HLS Iraq Veterans Bring Their Lessons to the Law School


If you are seeking broad generalizations and bickering over the next step for our forces in Iraq, you can turn on any TV talk show or presidential election debate, but if you want to hear about boots in the sand, military checkpoints, tribal sheiks, and sectarian politics, you should look for one of the Iraq veterans currently studying at HLS. The HLS Armed Services Association hosted a panel composed of distinguished Army veterans last Thursday, and Hauser 102 was filled to capacity with students eager to hear the personal experiences of life on the ground in Iraqi towns like Fallujah and Sadr City. The panel was moderated by Professor Noah Feldman, and its members were Robert Merrill ’08, Geoff Orazem ’09, Kurt White (1L and joint degree candidate with the Business School), Hagan Scotten ’10, and Erik Swabb ’09. The panelists experiences were diverse, ranging from the initial invasion to the training of the Iraqi military and execution of counterinsurgency operations.

Geoff Orazem ’09 left the Marines as a captain after serving in the invasion and then conducting security operations in Sadr City. He said that during the invasion his unit was leapfrogging from town to town along American-built highways that “looked just like Arizona.” He described the fall of Baghdad as “a combination of Mardi Gras and the liberation of Paris,” with some people running from the city with the spoils of looting and others cheering and bringing babies to take pictures with the troops. “It was just like Donald Rumsfeld told us it would be,” Orazem said.

Kurt White served two tours in Iraq as an Army officer in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He recalled the atmosphere at West Point when he was about to graduate. “When we saw the twin towers come down we knew we would be going to war when we graduated,” said White. “I think most people were like me, very nervous but also very excited about getting a chance to do what we were being trained to do and serve our country.”

Despite the harsh conditions of life in a combat area, White enjoyed the opportunity to lead soldiers. In this role he says he was able to provide an “almost parental” role in helping them solve their daily problems. He says his biggest challenge was teaching soldiers to treat the local populace well. “It’s hard to teach soldiers who were trained to fight to expect that they would be shot at but that they should interact with the people in a way that encourages them to be cooperative. I’m not sure if I was ever successful at teaching this with rights or philosophy, but it became clear early on that on a strategic level this was obvious since people would go get a gun if they weren’t treated well.”

Orazem said that during the invasion he also had difficulty restraining his soldiers, since they were anxious to fight and had permissive orders. “I would tell them, ‘You could shoot this person, but if someone came to your farm in Minnesota and shot your dad, what would you do?'”

Erik Swabb ’09 fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah and later performed counterinsurgency operations with the Iraqi Army. Swabb said that once the Marines implemented a strategy for winning over the local people they saw immediate results in the form of better intelligence, more captured insurgents, and less casualties. Swabb taught classes to Marines on the Rules of Engagement, rules promulgated by the Department of Defense which specify the protocol for engaging a target. “During the battle of Fallujah we could engage just about any moving vehicle,” said Swabb. “Under normal circumstances, however, we would first have to wave down the driver, then shoot a flare into the ground. Then you had to shoot the grill of the vehicle before directly engaging the driver. This obviously meant increasing the risk to soldiers to avoid killing innocent people. I had to demonstrate to soldiers that by taking extra time security was increased by reducing the number of people who became insurgents.”

Swabb believes, “To truly instill respect for the rule of law in someone, it is critical that the person sees how doing so can benefit them.” Building respect for the law was also a key part of Hagan Scotten’s job as Captain in the Special Forces training the Iraqi Army. “I was always interacting with Iraqi officers who were older than me and had a good idea of what they wanted to get done.” He described the son of a local sheik who believed human rights should allow him to shoot the insurgents who were killing his countrymen. “I had to convince him to think of how he could maintain the support of the Americans.”

All of the panelists expressed appreciation for the warm reception they have received at home and at HLS. Kurt White said that he believes civilians understand that strategic decision making is separate from tactical execution in the Iraq occupation and that there is general support for the current role U.S. troops play in fostering the rule of law. “My first year here has really showed me that the legitimacy of the government and the legitimacy of the laws are two different things,” said White. “No matter how much work we do to create a legitimate government, the system won’t work right until the people respect the law and stand to benefit from a functioning legal system.”

The panelists expressed agreement that the future of the Iraqi state will depend on its ability to appeal to the mutual interests of Iraqis and provide incentives to cooperate with the government, but their experiences provide evidence that in the absence of the rule of law there is nothing safe, easy or guaranteed.

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