In the spring of 2003, I was part of the military force that spearheaded the attack against Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq. After the collapse and surrender of the regime, we spent months engaged in stability and support operations looking for arms dealers and terrorists while working to provide security and aid to the civilians.
Over countless operations, I never once witnessed the deliberate targeting of cultural sites (mosques, universities, archaeological sites, etc.) by any part of the U.S. military. On the contrary, I was part of regular operations where fully armed Marines flew hours over the desert to check on archaeological sites and deter (or apprehend) looters. We were risking our lives to protect these foreign cultural sites.
During one of our more quiet months, my unit was able to visit Babylon and Ur. We wandered through the site essentially unsupervised. We stood under the oldest arch in the world — a fragile and narrow doorway of brick standing alone in the open desert air for millennia. My fellow Marines and I were in awe.
When we left those sites, they were as when we had arrived: no graffiti, no damage, no removal of “souvenirs.” Respecting cultural sites is both correct and a Law of War, as was written out plainly on the laminated cards every American in theatre carried throughout the campaign. The local powers did not share our respect.
One violation I personally witnessed was committed by the Iraqi army.
After hours of driving through the city of Baghdad, returning waves proffered by civilians and passing the central mosque without incident, we ended at a university in central Baghdad. Upon arrival we found a large scud-type ballistic missile on its wheeled launcher parked in the university’s courtyard. Beside it sat a small table with cups of tea so recently abandoned they were still steaming in the warm evening air.
Hussein’s Iraqi army had deliberately used a university as a shield for a ballistic missile! They had put the entire institution at risk in order to protect a piece of military hardware! Throughout many years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has gone out of its way to protect cultural sites in those nations.
President Trump's recent tweets referencing our potential targeting of cultural sites in Iran is misguided. Secretary of Defense Esper’s statements to the contrary, reassuring the public that the U.S. military will conduct any operations against Iran according to the Laws of War speak to our system of checks and balances within our government and are in keeping with the long tradition of American military action.
Let us praise Esper and take reassurance from both his word and the long history of evidence of American action and let us call to task the president for his poorly chosen words and unwillingness to promptly withdraw them.
To the young men and women who will be at the point of any upcoming operations, we have faith in your discretion and restraint.
Andrew M. Pedry