For Maj. Mike Salvo, a UCSB associate professor of military science, Americans seem to have simply forgotten the pain of September 11 and the threat Islamofacism represents.
For JT Yu, a 2006 UCSB alum and organizer of last month’s antiwar rally, people’s minds are glued to the coming election.
And for Dave Hassan, a veteran of the Iraq War and a UCSB physics major, the physical disconnect between people’s daily lives in America and the danger some Iraqis live through is to blame.
Almost five years on, in interviews with students, peace activists, active servicemen and veterans, one theme seemed to weave its way through each conversation about the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq: Growing ambivalence at home.
Five Years Ago…
On March 20, 2003 – March 21 if you happened to be in Iraq at the time – about 300,000 American, British and coalition soldiers crossed into Iraq. Tasked with deposing the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and protecting the United States and her allies from the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the invasion force swiftly routed the Iraqi army.
Seventy-six hundred miles away, back on our sunny campus, the war was the talk of the town. At least 1,000 UCSB students and staff members participated in a worldwide walkout, marching out of class and into Storke Plaza on March 5, 2003. In the coming weeks, rallies would continue on and off campus, and the pages of this paper’s opinion section would be stuffed with columns and letters about the prudence of preemption.
However, five years later, some, like former marine-turned-political-activist Dave Hassan, have come to believe that the U.S. has separated itself from the situation in Iraq.
“It’s really easy to just not be connected and just kind of being like, you know, ‘that sucks'” Hassan said. “The big difference between five years is, I guess, I’m connected.”
Hassan – who has become vocal in the local peace movement since finishing his time in the Marine Corps as an Arabic translator – said that while he understands how Americans can push the war to the back of their minds, he said that “war is too fucking terrible for [him] to sit by.”
“I think what really changed it for me was gaining a real sort of conception of what [doing my job as a Marine] really meant,” Hassan said. “When I saw people actually die, it really changed it for me. It shook me up. … I never actually shot anyone, but I have been responsible for people dying in the course of my job, and being responsible for that … actually changed my whole opinion. Gaining an actual connection to the Iraqi people. That’s what changed.”
Gauchos in the Gulf
Since 2003, UCSB’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps has sent between 40 and 50 graduates to the Middle East. And in those five years since the Iraq War began, Major Mike Salvo of UCSB’s Surfrider Battalion is proud to say that none of his cadets were wounded or killed.
The ROTC program trains students throughout their time at the university and commissions cadets as 2nd lieutenants upon graduation. UCSB’s Surfrider Battalion Business Manager and Military Historian Patrick Coffield said last year was a great year for the program. The program commissioned 14 cadets as officers in the United States Army.
The vast majority of UCSB ROTC graduates will see combat in the Middle East, Coffield said. He and Major Salvo estimated that 70 to 90 percent of graduates from the program find their way into combat situations.
When asked about last year’s graduating class and why the service had received such a surge in enlistees, Coffield told this reporter to “Do the math.”
Five years ago – when the recent graduates were college freshmen – the memory of 9/11 was much more poignant, Major Salvo said, and the United States had just entered a war against one of the most maligned nations in the world.
“People wanted to serve our country,” Coffield said.
Brett Jordan, a 24-year-old native of Redondo Beach and 2006 UCSB grad, was part of that influx of students looking to serve their country. After four years of ROTC on campus, Jordan was trained for an additional six months and is now on his eighth month of service in the Anbar Province of Iraq.
“My class was the first class to join post-9/11,” Jordan said. “We started school in 2002, so all of our class was the one that went in knowing ‘hey, we will definitely be going over there at some point.’ … A little daunting, but still good.”
UCSB ROTC enrollment numbers are tapering down, however, and Coffield said he expects nine cadets to graduate this summer and another five the year after. Nationally, U.S. military recruitment is also declining, according to Department of Defense undersecretary David S. C. Chu.
The seeming permanence of the war in Iraq, a negative view of military life and even the rising obesity rates – the military rejects a third of its applicants because of its physical fitness standards – were all cited as likely explanations for the decline.
From Anbar, Two Different Views of the World
Hassan and Lt. Jordan both served in the Anbar Province of Iraq. Jordan is currently stationed at al-Asad Air Base- the largest base in al-Anbar – and leads a truck company that drives freight liners packed with supplies throughout Iraq. Hassan was stationed at al-Asad a little more than two years ago, but spent most of his time in local towns.
In Anbar, those two years made all the difference.
Before September 2006, the region was famed for its violence, lawlessness and the harrowing battle of Fallujah. Since then, according to the New York Times, local Sunni tribes have come together to work with the U.S. military to oppose militant al-Qaeda operatives. The province is now one of the most stable in Iraq. Jordan agrees with the Times’ assessment and called it “one of the safest areas right now.”
Hassan, who was stationed at al-Asad Air Base but spent most of his time in the cities of Al-Rutbah and Hit, described a different Anbar Province.
“While I was there, there were a lot of attacks and we were in the process of leveling the place,” Hassan said. “We were bombing the shit out of the place.”
Whether there is any correlation, both have come out of Iraq with very different feelings about America’s presence in the Middle Eastern nation.
“We went in there and removed a government that wasn’t doing some things and the country needed help,” Jordan said. “When people say ‘no war, no war’, you know, war’s not fun. It never has been. But its necessary to do at times.”
Hassan, on the other hand, said that he does not believe America’s presence in Iraq has or will help the Iraqi people.
“What exactly is the end state we’re going for [in Iraq]?” Hassan said. “We empower death squads and war lords. … In what possible state of scenarios does that lead to democracy in Iraq?”
Buried in Sand
Generally, in Santa Barbara, the debate is similar. But the question of whether or not American boots on the ground in Iraq can salvage the country, naturally, has no exact answer.
“There’s tears in a lot of people,” Michael “the Chaplain” Cervantes said yesterday at Arlington West. “They just don’t want to talk.”
Cervantes – who is not a priest, but was dubbed “the Chaplain” by his fellow volunteer veterans because of his open ears – said mournful visitors from around the world tend to hold their hearts as they stand and look over the 3,000 small, white crosses planted onto the beach next to Stearns Wharf in downtown Santa Barbara.
Michael Moore, a serviceman stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, said he believes the U.S. is “doing the right thing.” Holding his infant son yesterday while gazing upon the sea of crosses next to Stearns Wharf, Moore said he was touched by the memorial.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” he said.
Volunteers from the local chapter of Veterans for Peace set up the 3,000 crosses almost every Sunday morning to represent the lives lost in Iraq. Stephen Sherrill, the mastermind behind the project and the craftsman behind each cross, said when he started, the memorial had only 287 crosses.
Just a little correction
I was stationed in Al-Rutbah and Hit; Hit is a little south of Haditha, that may be where the confusion came in.