THE NEXT TIME you see an Army officer on television, look at his or her right sleeve. Odds are that you will see a stack of “hash marks,” each signifying six month’s service in a combat zone. I earned two in Vietnam, and that was more than enough for me. Many of today’s senior soldiers have so many hash marks that they reach almost to the elbow, enough to signify four, five, six or, for those in Special Forces, as many as 10 years serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time at several Army posts speaking to many colonels and a few generals who wear hash marks halfway up their arms.
In recent days, I asked many of them their opinions about events in the Middle East, and their responses surprised me. (They were speaking for themselves and not in any official capacity.) The reigning emotion is sadness, not anger. Most of these men and women liked the Iraqi officers they were privileged to train and mentor. They made genuine friendships, and they recalled fondly that the good ones were very good. A large proportion of Iraqi officers were educated and secular in outlook, with families and secure home lives. To be sure, the military competence of the total force was marginal. But the good officers wanted to learn and appreciated that their American colleagues were willing to risk their lives to make Iraq a secure country.
The sad television images of an army they had worked with crumbling at first contact with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters suggested to some of these officers that their professional lives have been squandered. Most disturbing was the belief that the sacrifices of dead or maimed U.S. soldiers who served under them had been thrown away. The problem was not that the Iraqis were cowards; many had proved brave in firefights with Americans present. Yet, operating on their own, the Iraqis had virtually no ability to orchestrate the complex instruments of modern war. They lacked the technical skills needed to move large units, to properly employ their most destructive weapons and to interpret the scanty information gained from the intelligence and communications systems we left behind.
The U.S. officers noted that creating an army from scratch takes time, and they lacked the time necessary to make the Iraqi Defense Forces (IDF) proficient beyond the company level. Elevating competence up the chain of command would have required at least five more years and 25,000 trainers, they said. They knew as they folded camp that the Iraqis couldn’t fight without them, and they knew what was going to happen to the army they left behind. The only question was how long this poorly formed mixture of disparate Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds could maintain peace.
The Iraqi civilian leadership hastened the army’s demise, of course. As they began to leave, the U.S. advisers watched as Shiite cronies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began the horribly corrosive process of purging Sunni officers. Until then, most of the good Iraqi officers had an allegiance to country over religion. Many were charismatic. These began disappearing from the ranks as soon as we drove off for Kuwait.
What do these seasoned U.S. officers say needs to be done? Here opinions vary. Some argue for air strikes, others for a limited ground presence by special forces. Most believe Iraq is already deeply engaged in a sectarian civil war, not unlike what’s happening in Syria. As in Syria, firepower won’t extinguish the fires of religious fanaticism, and the presence of U.S. technology won’t change much on the ground. They agree that air strikes won’t work once ISIS burrows into cities; the United States isn’t going to bomb in urban areas full of civilians. Most think that the best course of action now is to send material aid (weapons, vehicles, radios, etc.) and then stand back and let this whole thing “bleed out.”
My two campaign stripes look puny compared with the long rows on the sleeves of these incredibly competent and experienced soldiers. But I did understand the sadness of these officers. I remember sitting in class at Georgia’s Fort Benning in 1975 as a television showed one of the last U.S. helicopters leaving Saigon with American personnel. These men and women are confident the same fate will not befall the Iraqis. Times may be bad for the IDF, but they believe they left enough competent and brave officers behind to prevent a similar disaster in Baghdad. I hope they’re right. Our soldiers deserve better memories than mine.
Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.