Brad and Rachelle Palmer's home where they hung a gold star for their enlisted son. (John Kael Weston)

War Is the New Peace: American Vets Reflect on Syria

As Obama pushes for the U.S. to attack Syria, vets gather to talk about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Kael Weston, who spent years in both, reflects on what another war would mean after the folly of the last two.

War is like poker.

Once statesmen, such as the irreverent and irreplaceable Richard C. Holbrooke, R.I.P., and generals array themselves around its cursed table, all become trapped. Good or bad luck—not smarts or skill—determines outcomes. As Napoleon remarked, “I would rather have a general who was lucky than one who was good.” Even a bluffing superpower can be forced to ante up ... or perhaps fold as casualties mount and treasury accounts go bust. Old men talking. Young men dying. Anyone who has seen war up close knows as much. It is deadly, costly, and to be avoided whenever possible. Just ask U.S. troops, who survived Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States’ two longest-ever wars.

At a recent Labor Day weekend reunion gathering in Leadville, Colorado—a scrappy, un-Aspen town on the other side of Independence Pass and the Continental Divide—about 40 veterans ate, drank, and reminisced. We had traveled from California, South Carolina, Utah, other parts of Colorado, Connecticut, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and even as far away as the Dominican Republic. Whisky washed down cheeseburgers at the Silver Dollar Saloon in the riches-to-rags historic setting where tuberculosis-stricken Doc Holliday shot his last outlaw.

Leadville is also the hometown of Lance Cpl. Nicklas Palmer, killed in action in Fallujah, Iraq, on December 16, 2006—one of many young Americans killed in an unnecessary war.

Discussions focused more on Syria than on our own combat tours in places named Ramadi or Helmand. Across ranks, Marine veterans expressed concerns about what seemed to be another rush into another unnecessary conflict. Captains, corporals, sergeants, colonels, and even a two-star commanding general were there, and all basically concurred:

U.S. cruise missile strikes in Syria would not end well.

Each of us gathered there had lived the truism of all wars: what can go wrong will go wrong.

No plan turned out the way we hoped or wanted. Worst-case scenarios ruled.

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Brad and Rachelle Palmer stand next to Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson and Staff Sgt. Dean Sanchez near a veterans memorial. Lance Cpl. Nick Palmer was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, in December 16, 2006. (John Kael Weston)

He opened bluntly, “It is not the view of 300 million Americans that matters, but instead the 300 or so politicians on the Hill and their views.”

Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, both Vietnam veterans, surely know that in war cowards far outnumber heroes, especially the farther one gets from the front lines. Think: keyboard combat in our capital city within think-tank ranks, via “snowflake” memos and between op-ed pages among the perpetually bellicose, those sporting Brooks Brothers but not a uniform. Think Paul Wolfowitz and our merry band of neocons. After Iraq, Wolfowitz got promoted to the World Bank. Rumsfeld, with a $1 million advance, wrote a book about leadership, with the ironic title, Rumsfeld Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life. And Dick Cheney? (Secret Service code name “Angler.”) He’s working on his own tome about heart transplants, telling an AP reporter in 2012, “I spent a lot of time on the river this summer and enjoying the finer things in life.” In other words, gone fishing.

If only all of my surviving veteran buddies were as fortunate, postwar.

Below are comments from some of the Marines who were with me over Labor Day, followed by the views of an Iraqi and an Afghan. I have identified the American troops by their rank and geographic location served. While only a small sample, they reflect how uneasy tens of millions of us remain about more war talk within the unpopular, dysfunctional Washington establishment.

How the Troops See It

Marine infantry corporal (Fallujah, Haditha):

All my generation knows is war, for war is the new peace. From my high school graduation until present my country has been at war. Our leaders justify the warfare through the doctrine of preemptive warfare. We are told we are safer both as a country and as a global community. I can only conclude that this reasoning is specious at best, for none can see the future of paths we do not take. The best way to prevent more of us veterans from suffering with PTSD is to prevent more wars.

Marine colonel (Fallujah and Helmand):

As to my thoughts on Syria ... I trust that we would not undertake military action solely as an ineffectual “saving face” response. Our reputation overseas is in tatters already anyway. If we commit to military action, we need to do so in a manner that is meaningful and in line with the country’s long-term interests. The worst possible outcome would be a halfhearted measure that leads to escalation and draws us into a conflict we are not prepared to face. I have no reservations about going to war again, but let’s ensure we understand the full cost going in.

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A memorial at the Leadville cemetery honors veterans of all wars. (John Kael Weston)

Marine jet fighter pilot (Fallujah and Helmand):

On Syria, I see it as a no-win situation for U.S. policy. Damned if we do (and what comes next if we do strike?) and damned if we don’t (and how do we expect anyone to care or react if we threaten military action in retaliation for certain acts in the future?). The strikes as intimated (TLAMS) will likely have little impact other than killing some regime henchmen (maybe) and demonstrating that we “did something” in response to the crossing of the red line. They have an equally good chance of giving the regime more cachet among nations and people who view the U.S. as a bully. I don’t see a good outcome with either option.

Iraqi and Afghan views

Iraqi (Fallujah):

If your government attack Syria (and they will) it will make syrian regiem only stronger than before and Shia alliance will be stronger…you can take Al assad down without shooting one bullet, use someone else, there is many violenters you and i know many of them ….there is many open channels we can use it instead of starting anew war

Afghan (Khost province):

Regarding Syria I would say, Peace is the greatest option available, the U.S and the international community should try all the drivable ways to have an end for syria’s disaster through diplomacy rather than military strike.‬‬ Military strike also kills and ruining incent people lives.

300 or 300 million?

In late 2009 in Helmand province, as the Obama administration debated whether to surge tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, I entered a Marine general’s office as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina waited for us to brief him. He opened bluntly, “It is not the view of 300 million Americans that matters, but instead the 300 or so politicians on the Hill and their views.”

Jaws dropped.

No Boots on the Ground

The Obama administration’s war cabinet promises “no American troops” in Syria, just missiles overhead. But their rhetoric does not sound reassuring to our ears, instead echoing an all-too-familiar past—and seems dismissive of American public opinion against military action. No one ever plans to escalate a war. And then a “surge” happens: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan ... my father’s war, followed by my own wars.

We’re told a quick strike in Syria will be different. Well, let’s think about that for a bit. Our track record in the Middle East is not one of strategic successes or wise moves. As legendary diplomat Ryan Crocker recently reminded us, “Our biggest problem is ignorance; we’re pretty ignorant about Syria.”

Questions for the Commander in Chief

In Tuesday night’s national address, the president needs to respond forthrightly to the concerns of his troops and millions of Americans—the people he and members of Congress represent, indeed work for. I recall the words of a junior state senator from Chicago who stated in 2002: “I don’t oppose all wars ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”

Perhaps he will publicly answer these questions, among others, all stemming from the principal one: “what’s the sustainable strategy, Mr. President?”

(1)     Do we know who the “good guys” are in Syria amid all the bad ones?

(2)     A lot more children and civilians have been killed in Syria by conventional weapons, not chemical, in their civil war. Equally tragic but not worthy of U.S. intervention before or after any strike?

(3)     What if Bashar al-Assad does not back down since you’ve stated “Assad must go” and any initial fusillade proves ineffective?

(4)     If Congress votes no, will you still order a military attack—or a series of them, perhaps—action being better than inaction?

(5)     Which allies will support (deeds beyond words) the U.S., and would an attack be legal under international law? Our “best friend” Britain will not assist—and the U.N. Security Council is frozen.

And a bonus one that begs an answer should the White House’s antsy “flood the zone” effort fail to win enough congressional votes:

What’s plan B, a nonmilitary strategy?

Americans deserve to know. Already there have been plenty of other kinds of red lines left in Arab and Afghan sand. They represent the highest measure of U.S. sacrifice and superpower credibility. The many Nick Palmers, all buried far too young, killed in our faraway wars.

A Fallujah Postscript

The biggest battle in Iraq commenced in Fallujah (my home for almost three years) in November 2004, just after President George W. Bush’s reelection. We originally named our military plan “Phantom Fury” until the Iraqi prime minister said “Al Fajr” (Arabic for “New Dawn”) would be better received in Muslim ears. And so the battle got a revised one. During the early phase of the multiday assault, we used Willy Pete—white phosphorous—in the northern part of the city as a screen to conceal troop movements. It melts skin ... and did.

Iraqi skin.

No matter what name might be assigned to a “limited” U.S. military attack in Syria—and let’s not kid ourselves, a cruise-missile strike is war—no one truly wins in warfare. There are no winning hands, just a grim deck full of aces of spades.

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