The approach of Veteran’s Day got Desert Storm vet Michael Banzet to ruminating about his decision to retire from the Air Force after the elections of 2008. He wrote a powerful oped, Why I quit… Desert Storm vet explains decision to leave Air Force after 22 years that was published in his hometown newspaper in Montana, The Daily Inter-Lake in November of 2010.
Four years later, he says, “the thing that prompted me to attempt to put thought to electrons was, oddly enough, the recent massacre of 770 young men around Camp Speicher, Iraq.”
I served 22 years in the Air Force, and without a doubt, the most rewarding year in my career was the year that I spent on the ground in Iraq. I was able to witness the results of the sacrifice made by so many young Americans, young and old, men and women, of all colors. I was humbled by what I found. The desperately courageous Iraqis, who had to operate in the most dangerous of circumstances, depended on the steady presence of the American armed forces. And of course, the numerous allies.
I noticed that the news coverage didn’t match what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. Everything was negative. Every setback was trumpeted, every advance muffled or ignored. There were “grim milestones” for casualties updated daily. Even an esteemed senator from Nevada claimed, while young Americans were engaged in active combat, that they were losers. I was in Baghdad for some of that. Awesome. That used to be unheard of. But it gets you re-elected today.
And eventually, with the “heads it’s negative, tails it’s not positive” coverage, people began to believe that we should leave. And why not? It was the “wrong war,” it was going badly, at least until we needed a justification to leave, and then it was “strong and stable.” So the United States elected a man who promised that he would declare victory and leave. And for those of you who are sputtering, “But BUSH!” consider this:
So completely wrong was the “declare victory and leave” position that the current administration is not only using Bush’s 2001/2 Authorizations for Use of Force for legal justification, they are also embracing the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption. For gosh’ sake, the carrier that launched some of the first airstrikes is the USS George H.W. Bush. Talk about complete reversal.
Of course, anyone with the ability to think deeply about the subject would realize that changing a culture is a long proposition. Far longer than merely the end of combat. And that really should be the end game of any war that the U.S. gets involved in. The end game of war, for us, is supposed to be a free, potentially prosperous people emerging from the carnage of war. Someone who will make a good ally in the future. And that’s what was happening in Iraq.
Iraqis, for the first time in their lives, were able to trust. That may be a small thing for you. You, who have never feared for your life from your government. You, who have never wondered if something you say is going to get you killed at the hands of your government. You, who have been able to trust your friends, neighbors and associates; if you haven’t, it wasn’t because you thought they were a government informant, ready to turn you in at the slightest misstep, perhaps to be fed into a paper shredder.
But as the year of my duty in dusty Baghdad wore on, they were starting to trust. They were starting to timidly reach out to report IED emplacements, rocket set-ups, and bad guys in the neighborhood. The thing that moved me to write my book, “A Flowershop in Baghdad,” was this simple fact. The Iraqis who had been bombed, shot at, and we had tried to kill (in one case, actually being shot down by us), all referred to us the same way:
“The Friendly Side.”
I wrote 341 pages about the exceptionalism of this country, and how much we were changing the young men and women who were clever enough to avoid being killed for the audacity to sign up for service in the Iraqi Air Force. The 20-somethings were great at absorbing the moral compass that guides our military operations. But I also wrote about the challenge of the older officers. It’s pretty hard to change from a life of selfishness, self-preservation and fear to one of selflessness and courage. But it’s do-able; just takes some time to reinforce the goodness in the ones who can change, and supervise the transition out of power of the ones who cannot. All the while nurturing the new generation, keeping them from harm until they can take over. It’s not an easy process.
I know that it would be pretty hard for me to completely change my world view at my age. I can certainly take in new facts, but to change a significant part of my belief system would take constant reinforcement, both in issues big and small. That requires “presence.” The simple act of being around influences behavior. That’s why the police don’t all just sit at the station, waiting for a call to come in. They actively patrol; for presence. It doesn’t cost them any more to patrol; you’ve already hired them. It’s common sense. Constant reinforcement and influence until good behavior is the norm.
Due to the type of reporting from Iraq, you never knew the progress that was being made; the connections that were being completed, the goodness that exposure to the U.S. military brings. Trust. Selflessness. Leadership. Followership. Courage. And yet you voted all that away; leaves blowing in a dishonest wind. Which brings us back to the 770 young men massacred around Camp Spiecher.
I knew those faces. Those confused, terrified young faces. About 175 of them were Iraqi Air Force recruits; the others, Army. This was precisely the process that I helped set up. Did I know personally this group? No. But they were the same young men, full of promise and hope. Capable of immense good, ready to be molded by whatever of our influence remained. But I wondered, as I looked at some of the pictures, why were they captured without uniforms? Without weapons? Why no resistance? It wasn’t until there were a couple of witness testimonies that it all snapped into place.
They were abandoned. First by us, then by the leaders, no longer influenced by “the friendly side,” that had fallen into their old habits.
One survivor talked of the young military recruits being told to change into civilian clothes, take no weapons: they would be loaded into trucks and sent to Baghdad. Another talked of their senior officers just disappearing. In both cases, the next organization that they met was ISIS. And then, they were taken out into the desert, and as an inevitable consequence of U.S. policy, slaughtered. Did ISIS pull the triggers, draw the knives across young throats? Absolutely. Did the rush to leave, for no reason other than it was Bush’s war enable them to do it? Absolutely.
If the police patrolling your neighborhood let it be known that they would no longer be patrolling your neighborhood, but that the neighborhood watch would be taking over, do you think bad behavior would go up or down? Is that because new people moved in? And in the absence of a strong presence for good, what will happen to evil?