The Colgate Scene
Views from the front line
Four alumni discuss the war in Iraq
Michael Fleischer '78 was named director of private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad in March. As director, Fleischer leads efforts to develop Iraq's private sector economy and attract private foreign investment. [Photo courtesy of Michael Fleischer]
As of this writing, it has been nearly one year since American and British forces invaded Iraq. More than 500 coalition troops (and some Western civilians) have been killed, and more than 3,200 have been wounded. Estimates of the casualties among Iraqis have varied widely, but are believed to number in the thousands. Weapons of mass destruction have not yet been found, creating political troubles at home for both President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Although Saddam Hussein is in custody, nearly every day there are reports of suicide bombings, ambushes, and other acts of terrorism directed at coalition troops, international aid workers, and Iraqi citizens.
In February, the Scene contacted by e-mail four Colgate alumni who have witnessed much of the drama that has unfolded since the Allied coalition rolled across the Kuwait-Iraqi border in March 2003, and asked them about their experiences in a nation likely to occupy the United States' attention for some time. The opinions expressed by these individuals are theirs alone and should not be interpreted as representing official policies of the Allied coalition, the U.S. military, or Colgate University.
Michael P. Fleischer '78 was named director of private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad in March. As director, Fleischer leads a team focused on developing Iraq's private sector economy and attracting private foreign investment. Before his tenure at CPA, Fleischer took a leave of absence from Bogen Communications International, Inc., where he has been president and a member of the board of directors since 1997. Previously, Fleischer was president of Ekco/Glaco, Ltd., and served on the board of directors of Alliant Techsystems, Inc. and as president of Active Management Group, Inc., a firm he co-founded in 1990 that turns around troubled companies and provides leadership for firms facing other difficult transitions. Fleischer earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1985. He had been serving as deputy director of private sector development since November 2003.
Lt. Col. Paul Callan '82 joined the United States Marine Corps in 1983. During more than 20 years of service, his assignments have included deployments to the western Pacific and combat operations during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, as well as staff positions in Washington, D.C. Callan has held leadership and command billets at the platoon and company level, and most recently, he commanded a battalion-sized unit that saw duty in Iraq with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from January through June 2003. He is currently attending the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., pursuing a masters degree in national security studies. Upon graduation in June, he will be reassigned to the Pentagon for duty at the U.S. Marine Headquarters. Callan has been nominated for a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, and his other awards include two Meritorious Service medals, three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals, and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
Lt. Col. Ed Erickson MA'98, United States Army (retired), spent more than 25 years in the regular army, with 16 years of overseas service in Germany, Turkey, and Italy. Erickson served in the 3rd Armored Division during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. In 1995, he was one of the first American soldiers to enter Bosnia. Erickson retired from active duty in October 1997 and returned to his hometown of Norwich, N.Y. to teach global history at Norwich High School. Erickson also holds a masters degree from Saint Lawrence University, and he is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Erickson is also an internationally recognized military historian who specializes in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. He has published three books and numerous articles in academic presses and journals. As one of the Army's experts on the Middle East, Erickson was recalled to active duty for Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. He was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division as political advisor to the commanding general. He served in Tikrit, Iraq for six months and returned to the United States in August. Erickson is now the dean of students at Norwich High School.
After graduating from Colgate, Emily Fries '00 moved to Costa Rica to teach in a rural village. While in Costa Rica, she started an agricultural development project to help local farmers create new markets, raise the quality of their produce, learn new farming techniques, and improve their standard of living. In 2002, she went to work at Save the Children, where she works in the Children in Emergencies and Crisis Unit, which is responsible for coordinating the agency's response in times of emergency. She spent two months in Iraq during the summer of 2003. — Gary E. Frank
Scene: Do you think American military personnel are the best option for Iraq's security needs, or would military police or a United Nations peacekeeping force be more appropriate?
U.S.M.C. Lt. Col. Paul Callan '82 commanded a battalion-sized unit in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the main Marine force in Iraq, from January to June 2003. Callan is currently working on a masters degree in national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. [Photo by Josh Reynolds]
Callan: I do not believe this can be viewed as an "either/or" situation. The threat to security and stability in Iraq is, and will remain for some time, a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional problem. The threats range from petty crime and small-scale sabotage, to highly complex acts of terrorism and assassination. To effectively counter those threats, the security force will need to possess a similarly broad range and integration of skills and capabilities, ranging from conventional military to law enforcement. The source of those skills and capabilities -- whether they are from the U.S., NATO, UN, or some combination thereof -- is not the essential determinant of success. Rather, the force must possess the flexibility, agility, and capacity to respond effectively across the spectrum of threat alluded to above.
Erickson: The best option is to keep 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2006, then draw down over time according to the situation. That's the current Pentagon plan and it's the right thing to do. If possible, we should try and bring in partners from the coalition, NATO, or the UN to assist in the long term.
Fleischer: Coalition military personnel have done an extraordinary job in removing Saddam and his tyrannical regime, and in launching the reconstruction of Iraq. The future security of Iraq will increasingly be the responsibility of the new Iraqi army and police. This is as it should be. In the meantime, Americans can be proud of the selfless, heroic, and professional efforts of their soldiers. No one who has seen these troops in action, many of them the age of Colgate students, can fail to be impressed by their skill, maturity, dedication, and service to our security and the cause of liberty and democracy.
Scene: Based on what you saw last year, and what you might be hearing from colleagues or peers still in Iraq, is the country's infrastructure restored enough to provide better services?
Fries: When I arrived in Iraq I was shocked to see the amount of destruction and decay lining the streets. I assumed it was a result of the recent fighting, but I soon learned that while some of the buildings were destroyed in the Iran war, the Persian Gulf war, or the most recent war, most of the decay is due to decades of government neglect. The southern city of Basra was particularly neglected due to the large population of Shiite Muslims living there. When I arrived we rarely had electricity or running water. Coupled with 120-degree heat, it made for difficult living conditions.
I visited many schools and youth centers and none of them had functioning toilets or drinking water. Many international groups arrived after the war thinking they would rehabilitate schools, bringing them back to their prewar state but what they didn't understand was that while schools were in horrible con-dition very few were damaged by this recent war. They were in such disrepair due to years and years of neglect.
So while many NGOs, the UN, international government agencies, and companies have been working to improve Iraq's infrastructure, there remain decades of destruction and despair still to be repaired. With every water and sanitation system restored, the infrastructure improves, but there is still a very, very long way to go.
Scene: Will the future security, prosperity, and democratization of Iraq be better ensured by the U.S. alone, the UN alone, the U.S. and UN working together, or through some other combination of power?
Fleischer: Iraqis bear the responsibility for the eventual security, prosperity, and democratization of their country. The coalition's plans are built around a transfer of authority to a sovereign Iraqi government on June 30, 2004. Every day, Iraqi officials and citizens take back more and more of the honor and burden of running their country. This process will continue.
Callan: I believe there are two fundamental determinants to Iraq's future security, prosperity, and democratization: first, the will of the U.S. and our allies to succeed in Iraq; and second, the ability of the Iraqis to create and sustain the type of society denied to them over the past quarter of a century. We can control the first of those elements, and clearly, President Bush has signaled a strong and unyielding will to stay the course in Iraq. The second element we do not directly control, but I would suggest that by the U.S. and our allies remaining fully committed in Iraq, and retaining our will, we will in turn enable the second element to succeed, because we will help create the conditions for that success.
Scene: Are there enough troops in Iraq to maintain peace and stabilize the country?
Lt. Col. Ed Erickson MA'98, United States Army (retired), believes the invasion of Iraq was not justified, but that withdrawing coalition forces too soon would leave the country and region dangerously unstable. [Photo by Aubrey Graham]
Erickson: There are enough American troops there now to handle most internal security needs as long as the new Iraqi police force, border guards, and army continue to grow in size and capability. More Americans are, quite simply, more Americans. Our military doesn't have the kind of capability necessary to ensure total security in Iraq. For example, how could the police force of New York City do its job if only .001 percent of them spoke English? We need to turn as much of the security responsibility back to Iraqis -- they can do it more effectively than Americans can.
Callan: The question presupposes, incorrectly, that somehow the combatant commander and other operational commanders in Iraq are requesting, and being denied, additional troops. From my personal experience, I was not denied any request for additional resources that I, or my senior commanders, deemed critical to the success of our mission or the benefit of our Marines.
Scene: There have been many complaints about how mainstream Western media are covering the situation in Iraq, with some saying the coverage is too focused on the negative and still others saying it's overly positive. What do you think? Why?
Callan: I do not think there is necessarily a bias either way. Rather, I think the current style and focus of media reporting is simply a function of two things: location and number of media personnel. During the war, we had large numbers of media in the theater, and more importantly, many were embedded with operational units. As a result, there was not only a large volume of reporting, but more importantly, because of the embedded construct, media personnel were traveling throughout Iraq, and therefore, experiencing and reporting on the full geographic expanse of the country.
Today, the media pool is not only significantly smaller, but because they are no longer embedded and are therefore more centralized in and around Baghdad, their perceptions and range of experiences are dramatically more restricted. Most of the current violence is occurring in and around Baghdad, and therefore, most of the stories seem to be reporting this violence. This is not necessarily a function of bias, but rather, the fact that the media are going to film what they see.
Real-time reporting is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because information can be shared widely and quickly; a curse because the camera is subjective in that what it displays lacks context and perspective. What the public lacks now is media coverage with the necessary breadth and span to add that needed context and perspective; to balance the sensationalism of terrorism and insurgency in the Sunni Triangle -- which is actually a very small arc of instability within greater Iraq -- with the much more prevalent but unfortunately more mundane nation building, pacification, and stabilization occurring throughout the rest of the country.
Fleischer: Before I arrived in Iraq last fall, my only source of information was the Western press. As a result, I landed in Baghdad expecting a combat zone and what I found was a city struggling to return to normal, and making visible progress. Throughout Iraq, the blossoming normality is everywhere, but you would never know that from the stories most of the press chooses to cover.
Erickson: Watching the American media present the Iraq story is like trying to examine an elephant through a microscope.
Scene: What are the most pressing needs for Iraqi children?
Fries: I believe the most pressing need is to regain a sense of normalcy in their childhood. They need to return to school and play with their friends. In order for that to happen, they need security so that the parents aren't too afraid of kidnapping to allow their children to walk to school. They need to remove the paintings of soldiers, tanks, and guns from the school courtyards and clean up the land mines and unexploded ordnance from the classrooms and schoolyards. They need to have a curriculum that isn't centered on the past regime and teachers who aren't afraid to encourage creativity and free thought amongst their pupils. They need safe play spaces in their communities where children are free to play and are not afraid of stepping on a cluster bomb or landmine.
When I was in Iraq I started a school-based landmine education program that taught children the dangers of mines and unexploded ordnance as well as other health and safety messages. Through spending time with schoolchildren I saw how their self-expression was repressed due to years of oppression, but they still maintained that glimmer of innocence and hope in their eyes. They showed a hunger for learning and a compassion for one another that was inspiring to see amongst so much violence and conflict.
Scene: In an opinion piece published in USA Today in February, James Webb, a Marine veteran of Vietnam who served as Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, asserted that President George W. Bush "arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory . . . There is no historical precedent for taking such action when our country was not being directly threatened . . . The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves." Do you agree or disagree with Webb's comments?
Fleischer: Reasonable people, including people who once held or now hold senior [government] positions, can disagree on our path since September 11, 2001. I was living in New York City on that day, and for me, as well as, I think, a majority of Americans, the definition of a direct threat changed forever that day. To me, President Bush has rightly chosen to solve the problem of terror at its roots, and this requires all parts of the war on terror: the covert actions globally, the judicial actions, the financial tactics, and the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. These form a coherent strategic vision for a better, safer, freer world. History will not long remember the president's critics.
Erickson: Webb is right on target.
Scene: Have you had any personal encounters with Iraqi citizens that stand out in your mind? Where do Iraqis see their country going in the next few years?
Callan: Most of my encounters with Iraqis were limited to those areas we (Marines) had recently secured or liberated. The general impression I had was that the Iraqis were genuinely happy. However, it was clear from their body language that they had been so severely repressed and brutalized by Saddam's regime that they were actually fearful of publicly displaying their joy. The specter of Saddam's regime cast a long and powerful shadow, and it was clear that most of the Iraqis were terrified of reprisals. However, with the passage of time, and as it became clear that not only were we staying, but also that the regime was not going to regain power, the people felt freer to express their happiness and joy.
Emily Fries '00, a field worker for Save the Children, spent two months in Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi children she met, Fries said, "showed a hunger for learning and a compassion for one another that was inspiring to see amongst so much violence and conflict." [Photo courtesy of Emily Fries]
Fries: Save the Children hired more than 150 Iraqis to implement our programs in nutrition, shelter, water and sanitation, food, education, child protection, and health. I supervised a team of 20 Iraqis and worked with them to develop the landmine education and summer camp programs. My staff was mostly in their early 20s and all of them were highly educated (most had masters degrees and PhDs), incredibly dedicated, caring and loyal people. The majority of them had volunteered with the Iraqi Red Crescent [the Islamic Red Cross] before and during the war.
One of my staff members told me a story. When war broke out in Basra, he would ride in the ambulances to the battle scene and carry the injured people to the ambulances, which waited on the outskirts of the area. He remembered one time he was trying to rescue an injured mother and her baby when fighting broke out and the ambulance fled. He was left alone with the victims and he lay on the ground and comforted them until the firing stopped and he could carry them to safety. This is just one of the stories of courage and compassion I would hear daily from my staff. If one is only exposed to the stories on the news of Iraqis being violent and angry, one will never know the true nature of the Iraqi people who are compassionate, loyal, generous, and brave.
Scene: What is your most vivid memory of your time in Iraq?
Fleischer: My first drives through Baghdad last November were just amazing. The shops were full of inventory and customers. The food stores were stocked. Vendors hawked newspapers filled with the chorus of contradiction that marks democracy. People were out and about, emerging from the dark sorrows of tyranny and Saddam's wars into the sunlight of freedom -- it was right there to be seen and it was wonderful. And things have gotten better since.
Erickson: One day at the government house in Kirkuk, a Humvee full of young paratroopers pulled up to where I was standing. A voice from the back said, "Mr. Erickson . . . is that you? What are you doing here?" Then he noticed my rank and said, "You're a colonel?" It was one of my former students who had enlisted in the U.S. Army. It's a small world.
Fries: I will never forget the nights my housemates and I spent huddled at the base of the stairs, listening to the gunfire outside our gate and watching to see if those men with guns were going to jump over the gate and try to get into our house. I will never forget the fear of watching and waiting; my radio in one hand, sneakers on my feet and passport in my pocket, ready to run up the stairs onto our roof and jump to the neighbor's roof if we saw someone come over our gate.
While I will never forget the fear of those moments, another memory is far more vivid and powerful and is the reason why I would go back to Iraq in a second. That memory is of a 10-year-old girl named Hannin who attends a primary school in Basra where we held a landmine education program. I visited her school numerous times and played with her and some of her friends. The day I left she came up to me, gave me a hug and told me that she wanted to read me (in English) a letter she had written. The letter read: "Dear Miss Emily, Thank you for everything you taught me and my friends. Thank you for playing with us. Thank you for helping me and Iraq. Please come back. We need you to help us some more." This young girl is bright, confident, and a natural leader among her classmates. I believe it is people like Hannin who could be the future of Iraq.
Scene: Do you believe the war was justified?
Fries: Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children once wrote, "All wars, just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child."
Erickson: Was the war justified? Absolutely not. We are probably in violation of some damn international law for illegally invading a sovereign nation that had never threatened us. There is no question that the Bush administration presented flawed evidence to the American people about the nature of the Iraqi threat.
Is the occupation justified? The reasons why America went to war are, at this point in history, irrelevant. We're there. We are, in fact, an occupying power under international law. We just simply can't leave now because the country is dangerously unstable. Any one of a dozen destabilizing scenarios might happen: ranging from a breakup of Iraq, to the return of Baath Party loyalists, to a Turkish and Iranian invasion. In a nutshell, the United States is just plain stuck!
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