LOGAN—Military veterans, journalists and civilians whose lives were touched by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq came together for the ninth anniversary of the start of the war to observe and try to make sense of its global legacy.
Organized by USU journalism professor Matthew LaPlante and Army Maj. Matthew Badell, the Out of Iraq forum consisted of two panels of veterans and scholars, and an exhibit of the Iraq war photographs of Rick Egan, who covered the conflict for The Salt Lake Tribune.
In the Taggart Student Center auditorium at USU, LaPlante introduced a panel of scholars and former State Department officials that would discuss the legacy of the Iraq War: Dr. Salin Guner, a Turkish-born USU international relations professor, Lyle Holmgren, an agricultural agent who worked in Iraq to improve agricultural practices, political science professor and former CIA operative Larry Boothe, and former State Department Middle East expert Steve Sharp, who also teaches political science at USU.
“By a show of hands, how many of you were born after 1990?” asked LaPlante, who himself served as an Air Force intelligence analyst in Iraq. As student audience members raised their hands, LaPlante informed them that the United States has been involved in, or on the precipice of, combat with the Middle East for their entire lives.
U.S. military involvement in the Middle East has long been a controversial topic, and that was the focus of LaPlante’s first question to the panel: What is the most fundamental way that the Iraq war has altered the world’s geopolitical climate?
Guner said she believes the Iraq war was “an unjust war,” explaining that this was how the international community views the U.S. invasion to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. According to Guner, war in self-defense is a last resort. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq was preemptive, purportively in search of weapons of mass destruction, which never existed.
“When you engage in an unjust war it will haunt you afterwards,” Guner said.
Boothe, the former CIA official, agreed that the war was preemptive, explaining how Iraq had been comprised of three separate provinces based on religion and culture since the Ottoman empire, until British colonialists united the three regions—“they hate each other.” This is the sources of many of the problems in the Middle East, Boothe said: Different peoples that don’t like each other, artificially “united” into a single state, fighting for power.
Sharp, the former diplomat, said the Iraq war was “one of the most colossal blunders we have ever made.” The United States “spent trillions of dollars,” he said, “and if anything we are worse off.”
Holmgren had a rosier outlook than others on the panel, coming from the perspective of an agricultural agent invited to Iraq to help rebuild the nation. In 2008, Holmgren was approached by a small company that wanted to export beef animals into Iraq. He made the trip to Baghdad, attended a trade show and met people looking for trade opportunities. “I think trade is the best thing that could possibly happen between two countries,” he said.
He told audience members he remembered when he was a kid during the Vietnam War. It seemed impossible that things would ever be repaired there, he said. “I never dreamed we would have any kind of relations with Vietnam, but now there are golf courses being built over there, trade, and business.”
He recalled watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite and hearing the Vietnam body count, a traumatizing experience for the 10-year-old boy. Although things seem hopeless in the Middle East, Holmgren said, if Vietnam could come back after that war, “I can’t help but be optimistic” about Iraq.
Moderator LaPlante, remembered his own tour of duty in Iraq. “I was shocked by how beautiful a city Bagdad is,” he said. He wondered aloud to the panel and the audience if he would ever be able to take his family there on vacation.
Guner says the United States should stay out of the Middle East as much as possible. “The less U.S. involvement the better,” she said: Middle Eastern countries want to gain their economic independence before getting engaged with the rest of the world. “They want to economically nationalize before they get globally economically involved,” she said.
Some in the audience also had served in Iraq, and some said they saw a different side to the war, a firsthand experience that gave them a different viewpoint from that of politicians.
“One million people marched today to protest the living conditions and not a single one was killed,” Badell said in discussions that followed the session.
“In America we call that freedom of assembly, in Iraq we call it a special gift from the United States military,” replied Greg Stuart, also a military veteran and member of USU’s military science department.
Stuart had been in Iraq educating government employees. “The education we started over there was hopefully a great start. They did not want Americans to leave,” said Stuart.
Former State Department official Sharp pointed out that it might be hard for Americans to imagine how the people of Iraq view the United States. “We see ourselves as benign, sometimes benevolent.” But Iraqis looked at the war as America going after their own interests, he said.
The international community may look at the war as a negative event, but “many people wanted us to stay,” Sharp said. “But for every one of those, there were more that wanted us to leave.”
The problems of the Middle East are not confined to Iraq. “There are lots of divisions and conflicts that cannot be solved by starting a war,” said Guner.
Sharp agreed. “The Middle East is more complicated than Americans could dream in their worst nightmares,” he said.