting of strips of lamb in a spicy sauce with pita bread and yellow curried rice. Following the dinner, they talked about random subjects for another hour. Then they washed their hands in large bowls brought out by servants and drank some coffee.
"Three hours later we finally got around to talking about the school," Garcia says. "The conversation didn't last longer than 10 minutes. The chieftain basically said, ’I hear you want to get the school open again.' ’Yes, that's right,' I said. Then he said, ’I think it's a good thing.' And that was it. The deal was done."
An Islamic nonprofit brought in pencils, books, chalk and other educational supplies. "Then USAID provided a bunch of desks," says Garcia, "and local engineers fixed the roof and hooked up the electricity and water. It took maybe two to three months to complete the project. All the locals were very enthusiastic about it. When you're involved in a project like this, you can't help but make friends."
The meeting with the tribal chieftain went so well partly because Garcia has a lot of experience with this kind of complex cultural exchange. "One thing that isn't reported often enough in the American media is that a lot of our problems with Iraqis are rooted in their impression that they've been disrespected by the U.S. Almost all Iraqis are extremely glad that Saddam Hussein is gone, but they're also embarrassed that they were liberated by us."
For that reason, Garcia went out of his way in situations like this to behave in a humble manner. "I'm not sure if many Iraqis have that experience with Americans. It's extremely important in a culture like Iraq's to show respect."
Garcia is quick to point out that Iraq isn't one big bloodbath, as we might suspect from depressing daily media reports. "In one city I worked," he says, "nothing happened for three months. When an attack does happen, of course, the tragedy is that most of the violence kills ordinary Iraqis, school kids, police officers, just ordinary people on the street."
During his time in Iraq, Garcia only came under attack twice. The first attack occurred early in the morning at around 7 a.m. "We were traveling with maybe three Humvees, a small convoy and a civilian Land Rover. A road-side bomb, probably a mortar round, went off, but it wasn't close enough to do any damage. It just scared the hell out of us."
The bomb was probably detonated remotely, and Garcia believes the culprits were most likely amateurs. The second attack occurred a couple months later, on a different road at least 100 miles from the first attack. "This was a much bigger bomb," Garcia says, "probably some kind of artillery shell or tank round."
This bomb, which he thinks was also detonated remotely, damaged two of their vehicles. Four people sustained minor injuries, including Garcia, who caught some glass shards in his face.
All in all, though, he's been lucky. Garcia's operation didn't engage in regular combat patrols. For this reason, he and his teams suffered very few casualties. They often traveled in groups of only two to four Humvees, using alternate routes as often as possible to avoid attacks. "Most of the attacks you read about have been aimed at large convoys," Garcia says. "The other thing that probably helped us is that we were close to Iraqis. We built a lot of relationships with respected leaders in the communities where we worked, and we also kept a pretty low profile."
A Nightmare in Fallujah
Of course, violence in Iraq isn't easy to avoid. We all recall the horrific March 31 murder and mutilation of four American civilians in Fallujah. The contractors were pulled from their burning SUVs by an angry mob, dragged through the streets and hung from a Euphrates River bridge while a crowd of Iraqis cheered. That scene, along with the Abu Ghraib torture photos and the infamous televised beheadings, belongs in the same fat file with the most offensive and disgusting images we've seen thus far from this war.
On that particular day, Garcia's Fallujah team heard the report that a civilian convoy had been attacked. Garcia arrived about an hour after the incident, when the riot had already dispersed. By then, Iraqi police had secured the scene, and a U.S. combat patrol consisting of about 40 troops, with three or four Bradley fighting vehicles and two tanks, had taken control of the area.
"Helicopters were flying overhead," says Garcia, "and the media were already there. Smoke was coming from cars. My guys, along with some of the combat troops, had to help take the bodies down from the bridge."
Viewers at home were understandably sickened by this event, because it presented such a graphic portrait of extreme violence aimed at Americans. Many compared it to the televised images of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in Somalia back in 1993. Garcia's reaction to the incident was more balanced.
"I felt sad, but I'd seen a lot of that kind of thing before," he says. "It's part of doing this kind of business. Of course, I was angry that they'd been strung up. It was barbaric, but then war is barbaric. This kind of thing happens in every war, whether the media reports it or not.
"You know, I have no way of knowing, but it's entirely possible that the people who did that had family members who were blown up by our bombs. Decent people—including you, me or anyone else—can be moved to do very bad things when they have that kind of incentive."
Angry, Young, Unemployed Men with Guns
Like many experts, Garcia believes the Bush administration made a terrible mistake when it opted to disband Saddam's army. "They should've just lopped off all the top generals and done some spot removals of the hardcore Baathists, but kept the military together. Iraq under Saddam was a highly militant society. Being in the army brought with it a huge amount of prestige. These young guys lost that prestige, and on top of that they brought all their guns home with them. It created a very bad situation."
That's just one example of what Garcia views as the Bush administration's gross incompetence in conducting this war. "I'd love to be at West Point in 10 years for the class ’How Not to Conduct a War,'" he says, "I'm sure they're talking about it right now, how badly the civilian leadership screwed up."
Despite this, Garcia is still hopeful that something good can be salvaged from our current predicament. "The war can still be won and it can still be lost," he says. "I don't think Iraq can have a full Western-style democracy, at least not any time soon. At best, we can hope for a reasonably functional, moderately progressive government, something like Jordan or maybe even Turkey. At worst, the country could easily devolve into civil war. There's a very real danger of that."
During his service in Iraq, Garcia developed a great respect for Iraqis. He's hopeful that they'll be able to make it through this period without dragging their country into full-on civil war. "Iraqis are naturally entrepreneurial people," he says. "They're a rich country, and many Iraqis are very well-educated. It's not like Afghanistan. Iraq has been at the crossroads of global trade for centuries. Whatever happens, it's not going to be a poor country."
Regime Change at Home
Garcia would like to believe that the significant achievements coalition forces have made in rebuilding Iraq justify the invasion. Unfortunately, he still believes the war was a giant mistake.
"In the larger context," he says, "these small victories in reconstructing Iraqi society aren't worth what they've cost us in lives and resources. Strategically, the war has done us more harm than good. Even if we can transform Iraq into a relatively progressive, non-radical regime, there still wasn't a close enough connection between Iraq and al Qaeda to justify the war.
"I mean, we could invade Venezuela tomorrow and do the same sort of net good for the Venezuelan people that we've done in Iraq, but it would be strategically detrimental to us. If we really wanted to help the Iraqi people, if that was our goal, then we should've used NATO or the U.N. from the beginning. Going it alone has hurt us in a big way."
Garcia considers himself to be a moderate, old-style Rockefeller Republican, but these days he feels like a minority in his party. Although he won't change his party affiliation, he's finished with the Bush administration.
"No decision is more critical for a nation than whether to wage war," he says. "Make our elected leaders prove to you that it is the last resort. If they don't, hold them accountable come election time. Like retired generals Anthony Zinni, Barry McCaffrey and Norman Schwarzkopf, I believe that no convincing case was made by our president that we needed to invade Iraq when, how and why we did. I think that events today are bearing that out. Strategically, Iraq is a dangerous distraction and drain from the battle against al Qaeda and Islamic jihadist terrorists, and for that we may pay dearly. Remember that when you decide who should lead our country."
For Garcia, the only defensible option this presidential election year is to vote for John Kerry. "My impression is that a lot of people in the military feel the same way," he says. "We've been betrayed. A lot of those who serve in the military will be voting for John Kerry this time around. They might have to hold their noses to do it, but they will do it.
"I mean, I don't want to harp on this too much, but Kerry understands the cost of doing something like this because, unlike most of the Bush administration, he's been there. He's a smart guy. I definitely don't agree with everything he's ever supported, but I really think it's time for a change."
Home Sweet Home
Fresh back from Iraq, Garcia relishes his job as an analyst at a civilian government agency here in town. There's a chance the military will send him back to Iraq at some point, but he doesn't think it's likely, and that's just fine with him. "I'm too old for this stuff," says the 41-year-old, laughing. "Let the young guys do it."
Throughout our conversation, Garcia was thoughtful and restrained while making comments about the Bush administration's failures in Iraq. After serving in so many overseas operations, he's learned to treat governmental incompetence with a sense of humor. Even so, he's clearly upset that the Bush administration dragged our nation into this costly, dangerous, unnecessary war.
"I've seen a lot of carnage over the years," Garcia says, "and it always makes you mad, but it makes you especially mad in a case like this when we didn't need to be there. A lot of war widows are asking why? Why did we do this?"
While American troops continue to die in Iraq, we have yet to hear a reasonable answer to this question.