Iraq war Q&A with The Sun's Scott Calvert

National reporter answers readers' questions on 101st Airborne Division

April 20, 2004

Wayne, Columbia: Do most soldiers feel what the United States is doing in Iraq is appreciated by Iraq or viewed as an invasion of Iraq's own affairs? And should our troops be there in the first place? I ask this because I read and see mixed responses to this question in the media.

Calvert: Soldiers I've talked to both here and in Iraq say they think most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam Hussein toppled and [are] thankful for the U.S. military's subsequent efforts to restore civil order. That said, soldiers also knew that most Iraqis have always hoped the occupation would end sooner than later, and the troops understand that desire.

As for whether U.S. troops should be there in the first place, most soldiers will tell you the invasion was right because, with or without weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who had to go based on humanitarian grounds if nothing else. Now they say the U.S. military needs to stay there to keep Iraq (and Afghanistan) from tumbling into total chaos, if possible.

K.L., Baltimore: I was surprised at the willingness of soldiers to return to Iraq. Do you think the soldiers really meant that, or were they saying what they thought a good soldier should say?

Calvert: It's certainly part of the Army culture to act like a tough guy, but I believe they really meant it. I got to know many of them while embedded, so I think they might be more honest with me than with some unfamiliar reporter who just showed up. About their willingness to return to Iraq, you have to remember that many of these young men -- and they are all men in the battalion I embedded with -- joined the Army after 9/11, so they knew full well what they were getting into. It may sound perverse, but for many of these soldiers the war will rank as a high point in their lives, I am sure.

baltimoresun.com staff: With all the talk about the U.S. military being stretched thin, do the soldiers you're around ever discuss the possibility of the draft being implemented? Would they welcome such a move?

Calvert: The draft is not a subject they ever discuss, probably because they "drafted" themselves by enlisting. Many weren't even born when the Vietnam draft ended, so to them it's probably some ancient concept. One thing I have been struck by, though, is how many soldiers enlisted because they didn't see better job opportunities in their hometowns or they lacked money for college. So, a disproportionate number of soldiers do come from poorer families -- the kind of thing a draft is supposed to guard against, in theory.

baltimoresun.com staff: In the beginning of the war, the embedding program seems to have produced the closest relationship between the press and the military in decades. Has that relationship cooled over the last few months?

Calvert: I can't say much about the relationship now since I'm not there, but I do know that a number of reporters are embedded, so that suggests the military still sees some advantage to embedding reporters. Since I returned last May, I have written close to a dozen stories about 101st soldiers, including one who had to be evacuated from Iraq for psychological reasons. I have found that most soldiers and their superiors are still fairly open with me. I think that's because they know me as a fair reporter who reports honestly, even if some stories are not exactly ones the Pentagon is happy to see in print.

baltimoresun.com staff: Roughly, what percentage of soldiers from the 101st Airborne who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have seen actual combat? Are there any feelings among those who may be re-deployed that they "missed out" on doing what they are trained to do, if they failed to seen any combat action during their initial stints abroad?

Calvert: Well, nearly the whole 17,000-member division went to Iraq, and many of the infantry units saw some kind of combat. That could mean taking part in an actual firefight or clearing buildings in a hostile area or, in one case, helping to attack a house in Mosul during the raid that killed Hussein's sons, Odai and Qusai, in July. Convoys also came under constant attack last fall, so even a truck driver could wind up in "combat."

That said, a number of soldiers do feel that they missed out because they did not do what they were trained to do. For example, one soldier I talked to last week began the war with a mortar unit, but because mortars weren't used often, he said, "All I did was sit on my butt in the war." On the other hand, I know soldiers who either killed enemy fighters or were nearly killed themselves -- and some of them say they got their fill of that the first go-around.

baltimoresun.com staff: The specter of Vietnam is raised every time the U.S. enters major combat (Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II) -- has that analogy begun to wear on the troops or affect their perception of home front support?

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