'It seems like 2003 all over again': Iraq and Afghanistan veterans worry about war with Syria

Tim Skillern
Yahoo! NewsAugust 29, 2013
'It seems like 2003 all over again': Iraq and Afghanistan veterans worry about war with Syria

“It seems like 2003 all over again,” Jack Camwell says.

The U.S. Navy veteran, who served aboard the USS San Jacinto during a deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2005, is chagrined his country may soon strike against Syria’s government.

Like many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who shared their thoughts with Yahoo News on Wednesday, Camwell believes the prelude to possible action against Bashar al-Assad for alleged chemical weapons use on Damascus residents on Aug. 21 mirrors America’s rush to war against Saddam Hussein a decade ago.

“How many times must America go down this road?” Camwell asks.

For veterans, woven into the Iraq-Syria similarities are other important questions: Could American boots hit Syrian soil? Given the nation’s already-hefty war tabs, how will it pay for this? Can Americans morally ignore what’s happening to innocent Syrians? How long would the military stay?

Camwell, who began his naval career in 2002 as a cryptologist in military intelligence, says there is a certain righteousness and “necessary violence” in deposing dictators. But America’s bulky presence in the Middle East complicates strikes against Syria and fosters worry the U.S. military is too stretched.

“As noble the pursuit may be,” Camwell writes in a first-person account, “America simply cannot take another conflict that involves boots on the ground. Even the greatest prize fighter needs time to heal between matches, and America should take this opportunity to convalesce. Someday, we may be in a better position to right the wrongs and enforce justice throughout the world, but today is not that day.

“We need to sit this one out.”

The opinions we received were nuanced: Some said the United States shouldn’t intervene — at least now. Others believe the time to act is, indeed, this minute, but in a very limited fashion. And a few think the moral obligation to attack with full force trumps any war wariness.

Here are more perspectives.

Can we even afford to fight Syria?

Michael Hedges serves as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army in its Finance Corps. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002 and served in the infantry until 2010, when he was medically re-classified to Army Finance due to combat-related injuries. He served two tours of duty in Iraq in infantry and one tour in Afghanistan in Army Finance. Here are excerpts from his account:

The final tab for the war in Iraq is still unknown, but a Brown University study from March says it will cost America possibly $2.2 trillion through 2053, with at least $490 billion owed to veterans in benefits. The Cost of War project says our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will hit $4 trillion. For perspective, the government pegged the initial Iraq estimate, in 2002, at $50 to $60 billion.

Because of those figures, my worry is not whether the soldiers of today's military can handle it operationally; my concern is whether — with proposed military downsizing — we are strong enough to support operations in Syria.

We've seen furloughs that have affected the Department of Defense civilian support system for troops stateside and abroad, and furloughs that cut work hours, including one day a week since July for hundreds of thousands of employees.

Do we plan on fighting a conflict in Syria only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?

It is believed Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese commander at Pearl Harbor, said, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." The United States, after almost a century of policing the world, needs to let this giant and its wallet take a serious nap.

Rushing into Syria, without all facts, could be regrettable

Wendy Stewart began serving aboard the USS Sacramento AOE-1 in the summer of 2001 after she graduated that spring from the U.S. Naval Academy. Her ship was diverted to resupply ships near Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She left active duty as a lieutenant in 2003.

We've been down this road before, but this time things are a bit different.

The United States should not get involved in Syria at this time. There is no strategic advantage to military airstrikes when U.N. inspectors have not had sufficient time to complete their investigation. One of the reasons we have the United Nations is so one country can't just go into another, "guns ablazin'," to administer some rough justice.

No one wants to see civilians hurt at the expense of a politician or dictator, but I don't think we have all the facts. Now is not the time to commit troops to Syria when we're still trying to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As we learned with Vietnam, support from the American public is crucial to any war or conflict in which we might engage. Without it, there is little hope for success. Make the case, present the evidence, and don't rush to action.

In other words, stay out of Syria right now until we truly know what's going on.

World has a ‘moral obligation’ to protect innocent Syrians

Justin Jenness was a specialist in the U.S. Army in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment during 2003 and served close to the Syrian border. He fought in multiple engagements in Iraq and was wounded in an RPG attack.

As a father of three children — two daughters, 11 and 2, and an 8-year-old son — it absolutely tears my soul to watch the videos on social media that show so many women and children suffering through a horrible death at the hands of a chemical weapon. To see the pictures of entire families lying together dead, clutched arm in arm, is enough for any human being with a conscience to say, "Something has to be done to bring justice to the Devil who has taken so many innocent lives."

During my time in Iraq, I witnessed firsthand a people who had been governed by a tyrant. It came sharply into focus every time we conducted night raids. You could see the sheer terror in women and children, knowing they may never see their fathers and sons again. It was evident these people had witnessed men being taken, and sometimes killed, never to be heard from or seen again. There was only one force that could have taken men from their homes prior to the U.S. invasion, and that rests solely on the shoulders of Saddam's regime.

More by Jenness: 'War is Only Glorious to Those Who Have Never Experienced It'

The international community has a moral obligation to punish those who have used these chemical weapons to bring terror to the Syrian people. To take no action would be the same as watching our own government killing innocent people on U.S. soil, and simply turning a blind eye. To take action means that once again, U.S. servicemen and women are going to have to carry out missions, this time against the Syrian government with the potential we'd put their lives at risk.

This is where caution cannot be thrown to the wind. Occupation of another Middle Eastern country will surely yield the same results as they have in the past. I concede it is easy for me to sit here in Montana and armchair-quarterback the events as I perceive them, so I pray for those in command of this great nation. I pray they make the right decisions on how to proceed in this delicate balance between protecting the innocent people of the world and protecting the people of the United States.

U.S. intervention in Syria needed, but in a limited role

Joe Dejvejprasit was a Marine lance corporal with the Regimental Combat Team (RCT) 1 and first fought in Iraq near Nasiriyah.

I now live in Los Angeles, a far cry from the violence we see going on in Syria. But while I fear the possibility of putting more service members into harm's way, I understand the role the United States and its UN allies have in policing other countries around the world.

UN intervention is expected, given its mission to protect civilians in the face of genocide, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity. The gas attacks reportedly killed hundreds of Syrians, regardless whether they were rebels or not.

But, in my opinion, "intervention" should be defined with strict guidelines. Our nation is weary of another conflict. Hopefully we can restrict ourselves to only sanctions, airstrikes and a no-fly zone.

Syrians may welcome our efforts, but I'm fairly certain they would not appreciate an occupation.