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A Veteran’s View Of The Crisis In Iraq

Seth Moulton served four tours of duty in Iraq over five years. (sethmoulton.com)

Seth Moulton served four tours of duty in Iraq over five years. (sethmoulton.com)

Sunni militants today have captured a key northern Iraqi town along the highway to Syria. The town of Tal Afar, with a population of some 200,000 people, was taken just before dawn, the town’s mayor told the Associated Press.

This comes weeks after militants claimed a vast swath of territory in the country’s north.

Here & Now’s Robin Young sits down with Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton, to discuss his thoughts on the events in the country.

Moulton served four tours in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer, first as a platoon commander and later as a special assistant to General Petraeus.

He’s also trying to enter politics. Moulton is challenging Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney in the state’s Democratic primary.

Interview Highlights: Seth Moulton

On his thoughts as Iraqi towns fall and militants are outside Baghdad

“It’s tough. You know, I think the war was a mistake but at the same time, it’s very hard to see it all fall apart when so many of my friends and colleagues gave so much to let Iraq succeed. … I saw an awful lot of sacrifice on behalf of my fellow troops and I spent about three years of my life there myself because my country asked me to go. And I was proud to go. But at the same time, you want to see your work succeed, and obviously that’s not the case now.”

On how you convince Iraqis to keep their uniforms on and fight

“Well you don’t do it by sending more American ground troops in. … At this point this is really a political problem and it’s Prime Minister Maliki’s failures as a politician that have led us to this point.”

“I think one of the lessons we learned from Iraq is we just have to be very, very careful about putting any troops on the ground. And the president has also talked about airstrikes but I caution seriously about that as well because you can’t really have accurate airstrikes unless you have troops on the ground to direct the pilots, and since we’re not going to put troops on the ground, then I’m not sure airstrikes make sense at this point either.”

On the worry that Iraq will fall

“I think all of us are struggling with that, think about this and what to do. And many veterans are looking for ways to give back. I have other friends who are helping get their former translators out of the country — young men and women in Iraq who put their lives on the line for their country and also for America and for our troops. And they legally have a right to come to America, but many of them are running into huge bureaucratic hurdles. So we’re trying to help with that too. I have one of my translators who hasn’t come over yet — I was helping this weekend… and to make sure that people who were our allies are not killed. So I can’t speak for my fellow veterans, but I know that many of us are looking for ways to continue serving and to try to be a part of making sure America learns from these lessons, doesn’t repeat the same mistakes, but also finds a path forward that can be good and prosperous for the Middle East.

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

So how is this latest news from Iraq being viewed by U.S. veterans who serve there? We have one view today from Seth Moulton, who served four tours as a Marine infantry officer, first as a platoon commander, later as a special assistant to General David Petraeus. He's since entered politics - a Democrat he is challenging Massachusetts sitting congressmen, John Tierney. But today we want to talk to Seth as a vet. We've spoken to him on and off for the past decade, during and after the war. And he joins us in the studio again today with this latest spasm. Seth, welcome back.

SETH MOULTON: Thank you for having me, Robin.

YOUNG: And what are your thoughts as you watched towns fall and militants outside Baghdad?

MOULTON: It’s tough. You know, I think the war was a mistake but at the same time, it’s very hard to see it all fall apart when so many of my friends and colleagues gave so much to try to let Iraq succeed.

YOUNG: Yeah, do you know people who died in Iraq?

MOULTON: Of course. I was in the infantry and I saw an awful lot of sacrifice on behalf of my fellow troops and I spent about three years of my life there, myself, because my country asked me to go. And I was proud to go. But at the same time, you want to see your work succeed, and obviously that’s not the case now.

YOUNG: Well, especially in your case, you saw very up close some of this work that was done to bring the Sunnis, in particular, into the counterinsurgency so that the Sunnis themselves would rise up and fight militants themselves - take it into their own hands. This is a large part of the work of General Petraeus. And we're hearing that it'ssome of these same Sunnis who arefeeling shut out of the Shia led government in Iraq, who are behind both the insurgency and who arerunning away from the military.

MOULTON: Well, that'sright, they have been shut out by the government. And yet we showed that they can get on the right side of history and fight for peace and stability. And I think one of the many things that we would hope would happen is that perhaps under a different Iraqi government that doesn't persecute them, the government can bring them back in - in the same way we were able to do when we were on the ground.

YOUNG: Yeah, but right in this moment what happens?

MOULTON: Right in this moment, it's tough.

YOUNG: I mean, how do you as a veteran, who worked alongside Iraqi's, how doyou convince them to keep their uniforms on and fight?

MOULTON: Well you don’t do it by sending more American ground troops in. And I don't think...

YOUNG: I was going to ask you that. Do you think there should be boots on the ground? The president is saying, President Obama is saying he's not considering that. But, some are asking him to.

MOULTON: No, I agree with him because at this point, this is really a political problem. And it'sPrime Minister Maliki's failure as a politician that have led us to this point.

YOUNG: Yeah, but again, we're in this moment with militants right outside Baghdad. Some are suggesting, all right, not full troops, but what about Special Forces who can be dropped in with groups that might be able to fight militants if they had some help - the Kurds for instance.

MOULTON: Well, I think one of the lessons we learned from Iraq is that we just have to be very, very careful about putting any troops on the ground. And the president has also talked about airstrikes, but I caution seriously about that as well because you can’t really have accurate airstrikes unless you have troops on the ground to direct the pilots, and since we’re not going to put troops on the ground, then I’m not sure airstrikes make sense at this point either.

YOUNG: Well, that is another criticism - that the Obama administration doesn't have information about what's going on on the ground because of the troop withdraw. Do you think the troop withdrawal was a mistake?

MOULTON: I think that we needed to withdraw our troops eventually, but it should have happened in concert with increased diplomatic support. And it was clear that that was part of the president's policy at the time, but I don't think it really happened.

YOUNG: When you were in Iraq, mostly in the south, you co-hosted an Iraqi television show with an Iraqi named Mohammed. We spoke you on this program. The show was "Moulton And Mohammed." And here's some sound from an episode. You're both talking about a school that the U.S. was paying to improve. This is in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOULTON AND MOHAMMED")

MOULTON: Mohammed, I think you have an interesting story of what people up in Baghdad are saying.

MOHAMMED: It is true that the United States of America gave money to fix this school. But we can also feel that Iraqis did their best to create wonderful Iraqi touch.

YOUNG: You know, that's so poignant on so many levels. He's saying that the Iraqis participated - they were participating in their own rebuilding. But also this became a friend of yours. We spoke to you both on the program. Have you been in touch with him?

MOULTON: Absolutely, because I'm very concerned about his family and of course he is too. So they're OK for now. But everybody is very concerned. His brother is a young Shiite man who has been called to arms. And his brother is not a militant but he's really struggling because he feels he could be in a fight for his life.

YOUNG: So again, as a veteran and also as a friend of the Iraqis, your thoughts on Iraq might fall. We could be looking at Syria.

MOULTON: You know, I think all of us are struggling with how to think about this and what to do. And many veterans are looking for ways to give back. I have other friends who are helping get their former translators out of the country - young men and women in Iraq who put their lives on the line for their country and also for America and for our troops.

And they legally have a right to come to America, but many of them are running into huge bureaucratic hurdles. So we’re trying to help with that too. I have one of my translators who hasn’t come over yet -I was helping this weekend…

YOUNG: To get people out.

MOULTON: Right, and to make sure that people who were our allies are not killed. So all of the - I can’t speak for my fellow veterans, but I know that many of us are looking for ways to continue serving and to try to be a part of making sure America learns from these lessons, doesn’t repeat the same mistakes, but also finds a path forward that can be good and prosperous for the Middle East.

YOUNG: Seth Moulton, again you served four tours in Iraq. Were they a complete waste?

MOULTON: You have to answer that question on two different levels. There is a national question about whether we should have gone there in the first place. And I think it's hard to sit here today and say that that was a good idea.

But on a personal level I wanted to serve my country. I signed up for the war and I was proud to serve so that no one had to go in my place. So on a personal level, yes, it was worth it for me. But certainly as a nation, we have to ask that question and be very careful about getting involved in conflicts like this again.

YOUNG: Seth Moulton, again he's made a pivot from the military into politics. He's now challenging Democratic representative John Tierney here in Massachusetts for congressional seat. Seth, thanks for speaking with us, though, about your Iraq service today.

MOULTON: Thank you, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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