As the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, three Iraq war veterans spoke at Gainesville State College Monday and pondered whether an exit strategy is possible.
"I agree with the side that thinks we (the troops) need to come home, but we need to do it in an orderly fashion without causing chaos in the Middle East," said Bobby Saxon, a Georgia Army National Guard major who served in Iraq in 2005.
He was one of the panelists at "Five Years in Iraq," a forum sponsored by Students for a Progressive Society.
The other participants were Sean Keane, who was an infantry Marine for four years, and Brad Wells, who served two tours in Iraq with the Army infantry. Wells is now a sergeant in the Georgia Army National Guard, and also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Both Wells and Keane were involved in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Both were in Kuwait in December 2002 for routine training rotations, but did not know that the military was targeting Iraq.
"They told us something big was going down," Keane said. "We thought, ‘Hmm, maybe we’re going to Afghanistan, because they bombed us (on Sept. 11, 2001).’"
Instead, they were surprised to find themselves in Iraq. "Our commander said, ‘Nine days. We’re going to be in and out,’" said Wells, referring to the initial "shock and awe" campaign.
But that was the easy part. Soon, the troops were in a situation they hadn’t really trained for: How do you fight when you can’t identify who the enemy is?
The instinct is to kill strangers before they can kill you, said Keane, who was sent to Nasiriyah. "We saw a lot of Marines flip out when they got there," he said.
Wells had a similar experience in Baghdad. "I was given the order to ‘shoot everything that moves,’" he said. "I did not follow that order literally. But some people did."
As an officer who had been stationed in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, Saxon, 46, had a different perspective on Iraq.
"I had been out of the military for 11 years (at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks)," he said. "I was a little too old to go back into the active military, but the National Guard took me. I felt so passionately about what had been done to our country."
When he was sent to Iraq in 2005, Saxon believed the nation posed a genuine threat to the U.S.
"I, like most of you, was very misled by (the Bush) administration," he said, referring to the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found.
Saxon was there during Iraq’s historic first elections, and he felt real progress was being made.
"We might not like democracy in the form it’s taken so far, but at least it’s a step in the right direction," he said. "We felt euphoric at the elections, but things have gone downhill since then."
Violence actually increased after the elections, and in January 2007, President Bush announced there would be a "surge," an infusion of more than 20,000 more combat troops in Iraq’s most troubled areas.
Troop deaths spiked at first, as the new forces clashed with insurgents. But later in 2007, there was a dramatic decline in violence.
However, Saxon thinks the terrorists are merely laying low for a while and have not disappeared permanently.
"I am still not in favor of the surge," he said. "We haven’t solved the problem. We’ve only created the appearance of success."
The three panelists got into a spontaneous debate about how to withdraw troops from Iraq without making things worse.
Keane said he still believes that invading Iraq was strategically the right thing to do, but he feels conflicted by moral and ethical issues. And he believes the U.S. will always have to have a military presence in the country.
"We’re going to be there forever. It’s just a fact," he said.
Saxon alluded to presidential candidate John McCain’s assertion that the U.S. could be in Iraq for a century.
"Personally I don’t care if we’re there another 100 years," he said, "as long as no more Americans die."
Nearly 4,000 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war started.
Keane wants to see all the killing stopped.
"There are people in Iraq who are just like us," he said. "I’ve gotten to know them. I’ve played soccer with them. I don’t want Americans to die, but I don’t want Iraqis to die, either."
A student asked the panel whether it is possible to maintain order in the Middle East if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq.
"Absolutely," said Wells. "Violence is a learned behavior. It can be unlearned. I don’t think it’s an impossible mission."
But Wells said the troop withdrawal, if it occurs, will have to be handled very carefully.
"Whatever we choose, the whole world is watching us," he said. "The whole world is going to remember what we do."
Tonna Harris-Bosselmann, adviser for the Students for a Progressive Society club, said this was the reason she wanted to hold a forum.
"About 70 percent of Americans now say they’re against the war," she said. "The question now is not if we should end the war, but how we should end it."
Gainesville State College student Martin Bennett said he found the event enlightening.
"The best thing I heard was the discussion about responsible withdrawal," he said.
Student Shama Khimani said everybody wants the war to end, but they’re afraid of what will happen afterward.
"What are we fighting for now? We’re fighting because we don’t know how to stop," she said.
Khimani, who grew up in an Islamic household, added that Americans need to work harder to comprehend the Iraqi mindset.
"If you ask me what I am, I’ll say I’m an American. But if you ask someone in Iraq the same question, they’ll say they’re a Muslim," she said.
Khimani worries that Iraqis’ primary allegiance is not to their country. That could be a problem when the U.S. attempts to turn control back over to them.
"Our military, which is the best in the world, is training the Iraqis, who have a tendency to shift opinion whenever a strong wind blows," she said. "What if we give them all the skills and equipment (to fight), and then they turn on us?"