Former US Army Captain, "Many vets blame the Bush administration for invading without a clear plan"

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Answers by Matt Gallagher, former US Army captain and the author of the acclaimed Iraq war novel Youngblood, on Quora.

A: By the time my scout platoon and I got there (part of the 25th Infantry Division) in late 2007, the American military was in full-on strategy switch mode to counterinsurgency (COIN). Basically, a more armed beat cop approach, getting out in local communities and engaging the locals on their turf, etc. The status quo was clearly not working, so sure, why not? Let's try it. I don't want to say soldiers don't play the blame game, because soldiers are humans and humans naturally question things, but in that moment, I think we all were just looking for some solution that didn't end in all-out civil war. Back then, and through the duration of our 15 months there, there was a sense of cautious optimism that COIN was working, at least in our little town northwest of Baghdad.

It seems quaint now, but when we came home in early 2009, we really did think we'd won the war, or something like it.

Now, as veterans, I think we relate to our war and what transpired in Iraq in a variety of ways. Can only speak from anecdotes and friendships here, but I think many vets blame the Bush administration for invading without a clear plan, and believe what came after was inevitable without that clear plan in the beginning. Others (and maybe some of the same) believe the Obama administration made a critical error by fully withdrawing in 2011, that our modest gains of security and stability could've been sustained without that decision. Others blame the generals, be it Franks in the beginning or the COIN people near the end. I think a vast majority of vets think Bremer made the utmost error of the war by firing all government officials with Ba'athist Party ties in 2003, essentially creating an insurgency overnight.

I'll say this - the Army I joined in 2005 was more conservative-leaning than the one I left in 2009. Directly tied to Iraq, in my opinion. Perhaps that's changed in the six years since, though.


A: Another tough but important question! I don't think there's one clear answer on that. Why does the same firefight or same roadside bomb attack give one soldier an adrenaline rush and nothing else, but another post-traumatic stress? Why do studies show that direct combat experience isn't necessarily a precursor for deployment-related post-traumatic stress? Our brains are all so different.

One thing that I think is common is how war (or at least war in Iraq) wore us all down. No one sleeps, each hour has a new figurative fire to put out, the stress and stakes are all so unbelievably high ... one small mistake can mean potentially awful, fatal consequences. Hell, even doing the right thing all the time can result in those potentially awful, fatal consequences. I know I became numb, emotionally and psychologically. I look back on my writing from that deployment and see it - I don't have the time or distance to brood over the consequences of the day's actions, only the energy to muster for another's days worth of actions. Of course that'll result in some wear and tear (physical and otherwise) on even the most hardened souls.

To end a light note: Rip Its and Wild Tigers helped. These great, addicting energy drinks that probably are outlawed in most Western nations. Wild Tigers (supposedly) had liquid nicotine in them.


A: It can be frustrating, but frustration is a small thing, especially when you're over there. We got there in late 2007, and pushing back a country from the brink of civil war - granted a civil war we helped initiate - felt like a good thing, worthy of pursuit. So you concentrate on what you can control in the moment, your town, your neighborhood, your platoon and your patrols. Of course that other stuff creeps in - how could it not, especially late at night when you have too much time to think on guard duty and the like - but when you're there, it's about the guys next to you, about the next mission.

Obviously that all changes when you come home and interact with civilians who have a wider but more distant view of what you just participated in. It took me a few years, but I've gotten to the point where I just want people to engage with what America did in Iraq, to think critically about it and to think about how what happened there might effect our collective futures. It's so easy and natural to be disengaged from American military force nowadays, but it's also counter to our ideals as a republic. Not to get too soapbox-y on you all, but we as a citizenry need to take back our military for our country's good. And I say that as a citizen first, and as a veteran second. [/end rant]

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