WAGGING THE DOGMA
Sgt. Clifton Sweet makes a new friend. Photo by Buck Sargent
America is great not because of what she has done for herself, but because of what she has done for others.
AMERICAN SOLDIER SOUNDBOARD
A CONVERSATION WITH CAPTAIN JOHN TURNER
As the second highest ranking officer attached to our company, as well as the liaison between our platoons on the ground and the needs of the Iraqi people in our sector, Captain John Turner is in a unique position to offer his perspective on the Iraq War in general, the situation here in Mosul, and what the American public should know about their soldiers serving overseas.
After providing him with a series of written questions he graciously agreed to accommodate yours truly with his remarkably candid personal and professional insight on the battle for hearts and minds both at home and abroad.
Start of Interview
Describe a little about your background and what chain of events brought you to Iraq.
I believe I am the product of America. I was raised in a middle class working family. I remember my father working overtime to pay for the sports my sisters and I participated in. I was a total mess as a teenager as I guess so many people are. I had no desire to study or had a lot of goals. I just wanted to have a good time and a little fun.
I joined the Coast Guard at 17 for an opportunity to get out of the Midwest. I started out as an enlisted member of the Coast Guard in 1992. I left the service in 1996 to begin a college career. I say career because I was in school for so long. I graduated college and became a restaurant chain manager. The events of 9/11 encouraged me to once again rejoin the military.
I completed my ROTC requirements in 2002 and started active duty in Jan 2003. I was completely aware from the time I accepted my commission I would probably be deployed to Iraq. I have great pride and feel that it is a honor to serve the U.S. as an officer in Iraq. Look at the things I have been able to accomplish: a college graduate, a commissioned officer, and a combat leader.
America is the land of hope, and if defending that hope requires me to spend a year in Iraq, then I am proud to be here.
Your training background is that of an artillery officer, yet your role in Iraq has instead focused on what the Army calls “information operations” (IO). Have you found it difficult to adapt to this new role thrust upon you?
Artillery officers have the greatest view of the battlefield. We see the big picture of what commanders want and need in order to execute their mission. So IO falling on the shoulders of the artillery community is a natural fit. We have been developing plans based upon intent and effects as a profession for years.
The challenges with IO are that every action that takes place on the battlefield affects what we do next. The battlefield in Iraq is ever changing and my capacity to understand IO increases everyday. IO has been a great challenge for me and one that keeps things exciting and busy.
The goal of IO is to amass information to provide commanders the best advice on how to improve security and prosperity in their sector. The main mission to advise my commander is still there but my experience level was low in the beginning and that made it difficult to adapt. Experience always pays off and helps people make informed decisions.
What changes have you witnessed in Mosul over the previous eight months? Has there been progress, or is the status quo simply being maintained?
Mosul is a city of great hope and opportunity. The city has such a deep foundation in history and biblical times that it offers hope of a brighter tomorrow. The future in Iraq will be hospitality. Yes, I said hospitality in Iraq. The history here in the entire area from Israel to Saudi Arabia will lend itself to tourism when security is finally established.
The Middle East is where civilization began and history continues to be made. The biggest misconception I had coming over here was the social aspect of the citizens. Being an American I understood hope, prosperity, and dreams. But the Iraqi people have known nothing but disappointment, fear, and brutality for years.
For change to really occur in Mosul it must be more than cosmetic--it must be an ideological revolution. Not religious ideology, but for economic beliefs to change. Capitalism and freedom are things that we take for granted but are not the same to the Iraqi people we offer it to everyday.
Offering freedom and hope to an Iraqi is like offering a porterhouse steak to a young adult raised in a vegan household--they have no idea what they are turning down. The table must be set to allow economic growth and personal wealth to be earned in order for the Iraqi people to succeed. These are things that their government must create and work with the world in order to develop a strong economy that produces wealth.
The U.S. Army is preparing the Iraqi security forces to take the lead in policing the country and rely on the U.S. less and less. Here in Mosul, our battalion recently handed over responsibility for the majority of our sector and its battle space to the Iraqi army. Are they motivated enough to patrol the neighborhoods enough on their own and provide for the people’s security?
Yes, in the past several months the security situation has improved in Mosul, and the Iraq Police and Army are providing this security for their people. There have also been two nationwide elections held to establish a ruling government supported by the people of Iraq. So the next step in building a strong Iraq with Mosul as the largest northernmost city is working. Time and patience will go a long way toward reforming the economic status from a socialist government that provided all services to a supply and demand market-based system.
Every urban society has elements of violence--theft and robbery, kidnappings and murder. But crime and terrorism have different motivations. Do you believe the violent crime aspect is skewing the news coverage of the war? Would it be accurate to say that the insurgency has morphed into a loosely organized crime syndicate, a product more of inner city joblessness and the malaise of young Iraqi males than necessarily one of religious extremism?
You can look at America and see urban battle zones in nearly every major city. Does this mean that America does not have opportunity or hope? No, but not everyone seeks to take advantage of these situations.
Iraq is a political and media hotbed right now and has a lot of national attention. The media is in the information business and has limited time and space to report on events. The violence is easy to report and quick to cover so it all falls under "the insurgency." The insurgents get credit for murders and crime that they are not even involved with but probably do encourage because it helps their cause. But the insurgency is weakening and everyday some elements have probably shifted over to organized crime.
Many of the problems and complaints across the city appear to be due to a notable lack of local government services that average Americans take for granted, such as reliable electricity, trash pickup, sewage infrastructure, street repair, etc. What will it take for Iraqis to start taking responsibility for their own cities and neighborhoods?
They are taking responsibility for their own problems but it takes time. Security, security, security is the key to all improvements, and the challenge Iraq faces is the best way to increase this security. American can’t provide all the services. The Iraqis must in order for things to work, and brave men must step forward in order for that to happen. And they are.
As the Iraqi Police and Army improve and provide security, so will local leadership who have Iraqis to partner with. The Iraqi Security Forces are the correct answer and are improving everyday.
Mosul today is a changed city from the total collapse of order from 2004-2005, yet insurgent cells still are able to mount attacks on U.S. or Iraqi forces on an almost daily basis. Is there a command and control structure to the enemy operating within Mosul, or are they merely the work of out-of-work opportunists getting the most bucks for their bangs?
The insurgency has been weakened in Mosul but still exists. The ISF are weakening them everyday, and as the local populace gains confidence in them the insurgency will be destroyed. The U.S. cannot eliminate it entirely but can only set the conditions for the Iraqi people to end the insurgent activities themselves. And we are doing a great job of enabling the Iraq People.
To the best of your knowledge, what percentage of the enemy in Mosul is homegrown and what percentage are foreign jihadists hell bent on sowing chaos and instability?
The activity is funded by people that do not want a strong democracy in the Middle East. Iraq was a strong power in the Middle East and some in the region probably never want Iraq to be powerful again, let alone a shining beacon of hope. The violence is not based on religious beliefs but fear of a strong democracy in the region. Building a strong and powerful nation is what we need to do in order to combat the jihadists, and Iraq will be that country one day.
I can’t say what [percentage] is home grown and what is foreign, but I believe it is more politically than religiously motivated.
The diverse population of Mosul is split predominantly among Sunni Arab and Kurdish Muslims, along with pockets of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Shia Muslims, Yazidis, and Turkomans. Have you witnessed any signs of sectarian conflict or what some believe could (or already has) escalated into full-on civil war?
A revolution is indeed under way in Iraq, but not necessarily a violent one. The country is made up of many different sects and people, true. That is their strength: the history and culture of their own people. People want peace and prosperity in Iraq. The violence in Mosul is against change, not one particular sect of people. The insurgents do not want democracy and hope--they want power and control.
So is an insurgency a war against the government? Yes. But not one simply pitting sect against sect. There is no ethnic cleansing going on in Mosul. Just tempered success and a lot of hope for a bright future.
How successful has the predominantly Kurdish Iraqi Army in Mosul been at directing and interacting with the Arab population?
I have personally seen the Iraqi Army leadership working with the local populace to improve security. There is a big misconception that they cannot get along--they can. The Kurds and Arabs alike want peace and harmony. Kurds and Arabs live in the same neighborhoods in Mosul successfully. So the Iraqi Army knows it is responsible for security in [all of] Mosul, not just security for the Kurds only.
Author and foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan, whom you spoke with during his time here several months ago, made a point in his article The Coming Normalcy? for The Atlantic that insurgent activity has dropped "to the point where international journalists no longer consider Mosul an important part of the ongoing Iraq story." What is your take on this?
That shows the success that has been accomplished in Mosul. When the media doesn't see any shiny objects to chase here anymore then things must be improving.
Reconstruction is boring. Violence gets viewers, not rebuilding and reconstruction. The media is a business, not a public service. They report what sells, not what completes the story. Violence sells and rebuilding is boring, so why cover it? Look at the movies we watch -- they are full of violence. Name the last great movie made about rebuilding a society and its infrastructure.
The American Army is bound by legal and humanitarian constraints in how we deal with and fight a lawless and inhumane enemy, concepts traditionally foreign to Iraqi police forces. How do we balance constraining their aggressive impulses with allowing them to be truly effective at rooting out an enemy that hides among the population?
Easy, by setting the example. We’ve certainly set the standard for how to aggressively patrol while still leaving as light a footprint as possible. And the Iraqis have the distinct advantage of not having to fake their way through the cultural subtleties--they grew up with them. I suppose only time will tell how well they’ve internalized what we’ve tried to teach them.
As for the populace, what do you think it will take to create more employment opportunities for young Iraqi males who may be riding the fence between hard economic times and the easy money of the insurgency? Can Civil Affairs handle the workload of public works projects? Where is all the foreign investment? Where is the UN? How can we better contract Iraqis to rebuild their own country and imbibe them with a sense of ownership for their situation?
Civil Affairs is working hard to establish a structure that allows the Iraqi government to improve meeting the needs of the Iraqis. The governmental structure is still being established and the local leaders are learning how to get things done.
There are no easy answers for what we are supposed to be doing. Critics say the military leaders and politicians have made so many mistakes here that we can’t win. But the problems Iraq faces are the same [ones] that every country faces. The uneducated are not unintelligent, as think-tankers seem to believe.
The motivation to be an insurgent is the same as any inner city drug dealer. Humans will survive and greedy power-hungry lunatics will take advantage of them. Like the teenagers selling cocaine in America, the insurgent leaders hire the poor and desperate people to conduct attacks. This way the leaders never get killed or caught. The motivation is survival, not fundamentalism. Security will establish legitimate jobs and insurgent activity will decrease. The more jobs we create the harder it is for insurgent leaders to recruit.
Security and international investment will help rebuild Iraq and the cycle to peace begins with the investment. The U.S. soldiers will work to get the ball rolling, but where are all the liberals that hate us being here raising money to help rebuild the country and restore order?
The fact is that Iraq is in need of serious infrastructure overhauls that Saddam never offered. Most rural villages have had poor, if any, water supply for years. The schools lack supplies, rooms, and teachers. Iraq can be rebuilt, but as long as only the U.S. forces are rebuilding it and finding contractors and developing leaders, it will take awhile. France, Germany -- where are you? They can knock us, but where is their answer?
A simple rule in the army is that if you have a gripe you better have a better way of doing it. Soldiers will help develop the country but those who won’t come over here to help have no right to criticize us. The day they step foot in the city and walk the streets and see the children and go house to house looking for leaders -- then they can say how messed up we are.
Let's switch topics for a moment. Something that has always impressed me about the U.S. military is how much responsibility is expected of and demonstrated by 25-year-old sergeants and lieutenants (whose civilian peers are often still living with their parents) deposited in a foreign land and given a complex mission against near impossible odds. The popular culture often lampoons them as failed dead enders who joined for lack of economic opportunities or prospects, but that hasn’t been my experience or impression in the least. What is your view of the young men and women we serve with?
I have a lot of respect for those who walk the streets with me and pull security while we look for leaders and identify what needs to be done to improve the conditions. These "dead enders" are building a nation from ruins. The soldiers who serve America are not dead enders but great Americans that believe America must be defended.
The real dead enders are getting stoned and not looking for ways to improve themselves. The military has long been a place to come begin a career and learn how to become a leader. Every sergeant was once a junior soldier and set goals to become an NCO. Do dead enders set goals? Do dead enders get up at 0600 everyday to go to work to defend their nation?
The Army takes whomever comes through the door and creates great leaders. Maybe some with limited options join the military during peacetime to improve themselves, but the young Soldiers we lead today are prideful Americans who believe in something greater than themselves.
Less than one percent of U.S. citizens presently wear the uniform of their nation’s military. Even less have served overseas in Afghanistan or Iraq. As such, is it any wonder that such a large segment of the public misunderstands and disapproves of the war? What implications, if any, do you foresee for the future of the country when it will nearly always be "someone else's" sons and daughters who volunteer to serve in harm’s way?
The value of what it takes to defend our freedom decreases and makes us look vulnerable to the rest of the world. The good news is that there will always be amazing Americans that will answer their nation’s call and defend her in every generation.
Many of the soldiers over here have not yet attended college because they’ve put personal agendas on hold to do something bigger than personal goals. Most soldiers want to go to college one day but put service in front of their education. Iraq will set them up for success when they do attend college.
Conflict is difficult and causes stress and challenges for those involved in it. The challenge of a college course pales in comparison to what they do here daily, and when they do finally go to school they will succeed because of their experiences over here.
Parents and family and friends with loved ones overseas worry, but have pride in knowing such a person. No one wants to lose a family member at 80, let alone in their twenties or thirties. But the lessons learned by those who served in Iraq will be valuable long after Iraq is a free and independent country. One cannot go through this experience and not learn a lot about themselves and the world.
Public support for the troops appears stronger today than it has been since WWII, even though more Americans purport to believe in us rather than why we’re here. With so relatively few families affected personally by the sacrifices made in the War on Terror, do you think the nation’s gratitude is genuine or only surface deep?
I have said and still believe that it is harder for the families to send us over here than it is for us to come. We know from moment to moment what we are doing. The families back home never know what is going on from day to day. We only have to worry about each other -- they have to worry about losing a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, mother, or father.
I have received so much support that I believe the average American is truly grateful for our efforts in Iraq. But many can’t understand why someone would put something before themselves. That is why we are different -- we believe in a greater cause, not just selfish gain. The soldiers over here are part of the best their generation has to offer.
The recruiting crunch is talked about a lot because parents think their child is too important to fight for freedom. They are grateful we are here serving and thankful their child is not. Should we worry about what someone that selfish really cares about? Is a country not worth fighting to preserve even worth living in? They need to be asking themselves these questions not mocking those that do. Thank God our forefathers believed in freedom over personal gain.
The average American is not well informed as to why we are here. They do not see the successes we experience daily. The media only report on the tragedies that occur. The real story is so hard to get at because it can’t be summed up in three minutes. Who would watch a three-hour nightly update on all the things that take place daily in Iraq?
[The public] sees the political infighting and what the media choose to cover and forms an opinion off of that. That is like watching five plays of a football game and believing you can understand who won without even seeing the score. Those who were so sure that Iraq was WMD-free and were willing to gamble with our national security need to meet me in Vegas!
Public support is important because the more the insurgents believe we are not supported in this struggle and the closer we are to leaving, the more attacks we have to fight off which decreases security for all Iraqis. The lack of belief in the cause improves the enemy’s morale just as support for us increases ours.
So if Americans really want to support us, they must support our mission.
End of Interview
"Public sentiment is everything," noted Lincoln in 1858, presaging the great American tragedy of civil war that would come to define his own Presidency. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."
He has yet to be proven wrong.
Special thanks to Cpt. Turner for sacrificing his personal time to indulge American Citizen Soldier and its readership with his views.