- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

In recent weeks, Congress, the British Parliament and the media have focused upon whether there was adequate justification for war with the regime of Saddam Hussein. The debate focuses upon the narrow question of whether the evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was sufficient to warrant military action and thereby risk the lives of U.S. and British troops. As one of the troops currently serving in Iraq, I respectfully suggest that the focus of these critics is misplaced.

It is not unusual in our national history for the initial “heated” reason to justify war to fade over time, to be replaced with a more objective rationale that benefits from newly gained information and the passage of time. The fact that the initial reason prompting military action evolves over time based upon new circumstances does not invalidate the legitimacy of the decision to use military force. It simply reflects the complexity of international conflict that the current single-issue debate misses.

History provides several pertinent examples of this phenomenon. Today, when one asks what the primary reason was for the Civil War, most people will invariably answer “to free the slaves.” However, the civil war actually began as a clash between two conflicting economic and political systems that pitched a centralized federal system against the South’s state rights agenda. World War II began for the United States as resistance to the economic and territorial ambitions of imperial Japan and fascist Germany, but has become increasingly viewed in retrospect as a unified effort by the allied nations to quash the ethnic racism and genocide of those two regimes.

The current debate over Gulf War II appears to have taken a similar myopic turn in the press and Congress, with critics focusing solely upon WMD. If there are no WMD, the argument runs, then initiating military action against Saddam Hussein was improper. However, from the perspective of the troops who fought to liberate Iraq, the presence or absence of WMD has no bearing upon their willingness to fight in this military operation.

The difference between the critics in Washington/London and the opinions of the soldiers serving in Iraq is simple. The troops have actually seen Iraq and based their opinions on experience, rather than forming their opinions from the political agendas of party leadership or the ratings battles of networks. To the soldiers and Marines who liberated Iraq, the war is about ending a rogue regime that threatenedinternational peace, conducted genocide against its own people and methodically terrorized innocent civilians.

Every military service member finds their own reason for tolerating the anxiety, uncertainty and discomfort of a combat zone far from home. First and foremost, soldiers fight to preserve the lives of their comrades with whom they serve. However, this is the most educated military in history, with most noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel possessing college credits or degrees. They are smart and expect a valid reason for leaving their families to risk their lives. This Army has found that reason in observing the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein — suffering which reflects his contempt for the values that Americans have fought for since the Revolutionary War.

Upon entering southern Iraq U.S. troops encountered a battered and despised Iraqi Shi’ite population that Saddam Hussein had denied water, electricity, water and medical care for decades. People lived at a bronze-age level in a country possessing the richest natural resources on the planet. Comprising 60 percent of the nation’s population, the Shi’ites were treated as enemies of the state by the 20 percent Sunni population that was the core of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. Why is that an issue for the United States? The answer to that crystallized for me in a swampy field in Southern Iraq in April 2003. Escorting a group of U.S. government officials to inspect a recently discovered mass grave 60 miles south of Baghdad, we encountered a killing field, where the Ba’athist regime had systematically executed approximately 5,000 Shi’ite men, women and children in retaliation for the Shi’ite uprising in 1991.

As we searched for the mass grave outside the city of Al Hillah, we drove along a levee between two swampy fields. We soon realized that the levee itself was the gravesite. As we stepped from the vehicles and established a security perimeter, we saw that we had driven into the middle of an area of human remains barely covered by earth. A rib cage was disturbed beneath our front bumper. A section of jaw with the teeth intact lay on the surface next to my vehicle. The ball joint of a hip protruded from the dust a few feet away. AK-47 bullets from the Iraqi military’s execution squad laid on the surface next to the remains and the partially decomposed clothing of the victims.

Our Iraqi translator informed us that Saddam Hussein had systematically terrorized and eliminated anyone from the Shi’ite majority in southern Iraq who had not supported him in the first Gulf War. Entire families were seized by the Iraqi security forces and trucked to more than 60 execution sites throughout southern Iraq. Day and night, the trucks and buses rolled into the fields, where entire families were shot down and buried in mass graves. Children were not spared, as their deaths created a strong deterrent to future resistance against the regime. In some instances, buses were driven into large pits and not even unloaded. The victims were shot in their seats and then the entire vehicle buried as their tomb. Over sixty such mass graves have been located thus far in southern Iraq.

The most disturbing memory of that gruesome inspection was not the human remains laying on the surface, but a small dusty sandal lying in the middle of the levee. It belonged to a little girl of approximately 8 or 9 years old. She had been executed with her family simply because she was born in the wrong part of Iraq and was not of the Sunni faith favored by the regime. I could only imagine the terror that that young girl had experienced as she and her parents were marched into the swamp to die. The girl’s enthusiasm and joy for life, which we see in the eyes of our own children, was cruelly snuffed out by a bullet. The sandal was the only evidence remaining of the lost potential of that young life.

As I stood there, 12,000 miles from home, any doubt regarding the propriety of our action to remove Saddam Hussein evaporated. As a lawyer, I live in a world where legal justification for an action is more important than the passions of the moment. I tried to think of ways that this slaughter was any different than the organized murder of civilians under the Third Reich who also did not have the “right” religious or ethnic background. These were Arab Muslims, not European Jews or intellectuals, but those distinctions were meaningless. These were mothers, fathers and children who merely wanted to work, live and love their families as we do in the United States.

They were slaughtered for the same reasons as Jews in Germany or Albanians in Kosovo — because of blind religious hatred. I stood there and wondered where the TV cameras and politicians were who are so intensively focused on the single WMD issue. It is rare that one can see evil existing on a scale that is so massive that it is tangible to the senses. The slaughter that occurred to the Shi’ites is such an event and yet it is hardly a blip on the radar of those discussing the justification for military intervention.

We did not go to war for the primary purpose of liberating the Shi’ites of southern Iraq, nor the similarly abused Kurds in northern Iraq. But is that important now? As the game of 20/20 hindsight is being played by political commentators, should not the fact that this military intervention freed millions from terror be given its appropriate place alongside the single WMD issue now being discussed? Shouldn’t the more appropriate question be, “Why didn’t we do this sooner,” as we did in Kosovo, rather than “why did we do this at all?”

Those who fought to liberate Iraq shake their heads in wonder that President Bush and Tony Blair are still under attack as to whether a particular piece of intelligence regarding WMD was good enough to justify military action when the lives of millions have been saved from murder and oppression. Although the fighting continues, the groundwork is being laid every day for Iraq to emerge as a free and stable country in a region characterized by oppression and instability. On the strategic scene, these are issues in the vital interest of the United States worth fighting for.

However, for me and many others in uniform, justification for the war in Iraq will come down to a dusty sandal on a forgotten levee in central Iraq. We were not in time for that little girl, but the children who survived the Ba’athist genocide will have the chance to grow up and live freely because our country had to resolve to say “enough.” The United States and Britain have done a great thing by removing Saddam Hussein, which history will judge as another courageous step in our national history of opposing tyranny and genocide.

Lt. Col. Craig Trebilcock is an Army reserve officer serving with the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade in central Iraq. His unit supported the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during the war. In his civilian capacity, he is an immigration lawyer in York, Pa.

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