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What Lessons Should Americans Draw From Iraq War?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. With U.S. troops now out of Iraq as of this weekend, it's time to start asking those who served there what they fought and bled for. The historian and long-time defense reporter Tom Ricks posed that question on his blog recently.

About a million Americans served in uniform over the last nine years, since the U.S.-led invasion. Many others worked in various capacities for the State Department, contractors, news agencies, NGOs. If you've been to Iraq in or out of uniform, what should we remember? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a playwright and activists on the activist playwright who helped bring down the Iron Curtain, Ariel Dorfman on Vaclav Havel. But first Iraq, and Tom Ricks is now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, also writes The Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy, and wrote two histories of the war, "Fiasco" and "The Gamble." He joins us here in Studio 3A. Tom, nice to have you back on the program.

TOM RICKS: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder what the reaction was when you posted that question, just what did we fight and bleed for?

RICKS: I wrote that column because I did not have a good answer. And it was very heartfelt, but like a lot of heartfelt things, it was kind of inarticulate. I don't know. I was puzzling - I was asking myself what would you say to a vet of the war? And what I came down to was basically welcome home, thank you for answering your country's call.

But I can't say it was the right thing to do to fight that war. I don't think we really have - will know how the war ends for several years, but it's clear to me it was one of the biggest mistakes in American history. And it was kind of an embarrassment for this country.

We invaded a country recklessly, on false information, with a notion of preemption. We got a lot of people killed. I'm not sure we did much good. So how do you think about that? I was actually thinking about this another way the other day: What would an Iraq war memorial look like? Eventually we'll have one.

Now, the Vietnam Memorial is a gash in the ground, like a grave. I think the Iraq War memorial probably would ideally be a dead end into the ground.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from you. If you were in Iraq, in uniform or out, what did we fight and bleed for? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We'll start with Mike, and Mike's with us from Lodi in Wisconsin.

MIKE: Hi, good afternoon. I actually - I'm a career Army officer that's been retired for five years, and I'm a career logistician, and I actually concur with the remarks of your guest, I didn't catch his name.

CONAN: Tom Ricks.

MIKE: But what I remember is, for the most part, most of the places that I was at, I was at four bases in Iraq, and basically it was a very - if you were inside the base, it was like going to work every day, pretty much, except it was pretty hot outside. But if you went outside on a convoy, very scary.

IEDs killed a lot of people, two of my friends, and just whatever - I'm not sure what you can say to another vet either when he comes home. But people certainly don't - still don't understand how our military is set up because those people that are coming home are not going to be discharged, looking for jobs, President Obama; they're going to probably still have careers in the military.

So, you know, we're off the hook for that for the most part. That's about all I can say. It's just exciting to be on the program for the first time ever, as many times as I've called, Neal.

CONAN: Well, congratulations for making it in on the phone; more congratulations, too, for making it back OK. We thank you.

MIKE: Yeah, thank you, you're very welcome.


RICKS: I'd say welcome home. I'd also say what I think about - it really struck me when he talked about the heat. When I think about Iraq, the one memory that immediately comes back is the ferocious, mind-bending humid heat of mid-summer there.

When it was transitioning from the spring, which is very wet, the summer, which can be hot and dry, you get a period in May and June when it's both, about 120 degrees, very humid. Imagine D.C. with the temperature turned up in the summer another 20 degrees.

It really is the first place I ever really felt I was not thinking clearly a couple of times in the middle of the day, and that's the strongest physical memory I have of the place.

CONAN: Gary Anderson is a retired colonel in the Marines who served in Iraq as a member of a provincial reconstruction team in Abu Ghraib, outside of Baghdad, and he joins us now by phone. And Gary Anderson, nice to have you back with us, as well.

GARY ANDERSON: Good to be back, Tom.

CONAN: And Colonel Anderson, as you - what did we fight and bleed for?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, I think I feel a lot - much the same as Tom does. You sit back, and you wonder what, you know, what we actually got out of this thing. I have to kind of personalize it, and I still have a chance to talk to people that I worked with, Iraqis particularly, and, you know, just they're starting to get an almost revisionist feel about it.

They've been without us up in Abu Ghraib for about 14, 15 months now, and they're - it's kind of getting to a point where they're saying, hey, things were a lot better when the Americans were here. So it's a matter of perspective for them, I think. You happen to remember the good things and sometimes forget the bad things.

CONAN: When you got there, the situation was bad. You've told us in the past, when you left, it was better.

ANDERSON: Yeah, we actually went through the entire - in Abu Ghraib itself - went through the entire - all three faces of the coin - the clear, the hold, and we were getting into the build as I left. And in that respect it was gratifying to see, you know, things start to come along and get better. The question is, you know, did they stay that way, and will they stay that way?

Right now things - people tell me they are in fairly good shape, but that's one slice of Iraq. I can't speak to the rest of the country.

CONAN: There are reports of new tensions between the Shia leadership, Nouri al-Maliki and indeed the Sunnis, who provided much of the opposition during the war, much of the insurgency, they also provided the key to unwinding the insurgency. Andrew Exum is with us, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, Army veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Nice to have you back on the program.

ANDREW EXUM: Yeah, it's great go be here.

CONAN: And what are you going to take away? Why did we fight?

EXUM: Well, you know, first off, it's an honor to be on a program with - Iraq taught me as a junior officer that sometimes it's best not to listen to the supposed wisdom of your elders, but in this case it's pleasure to serve with two long-time mentors, you know, Gary and Tom.

I think that, you know, for me, when I look at the Iraq War, I think there were lots of reasons to found. Both, you know, I was proud to have been part of the task force that captured Saddam Hussein, and that was - you know, we freed Iraq from this horrible dictatorship.

But in terms of was it worth it, absolutely not. When you look at the trillion dollars that we spent, when you look at – I think - and I apologize if my number is incorrect, but I think 4,483 U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq, and that's, you know, not even counting the just tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties that we saw, just a horrific war.

You know, you think back to the maelstrom of violence in 2005, 2006, 2007, which Tom was a firsthand witness to, and it's hard to say that the war was with it. And in addition, especially for me as also an Afghanistan veteran, the way in which we shifted the vast majority of our military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan and are now dealing with the aftermath of that decision today.

So I don't take too much away from it positive. I mean, the big strategic lesson for me, you know, in addition this is the strategic lesson of the war in Vietnam as well, don't elect Texans president. But I think that we in the military learned a lot of smaller lessons that we've brought with us to Afghanistan, sometimes incorrectly.

And I've seen a lot of my peers who are still junior officers in the U.S. Army have faith that they're going to take a lot of the lessons that they've learned about these types of engagements, about these types of political wars, and a lot of just hard-won lessons of close-quarters combat that they'll take with them over the course of their military careers.

CONAN: I really wish I could say our next caller is Rick from Austin, but maybe not.


CONAN: Let's go to Travis, Travis with us from Quincy, Massachusetts.

TRAVIS: Yes, hello, thank you for having me on the program. Briefly, I was there in '05, '06, '07, '08 with the 101st Airborne. I just want to briefly mention that Tom Ricks mentions us, our unit, at the end of his book "Fiasco," and I want to thank him for doing a great service, for writing one of the best books about the war, and it will be considered – it will be considered that.

But I just wanted to make a brief comment. You know, the war is, you know, tragic and was tragic for us on a number of levels, the combat - you know, the combat on the ground, the nature of it and what happened to the Iraqi people. But one thing that's not often talked about is the fact that after Vietnam, political and military culture was such that we had non-interventionist ideologies throughout, you know, and into the '90s.

And one thing that that meant was that during, you know, Srebrenica, Rwanda, Bosnia, et cetera, non-interventionist policies prevented us from helping in terms of hundreds of thousands of, you know, people dying. And one of the tragedies of this war is that yet again, a war of choice, a war in which the secondary justifications don't really stack up when you compare them to Bosnia and the other conflicts with hundreds of thousands killed, one of the other things that's going to happen now is you're going to have - and you saw it to a limited extent in Libya, the opposition there, you're going to have years and decades of non-interventionism, not another Iraq, and humanitarian crises that are justified, you know, our intervention.

And that's a real tragedy, you know, the fact that we could not really help the Iraqi people as much as we should have and the fact that, you know, we didn't do it protecting or defending our country. And I want your guests to comment. I'll take it off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Just a slight correction on the timeline; Rwanda was after the first Gulf War. So there had been successful intervention. But Tom Ricks?

RICKS: Travis, welcome home, and thank you for your kind words about my book. It's an honor to have you read it. I disagree with you, though, on the consequences of the war. I'm surprised the extent to which the American people have not kind of gone into an isolationist huddle. We just did intervene, and in a very intelligent way, I think, in Libya.

We just put a small task force into Central Africa to help coordinate security efforts of small countries there. I think the two great surprises to me of this war are, number one, that we have not recoiled, as we did after Vietnam; and number two, I'm surprised at the shape the U.S. military's in.

I would have expected, if you had told me 10 years ago what we would put these people through with multiple deployments, with just one percent of society carrying the burden of the war, I would have expected it to shatter the Army, and it hasn't. And I have to attribute that to the great cohesiveness you see in the force today.

CONAN: Travis, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about what we - the end of the U.S. war in Iraq. If you were there, in uniform or out of uniform, what do you think we should remember about the war? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Retired Colonel Marines Gary Anderson is with us, along with Tom Ricks of the Center for a New American Security. Andrew Exum served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now also works at the Center for a New American Security. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Early Sunday morning, the final convoy from Contingency Operating Base Adder in south Iraq rumbled across the border into Kuwait. It was thankfully a quiet exit from the country the U.S. invaded noisily nine years ago in a shock-and-awe campaign designed to throttle a country with overwhelmingly might.

Now, nearly nine years later, Americans have learned hard lessons about intelligence, warfare and sacrifice. If you've been to Iraq, either as a service member or civilian, what do you want to be sure we remember? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tom Ricks writes the Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy, is with us. Also Colonel Gary Anderson and Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Gary Anderson, I wanted to turn to you on that last question that we had from a caller. Given that Afghanistan continues, the point Tom Ricks was making about he's surprised that America is not recoiling the way it did after the helicopters took off from the roof of the embassy in Saigon.

ANDERSON: Well, I think one thing we've learned something about at this point in time is how to manage one of these things once we've gotten into it. You can make a lot of arguments about the way we got into it, and I would say that about both Afghanistan and Iraq. But once you're into it, trying to figure out the best way to get out and do it in such a way that you have a - you're not literally going out on the skids of helicopters is a real challenge.

And for a while there in Iraq, it looked like we might be headed in that direction. The one thing that strikes me, and I think Andrew said it, is that we have learned a little bit about how to deal with states that are failing or have failed.

And right now, although the Iraqis eventually didn't have the WMD that we thought they did, we've got two very precarious states that we're dealing with, and we were reminded of that when Kim Jong-il died, that we've got two very unstable nuclear states, and if they really start to go south, you have to wonder if we may not have to get involved in that, too.

At least we've got some context, I think, now on how to think about that if we have to, God forbid, if either one of them does go under.

CONAN: This from Rosa Maria(ph) in Kingston, Rhode Island: Everyone's so happy the troops are coming home. But how many of those joyous celebrations will end with new deployments to Afghanistan? Obviously, there's a drawdown in Afghanistan, as well, Andrew Exum, but new people will be rotating out.

EXUM: Yeah, that's right. For the conventional forces, they've got about another two years to get through before we really bottom out in Afghanistan. The Special Operations Forces, both our U.S. Army Special Forces, will continue their train and advisory mission. And, you know, the U.S. Navy Seals, the U.S. Army Ranger regiment, and some of our special missions units will still be quit active in Afghanistan and other operating theaters as we go forward.

I want to just touch on something that Tom talked about. He talked about the resilience of the U.S. military, and one of the things that for me as a young veteran is really frustrating, I mean, I very much appreciate the way in which, you know, society is not sensitized to PTSD and to, you know, to what soldiers have gone through in Iraq.

But I worry that, you know, an entire class of veterans have been stigmatized. The reality is that if you go into the all-volunteer force, if you talk to, you know, young junior officers, senior, non-commissioned officers who - you know, veterans of multiple deployments, it's remarkable the degree to which they are doing just fine. And that's the case for most young veterans, as well.

So I think that you can't over-emphasize that. Having said that, it's come at a cost. You know, we have this professional military, but it's largely cut off from the rest of society. So basically just, you know, .5 percent of the, you know, the United States population really has a stake in this war, maybe one percent if you include their families and whatnot.

And that does lead to a worry that I have. You know, Travis, the caller from the 101st Airborne, raised the possibility that we're not going to intervene. I'm actually OK with that. I think we should be a little more humble about using U.S. military power in an expeditionary sense, and we should be more humble about what it can achieve.

That having been said, I completely agree with Gary that we've learned a lot of valuable lessons from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and even though stabilization operations have gone out of vogue in 2011, we'll see if they go back into fashion in 2012 if North Korea collapses.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mike in Sacramento: I was an enlisted infantry soldier in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. I worked with a Marine rifleman who was there during the initial push in 2003. We to both remember OIF as a sham, a farce, a cruel joke and a waste of time, money and lives. However, when we returned from Iraq, we would have punched you in the face if you'd told us that. We didn't want to believe that the time we'd spent over there was for nothing.

For me, the idea that I'd helped create something good over there held me together for the first few years I was back. Now, however, I am disgusted by the role our country played in destroying the country. My memories of Iraq are smeared with cynicism, bitterness and resentment toward my country's leadership.

Lets' see if we can go next to Jovan(ph), Jovan with us from Little Rock.

JOVAN: Hi, I just got back from Iraq this summer, and I was in the Air Force, and just basically my point of view on it was the fact that I really think it depends on the job that you're doing over there. My hat's off to all the Army guys, the Marine guys, because they're boots on the ground, doing a lot of heavy stuff and - versus some of us.

I was on an aircraft support position, on a base, so to where I didn't get to see the ugliness of the war. And my interaction with the people that worked on base, the Iraqis that worked on base, was positive. And they liked us. They were nice people. They were good people. And I enjoyed my deployment.

But I have a friend in security forces who - he hated it because he was spit on at the jails. He was threatened every day with death threats. So I really think it depends on the job that you had over there. I had a good experience.

EXUM: So true, that's so true. You know, for me, I think I had it pretty easy in 2003. When I look at my friends who were company commanders during 2007, during the height of the surge. They had a much different and more intense experience than I did.

CONAN: And put it in a timeframe, as Tom Ricks mentioned earlier. This email from Chris in Grand Rapids: If in five years Iraq is democratic and free, how is that a mistake? We need to wait and see.

ANDERSON: He's right. You know, miracles do happen. I just don't see the trend going that direction. I think it's pretty clear, at least in the short term, that we have altered the balance of power in the Middle East not for the better, that Iran is the prime beneficiary of the American foray into Iraq.

CONAN: Jovan, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jesse(ph), Jesse with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

JESSE: Hi, hello?

CONAN: You're on the air, Jesse. Go ahead, please.

JESSE: Hi, I just wanted to say I was in the initial invasion in Third ID. I was an artilleryman, and I went back again in 2005. And I want to say that although the war may have been misdirected, and I should have been in Afghanistan, those people now have the opportunity, whether they take it or not, to have freedom and to choose to do what is best for their people. Whether or not they do that remains to be seen. And that, in my opinion, is exactly what's going to determine if my friends that I lost and all of those other people that have sacrificed over there is going to be worth it.

CONAN: Gary Anderson, let me bring you in on that. You experienced that firsthand, working as a civilian with a Provincial Reconstruction Team. Do you think people appreciate the opportunity, and do you think they will be able to seize it?

ANDERSON: Well, just the thing that struck me universally between - we had a province that was pretty well evenly split between Sunni and Shia - the two primary minority groups there - was the thing that struck me was the anti-Iranian, anti-Persian tone of both the Sunni and the Shia, which really surprised me.

And there were a whole lot of things that, you know, that contributed to that, but I think in my view in the future, as we move along here, what we are going to see is that no Iraqi politician is going to prosper in the long run if he allies himself too closely to the Iranians.

So to some extent I think there is some hope there that we will establish something that is a bulwark against Iranian expansionism in that part of the world, but I think time will tell. That's just my own personal opinion from one small slice of Iraq itself.

CONAN: Go ahead.

EXUM: I think Gary's right there. I actually am somewhat surprised by Tom. I think Tom's right to be worried about Iraq, especially given the authoritarian tendencies of Nouri al-Maliki, which have come to the fore just really over the past few days, even more than before.

But I think Gary's also right that the Iraqis - and we learned this the hard way in 2003 - don't particularly like foreign intervention in their country and that they have a very strong sense of what it means to be Iraqi and are not going to just quietly acquiesce to Iranian whims.

CONAN: Jesse, thanks for the call.

JESSE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Email from - this is Champa(ph), from Tucson: We keep talking about how many there gave their lives, both U.S. and Iraqis. We don't mention the upwards of 30,000 injured or permanently disabled. That's a huge loss and cost to our country. And I think everyone would say here, here. John is on the line, John with us from Kalamazoo.

JOHN: Yes, I served both in Iraq and Afghanistan - Iraq twice - and I really think both of the wars were an insult to our nation. And really adding insult to injury, when we came home, we had to basically beg and grovel for any help. I know myself was injured because of the anthrax vaccination. I had to beg for transportation, for health care and then groveling on the South Lawn to President Bush to complain about how so many veterans are waiting for disability benefits. And I think that really adds a scar to our nation. I mean, it's really a shame that we had to treat our vets that way. We're just like toy soldiers to them.

CONAN: Tom Ricks, this has been a continual complaint, yet we hear nothing from politicians, except we have to remember the sacrifices of our veterans who fought so nobly in - for our flag.

RICKS: My impression is the Veterans Administration is doing a better job now than it has in the past. But historically speaking, we have never drawn down the military after a war very well. It wasn't so long ago - it was the - 1930 when we had veterans marching and occupying Washington...

The bonus riots.

JOHN: Right.

RICKS: ...very much like Occupy Washington, Occupy Wall Street today. The Army chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur, led troops against those veterans in Washington. They burned them out. They burned down their Occupy Washington village of 1930. We have a hard time getting beyond lip service. I was struck that one of the first things that the Pentagon did when they started looking at having to cut its budget was looking at cutting military benefits, especially retirement benefits, which has struck me as a real slap in the face.

EXUM: Well, I think the Department of Defense does a good job looking after military personnel. I think the Veterans Administration does a - has historically done a poorer job. Although I agree with Tom, I think you've got some great folks over there at the VA that are trying to amend that. You know, George Washington said that a nation will go to war - men will be willing to serve under arms depending on how the veterans of previous wars were treated.

And so I think it's a national security issue that we treat our veterans well because if you're in high school and you see veterans being maltreated on the streets of the United States, you see veterans not being taken cared of when they return, how likely are you going to, you know, enlist in the Marines or the Ranger regiment?

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Exum, you just heard, served as a junior officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gary Anderson is retired as a colonel of Marines, served in Iraq as a member of a Provincial Reconstruction Team working for the State Department, and Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote two books about the war in Iraq, "Fiasco" and "The Gamble." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Toby in Berlin, in Germany. What do I want people to remember about the Iraq War? Two words, Abu Ghraib. And I don't think he's referring to the town where Colonel Anderson served but to the scandal that emerged from the prison there. And you could point out other words - Haditha. Yet, of course, there are - any war you unleash troops, there are going to be atrocities. There are going to be your My Lais. There are going to be - Tom Ricks, this is a part of conflict.

RICKS: It is.

CONAN: Not to excuse it or it's a...

RICKS: The difference is how the institution reacts. There are always going to be war crimes and atrocities. The question is: does the institution react and investigate it and shut it down? Do they change their procedures? It's very striking when you look at Abu Ghraib, that the U.S. military I don't think ever really looked at the leadership flaws that led to it. It's akin to torture by the Bush administration. Sure, torture has occurred in all wars, but this is the first time that our nation ever made it policy to torture people.

It used to be an aberration that was punished. So it does worry me that we have not really turned over those rocks sufficiently, especially in calling leadership to account for what happened. We punish a lot of soldiers, but the old cynical saying in the Army is different spanks for different ranks. And I think that's what happened with Abu Ghraib.

CONAN: Email to the same point from Luke. I served with Mr. Exum in Georgia and elsewhere. Please ask him about our loss of moral high ground lay Abu Ghraib, Tillman, enhanced interrogation, domestically the loss of liberty, i.e. the Patriot Act and the new Defense Authorization Act. Is this part of all war?

EXUM: Yeah. Well, first off, Luke, thanks for getting in touch. I think, you know, in terms of our loss of the moral high ground, you know, Tom is right, and, Neal, you're correct as well that you're always going to have sometimes breakdowns in discipline. You'll have, you know, in the case of Abu Ghraib, you had noncommissioned officers that, quite frankly, weren't doing their jobs, commissioned officers that weren't doing their jobs. The worrying thing is that there's no accountability, is that there was very little accountability at the beginning of the war, not just in terms of the atrocities but in terms of the fact we were actually losing the war.

And you very rarely saw officers relieved. You very rarely saw any type of accountability at the higher ranks. I mean, Donald Rumsfeld had a job until after the 2006 congressional elections. That to me is just absolutely shocking. I think that the United States military can take a tremendous amount of pride in the way in which it has kept its discipline over a decade of fighting. I think there's a lot to be proud of. I think that, you know, incidents like the kill team in Afghanistan, of the Haditha massacre, these are aberrations.

But I think the important thing is because the United States military is held to, frankly, a higher standard than any other military, we have to be seen as being accountable. And that when atrocities take place, you have to see some sort of accountability take place in a transparent way that make sense for not just U.S. voters but, quite frankly, for the world at large.

CONAN: Gary Anderson, what are the consequences of a lack of accountability, especially at the higher ranks?

ANDERSON: It's a very serious thing, and it goes all the way from the top to the bottom. If you don't hold people accountable to standards and you don't hold them rigidly accountable, you're always going to be prone to have that sort of thing happen. And as inexcusable as it is I think the one thing we hopefully have learned and I say that, you know, being no longer in the military but remembering how it was, you've got to be absolutely accountable for everything your people do or failed to do.

RICKS: That's right.

ANDERSON: Even if you're not there, you have to create the command climate that a certain things just aren't going to happen. And it has got to go all the way to the top, and people have to be held accountable. The Navy does a better job at that than almost any other service. If a ship goes aground, it doesn't matter if the captain was on the bridge or was on a well-deserved sleep break, he's probably going to be relieved because he didn't set the standard of excellence that was needed to avoid (unintelligible). I think if anything comes out of this, we've got to maybe take that Navy standard and apply it all the way across all the services.

RICKS: Concur.

CONAN: We're talking about lessons learned at the end of the U.S. war in Iraq. Tom Ricks, Colonel Gary Anderson - you just heard him there - and Andrew Exum are our guests. More in a minute. We'll also remember Vaclav Havel. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we're going to be switching subjects and talking about the late Czech leader, Vaclav Havel, who died over the weekend, but we want to continue our conversations about Iraq as U.S. troops exit. Our guests are Tom Ricks, of the Center for a New American Security, wrote "Fiasco" and "The Gamble"; retired Colonel Gary Anderson, served as a - on a Provincial Reconstruction Team at Abu Ghraib, outside of Baghdad; and Andrew Exum served as a junior officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he's now at the Center for a New American Security as well. And let's see if we can get Gia on the line. Gia is with us from Edmond, Oklahoma.

GIA: Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

GIA: The comment I'd like to have put on the air is the following: My son was born in 2002. My husband and I both are in the military. My husband is active duty, I'm a reservist. We have had a deployment maybe not two boots on the ground but in support of the Iraq War the entire lifetime of my child. It has done nothing but damage him. And I just don't know how to explain to him why mommy and daddy were leaving and the mess that we've got ourselves into. So not only has this war affected the military, it's affected all those Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine children that their parents left continually to fight this war that now we can't tell them why.

CONAN: Gary Anderson, I know your situation with your son - much older than Gia's - but you ended up being there as a civilian while he was there in the military.

ANDERSON: Actually, he was in Afghanistan, but the point is well-made. Of course, my family is a military family. My son is commanding a ship. My - or my son-in-law, I should say. My son is still in the Army. To some extent, and particularly in the professional military families, this is something you sort of come to expect, and it becomes part of the rite of passage and families. But it's a lot tougher for a young family that hasn't experienced that before, and what happens again and again and again. I don't know, to be honest with you, how much psychological effect this is going to have long term on the service as a whole. It's probably too soon to tell.

But I think we really have to rethink some of our personnel policies, particularly how long we'd keep people in theater. I think a year is probably too long. I think the Marines may have it about right, doing seven months. But it doesn't solve the overall problem of separations. It is really a tough problem for families all over the country.

CONAN: And just as - we thought the Guard and reserves after Vietnam, we may have to rethink that again. But, Tom Ricks?

RICKS: I do think we have to rethink rotation and the burden we put on such a small segment of society. I actually think the burden on families in many ways is greater than the burden on the service member. It's harder to have somebody deployed than to be deployed frequently. I was once in a kindergarten at Fort Ringgold - Ringgold Elementary School, just outside the front gates of Fort Campbell, Kentucky - and I was interviewing a kindergarten teacher, and she said, you know what it's like to have a 5-year-old running from the playground and say in Mosul just went down over Black Hawk? I mean - I'm sorry - a Black Hawk just went down over Mosul? She said they know what a Black Hawk is. They know where Mosul is. And they know the implications are that mommy or daddy may be dead.

CONAN: Gia, I hope things - I hope explanations come to mind.

GIA: Well, I hope they do too, Neal. I - this will affect, as you talked about, further my children's willingness and everyone else's willingness to go for an all-volunteer force. How much longer is that going to be able to last, especially in the now Iran and North Korea issue which aren't going to go away any time soon?

CONAN: Or Yemen or Somalia or, well...

RICKS: Pakistan.

CONAN: ...Pakistan. Yeah. Thank you, Gia, very much. Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can get one more. And Amy is joining us. Amy is with us from Edith, in Oklahoma.

AMY: Yes, sir. I was in '06, '07 from the Oklahoma National Guard. We were a transportation company. We were stationed in Mosul, Iraq. We got hit very (unintelligible), even if - on the FOB. I know there were some comments, there wasn't much on the FOB. It was, like, civilians lives, if not on our location. But by no means, we were mortared constantly - not every day, mortar fire. It took out our living quarters at one point.

And then I was a 50-cal gunner, and we did (unintelligible) security. And I felt that we pretty much were there to sustain ourselves. We didn't see the positive side so much, other than the cohesion that our unit found amongst each other, meaning there was a sense of honor and pride that we had with each other. It was a matter - we didn't know. We prayed before we went out. We prayed when we got back in. We only traveled at night. We'd go up near Turkey, Syria borders. But we probably (unintelligible) three different IEDs, six all together, three contacts to my vehicle.

I was - I left two children at home for that tour. I'm very proud of that. And it's interesting to hear what other people's comments were. There was a sense of bitterness, because we got hit so often and so much. And we were trained to fight, and we couldn't fight back. And so it was very aggravating and stressful, and it was hard to explain that back at home, on what was going on.

But now we've been backed for a period of time. We've lost some soldiers to some suicide incidents. And there's still some confusion on what we did, exactly, over there. But there was also a sense of cohesion amongst us, and we're proud. And we - I feel that I hate to think that we went over there for there, but as the years kind of turned out, it kind of seemed that way, that we were fighting for our lives and fighting for ourselves, is what I feel. And I'm home.

CONAN: And...

EXUM: Yeah, let me - first off, Amy, thank you so much for your service. I hope that the rest of America heard Amy, the 50-cal gunner, tell her story, because there's a prohibition on, you know, women seeing combat. That prohibition is nonsense and went out the window the moment that Jessica Lynch's convoy was attacked in Iraq. In, you know, this type of counter-insurgency campaign - in a counter-insurgency especially, but just in modern warfare in general, women have seen combat and fought valiantly and, you know, courageously and competently in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So that's the first thing that jumps out there.

The second thing is just, you know, Amy describes going to combat as part of a small unit, the togetherness, the, you know, prayer circles, the - just the cohesiveness while you're there, going through that intense experience as a unit. This is something that, actually, the U.S. military has learned is a lot better than sending people like we did in Vietnam as Individual Augmentees units. That is a recipe for PTSD, doing that, sending people, actually, you know, as part of cohesive units where they experience combat together, deploy together and then deploy back together, that's a much better recipe for success.

CONAN: Andrew Exum - first of all, Amy, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

AMY: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And, Andrew Exum, we'd like to thank you for your time today. Tom Ricks and Retired Colonel Gary Anderson, all of them with us - Gary Anderson with us on the phone, Tom Ricks and Andy Exum with us here in the studio. Thanks all very much for your time. In a moment: a playwright-activist on a playwright-activist. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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