U.S. Army Officer Reflects On End Of War In Iraq

Dec 15, 2011
Originally published on December 15, 2011 11:38 am
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, new numbers suggest that fewer and fewer people are trying to cross into the U.S. illegally from Mexico. We'll talk to a U.S. border patrol agent and a researcher for the Pew Hispanic Center about what they're seeing and why these numbers are down. That conversation is just ahead.

But first, we want to take a look at the official end of the war in Iraq.


MARTIN: That sound comes from Baghdad today, where the U.S. military lowered its colors for the last time, marking the official end of the Iraq war. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised U.S. troops and said they were leaving Iraq with, quote, "lasting pride."

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: This is an opportunity for Iraq to forge ahead on the path to security and prosperity.

MARTIN: We recognize that there is no way one person can speak for the tens of thousands of people who've served in Iraq over the years about what these final days mean, but we have one voice with us today. Lieutenant Colonel Pat Proctor. He's stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas. He served two tours of duty in Iraq. His most recent tour ended in August of last year and he is the author of a new book, "Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq." And he would like to emphasize that his views are his and his alone.

Lieutenant Colonel, thanks so much for joining us. And thank you for your service.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL PAT PROCTOR: Thank you. And thank you for inviting me to be here.

MARTIN: And just acknowledging that there are - I think the estimate is that a million people have served in that theatre from the U.S. just on the Iraq side alone, although, of course, people there are people who've served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, we don't expect you to speak for all of them.

But I just wanted to ask, what are your thoughts? Just, as you know, the colors were lowered today. What's just going through your mind?

PROCTOR: Well, you know, I think that I can speak for soldiers in one regard and that's that, you know, we're happy that we're not going to be going back there. You know, I mean, our families have had to endure us being gone as much as we've, you know, endured being there, so on that level, you know, it's nice to see that it's over.

I know there are some folks that kind of agree with what Senator McCain said today, which is, you know, basically the fact that we're not staying with some level of force may not bode well for the future, but I probably fall in the camp, personally, of - we needed to go. There are a lot of open issues there, and as long as we were there, we were really kind of, you know, the lid on the boiling pot.

Until we left, they were not going to be able to sort through those issues, so I think I feel pretty positive about what's happening today.

MARTIN: You ended your last tour of duty in August of 2010 and I was wondering what you thought about the trajectory of the war. I know that you say that it really wasn't one war.


MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about that.

PROCTOR: You know, and that's the truth. We didn't really fight a nine year war. We fought nine one year wars because, you know, each unit would go there. They would learn what they could in two weeks from whoever they were replacing and they'd spend three months trying to figure out, you know, what the heck was going on.

And about, you know, month three, you start to get your legs under you and you're starting to understand what's going on and you got about six good months of trying to make a difference and then the last three months was spent getting ready for the next unit to come and repeat the cycle.

And I think, in a lot of ways, it made the war last a lot longer than it should have.

MARTIN: Why was it like that? Was that intentional? Was that a sort of a nod to sensibilities back home that people didn't want to see people over there for too long? Why is it? Why was it like that?

PROCTOR: You know, one of the other hats I wear is as a Vietnam historian. I'm working on my Ph.D. right now. And Vietnam - you know, as I kind of say at the beginning of the book, Vietnam really very much played an important part in how the Army approached this war. You know, in Vietnam, you know, the soldiers would go over there on one-year tours, but the units would stay. That created a lot of heartache for the units in the field and also for families back home.

From the time, really, they started this war, they made a decision very early to go in one-year rotations by unit so that you had that unit cohesion and all of the unit's families could take care of each other back home.

For Iraq, you know, Saddam Hussein - you know, he was a brutal dictator and the folks in Iraq do have an opportunity - if they can pull things together and they can settle their arguments without blowing each other up - at making a better future for their country.

On a personal level, I can speak for our unit when we went. Our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bubba Cain, he formed a really close relationship with an Iraqi police battalion commander there, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed al-Fahal. And about halfway through our rotation, Colonel Ahmed was killed by a suicide vest, you know, and that's something that, you know, we - that hit us every bit as hard as losing a soldier, I mean, because we were very much focused on partnering and working with Iraqis.

I think that, you know, those are the little stories that we kind of have to carry with us.

MARTIN: Well, that does kind of lead, though, to the larger question. Was, at the end of the day - and I do recognize, again, that you are still on active duty and you are speaking for yourself - but at the end of the day, was the U.S. presence in Iraq a force for good or not? Did we accomplish anything, I guess, is the question.

PROCTOR: Yeah. You know, and I think what I would say is we are not going to know the answer to that question until we actually leave. You know, and I think that's why I have kind of a positive feeling about us going.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I just have to ask. You know, we often ask our guests, you know, what wisdom they have to pass on and you seem as good a person as any to ask that question. Do you have some wisdom to pass on from this very long experience that you saw up close that was so profound for so - for the country, but with the sacrifice, which was borne by, as we said, a few.

PROCTOR: Yeah. Well, I guess, my one chance here to talk to the American electorate, I guess what I would say is be careful what you ask your U.S. military to do because we don't like to lose and we don't like to accept defeat. And so we are going to try and try and try and we're going to try to get as much time as we can to try.

And so, you know, I would hope that everybody would think, you know, be very sober and deliberative before they ask us to engage in war because, you know, as we've seen here and as we continue to see in Afghanistan, you are making a deep, deep, deep commitment.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Pat Proctor served two tours in Iraq. He's the author of the new book, "Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq." He wants to emphasize once again that the views expressed here are his and his alone. And he was kind enough to join us from member station KANU in Lawrence, Kansas.

Lieutenant Colonel, thank you for joining us. Thank you once again for your service. Thank your family again for their service. Thanks for talking to us.

PROCTOR: Thank you very, very much.

MARTIN: Tomorrow, we will continue to reflect on the Iraq war as the last troops prepare to leave the country. We'll be joined by one former and one current member of Congress who were on opposite sides on the vote that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq. We'll see how their views have changed over the years, if indeed they have, and how they feel about the end of the war. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.