The Conflicted Thoughts of Iraq Veterans Watching Iraq Collapse

Veteran John Heacock, during his time in Iraq.
c/o John Heacock.

As the Iraqi army falls to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and insurgents seize control of major cities throughout the nation, a lengthy war that long ago faded to the background of American political life has bubbled unhappily to the surface. For some, it's an opportunity for political finger-pointing or punditry. For others, it's a confirmation of partisan views—that the situation in Iraq has increasingly disintegrated since Barack Obama's troop withdrawal, or that we shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place and certainly shouldn't get involved today.

But those who served in the war—who devoted years of their lives and lost friends to what the media now likens to the final images of Vietnam—are already involved. For Iraq's veterans, this is an altogether more personal disaster. And it's a wrenching one.

Or maybe it isn't. Maybe it's just a confirmation of a long-held, and long-feared, suspicion, a "worst-case scenario" that seemed at once faintly inevitable and yet too frightening to conceive.

It's impossible to account for the full range of veterans' perspectives. Roughly 2.5 million U.S. service men and women have deployed overseas in the past 13 or so years. (That includes operations in Afghanistan.) In Iraq, 4,474 did not return—but millions more did, and unless they're living in a cable- and Internet-free hole, they're now facing the realities of what their mission has turned into.

"For a lot of us, we've been following Iraq. It's not something that you just wash your hands of, having served overseas," said Phil Klay, an Iraq veteran and the author of Redeployment, an acclaimed story collection that draws extensively on his service. "I don't think anybody is surprised necessarily to see this happen. But there's a difference between expecting it to happen and having it actually happen—particularly if you had friends who lost their lives overseas or who died for that particular mission."

Other veterans find themselves watching the collapse of Iraq with a more pitched sense of alarm. Edward Reynolds served in the Babil province south of Baghdad for 15 months in late 2007 and most of 2008. He says he remained hopeful the violence could have been avoided.

"I worked with the Iraqi army, and they were not great but not terrible," Reynolds told Newsweek. "I still felt they would be able to maintain security after we left. I figured the government would be rocky for a while. I didn't think it would be a crisis of this level, but I didn't think it would be clockwork. I did think it would be stable or lasting."

Given ISIS's gains, U.S. military pursuits in Iraq have been neither. These perspectives, said Klay, varies greatly depending on when the veterans were there. He described a unit that left Iraq in early 2007, while the state of affairs was "still very much violent." The unit's morale—and how it perceived the mission of the war—had sunk accordingly. But the unit that replaced it, carrying out virtually the same mission, did so in a rapidly stabilizing province.

"So those guys felt very different about the mission," Klay said. "It seemed like [they] were really doing something valuable that was leading towards a more stable Anbar province. And now, of course, those gains have been lost."

Edward Reynolds, pictured during his service in Iraq.
Edward Reynolds, pictured during his service in Iraq. c/o Edward Reynolds.

Brian Castner, a fellow veteran turned writer, agrees with this strange discrepancy.

"Every veteran saw something different and fought their own war," said Castner, the author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, which recounts his eight years as an explosive-ordnance officer in the Air Force. "It's always been true, but I think that's especially true now. The war was so different from city to city and year to year."

Similarly, Castner considers the 2007 troop surge a tipping point. (Reynolds, arriving as he did just after the surge, is a walking example.) Given his own experiences, when every day was a sort of Groundhog Day in which "nothing that we did on Tuesday seemed to make Wednesday any different," Castner says today's violence hardly surprises him.

"I think I would put myself in the 'lost faith that what we were doing served some greater purpose outside of ourselves' [category]," Castner said. "That said, I realize that if you were there in the surge, you might have had a completely different experience than what we sometimes call the 'bad old days'—2003-2007. If your only experience was in the surge, you maybe saw us moving towards something the rest of us didn't." Those experiences include working closely with Iraqis, more than soldiers in previous years did, Castner said.

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Castner describes feeling tethered to foreign news reports for the first time since returning from active duty. Thousands of others are joining him in this harrowing activity, he writes, and realizing they are "as powerless to affect events as the civilians with whom we sometimes grow frustrated."

The pieces goes on to place Iraq veterans in two overarching categories: those who became disillusioned with the war and its larger aims while still serving and those who, perhaps, are reaching that point today:

If you are a veteran who long ago lost faith that our actions in Iraq contributed to some greater good, if you despair that your friends died for nothing, then the events of the last week simply confirm your view. But if you are a veteran who needs to find some meaning after so much bloodshed, who thinks that we built something worthy, crafted a voting populace and democratic government and that therefore your buddies died for a purpose, then this unraveling is particularly difficult. No wonder so many are angry, seeking to pin blame on the president who invaded, the one who left, or both.

In both cases, there is the specter of those who died along the way—and for what purpose? "When we watch the news reports," Castner writes, "we mourn not a crumbling democracy but rather the loss of the always-tenuous notion that a friend's death might have had some larger meaning." It's tough, in other words, to focus on the Iraqis themselves and not on those troops who fell trying to establish an elusive democracy.

Edward Reynolds, pictured during his service in Iraq.
Edward Reynolds, pictured during his service in Iraq. c/o Edward Reynolds

Speaking with Newsweek this week, Castner rejected the more cynical conclusion. "All of my friends that died, died in service of each other," he said. "All of my friends that died did it as well as they could have and died in service of the brotherhood."

Phoebe Gavin, who was deployed for 15 months during the surge, takes a similar view.

"I find it kind of offensive," she said. "When we fight, we fight for each other first. We're not drones—where we just go in, where we're a resource to be wasted."

Yet the question hangs heavy on the Facebook feed of John Heacock, who served a year in Baghdad in 2008 and uses the site frequently to communicate with other vets.

"It was something along the lines of, Great, glad to know that two years of my life and thousands of dead troops are all gone to waste," Heacock said of a friend's posting. "I think that might be the perceived idea of what vets think. But very quickly, they were Facebook shouted down by people like myself who say, Look, if you thought Iraq was going to be stable, you either weren't there that long or you weren't paying much attention."

But there is some truth in Castner's pre- and post-surge dichotomy, and many of those who served in the latter period aren't comforted by a long-simmering pessimism.

"I lost one friend, and he was three days away from being 19," said Tim Baker, who spent a year in a province about 60 miles north of Baghdad in 2007 and 2008. "You wonder, What did he die for? You can't have any higher of a sacrifice than that. And yet, does it mean nothing now? Does it mean something to us, the people who served with him? How do you reconcile that?"

Baker said he wasn't necessarily surprised to see Iraq come undone the way it has. "But," he added, "you spend a year or two of your life over there. You sweat, you bleed, you cry, and what was it all for?"