middle east

The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies


When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is a generally speaking, an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probable produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”


Iraqi Security Forces and the Will to Fight

Iraqi Flag

Originally I wanted to write a longer post on the Iraqi film al-Qadisiya (القادسية). I’ve been fascinated by it since graduate school when I first learned it existed. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot written about it English, and most of the basic Arabic articles I’ve seen say similar things.

The movie was commissioned by Saddam Hussein himself sometime around 1979. He hired prominent Arab film-makers to make what was widely reported at being the most expensive Arab film ever made. The excellent score was written and composed by the late Walid Gholmieh who later would work with the Gorillaz shortly before his death in 2011.

I haven’t been able to find a version of the movie with English subtitles, but just by skimming through it, you can see the scale of the film. Lots of extra, lots of costumes. It was an epic.

The film depicts the battle of qadisiyyah between the early Muslims and Persians. The Muslims win and later go on to seize territory in both Persia and the rest of the Middle East.

Without question, Saddam chose this battle because of its resonance with Muslims and its tie-in to contemporary nationalist aspirations. This was the eve of the Iran-Iraq War, and while both Iraqis and Iranians were Muslim, only one side consisted mainly of Persians. Saddam wanted to stoke pride in the ability of his citizens, and those who served the nation by “carrying the gun.”

But there really isn’t much more for me to say about the movie without doing some serious research.

It did get me thinking about the will to fight, and the issues the Iraqi Security Forces have been facing. As a military, Iraq has been the butt of jokes, for seemingly fleeing in the face of a small force of religious zealots.

It’s easy to just write off the Iraqis as cowards, as plenty of people do, but it doesn’t tell an accurate story.

Service in the Iraqi Army just about guarantees combat. Training is accelerated to get soldiers to the front as soon as possible. Incentives and benefits are generous (steady work) to encourage enlistment, where just showing up to sign up can get you killed in a fiery car bombing.

And what is it that they are signing up for?

An Army that suffered through a terrible war of attrition with Iran that left indelible scars on the entire populace.

An Army that was demolished in the Persian Gulf War in days and sent reeling back to to Baghdad.

An Army that atrophied under crushing sanctions and airstrikes for twelve years.

An Army that melted away during the invasion of Iraq.

An Army that was told not to return after being disbanded in 2003.

An Army that struggled to rebuild itself in fits and starts throughout the 2000s.

And all to defend a state that suffers from severe corruption and can barely govern.

On the other hand, the enemy they face appears well-organized, motivated, and aggressive. Their ideology is rooted in familiar terms and promises much more than a steady pay-check. They are unafraid to die for their cause, and in fact, welcome it. They have a worldwide fanbase that injects them with the certainty that their cause is righteous.

A young Iraqi soldier signing up for the Army today was likely born in the mid-1990s. His youth was spent under sanctions and US occupation. His life, thus far, has probably been pretty shitty. He has few job prospects and is being encouraged to join the Army, to fight ISIS.

He will likely see combat.

If he should be injured, where and how will he be treated?

If he should die, will he go to heaven?

It’s very easy to sit on this side of the world and sling the word “coward.” It’s much more difficult to consider what is actually happening over there.

There are examples of successful Iraqi units, though. Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ Gold Division is touted as the most successful Iraqi force. But it’s small. And the training required is more intense and longer in duration than typical units. And there there is a risk of relying too heavily on one, well-trained unit to the detriment of others. This is what happened to the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. They eventually became a praetorian guard for the dictator.

From what I’ve seen, the only sort of appeal to to something higher from the Iraqi state has been the “othering” of ISIS through state-sponsored cartoons and propaganda. For all of its disgusting elements, ISIS remains appealing to a disenfranchised youth. Simply making fun of it isn’t enough. What alternative does the state offer? What motivates an Iraqi soldier to give his life in service to the state?

When placed in those terms, it’s easier to understand why a poorly trained Iraqi regular might drop his weapon and flee Ramadi or Mosul in the face of an approaching enemy. Where is the example of the stalwart Iraqi soldier?

Saddam knew.



Mad Max, ISIS, and the Psychological Aspects of War


I saw Mad Max over Memorial Day weekend. The reviews do it justice, and it was a fun movie. The whole film is an ode to our baser desires; adrenaline, rock and roll, and killing.

There’s an egregious amount of skulls on display throughout the film. Skulls are used as ornamentation on the grills of cars, as masks, and as the chief symbol of the War Boys.

The movie prodded me to write about something in a more forward way than I have before. I’ve always been interested in the question “why we fight.” I’ve tackled it before and have always hinted at the fact that some people (lots of people) do it because they like it. They want to do it because it’s fun. This is a psychological aspect of war that is often ignored or dismissed.

Seeing all of the skulls in the deserts of Mad Max reminded me of my ISOF GOLD posts, especially the ones where the operators are wearing skull masks. If you scroll through the pictures on the ISOF Facebook page, you’ll notice they’re trying to project an image of their military that isn’t simply professional; they are attempting to instill fear into their enemies. There are no FRG updates or holiday BBQ plans – just war. The skull mask imagery is all over the place, and it’s not uncommon to see an ISOF soldier wielding an axe or machete. On some of the “unofficial” ISOF pages – and occasionally on the main page – you’ll find pictures of ISOF soldiers posing triumphantly over the dead bodies of supposed members of ISIS.

A recent article about American forces in Iraq assisting with training highglighted the phrase “kill Daesh” as being the chant used by Iraqi recruits as the de-facto motto, the thing they scream when they’re called to attention or stick a bayonet into the chest of a training dummy.

The skull mask, the chants, wearing an infidel patch – these are all small aspects of the psychological draw to war that are stymied by the modern profesional military. Which, by the way, I think is a good thing. Emotion in war leads to war crimes. The professional military is clinical, and emotions are supposed to be controlled. Others have tackled this issue by highlighting our own military’s obsession with referring to ourselves as warriors instead of soldiers. They argue (and I agree) that to think of ourselves as warriors is unprofessional at best, and dangerous at worst.

But the thing that draws a professional soldier to urinate on the dead bodies of his enemies, to slap an infidel patch on the front of his body armor, or pull a skull mask over her face before a patrol comes from a real place in the human psyche. It’s part of the same base emotion that has us cheering when the opposing side’s star quarterback is carted off the field with a game-ending injury. It’s emotion and absence of mind.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently attributed the Iraqis’ inability to hold Ramadi to a lack of will. He said “What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force.”.

The psychological aspects of war, having a reason to fight, even if for the most base reasons, might be necessary if you lack a more sophisticated reason for getting in the arena.

Having introduced this topic on the blog, I’ll try to come back to it from time to time when something comes up. As always, I welcome your comments.



The Magic of the Power Coming Back On


There is a really fantastic article in The American Interest about life in Mosul under ISIS. It is long but well worth the read. There are number of things that jumped out at me, but one of them was on the status of power and utilities in the city:

Eight months of ISIS so far, as I sit to write, have taken their toll on every aspect of the city. Electricity and running water are available for two to four hours a week, but no one knows which hours in any given week.

During my first deployment to Iraq in 2003, whenever we would ask our platoon sergeant when we’d be going home, he would point to the Al Dora power plant in the distance, with its four smoke stacks poking the sky like needles, and say “When all four smoke stacks are pumping smoke, we’ll go home.”

Since the war in Iraq began utilities have been intermittent at best – even in Baghdad. It’s easy to sweep that aside as insignificant whining, like the ISIS soldier does in the article, but unless you have experienced the Iraqi heat in the summer, it’s hard to overstate the importance of having reliable electricity and running water.

The excerpt from the Mosul article about the power coming on at seemingly random times reminds me of so many moments at different places in Baghdad, where we would lounge in our own sweat, trying our best not to move to minimize our discomfort. If we were lucky, the power might come on at a random time which would be met with cheers and instant movement, bringing everyone back to life as the air conditioning kicked in. It’s a kind of happiness that you really don’t want to experience, because it’s only good because things were normally so bad.