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Iraq conflict leaves officers weary and humbled

By Greg Jaffe
Monday, August 30, 2010; A1

In the summer of 2006, Maj. Walt Cooper was convinced that his Special Forces team's work was only contributing to the violence spiraling out of control in Baghdad.

Cooper and his soldiers were training a police battalion that took orders from a radical Shiite militia. "We know that the guys we train are some of the same dudes who are putting bullets in the back of people's heads or going to work on them with power drills," he wrote in a July 2006 e-mail home.

As the months passed, his cynicism and anger grew. "This place is now rotten to the core," he concluded.

A year later Cooper was back in Iraq, working with 150-man police unit. His second tour, which coincided with a surge of about 30,000 American soldiers, almost felt like a different war. Violence dropped. Markets opened. Something resembling stability seemed to take hold. Cooper remembers his battle-scarred Iraqi police partner from that period as a brother in arms.

The 33-year-old Green Beret is part of a generation of Army officers whose careers have been defined by the chaos and contradictions of one of America's longest and costliest wars. These soldiers have watched close friends die, weathered separations from family, and struggled to explain to grieving parents why their loved ones didn't make it home.

When the U.S. and Iraqi brass gather in Baghdad on Monday to mark the official end of U.S. combat operations, these officers will largely be absent. Some are in Afghanistan. A few remain in Iraq, where the war will grind on even with the diminished American presence. Others are in graduate school, trying to start personal lives before their return to combat.

How these soldiers make sense of their last seven years of war will profoundly affect how America wields military power over the next quarter-century.

So far, the lessons they are taking from their Iraq experience are ones of humility and caution that surpass the post-Vietnam War period. In Vietnam, a generation of officers blamed their defeat on a fickle American public and civilian leaders who placed limits on their use of firepower. Today's Iraq veterans are more apt to acknowledge that the limitations are their own.

They are slow to call Iraq a victory. "We had military successes, but the Iraqis will decide whether it is a long-term success or not," said Maj. Joseph Da Silva, who logged three tours.

And they are intimately aware of the human costs. "To realize how random and crazy all this is sparks that hint of panic," Capt. Casey Thoreen wrote in 2009 after a roadside bomb killed two of his men.

Among them, Cooper, Da Silva and Thoreen have spent nine years deployed - seven in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. They have worked as staff officers and commanded in some of the war zone's most remote and austere outposts.

"If Iraq is to teach us anything, it must be that a new idea cannot be beat into a society," Cooper wrote in an e-mail in 2006. Today the onetime Rhodes scholar is finishing a doctorate at Harvard and teaching at West Point. For him and others of his generation, it is the dark days of the war, more than the successes of 2007, that dominate their memories of Iraq.

Iraqi-American divide

Thoreen, who was finishing a training course when the March 2003 invasion began, joined his unit in early summer. Seven hours after he landed at an airfield near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a Humvee ferried him to a safe house where he met up with the 30-soldier platoon he was going to lead.

In Iraq his platoon fell into a familiar rhythm for the American occupation. At night they raided houses searching for insurgents. By day they patrolled and oversaw the construction of a school and a health clinic. Attacks on Thoreen's troops gradually increased.

In December 2003 U.S. commandos captured a haggard and defeated-looking Saddam Hussein outside of Tikrit. Jubilant American commanders heralded the arrest as a major blow to the budding insurgency. The day after Hussein was detained, Thoreen returned from a patrol to learn that his first sergeant had fired Thoreen's Iraqi interpreter, a 36-year-old Kirkuk native who had been his guide to the city.

Her sin: Some soldiers said they heard her expressing dismay at the way an unkempt Hussein had been shown on television by his American captors. Thoreen was furious. He knew his interpreter, like many nationalistic Iraqis, had mixed feelings about the U.S. occupation. But she wasn't a backer of the Iraqi dictator and had been happy to see him toppled.

Thoreen, the son of a Seattle lawyer, had grown up in a politically liberal household before attending West Point. He brought a healthy skepticism to his mission, one of his former brigade commanders said. In Iraq he worried that his fellow soldiers had begun to treat the Iraqis they had come to liberate with disdain.

The two sides seemed perpetually separated by a razor-wire divide. "We had no relationship with the Iraqis," said Thoreen. "If we couldn't interact with them as humans, we were never going to be successful."

The gulf felt especially wide after a botched raid. "I can only imagine the terror we inflict on innocent families when suddenly they have a squad of soldiers breaking through their door with weapons at the ready," he wrote in a December e-mail to his parents. To Thoreen's unceasing surprise, the Iraqis often asked the uninvited Americans to sit for tea. The young officer always declined.

"I feel so bad about disrupting their lives that I try to leave as soon as possible," he wrote.

Faith crushed

In fall 2005 the American prospects for stabilizing Iraq appeared bleak. The Iraqi army was a mess, insurgent attacks were rising, and the initial hope that the newly elected Iraqi government might undermine support for the insurgency had been exposed as wishful thinking.

Then-Capt. Da Silva, who had led a platoon of 16 soldiers in the invasion, was heading back to Iraq for his second tour. Da Silva, the son of a high school janitor, had been the president of his class at West Point. He had broad shoulders and close-cropped black hair and spoke with a hint of a New England accent.

He approached his job with an earnestness that sometimes bordered on naivete. "Every day I got to work with some of the brightest, most intelligent and hard working people I know . . . men and women who do not know how to fail," he wrote a few days before he left for Iraq in September 2005. "They will make it work."

Within months, his faith in his Army had been crushed. As a battalion staff officer, Da Silva was stuck at headquarters monitoring the radios and calling in medical and attack helicopter support for troops under fire. The carnage was so constant that he began to plan his bathroom breaks around those moments when all of the battalion's squads were on base or in meetings with Iraqis, where they were less likely to be attacked.

His low point came when some troops from his unit found a roadside bomb, and Da Silva called in some engineers to destroy it. Before they could do their job, one of Da Silva's superiors grabbed the radio and ordered the soldiers to pack the bomb with extra explosives, Da Silva recalled.

The officer wanted to create a blast that the Iraqis in the area would hear and feel. The explosion leveled the wall of a nearby school that had been built by an earlier American unit. "I had returned to Iraq thinking I would find massive improvement, but what I saw was a state in anarchy and even more disheartening an Army that refused to learn," Da Silva wrote in an essay several years later.

Da Silva's battalion commander noted the increased number of arms caches that the battalion was finding and rising insurgent arrests as signs of progress. Other measures told a different story. Attacks on U.S. troops and civilian deaths were at an all time high by September 2006.

"What did we do? What did we really accomplish?" Da Silva often asked.

He returned home in October and immediately took 30 days of leave to study for the LSAT. Almost 60 percent of Da Silva's West Point classmates left the Army after their initial five-year commitment, one of the highest voluntary attrition rates since the Vietnam War.

Feeding the enemy

Cooper, the Rhodes scholar, made it to Iraq in summer 2006, where his 12-man Special Forces team was assigned to train a battalion of Iraqi national police in Baghdad. In morning formation, Cooper's police sang cadences touting radical Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who vehemently opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq. After dark, the police officers disappeared on raids aimed at ridding Baghdad's few remaining mixed neighborhoods of Sunnis.

"Much of our work is actually counterproductive," wrote Cooper in a final report on the unit. "We are often just enhancing the skills of the very people who contribute to the destabilization in Baghdad."

In March 2007, Cooper and his team returned to Iraq and were assigned to Nasiriyah, a Shiite-dominated city and a key hub for insurgents smuggling weapons in from Iran. He teamed up with a battle-scarred Iraqi colonel who was missing part of his right ear and had assembled a 150-man paramilitary unit that nominally reported to the Interior Ministry.

Initially, Cooper dribbled out training and equipment to Col. Abu Liqaa, the Iraqi commander. Abu Liqaa maintained a wary distance as well. "It started really slowly at first," Cooper said.

In June, hundreds of fighters from Sadr's militia launched an all-out assault on Nasiriyah. Cooper's team, backed by withering fire from American aerial gunships, rolled into battle with the Iraqis they had been training and routed the militia forces.

The battle forged a bond between Cooper and Abu Liqaa. "We developed an awesome relationship," Cooper said. When Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, defended his war strategy to Congress in fall 2007 he cited Abu Liqaa's leadership as evidence that Iraqis were taking control of their country. "His forces have stood up to militia extremists and even pursued them beyond Nasiriyah," Petraeus testified.

Four months later, insurgents assassinated Abu Liqaa, a twist that seems to symbolize the messiness of Iraq for Cooper. Today Cooper remains proud of his 2007 successes but is also quick to say that they don't erase the dark days of 2006. "What I saw in 2006 wasn't an aberration," he said. "The lesson I fear we will take from Iraq is that we have figured out a way to impose order or governance on other societies. It is a different brand, but the same kind of hubris that got us into the mess I saw in 2006."

'This can't go on like this'

Thoreen, who began his military career fretting about the gulf between the Iraqis and their American occupiers, has spent more time at war than just about any officer from his West Point class. Four of his last seven years have been consumed by combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His last Iraq tour - as an adviser to an Iraq battalion commander - spanned most of 2007. Thoreen began it deeply pessimistic about Iraq. "There's so much corruption, laziness and apathy that I'm not sure they'll ever get better," he wrote of the Iraqi unit he was mentoring in summer 2007.

By November, Thoreen had radically scaled back his goals for the unit and managed to find a measure of success and satisfaction in his work.

The Iraqi officers in his battalion regularly inflated their payrolls by as much as 30 percent and pocketed the extra money that they received from the Ministry of Defense. Thoreen convinced the Iraqi battalion commander to spend a portion of the skimmed money on much needed fuel, food and air conditioners for the battalion's soldiers. "We made it tolerable," Thoreen said of the corruption.

He and his Iraqi battalion commander, a pudgy officer in his early 40s, became friends. The two shared dinner nightly, smoked cigars and bonded over episodes of the Iraqi's favorite American shows - "Oprah" and "Dr. Phil."

Thoreen had begun his the tour determined to get out of the Army and go to business school - "I'd say there is a 75 percent chance of me getting out after this year," he promised his parents. By the end of the deployment he had reversed course.

For the first time in its history the Army had begun offering captains a $35,000 bonus in exchange for three more years of service. Thoreen turned down the offer. "Once you sign it, the Army has you by the balls," he concluded. But he also wasn't ready to go to business school.

Da Silva, who had submitted his official resignation in December 2006, pulled his paperwork a few months later. In 2007 the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, which focused on protecting civilians from insurgent attacks and promoting local governance, swept through the officer corps. "It was like people were speaking a whole new language," he said. He spent most of 2008 puzzling through the inner workings of Iraq's largest oil refinery as part of a broader effort to stop Sunni insurgents from siphoning cash from the facility to finance attacks.

Cooper is finishing his Harvard doctoral dissertation while teaching governance at West Point's department of social sciences, an intellectual proving ground inside the Army that produces a significant number of its generals. In three years he will return to a Special Forces job.

Last month, Thoreen returned from a one-year tour as the commander of a 120-soldier infantry company in southern Afghanistan. The tour began with a massive roadside bomb attack that killed two of his men. A few weeks later, a suicide bomber killed Thoreen's closest friend from the unit.

"Damn, we haven't even been here a month yet," he wrote after the second blast. "This can't go on like this. It just can't."

In the months that followed the pace of attacks slowed and Thoreen was able to eke out some small successes in his district. Tribal elders, who were initially unwilling to work with U.S. or Afghan officials, began attending regular meetings with the Afghan district subgovernor. Thoreen helped oversee the construction of new district government center and police headquarters.

"We've set a good foundation, but if we left tomorrow it would take about three weeks for it all to come undone," he told a reporter in Afghanistan.

Today all of Thoreen's possessions fit in a small storage shed. He's been through a "string of failed relationships," he said. By November, he will have to decide if he is going to stay in the Army or try civilian life. "I am not sure whether I'll ever be comfortable with the answer," he said.

He's more confident in the lesson he will take from the Afghan and Iraq wars.

"You can fight a counterinsurgency for 20 years and spend a trillion and still not get anything out of it," he said. "So it better be worth it."

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