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Reflections of an Iraq War veteran as "combat mission" ends

Mark Mardell | 08:06 UK time, Monday, 30 August 2010

This week the mission in Iraq officially changes, combat is over.

On Tuesday night, President Obama will give an important speech marking the end of the conflict. I am talking to a number of people who were involved in the war about what it means to them and where it leaves the notion of American military might. The result will be broadcast on the Ten O'Clock News on Wednesday night but I'll be posting some fuller versions of the interviews here.

Boston

Tim McLaughlin is flicking through an album of photographs he took in Iraq as his tank made its way to Baghdad - part of the invading American forces in 2003. They are not your average snaps.

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He shows me one of a burnt-out tank they passed on the way. An American tank. He says that's a bit worrying. His comrades-in-arms, smiling in front of their tank. They all lived, but he remarks the sergeant is blind, but doing well, running for Congress in California.

The narrow view from inside the tank, a slit that shows road and desert. In one a body, a dot on the ground, an Iraqi soldier who got too close.

Perhaps you've seen one of Tim McLaughlin's photos too. You've almost certainly seen a picture of his flag. It was the stars and stripes that was raised as the statue of Saddam Hussein came tumbling too the ground, with a little American help. Some saw the moment as a defining and damaging image, one of conquest not liberation.

For Tim, now a solicitor in Boston, it was not a exactly a moment pregnant with meaning at the time.

''What I remember is not very much. It wasn't a particularly memorable moment for me and I don't think it was intended to be. I truly didn't feel anything about the flag - I was more concerned about posting the tanks around the embassy for security. To the extent that there was a crowd gathered around the statue trying to pull it down and to the extent that Mike 88 (motor transport operative: the guy driving the crane) was trying to help them I remember my company commander said: "Hey Mac, go get the flag, get a picture of it." That's very different from the way the world perceived it but that doesn't mean that they didn't perceive it correctly. I understand it symbolises a lot of things for a lot of people."

I said that as far as it symbolised a moment of victory, what were his reflections on that?

"I would disagree with you. It was not my moment of victory. Corporal Gonzales was killed three days later. So if you are sitting at home watching it on TV, wars have endings just like movies on TV have endings but there was no ending for me there. There was a flag that went up, that was perceived as something other than it was at the time. My friend Andy Stern died 18 months later. There was no victory for me.

"When the flag went up that was perceived in the minds of people who watched at home as victory. But as time wore on it was clear from our perspective the enemy didn't want to quit, didn't want to give up. They put up resistance and in fairness to them they did develop a very good strategy, very good tactic for defeating what would otherwise be a superior military force."

He says Petraeus is a smart man, who had a smart plan and the Iraqi people are "getting there".

So what are his thoughts before this official change of mission?

"Makes me kinda proud of my experiences. The opportunity to give them a chance to let their country be whatever they want it to be."

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He has talked about those who died, so was it worth it?

"Of course I think it was worth it. But I think you are asking two separate questions. Was the question of invading Iraq right? At the time it appeared to be the right decision, in retrospect things were not as they were said. But that conversation is different from 'Should we have stayed or should we have gone, 2004 to 2010?'. However mistaken the decision to invade, the stubbornness - as some people saw it - of George Bush in not leaving, I think that was a courageous decision on his part. I had the experience more recently of working in Bosnia (for the International War Crimes Tribunal) and Bosnia was a country where we didn't intervene and truly horrific consequences resulted. If we had simply run away from Iraq the way some people wanted, we would have seen truly catastrophic consequences - not 25 people dying in a bombing one day but entire villages wiping out other villages.

I quote something he wrote a couple of years ago:

"No-one has to convince me that there is a difference between the way the world is and the way it should be. I'll stand for the way the world should be every time" - what implications did that have for the use of American military might?

"I'm writing as someone who had been in the military, not as a politician who makes a decision to go to war. One of the things you will find among almost all of those who become servicemen is that one of the primary reasons we join is the notion that we are making a difference in the world and frequently the military is the right place to make that difference. You see the military's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places like Haiti. So my decision to join the military was an opportunity to make the world a better place somewhere. Of course military force never makes the world a better place for the people who experience the military force, or people who apply the military force like me, but over the course of history I think Europe is a better place for the application of military force, Japan is, South Korea clearly is.

Iraq? I interrupt.

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"I think it's too soon to tell. I think one of the difficulties people have in this world of drive-thrus and 24-hour instant news feeds is that the military will go in in September and by the end of the year we will have a functioning democracy. But they are having elections, they are having the same sort of honourable gridlock in their politics that we have in ours. Germany is the third-largest economy in the world, but it's taken 60 years."

So while some would only use force to defend, he would agree with those who want to get rid of the bad guys?

"No, that's not what happened in Iraq. At the time at least what was reported to the public by the president's administration and the media was that Iraq had some responsibility (for 9/11) so to that extent that's not getting rid of the bad guy, but getting rid of the guy who attacked your country."

I remark afterwards that in Britain the focus was all on weapons of mass destruction and I didn't know anyone who believed that Saddam had anything to do with 9/11.

He said in the US it was different. I ask him about lessons for the future about the uses of war.

"It is up to the people. I think the president and government is obligated to defend this country whether it is the borders or energy policy. I think we would be fooling anybody to believe that there wasn't defence of energy policy. Given that our energy policy means we consume about 25% of the world's natural resources then we have to engage and defend those resources where they are."

How would he sum up?

"I am incredibly proud at what I see over there. I really see good things. I hope one day I can go back to a functioning country, however they want it to function. I am incredibly proud of the American servicemen over there - they do an extraordinary job. As for what I miss, I miss the people, not getting rained on for a month, getting shot at, shooting other people. My experience was a particularly violent one overall, but it gives me perspective that you can't get at an Ivy League school and that's my take on the world."

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