Veterans, students torn over Iraq

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series about the Iraq War. Tuesday’s article profiled student veterans’ experiences.

Cati Vanden Breul

Three years ago today, coalition forces in Iraq captured Saddam Hussein, a major triumph in the then-10-month-old Iraq conflict.

But, since the deposed dictator was found in an underground bunker, the situation in the country has not stabilized as the United States had hoped it would.

Amid increasing sectarian violence and a death toll of nearly 3,000 troops since March 2003, President George W. Bush has been under increasing pressure to change the U.S. military strategy in the Middle East.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group released a report last week that called the current situation “grave and deteriorating.” The report recommended a significant U.S. troop withdrawal by 2008 and bilateral negotiations with Iran and Syria.

On campus, University students have mixed opinions about the future of Iraq. While some support President Bush and his handling of the war, others are skeptical.

Should the United States withdraw its troops?

Applied economics sophomore Jason Oldenkamp, an Iraq War veteran, said withdrawing U.S. troops from the country would be the “worst possible scenario.”

“I can guarantee we’re going to have a presence there for a long time,” Oldenkamp said. “What people don’t understand is that Iraq was never meant to be an end in itself, but a means to an end.”

Echoing a sentiment often expressed by President Bush, Oldenkamp argued that Iraq is just one front in the war on terrorism, a front that must be won.

“People call it the Iraq War, but it is not really a war; it’s the War on Terror. Iraq is just a campaign within the war.

“Battles win campaigns, campaigns win wars and as soon as we win the campaign in Iraq, we can advance into other terrorist-harboring countries and win the War on Terror,” he said.

Although he does not support a withdrawal from Iraq, Oldenkamp doesn’t think sending more troops would help, either.

“We just need to get them to rebuild and maintain their communities on their own so they can have a better way of life,” he said. “The Iraqis have a complacent attitude; they’re happy with the way things are and don’t want our help. They don’t want us to make it better for them, and it’s kind of a disappointment.”

But leaving Iraq now would only worsen the situation and result in more violence, he said.

Some anti-war organizers, including some students on campus, are advocating for an immediate pullout of U.S. troops.

Anti-war Organizing League member Erika Zurawski, a Spanish and global studies senior, said Iraq, as a sovereign nation, has a right to its own destiny.

“We need to get out now; the U.S. needs to listen to the Iraqi people telling the U.S. to get out of their country,” Zurawski said.

The Iraqis must be left to govern themselves and rebuild alone, she said.

“Every single day, it gets more violent in Iraq. This religious feud was started and fueled by the U.S. occupation,” Zurawski said. “The only way to end it is if Iraqis are allowed to settle themselves.”

Following a 16-month tour in Iraq, which culminated in August 2004, kinesiology senior Brandon Schomberg said he felt the Iraqis were tired of the U.S. occupation.

“After time, they thought of us more as occupiers than liberators, because we’ve been there so long,” Schomberg said.

Although he served in a transportation unit and didn’t have much contact with Iraqi citizens, he said the looks on their faces revealed their true feelings.

“Driving through towns, people would just stare at you Ö a lot of Iraqi civilians wouldn’t really acknowledge us,” Schomberg said. “They’d just look at us like, ‘Why are you guys here?’

“I know it would make me mad if you had people come up to Fourth Street or University Avenue and take up the whole road and you couldn’t get anywhere because they were there.”

Schomberg said he supports a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, but only when the Iraqis are ready to take care of themselves.

Some students, including actuarial science sophomore James O’Hara, think the military is making it possible for the Iraqis to work toward freedom.

“I do believe we offer some stability in a region which has multiple known terrorist groups,” said O’Hara, an active duty Marine who stayed in the United States to guard a nuclear weapons facility during the invasion of Iraq.

Setting a timeline for withdrawal is not an option, O’Hara said.

“We can’t put a timetable to this; we need to open up and not have a sense of isolationism,” he said.

But accounting and finance junior Sami Khwaja, president of the Muslim Students Association, said taking the United States out of the equation could lead to better relations between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq.

“There is strife between all groups over there – the U.S. soldiers and Muslims in general,” Khwaja said. “My prediction would be if the U.S. left, it would be down to just the Sunni and Shiites, and somewhere down the line they would work it out.”

Khwaja, who was born and raised in the United States, said the majority of Sunnis and Shiites in America get along.

“In Iraq, it’s the minor details that have been stacking up over the years, getting in the way of the big picture,” Khwaja said.

Is the Iraq war unjust, or do the ends justify the means?

When Schomberg was initially deployed to Iraq, he thought he was going for a good cause.

“Obviously, Saddam was a bad person; he was torturing people and we were told he had (weapons of mass destruction),” he said. “But then, when we are over there and we aren’t finding anything like this Ö there’s no way these people can have this kind of stuff, they’re so poor.”

He said many soldiers were frustrated when no weapons of mass destruction were found.

“Why didn’t we wait for the United Nations and instead rush into war in the first place?” Schomberg said.

Many anti-war protestors believe the initial justifications for invading Iraq were attempts by the Bush administration to drum up support for the war.

“There were never any connections made between Iraq and 9/11,” Zurawski said.

O’Hara said his opinion on the necessity of the war has not changed.

“I’ve always viewed Saddam Hussein as a tyrant that needed to be removed from power,” he said.

Just because coalition forces haven’t found weapons of mass destruction doesn’t mean Hussein lacked the capability to make or sell them, O’Hara said.

Journalism junior Ross Holtan, also an Iraq War veteran, said he didn’t think much about politics while deployed.

“You didn’t make assumptions while you were there,” he said. “You still have to go out the next day, so you might as well not worry about it.”

Some students passionate, others apathetic

AWOL is an active group on campus, holding demonstrations, trying to educate the University community about the situation in Iraq and visibly voicing its opposition to the war.

Each year on March 20, the anniversary of the invasion, AWOL holds protests. Zurawski said the group has been successful at attracting attention to their cause.

But, despite organizations like AWOL, Holtan said, most students don’t care enough about the war.

“It’s the most important thing going on in the world right now and students just don’t seem to care,” Holtan said.

Unless the government instates a draft, most people will remain indifferent, he said.

“It’s disgusting how the student body is so ambivalent,” Holtan said.

He said students can use the veterans on campus as a resource to learn about the conflict.

“We’re generally happy to answer questions,” Holtan said.