Ask The Warriors About Iraq
By Lieutenant Colonel (select) Stanton S. Coerr, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
President George W. Bush gathered U.S. support for invading Iraq by using two arguments: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein supported al Qaeda terrorism. Now, vicious words and gratuitous finger pointing keep coming from people who insist they were misled. Politicians and TV experts sharply critique the Bush administration. Yet, I have not heard a word from anyone who actually carried a rifle or flew an aircraft in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and its ugly aftermath. What about consulting the guys who had—and still have—the most to lose?
As a Marine Corps reserve major, I was the senior U.S. officer attached to the 1 Royal Irish Battlegroup (a reinforced British rifle battalion). I commanded five Marine air-naval gunfire liaison teams and was the liaison officer between the U.S. Marines and the battlegroup. Seventeen days after activation on 14 January 2003, my Marines and I were in Kuwait, ready to go to war.
Having studied political science at Duke University and government at Harvard University, I understand realpolitik, geopolitical jujitsu, economics, and the realities of the Arab world. I am not a blind follower. But the war made sense then—and our presence there makes sense now.
At dawn on 22 March, we crossed the border in trace of the 5th Marine Regiment’s sweep through the Ramaylah oil fields. We were the guys you saw on TV every night: filthy, hot, exhausted. Although the National Rifle Association’s right-to-bear-arms mantra is a joke to me, I carried a loaded rifle, a loaded pistol, and a knife at all times. I pointed a loaded weapon at another human for the first time in my life. We killed numerous Iraqi soldiers. I directed air and artillery strikes in concert with my British artillery officer counterpart. Close up, we saw dead bodies, helmets with bullet holes in them, handcuffed prisoners, and oil well fires with flames leaping 100 feet in the air. In short, I did what I had spent 14 years training to do.
Apart from the violence, a number of things lifted our hearts. Thousands of Iraqis ran into the streets at the sight of us, screaming, waving, and cheering. They ran from their homes when our vehicles roared in from the south, bringing us bread, tea, cigarettes, and photos of their children. Much was lost in language differences, although my clear impression was: “Thank God, someone has arrived with bigger men and bigger guns to be on our side at last.” We saw in the eyes of the people how a generation of fear reflects in the human soul.
For those who oppose the war, let there be no mistake: the Ba’ath regime was the Nazi Party of the second half of the 20th century. Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship raped, tortured, murdered, extorted, and terrorized the Iraqis for 35 years. Mass graves bear testimony to countless crimes. One U.S. Marine battalion liberated a prison populated entirely by children, where the jailers had brutalized the weakest of them and killed the strongest.
The Ba’ath Party retained power by placing officials in every city and village to keep the people under its boot. We found munitions and weapons everywhere. In Ramaylah, the local Ba’ath leader’s desk contained brass knuckles and a handgun. These are the people who are in prison—where they belong.
Consider this analogy. For years, you watched the same large man come home at night. You listened to his yelling and the screams of children and the noise of breaking glass. You and everyone on the block knew he was beating his family. On behalf of the neighborhood, you asked him to stop. Then you begged; finally, you threatened him. Nothing worked. So, after 13 years, you muster the meanest guys you can find. You kick his door down, punch him in the face, and drag him away. The house is a mess, the family poor and abused. But now there is hope. You did the right thing.
I can speak with authority on the opinions of British and American infantrymen: at no time did anyone say—or imply—to any of us that we were invading Iraq to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction and avenge the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. We were there to oust a tyrant and return Iraq to its people. Marines carry out policy decisions, not make them—and none of us had the slightest doubt about the righteousness of our actions.
Take it from someone who was there and stood to lose everything. We must stay the course in Iraq. We owe it to the Iraqis and to the world.
Lieutenant Colonel (select) Coerr, a Marine reservist activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom, is an attack helicopter pilot and forward air controller. He is in the Home Depot Store Leadership Program in San Diego, California.