At a standing-room-only event in Austin Hall this spring, five Harvard Law School students who served or are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces spoke about their experiences in Iraq.
Panelists Robert Merrill '08, Geoff Orazem '09, Hagan Scotten '10, Erik Swabb '09 and Kurt White '10 drew upon their varied military posts to explain what it is like to serve as junior officers in Iraq. In a panel discussion moderated by Professor Noah Feldman, the students spoke about working with the Iraqi people to secure towns; offering help to those whose homes were destroyed in the war; maintaining relationships with local clerics and political leaders; and taking captured prisoners to Abu Ghraib. In all of these tasks, the veterans agreed, their greatest challenge was trying to have positive interactions with the Iraqi populace while protecting themselves and their fellow soldiers.
"It was hard to teach soldiers who are always trained to fight to leave base with the expectation that you're going to be shot at … but to also interact with the populace in a way that brings about trust," said White, who served as a staff officer and platoon leader in the cavalry. "I'm not sure I ever convinced my soldiers … that this was philosophically correct, but I think it became pretty obvious that if people were not treated well, then they would go get a gun and they would come back and shoot at us next time."
Scotten, who served in the Special Forces, was assigned to train over 400 new recruits for the Iraqi army. Not only was language a barrier, he said, but convincing recruits to accept the "rules of the game" was a big challenge. He recalled attempting to explain why executing anyone—civilian or otherwise—who seems to pose a threat is a violation of human rights. Scotten explained that the average Iraqi who is just trying to survive is more concerned with his or her immediate safety, not lofty ideals like democracy or human rights. "We used to say there are only two groups of true believers in Iraq: the Americans and Al Qaeda," said Scotten.