A Man In The Street Interview

Map of major operations and battles of the Ira...

Major Ops of the Iraq War, via Wikipedia

In clearing off my desk this day after Christmas I came across a note I had made to myself on a napkin some two weeks ago while watching MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show. I recall thinking at the time that her commentary on the imminent ending of the Iraq War and an associated interview was as remarkable and cogent as any CBS 60 Minutes segment. Here at home, amid the holiday activity, it sure doesn’t feel like the end of a war to me. No ticker tape parades, no celebrations at all really. I wonder, is it just me in thinking how odd this is?  My impression is of a war that required no personal civilian sacrifice and which just might be completely un-recallable by young people soon to come of age.

The end of that has come and the troops have come home. So, I now ask in the context of that war, what did we cause to happen and what did we learn? If you stop a few citizens in the street and ask them those questions off the top of their heads, what would they say? Here’s what I would say.

It started with a shock and awe assault that demonstrated to the entire world on real-time satellite TV the incredible high-tech power possessed by the greatest military force in the world.  And then came the aftermath, completely predictable and completely unprepared-for, and because of that the Iraq War was worse than wasted.  We didn’t find any WMD’s. We didn’t find al Qaeda. We toppled a brutal dictator and his sons and at the cost of some one million human deaths, including 4,404 U.S. military deaths.  We forced the three warring religious factions of the country to enact a constitution and form a semblance of a democracy in the tumultuous Middle East. The war we started destroyed the country’s infrastructure. They still only have a few hours of electricity a day. Not only are the Iraq people not grateful to us, many actually hate us for doing what we did. They are pumping oil once again, especially in the Kurdistan north. I heard on the evening news last night that the Suni minority, possibly now linked with al Qaeda, were behind numerous suicide bombings all over Baghdad, and that PM Maliki had arrested a high-ranking Suni politician in the government. Our combat troops has been out of the country only a week and that so-called democracy is already crumbling.

English: GEN Colin Powell, FORSCOM Commander

What the whole thing seems like to me was an extremely painful and expensive lesson in how nation-building does not work. Some in the Republican party (like John McCain of all people!) think that after almost 9 years we left too soon, that we should have stayed to keep propping the Iraqi government up with no end in sight! That just astounds me. This was a lesson we should have learned long ago. We should have learned it from Vietnam, another ignominious adventure in warfare, but we didn’t. One of the statements made by Rachel’s interviewee, one Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, USA (Ret.) and former C. of Staff for Sec. State Colin Powell, also astounded me. He said that Bush II’s original planning included the possibility of taking over Syria and Iran after Iraq.

I’ve been a little worried about myself lately, politically speaking that is. I have usually voted Republican during my lifetime, but since I began blogging almost two years ago, and paying more attention to politics, actually, I have found myself drifting leftward.  Or, another possibility, the party drifted further rightward, something I prefer to believe.  During Vietnam I detested protesters as unpatriotic. I thought George McGovern was a traitor and the GOP was the party of patriots. Those were simpler times, times when I was confident that our leaders knew what they were doing. In so many ways, they didn’t.

Am I alone in thinking these thoughts? Well, there are at least a few others who are with me, and Col. Wilkerson, a disillusioned Republican, is one of them. Please watch the 7-minute video below and then reflect on the 8 questions that The Powell Doctrine states must all be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States. And then, please, compare to the statements coming out of the GOP candidate debates.

America can’t seem to learn this lesson, and I fear this video will become historically prophetic.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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17 Responses to A Man In The Street Interview

  1. Pingback: How the Iraq War Changed a Generation of Veterans « The Digital Liberal Alliance

  2. Jim,

    As you might have guessed, I am a big fan of Mr. Wilkerson, and I have seen him speak about such things many times. I am confident he remains a Republican in a lot of ways, but the kind of Republican who really doesn’t have a home these days. I know first hand, though, that if you begin to see that your political sensibilities are trampled by those on “your” side, you first wonder if you are on the right side and then you realize, at some point, that you are not. After that, at least for me, my mind was free to entertain the unthinkable notion that whether I had changed or those around me had changed, the change was real and I was free to explore in lands I never thought I would visit.

    You know, when I was a conservative (and by default a Republican because of it), I used to entertain the notion that there wasn’t, as someone once said, “a dime’s worth of difference” between the two establishment parties, and that conservatives needed to make sure that at least one of the parties was a home to real conservatism, like the kind I preached and believed in. What a horrific mistake in thinking that was.

    This country functioned much better when, like the 1950s and somewhat in the 1960s and up until the advent of Ronald Reagan, there wasn’t such a stark difference between Republicans and Democrats. The differences seemed to be essentially regional, as even southern Democrats were shamefully reactionary in their approach, say, to civil rights legislation.

    I have read and now re-read lot of William F. Buckley’s columns from those times and I can see the seeds of the destructive ideological polarization he planted in the minds of those in the “movement.” Even though I still enjoy reading Mr. Buckley, and even though his mind is qualitatively distinguishable from nearly all conservatives on the scene today, the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys and to an unmeasurable degree, even Fox “News,” would not exist as relatively popular conservative voices today without Buckley and what he did, especially in the effective way his polemics worked. Admittedly, he did it without the awful mean-spiritedness we see today, but he sort of set a standard in terms of polarizing the country and in trying to undermine the post WW II “leftish” consensus, that essentially started with Eisenhower.

    Lawrence Wilkerson, and to some extent yourself, remind me of Ike, in terms of political temperament and understanding. Funny thing, but I could see myself voting for someone like Eisenhower, and believe it or not, the liberal Rachel Maddow has done at least a couple of nice segments on him. I wish to God our differences in this country were Ike-like and not the extremes we see today, where such things as, say, the scientific consensus on climate change, are being undermined by a political class of Republicans who have a theo-ideological worldview that trumps rational discussion.

    All of that is why these folks must be defeated through a continued application of reason, as best we can personally utilize it, an indefatigable spirit to defend the scientific method in all spheres it touches, and to use the tools of our political system to at least, hopefully, once again establish that old post-WW II Eisenhower consensus—including the firm rejection of laissez-faire policies— so that most of our political arguments are on the margins.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, Duane, for providing clarity and insight on the subject, as you always do. I can think of nothing that better exemplifies the dangerous political polarization you speak of than the issues surrounding the Supreme Court now. There are two columns about that in today’s Globe (I don’t know if you’re in Joplin now) by Thomason and Henthoff, both discussing the Court’s critical role in our form of government. Henthoff wants CSPAN coverage of the 3-day hearings on the ACA and Thomasson discusses how Newt Gingrich wants to subpoena judges before Congress to explain controversial rulings. The body politic seems unaware of just how fragile is the balance of forces which has preserved the American way of life, and the more extreme the positions, as you well point out, the closer we come to instability.

      I especially like you example of Ike as a good politician, a guy whom MacArthur called “the best clerk I ever had”. Would that we had more clerks like that!


  3. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: I remember hearing after the Korean Truce was signed in 1953 the criticism that this was the first war that the U.S. had not won. I guess that hot on the heels of WWII and its monumental success, the country was not willing to accept anything short of all-out victory. Of course, my Southern ancestors would debate the conclusion that this was the first war that we didn’t win, depending on how we define “we.” At any rate, there were no parades when the troops came home, no American Legion, VFW, nor other patriotic organizations waiting at the train station (yes, we had trains back in those long-ago days) with flags and welcome home signs. I guess that many Vietnam veterans forgot about the “Forgotten War” 10 or 15 years later when their debacle ended.

    As much as veterans of the Korean War decried our involvement in that “Police Action,” believing that the side we were fighting for was often as corrupt as the regime we were fighting against, we cannot escape the conclusion that almost 60 years after the end of that three-year struggle the difference between North Korea and South Korea is night and day . . . literally, as a night-time photo taken from a satellite shown on TV last week reveals a brightly lit South Korea, and an almost completely dark North Korea. Does this justify the loss of 38,000 KIA and another 50,000 WIA? You be the judge.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You provide an excellent example, Henry, of the problem with war. When one compares, as you say, the two parts of divided Korea we see a perfect example of just how malleable the future can be. Was it worth it? I’m not sure that’s the right question to ask because it implies that the war’s consequences could be foreseen and given the nature of war, we know we can’t really do that. And yet I fully support the Powell Doctrine; we have to try. If nothing else the un-ended, stalemated Korean War serves as a paradigm of possible political extremes. North Korea is a nightmare state that would make even George Orwell gasp.

      Nuclear weapons changed the nature of war, and yet 66 years later I don’t think the world has really grasped the full implications of that. We should not be thinking now of conquering or re-making nations. Here in the twenty-first century we should instead be focusing on JSOC-style operations as the ultimate projection of force, and defending our shores, just as Col. Wilkerson states so lucidly.


  4. Jim,

    I am still on the road, but I just read Hentoff’s column on your advice.

    I disagree with Hentoff’s opinion, obviously, on the ACA, as well as many others he holds, but I do share his enthusiasm for televising the SC hearings. I have the book, “May It Please The Court,” which came with cassette recordings of the oral arguments in the important SC cases since the mid-1950s, I think. It is something I treasure and hope to put it in digital form soon.

    Scalia is right that many members of the public would not find everything “comprehensible” that goes on. But to penalize those who would get a lot out of the proceedings just because some if it would be misunderstood is a rather garish mistrust of democracy. But, then, many conservatives, historically and in the present, distrust democracy.

    At least C-SPAN will eventually carry the audio of the oral arguments.



  5. PiedType says:

    Of course there were no parades. We did those back when the entire country was committed to and involved in our wars. Our military was much larger, soldiers were drafted, more families were personally involved, everyone sacrificed, and everyone was taxed to pay for it. (George Bush didn’t understand you have to finance any war you start).

    Many Iraqis hate us for our invasion and subsequent nation-building. I hate us for the same reason. It wasn’t our place to go in and destroy their country, establish a type of government they may not be able to sustain (assuming they even want to), and then leave. We’ll be paying for this stupid war for years, probably until long after Iraq reverts to the divided tribal state it was before we decided to “help” them. Ditto Afghanistan.

    Colin Powell. They should have listened to him (his doctrine, not the speech full of administration deceit that he found himself delivering at the U.N.). And I wish he’d run for president. But one of the problems we have in this country is that truly intelligent, thoughtful, selfless individuals have no desire to get embroiled in the ugly world of politics.


  6. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim and Duane: Your comments about Ike struck me exactly the right way. Having just turned 21 in time for the 1956 Presidential election, I would have cast my first vote for a Republican. I thought very highly of Eisenhower: he got us out of Korea as fast as he could, he perceived and warned of the military/industrial complex, against the views of most Republicans of the day, and he nominated Earl Warren for Chief Justice (even if he did say later that it was the worst mistake he made as President).
    Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I was overseas and couldn’t register to vote, so I actually cast my first vote in1960 for JFK. It strikes me that there are no Eisenhowers, Everett Dirksens, and Nelson Rockefellers around today, who while ideologically on the opposite side of the prevailing Democratic Presidencies, realized that neither side could get all it wanted and that compromise was a necessity for the good of the country.

    I know that I am an old codger who, like most my age, are chastised by the young for glorifying the “Good Old Days,” but with the exception of Jim Crow the good old days have a few things to be proud of.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Both you and Pied (Susan), Henry, emphasize an important point here, one which she said very cogently and concisely in her comment below:

      But one of the problems we have in this country is that truly intelligent, thoughtful, selfless individuals have no desire to get embroiled in the ugly world of politics.

      Ike fit that definition, having been a college president before pretending to be a politician, and the others you mention are also appropriate. A scarce commodity indeed.


  7. IzaakMak says:

    Brilliant post as usual, Jim, and I completely agree with what Col. Wilkerson said. I grew up surrounded by those that seemed mindlessly entrenched in the politics of liberalism, which I naturally rebelled against by moving towards what appeared to me, at the time at least, the most “libertarian” alternative – the Reagan Republicans. But I’ve learned over time that both parties are so invested in “beating” the other side that they’re willing to adopt any stance – no matter how destructive to the country – that forwards that agenda.

    I’ve heard it said that most people start out life as Democrats and gradually become Republicans as they accumulate status and wealth that they want to protect. I think this only proves that most people are just as dumb when they’re old as they are when they’re young. The very few who actually gain wisdom as they age know that protecting what’s important requires more than mere range-of-the-moment, “what’s in it for me NOW” choices in the voting booth.


    • IzaakMak says:

      Oh, and about how this all relates to president Obama: Now We Know 😀


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Exactly, Izaak. As soon as one ceases to use politics as a medium for negotiation and view it as a contest, progress is forfeit. As for conservatism, here is a quote I found to like:

      “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” – J. K. Galbraith


      • IzaakMak says:

        Great quote Jim. But, as an Objectivist, I define “selfishness” as “pursuing one’s own rational self-interests.” So, from where I sit, the conservatives are doubly damned! 😀


  8. sekanblogger says:

    Jim, you are a rational, clear minded man.
    Naturally you are disgusted with right wing rhetoric.
    Any sane man would be.

    History will not judge us kindly concerning this war, and the hatred and terrorism that stem from this may never cease.


  9. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Far too many points to debate just in a comment with a conservative slant or defense against much of the above. So instead I simply focus on Colonel Wilkerson’s views.

    Yes, Dec 2011 WAS the time to leave Iraq and let Iraqis determine their own future. As well what would have been the difference had we left in Dec 08 or at the latest, Dec 09. Not much that I can see in hindsite. So why I ask did President Obama wait for 2 or 3 years to bring all the troops home from Iraq and why are we still waiting to do so with an even worse effort in Afghanistan? What exactly were or now are we waiting for in ending on our own decisions the two wars? I’m not sure, are you?

    Remember, today, most Presidents start wars without Congressional action. But there is nothing that prevents any President, actting as the Commander in Chief, from with the simple stroke of a pen, bringing all troops home almost instantly.

    Now, moving beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, look at Iran today. Read the recent assessment of Iranian power projection provided by a man that frequently provides advice to Congress, Europeans and the UN on MIdeaster affairs. His name is Walid Phares and while he is “geopolical” in nature, he is apolitical in terms of U.S. politics.

    Then check out the blog just posted by me on the MILITARY ramifications of an attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz by Iran, as they have recently now twice threatened to do in the last week.

    Finally, while impossible to predict with any accuracy, consider the world today IF we had chosen not to respond to 9/11 with war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Saddam still in power in Iraq and a real threat to stability in the Mideast and perhaps an expanding threat to western interests beyone the Mideast. OBL still in Afghanistan training more and more radical Islamics and who knows how many more post 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

    But more important, does anyone believe the Iranian power would have DECREASED since 9/11 had we simply built memorials to the destruction incurred on 9/11 and tried to “talk” the world into greater peace and lack of power projection from radical Islamic States?

    Finally, fast forward 5 years from today and consider a nuclear armed Iran with all the geopolitical consequences of such. Think you can counteract such nuclear threats from that kind of Iran with “lilly pads”?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      1. Obama waited to bring the troops home in order to give the new government of Iraq time to consolidate its government and to train its military and police forces. Many on the right, John McCain most prominently, criticized him for not keeping our ground forces there even longer, but the deadline for leaving was set by George W. Bush and Iraq would not give our guys the legal immunity we needed to operate in their country. I believe the same reasoning now applies to Afghanistan.
      2. If we had chosen “not to respond to 9/11 with war in Afghanistan and Iraq”, the other rather obvious option would have been to embrace the JSOC method of eliminating al Qaeda throughout the world, a much more efficient and less costly plan. Do you believe for one minute that the Iraq War forestalled even a single terrorist attack on us like 9/11? I sure don’t. And the raid that got OBL wasn’t helped much at all that I can see by our involvement in Afghanistan.
      3. You said,

      “But more important, does anyone believe the Iranian power would have DECREASED since 9/11 had we simply built memorials to the destruction incurred on 9/11 and tried to “talk” the world into greater peace and lack of power projection from radical Islamic States?”

      You seem to be saying that the Iraq War restrained Iranian power, but the opposite is true. In effect, the United States destroyed Iran’s sworn Suni enemy, Saddam Hussein, and replaced him with a Shiite-dominated government fully compatible with Iran’ own. You have got this completely backwards. And to imply that there was no option except for going to war in Iraq is an empty straw man argument. Why wouldn’t JSOC operations have been an option back then too?
      4. Yes, I think we can counteract nuclear threats from Iran – with a big enough lilly pad. Israel did it once with Syria, I believe. I’m thinking of our latest deep penetrator, a 30,000 lb. bunker buster. Let ’em chew on that lilly pad.


  10. ansonburlingame says:

    to all,

    It is ridiculous, in my view, to keep arguing over what we did or should have done post 9/11. We did what we did, so now what is the issue.

    Several things are very different today, ten years after 9/11. Let me name just a few, without trying to explain why such situations now exist, today:
    1. Iraq is a threat only to itself today and no one else around the world or right next door to them. Big change
    2. The Arab Spring is blooming and no one understands the ramifications of that internal Arab uprising against Arab rulers from the past. Big Change
    3.Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons. What they might do with them is anyone’s guess for now. The challenge to the west is to prevent that from happening and we are failing in that effort.
    4. Al Qaeda, even Al Qaeda in Iraq (remember that group that almost drove us out of Iraq, pre-surge and who was beaten back and defeated only post surge AND with great help from Sunnis. Remember that we you say there was NO Al Qaeda in Iraq, please.
    5. Afghanistan remains and will remain a bunch of Islamic goat herders ready to bite any hand that impinges on their chosen, primitive life-style. Who knows today what will fill that vacuum when we leave, other than it will be a very radical and anti-western backwater to the rest of the world.
    6. Pakistan is now far worse than before 9/11. Any bets how long before a radical Islamic government takes over therein, along with the nuclear arsenal therein? Wonder what India might decide to do about that situation?

    Now there is the “first course” today on the MIdeast and Central Asia geopolitical table.

    Would you care to argue at some point how to deal with those issues? Wonder what Col. Wilkerson would suggest?

    As for lilly pads, remember if you will pre-9/11 the status of our JSOC forces and their expertise. JSCO today is a much greater force than we could ever imagine in the summer of 2001. And all of that happened including creating new spec op technology, training, etc. only because the JSCO of today was created in the caldron of ten years of war.

    Our lilly pad options today are NOT what they were in the fall of 2001 and to think JSOC of that time could have “handled” Al Qaeda in Afghanistan alone is a pipe dream, in my view. If Afghanistan returns to “training ground” for future terrorists do you think a few OBL type raids will stop them, even today??? Keep dreaming.

    Think JSOC will keep the Straits of Hormuz open if Iran decides to close them to oil traffic?

    There is part of the world today, like it or not. Now what should we do about it?



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