Over the last days and months, the 17 veterans of the Iraq War currently serving in Congress have helplessly watched from Washington as insurgent fighters gained ground in Iraq — ground that they fought for not long ago as combat surgeons and fighter pilots, platoon leaders and chaplains. But these new members of Congress aren’t marching lockstep on the way forward for the deteriorating country — not with each other, and not with older hawks on the Hill calling on President Barack Obama to get back into Iraq.
The group of mostly young, male, Republican members of the lower chamber are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, but not yet of Washington. Eventually, some of them will supplant their elders in Congress with an increasing influence on foreign policy and national security strategy. But as the White House continues to weigh its options for dealing with the current crisis in Iraq, these lawmakers’ pronouncements are already imbued with the authority experience brings: We know. We were there.
“Any person that’s viewed war does not want to go back to war, is not gonna be the first one to rush in,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., drawing on the experiences shared with him as a chaplain during a combat tour in Iraq in 2008. “It’s ugly, it’s painful, it’s something that’s still a very open wound for America. You don’t believe me, walk around to the mall tonight and just watch.”
But Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a military pilot who has flown in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said, “A lot of people are surprised you’re a war veteran and somehow you’re advocating for military power. Look, war is hell, we should never do it again. But you also realize what America stands for, and you realize what we’re capable of.”
Kinzinger admitted there is no greater consensus for military intervention in Iraq among war veterans than in the general public.
“People always try, on any foreign policy or war thing, to bring the veterans in and bring in a common bond. And there isn’t one,” he said. “Many of us fought in combat, but our world view is still driven by our political view.”
On Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on the Senate floor called for the resignation of Obama’s entire national security team as reports indicated the Islamic State In Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, was approaching Baghdad. On Friday, Obama said he was not considering sending American combat troops back to Iraq to fight the ISIL, placing the blame for the devolving situation — and the challenge of finding the political way out of the crisis — squarely with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On Tuesday, Pentagon officials said Baghdad will not fall, but on Wednesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate that military officials want to reassess the strength of Baghdad’s defenses. Yet McCain and others, including Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., are rallying fellow members behind a push for airstrikes and more immediate military action.
“I know guys, I know a few, and there’s gonna be groups of people, who have thought about going back over there,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., on Tuesday. Hunter is the first Marine combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan elected to Congress in 2008, and has been one of the loudest voices among his generation of veteran lawmakers in calling for military action.
Hunter had three recommendations for Obama in dealing with the crisis: sign a new Status of Forces Agreement allowing U.S. troops back into Iraq “now, or yesterday,” solve “the Syria problem,” and leverage the Kurds. He called for air strikes and special operations forces to be mixed in with Iraqi forces, where possible.
“When all the bad guys were lined up on the road in middle of nowhere, that was a pretty good time for a military strike,” said Hunter, who saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Iraq War, in Fallujah in 2004. “But this administration moves at a snail’s pace, and it’s probably too late. … The more the president looks at different options that were never presented to him until this last weekend, the courses of actions get whittled down the longer he takes to act.”
Hunter said military action does nothing to fix the underlying problems of sectarian division, government corruption and inept security forces, but he said it “gives them more time to work things out in a relatively peaceful environment.”
Kinzinger, who often shadows Hunter, echoed the call for military action and political reconciliation with Iraq’s government, “But I don’t think we can wait for that to happen, this is a time-is-of-the-essence situation.” Yet Kinzinger said he’d take that action a step further, and push the administration to also consider ISIL camps inside Syria as potential strike targets.
“The last hope for any kind of stability is the preservation of the Iraqi state, so I think to preserve the Iraqi state now you have to put special forces on the ground for target acquisition, embedding with Iraqi military … Significant robust strikes is gonna be our best chance,” he said, though he added, “I can’t guarantee it’s gonna work.”
“I’m a pilot, so just overall the 20,000 foot view is — I was overhead … I saw the difference a year made in the surge, taking out people that sought to do harm, in terms of the different environment.”
Lawmakers hoping for a united front in urging the administration to use a military response don’t have as ready an ally among Iraq veterans in Congress as one might expect, and the divide isn’t strictly among chamber or partisan lines.
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., the first and only Iraq War veteran in the Senate, issued a statement on Friday in response to Obama’s consideration of “other options” titled, simply: “Our military mission in Iraq should be over.” Walsh, who is running for the Democratic nomination to keep the seat to which he was appointed in February, enlisted in the National Guard and led an infantry battalion in 2004 through 2005 in the same region where battles rage again this week.
Fellow Democrat Rep. Tammy Duckworth, of Ill., who lost both legs and partial use of one arm when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004, has stayed mostly mum on calls for military action to stem ISIL momentum and her office declined to comment. Duckworth opposed military intervention and air strikes in neighboring Syria.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, the only other female combat veteran in Congress, has strongly opposed military action to address the current crisis in Iraq. “What is being proposed with air strikes in Iraq, not only will they not be effective, they will actually be counter-productive,” said Gabbard, who deployed near Baghdad in 2005 as a medical operations specialist. “They will strengthen this Shiite-led government in Iraq, which is a puppet government for Iran, and will strain those tensions and further entrench us in what is a generations-old civil war.”
“We have to make sure the actions that we take are strategic, precise, and in the end achieving that objective of keeping America safe,” she said. “It is irresponsible for those who are proposing air strikes just because we have to do something … it’s really deceiving the American people.”
Some Republican veterans such as Collins share the view that military tactics are largely futile. Collins said Tuesday it’s “common knowledge” that the solution is a political one, in which the Maliki government must give all groups in Iraq a seat at the table. Any U.S. role should be strictly protective of American citizens, he said. “U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. war planes in the air, is not an option we need to default to.”
“People who say, ‘We need to have airstrikes, drone strikes’ … [the Iraqis] have technology they could be using, but they’re saying, ‘Why don’t you do this for us?’ It’s a temporary solution to a long-term problem,” Collins said. “Sure, you might disrupt some supply lines. But if airstrikes were the end all, be all, there would be no more al Qaeda. You can take out leadership, but a new head will grow.”
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., the only member of Congress to have served in both the first Gulf War and the war in Iraq, said, “The notion that Baghdad is going to fall, I don’t buy that for a second.” He rejected the call for air strikes, saying, “The conflict will revert back to insurgency warfare, because [ISIL] will fall into the civilian population just like extremist elements did just after the invasion of Iraq and the insurgency started.”
When he deployed in 2005 and 2006 to help support the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, Coffman said, “Those who turned against the extremist elements, the only way they did so is when they felt like they had a future in Iraq, which they don’t feel right now. The solution here is a political one.”
As Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., and others, said, there are options between military action or washing our hands of the situation.
“We collectively, the president, the media, and others, tend to tout the situation in Iraq in terms of we’re either all in with troops there, or we’re completely gone with no engagement and have abandoned it,” said Griffin, an Army lawyer in Mosul in 2006. “That’s a false choice. There are numerous shades along that continuum.”
“If there are things that can be done by some of our elite forces, very targeted strikes that need to be done, I could theoretically be open to that. But I think first and foremost, the president’s gotta sort of tall order: he’s gotta show something a trajectory of what the heck he’s doing, with all due respect.”
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who served as a combat surgeon in Iraq from 2005-2006, said if classified briefings in coming days determine air strikes could be effective, “certainly I will be in favor of it … if we’re going to move, we need to move soon.”
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., declined to comment on his specific strategy recommendations but has said he does not support American boots on the ground. Heck, a colonel and doctor in the U.S. Army Reserves who deployed in 2008 to run an emergency room in a combat hospital west of Baghdad, has criticized the Obama administration and said he is “appalled” and “disappointed” to see Iraq unravel. Heck’s spokesman, Greg Lemon, said in a statement, said “we missed our best opportunity to have an impact with minimal risk.”
As Ohio Republican Wenstrup pointed out, those who wore the boots, even in Congress, don’t get much of a say.
“If [boots on the ground] leads to a minimal loss of life and actually accomplishes our goal then I would consider it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be my first choice. Let’s use the boots on the ground of the Iraqi soldiers and military first.”
Said Kinzinger: “I’m well aware the president’s not gonna look to Congress to make his foreign policy decisions.”