“We had a classic military victory, but we lost the peace.
It was a failure to prepare for the post-war situation. …
In 2011, when we left, we didn’t leave a sustaining force.
All the gains we had made have been lost.”

—  Michael Blodgett, history professor at Cal State University, Channel Islands


On March 20 of 2003 — 18 months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and our engagement in Afghanistan — the United States (along with a coalition that included the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland) invaded Iraq. Eight years of bloody conflict in the region would follow. In 2011, President Barack Obama announced an end to the military occupation; by December 15, the war was declared over. This summer, we find ourselves there again.

Sgt. 1st Class Levi Dahlstrom of Ventura served in Baghdad
in the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs in 2004.

Technically, of course, the U.S. isn’t at war. We’re providing airstrike support and military advisers for the Iraqi military (which we helped organize and train) and have around 800 troops on the ground to secure the airport and U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil in the Kurdistan region to the north. Special Forces have also been deployed to assist ethnic minorities under threat of genocide. The enemy this time: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

“In order to deal with ISIS, you need to cross the border into Syria,” said Cal State University, Channel Islands, history professor Michael Blodgett, whose specialties include the modern Middle East and political violence. “This has the potential to become a much bigger conflict.”

He’s referring to the wide swaths of land ISIS currently controls in northern and western Iraq and northern Syria, some 12,000 to 35,000 square miles (depending on who’s estimating) that the Sunni jihadist group took over this summer, prompting renewed U.S. intervention. ISIS has also been called ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), IS (Islamic State) and most recently QSIS (al-Qaida Separatists in Iraq and Syria); but by any name, it’s bad news. ISIS started as a splinter of al-Qaida in Iraq, and its members include Ba’athist loyalists and former Iraqi soldiers who served under Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida terrorists and other Sunni insurgent groups. Seeking to create a “pure Islamic state,” its tactics — which include public executions (most recently of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff), rape, kidnapping, an attempted massacre of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq and imposing its interpretation of Sunni Islam and sharia law under penalty of death — have created a climate of fear and unrest in Iraq, still trying to right itself in the postwar era, and Syria, whose civil war is further exacerbated by ISIS’s incursions.

Blodgett sees the roots of the current conflict in the First Gulf War. “In 1991, the U.S. drove Iraq out of Kuwait, which destroyed the Iraqi economy. And it didn’t get rebuilt. The secular, educated middle class tended to leave. The 2003 war simply collapsed what was left.” That “secular middle class” included Iraq’s contractors, electricians, plumbers, engineers and other specialists who could keep the country operating. When they decamped, the infrastructure collapsed.

“A lot of their facilities were decades old and falling apart. There was literally sewage in the streets,” recalled Sgt. 1st Class Levi Dahlstrom, who served in the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs Division in Baghdad for most of 2004. “We were there to improve their way of life; and in Iraq, that translated to a lot of humanitarian missions: building schools and clinics and improving infrastructure.” According to Dahlstrom, mismanagement had been rampant for years and much of Iraq’s money had been diverted to the military or the building of Saddam Hussein’s elaborate palaces. The poor condition of basic facilities, combined with the economic collapse and a power vacuum created, when the Ba’athist government was dismantled, galvanized radical insurgent groups — including the faction that would become ISIS.

“The first time in, we didn’t have an end game in mind,” said Lt. Col. Cowgill of the Air National Guard, who served in Iraq during Desert Storm and is currently commander of the Port Hueneme post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Shortly after the 2003 invasion began, U.S.-led coalition forces experienced many early victories, which seemed to validate the beliefs of Donald Rumsfeld and others in the George W. Bush administration that this would be a quick engagement.

Some, like Gen. Tommy Franks, who headed the invasion, were more skeptical. “In the run-up to 2003, Franks asked for a larger military contingent to run the economy until the Iraqis could take over,” Blodgett recalled. “Rumsfeld vetoed the idea. He thought we’d be out in six months.” Instead of a “Jeffersonian democracy” rising out of the ruins, coalition forces found themselves in a protracted guerrilla war with the Iraqi insurgency, which included vestiges of Hussein’s army and Republican Guard and al-Qaida in Iraq (which years later would evolve into ISIS). Interethnic violence between Sunnis and Shias also increased. “Saddam Hussein was a bad guy,” said Cowgill, “But he kept the warring factions in line. Saddam Hussein is gone and it devolves into civil war.”

“We had a classic military victory, but we lost the peace,” Blodgett said of the conflict that followed. “It was a failure to prepare for the post-war situation.”

Dahlstrom remembers it as a very “active” time — he’d been shot at several times and involved in an IED (improvised explosive device) incident. But he disagrees that Iraq’s civilian population had been neglected. “I felt like we had all the support we needed,” he said. “Education was one of the biggest things we tried to focus on — we built over 50 schools. We did a lot of medical work, too. We recruited around 300 cops for the Iraqi police. And by the time we left there was no sewage in the streets.”

There were other positive developments as well: Elections were held in 2005, a Shia-led government emerged, and a new Iraqi army and security force were trained. “The average person was very happy to have a voice,” Dahlstrom said. “The elections were a huge thing.” Still, the fight against insurgents continued. In 2007, weary from the occupation, Iraq’s parliament called for a timetable for withdrawal. But even after the last of the U.S. troops pulled out in 2011, political instability plagued Iraq. “In 2011, when we left, we didn’t leave a sustaining force. All the gains we had made have been lost,” Cowgill said.

Sunni militant groups continued to attack both civilians and government targets, and the Syrian civil war spilled over Iraq’s borders. Through it all ISIS continued to grow in power, eclipsing al-Qaida (which in February severed ties with ISIS). ISIS aspires to control all Muslim-inhabited regions, and this summer, it’s started with Iraq and Syria.

It’s hard for anyone at this point to know quite what to do with ISIS, now 80,000 strong (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) and more competent and sophisticated militarily than any of its predecessors. “When I was in Iraq, we found that terrorist groups as a whole have become more and more organized,” Dahlstrom said.

Blodgett thinks ISIS poses a tremendous threat to the region and must be confronted. “I fear we have no other choice,” he said, with the caveat that we need to assist Iraqis, not necessarily fight alongside them. “By providing special forces and air support to Iraqi forces on the ground, it doesn’t become an American war then.”

Cowgill worries that the U.S. isn’t thinking big enough. “There needs to be a decisive statement,” the career Air National Guardsman says. “[White House Press Secretary] Josh Earnest talks about containing ISIS. I think that’s a mistake. You’re fighting an ideology; it needs to be eliminated.” Nevertheless, he remains uneasy about the outcome. “You can’t bomb someone into thinking a certain way. It might take years or generations to quell.”

On the 13th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, all Americans will be reflecting on their thoughts and feelings in the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans in one fell swoop. Those events rocked the nation in a way nothing else has, before or since, and led us into a prolonged war in the Middle East. Still the region pulls us in, with seemingly centripetal force. The aftershocks of 9/11 just keep coming. When will they end?


Come ride or support the Ride to the Flags!


Bikers meet at Pepperdine University in Malibu
raising money for the Whiteheart Foundation.

 The Whiteheart Foundation’s seventh annual Ride to the Flags motorcycle charity ride takes place this Sunday, Sept. 14, and anyone who is interested in riding or cheering on the participants is encouraged to attend. The event starts at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu and ends at the Wave of Flags 9/11 Memorial at Pepperdine University in Malibu, following a 40-mile route that winds through the Santa Monica Mountains. More than 1,000 bikers and passengers are expected to attend.

The ride honors United States Marine Cpl. Jed Morgan, who lost both legs and the use of his dominant arm in an IED blast in Afghanistan. Events kick off at 11:30 a.m. with a memorial, salute and flyover honoring Morgan. The ride itself starts at 12:15 p.m. and ends at approximately 1:30 p.m. with a celebratory rally at Malibu Bluffs Park on Pacific Coast Highway. Spectators are encouraged to wave flags and cheer on the riders along the ride route.

“It was the plight of the wounded soldier that got me interested,” said Ryan Sawtelle, founder and executive director of the White Heart Foundation, which aims to provide financial and community support for soldiers wounded in conflict. “When a soldier is maimed, we automatically assume they are being taken care of, but so many needs aren’t being met and addressed.” Through money raised by this year’s Ride to the Flags, Whiteheart hopes to raise the funds necessary to build a house suitable for Morgan’s needs.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Jed Morgan, pictured with his wife Anna,
lost both legs and the use of his of his dominant arm
in an IED blast in Afghanistan.

For more information, contact White Heart Foundation at 818-914-6000 or whiteheartfoundation@gmail.com, or log on to www.ridetotheflags.com.